Writer and founder of the band The Deviants passed away nearly five years ago in July 2013. It was a track by Farrren and his band that inspired the name of the 1977 fanzine Deviation Street and it’s more recent resurrection as a blog and subsequent maga/zine. So we would like to raise our glass to the man and present an inspired piece of writing by him written in the now defunct New Musical Express . Its decline and demise seems like a good time to reflect on just how influential such journals could be. And so we present from 1976 Mick Farren’s The Titanic Sails At Dawn which is taken from a Gaurdian article re published in July 3013 . Enjoy
As you can all quite well imagine, the letters that get themselves printed in Gasbag (or Dogbag or Ratbag or Scumbag or whatever jive-ass name we’ve dredged out of our collective misery that particular week) [the letters column of NME] are only the tip of an iceberg.
The iceberg in this case seems to be one of a particularly threatening nature. In fact it is an iceberg that is drifting uncomfortably close to the dazzlingly lit, wonderfully appointed Titanic that is big-time, rock-pop, tax-exile, jet-set showbusiness.
Unless someone aboard is prepared to leave the party and go up on the bridge and do something about it, at least a slight change of course, the whole chromium, metal-flake Leviathan could go down with all hands.
Currently about the only figure who seems to have the least interest in the social progress of rock’n’roll is the skinny, crypto Ubermensch figure of David Bowie. Everyone else is waltzing around the grand ballroom, or playing musical chairs at the captain’s table.
(WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT?)
I guess it’s the absorption of rock’n’roll into the turgid master stream of traditional establishment showbiz. For Zsa Zsa Gabor read Mick Jagger, for Lew Grade read Harvey Goldsmith. Only the names have been changed, blah, blah.
If that’s the way of the world then keep your head down, make like William Hickey and drink yourself to death.
(OH GOD, DIDN’T HE GO THROUGH ALL THIS BACK IN JANUARY?)
That’s right, he did. And short of picking up some change by doing it all over again and hoping no one will notice, it would be something of a redundant exercise.
Except that something seems to be happening that wasn’t happening back in January. The aforementioned iceberg cometh. And that iceberg, dear reader is you.
Dig? I’m talkin’ ’bout you.
Where once the letters that were dumped in the tray marked Gasbag contained smart-ass one-liners, demands for album tokens, obscene ideas for the uses of Max Bell, or diatribes against Smith, Springsteen or Salewicz, now the tone has changed.
Stewart Tray of Manchester wouldn’t go down and see the Stones if he was pulled there by Keith Richards.
Mart of Oldham doesn’t want to see five middle-aged millionaires poncing around to pseudo soul funk/rock.
Letter after letter repeats the same thing. You all seem to have had it with the Who, and Liz Taylor, Rod and the Queen, Jagger and Princess Margaret, paying three quid to be bent, mutilated, crushed or seated behind a pillar or a PA stack, all in the name of modern 70s-style super-rock.
The roar from the stage of: “I shout, I scream, I kill the king, I rail at all his servants,” has been muted, mutated and diluted: “I smile, I fawn, I kiss ass and get my photo took …”
It was all too easy to accept that change until you out there pulled the whole thing up short.
“We’re not going to take it” wasn’t coming from the stage with any conviction. Instead it was coming from the audience. Could it be that once more there’s music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air?
It’s hard to tell. Like it or not, NME is a part of the rock industry and, to an extent, suffers from the same isolation that is endemic to the whole business.
Certainly the massive rock gala of the last month has produced some kind of backlash. People have become tired of the godawful conditions at places like Charlton. They’re sick of having their booze confiscated and being ordered to stop dancing.
Maybe they’re also sick of seeing the vibrant, iconoclastic music whose changes did, at least, shake the walls of the city a little, being turned round, sold out, castrated and co-opted.
Did we ever expect to see the Rolling Stones on News at Ten just like they were at the Badminton Horse Trials or the Chelsea Flower Show?
It’s not clear just how deep this resistance goes. There’s no way of knowing whether the mail we’ve [been] getting is simply another version of: “Dear Esther Rantzen, I just found sewer rat in my Diet Pepsi.”
The only thing I know for sure is the effect the whole thing had on me. I woke up guilty and angry. Has rock’n’roll become another mindless consumer product that plays footsie with jet set and royalty while the kids who make up its roots and energy queue up in the rain to watch it from 200 yards away?
The Who, the Stones, Bowie, are, after all, my own generation. We all grew up together. I saw them in small sweaty clubs, cinemas and finally giant rock festivals. At the same time as everyone else they embraced politics, mysticism, acid. Together we ran through the trends, fads, psychoses and few precious moments of clear honesty that made up the tangle of the 60s.
(ISN’T THIS GETTING A LITTLE … UH … SUBJECTIVE FOR NME? IT’S ONLY ROCK’N’ROLL, AFTER ALL?)
Yeah, maybe so. There does, however, come a point when a cynical sold-out front has to drop for long enough to shout “Hold it!” Did we really come through the fantasy, fear and psychic mess of the last decade to make rock’n’roll safe for the Queen, Princess Margaret or Liz Taylor? Was the bold rhetoric and even the deaths and imprisonments simply to enable the heroes and idols of the period to retreat into a gaudy, vulgar jet set that differs from the Taylor/Burton menace or the Sinatra rat pack only in small variations of style?
It’s not so much the lifestyle of stars that is important. They can guzzle champagne till it runs from their ears, and become facile to the point of dumbness. They will only undermine their own credibility.
