Monday, November 26, 2007

Revisionism In Afrikaans Rock History



On Saturday 13 April 2002 Die Burger published a letter from Johannes Kerkorrel in which he complains about being written out of the "new" history of Afrikaans rock by the likes of Dirk Uys (the notorious Dagga-Dirk of the Voëlvry days) who apparently dares to suggest, in a kind of revisionist orthodoxy, that the likes of Anton Goosen (whose music Kerkorrel condescendingly describes as a combination of boeremusiek and folk,) is the father of Afrikaans rock. Kerkorrel self-deprecatingly says he does not want to claim that he is the Father of Afrikaans Rock but takes exception to the Gereformeerde Blues Band (GBB) being written out of this history.

I do not know what made Kerkorrel write this letter but presumably it must be a retort to something Dirk Uys had said or written, and perhaps due to lack of any GBB tracks on the Vloek Van Die Kitaar (Trippy Grape, 2002) album compiled by Uys as a definitive history of Afrikaans rock, and this smacks of old friends (or comrades in arms) falling out, seeing as how Kerkorrel and Uys were both part, and prime movers, of the same "alternative Afrikaner" movement of the late Eighties and early Nineties, before the big political change-over of 1994. Dirk Uys takes pride in having been asked to compile the Voëlvry album released ahead of the GBB's tour of the same name in 1989, and was then likewise instrumental in conceptualising and compiling Die Vloek Van Die Kitaar.
Voëlvry was meant to be the evidence, such as it was, of an emergent, new, alternative Afrikaans rock sound whereas Vloek Van die Kitaar is meant to serve as a more historical overview of Afrikaans rock. In each case Dirk Uys is the man who is responsible for the decision of what fits the definitions of "alternative" and "Afrikaans rock" and he therefore gets to write the official history.

The GBB had two tracks on Voëlvry; they have none on Vloek Van die
Kitaar and this could be what annoys Kerkorrel. Anton Goosen did not feature on Voëlvry at all because he was at that time definitely not alternative (and not on Shifty Records), but there could have been licensing problems too.

At the time there was a big buzz around the GBB as the first truly Afrikaans rock band and there was big talk of a new movement of "alternative" or "new" Afrikaners that were coming out of the woodwork and standing up to be counted, as adversaries of the old political regime and closer in spirit and cultural inclinations to their English-speaking compatriots than to the old guard Nationalists. The awakening was both political and cultural. On the cultural side the alternative Afrikaners were proud to be Afrikaners but were determined to prove that not all Afrikaners were hide-bound, backward, reactionary, racist, Dutch reformed Church-going Nationalists. Somehow Afrikaans was back as a hip language of political and cultural dissent; these young people were determined to obliterate the stigma Afrikaans carried as "the language of the oppressor" and to show that they not only identified with the oppressed but that in a strange way they themselves were also being oppressed by the very same reactionary forces that were oppressing their Black countrymen.

Thus the Voëlvry tour of 1989 was somehow seen as something more than the simple promotional and marketing exercise such enterprises usually are, particularly once the various university and Technikon authorities on whose campuses concerts were scheduled had banned these concerts from their campuses. The concerts were simply rescheduled for venues outside the campuses and although the tour was apparently financially disastrous until the two sell-out concerts in Stellenbosch and Cape Town, the bannings did nothing to halt the tour and, as is almost always the case, the resultant publicity gave the whole enterprise more publicity than it could have bought and was responsible for turning Voëlvry from a fairly commonplace promotional event into a crusade of "us versus them" proportions to give the alternative Afrikaners an opportunity to flip the bird to the Afrikaner establishment that was slowly but surely losing its grip on the reins of this country.

The Voëlvry album was released in 1988 ahead of the whole Voëlvry phenomenon of the next year and was ostensibly a record of alternative Afrikaans music current at the time. I guess there could have been that kind of hype at the time and maybe this hype has achieved semi-authentic status 14 years later but if one considers the case more carefully, there are a number of transparent flaws to that version of events. Simply put: Voëlvry is just a big put-on, little more than a cashing-in exercise by Shifty Records who must have known they were sitting on the biggest commercial success of their years in the business of putting out "alternative music" in South Africa. It was only with the whole GBB thing that commercial appeal entered the Shifty catalogue, up to then full of worthy acts of strictly limited appeal. With GBB Shifty could tap a huge commercial base of potential customers and Voëlvry was intended as the perfect taster of that forthcoming commercial event and as a handy sampler of some Shifty acts who had otherwise been buried.

It is surely no coincidence that all the featured acts were Shifty recording artists anyway. One cannot imagine that any other Afrikaans musicians would have been deemed fitting anyway but the omission of Anton Goosen and David Kramer left some gaps even if they were more mainstream than the other acts.

The biggest shuck of the enterprise is to present it as somehow representative of an Afrikaans rock movement. Only the GBB and Randy Rambo ever released completely Afrikaans albums. Khaki Monitor, The Kêrels, and The Genuines were represented by about the sole Afrikaans song each had recorded. The guys in The Kêrels might have been Afrikaans-speaking (and its guitarist became the bass player for GBB) but their Ek Se album from which "Slang" their Voëlvry track was lifted, contains only that one Afrikaans song and as such they could hardly be called an Afrikaans rock act. The same applies to Khaki Monitor, and how on earth The Genuines could ever have been included in a sampler "alternative Afrikaans" music is beyond me and I'm sure beyond them. This alone shows the cynical nature of the compilation: take a bunch of atypical Afrikaans songs from a motley collection of Shifty artists, put them together out of context and voila! you have perpetrated the fraud of creating a spurious "alternative Afrikaans music" movement.

Andre Le Toit (as he then was) also has two tracks from his fully Afrikaans cassette tape album but this is hardly rock, being simply Le Toit strumming his accoustic guitar and singing his indubitably well-crafted lyrics in a throw-away manner befitting the demo recordings the album allegedly contains.

I guess it's not only true that the victors write history but also that the people who write history actually determine history by what they choose to include, how they slant the reference and by what they choose to leave out. Everything one says can be true while the overall truth, the complete picture, is distorted because unpalatable or unsuitable truths have been ignored.

So, Dirk Uys was responsible for putting us all on with the Voëlvry compilation and now he possibly seeks to do the same by presenting to us his view of how things were, and are, through Die Vloek Van Die Kitaar. Between then and now he apparently decided that he should have a more respectable sounding name and no longer wants to be known as "Dagga-Dirk." He was heavily involved with the now-defunct Trippy Grape label based in Stellenbosch and currently runs Boereplaas Plate, a label that (for now) seems to concentrate on Afrikaans rock music where Trippy Grape did not have a language policy but was mostly a base for rock bands from Stellenbosch. I guess "Boereplaas" is somehow ironic unless Uys truly identifies with the Afrikaner's rural heritage, somewhat like Andre Le Toit's "Boer In Beton."

If I understand Uys correctly he wants to have a wider definition of Afrikaans rock than the single signifier of language and he is happy to include acts that contain only or predominantly Afrikaans-speaking musicians. By this definition the Springbok Nude Girls would qualify; the band formed in Stellenbosch, the members are Afrikaans and they've recorded at least one Afrikaans song ("Pappa Ek Wil 'n Popster Word" on the Wingerd Rock 1 compilation on Trippy Grape, compiled by Dirk Uys, natch.) That the band's oeuvre is 99% English is neither here nor there if Uys can make the facts fit his theory and version of Afrikaans rock history.

Now Kerkorrel feels he has been written out of that history. If he has no longer been given any place in it, then he has a right to complain because he deserves a place as much as does Anton Goosen or Andre Le Toit/Koos Kombuis or David Kramer, or even a number of earlier Afrikaans singers who presently do not really seem to feature all that much, either because they were not "rock" acts and/or because their music fitted in the standard middle-of-the-road AOR pop sounds prevalent in Afrikaans music.

The thing is that Kerkorrel is not truly a rock artist unless one stretches the definition to the degree where many presently excluded Afrikaans artistes from an earlier era would also fall within that ambit, but maybe a major reason for his inclusion is that he was supposedly an alternative act in the late Eighties, part of the hip, young Afrikaans-speaking crowd who were challenging the Old Guard of Afrikaner orthodoxy. That is: Kerkorrel is seen as part of the Afrikaans rock movement not purely because he played rock'n'roll but because he belonged with the rock'n'roll crowd, or derived his initial popular boost from it, though not actually subscribing to all its tenets.

One genesis of the alternative Afrikaans movement, or at least the moment when it stuck its head above ground and found not only that its head wasn't summarily blown off but that there was actually a huge groundswell of interest and support, was the "Piekniek By Dingaan" stage show that was such a hit that it toured the country to great popular acclaim as the harbinger of a brand new day in Afrikaner culture. The show was a collaboration between Kerkorrel, Andre Le Toit and, if I'm not mistaken, Dagga-Dirk Uys, and took the form of a revue with sketches, speeches and songs with backing provided by a rock band of sorts. Kerkorrel' songs from the revue came part of his repertoire with GBB and Le Toit's songs likewise became part of his repertoire. So, Kerkorrel subsequently put together the Gereformeerde Blues Band and adopted the role of frontman of a rock'n'roll group.

This renaissance in Afrikaner culture had its origin the multi-cultural melting pot that was, and is, Johannesburg and in particular Hillbrow which had always been a haven for weird bohemians, whereas the more "trendy" middle class Afrikaners with cultural pretensions who were dictating the agenda through their positions on semi-State Afrikaner cultural organisations and the media, lived elsewhere either in suburbia or amongst others of their kind in newly gentrified inner city residential areas just outside the CBD. Hillbrow, on the other hand, was there the down-and-outs and the hanging-on-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth came together. It was a place of cheap rents and cheap thrills and mythically regarded as the Sodom-and-Gomorra of South Africa. Andre Le Toit lived here while he was still immersed in his literary career - poet and novelist - and it was during this sojourn that he became acquainted with the Shifty Records crowd, as well as with the young Afrikaans journalist Ralph Rabie. I believe Le Toit and Dagga-Dirk and/or Rabie shared a flat in Hillbrow. Le Toit was a fairly well established bohemian presence on the alternative Afrikaans scene whereas Rabie was the aspiring young pretender and had respectable employment on the staff of Beeld, the Afrikaans daily in the Transvaal area. Beeld was seen as a liberal newspaper, in the Afrikaner context of course, slowly but surely shifting the Afrikaner political and cultural goalposts. Even so, when Rabie embarked on his show-biz career he thought it wiser and more intriguing to adopt a nom de stage and named himself after a church pipe organ manufacturer, ergo Johannes Kerkorrel.

The GBB became popular in Pretoria and the Witwatersrand, among trendy young Afrikaners and then more generally, with a mixture of rock'n'roll songs and cabaret-styled "serious" songs, and eventually landed up with the Shifty Records album Eet Kreef, the second Afrikaans release on the label after the Andre Le Toit Daar Ver Van Die Ou Kalahari tape, but the first full-on vinyl release, mentioned above.
Eet Kreef was Shifty's first serious chance of making serious money off a record release, hence the Voëlvry album and tour.

My very first GBB experience was exhilarating and it was in no small part due to the heady expectations that had been built up in the press, through the Voëlvry album and the news of all the campus bannings, and the exuberant crowd at the Drie Geuwels Hotel venue where the Stellenbosch concert, the first of the two Cape concerts and the penultimate show of the tour, was to take place after the authorities at Stellenbosch University, in line with their Northern counterparts, refused permission for the concert to proceed in a campus venue. The result, as it could have been expected, was the opposite of shutting out the movement or dampening its spirits; the feeling of being part of an anti-Establishment gesture (or possibly crusade, if one was optimistic enough) was empowering and heady. Andre Le Toit played an excellent accoustic set accompanied by a beatbox and the GBB came on stage to a great roar of approval and proceeded to take over Stellenbosch for the night. My critical senses were dulled and objective judgement held in abeyance.

I had been to a couple of Le Toit's solo performances and found them rather tedious; he strummed his guitar and sang in an off-hand way, the performance was not even interesting because of any quirks in phrasing or because he had a "bad" singing voice or anything that could have sustained interest over a whole show. The guitar playing was pretty basic and to my mind the only reason for Le Toit's success was his amazing rapport with his audience who quite clearly loved him for the eccentric hobo Casanova literary figure he aspired, or pretended, to be. Le Toit went down a storm live because he was one with the audience, not because he was as such a great performer; it was generally too folksy and homey for me. Dare I say it, too Boerevolk. Anyhow, the Drie Geuwels gig was a huge improvement mostly because of the added point of interest of the beatbox to relieve the tedium of the lackadaisical guitar playing, and Le Toit was obviously high, whether on intoxicants or the atmosphere or both, and delivered a more enthusiastic performance than usual.

The GBB motored through a slickly paced show where each song segued into the next, alternating the rock'n'roll type songs with the more reflective cabaret type tunes. "Rock'n'Roll Ossewa" was the GBB's radio hit off Eet Kreef but their show was more like a rock'n'roll Ford Escort XR3 (to fully contextualise it within South Africa) and came across as powerful and moving, especially with the big ballads where Kerkorrel delivered his social comment.

The last show of the tour was at the Three Arts Theatre in Cape Town and this crowd, many of whom, like me, had also been at the Drie Geuwels, was as large and as enthusiastic as at Stellenbosch but for me the show was an anti-climax. Firstly, a somewhat tired and emotional Le Toit gave his customary off-hand performance (sans beatbox) where he clearly counting on his reputation and "witty" banter to carry him through the half an hour he was on stage which was less of a performance than a mere diversion, the filling up of empty time until show time.

The GBB's show was worse. It was exactly the same show as at Drie Geuwels, not merely the same songs in the same order but also the same "ad libs" and exhortations from Kerkorrel and I realised that I was not truly watching a rock show, no, it was simply cabaret on a large scale with rock trappings, like a revised, tightened up version of "Piekniek By Dingaan." The whole enterprise was slick and powerful because it had been carefully scripted, staged and rehearsed and not because of any inherent strengths in the music or lyrics. It was a giant put-on in the guise of some kind of alternative, new Afrikaans cultural thing. It was in truth only alternative in the sense that it was different, and opposed to, what had gone before as the acceptable Afrikaans cultural experience but we were talking merely of a difference in degree not a complete sea change. The crowd might have believed that a totally new future was ahead but the Kerkorrel experience was going to end up as yet another orthodoxy, yet another Establishment to displace the old Establishment simply through effluxion of time. GBB returned to the Three Arts in early 1990 and this show confirmed my view of the year before. It was the same show and had by now completely lost its lustre and exciting aspects. In any event no big new movement had materialised; in the Cape there was only the Valiant Swart Band to represent an Afrikaans rock "movement."

Kerkorrel must have realised that the sell by date of his "rock'n'roll cabaret" had been reached and disbanded the GBB shortly afterwards and has since then followed a solo career more openly and honestly flying the "cabaret" banner and in general becoming part of the light popular musical scene in South Africa, releasing both Afrikaans and English material in the good, old-fashioned tradition of the all-round entertainer.

Andre Le Toit changed his stage name to Koos Kombuis, left behind his literary career and devoted himself full-time to being a more proper, alternative Afrikaans rocker, with regular album releases, alternating electric and accoustic music, Afrikaans and English songs. His Cape Town gigs in support of the Niemandsland… & Beyond album, his first vinyl release, were proper rock concerts, backed by elements of the Shifty mafia, including James Phillips on guitar, and with Koos dressing in "ethnic" garb and sporting a dreadlocks wig. The format recharged, or energised, the Kombuis stage manner and the gigs were genuinely exciting and entertaining -- the only fault I could find was that his new English songs were not nearly as good as the Afrikaans songs, they simply did not ring true.

Valiant Swart had a four piece country rock styled band with chugging rhythms and fierce lead guitar and was truly exciting for the first year or so, even though the nightly set closer of "Die Mystic Boer" quickly became tedious since the song actually promised more than it delivered, the epic approach Swart was striving for fell flat and the performance of the song was just this long, drawn-out coda that left one wishing he would stop soon, maybe ending the set with a short, sharp rocker. The Valiant Swart experience eventually became as tedious as "Die Mystic Boer" because the set list was unvarying and at gigs I started to get the impression that the musicians were just going through the motions. At first they had seemed fired up by the feeling, or assumption, that they and the audience were all part of this wonderful new breakthrough in Afrikaans popular music but by year's end they had levelled out to a cult audience, the mass breakthrough never materialised, and playing gigs became less of a joint celebration with the audience than just another job. Gigging became a grind and this sense of failure communicated itself to me to the extent that I ceased following the band. This loss of interest was perhaps to my loss entirely because Valiant Swart maintained a musical career, through the release of a number of CD albums and even most recently a retrospective compilation, and has become a senior statesman of Afrikaans rock in his own right, taking up his place on a stage where once Koos Kombuis sat alone.

All these developments show that the "alternatives" of 1990 have now become the mainstream Establishment. A recent publicity photograph of Koos Kombuis (who has been honoured not only by the release of two concurrent "best of" compilations but also a "tribute" album, probably a historic first) shows him with white hair and small beard, and it could have been a photograph of a typical Afrikaner intellectual/literary type of the Forties or Fifties. That is, Koos Kombuis has left his "boemelaar" days behind, has achieved respectability and now even resembles the very people he was supposed to have been rebelling against twelve years ago. As always, the circle comes around and the new boss is the same as the old boss.

In any kind of culture there is a perpetual cycle of renewal, degeneration, stasis, change and renewal and the Afrikaans music scene is no different. Sonja Herholdt was a fresh, new young voice and cute face in mainstream light popular music in the mid-Seventies, and became famous with the songs of Jan de Wet and Anton Goosen who himself became a recording artist in the late Seventies, hitting big with "Kruidjie-Roer-My-Nie", probably the first slice of traditional-sounding boeremusiek to reach our pop charts and in a way it was so audaciously different to the run-of-the-mill Afrikaans pop that its apparent reactionary sound was almost avant garde in the "hip to be square" vein. It has taken more than twenty years for that kind of sound to creep back into South African rock or pop. Goosen aimed at mainstream, across the board appeal and slowly but surely innovated his sound to aspire to increasing sophistication and by the Jors Troelie album had managed to create a kind of Afrikaans rock that attempted to straddle the divide between the mainstream and the cult audience.

Goosen's heyday was contemporaneous with another new "movement" based around the "Musiek & Liriek" programme on SABC TV, conceived and directed by Merwede van der Merwe and featuring a new generation of Afrikaans folk music artists with higher cultural aspirations and pretensions than the simplistic mainstream light popular music of, for example, Sonja Herholdt. The recurring visual image is of an earnest young soul, male or female, hunched over an accoustic guitar, singing the words of a poem set to music, either by themselves or by a "proper" classically trained musician. As such then "Musiek & Liriek" aimed to bring high art -- modern Afrikaner culture -- to the masses via the popular medium of television. The programme made stars, if only fleetingly, of a number of young artistes, though some of them had already made a mark before their televised appearances.

Koos du Plessis had written "Kinders Van Die Wind" which became the theme tune of a popular Afrikaans TV drama series, as sung by Laurika Rauch. The song became a huge hit for her and made her famous and gave Du Plessis the opportunity to record a couple of albums of his rather lachrymose songs. These albums were heavy going; songs to listen to alone at home in the dark but not when you were suicidally depressed because you might just end up offing yourself. Perhaps appositely, Koos du Plessis died relatively young while he was still mostly a cult success. Laurika Rauch made the most of the opportunity presented by TV stardom and made sure that she sang in a variety of styles to suit all tastes and ages. Once again mainstream success was the goal for a long term career in popular entertainment.

Musiek & Liriek became a kind of short hand reference for a time and place in Afrikaner cultural history. A movement was postulated and received a fair amount of coverage in the cultural pages of the Afrikaans newspapers where intellectuals were all a-tizz at this renewal and the assumption that Afrikaans music had at last managed to break away from the down-market light popular music dead-end that had been the major characteristic of Afrikaans popular culture. The idea was that intelligence, taste and art would replace the lowest common denominator approach favoured by commercial interests who were happy to appeal to the Afrikaner lower middle classes with white washed and painfully sentimentalised versions of Country music. As it turned out Musiek & Liriek was just a movement for the benefit of those who punted it to further their own pet agendas. The artists who rose to prominence under its umbrella had some acclaim and popular success for a brief while but very few have managed to sustain anything like a proper career out of it and as a reaction to the hype that surrounded the "movement" at the time, it is now derided as yet another attempt by the Old Guard Establishment to hi-jack Afrikaner culture for its own sinister purposes and to co-opt Afrikaner artistes to serve as window dressing for a rotting facade.

The commercial exploitation of Musiek & Liriek included at least two concerts at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre outside Stellenbosch over successive summer seasons. Laurika Rauch played at least one of these concerts, as did Jannie du Toit, as well as Clarabelle van Niekerk who was the only Musiek & Liriek alumnus to lead a group, known as Clari, of musicians including bass, drums and cello, and was therefore the only performer who deviated from the folky accoustic "house style" with some pounding, Afrocentric rhythms that put her ahead of her fellow musicians in the eventual rush for the recognition of the African roots of White Afrikaners. The others were still firmly bound to their Eurocentric Afrikaans traditions. As a bonus Clari's music was a great deal more exciting than the others.

Somehow Anton Goosen, playing a National steel (resonator) guitar and backed by a pianist ("my band"), also played a show under a Musiek & Liriek banner though he had not been part of the TV programme. I guess this was simply an astute commercial decision on the part of the promoter of the concerts since Goosen was at the height of his general popular success and would draw a crowd. Indeed, unlike his more serious counterparts, Goosen delivered a tuneful, entertaining show with little regard for the high art pretensions of the original Musiek & Liriek "movement."

For a while there seemed to be more Afrikaans troubadours on TV (I never listened to Afrikaans radio so I would not know whether these people also got lots of airplay but I guess they might well have, seeing as how they were approved by the Establishment who decided these things) and it almost seemed feasible that a new generation of Afrikaans musicians were about to take over from the mainstream light popular music types but nothing like that ever happened. The leading lights of the "movement" were able to fashion careers out of the initial hype but the lesser figures soon faded into obscurity and middle-brow Afrikaans light popular music maintained its hold with the arrival of a new wave of Afrikaans country music artists like Cora Marie and Cupido who reached out to the Afrikaner heartland and appealed to the family audiences that had always been the mainstay of the Afrikaans popular entertainer.

This was a lesson soon learned by David Kramer who had the benefit of having feet in both camps having grown up as an English-speaking person in the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking Worcester. Kramer became bilingual and was then able to write songs in either language. According to him it was while touring overseas that he came to the realisation that if he were to be true to himself as artist he should forget about the "overseas influence" in his song writing, looking to American or European role models, and to accept that he is a South African who should write about what he knows, that is, his homeland, its people and its peculiar and tragic situations. Kramer then wrote his first "South African" songs while he was still overseas. He developed a big reputation in the Cape Town area as a highly talented folk-based singer-songwriter and released the Bakgat! album on Mountain Records in 1980 as a mixture of Afrikaans and English songs, some backed by a small combo, telling stories of the Cape people, whether in Bellville, Worcester or Namakwaland. The tales are by turns funny and harrowing and although the album was quickly suppressed by the SABC's mainstream radio services it deservedly became a cult item and was in its way closer to the truths of the country than anything Anton Goosen had ever written.

In the way these things happen David Kramer's career path was at the bottom end of its sharply rising curve while Goosen was at the top of his but on the cusp of a decline. Kramer was obviously an accoustic guitar playing folkie where Goosen was a popular entertainer who could play solo concerts accompanying himself on guitar, possibly as a moneysaving device, but recorded with a complete studio group. Bakgat! was a folk album where Goosen's records were pop-rock (as Kerkorrel states: a mixture of boeremusiek and folk) although both were straightforward tunesmiths who are storytellers rather than confessional songwriters.

A number of Goosen's early songs, particularly the ones first (or only) recorded by Sonja Herholdt dealt with a mythical Cape of Good Hope that existed in Goosen's imagination, or the imagination of the writers he might have used as source material, the romanticised Cape of popular Afrikaans fiction. Later on he also wrote of the country closer to his home, the Northern parts of South Africa and of the lower middle classes of the Witwatersrand. Goosen created characters and situations and wrote songs about them, mostly funny but some quite serious although it was obvious that he did not write from biographical experience, not even the ostensibly sensitive, personal love songs. He is an out and out storyteller in the best Herman Charles Bosman tradition. The first time that one has the impression that he was expressing his own feelings are in a few tracks on the Liedjieboer (his own nickname) and Jors Troelie albums.

David Kramer is no more a confessional songwriter than Goosen but he adopted that particular type of storytelling somewhat later, when he started aiming more squarely art the Afrikaans market. The songs on Bakgat! are written and sung with more personal identification than as is usually the case with Goosen; to employ the theatrical differentiation one might say that Goosen merely sings about his characters, that is he acts them, whereas Kramer sings as if he is the characters, he appears to be them. Kramer then somehow comes across as being more authentic or serious than Goosen although, to be fair, even on Bakgat! there are songs that would fit on a Goosen album and during Kramer's populist phase he moved into Goosen territory wholesale but, having said that, one cannot conceive of anything like "Biscuits En Biltong" or, more specifically "Botteltjie Blou" on a Goosen album.

David Kramer is a more versatile songwriter than Anton Goosen for the simple reason that he writes in English and Afrikaans and can therefore appeal to almost two different audiences where Goosen has only the Afrikaans audience and this might also have something to with the way each got to the mainstream. Goosen aimed straight for it, the mass Afrikaans audience, and limited himself to that group, while Kramer started out as a folk-artist with bilingual appeal but as an "alternative" musician with virtually no appeal to the Afrikaans mass market or family audience. Once he'd pandered to his core audience Goosen slowly moved away by trying to broaden his musical palette and his show-biz ambitions to include starring in a movie, and then moved beyond his audience's expectations of and then lost the mass support. David Kramer stumbled onto that mass market through the fortuitous linking of his "Blokkies Joubert" song with the Springboks disastrous tour in New Zealand in 1981, and by writing a modern drinking song in "Die Royal Hotel" that resulted in his adoption by Afrikaners as a kind of mascot, the insanely grinning David Kramer with his trademark "rooi velskoene" chasing a Volksie Bus down Tierkloof Pass on his bicycle. David Kramer became an entertainment phenomenon the likes of which must have made Goosen turn green with envy.

It became so ridiculous that Goosen actually tried, or threatened to, take legal action against Kramer on the issue of exactly who owned the "trademark" to those "rooi velskoene." Kramer wore them and endorsed a line of shoes that were commercially available. Goosen claimed that the velskoene were his idea, had been part of his image long before Kramer came onto the scene and accused the latter of "stealing" his image. This whole episode had more than a whiff of sour grapes about it. As meteorically as Kramer's star was ascending, Goosen's was plummeting but in any event Goosen had never come close to the same kind of rapturous, universal acceptance by the "volk" nor had he made anything like the same amount of money. Goosen was never asked to advertise anything on TV, much less become an ubiquitous media presence.

Then again, where Goosen assuredly has a prominent place in the evolution of Afrikaans rock, Kramer's position in that evolution, if he has a place, is more contentious. If rock is an attitude as much as it is a musical style, then Bakgat! can be filed under rock but what of the Afrikaans popular songs that he write and recorded in his mid-Eighties heyday? The songs might have been more cleverly written than, say, anything by Cupido or Francois Hayes or, for that matter, Worsie Visser, but if they admit Kramer to the Afrikaans rock world, then so should all those other Afrikaans popular entertainers who would otherwise not have been considered as being rock acts, nor would they have seen themselves as such.

Kramer started out as a folkie but must have had ambitions beyond that limited musical playground. The mission was to make a proper career out of being an entertainer and when the opportunity arose he grasped it with both hands and exploited it to the hilt. This ruthless exploitation of his commercial success enabled Kramer to step off that treadmill, to move off that highway, onto the comparatively narrow, perilous path of collaborating in writing a stage musical. As it turned out "District 6: The Musical" was a runaway success, critically and financially, and Kramer then forged ahead on the new career path of stage musicals, thereby forsaking the comic "David Kramer" persona loved by the masses. Kramer is now a respected figure in the local entertainment industry, not merely a folk or pop singer; in fact, if e once were a rocker, he no longer is and in this he has followed the traditional old-fashioned show-biz career path where one starts out as a scuffling entertainer appealing to a cult audience and ends up as an entertainer-entrepreneur who has across the board popular appeal or has ceased to appear on stage altogether to concentrate on promoting or managing other artistes on their way up. From exploited to exploiter -- though I do not wish to imply that David Kramer has ever prejudicially exploited anyone.

One should see David Kramer as a song and dance man made good. Anton Goosen should be seen as a talented songwriter whose hubris led to his downsizing. David Kramer no longer releases records (discounting the projects he guides) and Anton Goosen has recently released his first album in many years. Maybe one day soon Kramer will record more new songs and resume his career as recording and performing artist. In the meantime Goosen will keep on rocking after his own fashion. Both are "senior statesmen" of the local music world and have played major roles in the development of an Afrikaans popular music, even if it is not truly rock, that made a decisive break with the kind of Schlager Musik derived pop or pseudo folk-country that were, and astonishingly still are, the staple of local Afrikaans artists' repertoire. The curse of the Afrikaans performer will probably always be that they will have to make the lowest common denominator type of music to be able to sustain a commercially viable career and the point of Goosen and Kramer is that they showed us, especially Goosen, that an Afrikaner could play rock and not simply pander to the lower middle class tastes of the average Afrikaans household.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jimi Hendrix Lives Today


Jimi Hendrix first came to my attention when the I Don't Live Today greatest hits double album was being promoted on radio, probably an early variant of Radio 5. There was a rude blast of an breakout excerpt from the title track and then the most ominous record title I'd ever heard. If one were to judge purely by the advertisement Jimi Hendrix was a mysterious, wild noisemaker of great power and intensity. Of course this stuff was never actually played on South African music radio at the, or at least not on the stations I listened to, and I had no older siblings or friends who owned the records and so the full impact of the Jimi Hendrix sonic experience eluded me for a long time.

