Saturday, December 23, 2023

resinking the Titanic (for good?)

Champing at the bit from the sidelines, I made some impatient and precocious Titanic-style "state of the nation" addresses myself.  In the third issue of Monitor, "What's Missing?" had the hand-wringing tone (it was 1985, Bad Music Era nadir) but only faint inklings of a forward path. A couple of issues later, in very early  '86,  "Against Health and Efficiency" sketched a new kind of oppositionality, fastening on currents within underground rock that seemed to constitute a refusal of optimism and self-optimization, breaking the link between "youth" and the idea of fun or fulfillment. 

But the essay that really slots into the Titanic lineage is "1976/86", from the final issue of Monitor, #6, which came out in the summer of 1986. Talk about handwringing! The papers were full of  tenth anniversary of punk talk - commemorative pieces and nostalgic flashbacks whose unifying  tone was "What happened to the revolution? Where did it all go wrong?”  1986 also saw Dave Rimmer’s Like Punk Never Happened, a book about Culture Club and New Pop.  Scanning the landscape of U.K. music, to me it seemed like the utter opposite was actually the case: practically everywhere you looked there was ample evidence that punk had happened, to a stifling degree in fact. 

New Pop itself had been a stage in the punk / postpunk dialectic.  I knew that from living through it in real-time. But for issue 4 of Monitor I decided to retrace the dialectic, visiting the Bodleian Library and ordering up back copies of the music papers between 1976 and 1982. That resulted in the essay "New Pop" - not an example of "Titanic" discourse so much as "Titanic-ology", a Foucault-informed analysis of the rock discourse.  Researching the piece certainly reconfirmed my view that the current music scene was massively over-determined by punk and set me up for what proved to be my final Monitor statement.

“1976/86” calls for a new direction. The idea of music as "opposition" itself is up for retirement. I write about washing "the punk notion of threat out of our blood". Much as I loved then and will always love Bollocks, Buzzcocks, Germfree Adolescents, et al, the potential in punk seemed utterly played out.  

Members of Monitor would continue this polemic at Melody Maker, arguing that the scene urgently needed unpunking and fastening on any musical developments that promised to hasten this . 

I was 22 when I wrote that!

Monday, December 18, 2023

refloating the Titanic

From 1984, I Punman's own reflotation move. An attempt to imagine a form of oppositionality to "the state of pop".... 

But where Mick Farren envisaged all of rock (once suitably reformed / reformulated) marshalled into unified opposition to Showbiz ... here Penman imagines a far more subtle, to the point of being somewhat elusive, idea of "against"

For starters, "showbiz" is not the enemy, not at all.... he loves that Vegas / Broadway / Hollywood pre-rock nexus.... pines for the days when crooners crooned tunes crafted by dedicated professionals who didn't feel the need to sing their own creations... loves the contemporary ersatz echoes of the bygone (August Darnell / ZE).... even such pale reflections as Blue Rondo A La Turk....  The riffs about the Song with a capital S are being wheeled out for the first (but not last) time. 

So it's quite an elusive, flickering, evanescent sort of disruption....   least likely, in fact, to be found amid the overtly disruptive...  likelier to nestle rather within the softest songs (another life-lasting riff auditioned thenabouts)

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

proto-proto-Titanic: Watch Out Kids


Moot point whether this 1972 tract is the swan song for the 1960s fever dream ("How Elvis gave birth to the Angry Brigade") or the earliest inkling of renewed faith in rock-as-revolution

Either way, the most seductively unbalanced over-estimation of the power of youth music until....

Well until the scribings of the 77-76 music papers.  Until The Boy Looked At Johnny

In retrospect, Mick Farren's science fiction novel The Texts of Festival  from the following year (1973) seems closer to an accurate prophecy of what would become of rock: 

"In the Great Hall of the capital city called Festival, the magic ritual of Soundcheck prepares the ancient loudspeakers for tonight's Celebration. It is the distant future, when all that remains of the ancient ways is a collection of sacred black discs which contain the words and music of the great prophets who lived before the disaster: Dhillon, Djeggar, and Morrizen, the fabled lizard-king.

