Simon Wolstencroft is a musician from Manchester, England, best known for playing drums with The Fall between 1986 and 1997. He was a member of The Patrol, an early incarnation of The Stone Roses, with childhood friends Ian Brown and John Squire and was also drummer for Freak Party which featured Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke. After leaving The Fall, he went on to reunite with Stone Roses singer Ian Brown, performing and co-writing on his Golden Greats album.
His memoir You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide was published by Strata Books in 2014. Thanks to Simon for this contribution to our Debut series in which he recalls the recording of his debut album Bend Sinister by The Fall … (contains adult content!)
Debut: ‘Bend Sinister’ – The Fall
by Simon Wolstencroft, Jan 2015
I was poached by Mark E Smith, lead singer of cult Salford post-punk band, The Fall, through no more than being in the right place at the right time.
Scouted in a support band. A covert meeting in a hire van. Directions to a semi in Prestwich. A contract signed on a scrap of paper over whiskey in the boss’s back room.
‘D’you fancy a pint cock?’
I was in – or so I thought. There was a period of limbo while the band’s existing drummer, Karl Burns, saw out the upcoming tour in America, unbeknown to him, his every beat to an imminent coda.
Karl had been the root of one too many upsets with the band’s leadership – Mark and his wife, Brix Smith, the Fall guitarist and backing singer.
It can be a ruthless game – I even wished Karl good luck before he left for the States – but I wanted in. I felt I’d missed too many opportunities. I’d turned down The Smiths and fallen out with Terry Hall’s latest project The Colourfield, leading to a career frying egg and chips in a council canteen.
April came and I breezed through the audition. I later found I wasn’t a unanimous choice, but Mark and Brix wanted me in and that was that.
Mark and Brix struck an unlikely couple. The cantankerous chain smoking Salfordian who liked nothing more than scowling over a pint in a near empty backstreet boozer, and the sweet American with an ambitious core, who favoured designer shops and fancy restaurants. I liked them both.
Bend Sinister was the first album I drummed on, the ninth overseen by the prolific Mark E Smith, who was at the same time writing a play. It was 1986, The Fall were signed to Beggars Banquet Records and I was lucky enough to be reaping the rewards of the band’s increased popularity.
I reported for duty at Yellow 2 studios, a unit on an industrial estate off the A6 in Stockport, which made little attempt to disguise the fact. I don’t know if there was a Yellow 1 but I was glad we weren’t in Yellow 3.
Mark was recording vocals for ‘U.S. 80’s-90’s’ through his plastic Tandy loudhailer which also had buttons to play various pre-programmed tunes like ‘Yankee Doodle Dandee’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.’ For a laugh, he would stealthily come up behind you and turn the thing on at full blast. He was like an infant bashing at a Fisher Price toy and it pissed Brix right off.
‘MARK! Seriously?! Would you stop?’
And off Mark would toddle, cackling gleefully.
Chris Nagle, a protégé of Factory Records producer Martin Hannett, was engineering at Yellow 2 and got on well with Mark, carrying out Mark’s instructions whilst the singer sat in the snug of The Black Lion, which backed on to the estate.
Mark mostly wanted me to keep the drumming simple and not do any rolls – citing the old story about James Brown fining his drummer for hitting the toms. If he did have an idea he’d stand right over me, putting me off, slobbering, unidentified powder in his nostril, air drumming like some mad conductor.
For several years I’d been chasing the dragon by way of a pastime. Now I’d joined a group of alcoholic speed freaks. One extreme to the other.
I would spend most of the day laying down backing tracks with the rest of the rhythm section – the argumentative Craig Scanlon and shop steward Steve Hanley.
Periodically, our leader would come in, halfway through a take, and physically try to correct Craig’s posture, one hand on the small of his back, the other trying to force his shoulders into line, as Craig played on, cursing.
‘Stand up straight. Stop slouching.’
The take collapsed, me and Steve sniggering away, as Craig, unimpressed with the amateur chiropractor, took swigs from the ever-present can of Special Brew on top of his amp.
‘Fuck off will yer,’ – swig – ‘fuck off.’
I’d joined The Fall in what Mark would years later describe as ‘The Glory Years’ and in line with the band’s success, we did the bulk of the recording at Abbey Road, with heavyweight producer John Leckie, who had worked with the likes of John Lennon and Pink Floyd.
The canteen and corridors hummed with classical musicians at the top of their game. Meanwhile, Mark would bang on to anyone who would listen that this lot could never play Fall music as you couldn’t write it down, so it confused them. Really proud of this, he was. He preferred self-taught musicians like myself.
On the other hand, Simon Rogers, who was in the band when I joined, was classically trained and a friend of Brix, so he would make allowances.
Most of the tracks were brought together in the studio, starting around riffs and structures that had previously been worked out by Brix, Craig or Steve. When Mark was happy that we had developed this into a tune, he’d put his vocals down, drawing the earmarked lyrics from the reams he kept in unmarked carrier bags.
I always wished we had more preparation as a unit. This was a constant feeling throughout my eleven years recording with The Fall, but especially so at this point as I had only played about half a dozen gigs with the band.
