Love has gone to war in uniforms of words; They lie here discarded on battlefields where my guns of youth stand silenced; they listen to a girl with rainbow eyes tell of storms; I say to her “I was once the rain” she smiles; I stumble across myself falling into what I really am. Is there anybody who can call me a fool without being a fool themselves, is there anybody who could love me and expect to be loved in return? I have been remembered, then forgotten – everybody is but a switch on the minds of others; touch me, perhaps I am broken, I do not know. A medal of bravery for the new world hiding in the bomb craters of stimulated-love affairs. Tomorrow they say it will be different, today is spent waiting, yesterday is forgotten except by those leaving the craters.
Yesterday I saw the last bell being dismantled by half-starved choir boys, today I saw a bell pining a white robe to the gutter where it lay. The hospital have disbanded the doctors – I pass them in broken fields attending dying horses. The new bible has already grown old in the torn hands of preachers wearing diamond-studded purple dog collars, which chain them to the pulpit. The jet bombers have become cowards, hit and ruining their pilots while the control towers save the lives of migrating swallows from the fall-out which is about to fall.
All the flags and the flags which burned the others have no purpose left to put forward the triumph of thinking that what happened, even if it should not have, even if I do not know why it did, or even, yes this is the hardest, that it never did happen. I know there have been changes; somebody has been making changes, beware the changers; guard your straight lines and your circles; should you have a lover see that there is only two of you in bed and that the floor has no dark footsteps. If you have bomb shelters beware of bombs; if you have bombs his search begins at twelve for shelters, do not worry about the people, they shall die naturally, kill the shelters. If you see spaceships now and then think of yesterday when you laughed at people who did. There is no news today, news is bad, it destroys.
Dedicated to the girl from Boundsgreen Fair:
When we meet again it will not be under this tower, time will have erased it. We shall stand amongst its ruins talking in whispers, ghosts of what we were will stand sadly to the side. Perhaps amongst the rubble we could search for our laughter; our almost forgotten dreams, perhaps we could if we were not so weary. We might hold hands and walk amongst the dead stones and touch them, caress the things we once loved, see a dead poem which I wrote for you, see it then and know it once lived. “Chestnut green colourride wears a pattern in my life a vision helpless paints the sound of your voice, silent black with tears of silver”. I hold your smile while I climb inside you, motionless we became, making statues out of words which became invisible on our lips. Could love ever return to us, wanderer come home to smile on our faces, rest in our hearts, telling us tales of travels?
From Ramsay’s book “Parade”
Let the past lie for us – digging it up shall bury tomorrow. Show me the man who laughs but never cries, he is but half a man whose laughter cries for him. Truth is a river – you must be its banks and its beds. Life the wilderness has many explorers, but there are no maps to show of their knowledge. To have knowledge is to be wise, to know everything is not wisdom for wisdom is infinite to know that is wisdom.
Astral travellers from the South
One of the best rock bands the world never heard? It sounds like a familiar refrain doesn’t it? Just another one of those “what if” stories by your average ‘60s rock aficionado bent on hyping their favourite obscure band. But in the case of South African acid-rock legends Freedom’s Children, there is some justification in the hyperbole.
Formed at the height of the hated apartheid era, Freedom’s Children swiftly became South Africa’s most innovative sons, incomparable to anyone both musically and politically during those turbulent years. Their explorative, sonic excursions pushed the musical envelope and broke down barriers, culminating in the groundbreaking Astra album, arguably one of the era’s most overlooked recordings. The problem was no one was listening beyond South Africa.
When Freedom’s Children tried to establish a profile in England during 1969, the group soon ran into problems. Thanks to British policy on the apartheid system, most of the band’s members were refused work permits and could only play gigs illegally. All hope of establishing themselves on the burgeoning London rock scene was thwarted and with it any chance of launching the band on the international stage.
Arguably, it might have been an entirely different story if circumstances had been more favourable. At least, that’s the view held by one influential person – the band’s one-time manager Clive Calder, nowadays one of the most successful men in the international music business thanks to his companies Jive Records, Zomba Music Publishers, Zomba Management and Zomba books.