But in the hills and valleys surrounding Festival, a threat builds. An outlaw army, wasted by spirits and speeding on 'crystal,' works its way toward the dying city, raping and pillaging, gathering strength and weapons as it goes. In Festival, the population continues its preparations for the Celebration, unknowing, unsuspecting..."

That's the jacket copy of one edition; here's another 

"In the wilderness of Britain little of civilization remains. Decadence and division have overtaken the huddled people of Festival. And faith in the texts of the old gods - Dhillon, Djeggar and Morrizen - is fading fast. Beyond the city walls the tribes are massing, united in evil intent. Hill savages fired by ritual superstition to pillage and slaughter. Satanic horse riders inspired by drugs to rape and defile. And crystal-crazed Iggy at the head of them all - a despot in search of territory. A territory like Festival."

In other words, rock as a dwindling, increasingly haggard tribe, cherishing its myths and rituals long after they have lost purchase on reality. 

Saturday, December 2, 2023


Mick Farren

Is Rock 'N' Roll Ready For 1976?

 New Musical Express, January 3rd, 1976

I don't know about you, but for some of us 1975 really turned out to be a bitch of a year, and that's a fact. Or maybe you didn't notice.

As far as music was concerned, it seemed to kick off with the release of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and terminate with the qualified disappointment of Bruce Springsteen. A year of upheavals, turn-rounds, disappointments, hopes and, when all is said and done, damn-all to show for it.

Not that this is a complaint about 1975 and its shortcomings, nor is it a piece about Bob Dylan. It isn't a piece about Springsteen either (praise, the Lord), or one about my own personal trials and exultations.

I guess you could say it's an examination of what current rock and roll is all about, and what exactly it is relevant to.

Like I said, 1975 was a bitch of a year.

It wasn't one of those grand exhilarating years when it was all going on so fast that there was no time to touch ground and find out what was happening. In that kind of year you couldn't write a piece like this because you were too busy bringing back the word from the front, or too busy doing it to bother to bring back the word.

It also wasn't one of those years when nothing happened at all. In those kind of years you couldn't write a piece like this. It either wouldn't get published or, if it did, you'd get shunned by polite society. In those kind of years, only an attitude of complete terminal ennui would stop you from becoming a social pariah.

Commitment in years like that was a dirty word, and any emotional response above a yawn would be judged positively obscene.

1975 has been neither of these things. At risk of being repetitive, it's been a bitch of a year.

For a start, there really haven't been any dirty words. Sure you could be lethargic, it's just a mild aberration. If you wanted to, you could be committed, another charming idiosyncrasy. 1975 has seemed to be the year when we've been prepared to tolerate just about anything.

The one thing there's been plenty of has been confusion. It's been moving round the planet by the truckload. Even in the private, often hothouse little world of the rock writer, confusion has abounded.

On the surface, one would think that it was a relatively simple act to tell the world at large about the merits or otherwise of a record, artist, live concert, movie or what-have-you.

It shouldn't be hard to tell the public whether Batter Z. and the Dogs' Homes are good, bad, indifferent, or The New Messiahs. Yet we look around and see critics starting to doubt their ability to recognise a Messiah even if he came up and whacked them with his stone tablets.

The relevancy of rock comment, criticism and a rock press, has been seriously questioned, not only in the hangouts of journalists, but in the pages of Gasbag, the luxury hotels of the stars, and the air-conditioned warrens of the business manipulators.

Even the hoary old shock question "Is rock dead?" has been dragged out and given an airing.

The key word to this whole problem seems to be relevancy.

Before we go any further, let me tell you a little story, and maybe you'll see what I mean.


Like a couple of thousand others, I'd gone along to Hammersmith Odeon to see Bruce Springsteen's first U.K. concert. I came out with somewhat mixed critical feelings and got into a taxi. Frankly I was disappointed, and was trying to work out whether this came from something that was lacking in Springsteen himself, or simply that the show had been oversold to me by the massive promo campaign that had surrounded it.

