Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Suck played what was known as "underground" in South African in 1970 when their debut album Time To Suck was released on Parlophone Records, not so long before the home of the Beatles. Nowadays it is available on a CD from RetroFresh Records who have made it a mission to introduce us classic South African rock albums that have languished in total obscurity since their vinyl release.

I was 11 years old when Time To Suck was unleashed on the South African rock public but was totally and blissfully unaware of Suck's existence as I was not much into underground at the time, preferring the likes of Neil Diamond and the bubblegum pop of the time.

As I understand it, "underground" was a mixture of heavy and progressive rock, more or less anything that was not pop. The exponents ranged from Freedoms Children, to Hawk, to Abstract Truth, to Otis Waygood Blues Band, to Suck, and probably more.

Suck was apparently quite outrageous and shocking for its time and that someone was prepared to release even one album by them is pretty amazing considering the political and social restrictions applicable in South Africa at the time. The other interesting aspect to this, judging by an album full of cover versions, is that Suck seems to have been just a typical bar band of the time, playing a selection of songs from some of the heavy hitters of the time in the UK and the USA, such as Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Free and Deep Purple, rather than their own songs. In fact there is only one original tune in the set.

I guess, if you could not listen to Black Sabbath at your local club, Suck doing a version of War Pigs was the next best thing. They are nice and heavy, with a powerful vocalist, a guitarist who knows his power chords and a rhythm section with as little subtlety as would be required to stomp the audience into submission. There are also a few touches of flute just to add the progressive edge.

Almost all of the songs on the album were previously unknown to me, but Deep Purple's Into The Fire (utterly without organ flourishes by a Jon Lord impressionist) and Donovan's Season of the Witch are, so to say, old friends. I know the latter song best in the Stephen Stills / Al Kooper version off the Supersession album, though I have also had the pleasure of hearing Donovan doing his song. Suck do a very heavy version that removes all of the psychedelia from it and adds a drum solo; those were the days.

For the rest, I do not know whether Suck improves on Grand Funk Railroad, King Crimson or Free thought I would be so bold as to say that Andy Iannides is a far superior vocalist to Mark Farner of Grand Funk. In any event, never knows whether the songs sound different to the original version because the cover band is inventive and want to bring something new, or if they simply are not capable of an exact reproduction even if they try.

So, as a record of a band Time To Suck is probably important and it was necessary to release it on CD. My impression is that local rock albums were a relative rarity in the Seventies (and remained so until the mid-Nineties) and for that reason each and every local rock LP should be brought back in the public eye by CD release. Having said that, I cannot think that Suck or its one and only album were extremely vital parts of the South African rock tapestry, except maybe for the band members and those living fans who were around at the time. Say what you will, but the album is still a pub band's jukebox repertoire, and there were many such bands at the time and if most of them were less outrageous on stage than Suck, it does make then any less meritorious.



Lank Sweatband

Sweatband was the second Cape Town band I followed from gig to gig after All Night Radio, from the early days in Die Stal in Stellenbosch to the almost endless series of farewell gigs at the Hout Bay Manor Hotel, and in particular their spectacular homecoming concert at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay after they had conquered Johannesburg.

At the time, possibly because I found it on sale, I bought the cassette tape version of the Lank Sweat debut album and not the vinyl LP, and now recently I've bought the Fresh Music reissue with bonus tracks from the sessions of the second, never released album.

After the heights of success of two hit singles on Radio 5 Wendy Oldfield left for a solo career, was replaced by 2 female vocalists, first Michelle Bestbier with Kelly Hunter, and then Tanya Malherbe joined Kelly. The band fell apart with huge debts and no record company support. John Mair followed a solo career playing his hits and covers in pubs and then died. Wendy Oldfield had something of a successful solo career but that has long since died the death. I have no idea what happened to the Dieter the bassist, Leslie the drummer and Kelly Hunter.

By the time the debut LP, No Sweat, was released the boys in the band had splendid late Eighties mullets and Oldfield had become a kind of sex goddess of local rock and roll after she lost the puppy fat she had when she joined the band and discovered the effect of tight black leather.

