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 centred 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 sinister rock music of the day.
Allan Faull was born on 30 January 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 11 June 1951. His father was Louis Marais, a cousin to the author Eugene Nielen Marais (who committed suicide in 1936). Louis's 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 madman".
However, Benjy couldn't convince them to write more commercial songs. 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 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 another Falling Mirror album. Both Tully and Benjy were experimentalists, still keen and willing to re-enter the dark world of Falling Mirror.
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 fantasised 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.
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 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 a video. The full track listing, 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, 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".
3) 'As Sly As A Fox' – This song describes how cunningly Collette traps Johnny in her head games. "As sly as a fox, that's caught in a 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 sinister 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!".
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 MP3's at http://www.rock.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 travelling 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, Farell Russak, Ronit and of course, Johnny!
Read the full-length "Director's Cut" for these liner notes here...
South Africa's Rock Classics
South Africa's Rock Legends