Cherry Faced Lurchers
Jameson’s made The Cherry-Faced Lurchers. When the band got a residency there in 1984, it was the moment at which a rather ramshackle band pulled itself together. By July 1985, when Lloyd Ross of Shifty Records put Live at Jameson’s down on tape, they were an extraordinarily tight three-piece with a repertoire of songs exceptional for their strength – and their rollicking sense of fun.
James Phillips, the Lurchers’ composer, singer, lead guitarist, and later keyboardist as well, had come out of what might be called the Springs Renaissance – the late-Seventies flowering of South African punk rock that included the indomitable Radio Rats. In 1978, James founded, with Karl Raubenheimer and Mark “Bertie” Bennett, the band Corporal Punishment, which later mutated into Illegal Gathering. Such a South African response to British punk may seem inordinately swift, given our tendency to lag at least a decade behind the rest of the world, but it was rooted in a similar sense of social marginalisation – and in prehistory of rock’n’roll that many of the British punks, as well as other South African punk bands, would have liked to deny. If anything, James had more of a taste for the complex Southern boogie-rock of Little Feat, say, than for The Sex Pistols, though he surely admired their energy.
For some white kids growing up in the mining-town-cum-outer-suburb of Springs, rebellion came naturally. To James, always a revolutionary at heart, it was a vocation. To the Springs boys, there was a sense of exclusion from the posing mainstream of pop similar to that of their British coevals, and a corresponding desire to shake it up. But while many South African bands who took on the punk project were little more than imitators, Corporal Punishment was defiantly South African from the start. A song like Darkie, with its menacingly sarcastic send-up of “swart gevaar” propaganda, could have come from nowhere else. James disliked imitators, and he despised the cover bands that churned out hit-parade numbers in South Africa’s pubs. That was exactly what he didn’t want to be.
And James was also more musically literate than most other South African musicians – he was perhaps the most literate of them all. I shared various places of abode with him (and a range of other lunatics and drug addicts), and I have an indelible memory of his sitting in his room playing the piano, an old one with cigarette burns where his neglected stub had burnt out – it issued a steady stream of gorgeous music, snatches of classical sonatas merging into sprightly kwela, then twisting into rock’n’roll. It was all in his head. No, it was burned into his soul.
Having briefly studied music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, James transferred to the music department at Wits University in the middle of 1982, as far as anyone can recall. He was an instant rebel within that staid department – he wrote a spirited defence of rock and pop as genres potentially as complex and rewarding as “classical” or Western art music. Yet he was as appreciative of Shostakovich as he was of the Stones. He was always a rake among scholars and a scholar among rakes.
It was in Braamfontein, in the down-at-heel student accommodation that formed a kind of squatter camp near Wits, that the story of the Lurchers began. In 1982, James’s old Springs chinas Mike de la Hunt, AndrŽ “Van” van Niekerk and Lee Edwards were The Worst Blues Band in the World, and by some accounts it was. They urged James, the most proficient musician they knew, to come and jam with them. He did. When Van defected to The Softies, Bertie Bennett’s new band (for whom he had bought all the equipment), the remnants of The Worst Blues Band in the World became the Lurchers.
The drunken (and otherwise drug-addled) habits of the time gave the band its name. Originally, James told me once, the name had been The Cheery-Faced Lurchers, but it was understood even then that it would be heard as “cherry-faced”, and James, who liked a good pun, went with it. Mike (drums), Lee (bass) and James (guitar, vocals) played a party or two toward the end of 1982, and they were the Lurchers until the Jameson’s residency began in 1984. In the meantime, in 1983 and early 1984, they played a few gigs, following The Softies, for instance, on the stage at The King of Clubs in downtown Jo’burg. The Lurchers got lucky, too, at the 1983 Free People’s Concert, when the headline act, Hotline, failed to turn up, and James got on stage and demanded that Mike and Lee join him there at once. They were invited to the 1984 Free People’s Concert in their own right.
Jameson’s was a remarkable bar in Commissioner Street in Jo’burg’s central business district. Like The King of Clubs, it was an underground pub. Run by Austrian ex-pat Herbert Scheubmayr, a charming man with Catholic tastes and cross-cultural instincts, it had a busy lunchtime food trade and jazz bands on a Sunday. Lee Edwards, a Jaco Pastorius fan, was a regular visitor, and he persuaded Herbert to let the Lurchers have a gig or two there. Jameson’s was also remarkable because it had a Kruger liquor licence – one of a small handful issued by the onetime president of the Transvaal at the turn of the 20th century, a licence that transcended the racially divided and time-restricted liquor laws of the day. The perfect place for a jol.
I was sharing a tumbledown house in Berea with James and Mike (and most of a large reggae band) at the time they got the Jameson’s gig, and Mike was more or less falling apart. There were romantic issues, on top of the lurching issues – as Mike himself puts it, he’d fallen off his barstool (or his drum stool) once too often. Lee and James were taking this residency very seriously – this was the band’s big break, insofar as Johannesburg in 1984 could provide anyone with a big break. At any rate, they wanted to get this right. Perhaps they had caught the scent of manifest destiny.
The band that had had only six songs to play at the 1983 Free People’s Concert got to work. James swiftly wrote several more. Mike was regretfully told that his tenure was up, and Richard Frost, at whose house the band had been rehearsing, was drafted as a drummer. The relentless practice followed, though there was precious little time between Scheubmayr’s offer and the first gig. A week. But they got it together, and the first months at Jameson’s were the best practice they could ever have had. By the time Live at Jameson’s was recorded (and it was “lovingly dedicated” to Mike), the Lurchers were the tightest rock three-piece in town. Or in the country.
