1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

Just another music list

Pushing Up The Daisies – Psycho Reptiles

Psycho Reptiles - Have Beans Will Travel

Psycho Reptiles – Have Beans Will Travel

In 1988, the Psycho Reptiles gave us the marvellous album, ‘Have Beans Will Travel’ which contained such great tracks as ‘Monster From The Bog’ and ‘King Of The West’. That same year the wonderful compilation, ‘The Flying Circus’, came out featuring some of the lesser known SA alternative bands, but also included ‘Pushing Up The Daisies’, a Psycho Reptiles track that did not appear on the Reptiles’ album.

The track is a cover of one by UK band The Colourfield which featured Terry Hall, the ex-lead singer of The Specials. The Colourfield’s version had been released a couple of years earlier and featured very little of the ska sound Hall had been associated with in The Specials. Being a ska-punk band, Psycho Reptiles set about rectifying this as their version is decidedly more ska than The Colourfield’s. From the start there is an organ sound that gives it that feel. A repetitive bass underpins this while the beat, although not completely ska, does lean towards this. It is a mixture of punk, rock, ska and rockabilly, that the Reptiles dish up.

And then just as you are getting into your groove on this track, James Bond suddenly parachutes into the track as a snippet of the famous theme tune momentarily weaves itself into the music. It is a kind of cheeky interlude that doesn’t last too long but leaves you smiling for some reason.

The Psycho Reptiles were a fun band, injecting humour into their music but in this case the track is a generally serious affair, the James Bond bit gives it that lighter edge. It has more pace than The Colourfield’s version which is a somewhat darker, gloomier (almost Cure-esque) version. Sadly, just when we thought the Psycho Reptiles were flowering nicely, it wasn’t long after this that the band (although thankfully not the individual members) was pushing up the daisies.

Where to find it:
Vinyl: The Flying Circus – Various Artists (1988), Umkhonto Records, FLURL8

Video:

Yekanini – Shiyani Ngcobo

Introducing - Shiyani Ngcobo

Introducing – Shiyani Ngcobo

There was once a musician who made some brilliant music but was not really recognised for it at the time. However, much later in his life, he was suddenly noticed and ended up travelling abroad to perform his songs. Sound familiar? It may well do, but this is not the story of Rodriguez. It is the story of Shiyani Ngcobo, a master of the Maskandi style of guitar playing, a kind of Zulu Folk music.

Shiyani was a migrant worker, moving around South Africa. In 1989 he won a Maskandi competition at the University Of KwaZulu Natal and would end up teaching Maskandi at the university for the rest of his life. However, he got very little recognition of his music outside this small circle. Then he performed at a Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia one year and came to the notice of producer Ben Mandelson who helped him record his one and only album, ‘Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo’. The album was picked up by the UK World Music magazine ‘Songlines’ and they championed it. This led to a trip to perform in the UK and he would also perform in various countries in Europe and would play at Carnegie Hall in the US.

Musically, those familiar with the early works of Juluka would not find themselves discovering new sounds as Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu also played the Maskandi sound in those early days. The sound features a frantically plucked guitar and Zulu bow harp, giving it that rural Zululand feel. ‘Yekanini’ is the opener to the ‘Introducing…’ album and it races along as Shiyani’s fingers dance over his guitar strings. His voice is gravelly and fits in with the roughness of this rural sound.

I must admit that listening to the whole album in one can be a bit much for ears raised on western rock music but listening to the tracks in isolation is a rare treat, taking one out of the cities and into the wide open spaces of the Drakensberg Mountains during winter when the grass is brown and the place is a little dusty. It is an injection of the rural that is life affirming.

Where to find it:
Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo – Shiyani Ngcobo (2004), World Music Network, INTRO101CD

Video:

Miles Apart – The Helicopters

Miles Apart – The Helicopters

Miles Apart – The Helicopters

The Helicopters were amongst the pioneer groups of the New Wave scene in South Africa. Following the lead from UK bands such as Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, they had the hairstyles, they had the electronic drums and they had the synthesizers. But all of that did not make for good new wave music. You also needed catchy tunes to go with the impersonal sounds of the machines and you needed something human to give body to what could otherwise be bland sounds. And in ‘Miles Apart’ The Helicopters manage to do this.