For those who are not familiar with his name, Calder’s record label has spawned international hits with Tight Fit, A Flock of Seagulls and Billy Ocean, while his publishing represents the Stiff catalogue, Bruce Springsteen and The Stray Cats. He’s also been mastermind behind the careers of Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys. Calder, however, has never forgotten his South African roots and his work with Freedom’s Children. A few years ago, he was quoting, saying the band “was then and probably still is today the only South African group that, given the right circumstances in the right geographical location, could have become an internationally successful rock band by just by being themselves and doing what they did.”
Like all great artists, Freedom’s Children’s story is littered with its own share of conflicts and disappointments, perhaps more so. But now with the cloak of apartheid lifted and a growing interest among ’60s aficionados of the hidden treasures to be found beyond British and American shores, perhaps the brilliance of Freedom’s Children’s music can finally be appreciated.
At the center of the band’s story and the man responsible for providing the creative spark that drove the group through its glory years was poet, songwriter, and bass player Ramsay MacKay. One of South Africa’s rock geniuses, Ramsay MacKay was actually born in the Scottish Highlands on 15 August 1945. Arriving in South Africa in 1953, aged 7, his family settled in Graskop in the Eastern Transvaal.
Taking up the bass in his early teens, MacKay’s first musical venture was Eshowe, Zululand band, The Stilettos. Changing the name to The Beathovens in the early ‘60s, the group became one of the first South African bands to specialise in R&B. “I knew this guy whose father was American, he was a missionary,” says MacKay from his home near Edinburgh where he records with his latest project, The Fumes. “He went back to America for his holidays when I was at boarding school, so I asked him to get me Chuck Berry and any other rhythm ‘n’ blues he could find. He brought Bo Diddley, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters. I really got to love that music and still do now. We started to play them in this band called The Beathovens and must have been one of the first bands in South Africa to do so”.
From there, MacKay and fellow Beathovens, Angelo Minietti and Gary Demmer moved to Pretoria where they formed a new group, The Lehman Limited in October 1965, alongside future Freedom’s Children sideman, keyboard player Nic Martens and self-confessed jazz addict, drummer Colin Pratley (b. 27 June 1946, Springs, South Africa).
Both musicians had previously played together in The Navarones, a Johannesburg group formed a year earlier, before going their separate ways in mid-1965. Before forming The Lehman Limited, Pratley also briefly drummed with The Upsetters, another local group led by British expats (and future members of Canadian underground legend, Influence), Andy Keiller and Louis McKelvey (see Ugly Things magazine, issue 20), although Pratley left before that band got round to recording its lone single.
The Lehman Limited soon fizzled out and during the summer of 1966, MacKay and Pratley joined forces with another future Freedom’s Children member, singer Mick Jade in The Seven Faces, a more experimental project, which despite its name only contained six musicians.
Once again, the band proved to be a transitory move. MacKay and Pratley then headed to the coast and Durban. “We were living on the beach,” remembers MacKay. “We were living like bums. We were so close to just being nothing and then became something. It was so amazing what happened really. The chances of us doing it were really small because we came from the outside. We were still country hicks in the big city, well especially I was, having been brought up in the Eastern Transvaal and Zululand. We were living in the beach hut and sleeping in schools. We survived on our wits. I don’t know how long it lasted for, I can’t remember. I don’t know how long we could have gone on but then we met Kenny. He was already quite well known.”
The Kenny in question was future South African guitar legend, the late Ken E Henson (b. 28 March 1947, Durban) who had recently tasted some success with (no relation) The Leemen Limited. An established local act, The Leemen Limited’s recording legacy comprised two singles for Trutone’s Continental label – a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” and Wilson Pickett and Steve Cropper’s “In The Midnight Hour”.
Henson was intrigued by MacKay and Pratley’s musical ideas and in December 1966 he introduced his former pal from The Leemen Limited, blues singer and James Brown fanatic, Jimmy Thompson (b. Demetrius Thomopoulos, Greece), to contribute keyboards and vibes. Together the musicians created a new revolutionary group that drew its inspiration from The Mothers of Invention’s “freak-outs”. South Africa had never seen anything like it.
As MacKay explains, it was Henson who came up the band’s reactionary name. In a conversation with the bass player, Henson made a reference to “freedom’s sweet”, after which MacKay added “children” and henceforth the band became known as Freedom’s Children. “It was a combined effort,” confirmed Henson, from his Durban home in 2006, on the genesis of the band’s name. “I said, ‘We should call it, Freedom’s Sweet’ and I think there was a British blues band around that time with the name so Ramsay said, ‘What about ‘Freedom’s Children?’”
It was certainly a bold move considering the political climate at the time and was the first in a series of provocative moves that stoked the authorities’ ire. “You don’t call yourself Freedom’s Children in South Africa without a good reason,” says MacKay. “We were banned on most radio. Freedom’s Children meant something back then.”
“The name was deliberate,” adds Pratley. “It was an expression of what we wanted to do with our music. The music [at the time] was very commercial and it had to be that way. There were a lot of good musicians but they weren’t taking any chances, so we took the chances.”
Initially, the band found work at the Le Macabre nightclub, housed in Durban’s Butterworth Hotel, playing standard R&B numbers. Then in March 1967, the group announced that it would be holding a “freak-out” there, starting on Saturday, 4 March. As a way of attracting people to the happening, MacKay wrote an article for Durban’s Natal Mercury, which was featured on the paper’s Wednesday “In Set” teen page three days before the event.
The publicity describes Pratley as “a demon on the drums…[who] has instincts of barbaric savagery in his bass pedal actions. This often results in broken drums and loss of drummer while he takes a trip on a freak-out.” Demetrius meanwhile “plays vibes, piano and also shines at ‘Scotland the brave’ on organ. He dabbles in drama, has a yen to be an actor, reads Shakespeare and does a tidy bit of dancing on stage.”
It then goes on to describe Henson as “a torturer…of the guitar. He will go to any lengths to create weird sounds” and “paints vocal pictures of fairy tales and solitary men.” As for MacKay, he is described as “a poet and owner of weird thoughts. Quote: We stand in corridors of time watching the processions of paper banner gods. Freedom is commercialised you can buy it…pay with death.” Both Henson and MacKay are credited for writing most of the group’s compositions, like the aptly titled, “Journey For Lost Souls”.
As for the “freak-outs” themselves, the paper’s reporter warns the public that, “the boys will be playing their wildest music. The name for it is ‘psychedelic music’ because it is accompanied by flashing lights, numerous voices gabbling in foreign languages, a simultaneous film show and anything else that will contribute to the chaos.” He then goes on to say, rather ominously, that the happening would not go on all evening because, “apparently, human nature just couldn’t stand it. But it will take up half an hour…and the boys will challenge anyone to stay watching longer than 20 minutes.”
For MacKay, Le Macabre represented a high watermark in the group’s musical development and was where Freedom’s Children’s music was at its most experimental, most original, and strangest. “We played to pre-recorded sound effect tapes,” he points out. “The show incorporated films, jelly projectors, dry ice, and white sheets around the total area, including the audience so that the audience and the band was one thing, it was happening.”
According to MacKay, the band’s use of strobe lights was possibly the first time they had been used outside California. “It was not bought. It was home-made and involved a guy who was almost part of the band actually twirling contacts on an open board mechanically to achieve the strobe effect, at some personal risks,” he explains. “Due to the strobe lights and the intensity of volume people had epileptic fits. At this period in time, nobody knew that strobe lights gave people epileptic fits. This is how the band became notorious, because of society, the press, the police and even the Mayor of Durban who all tried to suppress what they thought was happening – that we were brainwashing the youth.”
So intense were the shows that some people ended up being hospitalised. When it became clear that the strobe lights were causing epileptic fits, the band was forced to put warning signs up, as MacKay explains. “It became known as having a ‘frothy’ and was quite a cultural event as people started having ‘frothies’ without being epileptic, but probably just stoned.”
While playing at Le Macabre one night, representatives from the South African Broadcasting Corporation dropped by (unofficially) and captured one of the band’s “freakouts” for posterity. “When we were doing the freakouts, two guys from the SABC came and privately recorded us with this tape recorder and they took us back to the SABC and played it to us,” remembers MacKay. “Man, it really blew my little mind. I don’t know what happened to that tape. I didn’t even think to ask for a copy.”
