INTERVIEW WITH MICK FARREN
When I was a lot younger, I used to think Rock’n’Roll could change the world. In actual fact, in retrospect, I perhaps used to think that because what it actually did was change my world. It did this by giving me information and language, both intellectual and emotional. But it didn’t really start doing joined up thinking till I read Mick Farren. At some point I came across a second-hand copy of his book “Watch Out Kids”, which put Rock’n’Roll into a historical, social and political context. It made a LOT of SENSE, plus it was a WHOLELOTTA FUN to read, with great graphics by Edward Barker. Ah-ha, I thought, so this is what it’s really all about then…
So years later, Sean asks if I’m interested in interviewing Mick Farren who has a new Mick Farren and The Deviants album out. Silly question! A copy of the album arrives. This is the first time I’ve encountered Farren the musician, and it’s very fine stuff indeed, loud rock’n’roll with both attitude and intelligence. I contact Dave who’s doing the publicity for the album. He says Mick now resides in Los Angeles, and perhaps I could phone him there. Not only does this sound expensive, but I don’t like phone interviews. What about e-mail, I ask? Dave says he can forward questions, and adds this is a good idea because “Mick does write rather well.” Indeed, which is why the interview from now on is pretty much my questions and Mick’s answers.
Firstly, I asked Mick how the new album “Doctor Crow” relates to his previous work.
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, we got some respect. Andy’s (Colquhoun – guitar) pickin’ and composin’ can give anyone a run for their money, and with him as hands on producer, I can concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing. The Lunn – Parnell engine room could run a Starship and everything seems to be working perfectly except the size of the budget. That I should be getting taken seriously by merciless masters of their trade like Doug Lunn (bass), or Jack Lancaster (sax), or a real MVP singer like Johnette Napolitano singing along with my bellowing and intoning and seemingly enjoying the experience makes it all very worthwhile. It would be so nice to have much more studio time, of course. Right now it’s a bit like running a Panzer division with no gasoline. And we HAVE to get do it live which is always a logistic nightmare, but otherwise, I’m so deliriously happy that people have started avoiding me. (Look, guys, he’s talking about the album just like David Bowie or any other old pro. But read on…)
I said I thought that overall the tone of the album was mordantly humorous and bleakly apocalyptic.
I get out of bed, I smoke a roach from the night before. I turn on the TV and discover the hedgehog is fucking extinct, and then proceed to watch President Bush, who cannot form words, attempt to create a nuke-muscle Roman Empire. Meanwhile, five miles away a mountain is on fire, and Prague is under water. Then I work on my newest vampire novel for a bit and listen to Howard Stern. Then Andy comes by with his guitar and toy Marshall stack and we compose, watched by the cat, who’s approval we seek. By quarter to six, it’s hard not to be John the Revelator. Or not to live in a science fiction movie somewhere between Bladerunner and Abbott and Costello Go To Mars. I will admit though that my idea of a joke has always been “Man slips on banana peel, falls in vat of acid, and in the instant of death has brain eaten by Cthulhu.” (I have Cthulhu on my spell check.) I have tried to curb myself a bit, by doing a couple covers here and there between the Farren/Colquhoun songs, but they just take on the same edge.*
One of my favourite tracks on the album is the short but savage “Sold To Babylon”. I wondered if there was a particular incident that occasioned it.
The lyric was written in an instant when one of the old crew (no names) – those of us who Larry Wallis calls the Long Riders and Charlie Murray dubbed the Lewis Leathers Brigade – was behaving like a bloody shopkeeper. (Hey, bro, this is Farren you’re talking to. I was your pal when you were a effing junkie!) In the broader sense, and set in a fantasy land between a neo spag-western and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s a comment on the insidiousness of corruption, and coasting on reputations past. As in Clash and Who tunes as auto commercials and, at the furthest extremes, fornicating knighthoods. Since it’s short, here’s a transcript if you want to use a line or two…
“When did you cease to be one of us, and decide to be one of them?
Where did the spores land and where did the pods grow?
And when did the fear take a hold and how long did the poison flow?
How much did they offer for your fealty, my friend? What did they promise you, bro?
When did you sell your guns to Babylon?”
I ask for about Mick’s musical influences. A pretty boring question, usually, but in the case of The Deviants, you actually do wonder where all those interesting ideas come from.
Hell I don’t know. Obviously the old and formative ones, Gene Vincent, Howling Wolf, Bob Dylan, Capt Beefheart, William Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Spike Jones, John Coltrane, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s singing, you name it. In so far as I’m vocal stylist who can still barely carry a tune in a bucket, I have also studied some truly weird shit; the speeches of Winston Churchill, Hellfire evangelists, Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas, WC Fields, Marlon Brando. I’ve been at this so long that the mental library is almost limitless. Seems like it all just washes over me and I grab what appeals to me from the flotsam. Like I was listening to a Nike TV commercial the other day and caught myself wondering how they got that great vocal sound.
I wondered what Mick thought of the state of music now, compared with the optimism and energy of the underground that animated “Watch Out Kids”, and also how he felt Punk fitted into the process.
Rock and roll can be a force for social change. I still firmly believe
that. Unfortunately, like any other weapon, it can also be a powerful tool of repression and mind control. It depends who’s aiming it. In “1984”, Orwell got it all wrong. Psycho-social control isn’t drab, it isn’t Victory Gin and brass bands, its Sprite, Pop Idol, hot colours, blowjobs and navel rings. Corporate Global now have spies out in schools copping the trends. In the sixties we had it easy. The suits couldn’t tell The Doors from Be Bop A Lula in 1967, but by 1977, the business was ready for it and CBS could nail The Clash to the wall businesswise. One of the problems with punk was that petulant ultra-nihilism left them ill-equipped to create any cultural infrastructure beyond music, some fashion and a bit of graphic art. The hippies went so much further in forcing society at large to feed the hand that bites. Unfortunately the clever bastards at Sony and Microsoft have all of those old psychedelic rebel tactics in their database, and Che Guevara sells beer.
Also rock and roll is no longer the spearhead of agit-trash. The cutting edge is in film; The Matrix, the Cohen Brothers, old Oliver Stone and all. And TV, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, And, of course, the Simpsons is the most subversive piece of mass culture going.
I ask how he feels about Punk writers Parsons and Burchill going on to become mainstream media figures, and mention I have just read a particularly nasty and unintelligent piece of war-mongering by Parsons in The Daily Mirror’s coverage of the anniversary of the Al Qaeda attacks against the United States.
Actually I’m still very fond of Julie, and I think it’s kinda of unfortunate that she and Parsons are irrevocably bracketed. I feel Julie has gone her own neo-bitch-Stalinist way without the benefit of logic or too much education,and been highly successful at it and damned funny. If she still continues to upset people more power to her. Parsons, on the other hand, always struck me, right from the get go, as being in search of nothing but a career and a constituency. I think that was why it was inevitable that we should come to blows. What other conclusion is possible when a would-be Byronic romantic, and a sociopath opportunist are forced to interact? It hardly surprises me that he’s now embraced racism and brute jingoism. Such is the calculating rank and file of 21st. Century Imperial Newthink and Corporate Reward. I just hope that, sometime down the pike, he and his kind will be held accountable.
From there I ask him for his perspective on US aggression towards Iraq.
Dick Cheney (the true Montague Burns), is the real danger (in that he has his hand up Bush’s ass and manipulates the simian retard like a bloody glove puppet). I’m reminded of the Col. Kurtz line from Apocalypse Now. “An errand boy sent by grocery clerks.” These bastards are nothing more than grocery clerks, Enron with an army. They are very stupid and not even respectably crazy; motivated not by the megalomania of a Hitler or Genghis Khan, but by a psychotic greed for profit. They are going after the Iraqi oilfields pure and simple, don’t let anyone tell you different, and they would be happy to see half the world burn just as long as they are in the other half and raking in the readies. I spent too much of my youth helping, in my own modest way, to stop one bloody and criminal war. Now it seems it’s deja vu all over again. The only thing that encourages me is the speed which the anti-war movement is growing on the internet, and pushing the Bushies to reveal themselves with catch phrases like their current fave – “When we want your opinion, we’ll beat it out of you.”
I wondered why he chose America, when he decided to leave what had just become Thatcher’s Britain in 1979.
My mother’s family came from Plymouth, and scattered themselves all over the planet annoying the natives in the days of Empire which I guess gave me a genetic imperative to sail off into the West. Plus I’d done 30 some years in England. I think I chose the US because it was the home of the culture and craft I was into. It was the home of the blues, the land of the beats, and hamburgers sizzled on an open grill night and day. Also I had a level playing field and less past baggage. Enough to get me in the door at CBGBs but not enough to encumber. I loved New York in the eighties. Postpunk madness amid capitalism run amok. Almost drank myself to death, but then I went to LA and that was a mega fucking mistake, dude. I’m very homesick right now, but I fear it may all be a bit Christopher Robin, a nostalgia for Marmite soldiers and sheep on the downs.
The last time I was down visiting Larry Wallis in Walworth, it did look a bit hairy and depressing. I’ve been as far as Tokyo so maybe I’m wending my way back. I find being a mad prophet of the airwaves can make you a bit nomadic.
* An unholy conspiracy of Farren, Napolitano, bits of The Deviants, Concrete Blonde and the Deviettes have been sneaking off to a studio to cut covers. The first, a version of Strawberry Fields Forever is up on their various websites as a streaming download.
I manage to scrounge a copy of Mick’s autobiography “Give The Anarchist A Cigarette” from the publishers, Pimlico. I find some of my questions are already answered here, but new ones are also raised. I also start trying to track down old Deviants albums. When I mention this to Dave, he says Mick will send me some. As I approach the end of the hugely enjoyable rollercoaster ride through the more interesting parts of radical politix and rock’n’roll that is “Give The Anarchist A Cigarette” two Deviants anthologies arrive in the post. This all prompts the following set of questions.
As this interview is for “Rock’n’Reel” I ask Mick what he thinks about Folk/Roots music (having found a cheerfully unenthusiastic description of folkies in his autobiography), and also the idea that music – and art in general – has to be defined by genres.
I so don’t believe in genres it hurts. Miles Davis and Willie Nelson, what can you say? And “roots” now bothers me as a term. I mean that I am now so fucking old I have roots of my own, and might well catch my feet in them and do myself a mischief, and those roots are basically three blocks north of Ladbroke Grove tube station, and all that it might musically imply. I work with Andy Colquhoun, and Jack Lancaster, and there’s Wayne Kramer and Larry Wallis, and once there was Lemmy and Moose Bowles. I also know the lyrics to “Lady Hamilton”, “Who Slapped John?”, and “I’m the Man Who Waters The Worker’s Beer.” Without dissing Woody Guthrie, how many roots does one man need, and how much more tribal can you get? On Dr Crow, Andy and I wrote a faux-Napoleonic War folk ballad (The Murdering Officer) inspired by Sharps Rifles and Apocalypse Now, with Irish marching drums and a Jeff Beck style guitar, and we a recorded a Lonnie Johnson song (Need Somebody On Your Bond) previously covered by Capt. Beefheart. I’ve just started a new studio project to do a bunch of covers with Johnette Napolitano. We just did “Strawberry Fields Forever” (which you can download from the web), the next tune might well be Gene Vincent’s “Baby Blue”. One of the satisfactions in this game is to take a tune from any gendre and push it through the filter of your own chops, taste (or lack of it) and experience. The world is your lobster. Bend it to your will, and see what the fuck happens. And that approach might be defined as jazz, or maybe polymorphous perversion, which had always been a favorite of mine.
The book again prompted my next question; maybe was Punk apparently overtly political because it made more direct statements, whereas the earlier Underground was more intent on creating a much more radical culture. I also commented that I preferred the directness of the MC5 to the fantasies of Hawkwind.
MC5 v Hawkwind? Depends on whether you want your feedback in 12 second bursts or 20 minute drones. I have always found “White Rabbit” and “Guns Of Brixton” equally stirring calls to the barricades. I recall in Grosvenor Square in 1969, I was ducking the clubs of mounted police while angry miners laid into the coppers with lengths of 2×4. Having first taken out my earring. The sixties were by no means confined to “Deborah, you look like a Zebra.” I’d venture that the hippies watched less TV and were consequently better read than the punks, or maybe more inclined to admit it. All the rest is haircuts and what drugs you happened to have taken.
I also asked if he felt that drugs, like rock’n’roll, were now less revolutionary than in the 1970s.
And talking of drugs, the biggest genre error is talking about “drugs” and “the drug culture”. It covers such an infinite spectrum that the terms become meaningless. I can crudely break it down into a series of equations, good for any historical period including the now. The emphasis on any given one seems to vary according to moods and cycle of culture.
