Obits

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This obituary, written by Martin Wroe, appeared in The Independent, dated 10 March 1993.

“Steve Fairnie’s life was characterised by a mischievous interest in pushing back barriers in whatever artistic medium he happened to be pursuing at the time. What made him particularly unusual was that, whether touring in a rock band, modelling clothes or hypnotising chickens in a stage show, he never let go of the orthodox Christian faith of his upbringing in a Scottish manse.

He studied sculpture for seven years, completing a Masters Degree at the Royal College of Art, but Fairnie could never confine himself to pursuing adventure in any one aesthetic field. Art for him was a fairground and he wanted to try all the rides.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties he achieved some success as frontman and creative force in a string of post-punk rock bands, recording four albums with Fish Co, Writz, Famous Names, and the Technos. His creative thirst could not be quenched in just rock music. He was a regular compere at arts festivals, took bookings as a Charlie Chaplin lookalike for the Ugly Agency and worked as a fashion model. He conceived, wrote and performed the lead role in The Kid, a 13-part BBC silent comedy for children, and won commissions to devise several television game-shows.

He also directed a clutch of pop-videos and, with the lighting-designer Peter Williams, created Hype, a rock-and-roll board game for Virgin Games which spawned a host of imitators. Later he was involved in creating the first holographic board game. Canvas Chair, the company he formed with his wife Bev Sage – invariably his collaborator on projects, notably their two children Famie and Jake – specialised in design and photography. Recently he had been concentrating more on painting and his work as a lecturer in graphics and design at Weston-super-Mare College.

Despite the colouful blur of projects Fairnie instigated, he never achieved fame or fortune. His legacy is in the scores of people, particularly from conservative church settings, who were inspired by his maverick example to cut loose in the arts regardless of theological upbringings demanding they “shun the world”. He had a healthy disregard for fundamentalism – if he thought you were at risk he might lay hands on your head to “deliver” you.

His quiet Christian faith, his conviction that this life was just one of the acts, not the whole play, afforded him a neat line in self-deprecation. He called one of his bands Famous Names, even though they weren’t. He confided to a friend: “The thing I hate most about myself is my complete inability to make money.” But he was a millionaire in the currency of friendship. Nine hundred people came to his funeral in Bristol.

Steve Fairnie was something for everyone and someone for everything. He had recently prepared a PhD proposal to study left-brain / right-brain functions in creative people. He joked that he would end up as a Doctor of Creativity. In fact he was already fully qualified.”

Martin Wroe

Stephen Angus Fairnie, singer, performer, artist, lecturer, born Fraserburgh 21 February 1951, married 1977 Bev Sage (one son, one daughter), died Brixham 22 February 1993.

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The following article, written by Rupert Loydell, appeared in slightly edited form in Cross Rhythm magazine:

“On the Sunday before he died, ‘Fairnie’ – resplendent in ‘Happy Days’ style slicked hair and Fonz leather – celebrated his 42nd birthday in an American-style diner in Bristol. The next day he left with a group of art students for a week in Brixham, Devon. He died later that night – on Monday 22nd February 1993 – of an asthma attack.

Fairnie trained in the visual arts, studying both painting and sculpture at the presitigious Royal College of Art in London. Soon after, tired of the po-faced art world, he moved into the world of entertainment, initially playing the christian rock-circuit as folk-duo Fish Co. Mixing astute lyrics with live jokes and audience interaction, Fish Co. recorded two records (both now highly collectable) – the first Can’t Be Bad as a duo with friends, acquaintances and session musicians, the second Beneath the Laughter as a band, a band who had abandoned church halls for pubs and clubs, and included Bev Sage, otherwise known as Mrs Fairnie. By the time the second lp arrived, Fish Co. had become Writz, a high-energy new-wave art-band, who achieved critical acclaim, sold out venues like Camden’s Music Machine with ease, recorded one classic lp, appeared in a Dennis Potter play, and were a positive, and amazing visual counter to the dull three-chord punk of the day.