Soon afterward, Freedom’s Children found work at another Durban club, Tiles where they played for a few weeks before moving on to the Scene 70. However, while the band clearly reveled in upsetting the establishment, its first record label, Troubadour, wasn’t prepared to take the same risks, and according to MacKay was so scared of getting into trouble that it issued the group’s early recordings under the name, Fleadom’s Children. (Producer Billy Forrest later explained that the label was forced to change the name because government-funded radio stations refused to play their singles as Freedom’s Children.)
Troubadour had signed Freedom’s Children in the summer of 1967 and hooked the group up with Forrest, who, at the time, was South Africa’s most successful male pop artist. However, Freedom’s Children’s lineup had recently undergone a radical shake-up with two new members joining the ranks to replace Jimmy Thompson, who left after a dispute to concentrate on running his own Greek restaurant.
To start with, the band added lead singer and electric pianist Craig Ross (b. 27 January 1946, Durban) from the local band, The Gonks. Initially starting out as a drummer with another Durban band, The Clansmen in 1963, Ross found himself lead singer by default one night when the band’s vocalist got food poisoning and was unable to perform. An instant success with fans and band alike, he gave up drumming to specialise in singing and in 1965 formed The Gonks, appearing on the singles, “You Can’t Stop Me Loving You”, “Nobody But Me” and “Hard Lovin”.
Freedom’s Children also decided to take on board a second lead guitarist in the form of Julian Laxton (b. 17 July 1944, Johannesburg). A prodigious talent, Laxton had started playing guitar at an early age, inspired, the legend goes, by American country guitarist/singer Merle Travis, who visited South Africa in the ‘50s and stayed with the Laxton family. Equally adept on the drums, Laxton began his career in the early ’60s playing guitar with local bands, The Commanchees and The Avantis before moving to Durban to work with The Nevadas during 1962-1963. While there he helped piece together The Five of Them, who played professionally at Claridges Hotel.
Shortening their name to Them, the group recorded two singles for EMI’s Parlophone label, “I Want To Be Rich” and “One Time Too Many” and then traveled to Johannesburg in late 1965. On arrival, Laxton ran into aspiring folk singers Mel Miller and Mel Green, who were in the process of recording their debut album. A mutual friend of the duo, David Sapire, suggested that they add a lead guitarist to “improve their sound” and duly recommended his brother – Julian Laxton! The re-named Mel, Mel, and Julian recorded three albums for CBS before Laxton got itchy feet to play rock music again and took up the offer to join Freedom’s Children.
As Henson recalls, “We started playing on that whole dual guitar thing. We were doing a lot of Yardbirds, Cream and Hendrix covers at that point as well. That was before Ramsay started writing prolifically.”
With Forrest handling production duties, Freedom’s Children entered the studios that summer and proceeded to lay down four tracks in one session. Understandably, the label went with what it thought were the two strongest cuts for the band’s debut single, issued towards the end of 1967. On the a-side was a raw cover of Tony Colton and Ray Smith’s “The Coffee Song”, which Cream had also recorded, initially for inclusion on their debut album Fresh Cream. Nestled on the flip, meanwhile, was the band’s tribute to The Rolling Stones, a bristling version of “Satisfaction” with a heavy guitar workout courtesy of Laxton and Henson. A rare outing at the time, the single is now almost impossible to find but fortunately, both sides have recently turned up as bonus tracks on Fresh Music’s digitally remastered Astra CD.
Aficionados of the band, however, are still waiting to hear the two remaining tracks from that session, which were duly rounded up for the group’s second Troubadour single, issued a few months later. Credited again to Fleadom’s Children, the single comprises an outstanding version of The Yardbirds’ “Mr, You’re A Better Man Than I” (composed, incidentally, by Mike Hugg of fellow South African, Manfred Mann’s group) backed by a cover of The Fleur De Lys’ “Mud In Your Eye”. While the a-side was a relatively well-known number (and later covered by dozens of bands, most notably The Sons of Adam in California), the flip seemed an unusual choice, especially as The Fleur De Lys were hardly household names.
According to South African rock journalist Tertius Louw, the connection was probably made through Forrest, who’d recorded a cover of Gordon Haskell’s “Lazy Life” as a single using the pseudonym Quentin E Klopjager. Henson provided the guitar on the recording, which also saw backing from The Gonks. The Fleur De Lys of course often supported South African singer Sharon Tandy who was resident in London during the mid-‘60s and knew Forrest well.
