Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Nico Burger Was The Greatest

On Sunday 5 January 1997 I heard that Nico Burger had died “some time last year.” My informant was not specific about the cause of death except to mention that he thought it had something to do with Nico’s liver; possibly cirrhosis, for Nico had been a heavy drinker in the last years of his life.

If I remember correctly Nico told me that he too was born in 1959 and we must have been contemporaries at the University of Stellenbosch in the period 1977 to 1981 although he was studying for, and obtained, an “ordinary” BA degree, majoring in Philosophy whereas I graduated with BA LLB. I never knew him while I was at Varsity, nor was I even aware of his existence. In fact, I befriended only a handful of my university contemporaries with whom I eventually at least had limited social contact even if we did not become firm friends. I became friendly with a few more during my National Service and a few more over the past ten years of living in Cape Town. Here, from 1989 onwards, I ran into a whole coterie of Stellenbosch university alumni, previously unknown to me, some of whom were my exact contemporaries, some graduating earlier or after me.

Nico Burger was never a good friend of mine. I would not really classify him as a friend. At best he was an acquaintance with whom I felt a certain affinity coloured by fan-worship. The inter-personal relationship started out as the normal distant admiration a fan has for his idol and we never really got closer, mostly due to my own reticence and inability to make friends easily, especially with males. The thing was, though, that for a long time Nico was the only local guitarist I rated. The best part was that he was here in South Africa and I could experience his playing at first hand.

I had my first taste of Nico’s guitar playing magic in 1982 at the upstairs room of De Akker, a student bar and restaurant in Dorp Street, Stellenbosch. Nico was the guitarist for a typical good time bar band called Slap’n’Tickle who were gigging at De Akker at the time.

De Akker is situated about three quarters of the way down Dorp Street, coming from town centre and heading towards the railway station, very much off-campus although there were a few student houses in the immediate vicinity. Downstairs there was a conventional steak-house restaurant cum bar. The upstairs room had a separate entrance on a side street and was decorated to resemble a beer hall with lots of dark wooden beams and heavy, rough-hewn wooden tables and benches. As far as I know, it was at that time also almost the only venue in Stellenbosch where “live” music was offered on a regular basis. Even though it was a university town, at that time Stellenbosch was not very entertainment friendly -- the city fathers were not in favour of discos or live rock music. The strict by-laws were so ridiculous that Saturday night gigs had to end on the dot at twelve midnight. It could also have had something to do with the Liquor Act and laws governing the observance of the Sabbath, The bar closed and the band had to stop playing. It was all right to carry on drinking whatever you had purchased before closing time. Last orders were called at about 23h45 and everyone who was still thirsty would rush up to buy a handful of beers.

Anyway, in late in mid-1982 I was home on a week’s leave from my National Service training Unit in Voortrekkerhoogte and I’d been invited by Dan Lombard and Piet Steyn, my mates from the Law Faculty and who were friends with the members of Slap’n’Tickle, to accompany them on an evening’s roistering. Dan was also doing National Service while Piet was then a State Prosecutor.

I do not recall much about the music the band played except that it was pretty much your standard pub rock’n’roll with a smattering of blues and R & B. My companions, who included Dan’s brother, took some LSD and though they were happy to share this information with me, never offered to share any of the drug. I just got drunk on Tassenberg and even now they still recall the sight of me swaying drunkenly in front of the stage, about half a metre away from the saxophonist (Rob Nagel, I guess), confronting the latter eyeball-to-eyeball with my drunken enthusiasm for his playing. The guitarist who was identified as one Nico Burger also impressed me.

From mid-September to mid-October 1983 I was at home on leave for four weeks. By that time I was working as a Military Law Officer in Windhoek. During the second last week of my stay, I happened to pick up a reference to a certain Nico “Killer” Burger in an entertainment column in Die Burger. At that stage Nico Burger was the guitarist for a rock band called All Night Radio, which was due to play a Wednesday night gig at De Akker. I recalled Nico’s guitar prowess and I headed out to De Akker, ten minutes’ walk from my mother’s house. I thought that I might get drunk again and was not going to drive drunk when the venue was so close.

All Night Radio was by all accounts the brainchild of Steve Louw, the vocalist and songwriter. Nico played guitar. Pietje Rommelaert, a sound technician of Belgian extract and still a gigging musician in Cape Town as guitarist for the Dolly Rockers, played second guitar. Rob Nagel played bass, saxophone and blues harp and Russell Weston drummed.

My only lasting recollection from that first night was that All Night Radio sounded like a kind of New Wave pop band, playing that interesting mixture of trebly, scratchy rhythm guitar and melodic semi-reggae bass, with quite a bit of saxophone. This was a sound that was so typical of a certain kind of New Wave band in the late Seventies and early Eighties. One or two of the songs had catchy hooks but all in all I was not too impressed.

My National Service period came to an end in December 1983 and I returned to Stellenbosch where I lived at my mother’s house until June 1984.

Early in January 1984 All Night Radio started a three-month weekend residency at De Akker. There was nothing much else to do in Stellenbosch over the weekends and so I started going out to De Akker. I would never have gone to a pub just to drink, especially not by myself, and the live music was the justification. I went mostly because there was a band, and not exactly because I had fond memories of All Night Radio. To tell the truth, I was surprised to learn that the band still existed. The second time around the band captivated me because the sound was certainly a lot more powerful than the year before. This time All Night Radio sounded like an excellent, confident blues rock band. I quickly became a regular at their gigs. I usually bought a 750ml bottle of Tassenberg and drank all of it on my own over the course of the evening, eventually becoming drunkenly brave enough also to dance, from about the third set on in.

The band usually played three or four 45-minute sets and played a tape over the PA during the intervals. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut album, Texas Flood, was a particular favourite.

An aside on cultural or social differences between the “platteland” of Stellenbosch and the “big city” of Cape Town. In the Cape Town clubs I frequented a few years later, the audience hardly ever danced while a band was on stage, preferring to watch the performance, only to rush onto the dance floor when the DJ came on. At De Akker almost the opposite was true. Although general dancing usually only really took off in the third set, the audience only danced to the band. When the tape came on, they sat down, went for drinks, and so on. During the first set nobody danced, sometimes the room was only half full. During the second set a few women would get up to dance. From week to week these first dancers were nearly always the same people and they were probably girlfriends of the band members, or maybe just their fan club. By the start of the third set there were enough tipsy revellers to fill the dance floor as soon as the band hit the first chord.

My own dancing was not very graceful. I was partial to a drunken stumble-cum-pogo but always came to a dead stop when Nico took a solo. I always danced on his side of the stage because I wanted to watch him closely and to listen intently until the end of the solo, before resuming my jumping about.

Nico was the epitome of the silent, motionless instrumentalist -- a role usually the private domain of bassists. He always stood at the back of the stage, hunched over his guitar, playing his heart out in a spare, economical but highly charged and fluid style, while others grabbed the spotlight, jumped about on stage and wise-cracked. He did not even do back-up vocals. Nico’s guitar did the talking on his behalf and it was more eloquent than he could ever be.

As I’ve said, All Night Radio was Steve Louw’s creation. Louw is a perfect example of how far one can go to pursue a career in music purely through force of will and determination even though you are merely a mediocre talent, and I will give him his proper due for his ability to make things happen for him and to realise his career goals in music. However, Steve Louw is a bland, expressionless singer -- he is to singing what Andrew McCarthy or Keanu Reeves are to acting -- and his songs are not all that great, particularly the lyrics, although he has come up with some memorable song titles that, alas, quite often promise more that they delivered.

Steve Louw is an old-fashioned rock’n’roller, or at least that seems to be his vision of what his music should be. He is a kind of generic rocker with a great love for Americana. All Night Radio was his first stab at that genre and he now records as Big Sky, also a rather bland, generic rock band in the great American Midwest tradition but which has released four albums, plus a “best of” collection, locally. Big Sky is probably a realisation of the musical and artistic vision Louw had for All Night Radio. Counting All Night Radio’s output, he has managed to release six albums over a twenty-year career and in the South African context such an output is a rare feat. Especially if you consider that the rootsy rock that Louw aspires to has never been particularly commercially viable in this country. Unfortunately very little of the product Louw has put out is vital, original or essential but at least he has made his mark.

Louw’s vision was also quite courageous for the musical furrow he chose to plough, the genre he chose to embrace, was not exactly popular back in the mid-Eighties, nor even now. In the Eighties the common-or-garden bar bands played a mixture of golden oldies and current hits, the most popular genre was electronic, dance oriented music or New wave influenced, alternative stuff. All Night Radio played some recent rock covers (for example Bruce Springsteen songs) but the band was rooted in blues rock and also the later so-called “roots rock.” The sound I’d heard in October 1983 was that of a New Wave type band but by January 1984, it was muscular rock. The good thing was that they sounded unlike just about anybody else on the Cape Town scene. The other bands were into being quirky and different, even political, and were apparently determined not to sound like traditional rock whereas All Night Radio exemplified that particular tradition and all that is good about it.