The song has a catchy tune to keep one humming along with and the instrumentation is not limited to the synthesizer and electronic drums, there is also some guitars to make the link between machine and human. But what really brings the song alive is Bernard Binns vocals. He had a distinctive sound which could just as easily have placed him in a UK New Wave band. And, to add to the human touch of the song, the lyrics relate to a subject that most people can relate to at some point in their lives and that is being ‘Miles Apart’ from the ones they love.

While other tracks such as ‘Mysteries And Jealousies’ and ‘Only For You’  from their debut album ‘Love Attack’ proved the bigger hits, ‘Miles Apart’ is, for me, one of the stand out tracks on the album. It is a strong song and a fine example of what local acts were capable of in the New Wave era. It is not ‘Miles Apart’ from the hits off the album but has not got the recognition of the other tracks, not even making the ‘Best Of’ CD release of the band in 2002. Perhaps it is time you put a little less distance between yourself and the track.

Where to find it:
Vinyl: Love Attack – The Helicopters (1985), WEA, WIC8021

Video:

Koue-Vuur – Koos du Plessis

Herbergier - Koos du Plessis

Herbergier – Koos du Plessis

Koos will probably be best remembered as the composer of ‘Kinders Van Die Wind’ which was a big hit for Laurika Rauch. He would record his own version of the song the same year as Laurika and it appears on his 1979 album ‘Skadu’s Teen Die Muur’. ‘Kinders Van Die Wind’ will appear later on this list, but for the moment we will look at a track which appeared on Koos’ 1982 album ‘Herbergier’, one called ‘Koue-Vuur’ or ‘Cold Fire’ in English.

The fire in the title of the song is one that rages inside his head and he tries to calm the flames by drinking. With his words he paints a picture of a man sitting staring into a fire, drink in his hand, but he is lost in his thoughts. There is a sense of loss that hangs around the man and although Koos does not say so directly, there is a sense that it is a lost love about which he is singing.

His slightly gruff voice adds to the whiskey image of the drink, but this is juxtaposed against the rather beautifully plucked guitar of this simple tune. It is a beautiful track despite the more melancholy nature of the lyrics. It puts me in mind of John Oakley-Smith with a guitar rather than a piano and Afrikaans rather than English. It is a track you could put on if you want to stare into a fire with a drink in your hand as you do an old fashioned dance with your demons

This would certainly make a list of the 1001 ‘Drink To Forget’ Songs you should hear before you die. Koos has distilled the emotions involved into a smooth amber liquid song that looks deep inside the feelings and wages a war between the koue and the vuur.

Where to find it:
Vinyl: Herbergier – Koos du Plessis (1982)

Video:


Madhouse – Sankamota

Sankamota – Sankamota

Sankamota – Sankamota

Okay, so Sankamota were actually from Lesotho and not South Africa, so this is a little cheat, but I don’t feel too bad as it was those Shifty fellows, Lloyd Ross and Warrick Sony, who recorded and promoted the album, so maybe for this entry you will allow it to be one of the 1001 Southern African Songs You Should Hear before You Go Deaf. Sankomota were the first band to be recorded by the fledgling Shifty label and that in itself makes the material on their debut album important.

Sankomota started out calling themselves Anti Antiques, then changed to Uhuru, but then changed it again (mainly due to the popularity of the reggae band Black Uhuru) to Sankamota which is apparently the name of a great Basotho warrior from days of yore. ‘Madhouse’ is a kind of difficult to classify as there is a bit of jazz, a bit of funk, a dash of ska, some pop sensibilities and an African stomping rhythm all mash up in the track. Perhaps that’s why it’s called ‘Madhouse’ as there seems to be a split personality to the styles. But this is a kind of loveable madness, a bit like Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest’ in that you are left thinking that perhaps this mish-mash of styles is the sane one and going it alone as a style is madness.

The lyrics talk about there being a lot of madness about which, if this was not a Shifty release, one would probably have regarded as a general comment on society and something light hearted which we could chuckle at, but given this was a Shifty release, it would undoubtedly be a dig at the madness of apartheid. However, Sankomota knew how to dance to the tune of the madness as this foot-tapping, sax-laden tune is catchy and decidedly danceable to. It would have, I am sure, gone down well in Jamesons nightclub which, in itself was a kind of madhouse where the inmates were the sane ones and those outside weren’t.