By this point, the band had moved on from Durban’s Scene 70 and traveled to Johannesburg to play the 505 Club where, according to MacKay, they worked for over a year, playing six nights a week. “ was the big gig,” adds Pratley. “Everyone needed to play there. It was an underground club in Hillbrow, which was a very cosmopolitan area.”
Drugs had started to enter the picture and later became as inseparable from the band’s music as the politics – grass, black bombs, purple hearts, LSD, were all essential ingredients in creating the band’s music. Nevertheless, MacKay is quick to put the band’s drug use into context. “Something subliminal happened to kids in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was a precursor to the drugs,” he explains. “Drugs was not just about drugs. In the beginning Freedom’s Children took no drugs [and] what we saw on the drugs was what we were aware of anyway…that the world was (and still is) run by squares who relied on fear and authority to stifle any way of seeing the world differently.
“The ‘60s drug scene is much more related to people who took drugs in the 19th century, starting with the Romantic Movement in poetry and thinking and moving on to the Symbolists in France – people such as Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Bauderlaire,” he continues. “One cannot understand the ‘60s without knowing that drugs only played a part in what was naturally coming out of our brains. Drugs made a metaphor of which the reality was already in that generation.”
While the group was forging ahead into the new musical territory, behind the scenes one of Freedom Children’s founding members was on the way out. “I was with the band for about 18 months and had to leave due to domestic problems,” explains Henson looking back on his sudden departure in spring ‘68. After a brief respite, Henson signed up with the beat group, The Bats for a six-week stint and then formed the jazz group, The Sounds. “I was going to stay with [The Bats] permanently,” he says. “But they already asked Pete Clifford to join and he arrived back from England.” It didn’t matter, by 1969 Henson had put together a much more ambitious project, South Africa’s second legendary band, Abstract Truth (who deserve a feature in themselves).
Eschewing the two-guitar approach, Freedom’s Children duly recruited 19-year-old Marc Poulos (aka Harry Poulos) on organ and vocals. A hugely gifted multi-instrumentalist, Harry Poulos had played in a number of Durban bands during the early ‘60s before turning professional and teaming up with Four Jacks and a Jill (formerly The Zombies) in May 1966. During his time with the band, he added keyboards to the single “House With The White Washed Gables”. The group’s poppy sound, however, proved too restricting for such an imaginative and versatile musician, and in June 1967, Poulos left to form Little People, who backed soul singer Una Valli at the Club Nine Eyes. When Little People folded, Poulos briefly found work with the band Privilege.
Freedom’s Children stayed on in Johannesburg and recorded the Harold Spiro/Phil Waldman composition, “Little Games”, which had been covered in the UK by The Yardbirds the previous year, with new producer John Nowell. The track would resurface in April 1968 as the b-side of Freedom’s Children’s debut single for EMI subsidiary, Parlophone Records. (It has also been included on Fresh Music’s remastered Astra CD).
While “Little Games” was a competent enough performance, it was hardly representative of the band’s rapidly evolving sound. To see where Freedom’s Children were heading, listeners had to flip the record over to hear Ramsay MacKay and Harry Poulos’ “Kafkasque”, one of the first songs that turned up on Freedom’s Children’s debut album, Battle Hymn of the Broken Horde, released later that year.
By the time the single had reached the shops, however, Craig Ross had split from the group, his girlfriend had given him a “me or the band” ultimatum. Dropping out of the scene for a while, he would resurface in later years with the progressive rock band, The Third Eye. Today he lives in Durban and designs kitchens (and occasionally sings in clubs).
“Craig was a good singer and performer,” says MacKay of his former colleague, “and the band took up a more rock ‘n’ pop ‘n’ soul kind of sound. This was quite a bit different from our psychedelic beginnings. We also had two guitars so it was a much denser sound. The people who followed the band at this time began calling us ‘Freedoms’ and as far as I know they still do.
“At that time we were playing 4 x 45 minute sets six nights a week for months on end. It became a way of life. You’ve got four hours a night to work on it. It’s a lot different from playing one 40 minute show every now and then”.