It is now impossible for me to tell which Hendrix tune I heard first, either Hey Joe or Purple Haze, but my guess is Hey Joe, because my abiding memory of hearing it for the first time, is how simple and tuneful and yet powerful it was in a very understated fashion, completely unlike the weird sounds I’d imagined Hendrix made when he touched a guitar. Hey Joe was no psychedelic freak out but an almost folky, bluesy song with the age-old blues theme of betrayal and revenge. Not exactly the radical breakthrough I’d understood Hendrix’s music to have been in the late Sixties.

In stark contrast to Hey Joe, Purple Haze does sound like the acid freak out, the antithesis to Beatle-esque pop or Stones-ish loping blues infected rock. This was where the line was drawn in the sand. Of course, I loved both tunes.

Back in the day in the mid-Seventies I was an uncool, loner school kid with no money, no clue, no money and no music collection. It was my habit to hang out at least once a week at the Sigma record bar (at one point it kind of shared premises with a “jeans bar”) in Andringa Street, Stellenbosch, where I spent hours longingly flipping through record covers with no prospect at all of buying anything. I spent so much time there; I probably had a better idea of the inventory in the store, than the sales clerks did.

Anyhow, it was at Sigma Records that I first saw the covers of I Don’t Live Today, Electric Ladyland, Crash Landing and Cry for Love though I never got up enough courage to ask the shop assistants to play me a track or two.

An aside: when I was that lonely alienated kid, I thought it would be the coolest job ever to work at a record store and to be able to listen to all those records all the time. A bit later I realized that working in a record store may be kind of groovy if you really liked music but that the pay sucked. Then my focus turned to being a DJ on the radio. They earned more than shop assistants and they were in the powerful position of nationwide influence in respect of the music they played; not only could you play the stuff you thought of as cool, you could expose that music to a big audience who might go out and support the musicians. Then I read that in most cases the DJ does not choose the music he or she plays, the choice is made by a programming director who cares very little for the DJ’s personal likes or dislikes but who chooses music according to a demographic determinant. So much for being a DJ – just a voice on the radio. Finally, and once I started reading the New Musical Express (this some years before it simply became the NME) I came to the conclusion that the best job of all would be to write about music and musicians. You could listen to a lot of records, disseminate your opinions, influence people. You could have actual power in this sphere of human endeavour. The salary was not so important because you got loads of free records and did not pay to go to gigs – hey, I was still a naïve teenager at the time.

My first full and material exposure to the music of J Hendrix came about when I bought the double album soundtrack of the Jimi Hendrix movie documentary at Adrian & Don's Record Bar in the Trust Bank Centre in Stellenbosch, where I also started hanging out flipping through covers of albums I’d never buy. They were the serious opposition to Sigma Records and lasted a year or two but then sadly faded away with a large “everything must go” sale. The double album cost R6,25, which was cheap for double album in those days -- ordinarily single records cost

something like R4,50 in those days. I have a memory of Adrian warning me that he would have to charge the full R6,25 cover price because he was not allowed to give me a discount. I was vaguely annoyed at this patronising attitude since I had more than enough cash to buy the record. By this time I was at Varsity and had a casual job with the University’s sports office, working at the box office of various sports events, and earned cash to enable me to build up a nice little record collection.

The tracks on Jimi Hendrix are a mixture of live performances (plus one acoustic studio performance) from the movie and short extracts of interviews with girlfriends, friends and musicians who'd known Hendrix and still had fond memories of him. Apart from one acoustic song, Hear My Train A-Comin’, all the tracks were taken from live gigs such as Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Fillmore East and Isle of Wight. The songs mostly represent the “greatest hits” part of the Hendrix repertoire with some big hits like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze”, the Woodstock live take on the “Star Spangled Banner” and Monterey Pop’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Perhaps the most intriguing to me were the two versions of “Machine Gun” from Fillmore East and Isle of Wight respectively. The latter had really scary, sci fi-like interjections from the security crew's walkie talkies and it added a really ominous colouring to a hard song about death in war. It was some years before I read that the interference was an accident as the result of faulty technology. At the time I was transported straight into a land of ugly desolation with robot-like alien voices of authority stamping down on the common man.

There was also a long version of the famous Red House in which Jimi stretched out his blues chops to the max. I had not yet heard the studio version of the tune, so I was much impressed by the improvisation and dynamics of a man I had not really thought of as a bluesman. This was also a number of years before I read Charles Shaar Murray’s book Crosstown Traffic in which he places our Jimi smack dab in the middle of the great blues canon, in the tradition of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and the rest. Jimi’s blues may have had the gonzo hue of psychedelia, but it was nonetheless as deep as any of the masters who preceded him.

Along about 1985 I got finally got to see a scratchy, jumpy version of the Monterey Pop movie at the Labia Theatre in Orange Street, Cape Town, which was then just a slightly worse for the wear but funky venue for “art” movies, rock music documentaries, and commercial moves that had just ended their runs in the upmarket movie houses in the city. Students and the alternative crowd hung out there for the ten o’clock show, which was usually the one where the best obscure stuff was shown. I was living in Somerset West then and often drove into town just to catch something esoteric and interesting at the Labia.

Anyhow, the movie and Jimi Hendrix soundtrack both feature his, uh, “hot” version of “Wild Thing” where he sets his guitar alight with lighter fluid and caused some, uh, “heated” controversy. This wild man act was my first exposure to Hendrix as a performing artist. It was all the more exotic because the print was no longer pristine and because the sound at the Labia was hardly any better than a tinny old 1950’s transistor radio. It was a land and a time far away from my reality, a time I would never experience and a type of musical experience I thought I would never have.

I played Jimi Hendrix almost into extinction. The longer tracks started to pale after a while, but I always returned to Like A Rolling Stone, and Hey Joe, Purple Haze and In From the Storm.

If memory serves, the second Hendrix album I bought was I Don't Live Today, then Electric Ladyland, and in quick succession by Hendrix in the West and Crash Landing.

I bought I Don’t Live Today at Sigma Records, at long last united with the album of the advertisement, and one of the most iconic Hendrix album covers ever. Man, I would have killed to wear that image on a T-shirt! Maybe I would not have been the only one, but I would have been a proud one. The double album is a collection of hits and well-known track from the Jimi Hendrix Experience (basically Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland filleted), with nothing from Band of Gypsies or Cry Of Love. It was great to hear the original studio versions of Hey Joe, Purple Haze and Red House, and the funky grooves of little known songs like Remember, and the psychedelic pop of Waterfall and the Wind Cries Mary. There was also the avant garde noise songs like the title track, though I did not know at the time that the version on this album was the expurgated shortened version of the full length freak out on Axis; Bold As Love. Even so, it was an album I loved and played to death to the extent where the vinyl is now largely unplayable unless you are a fan of snap, crackle and pop.

Electric Ladyland also came from Sigma Records and I bought it after a lot of soul searching or, should I say, budgetary examination because it was sold as a full price album, and at double album price too, at a time when my main concern was with how many cheap albums I could buy at any one time in the bargain bins of Stellenbosch or Cape Town. It was a simple consideration: for the price of one current release I could buy three or for or more cut price albums that were in my estimation just as good or interesting. Quantity was quality.

All in knew of Electric Ladyland was what I had read about it and though it sounded intriguing enough, I was not sure whether I wanted to spend that much money on it. Curiosity got the better of me and I splashed out on the thing, brought it home, and started playing it to death. The first disappointment, though, was that the local pressing in South Africa did not have the same packaging as the one in the USA or Europe, the cover with the whole array of naked women. The South African cover was not bad – a cool photograph of the Experience – but it once again reinforced that we were very far away in space and time from the hub of the world; a world with different values and a different perception of what was acceptable and what was not, a seemingly less petty world. Okay, so I was a horny virgin who wanted to see naked tits on an album cover.

Electric Ladyland was the last official release under the name of the original Experience though there are many guest musicians on the album and it might as well be called a Jimi Hendrix solo album on which the members of the Experience sometimes play together. The album has a good cross section of the styles Hendrix employed, from electronic experiments to fairly straight forward rock'n'roll to weird soul and blues. All Along the Watchtower is the big hit, and the third side with its three long, languid, segueing tracks was the most experimental, “trippy” and utterly captivating. The soul rock tracks such as Long Hot Summer did not do it for me.

Some years after I’d seen the Monterey Pop movie, I was fortunate enough to see Jimi Plays Berkeley, a basic concert performance film of the type where the camera concentrates almost wholly on Hendrix as if the rest of the band were session players not worthy of any attention. The movie was also incredibly impressionistic and not completely satisfying for the likes of me who wanted to see the guy play, not some hippie’s version of a trippy time in Berkeley. Anyhow, the main thing I remembered from the film was the superfast, slick and rocking version of Johnny B Goode that highlighted to what extent Hendrix could be wildly exciting within traditional bounds. He plays this rock’n’roll staple almost straight up and tears the shit out of it. Go, Jimi, go! This version is one of the standout tracks, okay, probably the only standout track, on Hendrix In The West, a compilation of live performances from all over, from Berkeley, to Monterey Pop, to the Isle of Wight, and beyond. For completists only, as they say, since the majority of the tracks sound like second grade filler. There is a very long version of Red House which almost completely loses its way, virtually dies and then magically resuscitates itself for many more minutes than should have been allowed. This is the kind of performance one cites when stating that by the end Jimi was just going through the motions when he could not do his new thing and had to appease the fans, and no longer rehearsed with his musicians.

Crash Landing was an Alan Douglas product consisting of reworked demos that were probably never meant to be released and had just about only the guitar left of the original recordings. Apparently it was a painstaking effort to work up the tracks into a releasable state, and the fact of the work required should have put off Alan Douglas from the start, but I guess he surrendered to the pressure of putting product out there for the avid public who would buy anything Hendrix related. The tunes are plodding and tedious, and about the only interesting tracks are the couple of instrumentals.