At the time, it seemed that sorting out what I felt about Bruce Springsteen was somehow important. He had, after all, been referred to as the "future of rock and roll" and appeared simultaneously on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.

The whole thing was suddenly dragged into a much clearer perspective by the voice coming over the cab driver's radio. The despatcher was giving a blow by blow account of the injured being dragged out of a bombed restaurant. Each time a driver called with some fresh information the dispatcher would relay it to all the other cabs in the network.

The impact of this was immense. It wasn't the usual kind of tidied-up newscast. I was actually hearing what was happening, as it happened. I was seeing the bombing through the direct subjective view of a handful of cab drivers.

Suddenly the importance of Bruce Springsteen shrank to almost nothing. There seemed to be little relationship between the concert I had just seen and the horrific events that were going down on the street.

I couldn't recall ever experiencing a similar feeling after coming out of either a Dylan or an early Rolling Stones' concert. The question in my mind was no longer what had disappointed me about Bruce Springsteen, it had been replaced by a much more important one:

Why did Springsteen — and for that matter, a great deal of modern rock and roll — seem so damned irrelevant to most of everyday life?

This is not intended to be a piece, either good or bad, about Bruce Springsteen. His name is cropping up so often because he seems to be a perfect example of the problem afflicting the contemporary rock scene. He has been touted to us by big business promo men as the ultimate street punk. In the guise of "the new Bob Dylan" he seemed to be credited with a degree of commitment, sensitivity and perception that would surpass even the best work of the sixties.

This promotion was so overwhelming that nobody ever stopped to question exactly what Springsteen was either being committed to, or sensitive and perceptive about.

An analysis of his songs reveals not a precise observation of life on skid row, but a kind of punk fantasy world based not in real life, but on an amalgam of pulp fiction and B movies firmly rooted in the fifties' teenage gang tradition.

This concept may have been developed originally in the context of the street, but, as the CBS promotion campaign began to grow, Springsteen must, by necessity, have been isolated from his roots. Unless he possesses an amazing clarity and tenacity of mind, it would seem impossible for Springsteen (or any other artist in his position) to prevent himself becoming cocooned in record company money, and cut off from the first sources of his creativity.

The earning potential of even a middle-grade rock star has so increased in the last six or seven years that a management/record company is far more inclined to treat their "investments" like so many prize race horses.

This almost total isolation of the artist from his audience must result in his or her music becoming, no matter how good, somewhat irrelevant to what's going on in the outside world.

We're back to that word again.


In the sixties it was a lot easier for an artist to stay in touch. It was a time when the music was still controlled by mavericks. On the crucial levels of promotion, production — as well as the musicians themselves — control was in the hands of people from the same background and with very similar ideas.

Bill Graham, Andrew Oldham, Derek Taylor, Spector, and even Epstein set patterns in rock administration that made it possible for people like Lennon, Dylan, Jagger or Jim Morrison to still have solid links with the street.

Today, however, things seem to have changed. A corporation mentality has taken over. Admittedly it's a hip corporation philosophy, but it's a corporation philosophy all the same.

Its attitude to music is one of polish, and giving the customers what they want.

It's an attitude that strips away the rough edges. They are concerned with the smooth distribution of product. Words like 'commitment', 'involvement' and 'art' are, to this kind of corporate mind, bad for business. They cause hassles, they could lower profits.

This has given rise to the technique of totally insulating the artist from the real world. The more the musicians are encouraged to remain in their sheltered worlds, the less trouble they cause and the easier they are to handle.

In many ways it's like a rerun of Hollywood in the 'twenties and 'thirties. Like movie stars and top sports heroes before them, musicians are being encouraged to stay inside a private hothouse environment. It's a superheated world where gossip, scandal, drug habits and breakdowns flourish to exotic proportions. It's a luxurious pen in which are kept the prize, money-earning specimens.

It has little to do with any serious reality.

There seems to be a kind of rule emerging that when rock and roll gets wrapped up in too much money, it begins to lose its guts. The kind of insulation that the corporate salesmen wrap around the musician tends to shut him off from the kind of essential street energy that is so vital to the best of rock and roll.