Where to find it:
Sankomota – Sankomota (2002), Sheer Sound, SHIF003

Hear and buy here:
https://sankomota.bandcamp.com/album/sankomota

Video:

Lift Girl’s Lament – Jeremy Taylor

Ag Pleez Deddy - Jeremy Taylor

Ag Pleez Deddy – Jeremy Taylor

‘Ag Pleez Deddy’ would overshadow almost all other works of Jeremy Taylor, but here is a little gem that should be taken out and listened to every now and then. Like ‘Ag Pleez Deddy’, this is a great observation of South African life and accents. Here Jeremy documents a part of life that no longer exists and that is ‘The Lift Girl’. Way back in the day, there were lift operators who would operate the lift and announce what could be found on the floor.

Inspired by a visit to a big department store in Johannesburg, Jeremy picks up on the boredom in the voice of the ‘lift girls’ as they go up and down all day, announcing the same thing over and over again till it has become completely rote and there is almost no emotion in the voice. But a note of humour comes in for example when the refreshments available at the ‘Fandango Tearoom’ are listed as ‘Lemonade, orange juice, milkshakes, arsenic and rat poison’.

But while on the face on it, this is a humorous look at a rather menial job, the song does take a good hard look at how this kind of mindless job affects people. Towards the end of the song, the ‘lift girl’ complains about her fallen arches and lumbago and how this will probably lead to her getting the sack. And there is also an allusion to the sexist attitudes of the day with the line ‘Hey take your hands off me, who do you think you are, I may do a thousand feet each day, but I’m not going to go that far’.

The subject matter may seem rather odd to the modern listener as we no longer have ‘lift girls’ and even the name ‘lift girls’ would be regarded as politically incorrect these days. The groping of the poor lift attendant is also something that would not be tolerated. But this is what makes the song an important one. While it was regarded as a humorous and probably harmless ditty back in it day, there is enough of a subtle undertone that something, even back then, was not right with the picture and it stands as a historical commentary on now outdated practices.

Where to find it:
Ag Pleez Deddy – Jeremy Taylor, (1997) Gallo, CDRED608 (CD)

Video:

Toasted Take Aways – Cherry Faced Lurchers

Live At Jamesons - Cherry Faced Lurchers

Live At Jamesons – Cherry Faced Lurchers

In the mid 80’s, Jamesons was the place to be in Johannesburg. Full of subversive musicians singing songs that did not please the apartheid government of the time. Not only were they objecting to the politics of segregation, they were also flipping two fingers up at the stifling conservatism of the day. One of the main characters in this scene was James Phillips who would front a number of bands and also be the man behind the mysterious Bernoldus Niemand.

The Cherry Faced Lurchers was one of James early bands and they were regular performers at Jamesons. While their album, ‘Live At Jamesons’ contains some more serious material like ‘Shot Down In The Street’, the album opens with this strange ‘slice of life’ song which focusses on the local take away. Phillips affects a Greek persona for the track which, I believe, was inspired by the owner of a café he would frequent. The song sings about a visit to the café to get ‘one packet chips’. The song has hardly started when the music stops and James acts as the shop keeper taking orders from the audience who shout out some strange orders such as ‘twenty tins baked beans’ and ‘2 Russians, 1 Greek and 2 Angolans’.

The music is raw and punky. One can feel the sweat in the venue and see the smoky room filled with young people trying to escape the reality of the world outside. There is a special kind of energy in the song that is made up of 2 parts whiskey, 2 parts gatvol-ness and 3 parts tongue in cheek.

James Phillips was instrumental in opening the eyes of local musicians to the rich material available to them to sing about. He let people know that you could sing in Afrikaans and still rock. He almost single-handedly soaked music in our local experiences, good and bad and with ‘Toasted Take Aways’ he showed how you could take something as ordinary as going to the take away shop for some chips and turn it into a cool tune.

Where to find it:
Live At Jamesons – Cherry Faced Lurchers (1985) Retrofresh, FRESHCD132

Buy here:

https://jamesphillips.bandcamp.com/track/toasted-take-aways

Ball & Chain/Same Thing – The Black Cat Bones

The Long Drive - Black Cat Bones

The Long Drive – Black Cat Bones

The Black Cat Bones are a conglomerate of South African musicians with the core being Andre Kriel, Kobus de Kock, Gareth Bunge & Casey Rothman. They are joined by varying guest musicians as they record. They should not be confused with a British band of the same name that was around in the 70’s. The South Africa band is a contemporary band who saw their first release in 2009 and their latest (at the time of writing) was 2022.

