Mick Farren’s counter-culture credentials are impeccable: editor of International Times and comics compendium Nasty Tales (for which he was tried for obscenity in the spring of 1971), sci-fi novelist, lead singer with biker rockers The (Social) Deviants, doorman at the UFO club and organiser of the Phun City festival in Worthing, which featured the MC5, Free, The Pretty Things, and The Edgar Broughton Band, as well as readings by William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi. In 1970 Farren was involved with the staging of a prankish coup along with Richard Neville, John Hopkins and various members of the underground press and revolutionary hippy group the Yippies – the Youth International Party – to gatecrash the prime-time Saturday night David Frost Show. Farren was perfect for the NME’s subversive agenda, as editor Nick Logan raided the underground to reinvent the paper in the early 1970s. In June 1976, dismayed at the excesses of the current rock scene, Farren wrote the famous ‘Titanic Sails At Dawn’ editorial, which called for a back-to-basics rock’n'roll movement prefiguring punk.
His memoir Give The Anarchist a Cigarette is an essential read for anyone interested in British counter-culture from the 1960s onwards and deals with his time at NME in great detail. I spoke to him on the phone from his home in Brighton.
How did you get recruited to the NME staff?
Mick Farren: “The underground press was having a hard time. I knew Charlie Murray and met him at a party and he said I should go and see Ian McDonald, who introduced me to Nick Logan. By that time we’d just got to the stage where we had to make a living. It was the three-day week and the first miner’s strike and things were tough. We’d been through the Nasty Tales trial and the Oz trial and the underground press was on its last legs.”
The NMEs of the early 1970s carried on some of the spirit of magazines like Oz…
MF: “Nick Logan had seen that Creem had really made the jump from the underground press to writing about music in a way that was accessible but tied in with the culture. He was really kind of trying within the confines of IPC to do something similar. Creem was very popular. We’d exchange letters and things. Lester [Bangs] would stay at my house when he was in London.”
In your book you say that you were burnt out with music when you joined the paper…
MF: “Initially I just wanted to write about Star Trek and Bruce Lee. But the record companies were always offering goodies and I was basically seduced. Free trips, t-shirts, cocaine, clothes. We were never nice to them. We took everything they offered and then slagged off the bands. The music business had gone very corporate but we were dealing with guys like Andrew Lauder at UA – house hippies who were working inside big corporations but hated it and were kind of depressed by what was going on.”
How easy was it to forget that, basically, you were working for a huge publishing company?
MF: “When we were in the Covent Garden office we were allowed to forget about it. But that soon changed when we moved to King’s Reach Tower. The look of horror on the face of the people from Woman’s Own when they had to share a lift with Nick Kent was something to behold. He was six foot tall and eight inches wide and clad in ripped up leather. In Covent Garden Lemmy would wander in, give out a line of speed to anyone who wanted it, see if anyone wanted a pint, pick up some back numbers of the paper with pictures of him in. Or publicists would drop in and hand out records or record companies would send up a couple of strippers with balloons. At King’s Reach we drank an awful lot. We were practically on strike at the time because we hated it so much and spent most of the time in the pub over the road.”
There was a real concern when you wrote your ‘Titanic’ piece that it was too inflammatory. But soon after punk happened, so you were vindicated…
MF: “Punk was interesting to write about. It was the next phase of rock’n’roll. I got along well with those people. I was working at the time doing books with Michael Dempsey who managed The Adverts and we’d go down The Roxy. They’d mouth off about boring old hippies but that didn’t apply to me and Charlie [Murray]. We were more like old gangsters. The hippy thing was something that happened out in the suburbs. We were meaner and tougher. We were quite capable of dealing with any punks because we’d been through the mill. In the early days of punk Chrissie Hynde gave me a haircut but I was basically still looking like a White Panther. The Deviants played the same music except our songs lasted twenty minutes instead of three. We’d known them all from Ladbroke Grove. We knew The Clash from when they were the 101’ers or the London SS and drank in The Elgin Arms. Plus with punk there was the whole rockabilly connection that I always cleaved to.”
And yet when Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons were recruited to the paper, suddenly they were the new punks on the block…
MF: “We were pointing them in the right direction. Parsons thought he knew it all. He was a real asshole. Julie liked to be the centre of attention. She was very good, much more unusual and talented writer than Parsons. Mad as a hatter, but I don’t think Dorothy Parker was a day at the beach really.”
You left for New York in 1978. When did you stop writing for NME?
MF: “After about two or three years in New York I was sending them back stuff and New York was going one way and London was going the other: the Blitz Club and Boy George and all that stuff. New York was scruffier and more experimental. You promise you’ll always write to the girl who you left behind but you never do.”
Mick Farren and The Social Deviants live in Hyde Park, 1969: