Reflections in a Falling Mirror
I was recently asked to repost an article I wrote early last year about a South African band that has always fascinated me, Falling Mirror. Being formed in the late 70s, they fit perfectly into the mish-mash of musical styles and cross-overs that the era started to produce.
A cult favourite with a fascinating back story – Falling Mirror
Punk was a huge influence on a new wave of acts, some of which went on to make waves like Dog Detachment and The Radio Rats. Smaller bands such as Safari Suits, Rude Dementals and Housewife’s Choice had a huge following around Cape Town. You can hear the punk undertones on songs like ‘Making Out with Granny’.
There was also a thriving rock scene across the country, and although still predominately White, changes in attitudes toward equality issues would see this begin to turn during the 1980s. The acceptance of multi-racial bands and Afrikaans alternative music reflected a long-awaited change in our local musical diet. It’s a fascinating era that contains some important moments in musical history, and I will visit it again soon.
While reworking the original post into blog format I took time to listen to some old favourites and was transported back to a very different time in both my life and my country. Now that our page has followers in far-flung countries, I’m going to start this article by introducing you to a South African band by way of song, and then the story to give you an idea of their music,
Benji Mudie, the man who signed them to WEA, compared Allan Faull’s guitar work to Mark Knopfler’s guitar excellence, and Nielen Marais’ vocals with the fractured trippiness of Syd Barrett. This track will be well-known to locals of a certain age, and if you haven’t heard it, welcome to the strange world of Falling Mirror. Here’s ‘Johnny Calls the Chemist’.
Choosing what information to share was quite a job. Although Falling Mirror only released four albums and a couple of compilations as a band, their backstory would make a lengthy and fascinating book. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge Stephen Sugar Segerman’s 2001 article that I used in researching the band. The original article covers a lot more detail and is essential reading for local music history fans.
The roots of the band formed in Cape Town in 1978 by cousins Allan Faull and Nielen Marais who were both black sheep of their respective families and had been sent to live with their extremely strict Granny Anne Faull, the only person that their families’ thought could keep them in check. This brought the cousins closer than they already were.
Allan, already a good guitarist, along with poet Nielen started writing songs together. It was one of the few fun things that were allowed in Granny Faull’s house. It was years before they found the confidence to give a demo cassette to South Africa’s legendary music producer, Tully McCully, who was impressed by what he heard. But I am getting ahead of myself.
It’s important that I give you a little background behind the two protagonists of the story as it will give you a deeper understanding of their music. Allan was the son of a strict and unapproachable vet who had his son’s medical career planned out in his mind. Although his parents eventually gave in to his musical interests it was under the condition that Allan took up boxing (his father’s passion). He did so, and when he was beaten in the opening round of his first tournament the public humiliation was deep and long-lasting, as was the animosity between father and son.
Allan formed a schoolboy band ‘The Runaways’ with some of his extended family, playing Shadows covers. The Runaways became ‘The End’ and they saved up enough to have a handful of singles printed to give to friends and family. After his national service, Allan entered UCT to do a BSc degree, where he met a special girl and discovered the world of drugs and Rock n Roll in quick succession.
Allan’s journey as a musician is a long and winding tale that includes two offers as Trevor Rabin’s replacement in the biggest pop group in the country at the time, Rabbitt, (which he turned down). The story is covered in depth in Stephen Sugar Segerman’s 2001 article
When he dropped out of university it was the final straw that caused the family scandal and saw him being banished to Granny Anne’s house. I’ll get to Nielen’s part in the story shortly, but in the meantime here’s the song ‘Making Out with Granny’ from their 1979 debut, Zen Boulders. This punk-influenced number is not about the ‘making out’ as many thought when it received airtime on local radio, but a tale based on a character Nielen had created, Granny Greeves, a gun-wielding granny who, with her nephew Will, robbed banks and shops. Will later became a famous rock guitarist. Now, where did that idea arise?
Now we have covered a little of Allan Faull’s backstory you can start to understand the strange background of these Cape Town lads that led to their odd song topics and cult-like status. Now I’ll fill you in on Nielen’s story.
Nielen Marais (descendent of famed SA author Eugene Marais) is the youngest of three children. His father, Louis, had been detained in a Czech POW camp during WWII and would regale the young Nielen with horrific war stories. Louis was never the same after his war experiences, and when he passed away in 1958, Nielen’s mother, who had already lost two brothers, compensated for her losses by pouring every bit of energy and attention into her youngest son.
The dyslexic and slightly phobic Nielen didn’t like school and was often allowed to stay at home where he would read prolifically. With the encouragement of his mother and the family gardener, Johnny Marais, he started writing poetry and stories; He attended RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London which widened his world view. Nielen’s first exposure to singing was providing harmonies for ‘The Runaways’ and lead vocals for The End’s single as a kid.
