Mick Farren, Billy the Monster and Tales of My Wayward Youth
Back in my wayward youth—talkin’ early to mid teens when I ‘d just started imbibing of the herb superb, letting my hair grow and figurative freak flag fly—I soon discovered a dusty stack of discs my brothers had left behind after moving out on their own, and through these vinyl wonders encountered the aural weirdness of the psychedelic 60’s (this by the mid-70’s) through such albums as Sgt. Pepper’s, Magic Mystery Tour, Surrealistic Pillow and Strange Days, among other curiosities that now seem rather pedestrian with the passage of time and classic rock stations forever searing these “standards” into our collective craniums. But listening to these albums at the time was a mind cracking experience as Lennon serenaded about someone blowing his mind out in a car or Jim Morrison with his deep haunting voice prophesying The End amid the serpentine slithering of Robbie Krieger’s guitar or Grace Slick screaming feed your head! All of these were revelations to my young silly putty brain, forming my worldview in a weird and seemingly revolutionary way. If anything was a gateway drug, it was the music of this freewheeling era which initiated me into the psychedelic scene my head would soon inhabit after getting my first taste of Dr. Hoffman’s divine elixir, and off I went!
Perhaps I’m glorifying the drug culture simply because it was such a large part of my youth—the good with the bad—but my true interest was the potential that psychedelics had for opening doors in your cerebral cortex that might otherwise have remained unexplored, as opposed to zoning out and deadening the senses with downers or dummy dust. I wanted to be high, and experience a higher state of consciousness like those guru guys of old, but with the new sensibility that Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix seemed to have attained; these musical poet-psychonauts who so effortlessly tapped into their muse and let the good times and the music roll.
But as much fun and good times that came out of that whole drug and party scene of my late teens, there were as many casualties along the way; friends that burnt their brains with too much of a good thing, or O.D.’d before they had a chance to grow into adulthood. Just like Jimi, Janis and Jim, many of my generation (the generation who came right after the psychedelic 60’s) also burnt out quick like the ol’ Kerouac Roman candle, thinking that the party would go on forever, but then were suddenly snuffed out in a flash, with a bang or a whimper. But then there were the survivors, such as Mick Farren, who we’ll get to in a minute.
Shortly after my discovery of The Doors, Sgt. Pepper and Gracie Slick—I started tuning into free form hard rock FM radio, this during its halcyon days of the early to mid 70’s, and in particular Fresno’s KFIG-FM where each Sunday evening the station featured “The 90 Minute Special” which I would religiously record with my 8 track tape recorder….yes, believe it or not I had an eight track tape recorder! And it was the “The 90 Minute Special” that first introduced me to the likes of Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, etc., as the DJ played what he considered the best tunes by such “heavy” bands for (you guessed it!) 90 minutes straight without commercial interruption. Occasionally, said DJ, whoever he was (some stoner dude, no doubt) would spin even more obscure vinyl platters. One “90 Minute Special” in specific that thoroughly warped my young brain featured the music of an obscure Brit band named The Deviants, and a couple of associated groups who had spun off from The Deviants: The Pink Fairies and Hawkwind. Of all the selections played on this particular rendition of “The 90 Minute Special”, the one tune that most bent my brain was a semi psychotic little ballad entitled “Billy the Monster”, though I had no clue which of the three bands was responsible for this symphonic cacophony. Whatever the case, it was a strange little ditty that struck a twisted chord in my hirsute head like some insidious jingle from a television commercial that meets a bad acid trip influenced by Japanese Sci-Fi flicks.
During this period, I’d occasionally carry around a small cassette player/recorder and—while spliffed out of my skull—spontaneously sing/compose my own off-the-cuff tunes seeped in a stew of psychedelic imagery, often in the company of my bro Joe Hook. On one occasion I started riffing on the refrain, Billy the Monster, Billy the Monster, adding my own lyrics between the choruses, Billy can you hear the Devilish sound of Satan under the ground?, mixing Black Sabbath sensibility in a psychedelic cocktail, certainly a volatile mix for young minds to toy with! Joe found my take on Billy the Monster quite hysterical, but of course those were the days when just a couple hits of ragweed would get us laughing uncontrollably. Joe assumed—in all my twisted brilliance of 15 years of age—that I come up with this Billy the Monster song all on my own, so I didn’t let on that it was really wasn’t my creation, I was just riffing on the theme. But this was just this type of strange music that inspired me to eventually write my own songs, first as a lyricist for my buddy Joe’s band Alcazar in the late 70’s, then later to compose and record my own songs in a series of albums I’ve released over the last few years.
