Interview with Mick Farren
by Toshikazu Ohtaka
Translation by Yukiko Akagawa
ďWe were cynical about so-called flower power. We thought they were too optimistic, that life was more cruel...then what happened was, people with our outlook began to proliferate.
Mick Farren stands out in the history of British rock as an eccentric
talent. He is aligned with Beatnik and psychedelia, into which he was
immersed back in the 60ís. His spirit is floating a million light-years away from the superficial fads in music. The following is a
record of my communication with the spaceman.
SD: What kind of music influenced you when you started?
MF: Presley! Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. When I got old enough to play music, I began to listen to blues a lot, like Howliní Wolf, John Lee Hooker.
SD: When you formed The Deviants, what sort of sound did you pursue? What kind of sound influenced the whole band?
MF: Our first aim was to make it as a loud, basic rock band (laughs). Later, though, we tried to express our political, revolutionary ideas. Soundwise, we wanted to be incredibly loud and violent! That says it all. The hippies wanted to be nice and gentle, but our style was the opposite of that peaceful, natural attitude. The Deviants in the U.K. created the same type of music as the Stooges did in the U.S. We were a reflection of the chaos of the age we were in, like drugs, politics, the Vietnam War ... it was a time of various political possibilities, a wonderful time when cultural evolution was going on everywhere, at a remarkable pace.
SD: What was the most impressive thing on the underground scene at that time?
MF: Well, itís very difficult to mention just one ... the way things developed quickly whenever people got together for certain purposes ... it was incredible. Seven thousand people gathered in London in 1966 to see Bob Dylan, and it was 250,000 in 1970 at an open air rock festival. Given the speed at which things were changing, and the tremendous number of people involved, I believed something huge was happening. Crowds of that size, of course, caused problems, like the authorities became very wary of us. For our part, as musicians, it was a big challenge to face such huge audiences. It created big pressure, mentally and physically.
SD: I see. By the way, this magazine is called Strange Days. What was the strangest thing you experienced in those days?
MF: Well, as far as I remember, the strangest thing was ... maybe ... that I began to take LSD (laughs). That came as a magnificent shock. Yeah, the answer is psychedelic drugs.
SD: Were you deep into the literature of Beatnik at that time?
MF: Yes. I especially liked the early ones. I passed my school days studying hard with no particular objective. I graduated but had no idea what I wanted to do. But at art school, where I went later, I learned a great deal. I admired beatnik writers such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, began to listen to jazz - especially bebop, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, I liked them very much. I got myself well versed in this kind of stuff in my art school days. There was plenty of time because British art schools didn't force you to study too much, so I could absorb the art I was into, as much as I liked. So, while I have some academic background, the beatnik writers were a huge influence. Those great writers, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and so on, died one after the other in the space of two years recently. I was as sad as if my own grandfathers had died.
SD: The Notting Hill Gate area, when you were there, used to be the center of the hippie culture in London. Hawkwind and Twink lived there. What was the place like at that time?
MF: It was a wild place - Pink Floyd was the most famous band in the area. They played small clubs and were starting to get a following. Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine marked the beginning of everything. And the Deviants, too, were part of that scene very early on. An essential requirement of the movement was that just about everyone who was into the music took acid. Pink Floyd were quite radical in their ideas and concept. They destroyed instruments and read beatnik poems on the stage. There was a lot of interation and cross-fertilization on the scene, and musicians took in new ideas instantly and transformed them, adding a pop sensibility which made this cultural stuff accessible to kids in the street. We incorporated Beatnik, which was something happening amongst an intellectual elite, into rock íní roll, and thus disseminated beatnik ideas more widely.
SD: The Deviantsí first album, Ptooff!, was distributed through underground press outlets. Why?
MF: It could have been released by one of the major labels, but back then we were too risky for those companies, like rappers now. The corporate people didnít want people like us in their offices. People hardly remember this, but there was a time where even our dress and look caused major negative responses among people in general.
SD: Were there many groups or artists who were doing similar performances? Or were there any groups you shared your style and attitude with?