Occasionally we can see an individual break out of the cocoon and recharge himself from this essential energy source. We have just witnessed Dylan doing this. Lennon does it at regular intervals.

Unfortunately, they are part of a very small minority. It is far easier to call room service at the Hyatt House than to get down on the street and check out the action.

However, it does seem that too long in the Hyatt House can, in creative terms, turn you figuratively blind. The balls go out of the music, and the original fire is replaced by massive displays of sheer money.

The Rolling Stones tour of the Americas, earlier in the year, was an obvious example of what Charlie Murray called "a dinosaur" in his excellent Little Feat piece a few weeks back.

It may have been a magnificent, exciting circus, but on a logistic level it was a vast, blundering, super extravagant, over-consuming thing. It didn't take the 73 people to get Woody Guthrie on the stage.

In a process of gradual evolution, the Stones had felt forced to augment their own unique energy with spectacles like the vast, illuminated folding stages. In the orgy of presentation the Stones' relevancy (that word again) slowly slipped away.

The band that once talked uncompromisingly about the world they saw around them had turned into a Busby Berkeley spectacular.

So is there no hope at all? Is rock and roll on an unalterable course to a neo-Las Vegas?

It damn sure looks like it.

We are currently going through the worst depression since the 'thirties. In global terms, the fear of civil war is probably greater than it was even at the height of '60's paranoia, and in quiet moments I tend to wonder just how long the food, water, air, etc., are going to last.

Do we ever hear any of this reflected in rock and roll? Not often. Most of the time it seems as though all either musician or audience want to deal with is pure escapism.

If that is what everyone wants, then fair enough. I'm not about to argue with the will of the people. You have to admit, though, that the only social significance that can be gleaned out of this is that maybe we've unconsciously started on the last great party before the human race becomes extinct.

I'd be quite happy to lie back and enjoy myself if it wasn't for a small group of musicians who seem to have turned their backs on escapism and are totally related to the environment in which they live. They are also producing some of the most exciting music that's around at the moment.


If being plugged into the street is the only way to produce good rock and roll, then reggae is possibly the only kind of music that is still sitting up and taking nourishment.

I have a strange feeling that when we look back and get a perspective on the 1970s it will be Bob Marley who emerges as the "Bob Dylan" of the period.

This is no more a piece about reggae than it's a piece about Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones. One of the problems in getting anywhere below the surface either in reggae or, for that matter, Rastafarianism is that a white boy never really gets a straight answer.

Marley appears to be talking to his own generation in the same way that Dylan talks to his. With Dylan in the mid-sixties it was the proto-freaks that grasped his convoluted symbols. It was a language that they, and they alone, understood.

Marley is talking to young West Indian blacks in the same kind of secret language. Unfortunately for the white would-be aficionado, a great deal of this language is unintelligible. We are, after all, the bunch who shipped their ancestors off to Babylon.

One thing does seem to have been established, however. Both Marley and the Rastas have moved the consciousness of their followers to a point beyond the consumer-orientated, leopard-skin-suit-and-diamond-pinky-ring ideology of the Superfly/pimp cult that grabbed American blacks so solidly.

They also seem to be able to hold off the corporation structure. The world of reggae is one of small studios, technical improvisations and for the most part, small struggling labels.

According to the corporation philosophy, this should create frustration and inferior product. In fact, it turns out far more energetic music than anything that comes gift-wrapped out of the high-rise entertainment complexes.

If we take the whole thing a stage further, even the most cursory examination of rock history proves beyond doubt that the most inventive and rigorous periods are those when musicians and producers worked in very similar circumstances as are now prevalent in Jamaica.

The Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howling Wolf classics that came out of Chess Records; the early Stones' material; Specter's first masterpieces and, to a certain extent, even Blonde on Blonde were produced in unsophisticated studios and on comparatively small budgets.

In this context, a considerable emphasis had to be placed on the musicians becoming absolutely proficient on a live stage before they could be trusted in a studio.

This kind of recording environment makes impossible both manufactured groups of good-looking incompetents and the marathon fifty-eight hour "if-we-go-on-long-enough-we-might-come-up-with-something" philosophy of album-making.