On stage both Oldfield and Mair sang, and in the beginning it was almost an equal division, but once they had gone to Johannesburg and were discovered, management obviously decided that Oldfield, who had a voice, should be the focal point and Mair had the cold comfort of singing just one or two numbers a night. After Oldfield was gone, and even with the 2 new chick singers, Mair reasserted himself and sang about half the songs on stage again.

In the beginning Sweatband sounded pretty much like a standard early Eighties reggae and white funk influenced New Wave band and then mutated into a highly tooled hard rock band with perhaps the best rock songs in South Africa at the time. On stage the band was killer and the best part was that John Mair kept writing superior songs even after the debut album was released and by the final gigs had a store of songs that cried out for vinyl release but not many were.

The CD reissue, called Lank Sweat (with an almost forgotten piece of slang, indicating that it contains almost all the tracks the band ever recorded)
brings together the songs on the debut album and unreleased tracks intended for a follow-up. When No Sweat was released I compared it to All Night Radio's The Heart's Te Best Part, produced by a stupid American Steve Louw had imported, while Sweatband was produced by local guy Kevin Shirley, and found that the completely local product kicked the ass of the sessions on which the ugly American had gotten his filthy paws.

Listening to those tracks now, the sonic effect is still powerful yet the production is so much of its time that the drums sound far too leaden for comfort. Sweatband may have had a heavy inclination but they were at heart a superior pop band and the drums should have skipped where they plodded. If there has been digital remastering, it has done the album a disservice by emphasising this type of flaw.

The effect now is that the songs sound overproduced and overweight and not bright and peppy enough. Ironically the two ballads that close the record (The Ballade and Sleep Like A Child) have the lightest touch of all the songs. The hits Shape Of Her Body and This Boy (originally sung by Mair, and taken over by Oldfield) suffer from the leaden sound and that is a disappointment.

Even at the time I thought No Sweat had too much filler and most of them were songs that had not been in the original set and I have always wondered why better, earlier material was excluded in favour of later lightweight nonsense, and now I see that some of the early tunes were recorded for the second album. There was also a cassette only demo tape sounding album I've heard, of the early Sweatband sound, with even more apparently lost tunes and some of them were integral to the set list in the band's struggle days in Stellenbosch and were quite good. John Mair certainly had great depth as a songwriter.

It seems that Sweatband, whether of their own accord or perhaps from pressure to boost Oldfield as front person, intended to go for more slow songs on the second release, giving Oldfield some work to do, with a mixture of new and old tunes, and this does not really work well. In a way, although it may have been seen as a progression, it seems to me that the band was not hitting any targets with this second batch of songs. The production values are high, with the drums once again way up front in the mix, but the effect is lacklustre, as if the band was going through the motions rather than being passionate about what they were doing. No wonder Oldfield was so easily persuaded to jump ship and forge ahead on her own. Some of the songs could be prototypes for her new career as diva with a conscience.

Sweatband did not have much competition in Cape Town, and perhaps the rest of the country too, in the period 1986 to 1989, and I guess I must have attended most of the gigs they played in and around the city in those years, well, from 1984 in fact, and though some of the shtick, like the unvarying bass solo and the endless soloing on Johnny B Goode, became a tad trying after a while, the band was unstoppable when it was in full rock monster mode on stage. Cape Town had lots of unrecorded indie bands in those days, most of which possibly aspired to be no more than the kind of band the musicians' girlfriends and close mates would be impressed with. Sweatband looked to be something much more than a scrabbling indie group with wacky image or way out sounds and cultural politics. John Mair and Wendy Oldfield were sexy front persons with a lot of va va voom, and they worked it. The leaders quite obviously had a vision of full on biggest act in the land status, not to mention that (then) elusive dream of making it "internationally" and who's to say they would not have had a shot in a different time?

That is why it is such a pity that the songs on Lank Sweat do not truly reflect the potential greatness of Sweatband.


































Chris Prior

The man was dubbed, or maybe it was self-styled aggrandisement,, the Rock Professor because, I guess, he knew a lot about rock, especially what we now call classic rock and all kinds of esoteric, fringe rock acts of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. For my money he may well have been the single most important DJ on South African rock radio, with only the guy form the Hobnailed Tekkie Show on Radio Good Hope to offer any competition, and Chris Prior is certainly the last rock DJ I made a point of tuning in to.

