MICK FARREN INTERVIEW
photos courtesy of Patrick Boissel and Alive
by Richie Unterberger (March 1998)
The Deviants were only minimally competent instrumentalists when they made their debut album, Ptooff, in 1967. They had only worked up a bare handful of original tunes. But they had managed to synthesize their wildly diverse influences (Frank Zappa, the Who, Charles Mingus, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, and more) into an album that transcended the group's limitations into something of a minor masterpiece. While very much of its time, it also anticipated the pre-punk thrash of the Stooges and MC5.
Was it psychedelic music, blues-rock, avant-rock, proto-punk, or comedy? All of the above at times; none of the above all the time. What Ptooff! offered was a combination acid trip/horror show. The roller coaster ride went through maddeningly repetitive metallic bone-crunchers, beautiful flower-power ballads, Cagean experiments in musique concrete, deliberately offensive comedy, solemn poetry, and sound collages that referenced Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddley, and Swinging London nightlife. The Deviants may have been aligned with the hippie/underground movement. Yet if this was flower-power and free love, it was delivered with a sneer that had no patience for mindless flight from reality, with an anarchic energy that looked forward a full decade to punk.
The Deviants went on to release a couple of more conventional, far less impressive albums before disbanding at the end of the 1960s. Lead singer Mick Farren has been involved with several reformed versions of the Deviants that have made intermittent recordings from the late 1970s to the present. He's far better known today, however, as an author, both of non-fiction (including a critical Elvis Presley guide that he co-wrote with Roy Carr) and science/fantasy fiction. He has also worked as a rock critic, on and off, over the last few decades. Now living in Los Angeles, he spoke about the Deviants' early career at the end of 1996. The interview was conducted for the Deviants chapter in UNKNOWN LEGENDS OF ROCK'N'ROLL, a volume examining sixty cult rock artists, is published by Miller Freeman.
Q: What were the Deviants' inspirations when you starting coming together around late 1966?
MF: We didn't know what we were doing, for a start. The most exciting thing at the time was probably the Who. Probably what Pete Townshend was doing. But that in a way was kind of big time major hit single rock'n'roll. The two rather diverse things that we were listening to was on one hand, we were getting the first ESP records by the Fugs. And at the other extreme, I was listening to a lot of... particularly the album Mingus [did], "Oh Yeah," with Roland Kirk, with "Ecclusiastics" and "Passions of a Man" and "Eat That Chicken" and all that stuff on it. Bob Dylan of course. We were trying to like blend it all into something that made sense, without very much money. The Fugs had a certain kind of jugband appeal, which fitted our income at the time.
Joe Boyd [producer of Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and numerous other late-'60s bands] brought over some tapes of the Velvet Underground, which we stole off him, and somebody immediately stole off us. That was the most interesting thing that seemed to be a similar kind of synthesis, coming from the same sort of background. [The tapes] were pre-first album (ED: i.e. predating the Velvets' famed "Banana" LP).. I was almost beginning to think I'd dreamed them. Everybody denied all knowledge of them. We performed a song called "Prominent Men" for a while that we took off those tapes. And suddenly they resurfaced. They're the very first tapes on the Velvet Underground box set. [The tape] was ["Prominent Men"], three or four versions of "Venus In Furs," the very strange acoustic version of "Waiting For The Man," "Prominent Men," "All Tomorrow's Parties."
[We were] a bunch of guys who'd really come out of the sort of British North London art school R&B band scene. Like the Pretty Things; that was really our heritage. We were trying to like push it in simultaneously a more demented and more intelligent direction. 'Cause we couldn't really be spending our time recycling old Jimmy Reed tunes. So we were looking for something to do. I think basically Lou and Cale got in there first. It was very much a sort of parallel development, London and New York. That's where we felt things were happening the most.
You know, we were pretty incompetent at the start. We were pretty incompetent at the end. But more money came in. The amplifiers got bigger. We all got ourselves fierce amphetamine habits, and at that point, kind of ear-bleeding noise took over for a while. Plus we were also kind of listening to Zappa, which definitely affected the way we made the first album.
Towards the end of, fall of '67, we ran into this rich kid called Nigel Samuel, who owned about half London. His father committed suicide when he was 17, and left him millions. He didn't really want to know about it. So we had a few grand off him, and went into Sound Techniques, [where] Joe Boyd used to work, in fact he turned us on to it. And began hacking together the album Ptooff, more by luck than judgement. Really, we got incredibly lucky on that record.
