The recent rediscovery of Falling Mirror by legions of new media and fans led to a series of incredible sold-out live shows, a film documentary, and the realization by all and sundry of just how important Falling Mirror’s unique music is to South Africa cultural heritage. To celebrate this awakening, and poignantly guitarist Allan Faull’s untimely death during the recording of a new album, the release of “Hystorical” stands as a landmark to one of the most innovative rock bands of all time. It’s the first retrospective to include songs from not only the band’s 4 recognised albums but the first to feature key tracks from the mythical, hereunto commercially unreleased “Hammerhead Hotel” album. Sonically re-mastered by the long-time producer (and erstwhile ‘fourth’ band member) Tully McCully with artwork by drummer Patrick Humphries, “Hystorical” is a welcome addition to Falling Mirror’s remarkable canon of work.
Long hailed as one of the most innovative rock groups of the ’80s, Cape Town’s Falling Mirror released two albums in late 1979/80. Here together for the first time on one album are the debut “Zen Boulders”, including the hits “I am the Actor” and the original version of “Makin’ out with granny” twinned with the follow-up epic “The storming of the Loft” which features “If I was James Dean”, “Neutron Bop” and the chilling “We build a big fire”. If you are a fan of the Mirror then this 2 on 1 release is just up your street!
Cut off from the whole… “Zen Boulders” 1979
I’ve always been fascinated and enthralled by the music of Falling Mirror…ever since producer and fellow Mirror fanatic Tully Mc Cully introduced me to the demos of “I am the actor” and “Making out with Granny” I have always felt that they were a band that was, and in many ways still are, ahead of their time.
Back in 1979, I was into my third year of working at WEA Records, filled with the revolutionary fire of youth and a burning passion for original music I had moved into the A&R department and had started working with Tully on developing Lesley Rae Dowling.
Raised on Hendrix, the Stooges, The Who, Zeppelin, MC5 , Cream etc my colours were firmly nailed to the rock mast and my first signing was the blues and spliff- soaked rockers Baxtop whose Jo Bangles single had topped the charts the previous year but self-immolated by the end of the year.
South African music in general at that time was, like the rest of the world, focused on light pop…bands like Copperfield, Rising Sons, Clout etc dominated the charts and there was very little support at the then Radio 5 for anything remotely harder or different..But there was a dark underbelly developing, in the towns and cities bands were writing and playing a different tune…Punk came and went in a hail of pogo-ing and the obligatory torrent of spit and shit, spawning bands like Wild Youth, Dead Babies and the Safari Suits…the Radio Rats, Rag Dolls ect tore up the rule books with a new message wrapped in razor-wired three-chord guitar revolution.
As a young A&R man looking for a new band that would rock my universe the Mirror came to me like a bolt of lightning, a Paul-on-the-road-to Damascus conversion so to speak. Here was a band that fused the dark energy of Iggy Pop with the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi, Eric, Jeff, and the other Jimmy plus some of the weirdest lyrics I had ever heard!
Hearing the original version of `Granny` for the first time I was instantly struck by Neilen`s voice and phrasing, although delivered in a monotone and in a somewhat sing-song manner there was a sense of underlying menace, something chilling about what appeared to be the innocent comic book tale of Marina and Will… and that guitar! ohmygod… that guitar. From that day on there was never any doubt in my mind that there was something special and against the wishes of the others at the label I signed the band and entered the strange and arcane world of Falling Mirror..for eternity so it seems.
Although some stations sporadically played the first single “I am the actor” and despite rave, press reviews the media at large, and by proxy, the public, ignored “Zen Boulders”..it was just too weird and different for them, they just didn’t get it ! Listening now,23 years later, to Tully`s impeccably remastered version I`m still amazed at the scope and vision of “Zen Boulders…
Time is a thief
Like many early Mirror songs “Time…” has a strong piano base…big fat block chords played by Allan and complimented by his unique picking guitar technique that manages to incorporate elements of both Chet Atkins and Eric Clapton. Neilen`s cracked vocals at his poetic best…” time…the monster that jumps” and who the f**k is Harry Degeldicker?