Another of Mark’s favoured methods of ‘writing’ was working around barely audible, scratchy recordings from his Dictaphone. It could be anything – an ice cream van outside his house, bashing a plastic guitar, background noise on the TV. Anything was a song.
He had another use for the Dictaphone. He liked to leave it recording, hidden behind the piano leg, and wander out, to see if we were slagging him off, which, considering his temperament and weird way of working, we usually were.
This was my introduction to The Fall recording process.
At about eleven, I set up my Tama Swingstar on a huge Persian rug at the back of the famed Studio 2. After snorting a stonking line of speed off the top of a grand piano, we set about our work under the watchful eye of Mark, who positioned himself with Leckie in the control room at the top of the stairs. The room’s natural sound was amazing with all that wood everywhere and I couldn’t help thinking I’d fallen on my feet.
Mark would disappear to the pub at lunchtime and we would play on, waiting for Mark to get back. I remember looking up one day and seeing Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran in the control room and wondered what our leader would have made of that. Eventually, Mark returned and I’d be drumming away, thinking, he’s gonna love this, this sounds great.
He would come over the headphones or shout from the top of the stairs rubbishing our efforts and demanding we do it again ‘from the top’.
Mark (and Craig) hated the time and expense of having to splice in bits of the tape if you’d gone slightly wrong. It wasn’t easy before the digital era and so Mark was insistent we got a clean take.
Despite his agreement on this, Craig seemed to get the bulk of the abuse.
Mark: ‘Craig stop fuckin’ showing off will yer and playing that heavy metal shit.’
Craig: ‘Fuck off.’
Mark: ‘This time play it with feeling. Like a snake!’
Whatever that meant.
Mark reminded me of a cross between hellraiser Jerry Lee Lewis and England football manager that never was, Brian Clough. It seemed that I was being spared the brunt of our singer’s bile as I was the new boy. As I’ve said, Craig seems to have been designated as whipping boy during my first year, with Steve acting as the band enforcer.
Divide and rule.
Brix, for her part, didn’t take any shit, and I thought she helped to keep the quality levels higher than they might have been and that we benefited from her pop sensibility.
Mark had certain ideas about the recording process.
If he didn’t like the sound of the drums, he might just kick over a couple of mic stands, saying we didn’t need them, as I heard the deafening crunch of the mics hitting the floor through my headphones.
‘Get your fuckin’ shit together! Do another take. One-two-three-four …’
Leckie’s approach to recording was more up to date and by the manual and his method had earned him a sizeable reputation. But Mark did not want to use effects if they could be avoided, or do separate tracks for separate instruments, or get a ‘big sound’.
‘Turn that reverb off the drums John. We’re not fuckin’ U2, you know.’
The two of them were oil and water.
Leckie was very calm, softly spoken, wore something purple every day, and this seemed to wind a speed fuelled Mark up no end. He hated anything vaguely hippyish and seemed to be constantly trying to get a reaction out of the producer.
But at times he overstepped the mark.
I remember hearing him shouting at Leckie, ‘get some work done cunt’,‘ which shocked me, but John seemed to brush it off. I could never understand why people put up with that kind of treatment. Perhaps he’d seen worse over the years.
After Leckie had got some work done and Craig had played it like a snake, we clocked off and had a look if there were any gigs on in town we wanted to see. Steve and Craig didn’t want to hang out with the boss so I felt obliged to hang out with the workers and show a bit of solidarity, even though I knew I’d have a better laugh with Mark. Despite his antics, he could have me in stitches on a night out.
Anyway, most nights, Brix and Mark would be out being wined and dined by John Lennard, our manager, who seemed to me a real life Playboy figure, driving a Porsche 911 convertible and getting me, Steve, and Craig on any guest list in town.
After watching a gig, we would return to our digs at the nearby Marriott Hotel at Swiss Cottage. Between the heroin withdrawal and speed taking, I didn’t get much sleep at all before getting a cab back to St Johns Wood the following morning and doing it all over again.
‘Fancy a line, Si?’ someone would invariably ask.
‘Go on then, just to be sociable.’
And we launched into the next tune.
Though I didn’t play on all the tracks, my favourites that I played on the album were ‘Realm of Dusk’,‘ ‘Mr Pharmacist’,‘ and ‘Terry Waite Sez’. All were recorded live, the way Mark liked.
Inevitably, things came to a head between Leckie and Mark. John refused to comply with Mark’s demand that the album be mastered from a cassette tape and never worked with the band again.
The album reached number 36 in the charts in September 1986 and spawned the indie classic ‘Mr Pharmacist’,‘ a single I could identify with… The band made a video for the track but I wasn’t in it – I don’t remember why. I was also, again for reasons unexplained, credited as ‘John S Woolstencroft’‘ on the album notes.
I’d get fans after shows saying, ‘Alright John?’ and I didn’t realise until it was too late that they were talking to me. I can’t decide if the credit error was a) a wind up b) because Mark thought it was too poncey to have two Simons in the band or c) just a cock up.
Bend Sinister was one of my favourite albums that I did with The Fall, although I felt that if we had spent more time on it, we could have had something much better.
Still, I was living the dream (of sorts), with plans for a tour in the autumn as well as the play, Hey Luciani, being thrashed out. I wondered where this strange adventure would take me next.
Simon Wolstencroft Links
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