But Writz became Famous Names, a band who never quite got on top of manager’s and record company demise. A whole record of classic pop, produced by the then hip Godley & Creme, disappeared as Electric Records folded. And suddenly there was The Technos – Bev and Steve playing glam electro-rock, predating so much of today’s dance music. As a band, and as a duo, they recorded many lps and singles, achieving chart success with their cover of ‘Falling in Love Again’. But they were also drawn to the avant garde, and an occasional tangential band, Casualtease, surfaced at venues around the country – including one Greenbelt Festival – to astound and shock people with mummified figures, gauze-bedecked beds, loop tapes, and synthesizer wizardry… In between musical projects Fairnie learnt to hypnotize chickens, and created Hype, the first board game for Virgin Games.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The Technos’ last lp for a small christian label was the only one Fairnie disowned, and after a period of unease and self-searching, the eighties Fairnie emerged: still stylish, still a performer, but now a father of two, a college lecturer of art, and a painter and designer of rare talent. In 1992 Fairnie accompanied me to America to exhibit art and lecture on his, and others’ work, and at the time of his death was working on a portfolio of work for the Cologne Art Fair later this year.

Fairnie was a catalyst, a streak of nervous energy – in fact, if you looked hard, much of it covering a shyness, a foil to all that is stuffy, dull and tight-arsed in the world of christian arts. He was no muso, but he was the perfect frontman for his bands, a ball of energy that could whip a crowd into excitement at some improbable event about to occur, or make even an audience of punks sing along to a revamped Thirties’ song! Fairnie loved the spotlight as much as a pint of Guinness, and would make the most of any situation. At the Greenbelt, Cornerstone and Harry festivals he would compere, exhibit, give guided tours, perform impromptu magic tricks (an old hobby from his childhood), and mingle with his friends and colleagues. He could teach and inform without the listener knowing how much he had learnt, they were so busy laughing and trying to follow the dada stream of language issuing forth. He was a natural star, with a charisma that drew people to him. He was impatient with etiquette and committees (I have seen him sweep past a New York nightclub queue, bouncers and all, and simply go in to where he wanted to be, without anyone even trying to stop him), always full of plans for the future, and always generous in praise, encouragement and ideas for others: he would recommend people to others, furnish addresses, names, telephone numbers, artists and musicians to contact or see… which is why, over the years, Fairnie has been an important part of Greenbelt, Harry and the Arts Centre Group, as well as his local church in Bristol. He had certainly mellowed, partly due to “learning” (his word) to be a father to Jake and Famie, and was content to teach and to paint in his newly converted cellar. He was also a firm friend of hundreds of people, many throughout the art and music business. He, and his music, his painting, his laughter, simply his presence, will be sorely missed.”

Rupert Loydell

**

Another Rupert Loydell offering, this one appeared in a slightly edited form in the April 1993 issue of Third Way:

“The Christian arts community were bewildered and distraught to learn of the death of Steve Fairnie on February 22nd 1993. He had died, due to an asthma attack; in Brixham, Devon, leading an art college trip.

Most people know, or knew of, ‘Fairnie’ as the front man for the rock bands Writz, Famous Names, and The Technos in the late seventies and early eighties, but there was far more to this man than rock-stardom!

I first saw Fairnie perform in a pub in Hammersmith with Fish Co., a band that had grown out of a folk duo that had played the christian circuit of the day. Now a fully-fledged rock extravaganza, the band managed, on a tiny stage, and with a tiny PA, to enthrall the audience. Fairnie was one of three singers, but it was he we watched, as he tore through a number of frantic characterizations, improvised sketches with props, and joked and clowned between numbers. He was mesmerizing. By the next time we met, in a Bristol nighclub, following another band’s gig, Fish Co. had become Writz and had moved well beyond the christian rock that their second lp featured.