Steve Louw was the front man, the main man, of All Night Radio. His stage dress was a beret, a white singlet or striped sailor shirt, black jeans and, I think, ballet shoes, at least they looked like flat heeled dancing shoes. When the band was a five-piece Louw played no instrument onstage except for occasional mouth harp. He danced all over the stage while he sang and threw all kinds of rock front man shapes.

The only other band member to display any kinetic energy was Russell Weston, the drummer, who was energetic, muscular and supple in his drumming and favoured rim shots, the snare drum and tom-toms. rock’n’roll style. He could really lay down a wicked backbeat. At the end of the last number of the night Weston jumped up on top of his bass drum and kept the beat on the snare until the final chord before jumping off, kicking up his heels, to give the cymbals a mighty wallop.

Rob Nagel, Pietje Rommelaert and Nico Burger remained more or less stationary though Rob did move about a bit, especially when he exchanged his bass guitar for his saxophone. Nico was nominally the lead guitarist but Pietje also played some leads and on a couple of numbers either he or Nico would play bass while Rob tooted on the saxophone or performed one of his blues harp show pieces.

Nico was an interesting player and important amongst local guitarists for two reasons: firstly, he did not play the Fender Stratocaster so beloved of virtually the entire Cape school of guitarists. (Offhand I can recall only three other Cape Town guitarists who did not play Strats. John Mair, after Sweatband had returned to Cape Town from their Johannesburg sojourn, Gerald O’Brien from The Genuines and Max Mykula from The Believers. Mair played a Gibson Flying V, O’Brien a black Les Paul and Mykula a Rickenbacker.) In Cape Town the guitarists obviously thought that the Strat was the coolest of guitars. My taste runs towards the humbucking Gibson sound -- the early Clapton sound in the Bluesbreakers and with Cream -- which had been superseded by the Strat as the guitar of choice of the New Wave crowd.

Nico had two axes: a Fender Telecaster with a blond, natural wood finish, and a French blue Fender Jazzmaster with humbucking pick-ups. For this reason alone he was unique and distinctive amongst Cape Town guitarists. (Wilko Johnson, out of Dr. Feelgood, and another great hero of mine, also plays a Tele, as does Steve Cropper, Muddy Waters and Bruce Springsteen, to give a few examples. Elvis Costello used to play a Jazzmaster.)

The second and even more important factor which set Nico aside, made him great and was the reason why I was absolutely besotted with his playing, was that he had a unique, individual tone – bright, piercing, powerful -- and a great deal of taste. I must confess that I appreciated his tone because it was so similar to early Clapton in its attack and clarity but it was nonetheless unsurpassed and unequalled in Cape Town. Most of the other guitarists were simply generic lead players who had some technical expertise and who’d learned all the cliché licks but had never managed to sound like anyone else but Rent-a-Guitarist.

The only other two guys I rated in Cape Town were Max Mykula of (then) The Believers, who interestingly enough also avoided playing a Strat by toting a Rickenbacker or a Gretsch (maybe I should conclude that I only really like guitarists who do not play Strats; maybe it has nothing to do with anything else but that!), and John Mair. Mair was your typical guitar hero type who liked nothing better than to play heroic, epic solos while Mykula mostly stuck to rhythm or fills, the support behind his vocalist.

Nico had a clean, pure overdriven tone that was instantly recognisable and cut through the sludge of his rhythm section like the proverbial knife. Part of his technique in lead work was to effect a Claptonesque screaming note with overtones which he managed by using a finger nail to hit the strings along with his plectrum. Even his rhythm attack had that clarity and sharp edge. In the later four-piece incarnation of All Night Radio, where the on-stage sound was also better, Nico was awesome as rhythm guitarist.

Almost more important than purely the tone, however, was that Nico Burger was not a flashy, show-off guitarist. Solos counted, made impact. They were short, sharp and to the point and he resisted the temptation to play a solo in every number. This is the single greatest failing of the local guitarists who apparently feel that a solo per song is an imperative they cannot refuse, a right they will not decline to exercise. The bad part is that, apart from pure technical expertise, the solos are generally generic, uninspired, downright boring and often merely interrupt the flow of the song without adding anything memorable to it. Mair and Mykula both also had the good taste not to play solos on every number and both had great taste and knew how to make solos count, to add value to a performance. John Mair, in particular, seemed to have a flair for gauging the dramatic impact of a solo in a song, especially in some of the slower material Sweatband performed. Unfortunately this was counter-balanced, and somewhat spoiled, by the extravaganza he put on during the Sweatband’s last number, their interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s version of Johnny B. Goode. The number was stretched to fifteen or twenty minutes and included drum and bass solos, topped off with extremely excessive soloing by Mair combined with great showing off of techniques and tricks -- he walked into the audience trailing a very long guitar cord, he played the guitar behind his head, or with his teeth -- and became the living embodiment of the phrase “guitar wank”. I guess it was meant to be a showstopper and probably impressed the hell out of people who saw the band infrequently but it bored and irritated me by about the fourth occasion. The start of Johnny B. Goode was usually my cue to leave the building and to go home.

Nico Burger was, I suppose, fully capable of doing the same kind of thing but he never did. He conceived of his job as the guy who had to enhance the song and the performance, and not to showboat in it. It was for this reason that he was content to stand at the back of the stage and to let his axe do his talking.

I saw All Night Radio twice a week for about three months. They played the same set every night. It must have a mixture of Steve Louw originals and covers but it was difficult to tell which was which, he never announced anything more than the titles of the songs. From those early days I recall Maximum Pleasure (which they never recorded, so it could be a cover), a kind of ska number with Rob on saxophone; Bloody Cross Blues, (also unrecorded) which was a long, slow, epic type number on which Pietje usually took the major solo; Heat of My Heart, Rising Storm, (an epic when performed live that lost its power on record) The Heart’s The Best Part; City Hall (all off the first album.) They also did Stolen Gasoline (retitled Hopetown 1975 on the second album.) There was always at least one guitar instrumental as showcase for Nico, either Stepping Out or Hideaway (Clapton specialities from his early career) and there was at least one Rob Nagel blues harp berserk-out (Whammer Jammer, I think.)

The band played rock ‘n’roll, not hard rock or heavy metal, with a lot of blues in the mix plus a bit of reggae or ska. I thoroughly enjoyed every performance although here I must add that I was usually quite drunk halfway through the gig so my enjoyment was probably enhanced by my drunken state.

When the residency at De Akker was over, All Night Radio left Stellenbosch for fresh pastures and I did not see them again until late 1984 by which time the first album (The Heart’s The Best Part) had been released. The first single off the album was Breaking Hearts. It sounded thrilling on the car radio when I first heard it, a big production radio friendly rock-ballad, leaning more to the rock than to the ballad.

The first gig I attended of the “new” All Night Radio was in a venue in the industrial area of the Strand where some enterprising individuals had taken over a building to convert it into the first and only disco in the area. There was a fairly sizeable dance floor below a stage at he far end of the room and a mezzanine with benches and tables running around three sides of the interior. A cover band was the usual feature and in-between band sets a DJ played the latest dance hits.

In late 1984 All Night Radio was a four piece. Pietje Rommelaert was no longer in the line-up. The band had also gained an “act.” At De Akker they were just a bar band entertaining drunken revellers. At the Strand gig, they played a “concert” from the stage in the room, and the band played only two sets.

The gig started with just Nico playing the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme for a while before bass and drums joined in. When the last note was played, Steve Louw leaped onto centre stage from the wings to do his front man thing. Another innovation was that Louw now played rhythm guitar (and the occasional solo) on a white Stratocaster. The band’s sound was a lot more muscular and tight than it had been at De Akker. I guess they had probably put in a lot of rehearsal time and had a properly qualified guy to look after the sound. Nico in particular sounded better than he had ever sounded and it was quite clear that his rhythm guitar was a major propelling force.

The repertoire consisted of most of the songs off the debut album plus some covers of Bruce Springsteen material off Born In The USA (‘Working On The Highway’ and ‘Pink Cadillac.’) Louw barely announced the numbers. At that time I had not yet heard the Springsteen album and because his songs fitted in so well with the type of material the band was performing I was firmly under the impression that they too were Louw compositions. There was also a ‘50’s rock and roll medley that left a sour taste in my mouth. It seemed to me to be a crowd-pleasing antic, a kind of cheap show-biz gimmick that contrasted strongly with the rest of their material.

However, this performance was strong and confident, and so were the others I attended over the next year. Nico’s playing remained a delight. The band suffered when Russell Weston left during 1985. ‘Bokkie’ De Beer who had been, and later was again, the drummer for Johnny Clegg and Savuka, replaced him. Where Weston was a superb rock’n’roll drummer who could swing and liked a snare and kick drum combination, Bokkie was a stodgy session drummer who favoured a ponderous, thudding bass drum sound and sounded more like a heavy metal drummer than a rock’n’roller. His stolid drumming style seemed to slow the band down, sapped the energy of the performance. Bokkie could keep time but there was no spirit to his drumming. Fortunately he did not last too long; he irritated me entirely.

