Thursday, August 18, 2005

Baxtop -- Great Music, Crap Lyrics

WORK IT OUT (1979, CD re-issue 1993)

From the SA Rock Digest:


A short introduction that could easily have dripped from Chic's Nile Rodger's guitar then BAM! you're into the slickest, funkiest piece of music ever to emanate from the tip of Africa, or most places on the globe, for that matter. With it's wicked bass line, tight production and outstanding vocals, 'Jo Bangles' is a track designed to be played loud. When I first heard this, I was stunned and completely hooked and nearly wore out the tape playing this track.

After this, the album mellows out, but never loses its sheen. Larry Amos' vocals are unequalled by any South African male artist I have heard. Soul, blues and rock flow from his vocal cords with ease.

Then there's the guitar work. They can do funk (‘Jo Bangles’), blues (‘Foxey’), rock, (‘Golden Highway’), country (‘Take Me Into Your Heart’), Eric Clapton (‘Dr Watson’), George Benson (‘Dr Watson’ again). It all seems to flow. These guys are masters of their instruments.

'Dr Watson' is an epic track, starting out with a soulful sound that could have been included on Marvin Gaye's classic 'What's Going On', gets rockier, slides back to soul then features a brilliant George Benson-esque scat/ guitar section before finally easing back into Marvin mode.

'Golden Highway' has a 'Born to be Wild' feel to it with a great guitar work out and really rocks along. While 'Foxey' is a Clapton-esque laid back blues number. 'Night Time Train' continues in the same vein and could have come off Clapton's Unplugged album. 'Train' features a harmonica solo Stevie Wonder would have been proud of and rock 'n roll is the name of the game here. 'Song with No Name' is an instrumental that is bluesy and funky. The extra tracks on the CD 'Jody Babe' and 'Just Turned 20' are hard-core funk numbers reminiscent of Sly & the Family Stone.

I have made a lot of comparisons in this review, but as you will notice they are all to legends. This album is the slickest, chic-est funksoulblues album I've ever heard. A truly spectacular offering and I think that any of the artists mentioned above would have been proud to work with this talented bunch of guys had they even had the privilege to hear them. Highly recommended.

John Samson
August 2000


Way back in 1979 PopShop, then the most important pop music show on a single channel SABC-TV presented a Battle of the Bands of what was no doubt meant to be seen as the cutting edge of the local music scene. I cannot remember how many bands took part but only three names come to mind now, namely Raven, a heavy metal band of dire mediocrity fronted by Piet Botha who later found more fame and fortune as the leader of Jack Hammer, a kind of South African roots rock band of the Southern rock (as in USA)persuasion, and a more flamboyant assembly called The Rag Dolls whose lead vocalist went by the name of Rudy Froehling, had long blonde hair and dressed in a loose, stripey jumpsuit and went to Germany in the Eighties where he played with a band called Twelve Drummers Drumming; the other very strong visual memory of this band was their very large guitarist who clutched a normal sized Fender Telecaster high on his chest as if it was a toy guitar; he also had very short hair as if he was moonlighting while doing his National Service and maybe he was.

Another bit of trivia on Rag Dolls: not long after the Battle of the Bands and with their career sliding downhill fast the band decided to fire their manager one Patric van Blerk, a prime mover in SA rock music in the Seventies and Eighties, and the kind of guy who was not going to take lightly this attempt of his charges to break free of his iron managerial grip and he tried to shackle the individual members to him by invoking the terms of the management contract and doing his best to stop them from earning a living ion the local rock business if it was not under his management. Van Blerk and the individual Rag Dolls ended up in Court on opposite sides. It is good to report that the presiding judge found that the restraint clauses that Van Blerk was relying on in his quest to keep the musicians from working, were so onerous and unreasonable that they could not be upheld and found that the Rag Dolls were indeed fully entitled to terminate the contract with Van Blerk and to go their own way. Sadly the Van Blerk-free Rag Dolls broke up shortly afterward, not having succeed on their own where they’d failed under his Svengali-like guidance.