At that point, we got a truck and a booking agent and really began to go out on the flower power circuit, where outside of big industrial cities, the hippies didn't kind of like as much. Then we made a second album which was truly awful, Disposable. The first album, we didn't really know enough to be daunted by what we were attempting to do. On the second one, we really, we learned a bit more, which was just enough to make it bad (laughs) Much the same applies to the third one.
Q: Why was Ptooff so much better than the subsequent albums?
MF: The musicians started wanting to play. Rather than just kind of tinkling, which we had going on the first album. [On Ptooff] we really didn't know what we were doing, so we didn't care.
A great deal of [Ptooff] is sort of fragmented segueways and weird stuff. It was all just let's do this and let's do that. Let's lay on all these effects, and let's get sound tape recordings... it was really great stuff. We had a guy called Jack Henry Moore who had been a pupil of John Cage. He really knew that sort of '50s music concrete sound material, and putting two tape recorders eight feet apart and running a single tape between the two of them. Really interesting stuff.
The second [album], we got into the band business, and ceased to be innovative, and just became another fucking band. That was sort of depressing, although at the same time some of the shows were very satisfying. The eventual demise of the Deviants was when me and the guitar player of the time, Paul Rudolph, really were at odds about musicianship. I kind of thought it sucked. He had really this idea to be Jimmy Page (laughs).
[When we recorded Ptooff!] we'd do what we did live, and then cut out the best 45 seconds of it, and collage it in with a lot of other stuff, which was too unwieldy to do live. I mean, even Zappa had problems with it. By the time we got to recording that first album, we were sort of heavily immersed in Zappa, and wanted to do everything that there ever was, and that we'd ever heard, and then kind of reproduce it. Like bits of Phil Spector, and bits of this, and bits of that. Lay backing vocals on there, that we really couldn't reproduce in a live context, in the days when PAs were pretty minimal. You'd show up at a club... you'd actually took your own PA, was what used to happen in back those days in England. It was unworkable live. But as a recording entity, it really just fell into place, it all came together. In hindsight, I'm self-depreciating and say there's more luck than judgement. But I think we had something going, a kind of spirit of adventure that you can only have when you really don't know there are any rules to break.
Q: Did the songs evolve much from how they had been performed live?
MF: In some cases, there were lyrics. "Nothing Man" was the most free-form, because the percussion thing really started happening first. Then I had the lyrics laying around, and then it just went on from there. "Deviation Street" was pretty well-structured, as was "Garbage." We used to play "Garbage" live. But some of the segues were a bit shaky. But it was pretty much all structured. The real representative thing of what we were getting into about that time playing live was "I'm Coming Home." Because the big thing we did really like was the big kind of "Sister Ray"-style endless, monotonous guitar thrash thing. Which went down very well. Because we were one of the first bands doing it.
Then like about a year later, we heard the first Stooges record. We heard the MC5's Kick Out The Jams and thought, ah, kindred spirits. But no way were we as tricky and tight and together as the MC5. I mean the Stooges jumped in, and sort of did what we were doing live on a record, whereas we'd tried to be a lot flasher and a lot more... well, we were fucking art students, you know. So that sort of philosophy was brought forward in sound. Because it was a great time.
The English art school was a fabulous place for the whole concept of multimedia going on. So it was, hey, there's a rule, let's go break it. At the same time, op-art was happening, and there was Hockney, there was Peter Blake. This was the generation immediately before us. So we were very self-consciously... the funny Marvel Comics-Lichtenstein cover [on Ptooff] was all part of it. We were very conscious of trying to pastiche various kind of production styles which had just gone before. What Shel Talmy was doing with the Who, Phil Spector, that kind of thing.
Plus we sort of fairly heavily immersed ourselves in the [Mothers of Invention's] Freak Out album, and cut-up techniques, and Bill Burroughs was hanging around. So all that was really shoveled into the first one, which I think really exhausted a lot of the ideas, and a great deal of the spirit. The subsequent records were much more kind of what we were doing on the road. I think on the road we were taking a lot more drugs too, so it all got to be a bit of a mess, really. Some of which I'm only really sorting out right now.
Q: When you assembled the latest reissue of Ptooff! for CD on Alive, three songs were left off.