Back in my late teens and early twenties the NME was the fount of a large amount of information on the rock scene of the time, and some old stuff they covered, but the problem was that hardly any of the music the NME wrote about was freely or at all available to me. Chris Prior was the guy who gave me some practical knowledge of a bunch of acts I treasured then and still do today.

Prior had a regular slot on Audiomix, the youth oriented magazine programme the English Service broadcast in the late afternoon, and he gave short courses on acts he deemed worthy of our attention. This is where I first heard the Texas blues rock of Z Z Top and the folk punk stylings of Van Morrison. He must have had inserts on a number of other groups but these two stand out, perhaps because in time, some years later, I made an effort to acquire the music of both acts, and owned a bunch of records by each.

Prior also championed Tom Waits, and Rickie Lee Jones end though I eventually started buying Tom Waits, mostly, though, due to the influence of a girlfriend of the time, with a little nod to the Waits music I'd heard at m y friend Sean's house.

Chris Prior went to work for Capital Radio 604, based in Port St Johns in the then Transkei so-called independent homeland and, as I could not pick up Capital Radio, Prior disappeared off my radar until het popped up as the late night jockey on Radio 5 in the mid-Eighties, when the station was being revamped and repositioned as a format free rock station, under a British station manager, a welcome change from the awful disco format it had followed under Pieter Human since shortly its inception.

As I understood it, the new plan at Radio 5 was to have a top-notch morning show guy, who turned out to be Martin Baillie, to draw in a large audience, with middle of the road rock and pop during the daytime and early evening, with specialist rock shows later at night, and on Saturday afternoons. From this change we got the Saturday Shadow Show, featuring Barney Simon who later kind of assumed the Prior mantle as guru of modern rock, and Rafe Levine's Friday night metal show, and of course Chris Prior's late night rock show.

At first the Prior show was on between 22h00 and midnight and when Radio 5 became an 24 hour station, the Prior show expanded into a 4 hour showcase for all that he considered top of the range rock, pop and esoterica. It is at about this time that the Rock Professor monicker appeared and it might even have been a pure marketing ploy dreamt up by the station's PR team.

I tuned in to Chris Prior most evenings as I had no television and listened to a lot of music and liked what he played.

By the late Eighties Chris Prior was so powerful he could even tour the country and present DJ set of clubs, filled with the best of his rock collection and could draw substantial crowds. He must have been one of the last local DJs, apart from Barney Simon, who could fill clubs without playing house or trance or any of the other genres of dance music that were so prevalent in the day of the globetrotting superstar DJ.

Prior was very influential and his imprimatur could make acts that were slightly outside of the mainstream, like The Waterboys, whom he played relentlessly, or local act Sankomoto. In a way, the Rock Professor ID could also be related to a slightly fuddy duddy approach to what he found acceptable. This meant, for example, that he could popularise The Waterboys but play only one or two of their songs and not much else from the albums. In a way he must have had a rigid playlist of sorts and if some of the choices of acts were adventurous, the selection of what he played was far less so.

One of the most interesting sections of the Prior show was the nightly Priority Feature, where for 30 minutes to an hour he featured the music of a specific artist. Once a week the Priority Feature concentrated on local rock and he gave exposure to bands and individuals who probably got very little radio play otherwise. Not only did he play the music but he had interviews with the musicians and publicised their ventures, such as the night when he chatted with Steve Louw about the forthcoming All Night Radio album, and played some acetates of a couple of tracks off the album.

Radio 5 paid lip service to the idea of promoting local rock music and did programme some of it during the daytime schedule but Chris Prior made a point of doing it, and doing it properly. This was long before the SA Music Explosion of post-1994 and there was not that much local rock that got recorded and released, and there was not that much good stuff among the releases, and to make the kind of effort Chris Prior made, deserved and deserves recognition. Nowadays you could programme a radio station to play nothing but local rock 24 hours a day and not have to repeat any song. Back then supporting local music was a brave act.

