Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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.




Soutpiel said...

Many thanks for this. I bought a copy of the 'Voice of Nooit' way back in the 80s, and have followed the career of Phillips and others from the Shifty stable. This is the first time any of this background information has been filled in for me, and it's great to see a picture form out of the nostalgic mists. I tend to agree with your comments about James Phillips' music -- I love 'Voice of Nooit', and think this is the strongest stuff he was ever involved in.

I met Phillips once, extremely briefly. I was a student in Grahamstown in the early 90s, and happened to live in a large digs where Koos Kombuis occasionally visited. Koos had a friend in the digs, and would sometimes stay for a few days on his tramp-like wanderings around the country.

One day the was a knock on the door and I answered. Bugger me, there was James Phillips. He said, "Is Koos in?' I said no, he said, "Okay, thanks," and wondered off. Shortly after this he was in that fateful car accident you mention.

Great article & blog. Thanks.

Paul said...

James will live forever ...

forgetter said...

i remember james from standard 8 at springs boys' high: rebellious, very talented musically, stars in his eyes and hungry for a jol......and later at his house in yeoville: philosophical, very talented musically, loving his world and full of herman charles bosman