Guest Writer: John Williams ‘An Older Lover Etc’

John Williams has written books about murderers and cabaret singers, His long-forgotten first novel Faithless was set in the world of eighties Camden. He’s just finished writing a crime novel and continues to organise the Laugharne Weekend Festival –  You’ve probably bumped into him somewhere along the way.

Memoirs of the Punk Rock Era: An Older Lover Etc

I first heard the Fall, like 99.9 per cent of everyone else, on the John Peel Show. I could check their first session, some time in 1978, or maybe the end of 1977 but like I say… Anyway, it was the session with yeah yeah industrial estate on it. I’d been looking forward to it, because back then, in the first years of punk, there weren’t that many bands, and you’d read the live reviews in the NME and hear that so and so was good, and you’d wait with a sense of excitement until so and so made a record or did a John Peel session and you could find out whether it was true. And the best bands tended to keep you waiting: the Banshees, the Slits, the Subway Sect. Same thing with the Fall: I’d been reading about them for at least a year before I finally heard them. I hadn’t seen them live as I was locked up in a boys’ boarding school in Bristol at the time.

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In the summer of 78, however, I was released into the community, as one very alienated seventeen-year-old. The first thing I did, more or less, was to hitch around Britain, stalking the Patti Smith Group on their one and only tour of Britain. The support band were called the Pop Group, and they were from Bristol and I knew them slightly, so they let me hang around a bit and, after a gig in Edinburgh, they introduced me to a fanzine writer called Oliver Lowenstein, who offered to give me a lift to the next gig, in Manchester.
On the way Oliver told me he’d just finished working as a librarian in Camden, and that the job was easy to get and something of a doss. This was useful information that I would soon act upon. On our arrival in Manchester we had some time to kill, so he decided we should go and call on a band he’d recently interviewed, name of the Fall. They, or some of them at least, were in a standard-issue depressing seventies’ flat somewhere in north Manchester. I remember Mark and Kay being there, probably Marc Riley, mostly though I remember the keyboard player Yvonne Pawlett, and sitting next to her in the back of the car as they all piled in for a lift down to the gig. I was a month or so out of an all-boys school and I was utterly smitten. She was a girl, she was my age more or less, and she was in a very cool band and she liked Nico. Naturally I did nothing but blush and stammer.

Three months later I finally got to see the band live, up at the Marquee in London. They were supported by Manicured Noise who were friends of Oliver’s, and probably featured a young Jeff Noon. I don’t really remember anything at all about either band, to be honest. By then I was working as a librarian in Camden.

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Three more months and I was writing a fanzine of my own, entitled After Hours, with my mate Charles. We went along early to see the Fall at a gig at the Nashville in west London. I said hello to Yvonne and Marc and Mark and Kay and they introduced me to a guy called Rob who had hitched a lift down to London with them. Rob turned out to be the lead singer in a group called the Prefects who were even more of a cult thing than the Fall. No records, just one radical John Peel session.

After Hours Two

Rob was in London to sell a guitar that may or may not have belonged to him. The show was great. Staff Nine, with Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, supported, and their singer wore flares. Punk rock was over. The Fall were mighty and afterwards I watched Kay Carroll, a small woman, face up to the large and heavy Irish publican who was trying to underpay the band. He had a team of bouncers, but she was fierce. He gave in.
Afterwards Rob Lloyd came back to crash at our flat near Clapham Junction. We sat up most of the night drinking and recording an interview. Almost everyone I knew lived through music back then. Robert Lloyd hinted at a big wide world out there. The interview was full of eye-opening stuff about the Birmingham Pub bombings and prison and sex and Marlene Dietrich. Rob left in the morning and the tape was inaudible.
Another month or so and the Fall were back in town for what the music press was calling, for one week only, ‘the gig of the century’ – a show with the Mekons, Gang of Four and Stiff Little Fingers at the Lyceum Ballroom in London.

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According to our fanzine, which I’ve just dug up, the Fall had bottles thrown at them by the SLF fans. I have a feeling I wasn’t at the show itself but I suspect we may have hung around beforehand. Either way, the following lunchtime me and Charles met the band in a pub in Notting Hill, just round the corner from the record label, Step Forward, in order to conduct an interview.