However, listening to the track ‘Ball & Chain/Same Thing’, and then having a quick listen to some of the stuff the 70’s British Black Cat Bones recorded, one can hear that there are definite similarities as both bands are steeped in the blues and carry a bag full of rock influence with them as they go. From the very first guitar notes that introduce ‘Ball & Chain/Same Thing’, you are immediately transported into that rock blues world that the British, in particular, did so well in the 70’s. The guitar drives the track, but there is a Hammond organ pecking around the edges adding a kind of psychedelic feel to it.

And then Kobus de Kock’s growly vocals kick in to complete the blues perfection. He yelps, yowls and growls his way around the track like a sleek black cat prowling through its kingdom. And once he takes hold he owns the song, twisting and bending the music to fit around his vocals. But then, well aware of the synergy of voice and instruments, he sits back for interludes where Andre Kriel’s guitar can stretch itself out in a cat-like way, helping you to disappear deeper into the song.

Perhaps the most glorious thing about ‘Ball & Chain/Same Thing’ is it is nine and a half minutes long, allowing one to immerse yourself in this super bluesy masterpiece. Make no bones about it these Black Cats know how to do blues.

Where to find it:
The Long Drive – Black Cat Bones (2011)

Video:

Desperado – Zia

Kant Unjani - Zia

Kant Unjani – Zia

Sadly, this is one that, as far as I can tell, never made it onto CD or the into digital world, so you’re going to have to dust off your turntable if you want to hear it (it is so rare, it’s not even on Youtube). And more’s the pity as this is an excellent cover of The Eagles track from 1973.

Zia were fronted by Cindy Alter after she had left Clout. The band also featured Ashley Brokensha (who would be in Ballyhoo) along with Abraham Sibiya, Bheki Gumbi and Graham Clifford who would all be in Wozani (a band formed by Hotline’s George van Dyk). They released 3 albums, the second of which was ‘Kant’Unjani’ and this stripped down version of the song closes the album.

Zia’s version starts in a similar vein to The Eagles’ one, the differences being that The Eagles’ version starts off being piano led and features the gruff vocals of Don Henley while Zia use a gently plucked guitar and has Cindy belting out the lyrics with her rock, bordering on operatic soprano vocals. However, as The Eagles’ version progresses, it builds up, adding a growing orchestral sound. Zia, on the other hand, keep the track in stripped down mode and let it be a vehicle for showcasing Cindy’s voice.

The Eagles will leave you lifted and buoyant with their version while Zia leave you in a far more contemplative mood. There is space to breathe in this version, space to think and space to feel. I would be hard pressed to rate one version over the other as, apart from the fact that fanatical Eagles fans would swoop down on me and attack if I dared to say Zia’s version was better, the two acts take such ultimately different approaches to the song. So I will say that both versions are great, it will just depend on your mood at the time whether you want to listen to Don’s version of Cindy’s.

Were to find it:
Vinyl: Kant’Unjani – Zia (1987), Gallo, HUL40143

Tears On The Telephone – Gerry Grayson & Debbie

Tears On The Telephone – Gerry Grayson & Debbie

Tears On The Telephone – Gerry Grayson & Debbie

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this is a soppy song and somewhat irritating. It starts off with a young girl answering a telephone call from a man and, as the conversation unfolds, it becomes clear that the man is the girl’s father who is estranged from the girl’s mother and that the girl is unaware that she is speaking to her father.

The Debbie who does the spoken part of the little girl was Debbie Mann, the daughter of Matt Mann who was the owner of RPM records at the time. She does a decent job of being the chatty girl although the lines feel slightly forced when judged against the more modern child actors we have these days. But back in the day, this would have been regarded as cute.

While Debbie’s lines are all spoken, Gerry’s are all sung and he has a strong, country tinged voice which fits in with the tune which also has a kind of country sound. He manages to inject feeling into his voice to get a real sense of the emotions a man may have when speaking to a daughter who does not know who he is and Gerry makes one sympathise with him.

The song appears to have originally been recorded by a French singer called Claude Francois and has not dated brilliantly. It harks back to a time when ‘divorce’ and ‘separation’ songs were very popular (think of Daniel Boone’s ‘Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast’ and Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’) and does sound rather kitsch today. However, back in the day, we loved this kind of stuff and Gerry’s tears fell onto the charts and climbed up to number 12.

Where to find it:
Various Artists – The Best of SA Pop Volume 1 (1994) GMP, CDGMPD 40485 (CD)

Video:

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