I am the actor
Inspired by the book ‘The Greening of America’ I think that it’s pretty safe to assume that this song is about how Neilen sees himself. There`s always been a strong theatrical element in both his vocal performances and lyrics and over a constant guitar/piano motif he delivers probably the straightest pop vocal he`s ever done… of course, that’s if you consider lines like I`m part of a show that contributes to violence” as straight pop!
Making out with Granny
Every time I hear this original version I see Neilen`s crazy bug-eyed, bared-chested howling performance on an 8mm film that Tully shot in the studio (now sadly lost)..it was one of the most riveting pieces of celluloid I have ever seen. Almost primal in its simplicity `Granny` is one of the great Mirror songs, all wandering psych-guitar, pounding drumming by Pat and psychotic lyrics “I know your mind is flaming now..your eyes are burning bright”..right Neilen !
Dreamer (we shall be free)
Gentle and melodic..Dreamer could have come from the pen of George Harrison with its flowing acoustic guitars and slide fills. Possibly one of the poppiest tracks that the band wrote for this album …great keyboards lines and vocals from Tully.
When the lights went out in New York City
On the face of it a fairly nonsensical song about the Big Apple save for the somewhat prophetic lyrics ” Again we think of the President in the White House full of fear”…makes you think! Some great oompah brass stabs courtesy of Tully and another fab solo from Allan.
The San Diego Sniping Event
Based on the same incident covered by the Boomtown Rats in “I don’t like Mondays” this track features Allan`s soulful guitar and harmonica plus a `heavenly choir `vocal from Tully and the boys.
Archie and Juggy went down to the store
In keeping with the band`s penchant for including at least one comic book song on each album “Archie…” is rescued from total silliness by Allan`s sterling guitar lines and the hilarious chorus of “Chom-chom-a-rom-a-rom-chom-a-rom-chom” !
What are we here for?
Slightly Oriental in feel with its piano and guitar this song is a good example of Neilen`s obsession with rhyming couplets… I mean “Strap on your mandolin and play your guitar, take all your poems to the Wimpy bar”!
Wish she could leave
For me the tour-de-force of the album and one of the finest examples of just how great a player Allan Faull is…over an insistent strumming acoustic he works magic across the fretboard…all pluck, bends, hammers…sweet as a bell and a lesson in an understatement for all budding players.
Boy and girl…alone on a throne
Echoes of Hotel California (although I doubt whether that was intentional) this is the strangest song on Zen Boulders…in a sing-song manner Neilen intones his almost haiku-like poetry “Machines are killing the trees…”A great multi-tracked guitar solo from Allan underpinned by Tully`s muscular basswork and string arrangements.
Although flawed “Zen Boulders” certainly was very different from anything released that year and with its near virtuoso guitar work and dark lyrics it’s a great debut album and hinted of great things to come…
We build a big fire….The storming of the Loft 1980
Unfazed by the lack of commercial success with Zen Boulders the band were on a huge creative roll and headed back into the studio for the follow-up album Down to a trio of Neilen, Allan, and Tully (Patrick having left the band although he does play on some tracks) Falling Mirror was into overdrive with songs and ideas pouring out.
‘The Storming of the loft” was loosely based on Nielen’s relationship with an artist girlfriend who lived in a loft studio. Nielen described his “conquest” of her through the metaphor of a storming (from the word “stormtrooper”) of both her physical and emotional world.
Why the envy Miss Glitter?
Perhaps the most poignant song ever written about the fashion industry, over a simple piano chord Neilen talk-sings about his love for a model…With a sweet bluesy guitar wailing throughout he ranges from being sad and lonely to absolute rage and derangement by the end.
Within the space of 12 months Falling Mirror had released two great albums, sadly ignored by the majority of the media pundits but they nonetheless both remain classic rock albums. It would be another year before they headed back to the studio with Tully to record “Fantasy Kid” which would be their last record for five years.
Retro Fresh 2002
Never available before on CD “Johnny Calls The Chemist” is perhaps Falling Mirror’s finest work… brooding, dark, and slightly unhinged lyrical imagery fused with some of the most searing rock guitars on this side of the universe. Songs of madness, obsession, and alienation not to be listened to in the dark, alone! Includes the classic title track plus an unreleased track, two in-studio demos, and for Mirror fanatics… the rare “Johnny…” video clip as an enhanced feature.
