Album review | A lost totem found: new framework

In July 1985, music producer Lloyd Ross, the founder of the Shifty Records label, parked his mobile studio outside Jameson’s bar on Commissioner Street in downtown Johannesburg and recorded a foundational recording of a performance by the band. resident rocker The Cherry Faced Lurchers.

Living with Jameson has become a touchstone in South African recording history – a snapshot of the agonizing contradictions of liberal-minded white South Africans dancing their troubles in Jameson’s crowded and dark basement as the The outside world was becoming more and more terrifying and violent in the era of the PG Botha regime.

The bar had an anachronistic liquor license granted by Paul Kruger in the late 1800s, which allowed it to accommodate a multiracial audience. As journalist and critic Shaun de Waal will recall later, this is therefore in the right place at the right time to become the center of a musical cultural scene that “was the new South Africa in twisted embryo”.

“We hated the apartheid state, and we vilified the Calvinist morality that went with it… It was the unofficial soundtrack of the revolution, and it was a revolution we could dance to,” De wrote. Waal for the notes of the CD reissue of the album.

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The ringmaster of this revolution was James Phillips, a rebel rocker from the East Rand town of Springs. He had been a key figure in the city’s punk rock movement, which had emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s and included his group Corporal Punishment and subsequent formation, Illegal Gathering.

Phillips was an extremely talented songwriter with an astonishing ability to express the absurdity of apartheid life for many young white people. He could put into words the almost schizophrenic anxieties he aroused in the mind and soul of a generation whose members were morally opposed to what was going on around them, but did not always act or did not know. not always how to deal with it or what they could do. about that.

Undated: James Phillips with Richard Frost and Lee Edwards at a photo shoot for the album cover art Living with Jameson outside the original bar on Commissioner Street in downtown Johannesburg.

The outside world

The Lurchers, as they are immortalized on Living with Jameson, was a tight three-piece “pretty band” consisting of Phillips, Lee Edwards on bass and Richard Frost on drums. But there is a point where, on the album’s third track, the pretty takes a break and things eerily calm down as Phillips begins to sing the ballad’s opening. Shot in the streets.

It’s a song that is pointedly about the world beyond Jameson’s basement bar. The audience is faced with the recognition that, like Phillips, many of them feel like “a white boy who watched his life reunited in his hands / And saw that it was all due to another man’s sweat / The one who got shot in the streets ”.

As Ross recalls, it was the song that “was the only one that indicated” the realities of what “was happening in the country where the music was made … [and] for me, it remains one of the best ballads ever written here on this era ”.

It would also be a crucial song in shaping the direction Phillips and the Lurchers would take following the release of Live at Jameson’s. As 1985 moved into 1986 and the streets of South Africa grew increasingly filled with mass protests against the government, to which the Botha regime responded by instituting a nationwide state of emergency, the The group went to Shifty Studio in the south of town to record their follow-up album.

The Otherwhite album (whose title is both an ironic jibe on apartheid’s racial classifications and a nod to the Beatles) has become a sort of mythical totem lost in the history of anti-apartheid South African rock.

The tracks made an appearance on a hastily produced tape in 1992, saw a featured light in a different form on the compilation Made in South Africa (released after Phillips’ untimely death at the age of 36 in July 1995) and have been performed by the Lurchers in subsequent shows. But they never really materialized in the form they were intended for or that Phillips was happy with, mostly due to the band’s change in line-up, Phillips’ binge drinking and smoking, and growing tensions between him and Ross.

Undated: Flyers for concerts featuring The Cherry Faced Lurchers at Jameson Bar in the 1980s.

Lockout Revelations

Then, with the application of strict and extensive lockdown restrictions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Ross found himself with the spare time and began digging up the original recordings. Working with the surviving members of the 1986 Lurchers lineup – Edwards, Richard Frost, Steve Howells and Mark Bennett – and fellow musician Jannie van Tonder, the album was ultimately completed in its originally intended form.

The Otherwhite album, produced by Shifty and in partnership with Permanent Records, will arrive in vinyl and digital format in October. Vinyl edition includes 10 tracks, including overtly political songs Inmates, Branch and Or heavy, who speak to a South Africa in the dark and terrible 80s. Along with De Waal’s notes, there are notes from Edwards, Frost, Bennett, Howells, Van Tonder, and journalist Andrew Donaldson.

Ross recalls that the process of the original recordings was “very long, lengthy and sometimes tortuous”. But coming back to it last year, he says: “When I finally had space after 30 years, I was surprised at how [James] rang and I think it’s there on the album ”.

Undated: James Phillips performs with The Cherry Faced Lurchers at Jameson’s bar.

For Edwards, who quit playing for 20 years after Phillips’ death (the result of injuries sustained after ill-advised drunk driving on a dark, dusty farm road outside of what was then Grahamstown) , the songs that finally make their appearance on this release are his favorite Lurchers songs.

He’s delighted that “this album is finally coming out and that we can make people aware of what we did back then. I really think he has legs. I think these songs are incredibly powerful and in my mind it’s one hell of a rock ‘n’ roll album. He does everything a great rock ‘n’ roll album should do – social commentary, it’s angry, he has it all and that’s what it needs to be – and I’m so happy that he be there.

Undated: Bassist Lee Edwards during the band’s live performance at iconic Jameson’s.

Bennett is equally enthusiastic. “For all of us, and I know James felt the same, there was this frustration of not being able to finish it the way we all wanted it to be over.” We were all very proud of it. These are fucking good songs… and we were playing great back then and we were really tight and we didn’t really have to overdo it, and that’s what Lloyd captured.

Bennett adds, “When I tell my kids about it… it’s so hard to explain to people who grew up in the 90s what it was like to live in the 80s. It was fucking crazy. For me, these songs really represent time, and when I listen to this, I am instantly transported there.

Lightness in dark times

For Ross, the record is “that window into an era that, if you were out there and belonged to the community that James came from, it’s so evocative of what things were for us then. It’s a very powerful representation of that era, more than any other record I think I’ve made. There are quite a few dark moments but also bright moments, because in life you have that. No matter what your situation, you always find a way to shed some light and laugh at the absurdity of your situation.

Or heavy, the first track from the album released on Bandcamp earlier this month, demonstrates Phillips’ unique ability to capture the realities of the times with his signature sense of the absurd.

“Eliminate, eliminate / From childhood you were taught to hate / From childhood you were taught to hate / Your so-called enemies of the state / The activist, the communist / The trade unionist, the socialist / The feminist and all that comes from Wits, ”Chante Phillips. It is a premonitory description of the attitudes that still prevail among security and police forces in administrations around the world, from Minneapolis to Johannesburg. Then he warns his listeners: “These ou are heavy, these ou are hard / These ou are serious, these ou are fucking hard / These ou are bosses, these ou are mad / These ou have lost it, these Ous … ”

The cover of The Otherwhite album in its reincarnated form, available both on vinyl and in digital formats.

It’s a powerful feeling that always resonates, and it’s just one of many songs on The Otherwhite album which help to consolidate its status, as Donaldson writes in his cover note, as a “document [that] offers a glimpse of a brutal and horrific time. These urgent songs were some of the strongest James had ever written: jagged, visceral and cathartic, hope and despair, but also celebrations of community, independence and rebellion.

“It was dark there but there were also flashes of light in the desert. And let’s not forget, the heavyweights are always with us, whether it’s Hong Kong, Charlottesville or Marikana. Again, it’s time to turn up the volume. ”

Pre-orders of the vinyl edition of The Otherwhite album are now available at www.permanentrecords.co.za and digital pre-orders of www.jamesphillips.bandcamp.com

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