Steve Fairnie (see our tribute) was interviewed in the second-ever issue of Ship of Fools magazine in January 1979. The magazine at that time was part of the UK's evangelical Christian culture, which forms the theological background to the interview.
The story so far: Steve Fairnie and his band, Fish Co, had been touring as an overtly Christian rock band for several years, but had recently decided to "go secular" and transform themselves into Writz, a mainstream rock band which caused a great deal of righteous head-shaking among Fish Co's less adventurous followers.
In the words of fairnie.net: "Satirical magazine Ship of Fools wanted to know the whole story about Fairnie straying into the secular marketplace. By this time, Fish Co had become Writz, but this interview provided some insight into why the change occurred, and it makes for a fascinating read! Interviewers Simon Jenkins and Steve Goddard are challenging and provocative, while Fairnie gives as good as he gets."
Pictures: above the opening spread of the interview; below the cover of the January 1979 edition of Ship of Fools.
Name: Steve Fairnie
What general aims do you have as Writz?
Writz, we want to be a very successful unit. We want to produce good music, good commercial music. For instance, I've been involved in sculpture and painting for eight years and it was very selective perhaps a minority of 5 per cent of the public would understand what I was doing. What I enjoy about Writz is that if it can give a bit of enjoyment to a man in a factory and to a university professor, that fulfils our aim. To provide total entertainment in an extremely professional way. That's our aim. In our private lives our aim's very different it's just to share something of what we really are with people. We want to be interesting, we want to be educated, we want to know what's going on, and also our faith comes into this in a very important way. But for me, my job is to be a total entertainer, whereas for the rest of the group, it's to be good musicians.
Do you see any division between the secular realm and the sacred realm?
I'm slightly undecided about this at the moment. I think the sacred should be very sacred. Being brought up in a non-conformist church, what happens is that you tend to say "Praise the Lord" with your bread and butter. I'm wondering at the moment it's a very open-ended comment I'm wondering at the moment whether we've lost the majesty of God. Like in a high church, the majesty of God is highlighted. So there is the majesty there and also the fear of God as an incredible being. Maybe in non-conformism everything's become very flat, very even, so that praising the Lord is the same as buying chewing gum in the local corner shop. Maybe it shouldn't be like that, I don't know at the moment. I'm just wondering if we ought to reclaim the majesty of God, which is sacred, and have a secular area which is covered by the majesty of God, do you see what I mean? So that in your private life your praise and worship is very sacred, but in your public life it's a very secular thing. Because all I want to do is be a performer, and then go to church on Sunday and get real spiritual food. Yet I want the church to be creative in its music, its outlook, its publicity I want that but also I think we should get back to people like John Stott, who can give us real meat. At the moment it's a little bit like junk food, so that we all go into our McDonald's church and have our McDonald's sermon, thick milk shakes and what have you.
So you wouldn't see as valid someone like Graham Kendrick who links up a very strong theological line with his art form and says that he's ministering to Christians in what he's saying? Would you say that that's a fair situation? Or do you have to be a preacher to minister?
I think that's an interesting comment. I think what I like about Graham is that he does say that he's specifically ministering, and his evening is geared towards that, and he is bringing creativity into the church like good worship songs.
But he's a superstar as well.
Umm... that's probably the Christian press that's doing that. Maybe that's an area to be looked at, I don't know. Maybe we should just be like the Quakers, we go to church on Sunday and we talk and we preach, and then what happens on Saturday night is something different. I think we can bring creativity into worship, but we must never lose what the old Welsh preachers had, we must never lose that which is really basic. So for me, I want to define my area and I want to go and hear a man of God preach, with a good bit of creative worship that I can get involved in. And yet I want Christians to sympathise with good pure art forms. It's a slightly muddled conversation, but there's food for thought there somewhere.
How much would you say that your whole message say your total output as a group message-wise, is on the level of 'God has made everything and so we can express it', rather than on that specific area centred on Christ?