The question that we face at the moment is whether rock and roll can move back to this simpler, more dynamic method of working and hold back from becoming simply an extravagant show-biz spectacle.

A few isolated purists like Dr. Feelgood have consciously made this move, but they are, unfortunately, very much alone in their dedication. While bands like Queen go on spending the equivalent of the annual wages of a whole factory-lull of workers on making an album, far too many musicians are going to be tempted to follow the same course.

There is a slight possibility that the success of Bob Marley may encourage other creative musicians to re-evaluate their situations.

This could be the salvation of rock and roll. It really depends on whether the white boys in rock and roll can once again stop and learn from their black counterparts.

We shouldn't forget that in these terms, Bob Dylan is a lot blacker than Isaac Hayes.

[going good until that last line - ouch!]

Monday, November 27, 2023

Titanic #2 (Ray Lowry versus Ian Penman) (1981)


Ray Lowry

Titanic Refloated

New Musical Express, June 20 1981

Ian Penman

Titanic Resunk 

a.k.a. Political Conscience Every Now and Then. Pub Every Night. NME Every Week.

New Musical Express, June 17 1981

Unusually clearcut for the Punman then -  and a piece that did some rewiring of my ideas in those formative days, so deftly did it demolish the quaint 'n' clunky idea of  politics + pop that the Lowry tirade wished to restore, with such clumsy yearning (stick to the cartooning, boy, you're ruff at that).

I believe this is the last of the Titanic-themed pieces that NME did. 

Missing from the sequence: the proto-Titanic piece that Mick Farren wrote at the very start of 1976, a sort of warming up to the theme of "things have gone adrift". I feel that I have at some point read that proto-piece, but where it would be and how to get my hands on it, I'm not sure....  

Unabashed by being thrashed, in October 1981 Lowry continues to demand generational voices of angry sanity from within the ranks of rock. 

"I promise I'll be funny again soon - when the economy looks up"

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Titanic #1 (Mick Farren versus Max Bell) (1976)

Mick Farren

The Titanic Sails at Dawn

New Musical Express, June 19 1976

As you can all quite well-imagine, the letters that get themselves printed in Gasbag (or Dogbag or Ratbag or Scumbag or whatever jiveass name we've dredged out of our collective misery that particular week) 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 show business.

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 metalflake 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 and 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.


I guess it's the absorption of rock and roll into the turgid masterstream 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.


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 Richard.

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 seventies-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 cafés 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 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 and roll become another mindless consumer product that plays footsie with jet set and royalty and while the kids who make up its roots and energy queue up in the rain to watch it from two hundred 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 sixties.


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 and 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 okay if some stars want to make the switch from punk to Liberace so long as they don't take rock and 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 and 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.


"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 sixties 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 sixties 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 ten 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 and roll than just changing the music.

We're six years into the nineteen seventies, and already the sixties are beginning to sound like some golden age.


Of course they weren't. If we could be miraculously transported back there, we'd probably be appalled at some of the dumbness and naivete 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 multi media 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 fifties 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.


No such thing. Even if I wanted to, that simply wouldn't be possible. The whole of the sixties 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 seventies 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 sixties, however, and that is that the best, most healthy kind of rock and 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 seventies generation to start producing their own ideas, and ease out the old farts who are still pushing tired ideas left over from the sixties.

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 and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might.

And that, gentle reader, is where you come in.



Max Bell

America: The Titanic Might Be Sinking, But There Are Plenty Of Lifeboats Left

New Musical Express, July 3 1976

Back in this very spot, Mick Farren pulled out his critical cudgels and delivered a sorely needed attack on the current state of rock'n'roll.

With his critical scalpel sharpened and levelled like a cut throat, he gave us a grisly reminder of the appallingly mundane levels the whole sick joke has reached.

His principal analogy, the sinking ship, was to the point – everyone is too busy drinking in the luxury bar or snarfing up large volumes of exotic white powders to notice the omens of death on the horizon.

In no way is this article intended to be an answer to, an affirmation or rebuttal of the matters raised therein. Nor can I suggest a way out of the whirlpool, or offer watertight reasons for the demise of rock, it's just that for some time this year I've felt much the same way as Farren on certain issues and disagree violently with him on others.

Judging by the response to the article, most of you were in agreement with the aforementioned paragraphs. I was myself, but stop a second and recall the facts.

For starters all the guilty names Mick brought up were British; The Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart – I could add a few names myself. Most of the really big names in 'The Biz', the bona fide superstars and debased rich kids crying all the way into the tax exile, are British. These people are so complacent and self-satisfied that they can afford to patronise the mugs who made them the over-fed, sleek, fauned and flattered cybernetics they invariably turn out to be.

Hard workers they ain't. Instead we're all supposed to feel grateful when Rod, Mick, Roger or Percy, wheel out the inflatable dildoes, Star Trek lasers, rocket propelled toy missiles, Spitfires etc. and lay on a 'show' for the punters. The encroachment of cheap theatre into rock music is one sure fire way of stifling its initial purpose.

Another is that the result is wasteful and counter productive. Groups take months producing grossly substandard records, lapping up hour on hour of expensive studio time – and then you wonder why your concerts are so expensive, why your albums so long in preparation. When they do play live it's merely a condescension.

"There's no money playing in England man, everyone knows that, we only do it as a concession for the fans so they can watch us getting staid and fat."

Well personally I don't give a damn about Black and Blue or Presence or The Who By Numbers or Earls Court, Wembley and Charlton. Y'see it's quite possible to ignore all the ghastly charades being played out over here at present and still listen to the largest number of superb albums ever available to general Joe Public, still see most of the best bands in the world, and still feel part of the "core of rebellion, sexuality, assertion and even violence" that Mick so eloquently cited as prime data for maintaining an interest in the trip.

Only you won't find it by pinning your life savings on British rock.


Face it and square up; in the States the situation is altogether different, far more healthy. You don't find American bands playing once every twenty four months in selected cities, they'd be out of a job if they dared to pull the standard English number of "no bread and unsuitable venues," on their audiences. Everyone is on the road. The Americans are phenominally well off for new releases too; as usual the majority of great albums this year will emanate from the USA.

I can find no justification for continually sticking one's head in the sand and refusing to recognise that, on both the East and West Coasts, bands of a calibre to surpass those heady days of the sixties do abound.

Moreover I refuse to accept that the originators of the psychedelic underground, accidental or not, are necessarily clapped-out old farts, just because it's ten years or more since their first flash on infinity. For Chrissakes, in no other cultural or artistic form (Mick was right, the language of idealism has been cold-bloodedly destroyed, reducto ad absurdum), would you meet with the kind of pigheaded attitude that dictates because 'A' was OK in '67, he must by definition be close to the knacker's yard a decade later. If an artist (and the most intelligent rockers are artists) had something to say way back when, the chances are – unless his brain is permanently damaged by the wrecking processes of countless hard drug cocktails and acid jock work-outs – that he'll have something equally valid to contribute a few years on.

The West Coast, and here I'm getting to the meat of my own viewpoint, has long been considered a haven for faded, washed-up old hippies who made a couple of good albums under the influence when Owsley, Casady, the Blue Bus Company and Haight Ashbury community relations officers were dishing out funny little pills like Saturday morning sweeties. Bullshit.

I couldn't care less whether it's infra dig to admire the supposedly past-it ancients and their recent work, but most second generation American name acts are producing artefacts which easily out-strip the initial, enthusiastic meanderings of their youth. You can mature and retain your ideals too. You can also betray your erstwhile champions for no other reasons than their stubborn myopia.

If we persist in bewailing the lack of youth culture in which to channel the life force of rock'n'roll, we stand perilously close to missing out on the fact that it is still there – we're too damn busy moaning to get it on in '76.

And what have we got instead? We've ended up in Britain with the future of rock manifested in one, or two, exciting new bands. What little rush of adrenalin there is left repines in bands utilising every degree of unpleasant, fascist, violent, artificial pseudo punk image imaginable. The best we can produce is bands intent on revibing the mid-sixties R&B, as we stick our collective noses in the mud to watch the after effects.