I have no idea when I stopped listening to Chris Prior or when he left Radio 5, or maybe it was already 5 FM by then. At the end 5 FM had been repositioned once again to be more of a top 40 station and with more autocratic imposition of playlists, even on the superstar Prior. Not only that but his show was cut too. To be honest, by the early Nineties I was kind of bored with Chris Prior and he really became the professor who was not prepared to be too adventurous anymore because he was much too stuck in the rut of what he thought of as good stuff. The end came when he insisted on playing Stairway to Heaven every night. I have no idea why. Did he think it was the best rock song ever written? Was it some kind of statement? Was it a big fuck you to those who were trying to dictate his playlist? Whatever it was, I was not happy with the concept and I was even less happy with the other songs Prior was playing, as it seemed that he was no longer the barnstormer I had grown to like way back. Perhaps it was also the constriction of the playlist he was forced to follow so that he became just an announcer of songs he had not chosen. Either way, the Chris Prior had lost its lustre and 'must listen' aura.

I must confess that I stopped listening to 5 FM altogether somewhere in the mid-Nineties. If memory serves Barney Simon took over the late night slot with his modern rock show. Although Simon should be as lauded as Prior for sticking steadfastly to his chosen genre and for being the poster boy for alternative rock, I could not stand him as a radio presence or persona. It amazed me that someone who had been a presenter for as long as he had been by then, could still sound as nervous and awkward as someone who had just started out. Only Tony Sanderson was worse.

Simon's choice of music was also not very compelling but the major turn-off was that he talked so much. He must have loved his own voice, or maybe he just did not have that many tunes to play and plenty of airtime to fill. I soon tuned out. In 1998 I went over to Good Hope FM for the latest in urban music, dance music, R & B, hip hop and whatever else they played.

The next radio station I listened to with any regularity was Radio 2000, in the period 2001 to 2006, when its evening format was a seamless rock playlist in a DJ free environment with lots of local music. One did not always know the act or the name of the tune, but the mix of old and new, local and international, rock and pop, was innovative and compelling. Sadly this is no longer the case.

I have no idea where Chris Prior went to after he left 5 FM. I think it might have been Radio 2000's daytime slots, or some other radio station that would allow him to ply his wares.

I am still thankful to Prior for introducing me to early Z Z Top, the Van Morrison of Astral Weeks, Listen to the Lion and the better Eighties stuff , John Hiatt (mostly Bring The Family but also earlier stuff), Linton Kwesi Johnson (mostly Tings and Times), The Waterboys, and others I cannot even remember now.

Chris Prior was important for bringing us good rock and roll, mostly pretty classic, sometimes innovative, but at all times his choice until the corporate structures took his freedom away and subjected him to a playlist system that stifled the very nature of the beast. Perhaps it was not such a bad thing, all things considered, because he had become a bit of a dinosaur anyway and needed to be shaken up, but it is always bad for a free spirit, and one with nous too, to be caged in such a way.

In the ordinary course I would no doubt have stopped listening to Prior regardless of the playlist because my musical tastes were no longer his and to a degree my perception was that I was a couple of steps ahead of him in my eclectic tastes and was far more willing to adopt, or just to listen to, all kinds of new music. Chris Prior did in effect become the fusspot professor who had made his mark so long ago that one could almost no longer remember the nature of the beast and who was then content to rest on his laurels and never again be as progressive and innovative as he had been when he was young. I suppose Prior's argument might have been that he had his classic rock slot and Barney Simon had his modern rock slot and their respective audiences preferred it that way, and that the two approaches were meant to complement each other, but frankly, I would rather have listened to Chris Prior introducing the kind of modern rock that Simon was championing than listen to the Barney. Chris Prior should have seized the moment and embraced all of the new rock out there in the late Eighties and early Nineties, as he had 4 hours of airtime to fill, instead of sticking to the old stuff he knew so well. There was no reason why Van Morrison could not have coexisted with Nirvana or the Stone Roses, or whoever.

So, Chris Prior turned from revolutionary to radio careerist and disappeared into the void. He must still be out there somewhere, spinning his tunes, in the relaxed style and air of assurance and authority that made him my DJ hero for a number of years, but I do not know where that radio station is or on what frequency it broadcasts and I am not sure I would care to find out.

It is never good to revisit a hero to find out what they are currently up to, as inevitably it cannot be as good or as exciting as what he had done to make him a hero in the first place.