Hard as it is to believe now (because you’ll never find this referenced in any official music history), there was a strange, underground psychedelic revival taking place in the first half of the 1980s. Reported on gushingly by Sounds and ignored by the rest of the mainstream music press, it was part of some ultimately short lived but intriguing hippy resurrection that took in everything from The Paisley Underground of bands like Green on Red and The Rain Parade to neo-prog, from garage punk and psychobilly bands like The Cramps and The Fuzztones to novelty acts like Doctor and the Medics. It was a time of obscure record labels issuing compilations, from Pebbles and Nuggets to Garage Punk Unknowns, alongside long lost albums from the weird days of 1960s counter culture.
Amongst those records, eagerly snapped up by your editor when he couldn’t locate the original releases in second hand shops, was The Deviants’ astonishing proto-punk / anarchic / comedic Ptooff!, with its incredible fold old poster sleeve and extraordinary collection of tunes. With no internet to conduct research on, and few people writing about this sort of thing, I wasn’t entirely sure for a while that the album wasn’t another modern day pastiche like Naz Nomad and the Nightmares (in reality The Damned) and The Dukes of Stratosphear (actually XTC). It didn’t sound anything like what I knew to be Sixties psych at the time, being far too anarchic, chaotic and satirical. The closest thing to the album that I’d heard was early Zappa / Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. I soon discovered that yes, this was the real thing and that The Deviants were part of the London Ladbroke Grove British underground that was less peace and love and more politics, anarchy and rebellion – the scene that spawned Hawkwind, The Pink Fairies and others. The band were led by Mick Farren, author, journalist and agent provocateur, and released three LPs at the end of the decade before disintegrating.
Farren would mostly work as a writer in subsequent years, but never left the music behind, recording under his own name and in a variety of collaborations. He never quite let the Deviants name go either – as well as occasional live performances, the name was first dusted off for a 1977 single, when many an old anarchist was being reinvigorated by punk, and in 1984 released a live album. However, it was in the second half of the 1990s when the band issued a handful of albums, mostly taken from demos and live recordings, and three of those have just been reissued.
There’s always a fear when seeing new albums from old bands who had effectively ceased to exist quarter of a century earlier. The most unlikely acts have dusted off the old names in search of a payday to help them through their twilight years, and the results have been mixed. The situation with The Deviants is a little different – not only did Farren never quite let it go as a project, but with one exception, these recordings are not some new studio attempt to recapture whatever it was that made them great. These are, instead, missing pieces from the Deviants story. And this is a band so far removed from any level of what was happening musically at any point in their existence that they can’t sound dated, old or tired. The band was Farren / Farren was the band. So entwined were they that it was somehow appropriate that he would die onstage at a Deviants gig in 2013. What better way to go?
The Deviants – with Farren and guitarist/bassist Andy Colquhoin making up the core of the band – released no less that seven albums between 1996 and 2002, thought that figure does include two compilations and a live album. In fact, there were only two wholly new recordings – 1996’s Eating Jello with a Heated Spoon and 2002’s Dr Crow. The latter album, their final release, is one of the three under discussion here, and just to be awkward, we’ll kick off by looking at this one.
Named after the cover illustrations by underground artist Edward Barker, the album sets out its stall with opening track When Dr Crow Turns On The Radio, which belts out a singalong chorus backed by thundering guitars and pounding drums before giving way to Farren’s cynical spoken word sneer and a discordant sax solo in the middle. In a sense, it’s all over the place, yet it hangs together as a somewhat old-school rocker.
The ensuing album is awash with anti-authority statements, demented guitar solos, sneering vocals and musical anarchy that is no more accessible now than it was in 1967. You’ll either love this or you’ll hate it – there probably isn’t much in between. Tracks like The Murdering Officer sound fresh despite their late Sixties underground style, simply because so few people have ever done this sort of thing, it’s never really had a chance to date. It was weird then and it’s weird now. On tracks like Taste the Blue and You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond, blues music is dismembered and put back together, Eric Morecambe style, with all the right parts but not necessarily in the right order. At other points, the band create their own version of pop music with the almost commercial Bela Lugosi 2002.
The album has a handful of similarly deconstructed cover versions – Strawberry Fields Forever is stripped of its tweeness and dragged out for six and a half minutes of bad trip post-psych insanity, the growled vocals and howling guitar intro suggesting a cynical take on the Beatles’ love ‘n’ peace ideals. It’s certainly the sound of a band that hasn’t compromised in its old age. Similarly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is torn apart and warped so brutally as to barely be a cover at all, with Farren musing on Western movies before shouting “what a bastard” repeatedly over a mad guitar break – none of which was in the original track if memory serves. And the album closes with Adam Faith’s squeaky clean pop song What Do You Want? transformed into a sleazy, slurring assault.
Dr Crow doesn’t sound like the work of tired old men going through the motions – it’s too dynamic and original. And it doesn’t sound like anything commercial either – this is entirely without compromise, and all the better for it.
The other two albums being looked at here were released in 1999. The Deviants Have Left the Planet is a mix of live tracks, demos and outtakes. It opens with a studio cut of the magnificent Aztec Calendar, a brilliantly apocalyptic end of the century / end of civilization track with Farren’s fine writing and sneering delivery backed by a fast paced, rocking tune. It’s the best thing here, but the rest of the album is not exactly a let down.
It’s a more tuneful – though no less experimental – album than Dr Crow, often featuring blues-inspired numbers like God’s Worst Nightmare and the unsettling Yellow Dog, and heavy rockers like People Don’t Like Reality, but none of these tracks slide into regular normality, each having its own little twist. And the album still wears its cynical edge and anarchist leanings on its sleeve – Farren’s 1977 punk number Let’s Loot the Supermarket Again Like We Did Last Summer turns up here and is a welcome dose of fast, satirical pogoing nonsense. And Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma is turned into a riffing, rocking assault, while Twilight of the Gods and Memphis Psychosis allow the album to end in suitably warped and epic style.
Barbarian Princes is a full live album, recorded in Japan in 1999, and is a pretty impressive performance, mostly of tracks from the last two studio albums. Like most live albums, it’s something that will only really interest the Deviants completists, but it features performances that belie the age of the band, who are on top form here and belt out numbers like Aztec Calendar, Dogpoet and Leader Hotel with aplomb. The album sounds like a bootleg, being a far from smooth mix, but is all the better for that.
The real reason you might want to pick this new edition up – especially if you already have the album – is the inclusion of a bonus DVD, featuring a one hour live performance from the same Japanese tour. This features a slightly different track listing and, ironically, a slightly better sound mix even though it’s shot on pretty basic analogue video equipment. There’s not a lot of footage of The Deviants out there, so this is a welcome addition.
The Deviants are not for everyone. But if you are a fan of the more anarchic, underground side of the Sixties counter culture, then they are a band you should be aware of. These later recordings show an act that kept the faith and refused to compromise right up to the end. Vive la Revolution!