1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

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Archive for the tag “Julian Laxton”

Johannesburg – Margaret Singana

Johannesburg - Margaret Singana

Johannesburg – Margaret Singana

Not too many South African cities have been the subject of songs. I can think of Ballyhoo’s ‘Take Me Down To Cape Town’, David Kramer’s ‘Bloemfontein Blues’, Valiant Swart’s ‘Bloemfontein’ and the somewhat obscure ‘Durban And Me’ by Babadoll (found on the C-Weed’ compilation album and will appear on this list at some point). There is also the traditional song ‘We Are Marching To Pretoria’. But our cities seem to lose out to the little dorps and suburbs of our country as we have hits mentioning Matjiesfontein (Sonja Herhold’s ‘Trein Na Matjiesfontein’), Weltevreede (The Bats ‘Weltevreede Stasie’), Montagu (David Kramer’s ‘Montagu’) and Durbanville (Valiant Swart’s ‘Die Son Sak In Durbanville’).

However, we do have a song about our biggest city. The song started life in 1977 when it appeared on The Julian Laxton Band’s ‘Celebration’ album and around the same time Laxton along with Patric van Blerk produced a version with Margaret Singana on lead vocals. There is very little to choose between the 2 versions, in fact it almost sounds like the same backing track is used and just different vocals overdubbed. So it will depend on whether you enjoy Eugene Havenga’s wailing, heavy rock vocals which are found on the Laxton Band version, or Margaret’s disco (a la Donna Summer) delivery. There is not much in it though and I could as easily have gone for the Laxton Band version, but felt that Margaret just edges it.

Either way, both version feature a pounding, almost primal, beat with grunted chants that brings to life the heartbeat of eGoli with its busy-ness, its vibrancy, the density of activity. It’s a fast moving in-your-face song to match the pace of life of the city. It would certainly have been heard at many a Joburg disco in the late 70’s. The song appears on Margaret’s ‘Tribal Fence’ album which also features her cover of the Freedom’s Children’s ‘Tribal Fence’ and Hawk’s ‘Orang Outang’ both of which, like ‘Johannesburg’, are powerful, dense sounding disco tracks that brought the power and energy of Joburg to the dancefloor.

Where to find it:
Great SA Performers – Margaret Singana (2011), Gallo CDPS085

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Alaska – Malie Kelly

Alaska – Malie Kelly

Alaska – Malie Kelly

Malie Kelly was born Malie Conradie in the town of Ladybrand in the Free State. She worked alongside Miram Stockley and Mike Pilot in the groups Blush and Odyssey (the latter not to be confused with the American band of the same name who had a hit with ‘Going Back To My Roots’), but in 1980 she recorded ‘Alaska’, a song penned by Dennis East.

This catchy tune it a tale of fading love where Malie laments a relationship which ‘burned like firelight, then faded down to zero’. She tells her lover that ‘she thinks she’ll go to Alaska where ‘It couldn’t be much colder there.’ Despite these allusions to coldness, the tune itself has a sunshiney reggae lilt to it and includes a warm sax interlude which is at odds with the cooling of the love that is sung about and this sort of summarises the song as it contrasts the heat of early love and how that can cool.

Malie has a beautiful voice which she varies on this track from the power ballad strong refrains to the almost whispered, somewhat breathy, somewhat cheeky chorus.

The song would make it to 12 on the Springbok Top 20 and it would spend 7 weeks in the charts. It would be her only chart success despite recording songs like a cover of the Julian Laxton Band’s ‘Celebrate’ and an album of Afrikaans songs. She also recorded ‘Nandi’s Theme’ for the TV series ‘Shaka Zulu’. However, she made a name for herself as a gospel singer and has toured the world performing, including a 6 week stint at Madison Square Gardens in New York, but I have not been able to find out if she has ever been to Alaska. (If I ever meet her Alaska – sorry).