I bought these tow albums purely and simply because they were available at large discounts in the sale bins of whatever record store I was in at the time. The best thing about Crash Landing is the cover. You can’t really say that about Hendrix In The West – on the cover photograph it looks like Jimi is wearing a freaky diaphanous blouse and bolero jacket combo. Far out!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sometimes Sweat Ain’t Enough




More good news is that the upcoming SWEATBAND reissue will have more than a couple of bonus tracks. Guitarist John Mair has kindly agreed to include the entire unreleased second album as a bonus for fans. Expect the normal classy Retro packaging, liner notes and fab photos. Way cool, John!

(from SA Rock Digest # 110 18th June 2001)

Sweatband is an interesting example of how great promise can come to naught and how great talent is not enough to ensure long lasting success for a rock band in South Africa.

I first came across Sweatband in mid-1984 when they started a regular gig at Die Stal in Stellenbosch. For the first three months of the year I had been a Friday and Saturday night regular at the De Akker pub where All Night Radio was the resident band and once their residency ended I was quite bereft. I was still living in Stellenbosch (although I moved to Somerset West in June 1984 just shortly after I first saw Sweatband play live) and was still following the rock column in Die Burger where the rock expert published a handy guide of upcoming gigs and when he mentioned that Sweatband was playing in Stellenbosch and called them one of the best original rock acts then playing in the Cape, I had to go check them out.


Die Stal had once been an old stable, annexed to the Coetzenburg Hotel, probably best know for its student watering hole -- the bar fondly known as "Tollies." Somewhere in the mid-Nineties the hotel, and De Stal with it, was gutted and a Health & Racquet Club was set up behind the historical facade. Back in the Sixties and early Seventies Die Stal had been 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. The venue was renamed "Monkey's" and started putting on live music and for all I know Sweatband was the first band to play there. It was not even a residency of three months such as All Night Radio had played at De Akker. When their mini residency ended they were replaced by Factory.

Back in 1984 John Mair was a tall, pretty boy with short hair (I think he was s till doing his National Service at the time) and played a red Stratocaster. Wendy Oldfield was still a teacher by profession and plump, already pulling her hair back from her face in a ponytail. She liked skin tight black jeans which might have been intended to make her look sexy but her thighs were just too plump -- it merely looked as if her clothes had shrunk in the wash and that she did not have anything better to wear.

The bassist was a small, thin dark guy with a German sounding name, he liked a denim jacket with his very tight jeans and had a very Eighties curly mullet, and a thin moustache. The drummer was almost comically the cliché of the big, fat drummer. He also sported a moustache (or beard?) and had an even more ridiculous mullet than the bassist. The two of them looked like refugees from some middle European heavy metal band.

As far as I recollect Sweatband had a thin, post New Wave, Eighties guitar pop kind of sound with Mair's guitar being the typical scratchy, semi-funky sound that was so prevalent then. He was obviously a very good instrumentalist, Wendy Oldfield had a powerful, compelling voice and they had a number of interesting songs and shared vocals, if not equally then at least Mair sang enough of the tunes to make him a co-lead vocalist.

I attended all their gigs in Stellenbosch either at Die Stal and, later, at De Akker but when the band no longer played in Stellenbosch, having returned to the Cape Town scene, I stopped following them. In 1985 the band took the plunge of turning professional and relocating to Johannesburg where they were signed up by strong management who booked them into the best, most high profile clubs where they found steady, lucrative work and a lot of acclaim; the band was even mentioned on Radio 5 as a hot ticket, perhaps the hottest rock act then in town

The biggest, credible pop/rock act of the mid-Eighties was Ellamental, formed and led by Tim Parr, late of Baxtop, and his girlfriend Heather Mac, apparently an ex-model with higher pretensions, and from the distance of Cape Town and keeping in mind my remembrances of what Sweatband had sounded like at Die Stal, my guess was that Sweatband was somebody's idea of a "new" Ella Mental

Sweatband signed a record deal with a major SA label and released the Sweatband album in 1986. The album was preceded by the 'This Boy' single that became a hit on Radio 5, as did 'Shape of Her Body.' Back in the day John Mair had sung 'This Boy,' a pseudo-biographical lyric in the Johnny B. Goode tradition but on record Wendy Oldfield was the vocalist and this was no doubt due to management or record company, or both, who wanted a hit single and decided that Oldfield's voice was stronger than Mair's and would make a far better focus point on stage than the guitarist who have plenty talent but perhaps not the star power that Oldfield had as sexy chick singer. I guess it was a commercially astute decision.

I read a contemporaneous interview with Mair, or perhaps it was a radio snippet, where he stated that he was quite proof 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 songwriters who were prepared to work at performing their own material. The audiences existed that would accept it if it were good.

In 1986 Sweatband returned to Cape Town as the Hot New Thing in local rock and put on a home coming gig on a Saturday afternoon at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay. I took the precaution to go early and the precaution was amply justified for the cream of Cape Town's hip crowd, and some of the standard issue Kalk Bay surfer types were out in full force to meet a band who fully returned as conquering heroes with big management and money behind them. They had an professional organisation only a successful band could demand, and afford.

There was a proper sound desk manned by proper sound engineers, not just some friend of the band, and the numerous with roadies and sound technicians in black Sweatband T-shirts. The obvious intention was to make the band look like an "international" attraction.

The band was styled as Team Sweatband, in black like on the album cover. John Mair was plumper, had much longer hair and now played a very cool Gibson Flying Vee guitar. Wendy Oldfield flaunted the slimmed down version of her in a little black dress and sported a trademark short, slicked back hairstyle. There was a keyboard stack on her right on the stage and on a couple of songs Oldfield pawed at the keyboards to flesh out the sound. The bassist wore black leather pants and jacke5t and had lost the thin moustache along the way. All in all, a heavily styled look that was intended to lead the audience to believe that they were dealing with a big time act poised to take off into the stratosphere.

The gig was everything a homecoming concert should be. The sound was excellent. They had become a big, hard rock band who 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.

Sweatband daringly opened with a slow song, the ballad 'Sleep Like A Child' (to me this indicated how confident they were of themselves and of the wave they were riding; 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, but quickly became an irritant. This is still one of the gigs I remember with most fondness. The best presented and best sounding rock concert I have ever seen a local group put on.


Unfortunately this was also the apex of the band's fortunes. They never made it back to Johannesburg and never got around to releasing their second album. Not very long after the Kalk Bay gig Wendy Oldfield announced that she would leave the band for a solo career and Sweatband played an extensive series of farewell gigs. Oldfield's departure hit the band hard; according to Mair, in a magazine interview, the band was deeply in debt, all that expensive staging and sound equipment hire was for their account and their management pushed for the hype, on the principle that it was important for the band to behave and look like a big time act to be a big time act. Unfortunately there was not enough money in the local rock industry, whether through gigs or record sales, to sustain the band's lifestyle or to service the debt burden.

Wendy Oldfield was replaced by two people because Mair, heavily disgusted by her undemocratic star trip, was determined not to have a single front person again so that there would not be another case of ego interfering and "solo career" beckoning. The vocalist was Kelly Hunter, at the time an internal auditor for Truworths by day and who had previously been in Raissa's Farm. Hunter had a strong voice that was at least equal to Oldfield's but she was not as attractive or sexy, being short and plump and plain of face. This probably made her more attractive as a front person to Mair who did not want another sex bomb to take up all the attention the audience. But Hunter also had to slim down somewhat to fit in.

The other new member was also a woman, conventionally sexy blonde (Tanya ?) whose name now escapes me who, up to that time, had been better known as a model-actress-whatever. She played rhythm guitar and keyboards and did some singing, mostly backing vocals. John Mair also did more lead vocals. The rationale behind the two new recruits was that the band did not want another diva like Oldfield who would generate a lot of interest in herself and obscure the fact that there is actually a band there, not merely a backing group. The band was supposed to be a democracy and an equal partnership. Oldfield apparently wanted to be the only star; she possibly felt that the band had generated interest and had became successful because of her and that she therefore deserved more accolades and probably more money.

Be that as it may, Kelly Hunter should have been given more lead vocals to do,. As it was she was only one of three vocalists. The second woman was useless and should never have been in the band. Mair had become a pretty fair vocalist and sang with greater authority than he had back in 1984. They slogged on but eventually the heavy debt burden forced them to a halt after another interminable series of farewell gigs at the Hout Bay Manor Hotel in 1989. One of the sadnesses of their demise was that the several news songs they were performing, possibly from the unreleased second album, were every bit as good as the best on the debut album.

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

After the band's demise Mair, who bloated alarmingly like a man who was seriously drinking too much for his liver to cope with, kept going as a solo act, one man band, playing in venues like the Blue Rock in Sea Point, and other restaurant/pub gigs and he was once billed as a surprise guest with the Flaming Firestones at a Hout Bay gig where he played a couple of numbers as a guitar jam with Nico Burger. I have no idea what he did in the Nineties to make ends meet; maybe studio session guitarist, maybe he set himself up in a studio, wrote jingles, whatever.


Wendy Oldfield went back to Johannesburg, and she's been based in the north ever since, and positively streaked into a solo career where in the beginning she had regular gigs in the hip Johannesburg night spots and made a number of return visits to Cape Town with the Wendy Oldfield Band, had a Radio 5 hit with 'Acid Rain' (still her best known song, even being given a re-mix), then took a well publicised left turn into R & B (a sound she professed always to have loved) although it was R & B of the Sixties rather than its Nineties variant, because this "new start" and move away from unfashionable rock, was founded on a rather poor, uninspired version of the Fontella Bass chestnut 'Rescue Me.' Her performance was lacklustre and the song did not deserve to be a hit, and wasn't. She quickly abandoned the R & B direction to return to cabaret rock with Serious Meaningfulness. There was also a career move into writing soundtrack music but all in all her career, whether by design or lack of sustained public interest, seems to have faded gently into the good night; maybe she's raising children and writing songs on her farm, plotting a come back. As far as I can establish her most recent release is the album On A Small Blue Dot, with yet another version of 'Acid

I have no idea what happened to the rhythm section.

The only other two guitarists I rated in Cape Town in the late Eighties (other than Nico Botha) were Max Mykula of (then) The Believers, who interestingly enough also avoided playing a Fender Stratocaster 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.