As I got to know Steve I found out that he had trained as an artist at London’s Royal College of Art, only abandoning fine art for music when it became too limited and elitist for his populist aspirations. But he continued to design record covers and follow fashion even at the height of success. Writz did well, with critical acclaim, a hit in France (a cover of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’), and a television appearance in a Dennis Potter play – as a band called Famous Names, a moniker they adopted as a band called Ritz traded on their reputation. Famous Names were serious stuff, and signed to Electric Records, who assigned the then mega-hip ex-10cc Godley & Creme to produce their lp. Later released on a compilation lp by a small christian record company, the songs were clearly well-ahead of their time, chirpy pop melodies that never strayed into slightness… But Famous Names had a disastrous time, with their manager dying, and Electric folding before releasing the lp.

Fairnie, and his wife Bev Sage, became The Technos – who achieved chart success with their ‘Falling in Love Again’ single, and released a number of excellent lps and singles. Alongside this pop activity, the couple did advertising and media work, and created Casualtease – an art-band for the eighties, who drew on performance art, sculptural installation, ambient and European synthesizer music, as well as pop and rock. They astounded a number of audiences with mummified appearances, loops and noise, and acres of gauze and muslin on stages around the country, including a memorable field-clearing event at Greenbelt. Fairnie also found time to design and create the innovative board game Hype for Richard Branson’s Virgin Games.

But all good things come to an end. Despite recent acclaim by the underground ‘rave’ movement (who claim The Technos’ dance music was a precursor to, and instigator of, their music), The Technos’ music ended with a lowkey release on an American christian record label. It was time for a rethink, time for a family.

Based in Bristol, Fairnie and Bev founded Canvas Chair, a design company, and took on video and advertising work for a number of bands and firms. Bev presented an arts programme for HTV, and Steve took on the challenge of teaching art at Weston-super-Mare college – he needn’t have worried, he was a natural, who simply shared his enthusiasms and delight at the visual world around him. He also took on the challenge of “learning” (his term) to be a father to Jake and Famie, something he claimed didn’t come naturally to someone like himself, used to late nights, and impromptu music and art sessions! He met both challenges head on – something that was clear on the Sunday before he died, when a large crowd of friends and family met in Bristol to celebrate his 42nd birthday. Children ran through bunches of musicians and artists, the fashion-conscious, and the scruffy dressers. Ex-students clustered around Fairnie to share what they’d been doing, his son Jake – dressed identically in 50s rocker gear for the fancy dress event in an American diner – sat on his knee (his daughter, Famie – following the family’s creative bent was elsewhere, rehearsing for a pantomime role!), his wife and a guitarist sang pastiche versions of 50s songs to him… he was the centre of attention, the charismatic focus.

Fairnie thrived on being in the spotlight – but only on his own terms. He would gladly instigate wild rumours about himself (and frequently did when he talked to the music press!), but hated people talking about him. He loved compering and being on the stage, but not if he couldn’t be himself. He contributed in many ways to the Arts Centre Group, Greenbelt, and recently the Harry festival – but he had little time for committees, timetables and organisational niceties. He wanted to do, do, do – and he did. Recently he’d started painting seriously again, and shyly showed his (superb) new work at Cornerstone Festival, in America, last summer. He lectured, in his own inimitable style to astounded Americans – on his own work, and on theories of creativity; all, off the cuff, with jokes, visual aids, and libellous asides. People learnt without realising!

I don’t think he realised what a catalyst, and pick-me-up he was to us all. To spend two weeks in the States with him was an amazing experience… Fairnie was in his element in New York, and we whirled through galleries, concerts, events and places. He was endlessly delighted with colour, form, shape, sound. Buy him a Guinness and he’d endlessly discuss anything to do with the arts with you. He’d criticize, instruct, joke, lecture, share; then provide you with a hundred new contacts – people to see, art to look at, music to hear. Fairnie lived life to the full: as a musician, artist, fashion victim, magician (a hobby since childhood), chicken-hypnotizer, entrepreneur, father and husband. He believed the arts were totally God-given, totally self-fulfilling and justified, in all shapes and forms. He believed in entertainment, laughter and showmanship, and also in the avant-garde. He spoke his mind, and was true to both God and himself. I for one will miss his voice on the phone (he greatly believed in the idea of ‘the telephone church’ for christians today) – but I am only one of many.”

Rupert Loydell