My life in 10 songs by Brian Fallon

Brian Fallon sums up his life in 10 classic songs

On July 29, 2015, The Gaslight Anthem implied two words that strikes fear into the heart of every music fan: indefinite hiatus. In a statement to the fans, they wrote: “We’d like to recharge and take a step back until we have something we feel excited about rather than going right back to making a record just for the sake of making the next record.”

Their final show – for the time being – was at the Reading festival in 2015.

‘Alright, a proper break, this is going to be awesome!’ he thought as he dumped his bags in the hallway of his New Jersey home. Dreams of watching box sets, eating pizza and doing absolutely nothing faded away within a couple of weeks: Fallon had the creative itch and started writing what was to become his debut solo album, Painkillers, which was released in March.

Seven months later, he’s still on the road in support of his album. So what better time than now for him to talk us through the 10 songs that have soundtracked his life?

1. Bob Dylan – Just Like a Woman

“The first song that I think put me in a musical direction was probably Just Like a Woman by Bob Dylan, which I realise is not a very PC song now. I actually just had a think about how unacceptable that song would be in today’s day and age. But I think if you say something like that without any malice or highbrow nature then you could reverse it and say ‘just like a man’ as well. I definitely had a moment with it recently though where I was like, ‘I would not write that song today.’ But it was a revelation at the time: it was just a guy with a guitar and some lyrics and not even a good voice. That kind of hit me and I said, ‘I could do that.’

“This was probably during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and I was listening to stuff like Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, but I wasn’t ever able to play like that, and growing up in suburban New Jersey I had no idea what Mr. Brownstone was. I was just pissed because I was in the suburbs and there was nothing to do. I was dealing with this whole lower middle-class frustration thing. Right after that, I heard the first Clash record and I made the connection between the harmonica that Joe Strummer was using with the harmonica that Bob Dylan was using.”

2. The Clash – (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

“This song has this kind of rocksteady beat over a little bit of a punk rock thing, but I could relate to it because it still sounded like folk music. It wasn’t over the top like the Sex Pistols, it was music from the street and for the people and it had a heartbeat. Joe was explaining the situation in the song much like Bob too, and something in my head just clicked where I was like, ‘This is the same.’ That sent me even further on my musical course.

“When I first heard Joe and Mick [Jones, lead guitarist in The Clash] get together and play those beats with the simple guitar stabs, I knew that all I cared about was lyrics. I didn’t care about the music or playing technical. Of course, I was only 13 years old and now I care much more about that, but at this point I just wanted to communicate my message and The Clash showed me the way. After that I got even deeper into storytelling punk rock music.”

3. The Jam – That’s Entertainment

“I think ‘Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude’ is one of my favourite lines ever written. ‘Days of speed and slow time Mondays / Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday’ – all that stuff, man. ‘Opening the windows and breathing in petrol.’ That was my life; we lived right by the gas station. I was like, ‘This sucks. I gotta get out of here.’ The song summed it all up perfectly. And it was all played on an acoustic guitar.

“I’d always look at the way that The Jam dressed, too. I’d say to myself, ‘Someday, I’m gonna be able to buy me them mod clothes, man.’ I still can’t afford them mod clothes, but whatever. I do my best! Anyway, after that was when I started getting into all the Sub Pop bands, like The Afghan Whigs.”

4. The Afghan Whigs – Crime Scene Part One

“I heard The Afghan Whigs real early on and I was like, ‘Alright, this is like soul music but it’s played by white guys from Cincinnati, and I don’t even know if they can play that well.’ They eventually could play really well, and they turned me on to this whole other way of thinking that showed me you could mix all these things together without ever crossing over into pop music, which I felt when I was younger was just not something that I related to.

Crime Scene Part One was a huge song for me because it was like a movie. It was brooding and there was something spooky about it, and then when you find out what it’s about it’s really scary. From there I went straight into Tom Waits.”

5. Tom Waits – Downtown Train

Downtown Train was the first song that I remember hearing by Tom Waits. It’s a great song. It also said everything that I wanted to say. I was 17 years old and I realised that I was never going to be a great singer because I had this weird voice, so I started looking at all the guys who had weird voices: Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer and Tom Waits. I aligned myself with those guys and said, ‘OK, let me see what they’re doing. What can I do to add to it?’ Tom Waits really put the icing on the cake for me because he was all about the lyrics and the delivery – nothing else mattered. He showed me that if you mean it enough then you could do anything you want.

“I loved his hobo dress sense as well. He looked like all the things that I was doing at the time because I was working on cars and I would wear the jeans and the boots and the blue shirt. We’d wipe our hands on the shirts because they were thick and you could wash them and the grease would come out; we’d wear the jeans so when you were leaning on the floor your knees wouldn’t rip; and we’d wear the boots so if you dropped the carburettor it wouldn’t break your toes. So there was a purpose for everything, and that’s why I sought of had a connection with these guys. I felt like Tom Waits was my friend, and I went down the rabbit hole after discovering him.”

