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.



Dieter said...

Hi Neels,
well written History of Sweatband.
I played bass for John and i still miss that genius.

Neil said...

absolute wonderful trip down memory lane! God we spent a lot of time at De Akker and later Die Stal. I remember that comming home gig very very well. I lived in Jhb for a while and saw them play at Jaggers in Rosebank often. John later married a friend of mine in the early 90's I think. Was the last time I saw the whole band together.

God I miss those days. You do know that John passed away in a car accident outside Hermanus in 2005 if memory serves correctly

Riaan said...

John passed away in 2002.

Anonymous said...

R.I.P John. 11.12.2002
His love of the Blues inspired a friend of mine, who inspired me to get into them. Met him once in Hermanus.