Nielen’s ‘soul mate’ was cousin Allan’s younger brother, Vere. Nielen and Vere began a reign of uncontrolled excess and misadventures during their young teenage years that resulted in them being jointly expelled from the exclusive Bishops High School. This culminated in an almost suicidal drinking binge that left Vere with premature and fatal cirrhosis that killed him in 1986. Nielen was banished to Granny Anne’s house where he was joined by Allan a short while later.
The relationship between Allan and Nielen was close. Allan was introverted, totally lacking in any self-esteem, and already a self-professed failure. Nielen, by contrast, was confident, brash, motivated and determined. Allan’s musical ideas and Nielen’s lyrical prowess gave them both a new way to express themselves.
We’ll pick up the band’s story after the song, ‘The San Diego Sniping Event’, which was written about the same incident that Bob Geldof’s ‘I don’t like Mondays’ portrayed, about a young girl who turned a weapon on her schoolmates.
Now that you have an idea of the players, let’s take a look at their career. An important component to Falling Mirror’s sound was one of the big names in local music at the time, Tully McCully. He had become an institution in South African music with a number of bands, but especially the hit-machine McCully Workshop. This man’s story is a fascinating journey through some of our country’s biggest names and I will do a feature about (or write his biography) one day. By the time Allan and Nielen approached him with a demo, Tully had already established his successful Spaced Out Studios in Cape Town.
Tully knew both cousins from his teenage years, and Allan had spent some time as a guitarist in the McCully Workshop line-up. This where he gained his first recognition and success as a guitarist, It is his blistering guitar solo that you can hear on the workshop’s hit single, ‘Why Can’t it Rain’. The first demo songs Tully heard from his old friends were, ‘Time (Is a Thief)’ and ‘I am an Actor’ which ended up being the opening tracks of the debut, Zen Boulders, album.
It took just one listen for Tully to decide that there was a market for Allan and Nielen’s music and offered to produce an album for them at his studio. Nielen had adopted the name Nielen Mirror by this time, and at the suggestion of a friend ‘Faull and Mirror’ became Falling Mirror.
Tully had a knack for getting the best out of this odd duo, and Allan described him as a musical film director. He would explain exactly what he wanted and how he intended getting it. This normally resulted in the perfect one-off take. This was intentional on Tully’s part as he knew that when a song went to multi-takes the band would lose interest and it would get progressively worse.
The debut, ‘Zen Boulders’ was finished in 1979 and Tully went to work previewing it to selected influential listeners. He wanted someone who could take the band’s sound to a new level, so he contacted Benjy Mudie. Scottish born Benjy had a love affair with SA music and as the A&R man for WEA, had a lot of clout. Benjy was impressed by Allan’s guitar work in particular and compared it to Mark Knopfler’s guitar excellence combined with the fractured trippiness of Syd Barrett in Nielen’s vocals. Benjy signed the band to WEA.
Time for another track, this time from their second album, Storming of the Loft. I’ve always liked this song and think it shows why they had such a cult following. Here’s ‘If I was James Dean’.
The response to ‘Zen Boulders’ was mixed and sales were slow. The New-Wave music fans picked the album as a favourite, loving the stoned energy and diverse range of styles and sounds on the album. Slowly but surely it gained cult-status.
The music critics were divided and confused, mainly because they didn’t have a live band to link the album with. This was because Allan wouldn’t play any live gigs. In fact, it was only in 1986 that he was convinced to perform a series of live gigs at Kalk Bay’s famed Brass Bell to support their 4th album ‘Johnny Calls the Chemist’.
Tully and Benjy decided to get the cousins back into the studio to record a second album. Their Storming of The Loft was released in 1980 and had a more mature feel. Although there were some commercially-inspired tracks like Neutron Bop, they retained enough quirk-factor to maintain their cult status. Again, their album didn’t make the waves intended, and when their third album, Fantasy Kid, produced no singles they called it quits for a few years.
Had they not made a comeback with the 1986 album, Johnny Calls the Chemist, they may not be remembered as well, or as fondly, as they are. At the time the album was considered the most disturbing and complex concept album to have been produced in South Africa. The title track documents Nielen’s obsession with Colleen, a girl working in a Wynberg chemist shop, and gives a fleeting glimpse into his complex and troubled mind.
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. He felt it might prevent people from appreciating and understanding the intended concept. Although sales were as disappointing as with the first three albums, major radio station 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’s going”. That sounds about right!
The compilations Best Of Falling Mirror (1989) and Shattered (1992) were released with some bonus tracks, but no real original works were heard. In 1996 Allan and Nielen laid down some tracks to what was to have been the 5th studio album, ‘Hammerhead Hotel (Psychos Welcome). It never was released but three of the tracks are available from the band’s website.
Allan Faull sadly passed away from a heart attack in 2013 while recording a new album. The band bravely played on until 2016 when they called it a day, bringing the story of one of our country’s first cult bands to a close.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into a small corner of South African musical history as much as I have had compiling it. To close I have chosen the first song the cousins gave to Tully McCully on the demo tape that started their career, ‘I Am the Actor’.
The Loving the Music features are written and compiled by The Design Train to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that does more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021