The Strange Chemistry And Psychotic Pop Of Faull And Marais
Why Johnny Called The Chemist…
By Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman
We all know Falling Mirror’s ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’, a 5FM #1 hit in 1986, still played regularly on radio. Its sound is immediately arresting, like a fantasy of Dylan fronting Dire Straits. This first release of the album on CD is an occasion to rediscover this memorable gem in its proper context; the concept album, described by Andrew Donaldson as “a bent tale about a doomed and twisted suburban love affair”. Both album and title track were inspired by a real-life obsession, a true story of manic fixation, neurotic delusion and unrequited passion.
Above all, it is the product of Falling Mirror’s experiences. Falling Mirror were two first cousins, Allan Faull and Nielen Mirror (born Marais), the band’s name coined by Ian Cowie as a play on their surnames, Faull and Mirror. The two cousins had much in common, both former pupils of the elite private school, Bishops. They were from posh homes yet rebelled against their society’s expectations and chose alternative lifestyles centered on music. As was common in the counter-culture of the time, both also experimented with drugs and non-traditional religions. Independently they were outsiders, but together they created some of the most imaginative and alternative rock music of the day.
Allan Faull was born on January 30 1949. His father was a vet and a serious, disciplined and unapproachable man. His mother developed the Silwood Kitchen, a renowned Cordon Bleu cookery school. At an early age, Allan discovered music as an outlet and a refuge.
Nielen Marais was born on June 11 1951. His father was Louis Marais, a cousin to the author Eugene Nielen Marais (who committed suicide in 1936). Louis’ wartime stories of his three years in a German POW camp created a strange fascination in Nielen towards the Nazis and their warfare techniques. His mother, Meg, encouraged Nielen to be different and to express his ideas and fantasies with full confidence.
While teenagers, the two boys were members of their family’s group, The Runaways, whose only live gig was aborted by a much-feared local ducktail throwing them off the stage at gunpoint. The Runaways became The End and released a single -with Nielen sharing lead vocals.
Around that time Nielen and his cousin Vere Faull, Allan’s younger brother began a round of excess and mis-adventure that resulted in their joint expulsion from Bishops and Vere’s later death from cirrhosis following major alcohol abuse.
After school and National Service, Allan studied at UCT. He had developed into a guitarist of great talent, playing with a series of groups including McCully Workshop, on their first single, ‘Why Can’t It Rain?’, a No 12 hit in 1970. Allan’s double life was stressful and he dropped out of UCT, utterly dismaying his father, who had expected him to graduate as a doctor.
Other pivotal events were unfolding. The day before playing a rock festival at Halfway House, Allan dropped his first full cap of acid. The acid opened up Allan’s repressed memories, and began what was to evolve into a long lasting psychosis. At the festival, he was awed and intimidated by the superb guitar playing of the 17 year-old Trevor Rabin, later of Rabbitt.
Allan struggled with his fractured mental state and became a follower of Guru Maharaji, and his calming satsang groups. Over the next few years he attended Guru Maharaji workshops in Johannesburg, Germany and the USA. After one such excursion, his father entered him in a de-culting program at the Valkenberg Mental Institution. Coincidentally, Nielen at that time was also in Valkenberg in a rehab section due to severe alcohol abuse. Nielen stayed for only four days, but never touched alcohol again.
In the late 1970’s, Patric van Blerk, the successful manager of Margaret Singana and Rabbitt, twice offered Allan the chance to join Rabbitt as Trevor Rabin’s replacement. Allan’s inexplicable rejection of these offers became headline news and led to the announcement of the end of Rabbitt.
However, Allan left to work with Nielen, Allan providing the chords and melodies for Nielen’s eclectic lyrics. The relationship between Allan and Nielen was close and warm and complementary. Allan’s musical expertise fleshed out Nielen’s lyrics. Nielen’s brash confidence gave the introverted Allan the opportunity to go where he could not reach on his own, although Nielen’s intensity tended to scare Allan at times.
Together these two outcasts realised their full talent through the unique chemistry of their combined skills. In 1979 they brought their home-recorded cassette tapes to McCully Workshop’s gig at the Fairmead Hotel to present to Tully McCully. After listening to the demo on his car tape player, Tully described it as “simply brilliant!” and offered to produce an album for them.