All in all it was clear that three years after punk and at a time when even the New Wave was starting to be old hat, the best South Africa had to offer in the rock idiom were a passel of bands and musicians who were firmly stuck in the mid-Seventies, tarted up here and there with a pretend punk attitude. It was provincialism at its worst and enough to make one feel ashamed of one’s own country for yet another reason.

The music performed by these bands was pretty awful too. Even if the musicians were competent due to the nature of their gigs as human juke boxes, they had no good songs.

It could have been a case of the one eyed man in the land of the blind but one band did stand out from the beginning and as soon as I saw and heard them I voted for Baxtop to win the Battle of the Bands. No surprise then, that they did.

Visually they were not much better than the other bands. Larry Amos, the vocalist and lead guitar player, had a big fluffy Afro and in general the band had long hair and dressed like refugees from the early Seventies. One funky aspect was the matching guitars played by Amos and Tim Parr, the other lead guitarist. At the time I pegged the axes as Yamahas but on looking at a the photograph on the cover of CD the re-issue of Baxtop’s debut and only album, it appears that the guitars were in fact by Ibanez, though still similar to the Yamaha. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t a sponsorship deal.

Where the band looked old-fashioned, their music matched the look, being of the genre then known as “West Coast rock,” laid back, funky, smooth and melodic. The major difference between Baxtop and the competition was that the original songs Baxtop played were far superior to anything anybody else had to offer and the band’s performance had a confident power that kicked sand in the other musicians’ eyes. Simply a superior product even if it also ignored all musical developments since 1976. My recollection was that their two songs we were entertained with over the length of the competition were “Jo Bangles” and “Golden Highway” – the jangly pop song, and first single, and the road cruising rocker respectively.

In 1993 Tusk Music, with Benjy Mudie as prime mover (and before he founded RetroFresh, his re-sue label) released the Baxtop album on CD, with three extra, previously unreleased tracks.

For reasons known only to themselves Tusk ditched the original vinyl album’s artwork nor is the original title, Work It Out, mentioned. The LP cover featured a illustration of a “funky” turtle and on the back there was a photograph of the band, dressed in their semi-glam, post hippie finery, draping themselves all over a play park climbing frame. The CD’s colour scheme is red and the front cover has a monochrome photograph of the band playing live; the back insert has nothing but the band name and song titles. I always considered the original album art to be rather cheap and shoddy and the CD design is far more elegant and pleasing but I would like to know why the original artwork could not be retained for a re-issue album.

The front insert tells us who the band members were and has the usual technical credits but sadly that is it. There is no history of the band or other photographs. As such it is obviously a cheap re-issue too, which makes the redesign of the sleeve even more puzzling. I would suspect that all the old band members are still around and it would not have taken a great deal of effort to at least give rudimentary band biography and career up-dates for the members.

Baxtop was a Big Thing for a short time after winning the PopShop Battle of the Bands but hit the typical ceiling fated for local bands in those days; the white rock market was only so large and local musicians had to compete with all the international releases, battle for air play and there was a limited gig circuit. Hardly the ideal situation for a musician who wanted to earn a living playing his own music. Baxtop released only the one album before breaking up. Larry Amos carried on with a local Johannesburg career either as a blues rock guitarist with the Larry Amos Band or as solo act or on occasion acting as guitar for hire. He might have recorded as a side man but as far as I know he has not released anything under his own name and lives the life of an ordinary everyday working musician.

Tim Parr founded Ella Mental, with his girlfriend, (and now ex-wife) Heather Mac. This band was probably the premier post New Wave band in South Africa dring the early to mid-Eighties, putting out a couple of albums, getting a lot of air play and gigging all over the country, for all intents and purposes having a “proper” rock career. In the late-Eighties the band decamped for Ireland (having an Irish passport was quite the thing in those days) either because they no longer liked the political climate in this country or because they were tired of being the big fish in our small pond and wanted new challenges such as attempting to establish an international career. Sadly Ella Mental did not “make it” over there and Tim Parr and Heather Mac returned to South Africa where he formed, amongst other projects, the Tim Parr Band and a few years ago released a solo album Still Standing, while Heather Mac chose the cabaret circuit, briefly fronting a group called the Free Radicals, but she has been quiet for a good few years now.