That first All Night Radio album was a crushing disappointment. I had really looked forward to owning a recording of my favourite Cape Town band and the letdown I felt after listening to it was almost painful. Louw sang flat, without passion, and his lyrics were revealed to be weak, shallow and pretentious for the most part. Technically it was a morass of sludge with a half-baked production, just an inglorious fuck-up with very few redeeming qualities. My pet dream project is to supervise a remix of this album for CD release, to give it the punch and power the live band had, to put Nico Burger’s guitar upfront in the mix where it should have had pride of place. Louw’s stated intention was to make a radio friendly album but it turned out to be a Stalinist suppression of all the elements that would have drowned out Louw and would have made a good, rocking record.

Steve Louw was nothing if not ambitious. He must have had hopes for great commercial success for the record; plans to release it locally and overseas, especially the USA and Australia, possibly the two countries where such Americanophile rock might best have been appreciated. To this end he apparently sold his apartment to raise the cash to record his songs and to release the album on his own label. The tracks were recorded in Cape Town but Louw imported one John Rollo to produce the album and to give it that “authentic” radio friendly American Top 40 sound. Rollo’s claim to fame, and his passport to produce All Night Radio, was that he had been the engineer on albums by Steve van Zandt (Little Steven), a Bruce Springsteen cohort,

I do not know whether Rollo had ever produced any album prior to the The Heart’s The Best Part or whether he has done production work since. I also do not know who mixed the record but if it was Rollo, he deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered. Apparently his brief was to produce a record, which would sound good on the radio. This approach was apparently seen as the key to American or Australian success. Make the songs radio friendly to get the product some airplay to create a bit of a buzz, which might give the band enough impetus to warrant going over there to tour behind the record.

‘Breaking Hearts,’ the first “single” off the album, did sound fairly good on the car radio when I first heard it and maybe that’s where Rollo did succeed. But one must remember that not all the songs off an album will get radio play and that a record must also sound good in your living room when you play it through your hi-fi.

The Heart’s The Best Part is an excellent example of that age-old dichotomy, the difference between a band in live performance and in studio performance. Conventional wisdom has it that on-stage energy is often dissipated in the studio, partly because there is no audience to feed off and to bounce against, partly because studio performances tend to be repetitious -- the musicians get tired and bored and their spirits can flag. Maybe this is what happened to All Night Radio. The album sounds listless, stilted, boring.

For all practical purposes Louw, Nico and Rob were All Night Radio by the time the album was recorded. Richard Pickett played the drums and Brian Sepel added piano, organ and synthesizer. The addition of keyboards was a bit of a surprise as All Night Radio had resolutely been a guitar band. It could have been a good idea but the whole point of adding instruments was lost in the terrible sound mix. The keyboard parts sounded tacked on after the fact, deliberate sweetening for radio play probably.

Louw’s flat, uninspiring, sub-Springsteen delivery was well to the front of the mix, with the drums. The drums were easily the single loudest, most prominent instrument. Unfortunately Pickett also was a typical stodgy hard rock drummer with maximum emphasis on the bass drum. He played at a moderate, deliberate tempo all through the album and the metronomic regularity was especially irritating because the drums were so loud and so sodden. The bass drum did not kick; it sounded like he was pounding a thick, fluffy pillow. The result was that the drums enervated the rest of the performance. It was almost the exact opposite of what Russell Weston had been capable of and had done on stage. Good rock’n’roll should be driven by a solid backbeat and given a bit if swing to emphasise the momentum. The drum sound on The Heart’s The Best Part sucked all the life out of the performances.

This unpleasant emphasis on the drums was further exacerbated when Rollo fucked up by burying all the other instruments, and especially Nico’s guitar, way down in the mix, thereby neutering the guitar firepower the band had on stage. The same applied to the keyboards. The synth parts, particularly in ‘Sea Side Love,’ jarred. They added nothing to the song and merely irritated. In a re-mix they must be deleted. But the downgrading of Nico’s guitar was the deadliest, most unforgivable sin, both because of my love for the man’s playing and because it emasculated the record. ‘Heat of My Heart’ starts off with what could have been a rocking combination of guitar and piano if the mix had not been so appalling. The title track opens with a bit of guitar and organ interplay, which likewise has no impact whatsoever. In general, guitar intros and solos that should have kicked ass and kick-started spirited rockers, are buried so far down in the mix that it sounds as if they were recorded in the building next door. Even the rhythm guitar parts that should have powered the performances to the exhilarating heights the band was capable of live, are insipid and sludgy.

There are a couple of nice touches here and there, like Rob’s harmonica hook in ‘Sea Side Love,’ but these little touches assume an importance they do not really merit simply because they are such a stark contrast to the absolutely direness of the rest.

Rollo might’ve been hired to smooth out the rough edges and to make the songs palatable for a mass audience but all he managed to do was to remove all that was good about the band’s sound. It was like the manufacture of cornflakes -- you first take out all the nutrients from the corn, make the flake and then try to put back all those extra vitamins and riboflavins the packs boast of.

Maybe the disaster can also be put down to the band’s inexperience in the studio. Maybe the performances themselves were also uninspired, tired & nervous. But all of that could have been camouflaged if the record kicked ass. The end result was the equivalent of a limp handshake.

To cap it all, the vocals were quite clearly recorded and the song lyrics (all songs were composed by Louw alone) were printed on the inner sleeve. Firstly it became hideously and embarrassingly apparent that the man could not sing, and secondly that he wrote extremely banal, silly or pretentious lyrics. Both these shortcomings had been hidden in live performances. The sound was usually so bad that one could not make out any lyrics, at best the chorus was recognisable, and this also disguised the insipidity of the voice.

It is a truism that rock lyrics and poetry should never be used as synonyms. It is also true that no cool songwriter will ever print his lyrics on a record sleeve and that many a pretentious songwriter has been revealed in all his embarrassing pretension and mediocrity when his mundane, banal, clichés are revealed on the record sleeve. Maybe Louw thought that his lyrics deserved closer study, maybe he was scared that he did not enunciate clearly enough on record, but all in all it was a terrible mistake.

‘Sea Side Love’ received a lot of airplay from Radio 5 (as it then was) and became the “hit” off the album. This is a very puerile little song; typically pop in its limited, repetitive, inanity. I guess it might have meant something important to Louw. Songs like ‘City Hall’ and ‘Rising Storm’ had always sounded portentous and interesting in live performances. They sounded as if they could have substantive meaning and “be about” something important. On record they were revealed as slight and obfuscating (‘City Hall’) and pompous and clichéd (‘Rising Storm’).

The album ends on two would-be epic ballads: ‘Land Of Sin’ and ‘Love Will Carry You On.’ The latter is on the whole probably the most successful track on the album. The lyrics are serviceable, the vocal performance fits the scenario, there is an actual tune with a hook and female backing vocalists carry the tune into the fade-out. The drums even kind of work here even if they are still too stodgy. Had Louw been a more powerful vocalist he could have had a winning power ballad.

‘Land Of Sin’ is less successful because the lyrics are at best quite clichéd and the tune is not very good, but it has the feeling of a song that could have been at least good if Louw had been a better lyricist and more powerful vocalist.

All in all, The Heart’s The Best Part is a seriously flawed album and unrepresentative of the live power of All Night Radio. John Rollo, to my mind, was not worth any of the money he was paid if his production efforts resulted in this unfortunate artefact. It is a kind of superior demo and I sincerely hope, should it ever be released on CD, that some sympathetic soul will be given the opportunity to re-mix the album, to push the drums as far back as possible and to emphasise and “empower” the other instruments.

I have no idea how many copies the record sold but if it did not sell well, it deserved not to.

All Night Radio gigged irregularly around the Stellenbosch and Cape Town area through 1985 and 1986 and I went to see them on every possible occasion. Notwithstanding the terrible album the band still sounded good live except for the short period when “Bokkie” occupied the drummer’s seat -- he made All Night Radio sound like the band on the album.

Late one night during the latter part of 1985 Chris Prior, then of Radio 5, interviewed Steve Louw. Prior was the self confessed “Rock Professor” who had the late night slot on Radio 5, initially from 22h00 to 24h00 and after a few years, when broadcast time had expanded, up to 02h00. He had a regular section called the Priority Feature where he devoted sixty minutes’ airtime to a particular band or individual. Once a week, on Tuesdays, the Priority Feature was dedicated to South African rock, such as it was during the Eighties. This type of feature was a novelty on local pop radio at that time. Nowadays 5FM makes much of the fact that it supports local music and at that time it paid lip service to this pledge too but only Prior made an effort to play a varied selection of local music, such as Sankomota, Falling Mirror or Sweatband, and one usually heard tracks not played elsewhere on the SABC.

On this particular night Steve Louw was doing a bit of pre-publicity for All Night Radio’s forthcoming second album. Between chatting Prior played two cuts from an acetate of the new album. The first track was a version of the Howling Wolf song ‘Killing Floor.’ All Night Radio’s live version of this song was always fine. The call-and-response dialogue between Nico’s staccato, chopping riff and Rob’s walking bass line was thrilling.