Drugs = Fun
Drugs = Fashion
Drugs = Metaphysical reconnaissance
Drugs = Jagged self-destruction
Drugs = Wretched man-monster drooling and running in ever decreasing circles.
Drugs = Global black-economy super-currency
I’ve had brushes with all in my time. Now I just smoke weed and drink Jack Daniels. And the legal bloody cigarettes will kill me.
Finally I asked Mick how he feels now about Bob Dylan, who is identified as big influence in autobiography, and present on the anthology CD “On Your Knees, Earthlings!!!” with Mick’s ferocious version of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” recorded in 2000.
I never met Dylan, but my girlfriend slept with him. I like what he’s doing right now very much indeed. He sounds like he don’t give two fucks for the critics and people who saw him in LA recently said that “Masters of War” gave them a brand new chill. I also like the Vincent Price moustache he’s sporting.
I think about what I’ve heard, read and asked so far. I decide on four final questions.In the autobiography, Mick doesn’t start with or devote any chapters to his childhood, but then little chunks of it surface later in the narrative. I wonder was it maybe more important in terms of making Mick Farren MICK FARREN than the book admits?
I made a conscious decision when writing Anarchist not to cop the “depraved on account of being deprived” plea. Too many worthless celebs on Oprah bleating that their mummy didn’t love then. I had a hideous childhood, but it’s boring, Sidney. Judge me on my efforts not the Freudian motivation.
There’s a very definite tension and antipathy in the autobiography between Underground culture and the Traditional Left, and between the values of the Underground and the values of the traditional working class. “On Your Knees, Earthlings!!!” concludes with a track that’s a short radio interview with Mick, “That’s when the trouble started” which suggests Mick’s revolution is primarily about achieving personal enjoyment. I asked whether this method of revolution in practise mean the continued existence -as necessity – of a subclass of proles who aren’t in any way liberated?
This is a real can of worms. What about the Morlocks? My only answer is that we don’t need no stinking Morlocks. Why does the guy poncing around on stage get more money, drugs, and pussy than the poor bastard running a drill press? In this day and age, because he can. And the poor bastard running the drill press doesn’t like it. Divide and rule. The value attached to different occupations is a product of capitalism and human nature, and both could use some work. I suppose if I was in Cuba I could run a cane harvester for two months in the year, and probably feel healthier for it. In China I could hump a printing press in the day and write at night. Hell, whatever it takes. I’m also a massive believer in technology, and the almost Victorian idea of automating the drudgery to free up everyone to become a higher being. That might take time, though, and I’m now at an age when, comparatively soon, it will no longer be my problem. Right now, the local proles think George Bush, strippers, and Jesus are the business. If that’s the case I’d rather go to Italy and sit in the sun.
Is there any chance of a Deviants gig in London?
I want to play in the UK with the current line-up very much indeed. Very, very much indeed because it rocks and I want to show it off on my home turf. More vindication. It’s the chore of sorting the money, the logistics, the damned business end of things that stops us being there tomorrow afternoon, which is where we’ve always needed all the help we can get. I have faith it will happen, though.
I ask if Mick feels that Mick Farren and The Deviants are have been, in terms of rock’n’roll history, Sadly Neglected? and is that because he refused – unlike Bowie and MacClaren for example – to manipulate The Muzak Bizzness at its own game?
Yes, I feel Sadly Neglected on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and it would be very nice to be some venerated Willie Nelson figure in my old age. I kinda designed the CDs “This Vinyl Is Condemned” and “On Your Knees, Earthling” as documentation of some of my better moments, to prove how the Deviants weren’t the inebriate drooling oafs sometimes depicted, and that we had some okay slick licks. Right now I feel we have achieved a weird viability if anyone wants to check it out. On the other hand, I probably only have myself to blame for any negelect. Back in the day, I knew Marc Bolan reasonably well, and he was positively scary when he revealed just how badly he wanted fame and all that it entailed. Ditto Bowie. I could never be that relentlessly single minded. Too much other and varied craziness beckoned to be so totally self-obsessed. My weakness has always been the rush of constant discovery. To spend all your time manipulating the suits was not a way of life I could tolerate, particularly as they hated me anyway.
Full stop, for now anyway. Fill in the gaps yourself – get the CDs, read the autobiography. Go on – give that anarchist a cigarette!!!