Especially after Sweatband's return from conquering Johannesburg 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.

Mair and Mykula both also had the good taste not to play solos on every number and both had great chops 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 by extremely excessive soloing by Mair combined with great showing off of techniques and tricks -- he would walk into the audience trailing a very long guitar cord, he would play 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 show-stopper 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.

Sweatband was a big rock band: powerful instrumental work based around a virtuoso guitarist backing an equally powerful singer and p[performing excellent songs with great hooks and hummable tunes. John Mair, the principal song writer was streets ahead of Steve Louw (All Night Radio, Big Sky) and Wendy Oldfield outsang Louw hundred to one.

Kevin Shirley's production on the one and only Sweatband LP managed to capture the essence of Sweatband as a powerful, melodic rock band. If anything, the record makes them sound almost better than they sounded live. The production was clean, the mix was balanced. Every instrument had its place and all complemented the others. The Sweatband debut is a far superior record to either of the All Night Radio albums.

'This Boy' and 'Shape Of Her Body' were the two hit singles (they got enough Radio 5 air-play), both sung by Wendy Oldfield though both songs were written from a male perspective and 'This Boy' used to be one of John Mair's vocal showcases. Perhaps it was such an obvious hit single that the record company did not want to ruin its chances by leaving it to Mair's rather weak pipes and colourless singing. On the whole the songs were strong; some of the old live favourites were left off and there were some brand new songs I'd never heard before. One of these is '500 Watts,'
one of those stupid songs about playing rock'n'roll that I would never have thought Mair would be capable of writing much less include on a debut album. It is the weakest song in the set and one wonders why this one was selected in lieu of some very strong material from the old live set, like for example a song I call
'I want to Have A Little Rap With You,'
an overt rock-funk number that was another Mair vocal turn and usually a show case for not only his guitar playing but also giving the bassist an opportunity to play a bass solo (the same one night after night) and the drummer the chance for a drum solo.


However, an album with one weak song out of the whole lot is a worthy achievement and some of the newer songs, such as 'Sleep Like A Child' are very impressive indeed.


This is where one must mention one of those bitter karmic things in life. Although Mair was and is such an excellent songwriter and instrumentalist and had managed to release such a good record, he is today band-less and without record deal and has not released anything else under either his own or Sweatband's name. For this reason it is an excellent move on his part to make available the tapes of the "lost" second Sweatband album. On the other hand, Steve Louw, who is at best a mediocre talent has had the drive, ambition and good fortune to have fronted two bands and to have released four albums and it looks as if he might keep going. It would appear that talent alone is not the key to success.


The Muzak Metal Playground


Frankie's Playground (Riester International, 2000)



From Amuzine:

This solid and sonic hard rock album states its intentions clearly through the menacing ou glaring at you on the cover. He's saying this ain't music for sissies, for those trancers and ravers and folkies, no, it's for those who still like their music loud and hard and heavy. But, although there's the obvious nod back towards those '70's giants Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith, there's also a knowing use of some of the more recent NIN-type progressions. But it's not all full-tilt, there's the new ballad-ish single, 'Evening Sunshine', with it's ascending guitars and strong vocals.


The album was recorded in the famous Area 51 Studios in Hanover, Germany with producer Tommy Newton. Other names involved in the project were Terry Hoax, Headcrash, and Phillip Boa and it features some top European musicians including Tore Ostby on guitars, Otto Van Alphen on bass and Matthias Liebetruth on drums.


Highlights include 'Fire And Rain', 'Nadira,' 'Fake' and 'Desire'. So, this worthy and well-crafted release is mostly no-frills, solid rock, with varied lyrics, tons of drive, sonic volume, and that concrete core that scares away all those for whom the expression "If it's too loud, etc. etc." still applies. This ain't no playground but it's fun!





Why Frankie's Playground is classified as a South African album mystifies me. After all, it was recorded in Germany with German musicians. The only local connection seems to be that Frankie Riester, who wrote and sings the songs, is the owner of Riester International Records which appears to be based in Cape Town, South Africa.


I would refer to this type of riff-heavy-but-light-on-tunes hard rock as proficient metal. Frankie's Playground (the band) is no doubt no more than a studio project with technically accomplished musicians who have mastered all the hard rock clichés in the book and as such they produce an efficient product that does rock but in an anonymous, prosaic way. The fast songs go by in a blur; nothing stands out because there are no interesting or memorable riffs, hooks or melodies. The only tracks that have staying power are the ballads 'Nadira' and 'Evening Sunshine" and the moody, mostly electronic (and this is probably the Nine Inch Nails reference of the Amuzine review) instrumental 'Gift.'


I'm also baffled by the previous reviewer's suggestion that "there's the obvious nod" to Seventies hard rock or heavy metal because the one thing you could not say about the acts name-checked above, is that their songs all sounded the same. It might come from the blues based rock they played or an innate pop sensibility grafted onto the loud guitars but those songwriters had a gift for light and shade, for dynamics, for moulding interesting and different songs. For all their great technical proficiency the German musicians on this album are not able to sustain any real interest in the songs over the length of an album. Sure 'Speedtrain' thunders along nicely and would probably be a great track on a metal compilation album or on an action movie soundtrack but it does not truly stand out amidst a whole album of equally thunderous yet undifferentiated songs.


This album could as well be filed under Muzak metal. It is not a bad album but it is simply well-intentioned and well-played hard rock fluff. One wonders why Frankie Riester felt compelled to journey to Germany to record such innocuous material and then to release it in this country to precious little interest. It is a staple of the music store bargain bin and the CD racks of the pawn shop chains.



The James Phillips Myth

22 January 1959 to 31 July 1995


James Phillips died on 31 July 1995 due to complications from an undetected skull fracture arising from a car accident that had occurred three weeks earlier when he'd been in Grahamstown for the Standard Bank National Arts Festival. He is a good example of a musician whose untimely death, if not exactly a major career boost, has served to preserve and enhance his myth.


The perception seems to be that he was a giant and very influential figure on the SA music scene. The way I see it is that his importance has more to do with the fact that he was one of the first, and for a while one of the very few, young musicians in late-Seventies post-punk South Africa who had any kind of ambition to do something different to the accepted musical norms then prevailing, than with any talent he had or any real achievement or musical quality. Like Steve Louw, a few years down the line and in Cape Town, Phillips was a musician and songwriter of mediocre talent but a man with a lot of drive to achieve some kind of success and acceptance, and as is trite, it is not always the talented who are successful but the stubborn invariably are, even if it is only because they manage to keep going long after many others would have given up.


Carl Raubenheimer, a friend and musical collaborator (as Karl Helgard), summed up Phillips as an "East Rand cowboy, singer, songwriter, musician, guitarist, composer, cultural icon, voice and conscience to generation of apartheid-era (and after) white South Africans". Inspired, but not influenced, by the British punk boom of the late '70s.


It is perhaps true that he is a cultural icon now, maybe because he was one of the first but certainly not because he was the best. Raubenheimer, who came up with Phillips and then lapsed into obscurity, is, or was, a much better songwriter than Phillips ever was. The difference in their relative importance in the national conscience probably lies in the fact Phillips stayed in Johannesburg and became part of the Shifty Records "gang" and performed in the media spotlight of a big city while Raubenheimer settled in Cape Town where he formed a series of excellent, unrecorded bands who were equally as political and topical, not to mention as funny, as The Cherry Faced Lurchers but never received the media acclaim of the latter aggregation


Corporal Punishment was Phillips's first band, formed in Springs in 1978, and included Raubenheimer and Mark Bennett (later of The Softies.) Corporal Punishment broke up in about 1983. During the six-week Varsity summer holidays of December 1984 to January 1985 Phillips visited Raubenheimer in Cape Town where the latter had settled. They formed Illegal Gathering with David Ledbetter and Wayne Raath, learned and rehearsed a basic repertoire, played six gigs and recorded a batch of twelve songs. In 1986 Shifty Records released The Voice Of Nooit tape with Corporal Punishment songs on one side and the Illegal Gathering songs on the other.


The tape inlay had photographs of the two bands from which one can see that the 'band image' was the image of not having an image, or otherwise the image was of white working class South Africans, probably an attempt to present the band members as typical members of the East Rand community where hipness and cool are something completely different to the way these concepts would be interpreted elsewhere. They look like a bunch of ugly no-hopers, outwardly no different to the "man in the street" in their East Rand home base.


Apparently the Corporal Punishment songs reflected the angst and white paranoia of Springs, the typical mining town where Phillips spent his youth, but what they do reflect is mainly a band who goes on a lot about rock'n'roll but doesn't actually rock all that much. I guess that's why the description is that they were merely inspired by British punk; Corporal Punishment certainly did not have any of the power of The Sex Pistols or The Clash, nor did they have the tunes of, for example, Buzzcocks. Phillips was a very limited lyricist (maybe he was only pretending to write in that way, assuming the character of a semi-literate East Rand youth) but his biggest failing, as ever through his career, is the almost absolute lack of tunes or hooks. Only when Raubenheimer is involved as co-writer ("Johnny's Conscience" and "Hou My Vas," better known as "Hou My Vas, Korporaal" and a tune that is so strong it is re-recorded as electric stomper for Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? and included on Live At Jameson's, and the 1989 Voëlvry compilation) do we find decent, tuneful songs and incidentally these are also the best performances on the tape. In Charles Shaar Murray's famed alternate universe "Johnny's Conscience" would have been a major hit. I do believe I heard Chris Prior play it once or twice in his Priority Feature SA music programme.