MF: I cut out all the bits I didn't like, quite honestly (laughs). I was never satisfied with them. I kind of felt [that] at the time, too... particularly "Child of the Sky" and the acoustic guitar thing ["Bun"] were a compromise with a guy who wasn't in the band very long, Cord Rees, who fancied himself doing that sort of thing. I always felt they were kind of a sop to the worst kind of Donovan fey-hippie Incredible String Band mentality out there in the audience, and we shouldn't have even been approaching it.
Records, when you first make them, they're great. And then they sound horrible. And then for about three or four years, you don't listen to them. And then you put them on again and go, this wasn't so bad as I've been thinking it was. But I did notice that when I played Ptooff to visitors, I tended to skip tracks. Alive wanted to put out a 10-inch. So I said, why don't we chop it down to a manageable size, and I'll be happy. And I'll have a thing I can play all the way through, rather than having to ace out bits I didn't like. So it was total self-indulgence.
The odd thing is, I keep getting these fanzines in the mail where they've reviewed it. And they're cross-referencing it with lo-fi industrial music by bands that I've never heard of. But it seems to strike some kind of resonant chord with the youth of today, which is kind of mind-boggling. It's also very satisfying, after all those years, the damn thing starts to make sense to somebody.
Q: How did Ptooff get released in the States?
MF: Seymour Stein kind of took a shine to us. It wasn't released on Sire in England. We put it out [ourselves] in England, and by some strange osmosis, Seymour got it back out on Decca a couple years later, and they didn't sell any. We actually did quite well with the first one, selling it around not only at record stores, but in head shops and poster outlets and things like that. It was actually one of the very first kind of hippie artifacts. There really wasn't that much [psychedelic] product at the time. There was only a couple of even quasi-independents, like Track and Immediate. One was Oldham's label. He was basically looking after the Small Faces and making a label for them and putting out some other stuff. And Track put out the Who. That was it, really.
an indie label. We just, at the time, weren't going to mess around with the whole corporate world. And I don't doubt they were going to mess with us either. It was impossible to communicate. These were the days when they still had A&R men. The making of [Pink Floyd's] Piper at the Gates of Dawn was sufficiently daunting to EMI. So they definitely weren't going to mess with the Deviants.
In fact, it's a pity there weren't more indie labels back then, because there was a lot of good stuff going on. The only claim to fame the Deviants had is we managed to persevere and actually get some stuff down onto vinyl. 'Cause there are other bands, like the Brothers Grimm and the Giant Sun Troll and the whole list of them you see on posters. But they never actually got to record. And back in those days, you didn't tape the shows, because we didn't have the technology. So a lot of that stuff was lost. Fortunately, we weren't. That was an incredibly lucky break, or we would have just been a name on a poster.
Q: Why were you originally called the Social Deviants?
MF: It actually comes from the fact that we all had a house in the East End of London. And we picked up the paper one day, and it said that Tower Hamlet, which was one of the new constructed boroughs in East London, had the highest percentage of social deviance in the country. "Right, that's us." But saying it became really a drag. "What band are you in?" "The Social Deviants!" "Wot?" "Okay, the Deviants." There was a certain happy-go-lucky, pill-taking attitude to it all.
Q: What were your live shows like, in terms of the presentation?
MF: They were basically the mood of the time, and the chemical ingestion that was going on at the time. Sometimes they'd be just godawful. But they could be spectacular. Remember, this was the same time as Pete Townshend was smashing guitars. We got very into setting fire to things. Before puberty, I'd had a fascination with explosives. I still remember some of the old formulas, how to make explosives out of wheat killer and sugar. We used to play in the open air quite a bit, which made things nice. Because we played a lot of riots. Particularly through '68, through the Disposable time. There were kids sitting in in colleges. There were strikes. There were lockouts, sieges. Around Europe, you played a legitimate gig to make the money. If there's all these students sitting in at the Sorbonne, you want to go down. Sure, we'll go down there, and find some way to plug in, and play for as long as... basically play 'til the cops came, which was another kind of wear and tear. Because a couple of (people in) the band weren't really as radical as I was, they got a little bit jaundiced. They wanted to be in a professional rock and roll band to get groupies.