On the other hand, what does America have to offer? Well put your money where your mouth is Bell – and I'll tell you. They got the Little Feat's, the Todd Rundgren's, the Lofgren's, the Smith's, the Walsh's, the Kingfish's, Steely Dan's, Cult's, J. Geils'. J. J. Cale's...the list is endless and at the risk of being boring these are all bands who've surfaced entirely in the seventies. Got that? The seventies. NOW.

I could even stick in a few of my personal faves but without getting down to the Big Star's, Pavlov's Dog's, Elvin Bishop's, Berserkely or Sons Of Champlin, let's keep this as unesoteric as possible; those other names are generally reckoned to be exceptional, even by the people who will religiously tell you things aren't what they used to be.


What happened to enthusiasm anyway? Maybe it was replaced by critical apathy, and we've been duped into thinking the entire operation is extinct. If I genuinely felt there was nothing going down at all I couldn't bring myself to write about rock anymore.

But when it comes to uncovering the root reasons for the debacle, maybe we're all guilty. Experience proves that record reviewers are having their work cut out to provide informed synopsis of what is currently worthwhile. Not enough time is spent actually finding new material; instead we're trapped in the cul-de-sac of establishment top brass, whose work must be reviewed regardless of merit. So, far superior groups fall by the wayside, or are often not covered at all.

The saddest symptom, cynicism, becomes more understandable when the critic – after all only a fan in the position of considerable privilege and responsibility – is faced with the prospect of reviewing the same formulae over and over again. There is also supposedly a duty to cover what is popular, a practice which ought to be squashed pretty fast.

The charts reflect an appalling lack of new talent in circulation. Someone with the I.Q. of a retarded baboon could see that the charts are an absolute farce. At least eighty per cent of them (take a look) are comprised of strictly MOR lightweights or re-cycled greatest hits – an optimistic euphemism for old singles that sold more than five copies first time round. The American charts, though occasionally bland, have far greater class quotient. It's hardly feasible that Stateside record buyers would fall for so many utterly despicable records, so obviously lacking in both taste and style, as their English counterparts.

Without attempting to carry down the tablets, let's be a bit more objective and look at the role of the record company in one specific instance. Two of the finest albums of the past ten months. Spirit Of '76 and Son Of Spirit, have been completely snubbed by our moguls, although Randy California's immense talents patently deserve far greater exposure.

Spirit Of '76, a double album released last year, was a classic to compare with anything ever produced on the West Coast. It received grade 'A' reviews all over, including one from myself that on reflection wasn't as sympathetic or perceptive as it should have been. Whatever, the follow-up album, incredibly, is unavailable over here, unless you can afford to dish out the exhorbitant sum for an import copy. Why so? A call to the company a few weeks back elicited the response "Because someone (Christ knows who) didn't think if was good enough to release." Mmm...

In fact California is patently one of those heroes we've been pretending don't exist anymore – an expert guitarist with the originality, beauty and power of Hendrix, plus a sense of melodic invention that is frequently astonishing. Aside from his own startlingly unusual compositions his versions of 'Yesterday', 'Like A Rolling Stone' or even, at the risk of divine thunderbolts, 'Hey Joe' are better than the sacred originals.

One of the biggest mistakes made by the 'sixties was best' movement (I used to be a fully paid up member myself) is that Dylan, Hendrix. The Beatles, Stones etc, etc. are irreplaceable. Not so, there have been probably thirty albums released so far this year that bear very favourable comparison with any psychedelic blue print you care to mention. Many of them, Seastones (Phil Lesh's experimental disc of classic heavy proportions). Keith and Donna Godchuax, Tower of Power's Live And In Living Color, The Crusaders' Chain Reaction, Lydia Pense and Cold Blood and of course Kingfish have either never been released here or gone unnoticed except by the hard core of devotees who buy such records.