After being exposed to Billy the Monster in my mid teens, I pretty much forgot all about this freaky little tune until well into my forties when one day for some reason I experienced a Billy the Monster flashback and—as was the fashion of the day—I conducted a google search (back then we called it a “web search”) which revealed that indeed The Deviants were the band behind the creation of Billy the Monster, apparently the brainchild of a legendary figure named Mick Farren, a name I was somewhat familiar with more as a Science Fiction author than as a rock musician.
As my internet search soon revealed, “Billy the Monster” appeared on the Deviants third and final album, entitled appropriately enough, Deviants 3. And after making this discovery, the next step was to promptly obtain a copy and blow my mind all over again. However, this wasn’t an easy album to track down a decade or so ago, although I was eventually able to secure a cassette copy through tape trading networks of the day and relived the wacky days of my youth by listening to Billy the Monster again after some 30 “odd” years. Little did I know at that time, but in the years to come I would get to know Mick Farren and consider him a friend and colleague.
Listen to Billy The Monster here: https://soundcloud.com/gorightly/billy-the-monster
Formed in 1967 as the Social Deviants, then later changing their name to simply, The Deviants, the band has been often described as “proto-punk”, a forerunner to the Punk music scene of a decade later. Other comparisons have been made to U.S. counterparts The Fugs or Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, although The Deviants lacked the sort of technical sophistication of Zappa’s Mothers, which probably accounts for their comparisons with, and influence on, Punk Music, as The Deviants were primitive and anarchist, incorporating punk sensibilities, while steeped in the psychedelia of the period.
The Deviants technical shortcomings notwithstanding, under Mick’s radical leadership the group found themselves at ground zero of the mid 60’s British underground scene, one of a handful of bands who performed at the legendary 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, a multi-media happening on par with Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests and the Human Be-Ins going down on the Left Coast during the same era.
The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream—held in the Great Hall of the Alexandra Palace in London in April of ‘67—was the first full blown British psychedelic happening, with music blaring from either end of the Great Hall amid a light show of swirling amoebas projected on the walls as young heads in freaky threads danced madly and tripped heavy into the wee, weird hours. The event was headlined by some up-and-coming group named Pink Floyd (who played a role similar to The Warlocks/Grateful Dead’s participation in Kesey’s Acid Tests as a kind of house band for the psychedelic scene of the period) and was attended by such luminaries as John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Dick Gregory. A seminal event that brought the psychedelic subculture to a wider audience, The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream served as a benefit to help launch a new counterculture publication, the International Times (IT), Britain’s first major underground publication. Mick Farren—who in the next few years transitioned from music to full time writing—would later go on to became editor of the IT in the early 70’s when, at its peak, circulation reached 45,000.
A radical activist and media prankster, Mick headed up the White Panthers UK, an across-the-pond annex of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party that advocated “rock ‘n roll, dope, sex in the streets and the abolishing of capitalism.” One of the more notable monkey-wrenchings undertaken by Mick and his band of merry Panthers was their storming of the Isle of Wight concert in August of 1970, one of the first massive UK stadium events, which also turned out to be Jimi Hendrix’s last gig. Mick felt the event was an attempt to exploit the counterculture, and set up what he referred to as a “psychedelic concentration camp.”
A month before the Isle of Wight Festival, Mick put his money (or the lack thereof) where his mouth was by organizing Phun City, the first large scale free festival in the UK featuring such bands as MC5, Pretty Things, Kevin Ayers, and Mick’s new musical project, The Pink Fairies, who stripped naked during their set. Unlike Altamont, Mick somehow successfully enlisted the aid of the UK Hell’s Angel to work as security for the event without incident. And while many seem to remember Woodstock as a free concert, it really didn’t start out that way but ultimately became so due to a storm of marauding acidheads who stomped down the fences leaving the organizers with no other option than to declare the event free in fear of a mass revolt.
In 1970, Mick released his first solo album, Mona, The Carnivorous Circus. “I was crazy when I did Mona – really mentally ill. If I listen to it I can still feel it. Maybe I should have chilled out for a few months before making the album, but I was a bit depressed, and I thought I’d just do it entirely my own way for the first time”.
Mick would have been the first to admit that he wasn’t much at holding a tune. Just the same he could, upon occasion, deliver a memorable vocal performance, capturing the angst and rebellion of his generation, such as his rendition of “Summertime Blues” from Mona that sounds like a precursor to the Punk scene then percolating off in the not too far distance.