The real danger lies in what seems sometimes to be a determined effort on the part of some artists, promoters and sections of the media to turn rock into a safe, establishment form of entertainment.
It’s OK if some stars want to make the switch from punk to Liberace so long as they don’t take rock’n’roll with them.
If rock becomes safe, it’s all over. It’s a vibrant, vital music that from its very roots has always been a burst of colour and excitement against a background of dullness, hardship or frustration. From the blues onwards, the essential core of the music has been the rough side of humanity. It’s a core of rebellion, sexuality, assertion and even violence. All the things that have always been unacceptable to a ruling establishment.
Once that vigorous, horny-handed core is extracted from rock’n’roll, you’re left with little more than muzak. No matter how tastefully played or artfully constructed, if the soul’s gone then it still in the end comes down to muzak.
(OK, OK, WE’VE HEARD THE “MUSIC IS THE LIFE FORCE” MESSAGE PLENTY OF TIMES BEFORE. WHAT ABOUT A FEW SOLUTIONS FOR A CHANGE?)
“Well,” he said, avoiding everyone’s eyes, “solutions aren’t quite so easy.”
The one thing that isn’t a solution is to look back at the 60s and reproduce something from the past. This is, in fact, one of the problems we’re suffering from today. The methods of presenting the biggest of today’s superstars were conceived in the 60s when the crowds were smaller and logistics a whole lot easier.
When the Stones play at Earl’s Court, or Bowie at Wembley Pool, we’re seeing the old Bill Graham Fillmore. The difference is that the crowd is five or 10 times the size and the problems of controlling it are multiplied by the same extent.
The promoter’s solution is to remove the dancing, freaking about and general looseness of the old Fillmore days. Instead the audience is expected to sit still in their numbered, regimented seats under the watchful ear of the security muscle.
The same situation exists when the Who play at Charlton or any other football ground. The stadium rock show is basically the open-air festival penned up inside the walls of a sports arena. Again, from the promoter’s point of view, it makes everything very much easier. There’s no more trouble with ticket-taking or the collection of money. Security is simplified, and all the problems of overnight camping are avoided. Unfortunately it’s the audience that now takes all the chances. They’re the ones who take the risk of being crushed, cramped, bottled, soaked, stuck behind a pillar or a PA Stack, manhandled by security, ripped off by hot dog men or generally dumped on.
It’s got to the point where the only celebration at today’s superstar concert is taking place on stage. The only role for the audience is that of uncomfortable observers.
There are more ways of taking the soul out of rock’n’roll than just changing the music.
We’re six years into the 1970s, and already the 60s are beginning to sound like some golden age.
(OH NO, NOT THAT AGAIN.)
Of course they weren’t. If we could be miraculously transported back there, we’d probably be appalled at some of the dumbness and naivety that went down.
There were wrong moves, screw-ups, disasters and even straightforward robberies. The two things that did exist that don’t seem to be prominent today were, first, a phenomenal burst of creativity that wasn’t merely confined to the stage but extended into the presentation, the audience and even right through to the press and poster art.
The second thing was that from musicians to managers to promoters to audience, the whole rock scene was in the hands of one generation. It was by no means perfect, but at least the energy levels were higher, and the gap between star and fan wasn’t the yawning chasm that it has become today.
From sweaty, shoestring cellar clubs through the multimedia extravaganzas like the Avalon in San Francisco, the Grande Ballroom in Detroit or the Technicolour Dream and UFO in London, clear through Glastonbury Fayre and even Woodstock, it was one generation taking care of its own music.
The scene was sufficiently solid to ease out the old farts from the 50s who thought promoting rock was a matter of giving the “kids” the kind of safe product, the kind of thing that was good for them.
(AH-HA! NOW WE GET DOWN TO IT. FARREN’S TRYING TO TURN THE CLOCK BACK TO THE 60s UNDERGROUND SCENE.)
No such thing. Even if I wanted to, that simply wouldn’t be possible. The whole of the 60s underground, the free concerts and festivals, Oz, IT, the crazed fringe bands and street theatre would be largely impossible today. They survived financially in a tiny margin of a still affluent society that doesn’t exist today.
The 70s are without doubt an era of compromise. Even to get this piece into print it is necessary to use the resources of a giant corporation, and adapt one’s approach accordingly.
The real question of this decade is not whether to compromise or not, but how much and in what way.
One major lesson can be learned from the 60s, however, and that is that the best, most healthy kind of rock’n’roll is produced by and for the same generation.
There can be no question that a lot of today’s rock is isolated from the broad mass of its audience. From the superstars with champagne and coke parties all the way down to your humble servant spending more time with his friends, his writing and his cat than he does cruising the street, all are cut off.
If rock is not being currently presented in an acceptable manner, and from the letters we’ve been getting at NME, this would seem to be the case, it is time for the 70s generation to start producing their own ideas, and ease out the old farts who are still pushing tired ideas left over from the 60s.
The time seems to be right for original thinking and new inventive concepts, not only in the music but in the way that it is staged and promoted.
It may be difficult in the current economic climate, and it may be a question of taking rock back to street level and starting all over again.
This is the only way out, if we are not going to look forward to an endless series of Charlton and Earl’s Court style gigs, and constant reruns of things from the past, be they Glenn Miller revivals or Bowie’s stabs at neo-fascism.
Putting the Beatles back together isn’t going to be the salvation of rock’n’roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might.
And that, gentle reader, is where you come in.
© Mick Farren, 1976