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.