Saturday, January 14, 2017

Petit Cheval once roared like lions.


The mid-Eighties rock scene in South Africa was quite small, or seemed to be. In Cape Town, at least, one could count the gigging bands on the fingers of your two hands. The bands with record deals were in a significant minority. I have no idea how many bands operated in Johannesburg and Durban at the time and who never released anything.  Record contracts were not easy to come by and the Indie DIY spirit, and possibilities, of today’s bands did not exist. Hardly anyone put out their own records. Even the alternative bands relied on small labels like Mountain Records or Shifty Records.

Petit Cheval, from Johannesburg, did have a record deal and had a national presence for the relatively brief period of their existence. I do not know how many times they played Cape Town in the period 1985 to 1987 but I must have attended just about every gig Petit Cheval played here, mostly because I tried to go to every rock gig I could possibly get to.

Petit Cheval played at Indaba (top end of Wale Street) and the Brass Bell (Kalk Bay) and drew big crowds because they’d had some radio hits. In those days, the most ambitious Johannesburg bands, whether they’d released any records or not, made a habit of coming down to Cape Town for some summer gigs over the holiday season.

My take on Petit Cheval, from the name and the music, was that these guys were our local answer to Duran Duran and Spandau ballet, and the other New Romantic groups of the time. On the radio the music was disco pop, with solid tunes and epic choruses, and the band members were kitted out in full mid-Eighties finery, outrageous feather cut mullets and some make up. At least they were thin and good-looking and apparently did not mind posing as poncey Mid-Eighties pop stars.

On stage the band was a lot louder end had a much tougher rock sound than the records had suggested. The smooth sheen of the record production was typical of the times and obviously aimed at commercial success and radio play. However, when the band played live they were rougher and edgier, putting on a bit of a show and sounded like a proper rock band.

Craig Else was the blond lead guitarist who played a blinder yet kinda looked like the kind of guy who’d be more interested in posing than making music. He always wore this odd floppy leather hat that was part macho and part ridiculous. Jonathan Selby’s party trick was dancing himself out of his big white shirt.  On the first occasion, I saw it, it seemed like a natural consequence of his wild gyrations but because it happened every time, I realized that it was his schtick, to end up with a sweaty, white, hairless bare chest.

At the time, I might have known the names of all the band members but paid little attention to anybody else but Selby and Else. Today I‘ve learnt that the brilliant Danny de Wet, later of The Electric Petals and Wonderboom, drummed for Petit Cheval. I have a indulgent fondness for his solo album Hypocrites of the World Unite, a quirky, wonderful set of songs with the pop smarts that have informed the best songs of the bands he’s drummed for.

I have to confess that I never bought either of the two albums Petit Cheval released during their lifetime. On the one hand, it was not music I particularly cared for (and at the time I did not go out of my way to buy South African rock albums) and, on the other hand, I just never saw the records in my local record store, not even as reduced price bargains. The radio singles were enjoyable and the live performances were energetic and satisfying enough without making it an imperative for me to want to buy the albums.

In June 2015, I acquired the Young Lions compilation, dating from 1995, compiled by Benjy Mudie, who later found the RetroFresh label specializing in the re-release of so many legendary South African rock albums that had been languishing in obscurity and were unavailable on CD until he stepped up. Young Lions is a precursor to the RetroFresh label project and I would not be surprised if RetroFresh has by now also re-released the original Petit Cheval albums. As it is, this selection could well be pretty much everything of value the band ever released.

When I listen to the tracks today I am reminded of the reasons why I did not buy the records then. I was in my mid- to late Twenties and this type of high-pomp pop did not appeal to me at all. When the band played live, the sound was much tougher, exciting and therefore more appealing.  The tunes I remember are “Once In A Lifetime,” “Magical Touch,” and “It Was The Wind.” Presumably most of the other tunes on this compilation album were also part of the live set but were not as memorable.

The CD insert has a biography of the band and some photographs, and it is quite amusing at this remove to see a bunch of young guys in complete, utterly dated, ‘80’s finery, feather-cut mullets included. Management and publicity must have styled the guys to within an inch of their lives. Today this contrivance just makes the lads look ridiculous. Something for the grand children to snigger at. Even the Glam rock ‘70s has survived better than ‘80s style’ most of the bands just look ridiculous today.

I guess Petit Cheval would not count as one of the major South African bands of the Eighties but they were very much part of the South African musical fabric of that era, had some success and were entertaining enough to merit some kudos for achieving what they had achieved. The few hit singles still have resonance and would not be out of place in any ‘80s compilation.

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