Soon after Ross’s departure Laxton and the band parted. With the guitarist joining The Crystal Drive, Freedom’s Children now consisted of Ramsay MacKay, Colin Pratley, Harry Poulos, and seasoned jazz musician Mike Faure on saxophone. The new setup, however, was short-lived and the band then effectively split into two camps with Poulos and Faure finding work with The Laughing Convention. “We actually left the band because we got tired of it,” explains MacKay. “We weren’t happy with the sax player and the organ. [Also] it was getting very heavy with the politics. We looked pretty radical for the time and got searched all the time. We just wanted to play somewhere we didn’t have to worry about all that.”
With this thought in mind, MacKay and Pratley made plans to relocate to London that summer and establish a new version of Freedom’s Children overseas. Before setting off for England in July, the pair started recording tracks with John Nowell, “a strange guy” according to MacKay, who, together with executives at EMI, would raise eyebrows a few months later over the handling of the Battle Hymn of the Broken Hearted Horde album.
From the outset, MacKay and Pratley found themselves at loggerheads with the producer and only got as far as recording the backing tracks with help from former Dusty Springfield guitarist Pete Clifford and keyboard player Nic Martens (fresh from a stint with The Neil McDermott Group). MacKay, who’d written most of the songs for the project on his own or with Poulos, also found time to record the talking parts between the tracks. Soon afterward, “we came to London and sort of forgot about it,” he admits.
Colin Pratley picks up the story. “We recorded some tracks and we told EMI in South Africa that we were going (to England) and there was no way we were going to wait around. We never got to hear the finished product until the album had been sent to England.”
In their absence, Nowell, following EMI’s instructions, set to work putting the final touches to the album, changing words here and there on some songs, and also adding brass to several tracks. EMI also made the controversial decision to place two Pepsi promotions on the end of each side of the album. “I think the record company said something about ‘Well, we’ve got to get promotion to pay for it because we won’t pay for the cover,” says MacKay. “I don’t think I knew that they were actually going to put it on the record. I don’t know how we came to record Battle Hymn. We were about to leave for London and found ourselves laying down tracks for a record. Freedom’s Children then consisted of Colin Pratley and I. As it did in the beginning.”
Since no vocals had been laid down before MacKay and Pratley’s departure, EMI also instructed Nowell to bring in several singers to complete the tracks. Steve Trend was one of the singers hired, while female backing vocals were provided courtesy of Stevie Van Kerken. The remaining tracks featured former It’s a Secret lead singer Dennis Robertson and some other singers, one of whom MacKay thinks might be Peter Vee but the other remains unknown.
With all this fiddling, one could be forgiven in thinking that the whole project might have ended up an unmitigated disaster. But even with its obvious flaws, Battle Hymn of The Broken Hearted Horde stands up surprisingly well even if isn’t what MacKay and Pratley had initially envisaged.
Looking back, MacKay describes the album as a ghost because neither he nor Pratley was present to oversee the making of the album. “On some tracks, we are not playing at all. On others, we left very basic tracks and no guide vocals. Some of the songs are very different from what was planned. The fact is we recorded an album but we were not there. The whole thing was really put together by John Nowell. It’s sort of accurate to how things had become in South Africa for us… very confused. We had to move on and take quite a chance by going to London. It was very heavy back then. We had had enough. It’s a pity about Battle Hymn. That we were not there”.
On listening to the album today, Battle Hymn of The Broken Horde sounds remarkably fresh and contains some beautiful period music, which ranges from hard rock workouts like “Judas Queen” and “Eclipse” to more pastoral pieces like “Season” and “Boundsgreen Fair”. The album’s eventual release in spring 1969 went virtually unnoticed, as did a new single, which coupled “Judas Queen” with the non-LP and ultra-rare track “Fare-Thee-Well”. Perhaps this wasn’t such a surprise bearing in mind that Freedom’s Children were no longer an active unit on the South African music scene.
Over in England, Ramsay MacKay and Colin Pratley decided to continue with the Freedom’s Children name and, after finding their feet, decided to bury the hatchet with Laxton and also encouraged Poulos to rejoin. The former members left their respective groups and flew to London that September to stay at MacKay and Pratley’s digs in West Kensington. As MacKay points out, it was not a particularly good time to be a South African in the UK. The musicians came up against a lot of prejudice during their stay, which must have seen quite ironic in light of the band’s anti-apartheid stance back home.