All the songs on the Baxtop LP were credited to Larry Amos only. The music was, as I’ve said, West Coast rock: an eclectic, unfashionable mix of tunes, harmonies, muscular riffing, jazzy interludes, dexterous lead guitar, accoustic bottleneck guitar and fluid blues slide guitar. Amos wrote some pretty tunes and sang them in a light, airy voice. The band plays tightly and the production is solid and workmanlike and gives a good indication of what the band must have sounded like as a live proposition. However, and this is a serious proviso, the side is let down by the lyrics. I presume Amos is a South African but he certainly had absorbed the most basic and banal hippy dippy lyrical clich├ęs in the American argot of the Sixties and early Seventies. Either Amos spent a lot of time hanging out with the wrong kind of Americans or he paid a lot of close attention to the wrong kind of records but it is difficult to think of a more American sounding record than Baxtop’s album. It almost sounded as if Amos had made up the words as he went along, the lyrics are that basic and bad. A lyric sheet was included with the LP packaging and for the life of me I never understood why; it was not as if Amos had bad diction and the lyrics would never be mistaken for “rock poetry.” I would have been embarrassed to have them published were I the songwriter. So, this is one record where one must ignore the trite, crappy lyrics and enjoy the performance: at least there are good tunes and strong playing, and two out the three ain’t bad going.

On the CD re-issue three “previously unreleased live in the studio” tracks have been tacked on to the original nine tracks. One is a J J Cale song, the other two are credited to the band. It is (mostly) always nice to have previously unheard out-takes, demos or live tracks added to an old LP now on CD, not least because the extra music makes better use of the length of playing time a CD offers, and because one is offered the opportunity of then catching a glimpse of the band behind the scenes as it were. Alas in Baxtop’s case Benjy Mudie has done the band a disservice. The extra tracks have nothing going for them except maybe rarity value. They sound like studio jams, and in fact sound so much alike with their trebly rock-funk riffs that it one might as well be listening to the same basic backing track with new sets of vocals, and on these tracks it must be just about true that the lyrics (there are no tunes) were made up on the spot. One of the gripes about previously unreleased stuff is that it is not a good idea to make public music that was not deemed good enough for release at the time. I have no idea why the extra Baxtop tracks were recorded, maybe they were demos, maybe the engineer just forgot to switch off the tape machine while the band was fooling around; whatever, these tracks are quite dull and wholly unimpressive performances and should rather have been left off the CD. Perhaps it is just a marketing ploy to entice fans who already own the LP to buy the CD. It would be interesting to know whether there are live recordings of the band and, if so, where they are and whether they are good enough to release; rocking live versions of the studio tracks would have been a real enhancement of the CD.

So, although having the album on CD is a good thing it would have been a much better thing if more effort or money could have been spent on the entire package, such as a potted biography and better additional tracks, for example concert performances. I can only imagine that Baxtop must have been an exciting live proposition and surely somebody must have had the simple common sense to record some of the gigs. I guess this project must have been early days for Benjy Mudie, a trial run for his RetroFresh label that specialises in re-issuing LP releases by long gone SA bands.

As an interesting footnote, Larry Amos is the lead singer for a local band of quasi supergroup proportions called Makhulu who released a CD on Spook Records. Amos is the singer and apparently plays no instrument on the cuts. The featured guitarist is Willem Fourie, a well known musician about town in Cape Town in the early to mid-Nineties as vocalist/guitarist with the Flaming Firestones last incarnation and thereafter front man for a couple of blues based bands. George van Dijk, late of Hotline and thereafter more active as song writer and producer, plays bass while someone called Junior J Botha (related to Piet Botha of Jack Hammer?) is the drummer. There is also a guy on piano and Hammond organ. From the song titles alone (none of which were written or co-written by Amos) this appears to be a mixture between blues and African music. Although all the participants are white.


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Richard said...

I'm trying to find somewhere on the net where I can purchase a CD of the original Baxtop release. Any ideas? Or even somewhere in Cape Town where I can send my brother to buy the CD (I live in Dublin, Ireland)