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

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Better The Devil You Know – Stingray

Better The Devil You Know - Stingray

Better The Devil You Know – Stingray

Stingray were a bit of a supergroup in South Africa, featuring Tidal Waves’ Mike Pilot, Dennis East, Rising Sons’ Eddie Boyle, Julian Laxton and Hocus’ Allan Goldswain. And with all these talents coming together singing ‘Better The Devil You Know’, well, one wouldn’t be taken to task for running out and buying this single without even hearing it, because you knew what these ‘devils’ were capable of.

And you wouldn’t have been disappointed as the song kicks off with a guitar riff that has ROCK!!!!! Written all over it. There is a bit of a Led Zep feel to this opening and this feel continues into the track with the thumping syncopation of the drums and East’s howling vocals. The chorus moves the song into more AOR territory, with higher pitched backing vocals intertwining with the raw rock of the lead.

And we took to the devil we knew as the song went all the way up to 4 on the Springbok Radio charts in 1979, spending 12 weeks in the top 20. This was a better peak than all of Dennis East’s solo hits, the Rising Sons hit and The Julian Laxton Band’s ones. Only Tidal Wave manged better as they hit the top spot with ‘Spider Spider’. But the average weeks the songs by the band members’ other hits managed was 9.2 and their peak positions averaged 9.4 so one could say that in the case of Stingray, the whole was better than the average of the parts.

‘Better The Devil You Know’ is one of the great tracks in the South African musical chest. It has all you need for a perfect rock song – wailing and fuzzy guitars, a howling lead vocal, high pitched backing vocals and thundering drums. Would surely rank highly in a top 100 South Africa rock tracks list.

Where to find it:
Various Artists – The Best of SA Pop Volume 2 (1994) GMP, CDGMPD 40486 (CD)

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I Never Loved A Man – Margaret Singana

I Never Loved A Man – Margaret Singana

I Never Loved A Man – Margaret Singana

Yes, I know Aretha Franklin also did a song called ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’, but hers is a breathy, soulful song written by Ronnie Shannon. Margaret Singana’s is a completely different song, written by John Russell and produced by Patric van Blerk, Trevor Rabin and Julian Laxton. And with that production team, you know you’re going to have a great song.

‘I Never Loved A Man’ (Margaret’s one) was first seen, as far as I can tell, in 1977 when it was released as a single and included on her ‘Tribal Fence’ album. It has an early disco bounce to it that would have enticed most on to the dancefloor back then for a little boogie. It’s got a funky bass, a thumping beat interwoven with some 70’s rock guitar. All of this underpins Margaret’s strong vocals.

The song made it on to the Springbok Top 20 where it managed 18 weeks, spending 3 frustrating weeks at 3 while Heart’s ‘Barracuda’ and McCully Workshop’s ‘Buccaneer’ battled it out for the top 2 spots, then eventually made it to number 2 for a week on 13 January 1978, but was denied the top spot by ‘Barracuda’. This would be her most successful effort on our charts and also the best performance for the 3 producers with the exception of van Blerk who eventually saw a number 1 hit as producer with Joy’s ‘Paradise Road’. I guess one could say that We never loved a song (produced by Patric van Blerk, Trevor Rabin and Julian Laxton) the way we loved Margaret’s ‘I Never Loved A Man’.

Where to find it:
Lady Africa – Margaret Singana (1996), Gallo, CDRED603J

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The Water Is Wide – Mel, Mel & Julian

Ethnic Shmethnic - Mel, Mel & Julian

Ethnic Shmethnic – Mel, Mel & Julian

If you wrote a song called ‘O Waly Waly’ would you expect it to be a hit nearly 400 hundred years later? Probably not, especially if you wrote it in the 1600s and you did not know what a ‘hit’ was back then. Anyway, whoever wrote ‘O Waly Waly’ ended up having (with a lyric change) the song sung by some of the modern world’s music luminaries including Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Joan Baez. These modern troubadours (I’m calling them that so that the dude from the 1600’s knows what I’m talking about) sang the song as ‘The Water Is Wide’.