Yvonne showed up with her new boyfriend. None other than Rob Lloyd. She had moved herself well out of my league, no question about that. The drinking was relentless. Somewhere along the way we paused for an interview. Reading it now it’s a bizarre Jesuitical wrangle over the finer points of not selling out. Set down verbatim in the fanzine it ends with Una Baines, the Fall’s ex-keyboard player, there in her role as guitarist Martin Bramah’s girlfriend, saying, ‘All these young kids now have a really positive attitude. I think it’s much better than it ever used to be, it’s getting better.’ To which I reply ‘Well, I don’t know.’ At seventeen, I had already lost faith in the younger generation.

The evening ends in a blur of drinking with Rob and Yvonne. Somewhere along the line we stop at the Virgin headquarters to demand money Rob reckons he’s owed. We buy carry-outs from a supermarket to drink while we wait. Then it’s up west. More drinking. My crush on Yvonne gets worse. Next day I have the flu and remember I have nowhere to live.

A couple of weeks later I check out of the library job and spend my earnings on taking the magic bus to Greece (seventy-two hours on a knackered coach for £30 – a bargain). The day I get back to London, having spent all night on the bus, I check the NME and discover the Fall are playing in Cambridge. An hour so on a coach later, and I’m there. Craig and Steve from Staff Nine have joined the Fall by now, while founder member Martin has left. I go for a drink with Marc Riley, Yvonne, Craig and Steve. Yvonne was probably the only one of us legally old enough to drink, it strikes me now.

By the time the gig starts I am beyond tired. There’s a slew of support bands: one, the Dolly Mixtures, are fantastic and I tell them so but they don’t seem to believe me. Later on I fall asleep, my back to the wall of the Corn Exchange. Later still I try to negotiate a lift back to London with another support band, and then Marc Riley suggests I kip on the floor of their b&b.

So that’s what I do, Sneak into a suburban b&b already crammed with Marc and Craig and Steve and, oh yes, Yvonne. Yvonne’s on the camp bed, I’m on the floor. In the morning Marc smuggles up pieces of toast from breakfast, and I make it outside without being spotted by the landlady. The van’s heading north, but I decide it’s time I went back home to Cardiff. Yvonne’s going to Birmingham to see Rob. We both get dropped off at spaghetti junction, walk round endless ring roads, and have a cup of tea somewhere. Yvonne’s in a hurry to see Rob. I make a halfhearted attempt to hitch, then get a coach back to Cardiff.

That was the last time I saw Yvonne. Not long afterwards I received a postcard from Rob saying he was getting a new band together with her, and she’d left the Fall. By then I was living back in Cardiff, in a grim shared flat and playing in a band of my own. We were called the Puritan Guitars and we sounded a bit like the Fall would have done if they really couldn’t play their instruments.

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I went up to London and saw the Fall a few times. Once I hitched up to Manchester to see the Fall and the Watersons on the same weekend. The Watersons, a traditional folk singing family from Hull, were my new favourite band. By that time punk rock was well and truly over. The Puritan Guitars made a single and I couldn’t bear to listen to it. We played a handful of gigs, culminating in a show in London, with Geoff Travis from Rough Trade and most of the Pop Group in attendance. We were useless, it seemed to me, the end of something that had had its day, and I split the band up that night.

The Fall, though, were still a part of my life. More so really since I’d moved back to Cardiff: the sense of outsider-dom that’s at the heart of Mark’s shtick resonated easily. Rowche Rumble seemed to sum up the kind of grey provincial, increasingly post-industrial cities we both lived in.

I used to write a lot of letters, back then. I must have written to Mark E. Smith because somewhere I have letters from him. When I was in Manchester to see the Watersons I’d visited Mark and Kay at their flat in Prestwich. They were both suffering from terrible speed comedowns, but I still felt oddly as though they were my parents. Was I aware that Kay was older than Mark? I’m not sure. I remember walking to the bus stop with Mark and he pointed out the pub where he would go drinking with his father. It had never occurred to me that people – especially people in the music business – went drinking with their fathers. To me it had seemed like we all had to stride off alone, leaving all that family stuff behind, that we had to be self-invented. No wonder I felt so adrift and in need of guidance.