In 1985 Phillips, bassist Lee Edwards and drummer Richard Frost formed The Cherry Faced Lurchers in Johannesburg. Their single and live favourite, 'Do The Lurch', became the signature song for Jameson's, the new rock club in central Johannesburg where The Lurchers played a long and important residency, spearheading the SA alternative music movement of the emergency-ridden '80s. An important fact to note is that Jameson's was a watering hole for the young media people in Johannesburg, for example staff members of the brand new Weekly Mail. It was a cosy little clique


Live At Jameson's (1985, Shifty Records) is the sole recorded evidence of the Lurchers' sound and repertoire at the time. Not to beat about the bush: it is a pretty terrible album. The people who raved, or are still raving, about the wonderful live Lurchers experience must have been blind drunk when the band played. Simply put, the music does not rock and there are no tunes and hardly any dynamics; Phillips sounds like someone who had only very recently, possibly that afternoon, learned how to play guitar. Once again, "Hou My Vas, Korporaal" is the stand out track, a song that is a deserved South African rock classic. There is plenty of audience interaction, and the atmosphere was probably very much "all mates together" but, as I've said, when one is drunk almost any band sounds good. The best one can say for Live At Jameson's is that it is a record of a time and place. The cover photograph is the best thing about the album.


At about the same time Phillips recorded Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? (1985, Shifty Records), released prior to the Live At Jameson's album. The story I've always heard is that the Bernoldus Niemand LP was his "thesis" for a Master's Degree. Apparently rejected. I've recently re-read a copy of Vula! Magazine from 1985 with an article on a Shifty roadshow featuring The Cherry Faced Lurchers and The Softies and in this article the writer creates the concept of a University of Jol and refers to Phillips as completing a doctorate in the subject. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the origin of the "thesis" rumour.


The album has a concept in that it purports to tell us more the typical white, male (probably Afrikaans-speaking) Transvaler (as they then were) from the East Rand mining towns; where he's coming from and where he's at. While the lyrics address various aspects of this identity the music shifts between the various styles such a young, white working class male might have thought "cool" at the time, from rock'n'roll pop )"Die Boksburg Bommer") to pseudo-sophisticated jazz come-on music ("Welcome To My Car")to accoustic country'n'western ("My Broken Heart?) to cod-reggae ("Reggae Vibes Is Cool") and early-Eighties post Talking Heads afro funk lite ("Snor City.") This record is in some ways a big put on but more probably simply irony in the service of the satire of a social commentary on an aspect of (long forgotten) South African society. The album had a huge resonance in the alternative community among Afrikaans speakers and English speakers alike. It was most likely the first serious music alternative (even if some of it could be seen as "rock" baiting) young Afrikaners found to the combined hegemony of High Art Afrikaans music and Afrikaans faux-country and "boeremusiek." The album predated the "alternative Afrikaner" by several years but it was undoubtedly a great influence.


In 1989 Phillips and Bennett backed the newly unveiled Koos Kombuis (not so long before the Shifty recording artist Andre Le Toit on rudimentary accoustic guitar and vocals) when he was promoting his first vinyl, and electric, album Niemandsland. It was my first live experience of Phillips as guitar player (up to then I had only the rarely played Live At Jamesons as guide) and I was pleasantly surprised. As a sideman Phillips showed that he had real chops, sensitivity and power, and the band he led framed Kombuis's songs to perfection.


A while later the Cherry Faced Lurchers played a couple of gigs in Cape Town and I went to see them more out of curiosity that real enthusiasm. Their time had passed anyway, but after the Koos Kombuis gigs I hoped that Live At Jameson's was merely a mistake, that the band had since improved and would rock out in the same way that Phillips had done for Kombuis. Alas, it was Jamesons revisited. The same tired old tuneless repertoire, the same enervated performances and, for god's sake, another go at flogging the dead horse of "Toasted Take-Aways." How could Phillips do so much to enhance someone else's songs but do so little with his own?


In 1993 James Philips recorded a bunch of songs that must ultimately serve as his real legacy, after the fumbling of the "punk" years, the Bernoldus concept and the useless Cherry Faced Lurchers. He retained Lee from the Lurchers and employed a bunch of session musicians including Willem Moller (late of the Gereformeerde Blues Band and all-round South African session guitarist/producer) as guitarist, engineer and producer, and also Paul Hanmer, jazz keyboard player, plus a full horn section and backing vocalists. At the Valley Studios in Gauteng this ensemble recorded the material for Sunny Skies, credited to THE LURCHERS / James Phillips. The album title referred back to a much earlier South Africa where the General Motors company ran an advertising campaign around the catch phrase that South Africa was the country of "sunny skies, braaivleis and Chevrolet," and was no doubt heavily ironic; the songs were recorded three years after the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC and other previously "subversive" political organisations and the resultant euphoria and optimism but before the first fully democratic elections of 1994 had been held and during a time when there was still plenty of "political unrest" with no sunny skies in sight yet.


The photographs of Philips on the back cover and insert shows a man who appears debauched, cynical and disdainful, a man who had come a long way from the skinny youth of the Corporal Punishment days. The music has also come a long way. Philips had obviously decided to make a proper, grown-up album and that simple rock'n'roll could no longer serve his needs. In any event, as shown above, he was never much of a rocker on his own account. This time he opted for a lush, heavily arranged and, for 1993, a strangely Seventies retro jazz rock style. He also does his very best to sing properly, in a voice sounding ravaged by drink and drugs, although the tunes are still thin on the ground and there are no really memorable songs on the album. The musicianship is excellent, the arrangements elaborate and sometimes lush yet the lack of tunes, and the often pointless dexterity of the musicians, do not make for an exciting listening experience. For Phillips "growing up" musically apparently meant abandoning good old rock'n'roll. This means also that growing up means that tastefulness and technique override visceral excitement. In his lyrics Phillips straddles the divide between optimism for the future of the New South Africa and more realistic observations that things haven't yet changed all that much.

The last release of the Philips canon is Soul Ou, demo recordings made for Shifty Records in 1991 and released in 1997.
It is a remixed collection of the songs James Phillips casually recorded to listen to (and learn) during his trip to Grahamstown, and the songs were recorded by Lloyd Ross at the Shifty Studios with no album release in mind. They were purely intended as rehearsal tapes for the concert Phillips was to perform at the Festival. Phillips accompanies himself on lone, sparse, guitar, keyboard or piano.


Made In South Africa is a career retrospective of 21 tracks, tracing James Phillips' musical development from Corporal Punishment (the early punk of 'Goddess', 'Darkie', 'Brain Damage') and Illegal Gathering ('Johnny Cool' and the all-spoken satire of 'Willie Smit'). But the bulk of the material is from his Eighties Cherry Faced Lurchers and Bernoldus Niemand period when he made his reputation, with songs like 'Shot Down', 'Do The Lurch', 'Warsong', 'Detainees' and 'Barbed Wire.' The Nineties period of Sunny Skies is represented by the new direction of 'Moses' and 'Money' and the instrumental 'Tabane'. There are also the short, solo and unreleased two-track recordings of 'Afrika Is Dying' and the later 'Where Will You Be', a song from the Soul Ou album.



Wednesday, November 07, 2007

He Failed To Drum Up Support

Frans and I were crossing the street behind the Gardens Centre when a scruffy young guy with long, lank, light brown hair, baggy sweatshirt and baggier trousers hailed us in a voice that hovered on the borderline between petulant and ingratiating.

“Hi, guys, I'm the drummer for Fast Lane. Can you help me with R7,50 for a taxi? Our transport broke down and we need to get to a gig,” he said.

There was a joke there about a band called Fast Lane being stuck without transport. Neither Frans nor I had ever heard of such a band and we were not impressed by the plea. The dude looked like a Muizenberg surf bum chancing his luck.

“Yeah, right,” I said as we strode off. “I'm the drummer for Fuck-all Sympathy.”

“And I'm the trumpet player for God Almighty,” Frans added.

Well, WE thought our repartee was witty and lightning fast. History does not record whether the alleged drummer was amused or if Fast Lane ever got to to that gig. One can only hope it wasn't a record company show case.

Important life lesson: never send the drummer. He'll always get burned. Send the hot girlfriend and promise backstage passes.

And for god's sake get decent, reliable wheels if you want to be in the Fast Lane.

Dazed And Confused When The Levee Breaks

Man, I was not hip in high school. I was podgy, had a pizza face, was basically a loner, hung out at the edges of the elite cliques, had peculiar ideas about life I did not care to share with anyone, and was regarded as an al round weird chap. And not in a good way. My idea of rock radio was the couple of sponsored programmes on Springbok Radio and maybe one or two late night programmes on the English Service on Saturdays where the presenter (no DJ, he) played Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Genesis (Peter Gabriel version), Pavlov’s Dog, Commander Cody and his Lost Airmen and all kind of high art progressive music of the late Sixties and early Seventies. I never bought records, neither seven singles or albums, because I had no money – one of the worst cultural mistakes I made was when I let on to my parents one year that I really loved Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie and they went our and got me his Gold “greatest hits” album for my birthday, and then decided that it would be good to give me Taproot Manuscript the next year. It was not a bad album, and had its moments, but I was no longer that keen on Mr Diamond and fully realised that it was not a hip and happening present; not something I could take around to my friends (if I had any) to play at a record hop where the fare of the night would be Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep or Led Zeppelin. A few years down the line I sold my Neil Diamond record collection to my cousin Raymond. I guess the Diamond was forever until he discovered Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Bruce Springsteen.

The first time I became conscious of Led Zeppelin was around 1972 and from boys in my class at school who had older brothers with record collections and who obviously were into the heavier bands of the era such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and, of course, Led Zep. At the time Led Zeppelin was no more than a name to me. I knew of Deep Purple because of the massive “Smoke on the Water” hit but otherwise I was more of a David Bowie and Suzi Quatro and Slade fan. These groups and individuals had radio hits in South Africa whereas Led Zep did not. It is amusing to think that I was grooving to “Starman” or “48 Crash” or “Cum On, Feel the Noize” while “Stairway to Heaven” had been released the previous year. By and by I became conscious of ‘Whole Lotta Love” as the ultimate heavy tune, allegedly, and hears snippets of it here and there. Other than that, the might Zeppelin was a closed book. About the best I could do was to read about them in the Story of Pop book I persuaded my parents to buy me as a birthday present when I was 14 or 15.

