You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide
Pontefract: Route, 2017
“I’ve heard Mark likened to the late football manager Brian Clough. I discovered that Mark was an admirer and could see similarities in their man-management style. They both wanted to be very hands-on with their players and didn’t suffer fools gladly. If Mark saw potential in a ‘new signing’ and actually liked you, he would encourage you to develop your style. In my case he kept telling me to keep the beat simple and to keep drum rolls to a bare minimum (p.91).”
In various ways, this passage encapsulates the story of Simon Wolstonecroft, one of the great survivors of The Fall, whose vocalist Mark E. Smith managed to keep up a relentless change of personnel in what he considered to be his band. By keeping the beat simple and therefore not attracting too much of Smith’s attention of fuelling displeasure by appearing to seek the limelight, he lasted for a decade with the band and seems to have escaped with his mental health more or less intact. Along the way, he has been able to tour Europe, Japan, Australia, America and other places that might otherwise have been beyond the reach of the son of a GP who lacked aptitude for academic studies and a knack of getting into dodgy situations. Funky Si – that is how he would have liked to have played if he had had the choice – may be seen as a fortunate survivor.
However, there is another way he might have told his story. As a boyhood friend of both Johnny Marr and Ian Brown, he was only a drumstick’s breadth away from playing either with The Smiths or The Stone Roses, which would have been likely to lead to international superstardom and all the privileges that rank implies. Instead, he drummed for The Fall with all of the psychodrama involved with that.
“After receiving instructions from Mark over the phone from a hotel near Seattle airport, the tour manager was thrown off the bus in the middle of downtown by Steve (bassist Hanley) and Karl (percussionist Burns). He cut a sad figure as he trudged off to catch a bus back to his native Boston.
With a complete lack of management and crew, Steve was asked to take control of the tour. But it had been chaos.
Worse, the gigs were only half-full, if we were lucky (p.193).”
Given a half-serious offer from Noel Gallagher, when Oasis were also going through a period of turmoil, it is not surprising that Wolstonecroft occasionally questioned whether he had been making the right choices. He was certainly bold in his willingness to experiment with drugs, as the saying has it. There are brushes with the police and lost nights out. His marriage ends badly and he is left with very little: “Memory is a fickle thing. I’m 50 now at the time of writing and even if I had a good memory, a lot of these stories happened when I as as high as a kite (p.265).” Perhaps this is one reason why his recollections can seem a little trite and his personal philosophy occasionally veers into David Brent territory. Yet how many interesting drummers are there in the world, especially in the world of rock’n’roll? The traditional role of the drummer is to be slightly out of control, producing a terrible racket at the centre of the band that is inspired by otherwise unreleased creative energy. That is the role played in The Fall by Karl Burns, who was in and out of the band several times during his career and with whom Wolstonecroft necessarily had a somewhat ambivalent attitude. Karl Burns liked to blow things up – there is a story of a barbecue in Smith’s garden which began with an explosion because of the over-enthusiastic application of petrol and concludes with MES having some kind of seizure and having to be taken away by ambulance. Had Funky Si explored his funkiness musically more extensively would it have helped to develop his own inner self? This is not necessarily the case since Burns seems incapable of living within human society and his whereabouts have been a mystery for a number of years.
One wonders what Wolstonecroft will do with the rest of his life. Being a member of The Fall never did pay very well and there is evidence to suggest that MES kept more than his fair share of what was generated. A number of personal relationships seem to resemble burnt bridges, although some might be repaired in time. He ends on a cheerful note, mentioning his daughter, his new girlfriend and his ongoing interest in making music still. His attitude is positive: “Today, I’ve never been busier. I feel happier than ever and appreciate the life I have led. I’m not proud of the drug abuse and the affairs, but what has happened has happened. I’m fortunate, in some ways, to be alive, considering some of my earlier lifestyle choices (p.277).” I’m pleased to have read this book but I wonder whether its appeal might be a little limited to those have not been fans of The Fall.