More problematic was the difficulty in getting work. Because most of the band couldn’t gain work permits, Freedom’s Children were unable to get consistent gigs and had to work illegally. Nevertheless, one early performance found the group opening for Pink Floyd at the Country Club in Belsize Park on 6 October. “All I remember about Pink Floyd is seeing Roger Waters’ tonsils as he screamed ‘Careful with the axe Eugene’,” says MacKay.
What he does vividly remember is an audition to back American soul singer Geno Washington at London’s famous jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s. “He was just telling us, ‘play funky man, play funky’. He had a bottle of whisky and a roast chicken, I remember this clearly. He was telling us to play funky and we were this acid-freak group. We were looking at each other thinking, ‘What the hell is funky?’ I think that the singer’s manager gave us our taxi fare home.”
In the early months of 1969, the band received some rare publicity when US trade magazine Billboard ran a brief article on EMI South Africa in its 1 March issue. “The Freedom’s Children project is one of the most ambitious to be undertaken by a local group,” the review said. “The album revolves around a central theme and each track is introduced by spoken verse.” The snippet added that the album was being released in the UK where Freedom’s Children are now appearing.
Indeed, by the time the magazine appeared, Freedom’s Children had picked up further sporadic gigs, including another show at the Country Club in Belsize Park on 6 April with Van Der Graaf Generator. “I remember [them] coming up to us after we played and saying they liked our sound as it was different,” remembers MacKay.
The show, however, proved to be one of Pratley’s last with the band. Faced with visa problems, the drummer begrudgingly returned to South Africa leaving the others to draft in a succession of inferior replacements – three Englishmen, including a one-eyed drummer from Liverpool and 19-year-old South African Terry Acres, who today owns Prosound, a huge sounds systems company in South Africa. “Colin was a very good drummer,” says MacKay on the dilemma of replacing such an integral member. “He had a certain style, a way of playing so it was very hard to find someone to play like him.”
Acres was hardly a stranger to the band having taken drumming lessons from Pratley in Springs during the mid-’60s and also followed Freedom’s Children during its early days. He had left South Africa in 1969 with the intention of studying in the UK when he crossed paths with the group again. “In London Julian knew a mutual acquaintance in John Kongos. That’s where we caught up and they needed a drummer,” he recalls. “I was only with them for a few months and probably only because I had a brand new premier drum kit. Certainly, my drumming talents were not up to the band’s standards.”
With Acres on board, the remaining musicians, joined by English flutist Robin Clapham who was also a member during this period, recorded a demo for EMI in a studio around Tottenham Court Road. Those recordings offer a tantalising glimpse of the band’s next project. “We recorded this one 15-minute piece of music, which probably had a couple of songs in it but we played it as one thing,” says MacKay. “Some of these [songs] were re-recorded when we got back to South Africa and became part of Astra.”
Julian Laxton went further in explaining the genesis of the album in an interview with Raymond Joseph in 2004. “We had lots of time to practice,” he recalled. “…I had invented a gizmo, which was the beginning of my black box [a modified echo box]. …I got some interest from a company that was keen to develop it further and produce a prototype. In return, they gave us a place to stay and some music equipment, which is how we came to start working on Astra. It took about eight months of experimenting and hard practice to get it right.”
By the end of 1969, Freedom’s Children had acquired a manager, a shady “Mafia-type” character who put the band up in a flat above a nightclub in Dunstable, a commuter town some forty miles northwest of London. “We did do quite a few gigs actually but in weird places,” remembers MacKay. “Places that you wouldn’t put a rock ‘n’ roll band. It was like he didn’t know. He was going on about trying to break into rock ‘n’ roll but he didn’t know what it was.”
It was through the manager, however, that the group came into contact with South African singer Emil Dean Zoghby, who was resident in the UK at the time and later wrote the music for, and played in, the rock opera, Catch My Soul. MacKay has clear memories of the singer dropping in to see the band at rehearsals to offer encouragement and feedback on the songs.