We opened for Led Zeppelin a couple of times when they were very first starting. They still had to put ex-Yardbirds underneath Led Zeppelin. We played the Exeter town hall, and all those farm boys showed up. Some girls were watching us at the front, and the farm boys marched the front and said, 'why you watching them faggots.' You have to remember, back in those days, once you got out of the major cities, long hair and velvet and all the rest of it was... you were immediately prejudged homosexual and treated accordingly. Which sometimes would amount to something close to lynching. So these fistfights started and the cops came, and we scurried back into the dressing room after beating our way off the stage, the roadies sort of fighting a rear guard. Physically fighting any people with microphone stands, and Plant and Page are laughing their heads off, going, 'god, you must have been awful.' And they went on to exactly the same reception.
That was really the kind of interesting thing, was that we were really in the first wave of going out on the beat group circuit around Europe. Not being just kind of mod, but being decidedly weird. You've seen photographs of the band. There was a definite kind of Beefheart and the Magic Band weirdness about the Deviants that really upset people. That's where the best shows came from. Sometimes it'd be the hippies who'd get freaked out. 'Cause they'd be there with their beads and bells, and really not understand why we were snarling at them and setting fire to our arms and things. There's all this sort of smoke and mayhem, and they thought that was all a bit aggressive, man.
Antagonism and setting people going, what the British call winding them up, was very much a part of what made a show good. During the kind of more radical year later, it became quantified where we'd basically be striking sparks off the police department. There's a couple of times, particularly in France, where you couldn't see, because there was too much fucking tear gas in the air (laughs). It was great fun, it was really like playing the apocalypse. But all that went away.
It's hard to really grasp how little it took to offend people back in 1968. Shows being closed down by the cops. It was a low-level thing of like what the Doors were experiencing. For the way you looked. Which made it a hell of a lot of fun. Although you had to be careful, because even in England in those days, you could do six months in jail for a joint. It was a more intense time. But people really were very easily offended.
Q: Is that the kind of gig you were playing in the photo on the inner sleeve of the third album?
MF: That's St. Paul's Cathedral. Oddly enough, it's an anti-apartheid, free Nelson Mandela show. That was the kind of thing we went on for. Plus, there were more photographs of the open-air shit, because they always came out better. They were busy times.
Q: Was there any awareness of the band in the United States?
MF: There was, but it was really in isolated patches. We had a bit of rep in San Francisco, and some people in L.A., they all thought we were gay. New York knew us quite well. The big fuckup was, we started our first tour in Vancouver, which was an R&B town back then. And people started going wrong almost from the get-go. I think we probably should have just flown to New York and played around there, and they would have welcomed us. There were pockets of hippies elsewhere across the States, but not in sufficient quality. I guess if we'd gone to Detroit, we could have played the Grande, run into Wayne [Kramer] and [John] Sinclair and people a couple of years earlier than we did, and that would have been fun.
It also got so confused. We weren't about to go on a tour opening for the Doors, so what the hell are we going to do? Being double-billed with some other Brit band like Blodwyn Pig or something just wasn't happening. Because most of the bands that were doing well in the United States, the Cream's or whatever, were playing some kind of high-volume electric blues, and we definitely weren't. We definitely weren't these guys who got themselves a perm and a bubble haircut and sang songs about flowers, because that wasn't what we were doing. Unselfconsciously, it was kind of an art movement thing. I think we would have done better in New York, if we'd just gone in New York and stood our ground.
Q: How soon was it after the third album that the Deviants broke up?
MF: A matter of just a few months. We did the album, and then we had a very nice run of things where we played Hyde Park and three or four shows at the Roundhouse [in London], went around England and France and Germany. Things were going pretty well. But then we went to the States. By that time, I was in pretty bad shape, getting very paranoid. The internal conflicts in the band were starting to really get to me. So we parted company after these disastrous dates in the Pacific Northwest. The boys went down to San Francisco. When Seymour learned that I was out of the band, he withdrew all tour support. So it all became a bit of a mess.
Q: How did the Deviants EP of the late '70s (Screwed Up) come about?
MF: Essentially, the Deviants was mine, and the Pink Fairies [which had former members of the Deviants] was theirs. Although I frequently got up with the Pink Fairies, it was a known delineation in England. It might be the same cats, but if I was fronting the band the entire set, as opposed to doing a guest spot, it was going to be the Deviants. This is another set of rules that came by osmosis. Then Jake [from Stiff Records] came up and said, 'want to make a record?' So I said yeah, and we did. That was the Stiff EP. That was actually when the Pink Fairies were falling apart. It was a way of getting Larry [Wallis] and Rudolph and people into the studio with me, but they were on my dime rather than their own. So they could leave their conflicts at the door. We actually got four good tracks out of that, which is kind of nice.