Yes, that's a very good comment. I think there's a need for both in that I feel there is a need for us to get back to Christ, that's what the plea for the moment is. When we are really worshipping God, we must realise where we're at, and no personalities must come into that. For instance, I'm not sure that showbiz should be involved in the church anymore. I don't think that superstars arising in the Christian world that are featured in magazines should be men of God. That's the difficult area at the moment. Whereas for our group, I just see it like... we want to produce good art-form like for instance a rabbit-breeder all he's got to do is produce a good rabbit. Or a pigeon-fancier has got to fancy a good pigeon.
So you're likening an artist to a pigeon-fancier or a rabbit-breeder?
Yes. But we're talking in a Christian context in that what he has got to do is breed the best rabbit he can, or like a plumber has got to plumb the best he can. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, but I disagree.
I mean, with a plumber suppose the person whose pipe he's mending should come up to the plumber while he is mending the pipe and say "oh my husband's just divorced me, can you give me some advice?" And he says, "Oh no, I can't 'cause I'm a plumber and I'm only here to fix your pipe, I'm not going to say anything." And to me an artist is in that situation he's speaking.
Okay, so somebody comes up to a rabbit-breeder while the rabbits are breeding, while they're actually functioning, and says "my wife has died." The same way as if we're in the middle of "Super Heroes" and somebody say "my wife has died." Then surely as compassionate people especially that compassion being highlighted by realising what Christ has done for us of course we would answer that question, of course we would said the rabbit-breeder to the pigeon-fancier do you know what I mean, of course we would, but we wouldn't answer it on stage specifically, that's not our job. What we're saying is that as Christians we do have compassion because we realise what's been done for us, but that's a slightly different area to our art form. Compassion does come through the art form in some art forms quite a lot, in others not so much.
So it's more on a personal level than on a professional level.
I heard it said recently that you remarked you weren't going to write any more Christian songs. Taking that to mean songs with specifically Christian lyrics, would you say that remark is fairly accurate?
Yes, that comment would say this we're not writing a song which is a praise song or a worship song, we're writing songs which are all written from a Christian viewpoint. For instance this single which we're hoping to bring out, "Night Nurse" is basically (if you look into it) about higher wages for nurses. So, for me that's a very Christian philosophy so it's a Christian song. She isn't in it for the money, she's a night nurse.
So what would a person come away with at the end of an evening of listening to you? What personal value would he have gained during the evening?
That's a very difficult question. I mean to pinpoint and say he would go away ecstatic and happy would be very difficult... Like I said, I think the area we're at is that we just want to be good entertainers. I think entertainment does provide a release, I think it provides stimulation, I think it's got a heck of a lot going for it. Stimulation, release, enjoyment, it feels good all these areas are very important to the human animal. For instance, I think Christians can sit round and watch a good Kojak film on telly, or Whicker's World or whatever and enjoy it. Christians must learn to enjoy themselves. We had one situation recently when we went on half an hour late. They wanted us on when it was broad daylight and stuff, and we said, look the best thing for the evening would not be to go on now. And the Christians getting together in that situation found it very hard to mix socially. We must learn to have an interest in other things but our faith when we get together. We must learn to talk about Crystal Palace and Bristol City and enjoy it under God's creation. I think beauty can be shown in a tulip or it can be shown in a rhinoceros, which is a very strange, ugly, stomping animal. And probably we're a sort of rhinoceros at the moment we don't quite fit into creation as a lot of people would expect. But that's the beauty of God's creation there's a variety of things that can be glorifying to him, and we must learn as Christians to see this.
So you're quite humble then about your art-form? You don't see it as something earth-shattering or as something that precipitates a crisis?
It could do in the future. But you see writing's a difficult thing I mean you go through specific phases. Like the first album Steve Rowles and I produced ("Can't Be Bad") was writing the gospel message in man-in-the-street terms. So we mentioned things like air disasters, the man in the pub on the corner, television all these words were bandied around the first album. So it was the man-in-the-street approach. Folk songs. The second phase was "Beneath The Laughter" where we were writing specifically to get the music better. There's still the social comment in it like "Seventies Children", "Miss Esther Lauden" with very today lyrics. We're just going through a phase now where we want to write songs which people enjoy singing without having to go home wondering what their life is all about. So we're working through phrases. To say, "you're not making an earth-shattering statement at this point" is a little bit unfair because it's our first venture and we've only been in the commercial world for a few months. So we're just building the house we've just put the cement into the foundations of actually writing a good commercial song.
