A feature by Mick Middles, featured in Sounds Magazine
Turning down the drum seat in The Smiths, albeit in a Smiths lost in the uncertainties of their first demo, proved a hinge moment. For lesser men, that one decision might gain intensity down the years. Every time, perhaps, Morrissey’s vocals howled from a radio; every time he might encounter Stephen Wright’s iconic photograph of the band standing solemnly in front of Salford Lads Club.
For Simon Wolstencroft, a highly talented sticks-man who would go on to endure eleven torrid but brilliant years with The Fall and then a less tortuous spell with Ian Brown.
But it was The Smiths incident that eventually provided the inspiration to write a memoir.
In this instance, Simon was relaxing in front of a television from which BBC’s Mastermind was seeping. A Scottish contestant with the specialist subject of ‘The Smiths’ was asked by presenter John Humphries, ‘…who played drums on the first Smiths recording?’
The moment seemed elastic. Them, eventually, came the reply.
‘That God he got it right,’ the drummer explains in the book.
‘Gone, but not entirely forgotten.’
Recorded at Decibel Studios, The Smiths demo featured two songs, ‘Suffer Little Children’ and ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ although the former was called ‘Over the Moors’ at the time. It was all too much for Wolstencroft, who felt uneasy about the singer and frankly, found his lyrical subject matter, ‘…incredibly depressing.’
‘I was massively into funk at the time,’ he told me, over pints in Flixton.
‘Light of the World, George Clinton…uplifting stuff like that. I didn’t like the name The Smiths and I felt that this was another new band with unrealistic hopes of making it big. I had already seen a lot of that. Musicians becoming delusional. I couldn’t see why this would be any different.’
Simon couldn’t have known at the time, but, three years before his brief stint with The Smiths, he had already performed in a band featuring future Manchester icons. As drummer with the Trafford based outfit, The Patrol, he found himself gigging frequently alongside his college mates Ian Brown and John Squire.
‘The Patrol were a punk bank, really,’ he said.
‘We were learning our chops…performing to a few aggressive looking punks in Stretford and Sale. Youth clubs…places like that.’
Unlikely venues indeed, which included a youth club in the picturesque Cheshire village of Lymm and, even more rural, Dunham Massey Village Hall, during which they performed a steely version of The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’, with Ian Brown on vocals. (Any video footage of THAT would surely hit viral).
Such tales postulate on every early pages of this punchy and addictive memoir. Written in conjunction with freelance journalist, Stuart Bisson-Foster, You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide proves as endearing and self-effacing as Wolstencroft himself. While he could so easily have dipped to an Otway-esque barrage of angst and glorified failure, Simon neatly assembles his many triumphs with not a jot, no a hint, not a flicker of bitterness nor ego. Yet another near miss – a performance with Terry Hall’s Colourfield on The Tube – flicks by before the true meat of the tale, that eleven year stint with Mark E. Smith and cohorts, reverses into view. Of course, this lengthy section add the book to the unholy genre of ‘The Fall’ book, to which I have also languished. At last count. And there may well be more, 12 such tomes crowd this elite area. An extraordinary amount of work based on a band who, while obviously granted ‘God-like’ status in areas of alternative media, remain generally lost in the shadows of any kind of mainstream. Interestingly enough, I believe all the books offer fresh perspectives. Odd too, how different Simon’s account seems from Fall veteran Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek, published earlier in the year. So…why is it all so interesting. What is it that drives ex-members to share their thoughts?
‘Well it is down…mainly to the fact that Mark is a truly unique and complex character,’ explained Simon.
‘I really think that people are genuinely fascinated by how and why someone behaves in such a way and what it is really like to be a part of that band. Whether you like them or not, there is nobody quite like them, is there.’
‘Must have been hell’, I mused.
‘Not really,’ countered Simon. ‘For the most part, he was really good with me. I remember when I first met him, he took me to one side and we had a pint. He was very friendly and very supportive. This is why the book isn’t bitter…simply because I had an incredible 11 years, going round the world, playing in some extraordinary places while featuring on, what I believe, to be some of the peak albums of The Fall’s history. It is something to be proud of.’ (The Frenz Experiment, Cerebral Caustic, I Am Kurious Orange, Shiftwork, Code Selfish, Middle Class Revolt).
The rather large ‘downside’, to life in that particular band, is mostly delivered in good humour. Even the moment- and typical of Mark, this, I can vouch – when Mark emptied a pint of ale over Simon’s head, mid-song for absolutely no reason. That is the split second when you when you cross the line from drink buddy to worker drone. Life is never quite the same again. (I cross that divide after 30 years of friendship after the publication of the book I co-wrote with Mark. It is a strange and bewildering experience).
‘I was absolutely furious…I felt degraded and simply had no idea whatsoever why he did that,’ explained Simon.
‘I decided I was just going to leave…just couldn’t see myself putting up with that kind of shit. I had pretty much grown accustomed to mark’s on-stage belligerence…tapering with mics and speakers and all that. I even had a dummy mic set up in front of my bass drum so, when Mark came and knocked it away, it made no difference at all. I don’t think Mark ever twigged. But the beer was a step too far for me. He deliberately degraded me in front of the audience and the band. I just thought, ‘what an absolute cunt’. Eventually Craig and Steve calmed me down. They basically explained, ‘Look he is just a ‘dick-head’, you have to learn to deal with it.’
I have often wondered, as so many have over the years, if Mark’s testy tampering ever had any positive effect on the music whatsoever, or is it just mere showmanship?
‘Mostly it is just nonsense and serves only to wind the musicians up. It could be, of course, that it retains an edge to the music…that’s is what people say but I’m not so sure. During my spell there were some exceptional musicians in that band and, frankly, most were beyond that kind of shit. True enough, that is what people come to see and I can understand that. But, day in, day out, it gets wearing, to say the least.
‘Not that I have any regrets at all. I got to travel the world, see some amazing places. At the band’s peak we were getting around £300 per week, which wasn’t bad at all. It dropped later, when the band fell out of fashion a bit. There were times when it just didn’t seem worth all the hassle of travel and touring with a group. Especially when the leader treats you like shit. I started to wonder what kudos there actually was with this. At least in a major selling band you get financial reward.’
Simon left The Fall in 1997. The period, post Middle Class Revolt marked something of a low point for the band.
‘Crowds were getting thin and people were turning up to heckle and take the piss out of Mark.’
There were other contributing factors. Mark hadn’t, as promised, paid a large VAT bill leaving Simon in fiscal jeopardy…although he jettisoned himself from The Fall in the nick of time as the band surged into the Julia Adamson era.
Before long, Simon was happily driving cabs in Altrincham, mercifully estranged from despotic rock stars. He didn’t see Mark again for 14 years.
There is a neat couple of twists towards the conclusion of the story, with Simon performing again in Ian Brown’s band and, later, with ACR’s evergreen Jez Kerr. A couple of chance meetings with Mark in Manchester pubs seems to have softened the angst.
‘I am happier than I ever was,’ he told me.
‘I still play but my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. I drive vans and that seems to suit me.’
‘And you write books,’ I remind him.
‘Oh yeah…that,’ he laughed, as if it had completely slipped his mind.