Louw narrated an anecdote of how the song came to be recorded. Nico had been fooling around with a steel bodied Dobro guitar and started playing the “Killing Floor” riff. Tim Parr, another local guitar hero, then of Ella Mental, SA’s premier New Wavers at the time, was visiting the studio and he soon started playing blues progressions around the riff. This sounded so good that they decided to get it down on tape. The version on the acetate sounded hot to me. It seemed that Louw and company had learned from their production mistakes on the debut album. As it turned out, my optimism was badly misplaced. The version of “Killing Floor” on the second album – actually called The Killing Floor -- does not have the swinging impact of the track on the acetate. Once again the energy is lacking and the lead guitar is buried. I do not know whether the demo version is the final version; maybe they “enhanced” it with proper production values it after the radio show. Maybe my memory played tricks on me. The second cut on the acetate was a version of ‘Here Comes The Night.’ According to Louw this interpretation was based on David Bowie’s version on Pin-Ups. This song also ended up on the album and was in fact the lead-off single (or plug track.) Why it was ever released and used as a promotional item is beyond me. The performance is dull and lifeless and Louw sings almost flatter and with less emotion than ever.

In any event, I was quite happy to learn that All Night Radio had managed to record another album so soon after the first and that its release was imminent. In South Africa it all too seldom happened that rock bands managed to get out a second album. It was difficult enough just to release the first.

The imminent release of the second album was not to be. It eventually came out in 1986 by which time All Night Radio was not even a gigging band anymore. “Here Comes The Night” received some airplay but I don’t think it was anything like a hit. Deservedly so.

For the purposes of The Killing Floor, All Night Radio consisted of Louw, Nico Burger and a host of session musicians. The drummer was one Herman Eugster whose technique and sound was from the same school as Richard Pickett but he had a lighter touch on the bass drum and, thank God, the mix was not so drum friendly.

Perhaps this time around Louw had less money available to waste on foreign producers, perhaps he preferred spending his money on session musicians, perhaps he realised that there were local producers who were as good as anybody else in the world. Whatever. He chose Kevin Shirley, a local legend now working in (I believe) Australia, to produce Killing Floor.

The sound mix is better than on The Heart’s The Best Part in the sense that the drum sound is less prominent and the other instruments have been beefed up slightly but there is no huge difference between the sound of the two records. This production also does not convey the true power of the band. The rough edges are smoothed out to the extent that the musicians are somewhat smothered. The album aspires to a Big Rock Sound but simply has a Dull Rock Sound.

It is interesting to contrast and compare Shirley’s production on Killing Floor with his work on Sweatband’s No Sweat debut a few years later. Sweatband was also a big rock band with powerful instrumental work based around a virtuoso guitarist, backing an equally powerful singer and performing excellent songs with great hooks and hummable tunes. John Mair, the principal songwriter for Sweatband, was streets ahead of Louw as songwriter and Wendy Oldfield outsang Louw a hundred to one. Kevin Shirley’s production managed to capture this essence for Sweatband. The production was clean and the mix was balanced. Every instrument had its place and each one complemented the others. The Sweatband debut is a far superior record to either of the All Night Radio albums.

This is where one must mention one of those bitter karmic things in life. Although Mair was such an excellent songwriter and instrumentalist and had managed to release such a good record, by 1997 he was a solo pub guitarist-with-beatbox and without record deal and has not released anything else under his own name or Sweatband’s name. The even worse karmic twist is that Mair was killed in a motor vehicle accident in early 2003 just as the RetroFresh was about to re-released the No Sweat album with extra tracks from the never-released second Sweatband album.

Steve Louw, who is at best a mediocre musical talent, has had the drive, ambition and good fortune to front two bands and to release six albums and it looks as if he might keep going. It would appear that talent alone is not the key to success.

Why did Kevin Shirley do such a mediocre job of Killing Floor? Instructions from Louw? Inability? A bad day? Who knows, but it is a great pity that All Night Radio has been badly served by both its producers.

Three songs that were familiar to me from the old live set made it onto the album. There was the title track, with Tim Parr guesting on lead guitar, the opening track ‘Bernadette’ which I first heard in 1985 (the four piece version of the band) and ‘Hopetown 1975’ which had always been called ‘Stolen Gasoline’ in live performances. I think the name change here had something to do with criticism levelled at Louw at the time of the release of The Heart’s The Best Part.

All Night Radio and, by direct implication, Louw, because he wrote the lyrics, had been accused of an opportunistic, unnatural and inappropriate attempt to sound American. In the late Eighties there was a great deal of polemic concerning the Eurocentricity of White South Africans during a time when they should have embraced their African-ness. Johnny Clegg and Juluka were very popular and also politically correct, and mbaqanga music was just beginning to come into favour on the live scene in Cape Town.

It is true that Louw’s lyrics on The Heart’s The Best Part smacked of someone who was trying to write as if he were an American. Odd American English words crop up, references are made to essentially Americanisms like “checker cab” and so on. It is also quite clear that Louw fancies himself as a kind of Springsteen Lite narrator, all the more sad because the lyrics are so dire.

He must have taken the criticism to heart because Killing Floor is his “South African” album. There is the retitling of ‘Stolen Gasoline’ (gasoline being the very American word for what we simply call petrol), the rather superfluous reference in another song to the industrial town of Boksburg, references to Cape Town’s District Six, and a couple of songs that make fairly direct references to the political situation current at the time the album was recorded. The lyrics are somewhat better than those on the debut but the impression remains that Louw fancies himself as a South African “rock’n’roll poet of the streets” and the local references seem gratuitous and vaguely insulting to one’s intelligence. Louw’s attempts to place himself in the persona of a working class South African are laughable and pretentious, and fail utterly to convince.

‘Reign Of Fire’ was the big, meant-to-be-epic “state-of-the-nation statement” with African instruments and lots of backing vocalists. It received some airplay here until the powers that be at the SABC realised that the sentiments expressed therein might be inflammatory and certainly were not favourable to the government of the day. It was promptly yanked off air. Allegedly it was released in Australia but I do not know whether it achieved any kind of success there.

If I remember correctly, for either or both of the albums, Louw made some effort to market his product in the USA and Australia but, once again, I don’t know what success he achieved. I certainly think that neither album deserved much success in either of those foreign markets. Neither album had any spark of the kind that is required to make people sit up and take notice. The USA is full of bands with the sound and aspirations of All Night Radio. The best of them are so far superior to the All Night Radio product that it could not possibly hope to compete. The All Night Radio type of rock’n’roll band inevitably only really achieves success in the USA if it is prepared to tour almost incessantly in support of its recorded output. All Night Radio was probably never in a position to consider such a course of action and therefore to merely fling an undistinguished record at a mass market is definitely akin to pissing in the wind.

The Killing Floor had a more sympathetic production than The Heart’s the Best Part, and it was both recorded and mastered in Cape Town unlike the first album which was mastered in the USA, but ultimately the impact is not much more powerful. The drum sound is slightly harder and a lot less leaden, but the guitars still languish in the bottom of the pile. Maybe Steve Louw had an AOR vision and did not want to produce a hard rocking record, still pursuing that vision of radio airplay.

‘Here Comes The Night’ was a dreadful mistake and should have been left on the cutting room floor. ‘Hopetown 1975’ had always been, in its ‘Stolen Gasoline’ guise, a rousing number, usually played in the final set of the night, starting off with the Louw vocals accompanied only by a slow, measured shuffle riff from Nico Burger, before exploding in a pounding, urgent rocker which sounded quite significant when the lyrics were unintelligible. The recorded version merely plods because the drumming is the worst on this record. The opening vocal section is accompanied by a dull plodding bass drum. The absolutely most ghastly moment on the whole album occurs when the drum kicks off into the main body of the song. This type of thing is supposed to kick-start a song -- a favourite punk opening -- but here it almost kills it stone dead. Lethargic, stupid and comatose. Surely any sane person with one working ear could have realised how fatal that little drum part was to the soundness of the whole song! A wasted opportunity.

These two albums, then, are the sole recorded legacy of Nico Burger as far as I know. There could very well be some All Night Radio outtakes from these sessions, alternate takes or unfinished songs, but none of these have been released commercially and seem unlikely to see the light of day. Maybe Steve Louw are holding them back for the All Night Radio Box Set.

The Johannesburg based band Baxtop was one of the better rock bands in SA at the end of the Seventies. Baxtop gained national prominence when it won an SABC TV sponsored Battle of The Bands on the weekly TV pop show cheesily called Popshop. The four band members looked like old hippies and even played a kind of (as it was known then) West coast rock. It was hippie blues-rock with trippy-dippy lyrics that were even more clichéd and trite than Steve Louw at his best. The guitarists were Larry Amos (also songwriter and vocalist) and the very same Tim Parr who later led Ella Mental with his then wife Heather Mac. Although the lyrics were best ignored, Baxtop played some good, solid guitar rock and managed to release a sole album, Work It Out, in 1979. The band and Clive Cutler produced the record and between them they achieved a clear, well-mixed, exciting rock sound. If the All Night Radio albums could have had the same sound they would have been far better off for it.

Baxtop was the kind of band where one tried to ignore the lyrics and just grooved on the guitars. The band did not manage to release another album and split up in the early Eighties. Some years ago that debut album was released on CD, arguably one of the first “classic” SA rock albums to be remastered for CD. Even more interesting than the impact of the re-release itself is that the CD has three extra tracks that were not on the Work It Out album.

Maybe there are many juicy “previously unreleased” All Night Radio tracks to enhance CD re-releases of the two records. I think that an All Night Radio Collection would be a better idea because it would be the pick of the tracks on the two albums, definitely re-mixed. There must also be a lot of live material available. I’m sure they taped various performances or rehearsals, and so on. A live album might very well be a fine thing, especially if it has performances from the five-piece band, or the four-piece band with Russell Weston.

All Night Radio just kind of disappeared. One day it went into the studio to record its second album, the next week it just did not exist anymore. The various members sank from sight for a while.

Rob Nagel was the first All Night radio alumnus to re-appear as working musician. In 1987 Clayton Frick put together The Flaming Firestones, the spearhead of the so-called “blues explosion” which hit Cape Town a few years later. The Firestones were a sizeable band. There was an obvious sense of humour behind it as well as a declared dedication to the blues, the roots thereof at that. Clayton played lead guitar and called himself Blind Clayton. Rob Nagel was billed as Harp Dog Rob. He did not play bass in this ensemble but concentrated on his skills as blueswailing harpist. The drummer was called Pistol Packin’ Pete. I forget the bassist’s monicker. The cap on it all and the one nom de stage that really was on par with the band’s name was the vocalist who was inspiringly billed as Howlin’ Mervyn Woolf. Howlin’ Mervyn not only had a great, gutsy blues voice but he also handled the blues harp and on stage he and Rob had a few harmonica duels.

Apart from playing the blues harp, with his showstopper, “Sloppy Drunk,” Rob also had another feature. Somewhere during the show he would don a red Stratocaster, which looked small on him, to perform a song called “Little Sister,” originally made famous by Elvis Presley, though my guess is that Rob’ version was based on Ry Cooder’s recording of the song. Rob had his second vocal feature on the venerable “Hoochie Coochie Man,” usually the last number of the night.

The Flaming Firestones were usually a pleasure to encounter in the live situation. The fact that Rob concentrated on blues harp, and even that the band boasted two harpists, was the major, significant difference between the Firestones and the flood of so-called blues bands that followed in its wake. The Firestones had at least a little of the Chicago Southside sound. The major point of impact though, and perhaps the most important difference between the Firestones and the later blues bands, was that Howlin’’ Mervyn had a powerful blues voice. Most of the blues-rock bands that came afterward suffered (and still suffer) from the lack of a halfway decent and convincing vocalist. You need not necessarily have authenticity or even a “good” voice but you must at least have a powerful voice and a willingness to use it. The later bands were mostly led by singer-guitarists whose ability to play the guitar far outstripped their vocal abilities and this is probably why so many of them preferred to simply play a lot of solos and to get through the lyrics as quickly as possible.

Clayton also sang, and fortunately he also had a strong voice. His featured number was B B King’s version of “Rock Me, Baby” and it was always a commanding performance, not least because the song was enhanced by Rob Nagel’s saxophone riffing.

The band’s main drawback was the guitar playing. As with so many of the blues bands following in the Firestones’ wake, there was too much muscular rock influenced guitar playing. Clayton was a monster rhythm player, in the Nico Burger vein, but liked a harsh, piercing, metallic tone in his soloing -- a kind of a cross between Albert King and Alvin Lee. It worked very well in “Rock Me, Baby” where Clayton was somewhat restrained but less well elsewhere where he was definitely a blues-rock player rather than a blues player. Be that as it may, the band was usually exciting and I almost always enjoyed their performances.

At the time they were probably the only half decent live band gigging regularly in Cape Town and I followed them around. They played the Brass Bell quite often on Saturday afternoons and at the Cafe Royal, mostly on Friday nights. I was such a fixture at their gigs, usually right in front, that the bassist eventually came up to me to ask my name, remarking that he had seen me at their gigs all the time. I never became friends with the band members but from that time on we at least exchanged greetings, and I often exchanged a few words with the bassist whom I also encountered in the audience at the gigs of other bands.

After gigging solidly for a while the Firestones lost Clayton who went overseas. Nico Burger replaced him. I was glad to see Nico playing again in any event, but I was especially pleased because in my estimation Nico was a far superior blues guitarist. Nico had the sensitivity and the true touch of the authentic bluesmen who were not simply rock’n’rollers who played blues progressions in a kind of sub hard rock way.

Nico’s debut with the Firestones was at the Three Arts Theatre in Plumstead. The Three Arts was a Cape Town entertainment landmark for many years. It was a multipurpose hall, the last remnant of Cape Town’s huge cinemas, a regular venue for ice shows and had hosted many a foreign show biz star. By the late Eighties the Three Arts no longer showed first run movies but, like the Pinelands Theatre and (at the time) the Labia Theatre, specialised as an Art House that showed “cult” movies. The theatre seated about three thousand people but it was not uncommon to have audiences of fewer than twenty people at a movie show. At the Pinelands Theatre the movie show would start only if there was at least six paying customers.

Anyhow by the time of Nico’s debut with Firestones, the Quibell brothers, owners of the Three Arts, had decided to revamp the venue. Inside the vast lobby they constructed a smaller bar venue. There was a proper stage at the one end of the room, about 1,5 metres above floor level, on one’s right as you entered the room. Immediately to the left of the entrance there was a long, quite elegant bar that ran down the entire length of the room. Inside the main concert hall a concrete pit had been constructed right in front of the stage, between the last row of seats and the stage -- maybe it was originally the orchestra pit -- to provide space for dancing.

A double bill opened this new concept. Mango Groove played in the Main Hall and The Flaming Firestones rocked the house in the bar venue. Mango Groove had been booked into the Three Arts for something like a week of nightly performances, which seemed incredibly stupid to me. At the time they were a little known Johannesburg act, verily (with the benefit of hind-sight) on their way to the top but still some ways off. I went to see the Firestones on a weekend night and if Mango Groove drew three hundred people it was a lot. In a club three hundred people would have been a sell-out crowd. In the Main Hall of the Three Arts such an audience must have seemed dismally small. A few years later Mango Groove easily sold out the 8000 capacity Good Hope Centre. I am almost sure that they did not insist on playing nightly for a week.

The show set up was also peculiar. The two bands did not play consecutively but competed for the audience. I caught Mango Groove’s first set and went back to the bar during the interval. By the time Mango Groove’s second set was about to start, the Firestones were on stage in the bar so I stayed for their three sets and completely missed the rest of Mango Groove’s show.

My reluctance to go back inside the Main Hall was only partly due to my desire to listen to Nico Burger play. Mango Groove had not impressed me. The music was too fussy not very together and not impressive. If I’d been asked to predict their future I would have said that Mango Groove would slink back to Johannesburg with their collective tails between their legs, play a few more gigs and then break up due to lack of long-term commercial potential and record company backing, and that the Claire Johnston would attempt a solo career. My prediction would have been wrong. Within a year Mango Groove was the biggest pop act in South Africa and remained so for a good few years until they hit the commercial ceiling any local pop act eventually came up against due to failure to gain an international audience. Then they broke up and now Claire Johnston does have a solo career of sorts – at least she’s released a solo album

On the night Nico played masterfully. The band’s repertoire was more or less the same as during the Clayton era but the different guitar style made a huge difference. Somehow the Firestones seemed to swing. After the first set the bassist introduced me to Nico who recognised my face from the past and we exchanged a few awkward pleasantries and I bought him a beer. I did not make an effort to befriend Nico but at every gig I attended I would at least say hello to him, we’d have a little chat and I’d buy him a beer. Early on Nico asked me to comment honestly on his guitar sound, the way the band sounded, the performance, etcetera. He did not want me merely to praise him or the band, especially when he knew he had been below par. Nico wanted accurate information, for example, is the sound balance right? is my guitar too soft or too loud? Taking my responsibility quite seriously, I resumed my old habit of standing in front of the stage on Nico’s side.

The Firestones gigged relentlessly. Nico once told me that he had made more money from this band than from any other band he’d played with. They played the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay quite often and one of their most memorable gigs took place there. By then Willem Fourie, coincidentally an almost contemporary of mine from Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch, had teamed up with the band as guest trumpet player. The Brass Bell gig was a storming affair but the absolute highlight was the finale, a lengthy version of the old Muddy Waters show-closer “Got My Mojo Workin’. “ Jannie van Tonder on trombone and Willem Fourie formed a two-man horn section and the resulting brass driven frenzy blew the house down. This is what R & B was supposed to be like and very few local blues bands have ever achieved this height of gleeful, houserockin’ power.

After a while the pace got too much for Howlin’ Mervyn and he quit the Firestones. Willem Fourie, who’d been woodshedding on guitar in the interim, replaced Mervyn and he became the vocalist and second guitarist. Fourie is another musician, like Steve Louw, who I will admire for his ambition and drive to achieve his goals more than for his actual achievements or accomplishments. Willem Fourie is not a great vocalist either. After Howlin’ Mervyn’s pyrotechnics Fourie’s bland voice and initial lack of confidence as vocalist was a great let down. Even over time his vocals did not improve, remaining at best functional. In the beginning it was so bad that it seemed to me that Fourie actually sang better the drunker he got. During the first set he was hesitant and held back. By the third set he’d at least gained some confidence and managed to put slightly more conviction and power into his voice. But he has never been a truly convincing vocalist, much less blues singer.

Fourie’s guitar playing is much the same. He improved phenomenally over a period of about a year, from being a competent rhythm player and hesitant soloist to a player who had a command of his instrument and who knew the required blues clichés. He became an excellent rhythm guitarist but he never impressed as soloist. Though Fourie had the speed and dexterity and the licks, his solos were overlong, boring, made no impression and eventually seemed simply perfunctory. He seemed to have the impression that he had to play a sole on every song and hardly ever gave something to the song he was performing. I guess one would call him a hack. The contrast was particularly painful when Fourie and Nico were in the Firestones. Nico understood the dynamics of guitar playing, blues in particular, and always managed to make an interesting sound, to come up with little flourishes, brief, interesting ideas, that made one want to hear more. With Willem Fourie you wanted to hear less.

The Firestones’ final series of gigs was held upstairs at the Café Royal in Church Street, Cape Town. The Café Royal had once been a real hotel and comprised of three floors. The main dining room was on street level, and it was full of dark leather and wood, elegant in the old Colonial way. On the second floor there was a large open room with a bar at one end and you could have pub lunches there. The third floor was given over to boarding rooms. In 1988 - 1989 the owner and his girlfriend decided to turn the second story room into a club on weekend evenings. It was perfect because there was enough room for a decent stage and the bar facilities were already available. The stated concept was that gigs at the Café Royal were going to be in the early part of the evening, a kind of first stop of the night in Cape Town where it was a tradition that clubbing commenced only midnight. At the Café Royal the bands would start their first set at about 21h00 and the whole thing would wind down at about midnight. From there the ravers could go on to do some serious clubbing. It is one of the characteristics of Cape Town night-life that people only go out late, parties start no earlier than ten or eleven, and clubs get going even later, leaving one to stumble home at dawn. Inevitably the Cafe Royal turned into a one-stop spot for me during those lean periods when there was hardly a regular live music scene in Cape Town.

In the last year of its existence as music venue the Café Royal was run by a member of one of the hip bands at the time, and his aspirant glamour puss sex queen girlfriend, Chris Steyn, then a reporter at the Cape Times. She sat at a table just outside the entrance to the room, usually dressed in very short black dress, and collected the entrance fee. By then the bands were mostly “alternative” and attracted a young and hip audience, not exactly the retro-blues crowd of the Firestones.

The Firestones’ played their end-of-the-line-and-farewell series of gigs were Café Royal, including the absolutely bloody final one, which draw a very substantial crowd, possibly because there was no cover charge. The gig was also taped on video and audio. I have not heard of a commercial release of any Firestones’ material, not even cassettes sold at gigs, but I am sure some of this stuff must be available. Nico did once promise me a cassette but it never materialised.

After the demise of the Flaming Firestones Nico Burger once again dropped out of sight. In general the live music scene suffered somewhat due to lack of decent venues. The Café Royal burnt down, most probably an insurance scam if my between the lines reading of newspaper reports is accurate. Very few of the surviving clubs offered regular live gigs.

World-wide there was a renaissance of blues, with the likes of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan being followed by a lot of white guys, some old rockers and some younger guns who either turned to the blues from rock or who were suddenly given publicity after years of obscurity. The same thing happened in Cape Town. The influence of the Flaming Firestones had spread far and wide Maybe the other musicians had seen how often the Firestones were able to gig and decided to forget the “original” approach to music in favour of jumping on this blues bandwagon to make a few bucks for a change.

A long running debate in this country has always been about the battle between good and evil in the music industry where good is represented by the bands who play “original” music (for this, read “songs we have written themselves”) and evil is represented by the bands who play “covers.” In this context the concept of “covers” is defined, at the lowest common denominator, as current hits of the day and some golden oldies, i.e. songs the audience will have heard before, either from the radio or because they own the album from which the song is taken. The cover bands are then more or less living jukeboxes.

The cover bands are seen as evil because they take work away from musicians who are prepared to write and perform their own creations. The latter are seen as artists while the former are merely hacks. The cover bands have a function because for the most part audiences prefer to hear music they already know, even if it is in a version by a cover band that will usually unimaginatively attempt to recreate the original as closely as possible. The audience does not want to listen to the band’s own songs because they will not have grown familiar with the material, unless they have already been following the band for a while. Also, the songs will almost certainly not include anything resembling a hit.

For example: back in 1984 All Night Radio’s residency at De Akker was taken over by a covers band called Goldilocks (named after their blond singer, I believe) who were proficient and enthusiastic but ultimately rather boring. I think they did introduce one or two of their own numbers every night but very tentatively as if they did not wish to offend. Likewise, when Sweatband ended their regular Stellenbosch gig at Die Stal they were followed by a band called Factory, also an out and out human jukebox.

Factory is a weird phenomenon. The band members were unprepossessing, non-descript guys who looked like their day jobs could be fitters and turners or mechanics. They were not exactly ugly, just plain, but had no dress sense and certainly no rock’n’roll glamour. The lead singer, Ian Coché, later had a more successful solo career in Cape Town. I saw the band a few times at Die Stal in Stellenbosch. They played nothing but covers. They even did a few reggae numbers that the bassist without exception introduced with, “Now we’re going to play some Rasta reggae ...” The band also acted at being party hosts. They did not quite divide the house into two sections for some call-and-response vocals, but they seemed capable of doing so. I rated them low and gave them no further thought until a year or two later when they suddenly popped up on Radio 5.

Martin Baillie was then doing the Radio 5 breakfast show. Factory had managed to record some of their own songs, none of which had been performed live in Stellenbosch, and had given Baillie a demo. He was impressed enough to start playing a track off the demo on his Breakfast Show. I, too, was impressed by the song. It was a muscular, melodic, old-fashioned rock song. It might even have gotten onto the general Radio 5 playlist and the Top 40. They released a mini album, Industrial Rock (probably a collector’s item today), but did not manage to make the huge commercial breakthrough they might have hoped for.

Sweatband is another interesting case. In late 1984 or in 1985 they started a residency at Die Stal in Stellenbosch. Die Stal was, literally an old stable, annexed to the Coetzenburg Hotel, long one of the landmarks in Stellenbosch and its “Tollies” bar was especially known as a student watering hole. The building no longer houses a hotel. In the early Nineties it was gutted and a Health & Racquet Club was built behind the historical facade. Back in the Sixties and early Seventies Die Stal was one of the few upmarket restaurants in Stellenbosch but by 1984 it had obviously fallen on hard times and on weekends it no longer offered dining-and dancing. This genteel, middle class pastime was replaced by the likes of Sweatband.

Back then a very young John Mair played a red Stratocaster and had short hair. Wendy Oldfield was still a teacher by profession and rather plump. She habitually wore skin tight black jeans that might have been intended to make her look sexy but her thighs were just too plump and it merely looked as if her jeans had shrunk onto her legs.

As far as I recollect the early Sweatband sound was a thin, New Wave kind of thing with Mair’s guitar being the typical scratchy, semi-funky sound that was so prevalent then. They certainly did not come across as rock or even hard rock. Mair was obviously a very good instrumentalist and Wendy Oldfield had a powerful, compelling voice. The bassist was very thin, favoured a skin-tight denim suit, a thin moustache and a mullet. The drummer was large, bearded and had an even longer mullet than the bassist.

I went to all the Sweatband gigs at Die Stal and, later, at De Akker. The band left Stellenbosch to start gigging in Cape Town and a little later relocated to Johannesburg. Here they found steady, lucrative work and a lot of acclaim and a record deal resulting in the debut No Sweat album in 1986. The “This Boy” single that became a hit on Radio 5, as did “Shape of Her Body,” the follow-up, preceded the album. In the Stellenbosch days “This Boy” had always been a John Mair vocal feature but for the single it was somehow decided that Oldfield’s voice would do the trick to make it a hit. I guess it was a commercially astute decision. The song was also much more rock’n’roll than the Sweatband I remembered.

Mair went on record to say that he was quite proud to have made it in Johannesburg playing only original music. This was vindication for the proposition, hitherto not quite accepted, that there was a market for good South African rock songwriters who were prepared to work at performing their own material. There was an audience for good, original rock.

In 1986 Sweatband returned to Cape Town as the Hot New Thing in local rock. Their first homecoming gig was at the Brass Bell. I was most impressed by the band’s improved status. They had a professional crew, with roadies and sound people all wearing black Sweatband T-shirts. There was a keyboard stack on stage and I wondered if a fifth member had been added in Johannesburg. John Mair was plumper than he had been in 1984, had much longer hair and now played a Gibbon Flying Vee guitar. In an interesting contrast to Mair’s extra weight, Wendy Oldfield was a lot slimmer than the last time I’d seen her and wore a short black dress and her hair was short, sleek and slicked-back.