6. Sam Cooke – Bring It On Home to Me

“I probably broke into the soul music next and started getting into Sam Cooke. Bring It On Home to Me would be the big one for me. That song showed me that speaking from the heart was the way to do it. I knew that I was never going to sing or play instruments like that, but I didn’t care.

“I was around 19 at this point and right around then I went back to Joe Strummer. I lost touch with The Clash for a while because I’d heard it, I’d studied it, and I’d put it away for a while. But then Joe came out with The Mescaleros records and I was back in.”

7. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – Johnny Appleseed

“I remember hearing Johnny Appleseed and being like, ‘Yo! This is another level.’ It’s got like this Caribbean rhythm, acoustic guitars and simple harmonies, and him talking about everything from ’49 Buicks – which I knew everything about – to Martin Luther King tand even the old folklore of Johnny Appleseed. I really related to everything he was saying. When he asks in the song ‘Do you hear what I’m saying?’ I was like ‘Yeah dude, I do hear what you’re saying.’ There’s that question that he poses, too: ‘Is what was once true now no longer so?’ I still carry that line around with me today.

“That song shaped another facet of me as well, because it showed me that you could still play music with punk energy but you don’t have to play punk songs. It showed me that you could be political and social and talk about relationships or whatever, and still have the forcefulness of punk rock without playing aggressive music. And I don’t have no time to spike my hair up. That’s more show to me. At the time I was like, ‘I can only afford one shirt. Why the hell would I rip it up? If I rip it up and it rains then I’m gonna get wet.’ I’ve always tried to stay in that thing that it’s not about what you look like: it’s about what you do. You have to believe it and you have to mean it.”

8. The Loved Ones – Jane

“There was a bunch of local bands that hit me after that, like The Loved Ones from Philadelphia, which Dave Hause was in. I heard that record Keep Your Heart and I was like, ‘This is a punk band with real songs.’ They were a real songwriter band. They reminded me of The Jam. Jane was the song that really got me.”

9. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

“Around this time I started heading out on tour and The Gaslight Anthem really started moving. It was just after The ’59 Sound came out. That was when I started learning about the music industry and how it all works, and how insincere it all is. People pick you up and spit you out. I was taking a drive one day and I heard The Promise by Bruce Springsteen come on the radio. But it wasn’t the album version; it was just him and a piano as it appears on an album called 18 Tracks.”

“This song opens with the lyrics: ‘Johnny works in a factory / Billy works downtown / Terry works in a rock and roll band / Looking for that million dollar sound.’ Then towards the end of the song he says: ‘The promise was broken, I was far away from home / Sleeping in the back seat of a borrowed car.’ I remember being on tour and sleeping in the back of a car that wasn’t mine, and I heard that line and I was like, ‘I don’t know about this whole thing. I don’t know if this is right. What do I do?’ As Springsteen sings: ‘The promise is broken, you go on living / It steals something from down in your soul.’ That’s when I realised that music wasn’t about the rock star dream. It’s about connecting with people, but that’s not enough for the industry. They see you as a product and they want you to make money, and I understand that, but it’s never enough for them. They’re never satiated and they’re never satisfied. It’s a beast with a belly that will never be filled.

“I’d feel a sense of dissatisfaction after every tour and I’d come home and get in my van and just drive. I’d drive around habitually for one hour playing The Promise on repeat, just to clear my head. The song made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like someone understood me. It was a huge, huge song for my development, and it always put me back in a perspective that I wasn’t alone. And even though it’s a depressing song and there’s not a lot of advice in it, it makes sense to me. I still feel good when I listen to that song.”

10. Dire Straits – Romeo and Juliet

“In more recent years, I decided if I was going to play acoustic punk music I wasn’t going to be the guy that just bangs on a guitar. I wanted to learn how to play guitar and use it to dictate what I needed to say, as well as my lyrics. So I took online lessons to learn about finger picking and I learnt Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits, note for note. I think it’s one of the most beautiful love songs in the world, and I love the fact that he doesn’t even sing it. He just talks it. I adore Mark Knopfler for that. He seems so unaffected in this song. He didn’t care about Wham! or Oingo Boingo or whatever was popular at the time. He just said, ‘I’m singing like this and I’m finger picking because that’s what I love.’ That goes right back to Bob Dylan for me: from Just Like a Woman to Romeo and Juliet. And when I finally learn how to play that song note for note I’m going to play it for people.”

Brian Fallon’s album Painkillers is available through Island and is on tour now.