Do you feel that you're limiting yourself in your expression?
No, I think we've expanded totally.
But if art is self-expression and you are Christians, then surely to say "Well we're not going to be specifically Christian now" is like saying "we're not going to use the letter M in any more of our songs, or mention love"?
No, I'm being totally Christian now. I've just changed my job instead of being an evangelist, I'm a rock'n'roll singer. I've changed jobs I've gone for an interview and got the job, and I'm still a Christian like I was nine months ago.
But are you expressing yourself to your own satisfaction in the songs?
Um, same as a rabbit-breeder. Yes I am, I'm happy with the way the art-form is going at the moment. My specific interest is in the visual aspect of the band I'm not the world's greatest musician. And I'm very excited about the visual side, I think it's very good. So you were talking about satisfaction, I'm very satisfied with the art-form, very. And I'm as strongly a Christian as I was nine months ago, except that I've changed my job. And I'm very happy with both jobs I liked being an evangelist, and I now like being in a rock band.
You've been accused in the Christian press of being a very aggressive band. How do you feel about this?
Aggression is a very interesting thing, and actually I think it's a Christian principle. In the Old Testament for instance, there's a lot written about aggression there. I remember one old preacher talking about the time when Jerusalem was surrounded by ten thousand soldiers and an angel of the Lord came down and slew those ten thousand people. And he said, "praise the Lord that they were conquered." I thought, flippin' heck there were ten thousand dead men lying outside this city ten thousand I mean I've never killed anybody. So in the Bible there is an underlying current of very strong thinking: Christ in the temple, Christ's death, denials, soldiers. I mean we're talking in terms of soldiers with the equivalent of combat jackets and machine guns so there is this underlying militancy. And in terms of what we're doing, we're not aggressive. I've never met anybody who has said that we conjure up violence. In fact, in all the secular situations we play in we're considered a good fun band. But Christians see it as we're not a gentle thing. And I think the time has come anyway for the churches to enter the 1980s with a new aggressive approach. I mean we've all flung our arms around everybody under the banner of "Come Together", so now that we've come together let's go out and tell them about it, do you know what I mean? And anyway, the language of rock'n'roll is youthful energy. It's energy, it's not violence.
What's your immediate aim?
Our immediate aim in concrete terms is to get a hit single. That's what we're steaming for at the moment, so that we'll be given the biggest ear. And things are developing in a very exciting way in that opportunities are being opened to us to specifically write hit singles.
When you talk, as you did in September's Buzz, about "getting hold of the world's ear", what do you actually mean by that? It seems rather ambiguous.
Yes, that's like the comment we had before are we going to have any earth-shaking statements. I think there's a possibility after four hit singles that we might have an earth-shaking statement. At the moment, we don't see that as our role we want to be good Christians at home and get on well in our profession. I don't want to talk about that, because I don't think we'll do it after one hit single.
Do you think that you're heading into a position where you won't be artistically stimulated? Do you really think that you'll be stimulated by success, for example?
Possibly yes. For instance, watching your phone bill. I mean there are people I'd like to talk to on the phone or have round for meals that would stimulate me. You don't get stimulated because you can't meet the right people, you can't go to the right places so a little bit more money I think would do my artistic life a lot of good. You know, we could have sat around roast chicken and had a lot more whisky tonight, but I haven't got the money to do that.
So you don't feel success would spoil you?
It's a very hard thing. I would hope not, and everybody says that, so it probably will.
But you're aiming for it.
No I'm not. I'm aiming to get the largest amount of people to hear what I'm writing and what I'm doing. And I find that a really challenging thing. I'd love people in Japan tonight to be listening to a song I'd written. Just from a mental point of view that's just a lovely thought you know.
Yes, fair enough. I think every artist feels that way.
You just want the largest audience to hear what you're doing, because that then gives you a percentage of people who really enjoy that you're doing.
Which encourages you to go on.
There was a letter in Buzz recently which accused you of performing for reasons of ego and self-glorification. Do you have any comments on this?