The gig was everything a rock concert should be. The sound was excellent. Sweatband had become a big, hard rock band that not only had power but also tunes, and had two front persons who were equally dynamic. Mair was a master of rock dynamics and knew when not overshadow a song with his guitar grandstanding, and how to play a dynamic, melodic guitar solo to add something special to a song. Wendy Oldfield was a proper rock diva who sang with passion and confidence and showed how important it is to have a strong voice, not merely a competent one, to improve songs that might in fact be merely workmanlike. Daringly they opened with a slow song, the ballad “Sleep Like A Child” and this indicated how confident they were of themselves and of the wave they were riding since most bands would have opened with a fast rocker, and ended off with “Johnny B. Goode,’ which, in its extended, rave-up version was an eye-opener and a delight then, soon to become a boring irritant. This Brass Bell show is still one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended.

Unfortunately this show was also the apex of the band’s fortunes. Sweatband never made it back to Johannesburg and never released a second album although it was apparently recorded, or partly recorded. Not very long after the Brass Bell gig Wendy Oldfield announced that she would leave the band for a solo career. The Oldfield incarnation of Sweatband played an extensive series of “farewell to Wendy” gigs, a number of them at the Indaba Project.

Two people replaced Wendy Oldfield. Kelly Hunter was the new chief vocalist. She was an internal auditor for Truworths by day, and previously the singer for Raissa’s Farm, and she had a voice that was equal to Oldfield’s though Kelly was not as attractive or sexy. By an interesting coincidence she also had to slim down somewhat to fit in and to become a sexier front woman. The other new member was a blonde young woman (Tanya ?) whose name now escapes me. Up to that time she had been better known as a model-actress-whatever. I was astonished by her inclusion. She played rhythm guitar and keyboards and did some singing, mostly backing vocals. John Mair also sang more lead vocals. The rationale behind having two new band members was that the men did not want another diva like Oldfield who would generate a lot of interest in herself and obscure the fact that Sweatband was actually a band, not merely a backing group for the chick singer. The “new” Sweatband was supposed to be a democracy and an equal partnership. It was said that Oldfield had wanted to be the only star in the band. She possibly felt that Sweatband had generated interest and had become successful because of her voice and looks and that she therefore deserved more accolades and probably more money than the guys.

Be that as it may, Kelly Hunter should have been given more lead vocals to do. As it was, she quickly became only one of three vocalists. The second woman, pretty and sexy as she was, was useless as a musician. John Mair was a pretty fair vocalist and he sang at least a third of the songs. The band slogged on but eventually a heavy burden of debt burden -- bad management advice -- forced Sweatband to call it a halt after another interminable series of farewell gigs in 1989 at the Hout Bay Manor. One of the sadnesses of their demise was that Mair had written a number of new songs every bit as good as the best on the debut album.

So, on the one hand Sweatband represented a victory for the people who championed “original” compositions but on the other hand the band still fell foul of the standard SA problem of bad management, bad promotion and small market. Not to mention the impossibility of expanding into other markets -- such as Europe/USA or even Africa -- due to the political situation existing in the RSA at the time.

After the commercial success, for want of a better description, of the Flaming Firestones, the way was open for the deluge. I guess a whole bunch of people must have seen the light and were beavering away in their bedrooms or garages with copies of the blues-rock songbook -- Stevie Ray Vaughan, Z Z Top, et al.

The phoenix that arose in 1989 from the ashes of The Firestones was the Down And Out Blues Band. Rob Nagel was present and correct, playing the bass guitar as well as doing duty on mouth harp, and Willem Fourie was the undisputed leader guitarist and vocalist. By and by Little Johnny Frick, younger brother of Clayton, joined as second guitarist and occasional vocalist, singing his own songs. It was a fine band but a lot less inspirational than the Firestones mostly because of Willem Fourie’s defects as musician.

The real deluge came the following year with the opening of the Smokehouse Blues Club in the Master Mariner’s Club in central Cape Town. The building was a four-storey construction at the corner of Shortmarket and Long Streets. The location was excellent. The building stood at the crossroads of what was then the centre of Cape Town’s nightlife. The Cadiz all night corner café and take away emporium was across the road. The Base, and its various successors, was situated in Shortmarket Street in the next block up from Long Street. The Playground club was located in the basement of the building the Smokehouse occupied. Idols nightclub was a couple of shop-fronts away from the Cadiz, on Long Street. In its heyday Idols was the high-tech, elitist hangout of the Cape Town glitterati. The metalheads and Goths hung out at The Stage, across the road from Idols.

The Master Mariner’s Club occupied the entire fourth storey of its building and there was access to the roof. The Club was in the shape of a hollow square around a substantial central shaft. There was a main room where the bands played, with a small corner bar. There was a larger, more traditional bar, and two rooms with pool tables. I’d first entered its hallowed portals way back in 1985 when the venue hosted a punk/alternative/Goth type festival. Before the Smokehouse opened its doors on a Friday night, the Master Mariner’s Club was not a regular rock venue. Every now and then enterprising individuals or organisations organised once off events there, mostly to do with the alternative scene in Cape Town, featuring the type of bands that could not get gigs anywhere else and who were never heard of again. The UDF and Anti Conscription Campaign also had at least one big gathering there with the likes of Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee’s Sabenza band headlining over a motley variety of punk, reggae, jazz and mbaqanga bands.

The Smokehouse Blues Club was the brainchild of Rob Nagel and Clayton Frick, who’d returned from wherever he’d been. The publicity material stated that the organisers wanted to present a Cape Town version of a real Texas blues club where you could play pool, have some ice cold beers, just hang out and be cool and hear some smoking hot, down home blues, all at the same time.

The Smokehouse was a booming success from the beginning and by its demise it had become so popular that it was actually slightly unpleasant to go there because the air-conditioning was non-existent and the inner rooms became unbearably hot and stuffy when so many bodies were packed in to the main room. The Club operated only on Friday evenings and this was probably one reason for its success if you wanted to see the bands that regularly played there, you had one chance a week to see them.

The Down And Out Blues Band played at the Smokehouse but the band that opened up the Club was the Blind Clayton Blues Band. Clayton played guitar and sang and his band sounded like a stripped down Flaming Firestones but suffered from his bluesrock guitar technique. Clayton took his duties as ambassador of the blues very seriously. In the middle of each set he would halt proceedings so that he could haul out his hollow body semi-acoustic electric and sit down on a chair to play a little “authentic” slide guitar accompanied by his bassist who played a “classic” tea chest bass. If I remember correctly Dave Ferguson out of The Mavericks (a punkabilly band wherein Dave’s rather tall brother was the drummer) contributed harmonica to the acoustic set. Clayton would then do a very earnest imitation of his idea of country blues. His high-minded approach to teaching us more about the “real” blues was very laudable but somehow a bit pretentious in the light of the fact that his blues influences still seemed to be the white blues men who had imitated the black blues men.

Soon the explosion followed. Or, rather, the mushrooming of blues talent. The Down And Out Blues Band split up and spawned two other organisations. Rob Nagel and Johnny Frick formed the Blues Broers with the old time rocker Frank Frost on drums (he had once been in the “cover” band Black Frost) and a young guy called Agent Orange on keyboards. Willem Fourie formed the Southern Blues Band. Once the blues boom had died out Willem’s band became simply Southern Blue and turned to rock.

Of all the “blues” bands that played the Smokehouse only the Blues Broers survived the blues boom and actually released cassette recordings and CDs. They were popular, remained basically true to their blues influences and deserved their popularity and success. The Blues Broers rivalled the Blind Clayton Blues Band in originality and power and had the distinction of featuring both an excellent mouth harp player and a keyboards player, where all the other so-called blues, bands were exclusively guitar oriented. Best of all, the Blues Broers actually realised that blues ensembles need to swing to be effective and this they accomplished in spades. Although Johnny Frick still insisted on playing a solo in almost every number he was more restrained and tasteful than his elder brother and virtually all his other peers. He was, I would say, from the Nico Burger school. He was a blues player, not merely a rock guitarist who chose to play blues because it was commercially expedient at the time. Although the Blues Broers performed a fairly orthodox repertoire of covers they also wrote their own material and, as time went by, brought more and more of their own songs into their repertoire.