How many top British acts have a track record to compare with the West Coast greats? More to the point, how many British acts are likely to play benifits or free gigs as Grace Slick, Bonnie Raitt, Merl Saunders, Jackson Browne and the Jefferson Starship regularly do at Winterland and less prestigious halls in California and the mid west?


Although rock music is obviously the most ardently supported popular cultural activity in the world, we can count the number of purpose-built venues on the fingers of an amputated hand.

The sundry Odeons, aircraft hangars, football stadiums, roller skating rinks and exhibition halls which house our large concerts weren't designed with musical acoustics in mind. What possible enjoyment can be obtained in paying over three quid to sit behind a granite pillar, or two hundred yards from the stage or even behind it, unable either to see or hear? Some band's idea of putting on a 'show' is my idea of contempt for the paying public. And once you've got that far, try to show the natural exuberance that rock'n'roll is bound to promote – i.e. standing up, dancing around, generally having fun – and see what happens; a squadron of security men descend on the victims and forcibly pinion them to their seats.

The customer at a rock concert is invariably wrong and treated like dirt as a result.

Contrasting with the distinctly unpleasant vibe at most concerts now is the polar opposite, British apathy and selfish corollary of a favoured coterie indulging in an orgy of consumption and tedious social whirling. Viz. the on-off Rod and Britt saga (yawn) gets almost daily coverage in the press, the 'marriage' or the 'engagement' are as much a fixture now as the weather report, perhaps, more boring.

The music press, NME included, is partially responsible for propagating the whole dismal tomfoolery, and the results are far reaching. For every column of verbiage on society rock news, the low down scam on genuinely interesting artists is sacrificed. If the public is unaware of what is going down now in the States, they remain oblivious of what new albums they might listen to.

It's the role of the music press, as I see it, not to keep you informed on the spending sprees and evening hang-outs of our degenerate superstars, but to suggest how your listening hours can be more profitably spent. Steely Dan's Becker and Fagen summate the entire seventies, white elephant syndrome, in one crushing couplet. Got it show-biz kids?

"While the poor people sleeping with shade on the light, while the poor people sleeping all the stars come out at night."

There are still plenty of characters, spokesmen and heroes around. It's not difficult to identify with Rundgren, Gene Clark, Alex Chilton, Lofgren, Buck Dharma, Randy California or Bob Weir. There's music to satisfy any taste from Joe Zawinul to Curtis Mayfield, East meets West now. Oakland fuses into Philadelphia, San Francisco, L.A. and New York. In America people like Felix Cavaliere, The Crusaders (they've been going for twenty years and they continue to be exciting), and Little Feat are logically building on foundations laid down ten years ago. They don't look back and neither should we.

If artists in '66 could overreach the '50s why can't we acknowledge the past and look towards the future? To hell with pessimism, if we can't see what's in front of us today we might as well knock rock on the head once and for all and take up knitting.


The truth is that there won't be any saviours, there is no ten year plan being cycled to save the world from hollow men. Springsteen, Bowie and Patti Smith aren't the sole answer. They're ingredients in the evolution. There is so much to appreciate apart from the bright hopes of the business doyens – almost too many brilliant albums to choose from. When more people realise this fundamental the greater the likelihood of rock's unspoken ideals reaching fruition.

Right I'll get off the ledge and make my point, loud and clear. Rock music she lives, alive and well and residing in the U.S. of A. in plentiful abundance. Not that everything over there is perfect, but it doesn't take much effort to locate the fertile patches. There's no need to map out the unseen future waiting for a nouveau youth culture to spring miraculously and lustily out of a million rat-infested cellars. Opening up the garage doors again might be one way of revealing the odd new find but there's a far more relevant continuation of the dream already staring you in the face.

Comes a time to loosen up naturally – this summer has practically been laid on for the maximum enjoyment like an act of God. As the man said, 'It's Too Late To Stop Now' – if you can't realise that then you're culpably and wilfully wrong. Sorry.


A kind of rockist poptimism, the Bell angle here - the supply is good and plentiful, "there's always good music if you are prepared to look for it". Be reasonable, satiate with the available...  

Mick Farren                                                                                    Max Bell