Jameson’s was a dim and dirty enclave; descending those stairs felt like a descent into the underworld. Well,it was the underworld. One in which everyone deranged their senses and new spirits were born. The U-shaped bar and the bigger room beyond, with the cramped stage at its far end, became the epicenter of a whole new South African youth culture. That culture may not have been enormous (though it felt like it was the only show in town at the time), but its ripple effect was huge. Soon a panoply of the country’s best bands was playing there too – The Softies, The Dynamics, Peto, The Helicopters, The Genuines, The Kerels, to name a few.
Those were delirious evenings. Or nights, or mornings. They were epic. They lasted forever. Young (mostly white) South Africans mixed with their counterparts of colour; everyone got trashed together. It was like the bastard child of Sophiatown. It was the new South Africa in twisted embryo. We detested the apartheid state, and we reviled the Calvinist morality that came with it. We were also justly suspicious of the Stalinist shenanigans of the student left, though many a member of the broader left joined the party at Jameson’s. This was the unofficial soundtrack to the revolution, and it was a revolution we could dance to.
James was at the very eye of this storm. He was one of the first “new South Africans”, a true white African, as he described himself. He received an unprecedented amount of genuine love and adulation from his fans. He made them all feel like friends. (And the girls practically queued up at his microphone.) Musically, he had unleashed his genius, and that was the sexiest thing of all. His individual project, in which he was transmogrified into the mysterious Afrikaans troubadour Bernoldus Niemand (releasing the undisputed classic Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand? in 1986), helped spur a major “alternative Afrikaner” movement, which flowered in the Voelvry tour of the later Eighties. He kept his alter ego, Bernoldus, separate from the Lurchers for some time, but eventually, they too were playing his seminal satire Hou My Vas, Korporaal.
James, who died suddenly and very sadly in 1995 at the age of 36, was the key rock’n’roll intelligence of the Eighties, and the Lurchers were, in my view (though I admit to some small bias), the best rock band in South Africa. For a start, no-one could match James’s songwriting abilities. The raw enjoyment to be had from songs such as Toasted Takeaways and That’s My Shirt (which usually got a pissed Van on stage for backing vocals, politely referred to as “harmonies”) are testament to the wonder of what can be done with three chords. Do the Lurch was the band’s signature tune, and it summed up an entire era – a paean to the pleasures of inebriation as well as the power of the jive. These are simply marvellous songs.
But James’s songwriting skills can be heard coming into their full maturity in Shot Down, a song that for many is the very essence of the Eighties, of the Emergency Years, of the last and most terrible writhings of the apartheid state. It is a song that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of youth taking a cold hard look at who they are as white South Africans. We knew exactly what James meant when he said he saw his life gathered in the palm of his hand and saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man – that one who got shot down in the street. They shot people in the streets in those days. A lot.
And he worked at the songwriting, very hard, harder than rock’n’rollers are supposed to. I recall walking to university with James, from Yeoville (we’d eventually been driven out of Berea by the reggae band, who seemed to practice the same song all day) to Braamfontein, with him reciting the lyrics-in-progress, trying them this way and that. It takes a literary gift, married to a supreme musical talent, to create the fear and anger expressed in Shot Down – and the exhilarating sense of release that comes from the expression of these emotions in such a powerful manner. Listen to the way the words in one line come out in a speedy rush, almost gasped out as the breath fails, while in another line a single word is stretched to the almost joyfully painful limit along the musical line. And, under those words, moreover, as you can hear on Live at Jameson’s, is Richard’s rocksteady drumming, Lee’s urgent bass, and guitar-playing from James to gladden the heart of a Keith Richards.
Desolation Angels, not included in the original album release, is now reunited with its fellows. It is in the vein of Shot Down, the vein that James would mine so fruitfully in the years to come as he laboured for years on what became The Otherwhite Album, unfortunately, released only on cassette, and rather late in the day too. Let’s hope, nay, let’s demand, that that’s the next Lurchers album to see the light of CD day: it is a masterpiece of savage beauty, in which James’s songwriting talent reaches another peak. There were to be other peaks, on the subsequent CD Sunny Skies, as he began to move into greater complexity, began to draw on the free African jazz of Malombo and the like, and enlarged the band to include stars such as pianist Paul Hamner and guitarist Willem Moller. He may have spat upon the South African musical establishment, and scorned the easy routes to fame and financial gain, but James was nothing if not ambitious.
The Cherry-Faced Lurchers got bigger and in some ways, they got better, but there’s nothing to match the excitement of a great band playing live, galloping at full stretch, in the first surge of their self-discovered power. That’s what you hear on Live at Jameson’s. That and an audience baying their love and appreciation, enthusiastically placing their bizarre orders on Toasted Takeaways. James’s generous and wicked sense of humour is at play here, as it is in the satire of R45 Perm (who gets a perm for R45 nowadays?) and That’s My Shirt. The song takes you right back to a greasy cafe in Braamfontein as James sings in the accent of the cafe-owner taking orders. He liked accents, particularly that of ordinary South Africans – why ape a British one? We are who we are.
Toasted Takeaways also takes you way beyond that greasy cafe, or at least it does for me. In 1987, just before I went overseas on an extended draft-dodging mission, I went to hear the Lurchers play at the “Boz”, Wits’ Bozzoli pavilion; The Genuines and the Kerels were also playing. A dream gig. But it was the Lurchers, of course, who meant the most to me. When they played Toasted Takeaways, and people in the audience began to place their orders, I thought of my impending exile (who knew when I’d be back, if ever?) and shouted my order: “The time of my life!” And I got it.
Shaun de Waal