There's nothing so good as getting a bunch of musicians who are at odds with each other, and putting them in a studio where they're not responsible, they just have to do what they're told. That's always been the history with the Deviants. The first record is one where they did what they were told. This one was pretty good too, because some of the energy that's produced out of friction and conflict can be channeled indirectly. Because everybody knows it's a one-off. It's not going to go on. You don't have to get back on the bus and keep on doing it. That was always the best things that we did, when rage could be translated into energy, and outrage. State the out in rage, I guess.
That was our problem with any of these. We were a very angry band. We were pissed off, generally, at the state of the world, metaphysically. But it frequently just came down to being pissed off with each other. You have to remember, we took a lot of speed and we drank a lot, and we also had the most incredible hangovers. So leaving town to go on to the next one, nobody was in a particularly good mood. And what you counted on was building up a head of steam.
We were very much like the Who in that respect. But the Who were kind of unique in the fact that they were able to hold the dynamic together. Whereas actually, we didn't. It just tore itself apart. But it really was the same principle. It doesn't make for a harmonious traveling band. That's why we didn't turn into the Grateful Dead, I guess. Plus, we didn't know that many guitar riffs.
Q: You were one of the few musicians to make the transition from the psychedelic era to the punk one.
MF: It was the most natural thing in the world. It was music fueled on pissed off-ness, and recognized immediately. We didn't have any kind of reproducible songs like "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Certainly the spirit of what the Deviants were doing translated absolutely to people like Jones and Strummer and Rotten. McLaren, basically, was really stealing a lot of, in the early days of the Pistols, was using the same kind of schtick that I'd been beating people with ten, nine, eight years earlier. It's the same kind of destruction in art, also Burroughs, it's the same grab bag that went into his kind of Sex Pistols philosophy that we were doing back in the late '60s. So it was just a natural evolution, and fell right into it.
The sound [of punk], actually, was very very similar [to the Deviants]. It was almost... when Patti was first going up with Lenny [Kaye] and what's his name, it was pretty much the same sound. That was really our formative sound, except that Patti was a lot more self-consciously poetic. The Ramones and the Pistols played much shorter songs, 'cause we'd keep that thrash thing going for 20 minutes. And we didn't play it quite as fast. But beyond that, it was the same electric razor. So it made absolute sense. The other thing that was different was the haircuts.
Q: You became well known as a rock critic, and now as a science/fantasy fiction writer and poet, than as a musician, which must have come as a surprise to people who knew you mostly as the Deviants' singer.
MF: To anybody outside, yeah. It didn't seem like that to me. Because I kind of wrote all the time. Almost from the moment that I grew out of drawing--I'm talking about being nine years old--drawing comic strips. I always had these fantasies, and they just grew and grew and grew until whole books' worths were coming out. On the other hand, writing in terms of audience response is a very unrewarding experience tactilely. So I always really wanted to get out and perform it.
It gets a bit more complicated with computers and things, [but] essentially, all one needs to write is a pencil and a legal pad. Which are fairly obtainable things. But PA's and all that are slightly more complicated. So my sort of focus was writing.
To outward appearances, yeah, writing did become a focus. And I got very good at it. Much better than some of the music. I was always accepted as a good writer, and as a somewhat strange and dubious performing artist. Having survived this long, I now find I can record pretty much what I want, and get away with it. But even that's developed a certain level of expertise. So I'm pretty happy, actually. The one wouldn't function without the other. Poetry is the obvious case. Just to write it and hope that it comes out in a collection or something really doesn't make it. I like to even get out and read it, although I don't find coffeehouses much fun.
I'm making a living doing some movie work at the moment, which is fairly time-consuming. They do pay the big bucks, so that really subsidizes the other endeavors. There always has to be something like that going on. I had a movie, it's almost got its financing, called WORKING CLASS HEROES, which is about a rock'n'roll band in the late '60s, but more successful than we were. I was also doing the Che Guevarra story, a serious studio production.
See Mick's favorite music
Also see the Stiff Records website
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS||WRITE US|