Remembering Brian Pern (1951 – 2017)

We asked rock journalist Hermione Moonraker to write a few words about her love for Brian Pern (1951-2017).

A storm was blowing in Hemel Hempstead. I awoke, shocked, from a fevered dream. Ironically, I had enjoyed a succulent Chinese meal the previous night, but it hadn’t sat well. Swallowing hard, I grabbed my smartphone and, shaking, scrolled through my BBC News app notifications until I found it. Pern is dead. “STOP ALL THE CLOCKS!” I yelled in despair. My dogs howled in sympathy.

Those of us who grew up in quiet middle-class families after WW2 did so without a musical hero. Lennon and Bowie had the raw talent, but until Pern, talent hadn’t met an unassuming, yet precocious, frame of reference. Thotch’s public school background was the source of scorn for many ignorant rock critics, but true Thotch fans realised that the band’s isolation from the common man was what gave their music the other-worldly quality that we all needed in those turbulent counter-culture times.

Of course, although Thotch was a perfect cocoon for the younger Pern, it was inevitable that such a musical butterfly would need the wider stage of a solo career to spread his wings. Pern’s lack of cultural baggage would lead him to seek out alternative ways of expressing himself through music, the most prominent success being ‘Spirit Level’ with the pioneering Plasticine. The band name, of course, referring to Pern being the first musician to use plasticine in music, with an unforgettable music video. Only Brian could think of using Thotch’s success to finance him bringing artists together from the troubled streets of Soweto to the Peruvian foothills and causing him to invent World Music with the sublime ‘Shelf Life’ album. This album was ground-breaking in so many ways, including being the first to be issued on CD with a computer game included, which led to Pern demonstrating said game on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World.

Pern was always an artist of contradictions. Although his musical drive led him to EPs such as ‘Worm Exquinox’, he also wasn’t afraid to dip his toe in more commercial fare such as ‘Winter in Winnipeg’, and his solo Christmas hit ‘I Wish I Was With My Missus’, which really conveyed the tragic and touching aspects of Christmas in the trenches of WW1. Pern had many successful collaborations with female artists, such as Alison Swan with ‘Keep Trying’, a tribute to the struggles of Clive Sinclair, and Maria Domingos with the Winter Olympics theme ‘Winter in Winnipeg’. A brief appearance in Doctor Who confirmed that his talents covered an awful lot of creative bases. His fearlessness led to him embracing the Madchester craze with his band Stoned The Crows and their Get Real Quick album, with ‘Maraca Man’ introducing Brian to a whole new generation.

Pern’s openness to foreign cultures, did, sadly, lead him to be misunderstood. Pepita Sanchez has been Brian’s muse and inspiration, but the age difference between them did cause a lot of nasty gossip. I guess pioneers have always been vulnerable to small-minded criticism. I’m pleased to see that the partnership with Pepita has been long-lasting and fruitful, even surviving his second marriage, as I’ve always felt the side-effect of Pern’s genius is a loneliness, palpable in his music and in his touching stare into the middle-distance.

Perhaps the best gig of my life was seeing the great, long-awaited rock opera Day of the Triffids at Wembley. I feel this was the most successful expression of Pern’s environmentalism, with Pepita making love to a Triffid signifying the ironic rape of humans by plant life. Brian also demonstrated his generosity, giving up some of the opera to Paul Young and Mark King. His generosity even extended to him letting Sting and Mike Batt lead the opera on Mount Kilimanjaro, as his relentless hard work was taking such a great toll on his health. Whilst recording a charity single for depressed polar bears, Brian suffered a major heart attack due to his lust for perfection and made the sad decision to resign from the music industry; ironically heartbreaking for his fans, who helped Brian deal with the financial difficulties arising from a career in search of the sublime.

However, this wasn’t yet Brian’s time. After a brief parting of ways with his iconic agent John Farrow, they reunited for the 30th anniversary of ‘Shelf Life’ and the induction of Pern into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which prompted another reunion; that of Thotch. The public’s appetite was whetted by the musical Stowe Boys, with more joy for the fans due to the rash of Thotch autobiographies that accompanied the reunion. I am unable to express how grateful I was to see Brian in his last concert, especially as he was celebrating the joy of being a father again.

Stumbling downstairs in my grief, I flopped down in my living room, wondering how I should get through the day. I was running my fingers around my vinyl of ‘Onion Divorce’ when my cuckoo clock marked the bastard passing of the hour since I’d heard about Brian’s death. I screamed.

  BBC Four is to broadcast a special documentary, dedicated to the musician. ‘Brian Pern: A Tribute’ is produced and directed by Rhys Thomas and written by Rhys Thomas and Simon Day. 

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