In producing their albums, Tully typically first recorded Allan and Nielen performing with acoustic guitar and a guide vocal. Tully would then create an appropriate feel and arrangement, recording the bass, drum and keyboard sections before Allan and Nielen would contribute the full guitar and vocal tracks. Pat Humphries drummed on most of ‘Zen Boulders’, and certain tracks on the second album before leaving the band. Tully’s creative contribution confirmed him as the band’s George Martin and their third permanent member.
Falling Mirror’s debut album, ‘Zen Boulders’ (1979), opened with Nielen’s cracked vocals on the moody ‘Time (Is A Thief)’, followed by ‘I am The Actor’, inspired by the book ‘The Greening of America’. ‘Archie And Juggie Went Down To The Store’ was the first in the Falling Mirror tradition of including one Elvis/rock ‘n roll tribute song on every album.
Mike Berry, of the Cape Argus, trumpeted the genius of ‘Zen Boulders’ with a double-page spread. Benjy Mudie of WEA Records had been tipped about this new band by Tully and had been impressed by the early demos. He signed the band, and ‘Zen Boulders’ was released in 1979.
Allan’s guitar playing reminded Benjy of Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. Nielen’s edge-of-madness lyrics and vocals resembled the fractured genius of Floyd’s Syd Barrett. Benjy described their baroque sound and chord progressions as “from the Middle Ages” and described Nielen as ” a minstrel, a rake …and a mad poet”.
Sales were slow, hampered by the band’s refusal to play live gigs. (Their only gigs were a 1986 series at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay.) While new wave music fans loved the energy and the diversity of ‘Zen Boulders’, the music critics were divided. Patrick Lee, the top SA music journalist, commented that “listening to Falling Mirror is like spending the evening alone in a floodlit stadium”.
Their second album, The Storming of The Loft’ (1980), was a concept album, based on Nielen’s relationship with an artist girlfriend who lived in a loft studio. Nielen described his “conquest” of her through the metaphor of a storming (from the word “stormtrooper”) of both her physical and emotional world.
The album included the Doors-like ‘Highway Blues’, the aggressive title track and the rock ‘n roll ‘Neutron Bop’. The third single, ‘If I Was James Dean’, was also released by WEA Europe. But the key song was the chilling ‘We Build A Big Fire’ in which Nielen hinted at the demonic urges inside his acid-drenched fantasies. That song on headphones, alone in a dark room, is the epitome of what Benjy described as “The strange and arcane world of Falling Mirror”.
Despite radio play for ‘Neutron Bop’ and a good reception from the critics, ‘The Storming Of The Loft’ sold poorly as did their third album, ‘Fantasy Kid (1981), even though it contained some strong cuts such as ‘Revolver Wolf’, ‘The Crippled Messiah’, and ‘We’re All Lost In The Universe’. The disappointing sales saw the band taking a five-year break. Allan laid low for most of that time, mostly staying away from music. He did accept an offer from Kevin Abraham to join his band The Kick, which recorded one album (‘Inside’) and supported David Essex on his SA tour. Nielen drifted around and joined The Emissaries of Divine Light, a religious cult group. In 1986, Benjy Mudie contacted Tully McCully and asked him to facilitate the re-recording of ‘Making Out With Granny’ and ‘Revolver Wolf’ for a 12″ release. At these recordings, Nielen mentioned the songs and ideas he had been working on and Benjy agreed to the production of another Falling Mirror album. Both Tully and Benjy were experimentalists, still keen and willing to re-enter the dark world of Falling Mirror.
A few years earlier, Nielen had abruptly left The Emissaries of Divine Light in a confused mental state and was subsequently prescribed the tranquilizer Lexotan. He collected his pills at a local pharmacy in Wynberg, where he later met “Collette”, a counter assistant. Nielen fantasized about Collette and their imagined “relationship”. After she left for an extended period Nielen had a serious relationship with Norma, another counter assistant at the chemist, writing about her as Collette’s replacement in “Ghost Of Collette”. In 1984, almost a year later, Collette returned, managing a new branch of the pharmacy in a nearby arcade. Nielen took to collecting his pills there instead.