And in South Africa (which hadn’t really been invented back in the 1600s), we bestowed the honour of recording this song onto the very accomplished trio of Mel, Mel And Julian and they did a jolly good job of it. What has always impressed me about Double Mel and Jules is the crystal clearness of the singing and with this folk classic they don’t disappoint. Aside from the beautiful voice of Mel (not sure which one), there is the wonderfully plucked guitar of Julian and a cello (if I’ve got my instruments correct) and the three of these elements weave a magical 2 minutes and 46 seconds that are as moving as the the flowing of the wide water.

Where to find it
Ethnic Shmethnic – Mel, Mel & Julian (2002), Mlg Limited

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The Kid He Came From Hazareth – Freedom’s Children

Astra - Freedom's Children

Astra – Freedom’s Children

This song was originally called ‘The Kid He Came From Nazereth’, but had a name change as those moral guardians at the SABC at the time didn’t like this because of the obvious Christian references. So they went back into the studio and recorded ‘The Kid He Came From Hazareth’ and this is possibly more appropriate as there seems to be a haze of fuzz and and intrigue and echoes banging around inside a studio on this intense song. It’s packed full of guitars and organs and wailing, ethereal vocals that pound the senses and warp the mind. It almost needs a “Hazareth materials” warning sticker on it.

Taken from the band’s second, and many would argue their best album, ‘Astra’, it features the burning guitar of Julian Laxton, the thundering bass of Ramsay MacKay, the pounding drums of Colin Pratley, the swirling organ of Nic Martens and the exploding vocals of Brian Davidson all sloshing around in a belly of a beast.

It’s not really a song you listen to, it’s one that you experience. It will suck you into its whirlpool of noise, make you giddy as it swings you round and round, battering your ears and senses before washing you up onto a deserted shore with thunder rolling ominously in the background and you are left wondering is it really all over.

Where to find it:
Astra – Freedom (2005 reissue), RetroFresh, freshcd 145

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The Gypsy Rover – Mel, Mel & Julian

Mel, Mel & Julian

Mel, Mel & Julian (Image courtesy of Mel Green http://www.melmelandjulian.com/)

We sometimes forget what a great folk scene we had in South Africa and also forget that there was more to SA folk than Des & Dawn. One of the groups from back in the day (when folk wasn’t just George W. Bush’s name for people) was Mel, Mel & Julian. The group comprised 2 guys called Mel and one called Julian which should be obvious from their name. And just who were these Mel’s and a Julian? Well. One Mel was Green and the other a Miller. Mel Miller? I hear you ask (if you aren’t old enough to know the group), wasn’t he that ou from ‘Biltong And Potroast’? (And if you’re younger than those not old enough to know the group, you’re asking ‘What’s ‘Biltong And Potroast’? – a very early TV comedy show if you must know). And Julian, well, if you’re not old enough, you may want to sit down here…was Julian Laxton. Yes, him of Freedom’s Children and The Julian Laxton band (to name a few).

Anyways, the three of them got together and made some beautiful folk music. The two Mel’s were mainly responsible for the honey coated vocals and marvellous harmonies, while Julian was the guitar man. On ‘The Gypsy Rover’ (a song written in 1950 by an Irishman called Leo Maguire and sometimes called ‘The Whistling Gypsy’ which was recorded by number folk luminaries like The Kingston Trio and The Clancy Brothers), the guitar playing is plucking brilliant, the whistling is crisp and clear and the vocals are like silk. And then there’s the ‘hardy-doo-hardy-doo-da-day’ bit where the harmonies are quite angelic. You put all those bits together and you have a folking good song.

Where to find it:
Ethnic Shmethnic – Mel, Mel & Julian (2002), Mlg Limited

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Saint Judas – Ramsay MacKay

 

Saint Judas - Ramsay MacKay

Saint Judas – Ramsay MacKay

Thunder rolls across a menacing sky, but the storm does not come. The clouds suddenly disappate and the sun begins to pulse over the land again. But it is a harsh sun that bakes the country in its unrelenting heat. That is how the start of ‘Saint Judas’ feels. There is a blast of guitar and keyboard at the start of the song that sound ominous. But this fades and a thumping beat begins with Ramsay’s growled Scottish vocals bellowing at you.