I think that if you're involved in the area of theatre of the arts, you've got to learn to entertain people and you have to exaggerate your personality. Now I think that's different from ego. I think that ego is something that actually affects your personal life, whereas in the realms of theatre and music, self-projection is something different it's a craft of the art world. Just because somebody actually projects himself in a very craftsmanlike way on stage doesn't necessarily mean that he's got ego. Some of the best front men I've known are very shy in their private lives. I think Christians are very willing to pass spiritual judgements on people. And for me that is a great sin, to actually pass judgement on people because that's ego that's saying "I can pass judgement." That's very very dangerous ground. It's like that defector getting the umbrella in the leg Christians are very good at spiking people with umbrellas you know, in that you feel a sharp pain and then two weeks later it really takes its toll, when you realise that they have actually done a character assassination on you. Another thing is that John Pac said to me (you know, from Parchment) he said that Christians are the only army that wound their own soldiers. And I think we must watch that you know. I know that we've got to have people who sift through and who write letters and keep the whole theology sound I'm totally dedicated to that but ego can be spiritual pride which I think is probably the greatest sin, as it's assuming the authority of God, and I mean who on earth does that? Why on earth should we assume the authority of God?
Whereas your own role is more artistic, and you don't make any spiritually loaded statements.
Do you feel slightly annoyed then about some other Christian singers who haven't admitted as you have that they love the publicity and the showbiz of it all, but hide it under a spiritual disguise? Basically they're doing exactly what you're doing, but as they won't be honest about it they don't draw the criticism you've drawn.
Yes I think what's happened is that we're come out, we've actually said what we think. Now there's no way we want to do down the Christian minority 'cause we love them, we're going to fight for them and we're all together there's no doubt about that. We're not leaving the Christian music scene because we don't like Christians we're fighting for the Christian minority. I think this again comes back to spiritual pride. For instance, a Christian singer who enjoys the lights the most dangerous thing he could do in the light of eternity is assume the authority of God in what he's doing very very dangerous ground. Can you just picture that, written down in a magazine, somebody who is actually assuming the authority of God and enjoying lights through that I mean that is very dangerous ground. That's more dangerous than going and playing in a pub for me.
What dangers do you think you might be falling into in being misunderstood by the Christian world? Do you think you're explaining your own position enough, or do you feel as an artist that you don't want to explain what you're doing?
There are six individuals in the band who'd answer this question in six individual ways. I would answer it in this way. We've got a heck of a lot owing to the Christian scene they've given us so much training, so much sympathy, and they've been very tolerant of what we've done. However I don't feel the need to specifically explain everything I do. At Greenbelt we spent more time actually explaining what we were than on the art-form we were doing. And that's just got to be resolved, it's so wearing. In Holland recently we spent two hours discussing and having horrible ego-ridden questions thrown at us per one hour of performance that we did.
Is this why you're leaving the Christian world, because you're absolutely tired out of doing that kind of thing?
I'm not leaving the Christian world I've never been involved in it more in my life.
I mean professionally speaking.
I've changed jobs. I've gone for an interview on the 1st of April 1978, and fortunately had the offer of becoming a rock band.
So you've changed jobs from being a creative evangelist to being a rock'n'roll musician, and as such you feel that the Christian world can't cope with you?
I think they could if they knew us. I mean basically on stage we've got a brethren, two Baptists, two Pentecostals and an Anglican, who are all very sussed out, thought out, and who just want to get on with pigeon-fancying. We just want to get on with being good entertainers and it's unfortunate that we've got to justify it. This is probably the last interview for Ship of Fools which I read two years ago and thought that it was an excellent magazine it's probably the last interview that we'll give where we explain our situation, because we can't go on doing it. I mean, how long have I got to go on explaining it? And this is probably the last time it will happen. I mean there's nothing I enjoy more than in explaining it with people who push me in the right direction like you really push me on and that's great. But you imagine sitting with someone really straight, you know, how can you say it again? We've just got to go on and be interviewed for what we are and that's all there is to it. We can't go on explaining our situation. It's very unfair just because we're artists rather than rabbit-breeders. I mean when was the last time you sat down with a Christian rabbit-breeder and spent a lot of time challenging him about the finesse of his buck?
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Thanks to Rupert and fairnie.net for keying in this interview.
© Ship of Fools 2003
© Ship of Fools 2003