Mick Farren: Musician and writer who played a leading role in the UK's counter-culture

Chris Salewicz@chrissalewicz
Monday 29 July 2013 18:12

It will no doubt serve as a piece of modern cultural mythology that Mick Farren "died as he would have wanted", collapsing onstage on Saturday night at London's Borderline, playing a gig with a reformed version of his 1960s group the Deviants, a concert that he had been advised not to go ahead with on medical advice. More accurately, performing the show only underlined Farren's personal philosophy of unassailable professionalism and a ceaseless work ethic that led to the publication of 23 novels as well as 11 non-fiction volumes. Backstage at the Borderline he may have been plugged in to an oxygen mask, but audience members would be unaware that he was returning to it between numbers.

Mick Farren, a man with a warm heart, an abundant wit and a great mind, was a leading player in the UK's counter-culture, a prolific writer, musician, activist and cultural commentator. He was born in Cheltenham, his family later moving to Worthing in Sussex, where he attended Worthing High School for Boys. In 1963 he moved to London to study art at St Martin's. "Sunday-supplement graphic design had been my masterplan," he wrote in Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, his 2001 autobiography. Moving to Ladbroke Grove in search of cheap accommodation he discovered a bohemian world of West Indian shebeens and marijuana. His ambitions changed.

Editing IT, the underground newspaper, Farren became something of a legend in his role of king of alternative Notting Hill. "Within the hippy hierarchy I was Tony Soprano," he said recently. "I had my own little army. But only for good!" At the time a hardcore Maoist, in alliance with his friends Hawkwind, for whom he later contributed lyrics, he helped tear down the fences at the August 1970 Isle of Wight festival (he memorably described the event as "a psychedelic concentration camp"). The previous month he had set up the far more counterculture Phun City festival, outside Worthing: security was provided by his Hells Angels associates. When that year he released Mona, his first solo album, it came with an Angels' endorsement.

Thanks to his alliance with Detroit's countercultural rockers MC5, who played Phun City, Farren became de facto leader of Britain's White Panther Party; in this yippie guise he was among a score of subversive stalwarts who in 1970 invaded the set during an edition of the prime-time David Frost Show. "We thought Frost would be cool and up for a debate," he told me. "Instead he just closed the programme down." Charged with obscenity in 1971 as co-publisher of Nasty Tales, an underground comics anthology, Farren won the Old Bailey case, representing himself.

By 1974 Farren was working for the New Musical Express. He edited the music paper's Thrills section – "I wanted Thrills to be a cross between the Daily Mirror and National Enquirer" – championing bizarrely scandalous stories, frequently related to the weight problems of his hero, Elvis Presley. "Many years later, in New York City," he wrote in his autobiography, "a psychiatrist would ask me, 'So you wanted to have sex with Elvis Presley?'… This was idiocy. 'No (you damned fool), I wanted to be Elvis Presley… I didn't realise until years later, but I was the only product I wanted to promote."

In July 1976 Farren wrote his famed "The Titanic Sails at Dawn" think-piece in the NME, predicting the takeover of punk; almost 10 years previously the Social Deviants (later the Deviants) had pre-empted this movement: formed in 1967, their approach was best represented by their song "Let's Loot the Supermarket", a tune at odds with the then prevailing hippie themes.

By 1977 the likes of Joe Strummer would be found seated on the floor of Farren's Ladbroke Grove flat, eager for advice, as Farren scribbled on an A4 pad, working on The Feelies, a sequel to his 1976 science fiction novel The Quest of the DNA Cowboys, pausing to take in scenes from Kojak or The Sweeney on his then unimaginably huge colour TV. Later in 1977 Farren managed to set fire to that flat, the consequence of an unextinguished joint tossed into a wastepaper basket.

Inspired by punk's do-it-yourself ethos, Farren returned to the recording studio in 1978, releasing a further solo album, Vampires Stole My Lunch Money. At the end of that decade he moved to New York, marrying, and writing for the Village Voice. When the marriage ended he moved to Los Angeles. Drawn into the world of screenwriting, he worked frustratingly on a Che Guevara biopic. "I mentioned a scene in Clint Eastwood's Hang 'Em High. The studio executive had never heard of it. It's not exactly Kurosawa, is it?" His life in LA was not immune from tragedy: his live-in girlfriend committed suicide.

Clearly blessed with an iron constitution that would permit him to stand tall in hedonistic sessions with his friend Lemmy, bad health finally caught up with Farren some five years ago. He returned from Los Angeles – "It's a bit like a large Eastbourne" – to the UK to avail himself of the NHS.

Suffering from emphysema, and assorted complications – 18 months ago a non-cancerous tumour "as large as a cricket ball" in one of his lungs had been eradicated by antibiotics – Farren not only refused to give up on life but seemed to increase its pace. He put together the new version of the Deviants and played regularly, while over the last 12 months he had had three further books published: Road Movie, a startlingly surreal and poetic pulp fiction novel; Black Dogs Circled, an exemplary collection of 18 poems; and, most recently, Elvis Died for Somebody's Sins but not Mine, subtitled "A Lifetime's Collected Writing".

Michael Anthony Farren, writer, musician and activist: born Cheltenham 3 September 1943; married firstly Joy (marriage dissolved), secondly Betsy (marriage dissolved); died London 27 July 2013.

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