So Mick was certainly channeling the Punk muse several years before the movement would gather a head of furious steam and burst onto the scene. In his 1976 article for the New Musical Express entitled “The Titanic Sails At Dawn”, Mick criticized the current rock music scene and the dire need for some new blood to re-ignite those old rock & roll fires that had become lifeless and stagnant, bloated by the super success/over excess of the big money super groups and big stadium concert craze. A classic and visionary polemic about mid 70’s rock music malaise, to many “The Titanic Sails At Dawn” served as a rallying cry heralding the coming of Punk Rock.
Read The Titanic Sails At Dawn http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jul/31/mick-farren-nme-rock-titanic-sails
While editing the International Times in the early 70’s, Mick got involved with adult comics, publishing Nasty Tales. This, in turn, led to the first comic book obscenity trial in British history, as well as one of the few obscenity trials that the defendants, on the either side of the pond, ever actually won.
And so Mick was one of those intrepid souls who seemingly had his fingers in a multitude of pies during those heady days, a true renaissance man of the radical left. To this end, Mick came across (at least to this humble observer) as a sincere and sober voice mixed among much of the noise and general riff-raff of his generation; passionate but with both feet on the ground….well, most of the time. Mick was known to soar high from time to time, but always came back down to Earth with knowledge gained from his ascents into the mountains of madness.
Mick could see through the bullshit like nobody’s business and would always point it out without hesitation, sticking to his guns and values, unlike such fair weather radicals as Jerry Rubin who eventually ended up on Wall Street just a few short years after he’d vehemently protested against Wall Street greed.
Ultimately Mick would become better known as a writer than musician, although he kept one foot in the music scene, performing off and on with his old band mates through the years. It was in the mid 70’s that he authored what is perhaps my favorite all time Sci-Fi space opera, the brilliant and mind blowing DNA Cowboys Series, with characters based on such notable rockers as Mick’s old running mate Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.
An allegory to the sex, drugs, rock & roll culture of London during the early 70’s, The Quest of the DNA Cowboys relates the misadventures of a pack of outlaw heroes and their travels through the Nothings, a representation of the fallout from the late 60’s idealism for a lost generation of speed freaks and frazzled acid heads trying to navigate their way through Mick’s futuristic spaghetti western set in the outer reaches of a dissolving galaxy.
I first became acquainted with Mick around 2009 or so, during the period he shared an apartment with my friend, Skylaire Alfvegren, who he no doubt met through their connections to L.A. Weekly or other L.A. magazines the two had written for over the years. At the time, this seemed like some form of synchronous cosmic kismet, to meet the man who had authored a crazy little ditty named “Billy the Monster” which had so thoroughly warped my head more than three decades earlier. Sometimes the stars line up in a mysterious fashion.
In August of that year, I was honored to have Mick attend my Shadow Over Santa Susana book launch at Soup Plant Wacko in Hollywood on August 9th, the anniversary of the Manson murders. Decked out in black leather and sporting his legendary studded belt and wolf’s head cane, Mick as always cut a memorable swath. The previously evening, I’d hung out with Mick, sipping Margaritas and swapping tales at Jon Aes-Nil’s annual gathering of Mansonophiles at El Coyote Restaurant in celebration of the 40 anniversary of Sharon Tate’s last meal. Strange days, indeed.
At Mick’s going away party in 2010 (he was returning to the UK after several decades living in the States) I had him sign my copy of The DNA Cowboys. And of all the author’s signatures I’ve acquired over the years (including the likes of Robert Anton Wilson and Ira Einhorn, to name a few) Mick’s sig I cherish above all others, as this particular copy (the first three books of the series in one volume) I’d purchased over the internet; a book most likely stolen from a library in the UK, or discarded, I suppose, although there was no “discarded” stamp on it. When I offered this to Mick for signature, he about had an apoplectic seizure and signed the book in the following manner, albeit under protest:
Mick’s move back to the UK was motivated, I assume, due to his deteriorating health, and the affordability of the UK’s socialized medicine system. Mick suffered from asthma attacks and was easily winded which made it hard for him to get around in his later years. Meanwhile, he continued to smoke cigs and maintain other habits not necessarily conducive to a long life. So, being on the downward slide, I suspect he wanted to return to his homeland to live out his final years. With that being said, Mick was the ultimate survivor, having done and seen it all, living life on his own terms and outliving so many of his contemporaries, many of whom were unable to even make it through to the other side of those turbulent 60’s. And live he did, up until the very end, collapsing onstage while performing with original members of the Deviants on July 27th. Mick never regained consciousness, but went out, as they say, with his boots on, just the way he would have wanted it.
Mick’s great blog Doc40 is still online, so check it out. http://doc40.blogspot.com/
And while you’re at it, check out a couple of my favorite songs by Mick: