Thursday, October 27, 2011


Nazareth is a British hard rock band formed by a bunch of Scots from Glasgow and who could be called a B-list heavy band of the Seventies. They are still going, touring and releasing albums though their hey days were almost 40 years ago.

"Love Hurts" was the big hit that dominated South African airwaves in 1975 to the extent where I started hating the song, especially as I was not into ballads in 1975 and could not abide the endless repetition of it. I think is it was Ray Stevens who had a faster, lighter version of the song that briefly, sometime later, achieved a lot of exposure on local radio and I really liked what Stevens had done with the tune, though he made it seem less of an ode to heartbreak that the Nazareth version. Perhaps the upbeat rhythm of the Stevens interpretation was meant to contrast sarcastically or sardonically with the bitterness of the lyrics.

Anyhow, though Nazareth was supposed to be a hard rock act, their greatest success came from a sloppy ballad. They never quite repeated the ubiquity of "Love Hurts" but had a couple of hits after that, mostly still slow songs like "Place In Your Heart". As the harder rock tunes got no airplay on South African radio I had little idea what the rest of the oeuvre sounded like, except for Hair of the Dog, also from 1975.

My then mate Natie Greeff had quite a little collection of contemporary rock albums, such as Queen's A Night at the Opera, Deep Purple's Made in Japan, Uriah Heep's Live and Hair of the Dog. He also liked the Moody Blues.

I guess he must have bought the Nazareth album because of "Love Hurts", given that his musical taste seemed not cater for the more progressive end of rock and not to the quite basic grind of the hard rock practised by Nazareth on tracks other than the hit single. I was impressed by the title track's repetitive reference to a "son of a bitch" and Natie was very impressed by "Don't Judas Me", a slow building, emotive final track that aspired to grandeur and melodrama and would obviously have made a fine set closer at a concert. I just dug the big, hard, driving rock beat of the band and the screaming guitar solos. Natie pointed out how poetic the lyrics of some of the songs, like "Guilty" or "Beggar's Day" were. He and I did not exactly have a meeting of minds on why we liked music and why we liked what we liked.

I did not have the heart, or maybe I did have the circumspection, to confess to Natie that "Don't Judas Me" did not have the same appeal to me as it did have for him. He was into the poetry of rock and I was into louder, faster and damn the lyrics.

It would have been madness trying to explain Dr Feelgood to someone who believed that A Night at the Opera (which contained another pet hate of mine, "Bohemian Rhapsody") was some kind of pinnacle of artistic ambition and endeavour.

Even exposure to Hair of the Dog did not convince me to buy any Nazareth albums and nothing I heard on the radio persuaded me otherwise. The hard rock songs did not make it to any playlist and the soppy ballads were not my thing.

This attitude changed somewhere in the Eighties when I bought of double album of Nazareth's greatest Seventies songs. I guess I must have been inspired by a budget price and thought that the low risk monetary gamble would be worth it. For the life of me I cannot think of any other reason why I would have shelled out money for an album by a band that was by then no longer a front-line attraction and, for all I knew, had ceased to exist as a working unit.

The album, probably called something like "the best of Nazareth", turned out to have an excellent cross section of top class Nazareth tunes and all the favourites were, as they say, present and correct. There was "Razamanazz", a great live set opener of intent to rock, "Expect No Mercy", "Hair of the Dog", "Broken Down Angel", "Turn On Your Receiver", "Bad Bad Boy", "My White Bicycle" and many others I cannot recall now. When I heard "My White Bicycle" I realised I knew the song from somewhere, either in its Nazareth version or perhaps in the original, but it was familiar.

Apart from slower yet rocking songs like "Broken Down Angel", "Turn On Your Receiver" and "Bad Bad Boy", that fall in the category of power sing-a-long, with great guitar, the song that made the biggest impression on me was the interpretation of "This Flight Tonight", a Joni Mitchell songs I had heard many years before in her album version of it. Somehow Nazareth, and in particular Dan Cafferty's voice, turned the song into a truly affecting and effective plaintive cry of imminent disappointment mixed with lovelorn anticipation. Just a great, great performance and perhaps my top favourite Nazareth song.

The entire double album was a winner, the purchase price well spent. By that time I had matured somewhat and no longer had a knee jerk adverse reaction to ballad type tunes from rockers and I developed a fondness for "Love Hurts" as well. The performance and to a degree the sentiment too, are of a piece with "This Flight Tonight" and the two songs can probably bookend a story of doomed love.

I was still not persuaded to seek out any Nazareth albums but the best of collection was a treasured part of my record collection.

About a year ago (2010), and after I had given away all my records, I came across a budget priced CD called The Very Best of Nazareth, with a similar collection of Nazareth hits although, sadly, it was not an exact duplication. The biggest Seventies songs are there but there are also a number of tunes I had not heard before, and some of the interesting hard rock songs from the LP, such as "No Mercy", are not on this compilation, which probably is intended to represent a broader spectrum of the career. The previously unknown songs, such "Telegram", "Dream On" "When the Lights Come Down", "Star" and "Holiday", are as good as any other Nazareth track I'd heard before and confirm the quality of the output over the years.

It is still a great collection. For all I know just about every Nazareth song on every album of theirs is worth hearing and my yet surprise me but Nazareth is the kind of band where the hits compilation is the best representation of their oeuvre. The compilation is usually all killer and that makes for a very satisfactory listening experience without the risk of being exposed to clunkers hidden away on albums that you've paid good money for.

It seems that Nazareth is still a going concern and is touring and releasing albums as late as 2011. Not that one would find any recent product in the local CD store. Good for them, though. If Seventies dinosaurs like Uriah Heep. Deep Purple, Z Z Top, to name but few, can still be out there pursuing their careers, albeit at lesser wattage, there is no reason why Nazareth should not have more time in the spotlight too. AC/DC seem to be as popular and strong as ever, and they come from the Seventies too.

The good old-fashioned rock and roll that Nazareth plays, with tunes and memorable choruses along with the crunching guitars and danceable beat, is extremely satisfying and enjoyable.

This brings me to my latest Nazareth acquisition, a low budget CD called Nazareth Live, with the kind of packaging that gives one no information on when these recordings were made. I bought it, along with two South African rock albums, at a Cash Crusaders outlet and it cost met less than R10. The cover photograph shows us four middle-aged guys that make me think the live tracks could have been recorded during the last 15 years or so. For some strange reason studio recordings of "Broken Down Angel" and "My White Bicycle" have been added to the 14 live tracks.

The opening cut "Live From London, Intro" is a ridiculous James Last girl chorus type thing, redolent of the Swinging Sixties vibe, or perhaps a European imagining of that scene, from the days when London was the hip capital of the world.

After that "Telegram" kicks in and it is immediately distressingly clear that this is not prime late Seventies Nazareth, but more probably a band stuck in the time warp of Eighties big rock production values where the tough Glasgow grit is long gone and AOR reigns supreme. The band may be playing in a chintzy nightclub to a middle aged, middle class family audience. And hey, they look like their audience!

The torpor resumes with "Razamanaz" which was written as a rousing battle cry for rockers everywhere. It once got up and danced, now it kind of shifts around in its seat for a more comfortable position. The drums truly plod. Man, this is not good. No wonder the previous owner of the CD flogged it to Cash Crusaders.

J J Cale's "Cocaine" is the first of a couple of cover versions made more famous by other acts and the unique Nazareth interpretation is to give it a jazzy funk workout that gives the song truly bizarre new twist that does absolutely nothing for it.

"Teenage Nervous Breakdown" (Little Feat) also makes no sense, especially given the apparent age of the guys playing the song. It should be retitled 'middle-aged nervous tension.'

Dan Cafferty's ragged, somewhat over-used voice works quite well on "Love Hurts" because he now truly sounds world weary and disgusted with a huge dollop of resigned sadness. Maybe he has been through a truly unpleasant divorce. However, this version suffers from being probably being the thousandth time Cafferty has had to sing the big hit.

"Hair of the Dog" with its lengthy drum thud intro and vocoder section actually works. Whatever reservoir of viciousness the band still retains shows itself a little bit. Cafferty can't scream as he used to – I bet he protects his nodes – but there is a vestige of the younger man's ire and nastiness there.

I cannot say the same about "This Flight Tonight", great song as it is, and valiant as the attempt is to replicate old glories. This also sounds like one too many performance.

The album ends kind of weirdly. The band starts up "I Ain't Got You" and it fades inexplicably, to be replaced by the same stupid "Live in London" jingle that opens the set. Obviously some clever dick's idea of a framing device. The even weirder part though is that studio recordings of "Broken Down Angel" and "My White Bicycle" have been tacked on after the live recordings. These songs sound like the original versions from the Seventies and the intensity and rock power contrast sharply with the torpor and journeymen-like plod of the live set.

What is the purpose of this album? It sounds like a souvenir, of sorts, of a Nazareth tour or maybe a bootleg cheaply recorded for cheap release in countries where Nazareth never tours and yet is still a recognised name, at least if you are of a certain age. I would be surprised if Nazareth has made any significant money from this album; I would be surprised to hear that the band sanctioned the release of this stuff unless any buck earned is a buck earned, regardless of the source.

I'm glad I have the studio versions of the big Nazareth songs on CD. This live set sucks. Perhaps I should resell it to Cash Crusaders.


AC/DC are purveyors of old school hard rock. I am so old school that I prefer the version of AC/DC with Bon Scott as vocalist. He could sing and scream as required and sounded as naughty and slyly salacious as some of the earliest songs require him to be. For all I know Brian Johnson is more technically gifted as singer, and he has certainly been AC/DC's vocalist for far longer than Scott was, but his gravelly, raspy voice just does not do it for me.

The band has been a going concern for almost 40 years now and recently thy provided soundtrack music for Iran Man 2 and released a DVD of a massive concert at the River Plate stadium. Many of the big metal and hard rock acts from the late Sixties and early Seventies, and I guess beyond as well, still tour though I would imagine they do so more as nostalgia acts as living and breathing organism and vital creative forces. AC/DC may not tour as much as they used to do and may no longer have regular new album releases but it seems that they are anything but a nostalgic act and in their own inimitable fashion remain vital and attracts new fans as much as they have retained the old ones.

I have only ever owned 3 AC/DC albums: the LPs of High Voltage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap as part of o twofer one Warner Records budget re-issue schedule, and now (since early May 2011) a remastered CD version of Got Blood If You Want It, a live set, with Bon Scott, from the late Seventies.

The original AC/DC hard rock style was based on amplified blues riffing with Malcolm Young's relentless rhythm guitar contrasting with Angus Young's piercing lead guitar. Bon Scott sounds like the naughty schoolboy Angus Young represents in his school uniform and altogether the music is fun even if some of the lyrics are terribly schoolboyish smutty. Hard rock and infantile humour, Australian style, are not necessarily antithetic to each other. Anyway, the two albums rock quite nicely, thank you, and songs like "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock and Roll)" are very good.

Many years later I got hold of an MP3 version of the Lucinda Williams album Little Honey on which she does a pretty good version of "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock and Roll)." It is perhaps not the strangest cover version ever but who would have thought that a singer like Williams would have dared to do AC/DC and remake their song as roots rock and roll?

Long before this, though, Joan Jett recorded a version of "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" for her The Hit List album, which recast this song as a kind of jokey pop punk number. It wasn't bad but it was not exactly as much fun as the AC/DC version. Bon Scott's tone of voice gave the song a strength that gave more gravitas to the slightly silly words.

That was my last AC/DC purchase for a very long time, until early May 2011 in fact. The band kept rolling along. After the death of Bon Scott AC/DC became bigger than ever, perhaps because of the groundwork done in his lifetime through relentless touring, perhaps because his death caused a sympathetic fan reaction or relieved them of the burden of a guy, although a brilliant frontman on stage, became more and more of a liability as result of his excessive drinking habits. Brian Johnson's voice grated on my ears, he did not have that tone of joyous mischief and the music seemed to become more and more monolithic and therefore less interesting. The early post-Scot albums were probably okay. Radio 5 played some of the lead tracks and they sounded good on radio though not compelling enough to make me want to buy the records. I was not all that much into metal at the time anyway.

From the mid-Eighties Radio 5 started the practise of specialist shows in the evenings, such as Chris Prior's late night rock show and Rafe Levine's Friday night metal show. Levine like AC/DC and played a lot of stuff from their releases over the duration of his show. The things that he played were powerful slices of hard rock, I guess, but the lyrics were mostly banal and barely serviceable and seemed to have been written just to give Brian Johnson something to shout between riffs and solos. Of course the band still had a huge, loyal following and their work ethic was commendable. Like all kinds of musicians before them, the Young brothers became middle-aged, raised families and, away from the stage, looked and acted like most middle-class males with women, children, property and the general worries and concerns of daily life. The rock and roll image was just the stage version of their personalities; Angus Young did not wear his schoolboy suit at home.

I must confess that it baffled me that this band could have carried on for so long, more or less underneath the radar of media scrutiny, but I guess rock and roll is a job and AC/DC did their job well. Every couple of years there was a new album and a tour to support the album. The brand was lucrative enough to sustain and even to grow and the surprising thing is that AC/DC's fan base may well have grown. That they have provided the music for 2 Iron Man movies is weird yet also exactly right.

At the end of our April/May 2011 overseas holiday I had some money to burn at Heathrow airport while we were waiting to board and I bought a bunch of albums at the HMV shop, mostly because they were on special offer. One of them was Got Blood If You Want It, one of the albums in the remastered re-issue programme of "classic" AC/DC albums. The price was a factor but this is also the only AC/DC record, other than High Voltage or Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap that I would want to own. It was a pity that neither of them was available at the airport.

"Whole Lotta Rosie" from the live set was played on Radio 5 back in the day and is the main reason I wanted to hear the rest of the record. The song reminded me of the MC5. I cannot really say why; it just did. "It's A Long Way To The Top" and "The Jack" were familiar from those two early records.

"High Voltage" rock and roll about sums the AC/DC intent and approach and from the opener, "Riff Raff" to set closer "Rocker", they do their very best to do just that. The riffing is relentless, Bon Scott is on top form and the Young brother's guitar interplay tears the roof off. The songs celebrate rock and roll and the bad boy lifestyle rockers are wont to indulge in. there is no introspection, just good times. Unfortunately the songs tend to segue into each other to the degree that it tends to sound like one long jam though it must have been great to be in that room on the night, a couple of metres from the stage. One's ears would have been ringing for days afterwards.

Since Got Blood If You Want It there have been other AC/DC live albums and recently there has been a couple of DVDs of live shows, most recently from the River Plate Stadium, that feature the mega successful almost corporate rock version of a band that has made comfortable career of the hard rock lark, something they may not have envisaged at the time that first live album was released. The difference between then and now would probably be that as youngsters the band were still excited and struggling and doing it with raw enthusiasm and now it is the day job, whenever they tour.

I would imagine the production values on an AC/DC tour must be high, far higher than in the late Seventies, but this efficiency and proficiency often robs the music of the visceral effect it supposed to have. Hard rock in snot all about extreme volume or expertly executed guitar solos. The style of music for which AC/DC became famous, though blues based, had more in common with the nascent punk movement than with the big metal acts of the Seventies and it is for this reason that I would tolerate only the first handful of AC/DC albums, and have avoided and will avoid the Brian Johnston era.

Having said that, I cannot quite see myself delving deeper into the AC/DC back catalogue, unless it is to buy Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap or High Voltage again. The Australian bad boys are done with their career yet, at least I don't think so, and may yet do a Rolling Stones on us and tour the world when they are in their mid-Sixties but a 64 year old Angus Young in his schoolboy outfit is going to be so totally ridiculous that it might just be right.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Freedom’s Children


When I was a kid the term "heavy metal" did not mean much to me. The term I did know and, as far as I knew, applied to almost any rock music that was not pop, was "underground." Bands classified as "underground" were heavy and perhaps even progressive, and in many cases were not necessarily non-commercial, though not part of the pop mainstream. Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath were underground. Slade and David Bowie were not.


Up to my late teens my exposure to local music was pretty much what was played on local radio and the intermittent coverage given to local acts in the publications I read. The first time I actually experienced live local rock was as a distant spectator at a rock festival held on the Stellenbosch University picnic grounds next to the Planckenbrug River in Stellenbosch. I lived a couple of streets away.


The picnic grounds were under shady trees, between the railway line and the river. I was too young to be allowed in but I could stand on the Adam Tas Road pavement on the other side of the fence from the railway line, and hear the music just fine. The festival was part of the university "karnaval" or Mardi gras, and featured what was then the cream of Cape Town rock bands of the time, most of whom would probably have fitted into the "underground" category. I have absolutely no recollection now of any band names, except for McCully Workshop who was quite well known as a commercially successful band.


The point I am trying to make is that I knew very little about the local rock scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies. I knew of McCully Workshop and I knew of Hawk because I'd either heard them on the radio or because I'd read about them. Freedom's Children meant nothing to me until much later in the Seventies when the Julian Laxton Band had a couple of hits and he was invariably referred to as ex-Freedom's Children. Some years later Brian Davidson fronted the Lancaster Band for a couple of years and he, too, was referenced as being ex-Freedoms. It was weird that he was a refugee of the Sixties "underground" scene and then found himself in a New Wave, ska inspired band. Other than that Freedom's Children was at best a name whispered in the wind. They had existed but I never saw any of their records, not even at Sygma Records that I used to haunt, enviously flipping through empty record covers. This also applied to Otis Waygood. I heard the name from someone or had read about them somewhere without ever hearing what they sounded like.


All of this changed for me in the early years of the 21st century. Fuelled partly by cheap CDs from Vibes Records in the Golden Acre in central Cape Town and then really cheap CDs from various Cash Crusaders and Cash Converters outlets along the Simon's Town railway line, and from subscribing to the SA Rock Digest, I started collecting local rock music, both contemporary (initially mostly the bands of the post 1994 "SA Rock Explosion") and more historic recordings and re-issues.


The RetroFresh label was very important as a source for giving a new lease of life to hitherto unknown or almost forgotten albums from South African rock heroes of yesteryear. Not all of these re-issues are that vital but albums by Freedom's Children, Hawk, Otis Waygood Blues Band, Abstract Truth and Suck really opened my eyes to the extra-ordinary rock scene that had existed in South Africa during the period of my early teens; a scene I would have loved to be part of in the way I was part of the mid to late Eighties scene in Cape Town that produced dozens of bands who never released any recordings that I was aware of, yet played a vital role in defining a Zeitgeist of an era when apartheid was crumbling and fighting tooth and nail to survive.


The likes of Freedoms Children and Hawk came into being, lived and died very much in the heart of the beast, when apartheid not only appeared to be monolithic but was pretty much impregnable and so all-encompassing in its authoritarianism that it was very difficult to fight the system; either you left the country or you bowed down. And, truth be told, the system that oppressed you was not merely apartheid. There was also an established way of doing things and of controlling things, even in the arts, that simply came from the notions of an older generation that was not keen on the long hairs who were taking over music or popular culture as a whole and who were going to retain control for as long as they could, and did.


This last notion applied particularly to the way Freedom's Children's debut album, Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde, came to be released. The band's record company, who probably had as watertight a contract as was possible, had enough control over the backing tracks, recorded before various members left for the UK, that it could instruct a producer to polish and complete the tracks to turn them into complete songs for commercial release, even without any input from the band itself. This seems such a typical story of the times and is by no means unique in the history of popular music. Even long haired rebels, perhaps especially long haired rebels, could not get out of the contractual ties demanded by the record industry who saw no reason to abandon tried and tested principles of corporate control simply because the new breed of musician had long hair, dressed strangely, took drugs and expressed a need for so-called artistic freedom.


For all that Battle Hymn turned out to be quite good.


Now, perhaps like most interested folk, my first Freedoms Children acquisition was Astra, apparently the 1997 re-issue, which (allegedly) is not that great sonically speaking. I think it came from Vibes Records and I bought it strictly because by then I'd read enough about the legendary Freedom's Children that this album became an object of desire and was in fact one of the first 10 or so local rock albums I bought once I had seriously embarked on the path of collecting local music.


Somehow I had expected (given that Julian Laxton was the guitarist) a fairly heavy, guitar driven sound. What I heard was an album, admittedly incredibly heavy, dominated by keyboards with actually very little guitar fire power. Brian Davison's voice is so distorted that it is almost impossible to make out what he's singing and the overall mood is very portentous and almost pompous. This must have been the progressive end of local "underground."


I do not have a very broad range of knowledge of the non-mainstream progressive bands of the era, nor of the similarly inclined European rock acts who did not sound much like the big heavy bands from the UK or USA. From the little Krautrock I did hear I realised that this is a genre I should have explored, as the music is not only heavy but it is often quite weird as well. These guys wanted to play rock but not blues based rock and a lot of European rock from the Sixties and early Seventies sounds like the music of trained musicians who desperately want to play rock because they have read so much about it but have no clue because they have never actually heard what rock music sounds like and must therefore make up their own version of it. Obviously this is just my fanciful take on the issue. Many UK and US based bands toured Europe and aspiring Krautrockers would have had access to records and rock on television as well.


Freedom's Children sound like a Krautrock band in the sense that they do not much sound like any contemporary British or American band, even if the same conventional instrumental line-up is in place. The musicians have a sensibility that may not be overtly African but is of this continent in that the influences and effects are otherworldly in the context of the international rock scene. Initially the musicians were isolated from what was happening on the ground in the rest of the world and had to make up their own version of what they saw as rock music. In addition Ramsay MacKay had a vision that went beyond mere cover versions of popular hits or simple pop lyrics. The words were complex and the music had to be complex to match the words. It was not easy listening, it was head music, with a beat you could kind of dance to if you took enough of the right drugs but perhaps it was only music to trip to.


A couple of years after I bought that 1997 version of Astra, I copied a mate's Galactic Vibes, the final Freedom's album. This time the line-up is a four piece and more guitar dominated than Astra and more like the band I had expected to hear in the first place.


As an aside: it is telling that each of the 3 Freedom's Children albums was recorded by a different group of musicians. It must be a reflection on the nature of the music business in South Africa at that time, that so many people passed through the ranks. Ramsay MacKay, Colin Pratley and Julian Laxton are three longest serving members, with a supporting cast of thousands. I was surprised to learn, when researching the band's history, that Ken E Henson was once Freedoms' guitarist and that he later formed Abstract Truth. I'd known Henson only as a member of Finch & Henson and in that context he did not impress me at all. It would be interesting to hear him playing with Freedom's Children but for that I guess one had to have been there at the time.


Finally, in mid-2011 I came across Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde for the first time (on CD) and immediately bought it. The style of music fits in with the so-called baroque pop that was prevalent in the late Sixties, with the heavier rock elements of the more progressive non-blues bands of the day to give the album the underground edge. In a way it is much more complicated, intricate and accomplished than the records that follow it and perhaps that is due to the studio sheen applied in the absence of the band members.


A professional producer made a silk purse out of a sow's ear. It is mildly astonishing, even bearing in mind that the music on the CD has been remastered, that South African musicians, studios and producers could have made a record this powerful, polished and wide ranging. Freedom's Children sound more like a European rock band to me than a band particularly influenced by American or English styles and I believe the distance from Europe and the indirect sources of rock the musicians would have had while growing up must have been important factors shaping the sound and vision. There is also the African thing, the infusion of colouration and aroma from the continent on which most of the musicians were born, and on which all were raised.


The most irritating and non-essential aspect of Battle Hymn is Ramsay MacKay's narration. To give credit, this poetic story serves to turn the record into more of a whole, rather than just a series of tracks which it might have been considering the recording process, and to make one think it is a concept album of sorts. On the other hand, I would have preferred just the music as the narrative interrupts the flow and does not quite seem to make sense amidst the tunes it may or may not connect. MacKay has a weird accent, part Indian, part Celtic, and his musings sound like the dreams of a very old man, when he clearly was not.


I now know that the brass and strings were added in the studio and were perhaps never intended as elements of the music initially recorded by the band. The thing is that these elements add a great deal that is beneficial to the finished work and somehow makes the record a much more sophisticated and enjoyable product than the original vision might have been. There is a sense of over achievement, but in a good way.


Battle Hymn did not set the world alight. I do not even know how many copies it sold in South Africa. Clive Calder believes that Freedom's Children could and should have made a worldwide impact, if circumstances had been different. If Freedom's Children had not come from apartheid era South Africa and if they'd had decent record company support, they had the wherewithal to make it big, if not globally, at least in the UK and in Europe where this kind of music was gaining a lot of ground in the late Sixties. The album does not contain anything that sounds like a sure fire single hit but at the time of release it was not necessarily a bad thing. Bands like Freedom's Children would have toured their arses off to gain a faithful following that would have bought the record in sufficient numbers to make it commercially successful and would have given them a decent income from touring.


The 2005 RetroFresh remastered version of Astra does immediately sound much more impressive than the 1997 re-release. The sound is heavier, louder and punchier than the older version. The bottom end provided by the bass and keyboards is huge. It is still remarkable how little of Laxton's guitar is audible. The drumming is restless and relentless and drives the beast forward. When Laxton does turn up the volume his guitar pierces through the heavy fog laid down by the other instruments. Brian Davidson's vocals are filtered through effects that distance him from the action, as if he is just commenting sardonically on the action on earth below. Who knows what he is singing, though. It is about feel, not about veracities.


The sonic presence is so huge it is almost claustrophobic and if this isn't art rock on a very grand scale, I do not know what is. Freedom's Children can only be described as a heavy band, purely on sound value, though they are not a metal band of the type so prevalent in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Two other keyboard dominated bands of the eta that come to mind, are Deep Purple and Uriah Heep and Freedom's Children sound like neither of these bands, partly because Brian Davidson does not have the vocal chops of Ian Gillan or David Byron but mostly because the artiness of the heavy rock of the two British bands seem more like a veneer than the portentous and ominous Freedoms sound.


Typically, heavy bands had songs that were either mock pastoral ballads or were about rock and roll itself or the pleasures of partying and sex. Freedom's Children, perhaps because they are based in South Africa during an oppressive time, not only apartheid but also simple repression of anything that was deemed to be subversively different to the Afrikaner Christian-nationalist norm, have other concerns. As I've said, I have no idea what Brian Davidson is singing but it sure sounds serious and important. Maybe his words are great poetry, maybe they are schoolboy twaddle; the presentation is the factor that lends significance.


The RetroFresh repacking not only features an album cover with a different typeface for the band name and album title but also three bonus tracks, cover versions of songs by Cream, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.


"The Coffee Song" is what a minor Cream pop song I first heard on a German compilation album of most of Fresh Cream and a couple of tracks from Disraeli Gears. It features a melodic, heavy bass and sinewy guitar, but is essentially s simple narrative ditty that seems completely out of place in the Cream canon. It sounds like a B-side. Freedom's take on it, with two vocalists, is almost straightforward; still a slight song but given some "underground' moves.


"Satisfaction" is a second cousin to Grand Funk Railroad's interpretation of "Gimme Shelter" with a hint of the sitar jangle of "Paint It, Black"


"Little Games" is a tune by the heavy rock Yardbirds in the days when Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page joined forces in the band. It is a kind of psychedelic breakout rave up and Freedom's Children have fun with it. I don't think I've ever heard the original version.


Not long after I got Battle Hymn, I also bought Galactic Vibes, possibly from the large Musica store in the V & A Waterfront, because I kind of felt guilty for owning only a CD-R copy of the album.


Galactic Vibes is the third and final instalment of the Freedom's Children canon. The feel of the music is quite different to that of the earlier records. The baroque pop psychedelia of the first album is long gone and so is the electronic organ driven heavy sound of the second album. The musical elements that make Freedoms recognisable are all present and correct but this set of recordings allows Julian Laxton more room to move as guitarist. It does however suffer in comparison with Astra, as it is a bit of let-down after the huge impact of that album. Galactic Vibes is a very heavy album and a million miles removed from Battle Hymn.


It is literally so that each Freedom's album was recorded by a different line-up and perhaps this is the reason why each album has such a distinctive and identifiable sound. Perhaps it was all down to the notion of progression. The imperative never to repeat one's moves and the creative necessity of continuously exploring new modes of expression.


The extended version of "1999" is a bonus track. The "edited" version was on the original album. It boggles the mind that a record company could have released this song with the hopes of chart success, if that were the motivation. Freedom's Children was never ever a pop group and was very much the kind of band that would have sold albums to their adoring, hard-core following but not to the teenagers who followed the Springbok Radio Top 20 every Friday night. And apart from a late night progressive music show on the English Service on Saturday nights, I cannot think of any radio station in South Africa who would have play listed this music and I am not talking about purely political reasons for keeping Freedoms off the airwaves.


The other track of interest is the 15 minute live rendition of "The Homecoming" at the Out of Town Club, announced by an MC with a plummy middle class accent who sounds a bit like a hip high school teacher introducing something innovative to a roomful of adolescent boys who would like sex, drugs and rock and roll but do not yet know how to go about getting them. It is a storming version of the tune anyway. Ramsay MacKay and Julian Laxton jam to great effect. The booming bass must have been a room filler all on its own. The guys could certainly cut it on stage, but, then, those were the days when popular bands cut their teeth and learnt their craft playing residencies at clubs and hotels.


Could Freedom's Children really have been international contenders? Maybe. I believe that their vision was too singular and possibly too out of kilter with worldwide rock trends for true commercial success. They did not write hit singles and were not that hot on simple, driving memorable rock anthems either. In a parallel universe there may have been a place for them on the international stage and it was their dismal bad luck to have been from South Africa at a time when the country was increasingly coming under pressure and its musicians were no longer particularly welcome anywhere else.


The trilogy of albums will serve as a lasting memorial to a bunch of ambitious rockers with more depth than one would have thought possible of popular, underground music.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hugh Laurie let’s them talk

I've not yet seen any episode of House, the apparently hugely popular medical drama on US television and so I do not know why it is so big or why Hugh Laurie has suddenly become this mega star after many long years toiling in the show biz salt mines. My impression, possibly because of the Fry & Laurie comedy team, was that he is a comedian. Perhaps he is a comedian who wants to play Hamlet and found in House the next best thing. The American comedian Dennis Leary plays a fireman in what seems to be a dramatic role and Robin Williams hardly ever does comedy in movies anymore. Not that his so-called comedy films were that funny. But that is a subject for another time.

Hugh Laurie has a love for early jazz piano styles and blues end is quite accomplished as piano player and his fame as the doctor in House has given him the golden opportunity of recording a bunch of his favourite blues and New Orleans jazz tunes. This is not quite Scarlett Johansen recording an album's worth of Tom Waits songs.

Let Them Talk (2011) is this collection. Half of Hugh Laurie's unshaven, wrinkled face stares out from the CD cover. The look is not quite confident or daring. Perhaps it is wariness or weariness. Perhaps the expression does not need to mean anything and the shot is just some art director's grand concept.

As far as I can see Laurie is modest and self-effacing about this project. The obvious questions would be whether he is any good, whether he would have had this chance if it had not been for House and whether the world needs another White British would-be-bluesman. Laurie's best strategy for dealing with this kind of stick would be to face it head on and answer the queries before they are put to him, to deflect the criticism by pre-empting any questioner by raising the objections or issues himself rather than waiting to be assaulted with scorn or incredulity or simple bafflement.

Anyhow, Mr Laurie is not the first successful star to venture into a different field of artistic endeavour to the one he found his success in. It was always a show biz staple that musicians turned to movies. Nowadays actors front bands, or have solo careers, and some or quite successful and others are sneered at. If one is a renaissance person, why not try it all? A buck is a buck.

Another riveting example of a well-known personality taking on a surprising new direction is David Johansen who was the singer for the New York Dolls, then followed a solo New York rocker career (with a crack band and three or four great records), became the parody figure Buster Poindexter (with a hit song and all) and finally arrived at the blues from more or less the same period as the music on Let Them Talk, with the Harry Smiths, a reference to one of the pre-eminent collectors of American folk music, Harry Smith.

David Johansen has recorded 2 blues albums and I own one of them, Shaker (2002), which I came across at a flea market stall on Greenmarket Square many years ago. That guy had a box of cheap CDs with a deal of R20 each or 3 for R50 (or something like that) and the most interesting finds on his table were in that discount box, among them Shaker. My initial interest was that it was blues and cheap and therefore worth the risk that it might be crap. Surprisingly it turned out to be quite worthy. The song selection is good, the musicians know their stuff, play with subtlety and do justice to the material. Johansen's gravelly, lived-in voice suits the songs though he still sounds like a White guy doing the blues.

The good thing is that he sounds like a White guy who loves the blues and isn't trying to outdo the original artists whose songs he covers. He wants to do justice to the blues and he wants to have fun with it. In my book that is all right.

Hugh Laurie plays piano and guitar. He also sings the songs, albeit with some background assists on a couple of tunes from the likes of Irma Thomas, Dr John and Tom Jones, who can probably sing the proverbial phone book though I've never thought of him as a blues or soul singer. He is nicely understated and complements "Baby, Please Make A Change" and does bring gospel fervour to it that may be a bit hammy but is not out of place.

Laurie's home accent is probably middle class mid-Atlantic posh and he does not try to sound too Black, or blue. There is a curious similarity to the singing voice of one of our imminent local musicians, and coincidentally also a keyboard player, the inimitable Simon Orange, one of the main members of the Blues Broers. They must be of an age, too.

The musical backing is provided by a small, sympathetic band of easy swinging professionals. I bet these guys can do this kind of thing in their sleep and know, given that the star of this show is also the star of another show, their job is to do their job with effective circumspection. This is what they do. You can't beat a bunch of American roots musicians playing their roots.

The songs mix very old jazz tunes, spirituals, archaic pop and blues. In a way this feel and mood is what Eric Clapton aimed at on his Clapton album, and maybe what Bob Dylan was trying to hit with the blues tropes on his most recent albums. Dylan's band sound more electric and spirited yet the more traditional approach of Clapton and Laurie is more effective In doing justice to the material. The guys obviously have respect for their material as reflecting a time and a place now only dim legend but once live and absolutely kicking. Dylan sounds like he is spoofing the blues; Clapton and Laurie interpret the blues and mould that vision to their particular strengths.

The piano playing is great stuff. I guess Laurie is the main guitar player on "The Whale Has Swallowed Me" but otherwise I would not know the difference between his contributions and that of his band guitarist.

My main gripe against the music is that it is a tad too tasteful and respectful. The old blues guys were often rough and ready and got nasty when it suited the song. They were not necessarily technically gifted or trained and when they developed a signature sound it took a while to get there and, once established, remained unchanged for the rest of their lives. As in the case of, say, Elmore James or Albert King, they made the most of what they had and managed to ring the changes with sufficient ingenuity to keep their music fresh. The people behind Laurie do not come across as musicians who would ever just get crazy for the hell of it; they are too much the professionals' professionals for that, and that is the missing link between authentic blues and homage to the blues.

Lonnie Johnson's blues recordings are some of the most studied, regular solo acoustic blues tunes I've heard and they completely lack excitement, especially as Johnson does not even have an interesting singing voice. He simply utilises the blues as a commercial style unlike, say, Son House, Charley Patton or Robert Johnson who come across as visceral on record as they must have been in person when they were at the peak of their performing careers. Hugh Laurie at least has a better, more versatile, vocal instrument than Lonnie Johnson. The danger is that he is also most likely utilising a style for effect rather than as an expressed internalisation, however much he loves the songs he performs on this album.

The other White blues band leader whose album I've listened to recently is Mick Fleetwood, who led an electric band along with guitarist Rick Vito, to record a selection of blues and Fleetwood Mach standards. Fleetwood's album sounds a lot more like showbiz blues than Hugh Laurie's earnest effort, partly, I guess, because Fleetwood had been in the music business and the blues business for far longer than Hugh Laurie and knows more about pleasing an audience with more of the old, familiar songs. Laurie's choices are not particularly obscure, especially for any aficionado of blues and early jazz, yet they are not hoary through endless repetition and recycling either.