Then, into this harsh heat come a cool breeze in the form of a beautiful violin riff (are violins allowed riffs?) and some shady sax interludes which prevent the song from being just a howling growling stompathon. The heavy syncopation is offset perfectly by the tuneful sax and violins, creating a song dense in sound, yet strangely refreshing.

‘Saint Judas’ was actually the b-side of Ramsay’s single ‘Silent Water’ (which was also released in Spanish as ‘Agua Silenciosa’) and was the opening track on his album ‘The Suburbs Of Ur’. It features Rabbitt’s Ronnie Robot on bass and was produced by Julian Laxton and Patric van Blerk. With names like this helping out Ramsay (who was in Freedom’s Children remember) it is not surprising that this song could be included in this list.

Where to find it:
Astral Daze 3 – Various (2012), Fresh Music, FRESHCD185

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Blue Water – Julian Laxton Band

Blue Water – Julian Laxton Band

Blue Water - Julian Laxton Band

Blue Water – Julian Laxton Band

Julian Laxton is a name synonymous with great South African music. He was in the folk group Mel, Mel & Julian, he blasted us in Freedom’s Children and fooled around and fell into Hawk. Behind the desk he produced Suck, Otis Waygood, Stingray and Rabbitt. And in between all this, he found a bit of time to form his own band – The Julian Laxton Band. Under this guise, he garnered 3 top 20 hits, ‘Blue Water’ being the middle and most successful one, reaching number 7 on the Springbok Charts.

One might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to ‘The Seagull’s Name Was Nelson’ as the song starts with seaside noises – gulls crying and surf gently lapping the shore. But you are soon told that Julian had (despite there being a line in the song that goes “take me back, take me back”) not reverted to his folk days, as a funky guitar and thudding drum arrive and you quickly tumble into Eugene Havenga’s high pitched vocals. The plea of “take me back” is supplemented by “to Blue Water”. By this time you are out in the waves, surfing the funky rhythms of the song, scaling the crests of the vocals and ultimately, gently riding the song back to shore, feeling like you’ve just conquered the big one. It is no surprise that the song was a success. It is loud, proud and you can dance to it.

Where to find it:
Various Artists – The Best of SA Pop Volume 2 (1994) GMP, CDGMPD 40486 (CD)

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Kafkasque – Freedoms Children

Kafkasque – Freedom’s Children

Battle Hymn For The Broken Hearted Horde

Battle Hymn For The Broken Hearted Horde

Kafkasque - Freedom’s Children

Kafkasque – Freedoms Children

‘Kafkasque’ was Freedoms Children’s third single and was written by Ramsay MacKay and Harry Poulus. It was included on their debut album ‘Battle Hymn For The Broken Hearted Horde’ and is a good insight into the development of a band that went on to produce the classic album ‘Astra’. It features one time member of The Gonks Craig Ross on vocals and Julian Laxton on guitars.

It is not as dense and heavy as the material on ‘Astra’. The opening feels almost medieval with a sort of harpsichord-like sound which leads into the vocals which are spacey and somewhat out there. This gives way to a chorus of ‘la-la-las’ which I can only describe as heavy metal folk (if I can be permitted to have ‘heavy metal’ and ‘folk’ in the same sentence). Just over halfway through the song, we get a real foretaste of what is to come on ‘Astra’ with about 30 seconds of heavy psychedelic guitars and growled vocals.

The CD release of ‘Battle Hymns…’ includes ‘My Death (Kafkasque 2nd Movement)’ which is more experimental and, in my opinion, is somewhat directionless compared to ‘Kafkasque’. The latter was an important stepping stone in the development not only of Freedoms Children, but also South African rock music generally.

Where to find it:
Battle Hymn For The Broken Hearted Horde – Freedom’s Children, (1968, 2008), Fresh Music, FRESHCD152

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