MF: Not especially at that time. Only the Stooges and the MC5 in the U.S. had a similar sound. The Deviants were unique. Well, Frank Zappa and The Fugs may have been close to us ... We were cynical about so-called flower power. We thought they were too optimistic, that life was more cruel ... then what happened was, people with our outlook began to proliferate. Arthur Brown was really a strange guy, and when the New York Dolls came out, I thought, weíve got another ally. What we'd managed to do, although we didnít realize it back then, was to invent punk rock. We were ... probably 8 years ahead of our time. Of the kind of music we were making, punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash were the first to gain major acceptance, around Ď77 or Ď78, although their approach was a little different from ours. In that sense the first band to succeed with Deviants-type music was The Velvet Underground. It was very encouraging and exciting.
After leaving The Deviants, I was in The Pink Fairies for a while. It was during this period that Lou Reed made Transformer and Street Hassle. Paul Rudolph, who played guitar in the Deviants and Hawkwind, joined Brian Eno for his album Here Come The Warm Jets. What we were doing at that time directly contributed to the punk movement. David Bowie was aware of the trend, perhaps more than anyone else. I saw him everywhere in the late 60ís. Later, he would come back as Ziggy Stardust (laughs), rich and famous.
My own feeling is that, not just sex, but anger and violence, are part and parcel of rock íní roll. The rock concert can work as an alternative for violence, an outlet for violence. But at that time there were a lot of things that made us really angry. We WERE outraged! In the U.S. the youth were sent to Vietnam and there was nothing we could do to change the way the government did it. Smoking marijuana and doing things to get thrown in jail were our own way of expressing our anger, and we wanted change - I believed that picking up a guitar, not a gun, would bring about change.
SD: How was the actual situation relating to drugs back then? Have you had any dangerous experiences that endangered your life?
MF: Well, no, Iíve never come close to dying through drugs, but yes, by alcohol. Not so much with drugs, but Iíve run into terrible situations because of drink. I would take amphetamine and keep talking and working, and I smoked marijuana, but there was nothing dangerous in these at all. Drinking was the worst trough in my life. It was whisky in my case, like heroin to others - legality is the only difference.
SD: What triggered your departure from The Deviants in the 60ís?
MF: We loathed each other. We were exhausted from three years of touring. In addition, some of the other members had apparently decided to become Led Zeppelin as their playing improved. I wanted to do more original stuff, to move in a more experimental direction. But they wanted to become Zeppelin, which could earn them more money. I couldnít help them thinking like that. And I admit I was crazy at that time. I was under a lot of pressure as band leader, under huge mental stress - they couldnít even get close to me.
SD: When you were involved exclusively in writing, until resuming musical activity in the late 70ís, what kind of material did you write about?
MF: When I heard Bob Dylan for the first time, I thought, yeah, you can put poetry in rock. Rock lyrics can be something different from rubbishy stereotypes. So, for the next few years, I sang quite complicated themes to simple rockíníroll tunes. At the same time, I became deeply involved in the underground press because the political situation all over the world was turning decidedly chaotic, and I wrote some very radical political reviews while touring with the band. After I finished with the Deviants, the underground press became my major focus.
My first publication was Texts of Festival, which sold well and I was glad. But my dilemma is, writing a novel takes a lot of time, whereas performance can give you instant satisfaction. I like both, so my ideal situation is where the two activities are combined naturally, stimulating each other. Iím happy that way. People are surprised that I write stories while playing, but I cannot live without writing nor can I do without the intense feedback from audiences that I get from playing rockíníroll.
SD: Do you still want to be underground?
MF: As much as possible. In the past the underground circuit was built locally, but now you can accomplish the same thing through the Internet. You can communicate with people in Australia, Japan and Texas, which is a tremendous change from the 60ís. Kids catch up with innovative technology pretty well. You can do whatever you like, out of the authoritiesí reach. Itís the coolest thing that's ever happened in my life! In those days, whenever we did something outrageous, the police would grab us, me, Iggy, Jim Morrison, and pull us down from the stage. But now, they donít even know whatís happening. Conservatives in the U.S. Congress demand censorship, but some 14-year old kid can scornfully ask, ďWell, how?Ē (laughs) This is tremendously exciting because, in the past, you had to start it from a small local club, gathering followers one by one, but now you can take action in a second, linked with your comrades around the world!