During 1984 and 1985, Nielen frequently visited the pharmacy, sometimes as often as daily. He believed Collette was telepathically controlling him, attracting him so that she could snub and reject him. She felt vulnerable to this stalking of her which only ceased when she threatened threat legal action. The “relationship” inspired reams of poetry and lyrics re-worked by Nielen and Allan into ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’, a disturbing and complex album, which documented Nielen Mirror’s obsession with Collette.
This CD version of ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ contains three tracks, not on the original vinyl album, and the legendary video of the title track. The full tracklisting, with commentaries on all the songs, follows:
1. ‘Automaton Town’ – Written by Nielen, at Tully’s suggestion, as an introduction to the album’s themes. It opens with a lone guitar, and a thudding, tick-tock electronic beat. Johnny begins speaking in an impersonal, secret agent voice, of the “immediate connection” between himself and Collette the pharmacist. The “Automatons” are the traffic lights and dull people that populate the streets. The line “She’s sending her thoughts out” establishes the presence of a telepathic link.
2. ‘Girl At The Till’ – This song was recorded for but excluded from, the original vinyl release. It has a newly added, sweet piano intro, a frantic guitar solo, and a catchy chorus of “Fast thinker, Headshrinker, Cool flower, You’ll know her”. Here Nielen feels sympathy for Collette and her lonely life: “At home in the evening, away from her work. She’s lonely and tired and nothing but hurt”.
3. ‘As Sly As A Fox’ – This song describes how cunning Collette traps Johnny in her head games. “As sly as a fox, that’s caught in box, she hides behind the counter…But let him ignore her and she’ll get him in her lair” Johnny watches Collette from a distance as she busies herself around the chemist. At one point the lyrics vaguely describe a sexual fantasy of Johnny accepting Collette’s invitation to come over to her side of the counter.
4. ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ – The key track on the album and a mini-epic all on its own, written by Nielen and Allan in less than 30 minutes. Tully and Allan worked hard on the song, shifting keys and adding bridges to make it more interesting. Nielen explained that “Johnny calls the chemist, but the chemist doesn’t come” refers to his approaches to Collette and her rejecting of his advances. For these vocals, Nielen deliberately mimicked Bob Dylan, just as John Lennon had done on ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ the Beatles tribute to Dylan. Allan’s lovely guitar sound on this song leaves it sounding as gentle as a Bread song, but the lyrics are something quite removed from “Baby I’m A Want You”, which it slightly echoes.
Nielen described the building tension in this song as “a thundercloud that never breaks”. He also throws another very strange sexual fantasy into the middle of the song: “He shoots a mental arrow, from the bow of his mind, and piercing through her consciousness, he wonders what he’ll find. She’s moving to her lover, as he stretches on the bed, and pulling back the covers, thinks of Johnny boy instead “.
Later he sings about “A lone car on the highway, calls for Johnny in the night. She feels the silent offering, that he’s making to the sky, and wonders if he’ll hear her, ’cause she’s just about to die”. Tie those chilling words in with: “It could be that she loves him, but the love is underground” and you have some of the most deceptively sinister lyrics ever to feature on a Top 20 single.
5. ‘Chemist Girl’ – In this song about Collette and her activities and duties in the shop, observed very carefully by Johnny, Nielen adopts a deep-voiced monotone to suggest a brainwashed prisoner giving away information. It also has that famous “shopping list” of drugs in this song’s chorus, which has since passed into local mythology. “Valium, Mogadon, Lexotan, Phensedyl, Ativan, Vesperax, Obex and Seconal”, followed by that girlie chorus of: “…At the chemist in Automaton Street”.
6. ‘Encounter In A Takeaway Shop’ – This song – the album’s traditional rock ‘n roll piece – was based on an actual incident when Nielen bumped into Collette in a local shop. Nielen said hello and Collette “went all weird and stalked off”. It was the first time they had met without a counter between them, thereby removing her line of defence.
7. ‘Making Out With Granny’ – This is a 12″ remix and a far superior version of the ‘Zen Boulders’ album track. Although this song had no relevance to the rest of the ‘Johnny’ album, Tully and Benjy felt it should be on the album and it is loopy enough to add to the overall feel of the album.
