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 made a seminal recording of a performance by resident rock band The Cherry Faced Lurchers.
Live At Jameson’s became a touchstone of South African recording history – a snapshot of the angsty contradictions of progressive young white South Africans dancing their troubles away in the crowded, dark basement of Jameson’s while the world outside became increasingly terrifying and violent in the age of the PW Botha regime.
The bar had an anachronistic liquor licence granted by Paul Kruger in the late 1800s that allowed it to play host to multiracial audiences. As journalist and critic Shaun de Waal would later recall, it was thus in the right place at the right time to become the centre of a musical cultural scene that “was the new South Africa in twisted embryo”.
“We detested the apartheid state, and we reviled the Calvinist morality that came with it … This was the unofficial soundtrack to the revolution, and it was a revolution we could dance to,” De Waal wrote for the liner notes of the CD reissue of the album.
The ringmaster of that revolution was James Phillips, a rebel rocker from the East Rand town of Springs. He had been a key figure in the town’s punk rock movement, which had sprung up in the late 1970s and early 1980s and included his band Corporal Punishment and his subsequent outfit, Illegal Gathering.
Phillips was a supremely talented songwriter with an uncanny ability to articulate the absurdity of life under apartheid for many young white people. He could put into words the almost schizophrenic anxieties it fostered in the minds and souls of a generation whose members were morally opposed to what was going on around them, but didn’t always act or know how to deal with it or what they could do about it.
The world outside
The Lurchers, as they are immortalised on Live At Jameson’s, were a tight three-piece “jol band” made up of Phillips, Lee Edwards on bass and Richard Frost on drums. But there is a moment when, on the third track of the album, the jol takes a break and things go eerily quiet as Phillips begins to sing the opening to the ballad Shot Down.
This is a song that is pointedly about the world beyond the basement bar of Jameson’s. The audience is faced with the recognition that, like Phillips, so many of them feel like “a white boy who looked at his life gathered in his hands / And saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man / That one who got shot down in the streets”.
As Ross recalls, it was the song that “was the only one that indicated” the realities of what was “going on in the country where the music was being made … [and] for me it remains one of the best ballads ever written here about those times”.
It would also prove to be a pivotal song in shaping the direction that Phillips and the Lurchers would take after the release of Live At Jameson’s. As 1985 rolled into 1986 and the streets of South Africa were increasingly filled with mass protest against the government, to which the Botha regime responded by instituting a nationwide state of emergency, the band went into Shifty Studio in the south of the city to record their follow-up album.
The Otherwhite Album (whose title is both a tongue-in-cheek jibe at apartheid racial classifications and a nod to The Beatles) became something of a mythical lost totem in the history of anti-apartheid South African rock.
The tracks made an appearance on a hastily produced cassette in 1992, saw selected 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 were performed by the Lurchers in subsequent live shows. But they never really materialised in the form they were intended for or that Phillips was satisfied with, mainly because of the band’s line-up changing, Phillips’ excessive drinking and dope-smoking, and increasing tensions between him and Ross.
Then, with the enforcement of strict and extended lockdown restrictions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Ross found himself with time on his hands and began to unearth the original recordings. Working with the surviving members of the 1986 Lurchers line-up – Edwards, Richard Frost, Steve Howells and Mark Bennett – and fellow musician Jannie van Tonder, the album was finally finished in its originally intended form.
The Otherwhite Album, produced by Shifty and in partnership with Permanent Records, will arrive in vinyl and digital formats in October. The vinyl edition features 10 tracks, including the overtly political songs Detainees, The Branch and Heavy Ous, which speak to a South Africa in the dark and terrible 1980s. Apart from De Waal’s liner notes, there are notes by Edwards, Frost, Bennett, Howells, Van Tonder and journalist Andrew Donaldson.
Ross remembers the process of the original recordings as “very long, drawn out and sometimes torturous”. But going back to them last year, he says, “when I finally had space after 30-something years, I was surprised at how good [James] sounded and I think it’s there on the album”.
For Edwards, who stopped playing for 20 years after Phillips’ death (the result of injuries sustained after an ill-advised drunken drive on a dark, dusty farm road outside what was then Grahamstown), the songs that are now finally making their appearance on this release are his favourite Lurchers tunes.
He is excited that “this album’s finally seeing the light of day and that we can make people aware of what we did then. I really think it’s got legs. I think these songs are incredibly powerful and in my mind it’s a hell of a rock ‘n’ roll album. It does everything that a great rock ‘n’ roll album should do – social commentary, it’s angry, it’s got it all and it’s what it needs to be – and I’m just so pleased it’s there.”
Bennett is equally enthusiastic. “For all of us, and I know James felt the same way, there was this frustration of not being able to finish it the way that all of us wanted it to be finished. We were all really proud of it. Those are fucking good songs … and we were playing fucking well then and we were really tight and we didn’t really have to do too much, and that’s what Lloyd captured.”
Bennett adds, “When I talk to my kids about this… it’s so hard to explain to people who grew up in the 1990s what it was like to live in the 1980s. It was fucking mad. To me these songs really represent the time, and when I listen to this I’m instantly transported back there.”
Levity in dark times
For Ross, the record is “this window into a time that, if you were there and were of the community that James came from, it’s so evocative for what things were like then for us. It’s a very powerful representation of those times, more than any other record I think I’ve done. It’s got quite a few dark moments but also light moments, because in life you have that. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, you still find a way to make light and laugh at the absurdity of your situation.”
Heavy Ous, the first track from the album to be released on Bandcamp earlier this month, demonstrates Phillips’ unique ability to capture the realities of the time 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 unionist, the socialist / The feminist and everything that comes from Wits,” sings Phillips. It is a prescient description of attitudes that still prevail among the security and police forces of administrations across the world, from Minneapolis to Johannesburg. Then he cautions his listeners: “These ous are heavy, these ous are tough / These ous are serious, these ous are fucking rough / These ous are bossies, these ous are nuts / These Ous have lost it, these Ous…”
It’s a powerful sentiment that still resonates, and is just one of the many songs on The Otherwhite Album that help to cement its status, as Donaldson writes in his liner note, as “a document [that] offers insight to a brutal and horrific period. These urgent songs were among the strongest James had yet written: ragged, visceral and cathartic, hope and hopelessness but also celebrations of community, independence and rebellion.
“It was dark out there but there were also flashes of light in the wilderness. And lest we forget, the heavy ous are still with us, be it in Hong Kong, Charlottesville or Marikana. Time once again, to turn up the volume.”