A whole bunch of bands followed in the wake of these leading blues bands but after a while the Smokehouse seemed to be booking just about any band that could prove popular with the audience even though their links with the blues were extremely tenuous. There was for example the well-established Johannesburg based Band Of Gypsies featuring a diminutive, wizened sixty year old hippie type on bass guitar, whose son was the lead guitarist in the band and which who specialised in (natch) allegedly note perfect Jimi Hendrix covers. They could have been something in their early days but I found them boring and irritating, particularly when the guitarist aped some clichéd Hendrixisms at excruciating, repetitive length without showing an iota of Hendrix’s wit. Another example was Shrinking Railroad, a classic power trio led by guitarist/vocalist Sherrid van Rooyen. They specialised in power guitar histrionics and flat vocals and threw in one or two blues rock staples to cover all bases but the band fell into the trap that the songs blended into each other without any thing distinctive to distinguish the one from the other. All the guitar solos started to sound the same; once more a case of a guitarist who’d worked hard to learn all the chops and to have speedy fingers but who had no concept of taste, did not have any clue of dynamics in his soloing and hardly seemed to know when to stop. Van Rooyen later played guitar in B Movie, a funk-metal nine-day wonder “supergroup” based in Johannesburg. For about a year circa 1992 they were the hottest ticket on the SA rock scene with a song that became a 5FM hit but for one reason and another B Movie missed the boat. In the current climate of SA rock they might have done well.

The Smokehouse lasted into 1992 but then disappeared. Clayton probably left the country again.

Concurrently with the Smokehouse, the Café Royal was still featuring live music and it was here that the re-emergence of Nico Burger took place.

This time he was the guitarist for a bluesy, rock band called Any Driver. The deriving force here was John Rautenbach, known as the rock’n’roll dentist, who wrote most of the songs, played bass and sang one or two of them. The sound was akin to All Night Radio except for one major difference: this band had a killer vocalist. The unique selling point was one Mariska, a sexy, blowzy, zaftig blonde singer with a very powerful blues type voice. She was not merely a belter but could really carry a tune. Mariska was also a sex symbol in short, tight black or white dresses. This was almost like Sweatband. The other good thing was that Rautenbach actually wrote songs that were tuneful and memorable and were a joy to listen to; a number of them had hummable choruses. Nico was once again a delight. He mixed subtlety with power, flashiness with taste. I caught Any Driver as often as I could and they were nearly always excellent.

Unfortunately Any Driver did not make it commercially. They released no records or tapes and folded after a year or so. Nico once again dropped out of sight.

Nico popped up again in 1994 as guitarist for the Blues Broers after Johnny Frick had left the band. The Broers had to find two replacements because Johnny had also been the principal vocalist. The vocalist they found was one John Mostert, also a relic of earlier rock’n’roll and R & B days. Both the new guys made their debut at a new blues club Rob Nagel founded, or at least tried to establish, in the upstairs room of the Kimberley Hotel at the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets. This venue was smaller than the Smokehouse, but it had the facility of a bar adjacent to a substantial room and there was a balcony overlooking Roeland Street for those hot, stuffy summer nights. I went to the opening gig, which was packed, and maybe to one more night (this was also only a one night a week club) but did not return and I do not think the club survived its first month. Maybe the blues boom had died out (there were certainly a lot fewer blues bands around), maybe the venue was too far away from the locus of Cape Town night action which had shifted to lower Loop and Waterkant Streets. If I remember correctly the last gig I attended at the Kimberley Hotel was headlined by a blues band featuring the young Albert Frost, son of Frank Frost, the drummer for the Blues Broers. Albert had had his apprenticeship as second guitar behind Nico Burger and replaced him in the Blues Broers.

At his Blues Broers debut Nico was slightly hesitant, he somehow did not have the confidence he’d had earlier in his career and his playing was a disappointment. John Mostert was not much better. I suppose he can hold a tune but to this day he is an unimpressive, non-descript vocalist. Once again, if one is blues singer one should at least project some power, commitment and conviction into the proceedings. Mostert is totally unconvincing and an almost embarrassing weak link.

Nico did not last very long in the Blues Broers. Apparently he was fired because of alcohol problems. By then he had already sunk low into the bad habit of drinking to excess, which is particularly bad when it means that you become unreliable, because you fail to attend rehearsals or are late at gigs and because your fellow band members can never be sure of the quality of your performance at the gig. inevitably they see that your abilities have been negated by drink and that your performances are at best mediocre, uninspired but most probably just sloppy and unacceptable.

Albert Frost who was a blues guitarist from the Nico Burger school, restrained and tasteful, ably filled Nico’s shoes in the band. Frost played blues not blues-rock. After a while he too seemed to succumb to the dreaded guitar solo disease, taking a solo in almost every song where he plays the guitar (for a couple of songs he plays bass) and delivers insipid solos that interrupt the flow of the song rather than being integral to it, does not advance the song at all and quite often is just solo-by-numbers.

The last time I saw Nico was a week after his debut with The Blues Broers, at Rob Nagel’s house warming party in his brand new property in the Gardens. Nico sat at the kitchen with his girlfriend and a crony or two and got pissed on brandy and Coke. We had a banal, drunken conversation about music and careers and kind of promised to contact each other for more talk but we never did. I might have seen Nico at one or two Blues Broers gigs after that but then lost contact with him once he had been fired. I often wondered what had happened to Nico but since I hardly know anybody who knew him, I could not and did not inquire as to his whereabouts. It was almost by coincidence that I recently heard that Nico had died about 18 months before I started writing this piece.

Obviously it is now difficult to say for sure whether or Nico was as good as I think he was. He might have been mediocre compared to some of the really great guitarists of the world. But somehow I am not convinced that Nico Burger was merely ordinary. He was my first real live guitarist idol. I had developed a great admiration for Clapton’s work in Cream especially, loved Wilko Johnson’s style and also had a regard for Hendrix although I never admired his playing as much as I revered Clapton’s work. Clapton’s Cream stuff was simply sublime; desert island disc quality. Nico Burger’s guitar playing struck me the same way. Maybe Clapton was his model. I’d listened to Nico a lot over the years, at every opportunity I had, and I never grew tired of his playing except right at the end when he was clearly playing below his strength. Other guitarist quickly irritated me especially when they insisted on playing lengthy, boring, empty solos. Nico practised economy. Almost every solo had significance and was worth the price of admission. He had a killer tone, a relentless rhythm attack, knew something about dynamics, excelled at adding value to the impact of a song, he worked at incorporating bits of virtuoso business in his solos (a technique which by itself made him different from the run-of-the-mill guitarists) and he succeeded in making every solo count and sound fresh.

Nico Burger deserved greater recognition than he got as a Cape Town based musician. I think there was one so-called guitar showdown between him and John Mair. The latter was far more adept at the lengthy, flashy statement and ostensibly could run rings around Nico. And I must admit that in general I enjoyed Mair’s playing because he too had good taste and knew that one did not have to play a solo every time out. This was kind of undermined by the “Johnny B. Goode” gross-outs and that is where Nico’s economy of playing had the edge. Mair had lapses of taste, or at least he wanted to showboat some of the time whereas Nico never did -- the song was always more important.

I guess Nico Burger was probably too self-effacing but here too he was unique. Virtually all the guitarists in Cape Town, especially in the blues and rock genres, were also frontmen. He was almost alone (Max Mykula is still the only other example that comes to mind) in being simply the guy in the background who might have been quiet, almost invisible, but without whom the band would founder. He was vitally important in driving the whole enterprise, and to make it unique, but he did not feel it necessary to step up to the front of the stage to strut about self-importantly. I would like to think that this was due to his quiet confidence in his abilities. As they say, he let his guitar do the talking and knew that one does not always have to shout to make an impact. Nico Burger was confident enough of his own talent and ability to be content to be the backroom engine.






3 comments:

Clayton Bloggs said...

Ah, what a treat to read about those wild days at the Brass Bell. Was beginning to think that nobody remembered how fantastic they were and how the bands rocked. I must have been standing next to you close by Nico Burger's amp - yeah, he had the best guitar hands in the country and thus the perfect sound - especially when he played that natural wood finish Telecaster (which belonged to Steve Louw, by the way). Rob Nagel and I have some bootleg recordings of the Flaming Firestones, The Blues Broers and the Blue Stones, which was my band's name when we were doing the Smokehouse thing in 1990/91/92 until I went to Australia in April 1992. You can contact me at claytoine@yahoo.com and we'll see what we can do about getting them to you. Thanks for the excellent - and very accurate - work, my friend, whoever you are. My brother John will be in Cape Town in August 2006 and he has been recording some great rockabilly stuff in the Netherlands - check out the Codray Brothers and Blues Hombres. Cheers for now.

Aji said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Miriam

http://www.craigslistposter.info

carsten rasch said...

What a surprise! I have known Nico Burger from school days in Belleville. He was a good friend. I also knew John Mair, and played with Max in a band project called Tintin Quarantino. (I'm a drummer) It was great reading about your take on him. He was the first musician I ever met, and he played in a band called Winc - comprising Willem Moller (then a drummer), Conrad Kuhne on keyboards, and Isak on bass. Isak died about a year ago. Winc was an anagram of the first letters of their names :)

Nico was my first guitar hero too. I loved his shyness on stage. But boy, could he gooi. When he drank his personality changed, and he could become quite bolshy.

Anyway, thought I'd drop you a line.

By the way, there was girl, Rikki, that also sang for Slap 'n Tickle in a later formation. She was quite sexy too. Also, as far as I remember, Rob Nagel and John Rautenbach also played in S'nT
Cheers!