In my high school years I made a number blunders in regard to popular music in order to appear hip. One was the occasion when some guys were discussing Chuck Berry who just then had a major hit with ‘My Ding-a-ling’ and I chipped in, kind of as a smart aleck, that though I had not heard of Chuck Berry, I had heard of Chu Berry, a jazz trumpet player with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra of the Twenties. The other boys gave me blank stares, obviously thought I was beyond redemption and walked away. The truth was that I had never heard of Chuck Berry (sad but true) and had not heard ‘My Ding-a-ling’ which was not playllsted on Springbok Radio. I had however spent many pleasurable hours listening to the relative primitive music made by Fletcher Henderson and his boys way back in the early days of jazz. In this I was utterly individualistic and a total anomaly to my supposed peer group.

Anyhow, the second occasion was when I printed a neat stencilled LED ZEPPELIN for the cover of something or other that I used at school (perhaps a book) and a couple of guys noticed this and asked me whether I was into the band. Of course I said yes, though I could not say much more as I still had not heard anything by them. Although I admitted to liking a hip band, I guess my avowal was not emphatic enough to convince the guys and they walked away. I was utterly relieved that they had not thought to engage me in discussion of the merits of Led Zep’s music. I would have been exposed as a terrible fraud.

In the late seventies I read a very erudite article in the Afrikaans Sunday paper, Rapport, wherein the academic author analysed the musical structure and lyrics of “Stairway” in an attempt to relate it to art and to serious music in the age old debate between the pop musicians and the classical musicians as to which was the more valid genre. This author was trying to build the case that as a composition “Stairway” was every bit as valid end serious and acceptable as any thing by Mozart and Beethoven. At that time I had not yet heard the tune but I was duly impressed anyway.

Back in those days, my early years of varsity, I embarked on record buying projects to acquire everything I could of a particular band or artist's output. The first two target bands were Dr Feelgood and Cream. Somewhere in 1979 I finally got around to buying the first Led Zeppelin album and was just about blown away. By that time I had already heard “Whole Lotta Love” a couple of times but this debut was a totally different kettle of fish, full of really heavy blues that that was not completely new to me. Cream had been the pioneers in the heavy blues field but was never as loud and as relentless. And Cream did not have Robert Plant.

Jimmy Page claims that the Led Zep blueprint was based n the rather painterly concept of light and shade but for me there was a great deal more of that with Cream and it seems to me that Page's idea of light had to do mostly with the acoustic numbers the band played. Cream had its roots in blues and progressive pop where Led Zep's roots seemed to be in blues and folk.

“Good times, bad times” and “Communication breakdown” were particularly revelatory because they were so fast and powerful, and tuneful, and I had always thought of heavy metal as rather slow and ponderous, at least from the examples I had in Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Next I was deeply in thrall to the actual heavy blues workouts “I can't quit you, baby” and “How many more times” and “Dazed and confused.” After that I became most enamoured with “Babe, I'm gonna leave you” which seemed to be the epitome of the famed light and shade approach rolled into one epic song. So, to cut a long story short, the entire Led Zeppelin album blew my mind and is probably still on of my favourite heavy albums of all time. I absolutely adore Cream but Cream was never that heavy.

A few months later I put my money on the counter and bought Led Zeppelin II. Now for the first time I could listen to “Whole Lotta Love” in the unedited album version in the privacy of my own home. Not to mention the notorious “Lemon Song” I'd only read about. All in all though this album sounded a lot more progressive, almost pop, and less of a heavy record than the debut, and it was with Led Zeppelin II that Zeppelin came closest to Cream, not least because the intro riff to “Moby Dick” sounded so much like that of “Toad” which was Ginger Baker's drum extravaganza that it sounded like an in-joke to me. It was a fine album and the songs are all good – except maybe for “Moby Dick” (mercifully a whole lot shorter than the live version) but over a period of time the first album held up much better for me because its energy and smarts and sense of freshness was so much more inspiring.

The third instalment in the project was the live double album The Song Remains the Same, the soundtrack of the Led Zeppelin movie of the same name. At the tune I really favoured live albums because they generally featured the greatest songs of the band or artist and sometimes in nice long versions. The Cream's Cream live collection was my introduction to the music of Cream and it was a revelation and as important in my developing musical tastes as was Dr Feelgood's Malpractice album. The live Zep album, then, had songs from the later albums that I had not yet bought and longer versions of some tunes I knew, such as the side long “Dazed and Confused” which was probably my most played track on the album but there was also a storming version of “Whole Lotta Love” and a good version of “Stairway to Heaven”, my first introduction to this song. Of the rest my favourites were the opener “Rock and Roll” -- in fact the whole first side with “Celebration Day” segueing into “Rain Song” -- and “No Quarter”, all of them unfamiliar tunes to me. I was so fond of “No Quarter”; the vinyl on my record has so much static that the track became almost unplayable. The least played track was “Moby Dick” for the reason that drum solos are only interesting to drummers the second time.

It was maybe a year later that I finally got around to buying Led Zeppelin IV, completely skipping over the third album on the basis of reading that it contained mostly acoustic songs and in those days I was not into spending money on a record with mostly folk tunes. I wanted my Led Zep hard and heavy. As it turned out the fourth album had its share of fey, folky moments though the heavier moments more than made up for them. “Rock and Roll” was still fine and the studio version of “Stairway to Heaven” with its exquisite guitar solo was understandably the classic it is, but on first impression the standouts were “Misty Mountain Hop” with its rollicking groove and the supremely heavy, pounding and relentless “When the Levee Breaks”, which, I would argue, is the stone classic on the album and must absolutely be the epitome of unsurpassed “heavy blues.”

There is a very long gap between my purchase of Led Zeppelin IV and the next instalment of the project; in fact the actual project ended with number IV. By 1993 I had long since ceased buying records: CD was now the medium of choice. In that year I bought the CD version of Presence, the penultimate studio album. All I knew of the album was an article in an old Hit Parader magazine and all I really remembered about it was how Jimmy Page had done all the guitar overdubs on “Achilles' Last Stand” in the space of one night. The album also continued the tradition of not having either the band's name or the album title on the cover. Presence was a very different animal to the debut album and was very much the modern, sleek highly tooled hard rock album with some blues and some grooves and a lot of big guitars on it. Not many of the songs have settled into my consciousness the way some of the earlier tunes have but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is one of my favourite Zep albums just for the sake of the strong song writing and rather exciting playing on it.

Led Zeppelin III came next. I already knew a couple of songs from it, such as “Gallows Pole” and “Bron Yr Aur Stomp” from regular playlisting on Chris Prior's late night show on Radio 5 (as it then was), along with the ubiquitous “Stairway to Heaven” (towards the end of his tenure at Radio 5 Prior played ‘Stairway’ ever

night; this was overkill), as well as the live version of “Celebration Day” but the rest of the tunes were unfamiliar.

I'd read that Led Zeppelin III had received a mixed reception in the wake of the very heavy second album and that it was supposed to be full of folk type music and truth be told, that was the reason why I avoided buying the third album for fear that it was full of tracks like “Battle of Evermore.” I was pleasantly surprised, prepared by Prior's insistence on playing certain Led Zep track to death and perhaps also by the more mature musical taste I had developed by my thirties when acoustic, folk-based songs were no longer antithetical to my likes. The production or mixing on the CD was a tad weak though and even the heavy tracks failed to have the same punch as the LP versions of the earlier albums. Within a few months of my purchase of Led Zeppelin III there was a burglary at my flat and the burglars not only stole my CD player hut also half of my CD collection at the time, including Led Zeppelin III which was in the CD tray. I bought a second copy about a year later.

The very first Led Zeppelin album I actually took notice of in my youth was Physical Graffiti from 1974 – this was the one the boys in my class were raving about. Also, by 1974 Angola and Mozambique were no longer under Portuguese control and LM Radio had relocated to South Africa and had been transformed into Radio 5 which had a much stronger signal than LM Radio ever had and this meant that my old valve radio could pick up Radio 5 loudly and clearly and Radio 5 was playing “Trampled Underfoot” and “Custard Pie” admittedly not on heavy rotation but often enough to make an impression on me. By the time I had enough money to buy records on a regular basis though, Physical Graffiti was not really readily available and my tastes had moved on to blues and white R & B and so my project of buying the LP's never reached Physical Graffiti just as I never got around to buying Houses of the Holy, even up to the time of writing this.

My cousin Minnette became an air hostess for South African Airways, her dream job, and when she started flying overseas she asked me for a list of CDs I wanted and could not get in Cape Town and somehow Physical Graffiti made it onto the list, not so much because it was unattainable in South Africa but because I thought she could get it cheaper in England. Two others albums on the list, and which she bought for me as well, were Fresh Cream (a real wish list item) and the contemporary “shoegazing” band Ride's second album. In a way those two albums more definitively represented my tastes in the early Nineties.

With Physical Graffiti, too, the sound seemed to be badly mixed, as if there were no real power to the music. Where was the heaviness, the heavy metal they had so brilliantly created back in 1969? It seemed to me that the best riffs on the album were not even guitar riffs but clavinet riffs infused with a whole lot of the funk Stevie Wonder was bringing into music and in a weird way, analogous to the
way Led Zep had been born in the blues but had subverted the genre; they had now done the same with another black music, this time funk.

I have not heard any remastered versions of the Physical Graffiti tracks but I believe that the music on does not remotely compare with the debut album for sheer punch and brio. This, I guess is where the band started becoming the type of dinosaur that was blown away by punk and new wave within three short years. It is perhaps no accident that the last Led Zep album was released in 1979, with the large scale triumph of Knebworth to follow and then the death of John Bonham a year later to put an abrupt end to the enterprise. Who knows how much longer Led Zeppelin would have struggled on, maybe still the biggest band in the world, but bereft of new ideas and too old-fashioned to be relevant. One can hardly consider an alternative world where Led Zep carried on regardless the way the Rolling Stones have; where ultimately the brand is stronger than the individuals.

More than twenty years later the longevity and commercial power of the brand was illustrated by the huge success of the video package titled DVD and the live collection How the West Was Won. This financial success was preceded in the late Eighties and early Nineties of the way Led Zep had become such an important influence on young musicians and by the way the legend and mystique not only lived on but was revived by kids who were barely born, if at all, during the band's heyday. If nothing else, the long lasting viability of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin has conclusively proved that this rock'n'roll business can be seen as just that, a business that, properly looked after, can reward the investors and stockholders, so to speak, to the end of their days.