Wednesday, April 07, 2010

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.


































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