Ostensible the title track "Let Them Talk" is a declaration that the singer will love his lover come what may but my guess is that the subtext is Laurie's deep and lasting affection for the music on this album and his intention to pursue this muse irrespective of what the critics may say. Good for him. This may be the first and last record Hugh Laurie ever gets to release and it is not a bad testament to his abilities as pianist, singer and interpreter of old timey music. I hope there will be more. If this album sells by the truckload and the television series House remains popular the record company will want more product. That is the nature of the beast. They do not care whether this collection of tunes represents something elemental in Hugh Laurie's life adventure, or reflects his no now longer secret creative passion, and if the album dies the death, they will write if off to experience and tax and will no longer assist him in sharing with us another side of his psyche. If it fails commercially Let Them Talk will become just another vanity release. If it sells, Hugh Laurie may find himself doing world tours playing for adoring audiences and recording an album a year, like some non-crooning Michael Bublé. Stranger things have happened.

I like this album. Not as much as, for example, David Johansen's, as it is just too smooth to be the kind of visceral musical experience I dig the most, but I will listen to it more than once and I suspect it will grow on me. It is damning with faint praise to call this a decent effort. That, however, is what it is. It is tasteful, proficient, effective. It is neither iconoclastic nor over-awed by his influences. It is good, not excellent. It is enjoyable, not thrilling. Perhaps this is what Hugh Laurie set out to achieve, with modest aims and modest expectations. He is not a bluesman but my guess is that he does not pretend to be one, though he may love the music, or intend to be seen as one. He has simply taken a bunch of old tunes in a genre he loves and recorded them with a crack band and some heavy show biz friends, with good humour and excitement and has produced a result.

He talked the talk and I believed we can credit him with walking the walk, on his own terms and with his own style.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


The three guys in Shadowclub are seriously groomed and styled to the extent where Emma, a 20-year old of my acquaintance, remarked that they look like models when I showed her the CD I had just bought at The African Music Store, along with a Fela Ransome Kuti album from the early Seventies. Nice contrast this: the Nigerian revolutionary musician and king of Afrobeat versus 3 young White guys from southern Africa who make music that does not sound very much informed by Africa at all.

A month or so ago there was a live set on MK recorded at some venue in Greenside Johannesburg where Machineri and Shadowclub performed. I guess both bands have a buzz. Machineri just played their patented riff and wail type songs and Shadowclub impressed me mightily with a powerful trio sound that seamlessly married muscle and melody.

Guns And Money (2011) is their debut album and the immediate first impression is that the production values on this record give them an immense presence on disc, a room filling sound of awesome proportions.

Shadowclub probably owes as much of a debt to the blues as Machineri claims they do. It is not exactly the blues of the Mississippi Delta either, though it may be filtering through the punk attitude of the music. This is not the punk of the Sex Pistols, but the punk of the Pacific Northwest circa 1965 when a bunch of young White guys mixed up their roots with the new style of the Rolling Stones and Animals who were copying old Black American guys in the first place, and produced an outrageously energetic sound inspired as much by pissed off teenage hormones as it was influenced by rocked up blues. Shadowclub have seemingly internalised that attitude and that anger, have turned up their amps and are coming for us. I, for one, welcome them with open arms. They can have my mind.

On the opening track I hear an echo of "Purple Haze" and elsewhere too, and the dissonant noise blues of Chris Whitley in the later years of his career. There is the 22-20's a British group of young blues enthusiasts who interpreted the old blues themes with a modern twist, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion who did something similar in the USA, and many more. There is even a quick flash here and there of Robin Trower, minus his guitar virtuosity. Who knows what lurks in these guys' record collection?

The sound is bottom heavy and harmonies and tunes float on top. The guitar throws hard rock shapes from days gone by, with that all important contemporary revisionism and does not quite break into the frenzied soloing one would expect, and I guess that is the saving grace. Jacques Moolman does not want to be Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact there is a much more garage rock enthusiasm here than Texas roadhouse blues professionalism. This is where and how Shadowclub can be distinguished from The Pretty Blue Guns, a much more traditionally inclined blues rock band with rather more subtlety. Shadowclub are quite gleeful in showing off their guitar noise, as can be heard in the title track of the album, which is a major show piece of exhilarating rave up.

If I have ever heard an assured debut, this is it. It is confident, brash and inspired. It delivers on the promise of a brief glimpse on television, and with interest. When I saw the album in The African Music Store I took it without a second thought even though the store offers the option of listening to albums before you make your decision. My decision was made by the mere presence of the album in the kind of situation where I had not been looking for it. I found it. That was enough reason to buy it. I was not disappointed.

The good and salutary thing about Shadowclub is that they do not give us the weedy, wishy washy, jingly jangly kind of music that passes for modern rock these days. They do go large and they sound incredibly ambitious and they pull it off. This is sexy music simply because it dares so much and does not shrink from boldness. The last local rock album with this much absurdly enthralling greatness going for it, is New Holland's Exploded View.

These guys do not lurk in the shadows and they will not easily be overshadowed.