Why Johnny Called The Chemist… (The Director’s Cut)
by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman
The Hawns & Dendles is a spooky, double-story mansion in Ravensburg Road, Newlands. It is 1970. Down the passage lives mad old Uncle Edward Faull and his mother Anne. Granny Anne Faull has been charged with the almost hopeless task of policing two of her most troublesome grandchildren, Allan and Nielen, the black sheep of the Faull and Marais families. Allan’s father Louis and Nielen’s mother Meg are siblings and their mother Anne is the families’ last resort for keeping these two first cousins in line.
In another room in the house is the cause of all the trouble. Allan Faull is the taller, older and gaunter Anthony Perkins lookalike, hunched over his beloved guitar, striving to emulate the magical sounds of his guitar heroes featured on the many LPs scattered around his feet – John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Peter Green. Over on the couch, a plume of blue smoke around his head, sits Nielen, a blonde, fuzzy-haired ball of manic energy. A poet with the look and voice of a Dylanesque choirboy and the restraint, dignity and morals of Jim Morrison, scribbling reams of poetry, short stories, film scripts, horror stories, and mostly song lyrics.
Independently they were two lost souls, living lives on the wrong edge of the posh Cape Town fishbowl they had grown up in. Together they formed an unlikely duo, two freaks of society who only actualized themselves fully while wrapped in the unique chemistry that the combination of their skills produced. It was still eight years before Allan and Nielen found the confidence to present their scratchy demo cassette to local Cape Town music producer and legend Tully McCully. But in that room in The Hawns & Dendles, stoned and psyched out of their brains, those two cousins began writing the songs that would secure them a reputation as one of the weirdest bands ever to emerge from the South African rock scene. This was the beginning of Falling Mirror.
Allan Faull was born on January 30 1949 (died 24 September 2013), the third child of Dr George and Lesley Faull. His father was a vet and a serious, disciplined and unapproachable man. In 1954 the Faull family moved to Silwood, a property his mother had bought with an inheritance, and which she later turned into the Silwood Kitchen, a renowned Cordon Bleu cookery school. In 1955 Allan began his school career at Bishops, where he remained until he matriculated in 1966.
Two seminal events occurred in those early years, which helped shape Allan’s future. In 1956 the biggest music star in the world was Elvis Presley, and Allan was completely hooked on the Memphis rocker. His Christmas present that year was a Comet guitar which cost £3,50 from a Claremont music shop. But his father insisted his son follow in his pugilistic footsteps and enrolled Allan as a boxer at Bishops. In Std 1, Allan had his first bout in an inter-school competition and his proud father was there to see him open the tournament with a humiliating defeat. The shame of having failed his father, as well as his embarrassment at failing in full public view were only offset by his discovering that his guitar could provided him with a safe retreat from the world out there.
In 1965, when Allan was 16 and in Std 9 at Bishops, The Beatles and Rolling Stones were inspiring a host of schoolboy bands. He and some of his family formed their own group, called The Runaways. The band consisted of Allan on lead guitar, his elder brother Charles on drums, cousin Robert Marais on rhythm guitar and vocals, Trevor Perrins on extra percussion, and Allan’s 14-year old cousin Nielen on backing vocals. The band rehearsed for their first gig, a short set at the Saturday night social at the Christchurch Church Hall in Constantia. The Runaways tuned up a full semitone out and played some bad Shadows covers. Before the crowd could vote with their feet, a commotion announced that the much feared local ducktail, Howard Gower, had gatecrashed this party and he walked straight up to the stage, showed the terrified band his pistol, and threw them off the stage. Allan’s live career was back off track again.
The Runaways became The End and the band raised enough money to enter the Feature Film Studios to cut their first single – ‘The End’ b/w ‘They Talk About You’ – with Robert and Nielen on vocals, and Trevor Perrins on organ. A handful of 7″ singles were pressed and sold to the band’s impressed school friends and family.
Allan matriculated in 1966 and spent most of 1967 doing his national service in the Navy in Simonstown. In 1968 he began a BSc degree at UCT, found himself a nice, sweet, girlfriend called Angela, who was very into Christian Science, and simultaneously began the “drugs and rock ‘n roll” part of his equation. He struggled through his first year and failed physics, which he spent the whole of second year repeating. This he kept from his father, who already had Allan’s medical career well mapped out. Now a guitarist of great talent and potential, Allan first dabbled with a group called Larfing Stocke in 1968 and then played in the first official McCully Workshop line-up in 1969. But Allan was not happy playing mostly commercial cover versions for McCully Workshop, and he left them to join a group called Wakeford Hart, who played English folk in the Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, John Renbourne style, under the very charismatic and influential leadership of Peter Wale, the first of many “gurus” to the impressionable Allan.
Allan began feeling the effects of the stress of the double life he was leading. In 1970 he dropped out of UCT, while in his third year BSc, ruining his chances of becoming the family doctor. That was the scandal that caused him to be sent off to live with Granny Anne in Newlands along with his errant cousin Nielen, who had already been expelled from Bishops along with Allan’s younger brother Vere. Allan and Nielen began writing songs together, Allan providing the chords and melodies for Nielen’s eclectic lyrics.
1971 was to be another pivotal year in Allan’s life. Strongly influenced by their bandleader Peter Wale, Allan and Pat Humphries, who was Wakeford Hart’s drummer, stayed up one night and then, as dawn broke, dropped their first full caps of acid. Allan was aware that later that day they would be driving north in a convoy to play at a rock festival being held at the Out of Town club in Halfway House (Midrand), the following day. Wakeford Hart had been booked as the support to headliners Hawk. However, the acid opened up Allan’s particular doors of perception and repressed memories, and what was to evolve into a full blown and long lasting Peter Green-type psychosis began that day. Allan later calmed down sufficiently to drive to Johannesburg for the concert. But unfortunately a far more traumatic surprise was awaiting him there in the form of a new band from Johannesburg called Conglomeration.
This band, who later evolved into Rabbitt, had a hot, young guitar sensation in their ranks, the 17 year-old Trevor Rabin. Rabin could play like all Allan’s axe heroes – Beck, Page, Clapton, Mayall – and play them superbly. On seeing and hearing Rabin that day, Allan said “He died a million deaths”. Wakeford Hart, by contrast, played a dull set of original folk rock tunes and failed horribly by comparison. The band may have boasted Amanda Cohen, the coolest blues singer in Cape Town, but the cumulative damage of those few days was to have far-reaching repercussions further down the road.
In the short term it sent Allan scurrying back to the straightest musical outfit he could find, a resuscitated Neville Whitmill and the Square Set. The group were playing a residency at the Clifton Hotel, after a belated hit with their version of ‘Silence Is Golden’ (not a Tremeloes cover). This again proved a bit too mundane for Allan but the Neville Whitmill revival was soon over (as was the Clifton Hotel). Whitmill knew Mike Campbell, a music academic at UCT, and he introduced him to Allan.
The band that grew out of that meeting was named Uncle Edward, in honour of Allan’s uncle, one of the many Jekyll and Hyde characters in the family, who lived down the passage at Granny Anne’s house. Uncle Edward had been a pharmacist and had always supported his nephews and their bands and had even offered to manage The Runaways, but was now too mentally unstable to work or drive. Uncle Edward’s line-up was Allan on guitar, Mike Campbell on keyboards, Jacques de Villiers on bass, Roger Lloyd on drums, and Nielen Marais on vocals. Neville Whitmill was the band’s manager and Allan and Nielen once again resumed their song-writing partnership.
In 1973, Uncle Edward (the band) picked up a lucrative three-month residency at the swanky Ciros nightclub in Johannesburg and the two cousins and the rest of the band moved north. Allan and Nielen lived together in a flat in Hillbrow. Unfortunately the management at Ciros had no idea exactly what they had booked and soon after they found out, they moved to release the band from the contract. Allan and Nielen found themselves alone and unemployed in Johannesburg. Nielen lost his month-end cheque and Allan put him on a train home to Cape Town.
During this time, with Whitmill having taken the remnants of Uncle Edward to Pretoria, Allan was alone in Johannesburg and contacted Patric van Blerk, whom he had met through Terry Dempsey. Van Blerk was then one of South Africa’s most successful managers having had successes with Margaret Singana, and later with Rabbitt. Allan entered that rarified pop atmosphere and got to meet Trevor Rabin, whom he found warm and friendly. But it was 1974 and the mental wheels were about to come off for the young, tortured 25-year-old, who headed home, dejected.
Back in Cape Town Allan discovered Guru Maharaji, and his calming satsang groups. In 1977, Patric van Blerk contacted him with the news that Trevor Rabin was leaving Rabbitt and Allan was the unanimous choice as his replacement in the super-successful and wildly idolized teen pop band. To the amazement of all, Allan turned them down. This outrageous and inexplicable slight to the country’s top band became headline news and Allan found the story and his picture all over the front pages of the SA newspapers.
Allan headed off to a Guru Maharaji workshop in Essen, Germany with some friends, and travelled partially through France before returning home in 1978 to find his father determined to enter him in a de-culting program to be held in the grounds of the Valkenberg Mental Institution. Coincidentally, Nielen also found himself in a rehab section of Valkenberg at the same time due to severe alcohol overuse and a ballooning weight. Nielen stayed for only four days before leaving, but he never touched alcohol again.
After leaving Valkenberg, Allan worked at Peter’s Pancake Bar for a while before Patric van Blerk again approached him to join Rabbitt. Allan accepted Van Blerk’s offer to spend a day with the rest of Rabbitt in Johannesburg before making a decision. Allan again turned them down, and the next day Van Blerk formally announced the end of Rabbitt. Allan traveled to Springs to visit his friends Verity and Chris who had accompanied him to Essen. He stayed on in Johannesburg and regularly attended Guru Maharaji meetings in Rockey Street with his new girlfriend Rochelle, who lent him some money to attend another Maharaji workshop in Miami, USA. A few weeks later, Allan found himself back in Cape Town where he again linked up with Nielen. It was then that the two began seriously writing songs together and planning their rock future. It was 1978.
Nielen Marais was born on June 11 1951, two years after his cousin Allan. His father was Louis Marais, a cousin to the SA author and academic Eugene Nielen Marais (who committed suicide in 1936), and his mother was Meg (nee Faull), a sister to Allan’s father George. Nielen was the youngest of three siblings, after Robert and Vanessa. When South Africa joined the Allied Forces in WWII, Louis Marais enlisted and traveled to North Africa with the SA Army, only to be captured at Tobruk by the German forces. Louis would often regale young Nielen with his stories of his capture and three-year internment in a German POW camp in Czechoslovakia, before being liberated by the advancing Soviet army. This created a strange fascination in Nielen towards the Nazis and their warfare techniques, and the German General Guderion, who revolutionized modern warfare with his Blitzkrieg tactics, was a personal hero. Nielen never knew his paternal grandparents, but knew his maternal grandparents as he was 7 when his grandfather Charles died, and he spent a lot of time with his Granny Anne until her death when Nielen was already in his twenties.
Meg Marais had already lost one of her brothers in a car accident before the war and during the war a second brother, who was 18, was shot down over Warsaw, captured and hanged. Her other brother (Uncle) Edward fought in WWII in Italy but returned unscathed. But her husband Louis was never quite the same after the war and his experiences. After Louis died in 1958, Meg, already seriously affected by those previous losses, poured her attention and energies into her youngest son. Nielen was dyslexic and slightly phobic and preferred not going to school too often. So he was allowed to stay home, read prolifically, and wrote poetry and stories. These he then read to his only daytime companion, the family gardener Johnny Roland. Mother Meg began encouraging Nielen to follow his creative side, licensing him to be different and to express his thoughts, ideas and fantasies with full confidence.
Nielen began seeking out the various avenues through which he could channel and explore his writing and acting talents. His brother Robert had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and Nielen was keen to try both acting and scriptwriting. When he was 14 and in Std 7 at Bishops, he sang backing vocals for the family band The Runaways, and then graduated to handling the main vocals on their follow-up group The End’s first (and only) recording.
At that stage Nielen had found a “soul mate” (or partner-in-crime) in his cousin Vere Faull, Allan’s younger brother, and these two began a reign of uncontrolled excess and mis-adventure. This would result in them being jointly expelled from Bishops and Vere’s premature death from an almost suicidal drinking binge that left him with fatal cirrhosis in 1986. Nielen gained unlikely support for his musical career in Uncle George (Allan’s seemingly totally opposed father) who liked Nielen and showed an interest in his work with Falling Mirror, something he neglected to do with his son Allan.
The relationship between Allan and Nielen, despite the two-year age difference, was close and warm. Allan was introverted, totally lacking in any self-esteem and already a convinced failure. Nielen, by contrast, was confident, brash, motivated and determined. Allan gave Nielen the musical ideas and expertise he needed to flesh out his lyrics. Nielen gave Allan the opportunity to work with someone who would take him to places and situations he could never imagine reaching on his own, although Nielen’s intensity tended to scare Allan at times.
Their combination worked and by 1979, the two cousins had enough songs to show for their efforts and, on Nielen’s suggestion (which was immediately and unconfidently vetoed by Allan), they presented Tully McCully with that famous cassette with the first scratchy recordings of the first Falling Mirror tracks.
The McCullagh brothers, Terence and Michael, grew up in Plumstead with a passion for music that was shared, and enthusiastically encouraged, by their parents. A general mispronunciation of their surname caused it to be shortened to McCully, and Terence also became universally known by his nickname “Tully”. McCully Workshop, the brothers’ band first formed in 1969, was named for their garage-based home studios in Plumstead. Tully had known Nielen from his teenage days when Richard Hyam, an early friend and musical associate of Tully’s, lived close to Nielen in Constantia. Richard and his sister Melanie formed the brother and sister duo Tiny Folk in 1964 before Richard joined Tully and brother Mike in The Blue Three in 1965. Tully also knew Allan Faull, and his already impressive guitar prowess, from Allan’s days with the group The Larfing Stocke.
In 1969 Bob Courtney, of Springbok Radio fame, had come to Cape Town to check out the McCully’s studios in Plumstead as a possible venue for the recording of the winning bands in the Lastron Battle of the Bands competition. Although Coloured Rain were the outright winners, they, Omega Ltd, and eight other acts were sent to Spaced Out Sounds Studios to record their demos for broadcast on LM Radio. Allan played a session for a Joe Cocker-sounding vocalist called Johnny Coetzee, on a song called ‘Moaning’. Tully and Keith Twine, from the sponsors Bothners, were blown away by this young guitarist, who brought in his own specially tweaked amp.
Allan was recruited by McCully Workshop and played guitar on the band’s first single, ‘Why Can’t It Rain?’. The song received decent national radio play and entered the Springbok Radio SA Charts on 17th July 1970. It spent five weeks on the charts and reached No 12. It was Allan’s first tangible success as a guitarist. But his stay with McCully Workship was short and he left to join Wakeford Hart. Tully then recorded some demos for Wakeford Hart in the Plumstead Studios and had also heard Nielen sing as a member of The End and later Uncle Edward. So when Allan and Nielen showed up at the Fairmead Hotel in Rondebosch, where McCully Workshop were playing, clutching the first of many home-recorded cassette tapes, they were already well-known to Tully. He agreed to go and sit in his car and listen to the demo on the car tape player. What he heard that day was described by Tully as “simply brilliant!”
The tracks he heard that day were ‘I Am The Actor’ and ‘Time (Is A Thief)’, both of which later appeared at the beginning of the ‘Zen Boulders’ debut album. After one listen Tully heard enough to convince him that the cousins had something special and he offered to produce an album for them at his studios, when he and they could find the time to do so. Tully suggested they record the album and then see if they could get a deal which would be shared all round. Allan and Nielen agreed and they, and their drummer Pat Humphries began working in Spaced Out Sound Studios with Tully.
Spaced Out Sound Studios, whose name was suggested by Keith Madders, began at 1 Silverton Road, Plumstead before moving to the Cameo studios in Waterkant Street. From there it moved to Standard House (the old bank vault), then on to Benson House in Long Street, before settling in for a long while at the Plein Park Building in Plein Street, where the first three Falling Mirror albums were recorded. Nielen had by now adopted the stage name, Nielen Mirror, and the band’s name, which was derived from the duo’s surnames (“Faull and Mirror”), was first coined by a friend, Ian Cowie.
In what was to become a very successful working pattern, Tully would first quickly record Allan and Nielen doing a simple version of their songs with acoustic guitar and, at most, a guide vocal. Tully would then spend some quiet time listening to the track before coming up with an appropriate feel and arrangement. He would then record all the bass, drum and keyboard sections before bringing them back into the studio to record the full guitar and vocal tracks. Pat Humphries drummed on most of ‘Zen Boulders’, and certain tracks on the second album ‘The Storming Of The Loft’, before leaving the band. Allan described Tully as a musical “Film Director” for the way he would explain specifically what he wanted, and then get exactly what he intended. Tully would happily and regularly get perfect, one-take performances out of both Allan and Nielen. As Tully explained, if it needed to go to multi-takes, the song would sound progressively worse as the duo became progressively disinterested and uninspired.
Tully would find the time, between his very successful studio and commercial work, to work with the band. These sessions, which often took place between the hours of dusk and dawn, found Tully working deep in the Falling Mirror “heart of darkness”, extracting consistently psychotic vocals from Nielen and soaring, emotional and jaw-dropping guitar parts from Allan on his customary, white Gibson SG with its trademark “buffalo horns”. But it was always a relief for Tully when those sessions ended and he could return to his normal surroundings. Tully always had an indescribable passion for the music, lyrics and intensity of Falling Mirror and his overall creative contribution and commitment confirmed him as both the band’s George Martin as well as their third permanent member.
Falling Mirror’s debut album, ‘Zen Boulders’ was recorded in 1979 and was named by Nielen for the white boulders that he saw in Japanese Zen Gardens. It opened with Nielen’s cracked vocals on the moody ‘Time (Is A Thief)’, followed by ‘I Am The Actor’ an early manifesto of his intent. Nielen’s inspiration for ‘I Am The Actor’ was the book ‘The Greening of America’. He enjoyed the irony later when that song came within a whisker of being licensed for a cover version by a major US artist, a move that would have sealed their financial futures. Allan and Nielen always shared their composing credits and royalties equally.
‘Making Out With Granny’ which was later re-recorded and appeared on the ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ album, was not a reference to any sexual activity with a grandmother. The phrase “making out with” was meant as “hanging out with” or “grooving with”. The song was based on a character Nielen had created in 1970 called “Granny Greeves” who, along with her nephew Will, robbed banks and shops and later became a famous rock guitarist. No guessing who inspired that song.
‘When The Lights Went Off In New York City’ was a simple and twee pop song and ‘The San Diego Sniping Event’ was identical in content to The Boomtown Rat’s single ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, from the same year. Both songs dealt with the infamous incident where a San Diego schoolgirl opened fire on her schoolmates because, as she explained “she didn’t like Mondays”. It is however, not clear who had the idea first, Nielen or Bob Geldof! Also on ‘Zen Boulders’ was the song ‘Archie And Juggie Went Down To The Store’, a throwaway comic jingle that became the first in the Falling Mirror tradition of including one Elvis/rock ‘n roll tribute song on every album.
Once ‘Zen Boulders’ was completed, Tully started putting the word out and previewing it to selected, influential listeners who knew that Tully’s touch was a guaranteed seal of quality. One of these early converts was Mike Berry, a music journalist for the Cape Argus, who trumpeted the genius of ‘Zen Boulders’ with a double-page spread in the paper. But Tully was looking for someone with the vision, taste and clout to take this album to where he believed it could go, and he found him in Johannesburg.
Benjy Mudie is of Scottish origin and grew up on the East Rand, travelling by train into Johannesburg to hear and buy the newest rock music and later moving to the city to work in the music industry. First in a series of record stores and later as the A&R man at the WEA label, while still in his twenties. While in his third year at WEA, Benjy had already started focusing on the contemporary talent in SA, beginning what was to be a lifelong passion for SA rock music. He kept his ears open for new talent and met Tully McCully in 1979. The two became friends and started sharing tips about interesting new bands and artists. Mudie had already signed Baxtop and Lesley Rae Dowling to WEA on Tully’s recommendation.
Tully had earlier sent him a Falling Mirror cassette tape with just two completed tracks – ‘I Am The Actor’ and ‘Making Out With Granny’ – as well as an 8mm film of Falling Mirror recording ‘Making Out With Granny’ in the studio. Allan’s guitar work and sound on ‘I Am An Actor’ caught Benjy’s attention, not to mention Nielen bare-chested and sweating in the studio with madness in his eyes. A while later Tully sent him the finished album, as well as Mike Berry’s gushing article, and Benjy’s initial interest and excitement was confirmed. To him, Allan’s guitar playing emulated that of Mark Knopfler, riding high with Dire Straits, as well as resembling the trippy sounds of Pink Floyd. In Nielen’s edge-of-madness, fantasy-type lyrics and vocal style he saw and heard the fractured genius of Syd Barrett.
Benjy signed the band to an album deal with WEA and ‘Zen Boulders’ was released in 1979. The album’s cover shot of the band (without Tully), driving in a truck, was shot by Allan’s brother Vere. It was the start of Benjy’s passionate love and hate affair with the band and he always remained a firm and devoted believer in “The Mirror”. Paradoxically for him, while he enjoyed their “bizarre musicality”, he couldn’t convince them to find a way to write songs that had more chance of commercial success. The response to ‘Zen Boulders’ was mixed and sales were slow. New wave music fans of the day loved the goofed energy of the album as well as its diverse range of styles and sounds. The music critics were divided and confused. Patrick Lee, the top SA music journalist of the time (ever?), coined the legendary question about the band in his review of the ‘Zen’ album when he wrote: “Listening to Falling Mirror is like spending the evening alone in a floodlit stadium; everything’s okay here, isn’t it?”
Tully suggested the band play some live gigs to promote the album and helped put together a band consisting of Allan on guitar, Nielen on vocals, Mike McCullagh on drums, Tully on bass and Henry Barenblatt on keyboards. For once Allan seemed ready to overcome his distaste for live performances, but this time it was Nielen who got very anxious at the idea and backed out at the last moment, causing the cancellation of the gigs. It was only in 1986, after the release of the ‘Johnny’ album, that the band actually performed their first and only live gigs at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay. Many still believe that it was this lack of live exposure, especially in the Gauteng area, that hindered the band’s and their album’s success.
Tully and Benjy decided to get Falling Mirror back into Spaced Out Sound Studios to record their second album, and ‘The Storming of The Loft’ was the result. The recording of the album was started in 1979 and completed and released in 1980, and it was the band’s first attempt at a concept album. The story was roughly based on Nielen’s relationship with Shelley, an artist girlfriend who lived in a loft studio (called ‘The Loft’) in Wynberg (where Churchill’s Cigar Bar is now located). Nielen’s relationship with her was mostly a positive one, although there was some mention of an angry father! Nielen described his “conquest” of her through the metaphor of a storming (from the word “stormtrooper”) of both her physical and emotional world, a theme Nielen would explore with more precision on the ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ album.
The songs on ‘The Storming Of The Loft’ were mature rock excursions, from the opening Doors-like atmospherics of (first single) ‘Highway Blues’, followed by the aggressive title track and the compulsory Elvis-styled rock ‘n roll of (second single) ‘Neutron Bop’. The third single, ‘If I Was James Dean’, was a slice of lyrical expediency from Nielen, who for once bowed to outside commercially-inspired influences and wrote a song that he intended purely as a safe pop hit. It wasn’t, although it did get an international release on WEA Europe. But the key song on the ‘Storming’ album, was the chilling ‘We Build A Big Fire’ in which Nielen openly hinted at the demonic urges raging inside his acid-drenched, out-on-the-edge fantasy-filled brain. Hearing that song on headphones, alone in a dark room, is as close as one can get to what Benjy described as “The strange and arcane world of Falling Mirror”. The band also shot a video for the song ‘Neutron Bop’ on the roof garden of the Spaced Out Sounds Studios, with Nielen dressed in a gold spacesuit!
‘The Storming Of The Loft’ failed to improve on the ‘Zen’ album. Once again the critics loved it, but sales were scattered, and only ‘Neutron Bop’ achieved decent radio play on Radio 5, and the newly launched Radio 702 also played a few tracks. The band again refused to perform live to promote the album so they returned to the studio to begin work on their third album, ‘Fantasy Kid’. As with the previous albums, Falling Mirror was now essentially a three-man outfit with Tully again handling all the arranging, engineering, production, mixing, and mastering tasks as well as contributing all the bass, drums, keyboards, and backing vocals. ‘Fantasy Kid’ was again recorded at odd hours, mostly the witching ones. It was released in 1981 and produced no singles. In retrospect, ‘Crippled Messiah’, ‘We’re All Lost in The Universe’ and definitely ‘Revolver Wolf’ (that album’s Elvis-tribute) were strong contenders.
By now Falling Mirror existed purely as a studio “Head” band, as no one had seen them perform live. Benjy described their baroque sound and chord progressions as “from the Middle Ages” and described Nielen as “An 18th Century rake, a Baudelarian poet, a minstrel, a lover and a madman”. ‘Fantasy Kid’ again failed to achieve the desired success and a video shot for the song ‘Revolver Wolf’ was so radical that many stations refused to screen it.
It was at this point that the band fell apart for a while. Rumour had it that it was due to a vicious fight between Allan and Nielen, but the truth was that the cousins were depressed by their three albums’ lack of success and disappointing sales. Allan felt that he was at that point where he could no longer visualize people buying and listening to his music, so he could not make it any more. Having strayed from his father’s career path expectations, Allan felt he had failed in his attempt to prove that he could make a success from this chosen musical path. Despite his guitar playing receiving glowing accolades, the financial rewards, and associated self-worth, had not materialized. Nielen too was gutted that his best work, lovingly created with the finest guitarist and producer in the country had not achieved the success he knew it deserved. The two dejected cousins disappeared back into their fantasy worlds in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town for the next five years.
During the next few years, Allan mostly laid low, struggling with his fractured mental state (‘The Divided Self’ by RD Laing was his constant reading material) and focusing on his Guru Maharaji groups. He was later approached by Kevin Abraham, a singer-songwriter from Port Elizabeth, who was a Falling Mirror fan, and Allan joined his band, The Kick. Kevin Abraham and the Kick, and their sister band Sweatband (featuring John Mair and a young singer called Wendy Oldfield), played gigs all around the Cape Town area, recorded one album (‘Inside’), and then found themselves playing the support gig for David Essex on his 3-city SA tour. A combination of poor sound and no payment for the band (it was explained as a great opportunity for them!) saw Allan leaving The Kick and linking up again with Nielen to work on some new material.
Nielen began writing potential film scripts and joined The Emissaries of Divine Light, which he described as “Not a cult, but rather a selective religious group with a demanding spiritual path”. Although he said it gave him a “tough inner core”, he also felt that he had failed at it. Certain incidents at that time found him leaving this group abruptly. That threw him into a confused and vulnerable period and his mental condition was such that in 1982 he began receiving a prescription for Lexotan from a “very nice” local GP. Lexotan is a tranquilizer (a brand name Benzodiazepine drug).
Nielen began to regularly visit Wynberg Pharmacy to collect his pills as it was close to where he was living at the time. There he met Colleen Irwin, a new counter assistant. The owner of Wynberg Pharmacy at that time, Mr Len Farrell, had begun his career many years before when Nielen’s Granny Anne interviewed him for his first job in Grandfather Charles’ Pharmacy!
Colleen began her career at Wynberg Pharmacy’s main branch at 222 Main Road, Wynberg. After visiting the chemist and seeing Colleen working there for a while, Nielen began having deeper thoughts about Colleen and their “relationship”. In 1983 Norma, a new counter assistant, started work at the chemist. Soon after that Colleen left for an extended period and Norma and Nielen began a serious relationship. Nielen saw Norma as Colleen’s replacement and later wrote about her in “Ghost Of Collette”. In 1984, almost a year later, Colleen returned to work and was asked to take charge of the Lenkem Pharmacy, a new depot/branch that Len Farrell had recently opened. It was just a short walk back up Main Road in the Withinshaw Arcade and Nielen began collecting his pills there.
From 1984 -1985, Nielen began frequenting Lenkem Pharmacy as often as possible, sometimes daily, and his obsession with Colleen became the subject of reams of poetry and song lyrics. He believed he was connecting with Colleen on a telepathic level and that she was using her thoughts to control him and lure him into the chemist only to immediately snub and reject him. He began having different fantasies about her and she in turn began to feel very threatened by his stalking of her. Nielen once met her by chance in the take-away shop in the same arcade and was surprised by her reaction. Another time he engineered a reaction out of Colleen by getting a lady friend to go into the chemist with him posing as his romantic interest. The situation eventually become such that Allan was called in to meet with Colleen, her boyfriend (who was a vet working in Allan’s father’s old practice), and Nielen. Matters were mostly resolved, and Colleen agreed to hold off with more serious legal action if Nielen stayed away and left her alone. Colleen eventually left the Chemist and a while later Norma was killed in a car accident.
Nielen took his new songs to Allan and they had just finished working on them when Benjy re-entered their lives. Benjy had the idea of re-recording ‘Making Out With Granny’ and ‘Revolver Wolf’ for a 12″ release. He had always liked the song’s raw, Stooges-like energy and contacted Tully who brought the cousins back into the studio. After recording the two remixes, Nielen mentioned the concept album that he and Allan had been working on, and although he didn’t fancy the idea, Benjy agreed to go along with the project.
Benjy described Tully as a great producer of musicians, due to his empathy for outcasts and his keenness to occasionally lean towards the more alternative sounds happening at the time. Both Tully and Benjy were experimentalists and both were still very keen to work with and re-enter the dark world of Falling Mirror. Tully drew his inspiration for the album partially from ‘Ismism’, the Godley & Creme concept album of the time. He decided to modernize the Falling Mirror sound and used more electronic instruments and devices then on the previous three albums.
‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ was released in 1986 and remains one of the most disturbing and complex concept albums ever made in South Africa. It not only documents Nielen Mirror’s obsession with the girl in the Wynberg chemist shop, but also gives a short glimpse into his complex and disturbed mind. His alter ego on the album, “Johnny”, was seen by him as a cool rock archetype as in Johnny B Goode, or “Hey Johnny, what you rebelling against?” from the Brando movie ‘The Wild Ones’. It was also a reference to Nielen’s old gardener Johnny Roland, who would listen to him reading his stories while not at school. Nielen also remembers Uncle Johnny, a dagga merchant widely known in the Constantia area. There is also an early lyrical reference on the song ‘What Are We Here For’ off their debut ‘Zen Boulders’ (“Here’s Uncle Johnny to deliver a maid”). So Nielen adopted his “Johnny” persona, and, as the album begins, finds himself walking down the road to the chemist. For the purposes of the album, Colleen was renamed “Collette”, and Wynberg became “Automaton Town”…..
1) ‘Automaton Town’ – The opening track on the album and one written by Nielen, at Tully’s suggestion, specifically as an introduction to the album and Johnny. It opens with a lone guitar, and a thudding, tick-tock electronic beat. Johnny begins speaking in an impersonal, secret agent voice: “Automaton Town, 9am, Johnny stops outside Automaton Chemist and looks through the window. He sees a young woman, a pharmacist, working at the typewriter. He enters the chemist, stops, looks at her, she looks at him, there is an immediate connection”. 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 the original album but was left off by Tully as he felt it didn’t gel with the rest of the album. He was probably correct, but due to its relevance in further explaining Johnny’s state of mind, it has been included on the new version in its original position as track No 2. It has a newly added, sweet piano intro and a catchy chorus of “Fast thinker, Head shrinker, 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”. There is also a frantic guitar solo squeezed into the middle of the song.
3) ‘As Sly As A Fox’ – Originally the second track on the album, written earlier by Nielen, originally as an abstract poem. It describes Collette and how cunning she was in getting Johnny trapped 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 become (deliberately?) vague and some kind of sexual encounter (fantasy) takes place after Johnny accepts Collette’s invitation to come over to her side of the counter, while the clocks on the wall begin to chime”.
4) ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ – The key track on the album and a mini-epic all on its own. This song was written and completed 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 famous Beatles tribute to Dylan on the ‘Help’ album. 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’ – Another song written by Nielen at the time of recording, on Tully’s suggestion. Tully felt the album needed an extra narrative song explaining the context a little more. It is about Collette and her activities and duties in the shop, observed very carefully by Johnny. Nielen’s deep voiced, monotonous delivery resembles someone who has been brainwashed, 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 was based on an actual incident when Nielen bumped into Collette in the fast food shop in the same arcade as the Lenkem Pharmacy. 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. This song was the album’s traditional rock ‘n roll piece and strongly resembles ‘Pharaoh’s Song’ from the musical ‘Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat’ as performed on the SA stages by Alvon Collison. The verse and chorus, “He stood quite frozen in the takeaway shop”, raises memories of that unforgettable Elvis tribute.
7) ‘Making Out With Granny’ – The 12″ remix of the track that originally appeared on the ‘Zen Boulders’ album. 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 rather then detract from the overall feel of the album.
The song refers to a store-robbing, shotgun-wielding Granny (“called Marina”) who hangs out with her nephew Will, as he explains: “But I’m not William Shakespeare, he wrote a lot of books, Elizabethan England, has turned us into crooks”. (?) But this is not a happy gang “Now listen shopkeeper, I hope you’re thinking straight, you know my mind is wounded, and my Granny’s filled with hate”. Not the kind of couple you’d want to “Make out with”.
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 Colette 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 genuinely 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’ – This song was written by Nielen in a previous batch and was not intended for the ‘Johnny’ album. But Tully had recorded it earlier and liked it and felt it would work well in the context of the album’s concept. It is one of the few straightforward, great pop songs on the album. It also adds a happy ending to the situation with Nielen defending his “friend” and checking into a motel with her. “Follow me angel, drink of this stream, take me to heaven, walk in a dream, fight for this friendship in these days”.
10) ‘The Ghost Of Collette’ – This was written for Nielen’s girlfriend Norma who worked in the chemist and took over from Collette when she disappeared for a while. Although Nielen had a warm and happy relationship with her, he still saw her as the “replacement” or “ghost’ of Collette. Although Norma later died in a car accident, she was still alive and well when the album was released so the irony was not intended.
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’ – Tully suggested Nielen write an outro lyric to finish off the album and the concept. The result is ‘Conclusion’, a companion piece to the opening track, ‘Automaton Street’. It is now 10.17, 77 minutes later (although the full, new version of the album only clocks in at 54 minutes): “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. This was the original end of the album
12) ‘Prissy Girl’ – the second extra track added for the CD release and a good idea of the guide tracks that the band used to lay down for Tully to experiment with (at some point Nielen simply forgets his lyrics). Although it is written in the same style as the other songs on the album, it was left off due to the time and length constraints of vinyl. It starts with Nielen saying “Okay! we’ve got two more for Johnny!” 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 sinister thoughts.
13) ‘Cat And Mouse’ – Recorded straight after ‘Prissy Girl’ in a similar basic fashion and also left off the original album. It has a jagged punk guitar riff and a chilling, menacing and manic vocal performance from Nielen. It is also prefaced with the famous and perceptive comment from Nielen: “Everything we do is psychotic!”. The truest words Nielen ever spoke! It is a rocking track with Nielen enjoying all the cat and mouse metaphors.
Bonus Multi-Media Video – ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ (The original video) – This video of the title track received reasonable TV flightings and has achieved cult appeal. It adds considerable value to the album, and offers the band’s visual representation of the obsessive subject matter. This is playable and viewable in the CD-Rom drive of a PC.
The album’s cover features a friend of the band in the role of Collette. On the front cover is the negative of her and Nielen posing in front of the fluorescent “Chemist” sign in the window of Wynberg Pharmacy. On the back cover, “Collette” is seen arguing with Allan, dressed in a suit, and Nielen while an anonymous passer-by watches on. The band’s name and album title on the front cover, and the song titles on the back cover, were printed to form the shape of a capsule.
Benjy was excited about the album and decided not to release ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ or any other tracks off the album as separate singles (besides the 12″ of ‘Making Out With Granny’), as he felt it might prevent people from appreciating the full album. Although sales were as disappointing as with the first three albums, 5FM decided that ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ was the obvious single and they were right. ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ went straight to Number 1 on the 5FM charts, providing Falling Mirror with their first hit single. In 1987, WEA France released ‘As Sly As A Fox’/ ‘Encounter In A Takeaway Shop’ as a 12″ single.
In one of the first reviews of the album, Andrew Donaldson described it as: “A bent tale about a doomed and twisted suburban love affair that never seems to make up its mind as to where it its going”. Following the release of ‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’, and the success of the single, Allan and Nielen agreed to play some live gigs and a band was assembled with Allan’s brother Tim on drums. This band played between 10 and 20 gigs at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay.
The band entered the studio in 1986 to begin work on what was meant to be their fifth studio album. It was to be called ‘Louise The Astronaut’ and a song with that name was recorded. This song instead appeared with the alternative title ‘Cosmic Night’ on the B-side of ‘Let’s Paint The House Pink’, another song from the same sessions. Both these songs remained unreleased on an album until 1989 when the 14-track “Best Of Falling Mirror” vinyl compilation, ‘Shattered’ was released. In 1992, ‘Shattered’ was released on CD with three extra tracks.
In 1996 Allan and Nielen found themselves back in Tully’s Spaced Out Sounds Studio recording a new collection of harder-edged, darker songs which would eventually be found on ‘Hammerhead Hotel (Psychos Welcome)’, the (to date) unreleased fifth Falling Mirror album. Three of the tracks off this album – ‘Hammerhead Hotel’, ‘Then It Turns Around’ and ‘Camera Eyes’ – are available online as MP3’s at the band’s own website (http://fallingmirror.com)
‘Johnny Calls The Chemist’ and ‘Neutron Bop’ are still played regularly on SA radio stations and Allan and Nielen still get composer royalties on a regular basis. Lenkem Pharmacy is no longer in the arcade in Wynberg and is divided between an Indian dress shop and a fast food outlet. 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, still completely confident and convinced that his glory time is just around the corner. With the re-release of this and the band’s other albums, he could just be correct!
“Johnny’s travelling faster now,
he’s spinning in her head,
Make no mistake about it,
their 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, Ronit, and of course, Johnny!