8. ‘For A Woman So Opposed’ – Again a reference to an actual incident. Nielen and a well-primed lady friend entered the chemist with the intention of convincing Collette that they were a couple, and so, hopefully, provoking some kind of reaction from her. It worked, causing a wild and strange reaction from Colette, who stormed up to the lady friend seemingly all freaked out. This convinced Nielen that Colette was playing a cat and mouse game with him and had genuine feelings for him. “For a woman so opposed, she’s been really quite exposed…She jumped when she saw her twin brother with another”. Here Tully uses a lone, pounded piano, a la Elton John, with Johnny poshly speaking the verse before singing the chorus over some haunting guitar.
9. ‘I Fought For My Friend’ – Not originally written for the ‘Johnny’ album, but included at Tully’s suggestion. It is a straightforward, great pop song, which adds a happy ending with Nielen defending his “friend” and checking into a motel with her. “Follow me angel … fight for this friendship in these days”.
10. ‘The Ghost Of Collette’ – This was written for Nielen’s girlfriend Norma, at one stage Collette’s replacement in the chemist. Although Nielen had a warm and happy relationship with her, he still saw her as the “replacement” or “ghost’ of Collette. (Sadly, Norma was killed in a car accident, some time after the album’s release. )
This is a beautifully sung operetta-type song, full of emotion and tenderness. One can almost imagine Nielen standing in a single spotlight with his hand on his heart looking angelic, singing: “When they take you to the sanctuary, your mind will fill with ecstasy”
11) ‘Conclusion’ – Originally the last track, this is a companion piece to the opening ‘Automaton Street’. It is now 10.17. “Johnny steps out of Automaton Chemist into a street that looks like a still frame”. He walks back up the main road with Collette’s ghostly voice calling “Johnny, Johnny”. It starts to rain, bells chime, the percussion, swirling sounds and wailing guitar soar around him to a climactic crescendo before abruptly fading away.
12) ‘Prissy Girl’ – the second extra track added for the CD release. Although written in the same style as the other songs on the album, it was left off due to the time constraints of vinyl. It has Allan playing a soft, acoustic lead while Nielen sings in his sweetest choirboy voice: “Prissy girl walks with her head in the sky…she thinks his motto is be seen and not heard…. She’s walking straight home and he follows behind”. Not the first time that Nielen’s simplistic lyrics and basic rhyming techniques (ABAB or sometimes AABB) managed to hide some extremely strange thoughts.
13) ‘Cat And Mouse’ – also added for the CD release, this has a jagged punk guitar riff and a chilling, menacing, and manic vocal performance from Nielen. It is also prefaced with the very perceptive comment from Nielen: “Everything we do is psychotic!”.
14) Bonus Multi-Media Video – ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ – This, the original video of the title track, offers the band’s visual representation of the obsessive subject matter. It is playable in a PC’s CD-Rom drive.
In 1986 the band released ‘Let’s Paint The House Pink’ backed with ‘Cosmic Night’ as a single. Both tracks were included on the compilation album, ‘Shattered’.
In 1996 Allan and Nielen recorded harder-edged, darker material for ‘Hammerhead Hotel (Psychos Welcome)’, the unreleased fifth Falling Mirror album. Three of these tracks are available online as MP3s at http://www.cd.co.za/fallingmirror.
‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ and ‘Neutron Bop’ are still played regularly on SA radio and Allan and Nielen still receive composer royalties. Both Allan and Nielen still live in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and have limited contact. Allan felt that he needed the separation to attempt to sort out his past, his music, and his head. To a very large degree, he has successfully achieved just that. Nielen is also well and motivated, writing songs, film scripts, and stories. Of Collette, there is no trace.
“Johnny’s traveling faster now, he’s spinning in her head,
Make no mistake about it, the history will be read.
And Johnny calls the chemist, but the chemist doesn’t come,
She’s back inside the twilight, and Johnny hears the hum.”
Brian Currin (research and web archives), Allan Faull, Nielen Marais, Tully McCully, Benjy Mudie, David Robinson, John Samson, Kurt Shoemaker, Farrel Russak, Ronit, and of course, Johnny!