Guidance came when I went up to London, to help master a single by my friends The Janet & Johns. We were in this office in Portland Place, where a man called Porky used to master almost every record that was made. We got there earlier and found the Fall mastering their live album, Totales Turns. We sat in the corner and listened and a track called New Puritan came on. At a certain point Mark’s voice stopped even approximating singing and said the words ‘There’s more to life than your record collection, John’. (Actually, now I’ve checked I realise the words are actually ‘I curse your preoccupation/With your record collection/New puritan has no time /It’s only music, John.’) Were the words meant for me? God knows. Either way they hit home. I needed a life, a girlfriend, some fun, not to listen to the John Peel Show every night.

I did my best. Over the next year, I moved flat, got a job in an anarchist printers, met girls, went to the pub more often , missed the one time that John Peel played the Puritan Guitars single. I made a plan, bought a van, formed a nine piece doo wop group. We would go to Paris and sing and dance and leave the greyness behind.

Our departure was set for the 1st of May. A week before that the Fall finally came to Cardiff. They were playing at the university. That afternoon we rehearsed the busking act for the second time. Around six o’clock I went over the university, and walked into Kay Carroll.

‘Hey John,’ she said ‘have you got a band?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Of course’.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘can you support us tonight?’

‘Sure,’ I said and drove round Cardiff desperately mopping up band members before they went out for the evening. In the end I think there were eight of us on stage, playing rolled up newspapers and kazoos and singing Barbara Ann and Willie O’Winsbury. We went down a storm, got the first and last encore of my performing career. Afterwards we hung out in the Fall’s dressing room till Kay got fed up with us and kicked us out.

A week later , as The Skeleteens, we went to Paris. Another month or so of singing and travelling and the remaining six of us, four boys and two girls, wound up in Amsterdam, went to check out a place called the Melkweg, a kind of arts centre with added dope-dealing operation. The Fall were standing in the courtyard; as it turned out, they were playing there that night.

‘Hey John,’ said Mark catching sight of me in with a four-week beard and clothes from a Paris flea market, ‘you’ve turned into a beatnik.’

The Fall had made a new record called Slates, a ten inch lp. There was a song called Older Lover Etc on it. The refrain went ‘You’d better take an older lover’, repeated again and again before the pay off comes – ‘You’ll soon get tired of her’. Did I know Kay was older than Mark? I must have intuited it – there had been a story that went round the punk rock scene that Mark and Kay had met in some kind of mental institution. One of them was a patient and one was the nurse. Except no one was quite sure which. When it came to the band, though, Kay was matron all right.

That summer I shed my new puritanism, moved to London, got a job in a record shop, started taking speed, going to clubs, the usual. I stopped listening to the John Peel show. Accepted that the world wasn’t changing, at least not the way I’d thought I wanted it to. I started to fit in – we all did.

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Then I saw the Fall play a big London gig, an awful band called the Au Pairs supported, pulling Rolling Stones poses. It was all starting to feel like business as usual in the world of rock’n’roll. Next time the Fall were in London they were supported by something called Danse Society. I didn’t go. At the record shop I moved from the indie department to the soul boy basement, started listening to Maze and Luther Vandross. Marc Riley left the Fall at the end of 1982. The following year, I went to college. I saw Marc’s new band play their first London show at the end of 1983. He told me that Mark and Kay had split up half way through an American tour.

That was the end for me. It’s like when your friends split up and despite all your best intentions you end up being friends with one and not the other. Except it was more than that, it was like my parents splitting up. For me, The Fall had been like a mom and pop shop, and I wasn’t really interested now it was just the pop shop.

A while later I met a woman six years older than me, with a child. We got together, and then she went on holiday. While she was away I met a Japanese woman, a singer in a band. We went for a walk in Hyde Park. She told me her favourite Fall song was An Older Lover etc. I left her in the Serpentine Gallery at the end of the afternoon. I waited for my older lover to come back. I’ve never seen The Fall since.

Read John’s previous guest contribution ‘Baffling Smoke Signals’ here.

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