During the band’s countryside retreat that winter, MacKay also remembers the musicians dropping acid together. For the sensitive Harry Poulos, the trip appears to have been a turning point and MacKay describes his colleague as a changed man after the experience. “Acid back then was very strong – it was quite an unsettling experience,” he explains. “South Africa is an extreme country because of the total cruelty and then everyone normalises it. That could drive you crazy on its own, and if you took acid on top of it…”
When the musicians returned to Cape Town by boat in early 1970, Harry Poulos’ erratic behaviour became a cause for concern. Soon afterward, the troubled musician abandoned the group, and following a brief stint with former member, Ken E Henson’s Abstract Truth, he joined The Otis Waygood Blues Band, assisting with the albums Otis Waygood and Ten Light Claps And A Scream. Events sadly took a tragic turn when Poulos died after jumping off a building, another casualty of the psychedelic era.
The enigmatic musician was always going to be difficult to replace but fortunately, Freedom’s Children came up trumps with the late Brian Davidson, an amazing singer, who according to Laxton was a bit like Robert Plant in that he used his voice as a musical instrument. Recruited from soul band Coloured Rain during a talent-scouting mission in Cape Town, Davidson’s powerful voice was the perfect mouthpiece for the band’s astral rock. (In an interesting aside, Brian Davidson and Colin Pratley are rumoured to have collaborated on an album with Pete Clifford in 1969 called King of The Axe-Grown Maker under the name Grunganc Flerc.)
With Pratley back in the group’s ranks (following a brief stint in The Third Eye alongside Craig Ross), it was time to get down to business. Catching a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, the band went immediately from the airport to see Clive Calder, formerly a bass player with local bands, Birds of a Feather and Calder’s Collection among others, but at the time working as an A&R man for EMI. “I took my suitcase, and it had all my writing, all of my songs on tape that I had done in London,” recalls MacKay on the personal disaster that unfolded. “I left the suitcase in the office as he wanted to show me the studio and when we came back it was gone. It really hit me hard. I lost all of these songs, so I had to start from the beginning again.”
Fortunately, some of the material that MacKay had written in England – “The Homecoming”, “The Kid He Came From Nazareth”, “Tribal Fence” and “Medals of Bravery” were already well rehearsed and fully arranged, and it didn’t take long for Davidson and Pratley to learn their parts. Abetted by Calder as executive producer and part-time member Nic Martens, who was invited to engineer the album, Freedom’s Children entered EMI’s Johannesburg studio that spring and began work on Astra.
The story of Astra and the band’s final album Galactic Vibes can be found in the liner notes of both reissued releases, available via Fresh Music.
Nick Warburton, 2006. Updated June 2007.
This is an edited version of Nick Warburton’s article that originally appeared in Ugly Things magazine in its summer 2007 issue.
Tracks 1-11 were originally released on the vinyl album by Parlophone Records in 1968 (catalog number PCSJ 12049). Engineered and produced by John S Norwell. Track 12 was originally released as the B side of the “Eclipse” vinyl single- courtesy of Tertius Louw.
NB The original master tapes were lost in a fire at the EMI studios in the mid-’70s. Please note that the tracks were transferred from vinyl and every effort was made to reduce the surface noise. However, despite the mastering, there are still clicks and pops on the final product as well as some distortion which is resident on the original pressings. All tracks mastered by Brendan Farrell @ Sonic Solutions.
Publishing Info: Tracks 1-6,8,10,11 written by Ramsay MacKay; Tracks 7,9,12 written by Ramsay MacKay and Harry Poulos.All songs published by Ardmore & Beechwood SA.
Original cover design by Creative Photography, front cover photo of Ramsay MacKay by Jorg Genzmer. Liner notes were written by Nick Warburton
Grateful thanks to Ramsay MacKay & Colin Pratley, Nick Warburton for his help with info, pics, liner notes, and his passion for the music, as always Tertius Louw for his enthusiasm and knowledge, Brian Currin, Veronica Adamou @ EMI for the legal clearance.
Ramsay MacKay: Bass, vocals, narration
Julian Laxton: Guitars on Eclipse and Kafkasque
Colin Pratley: Drums
Nic Martens: Keyboards
Pete Clifford: Guitar
Harry Poulos-keyboards on Eclipse and Kafkasque
Dennis Robertson, Stevie van Kerken, Steve Trend, Peter Vee-vocals
Hailed worldwide as the seminal South African 70’s psych classic album “Astra” features the definitive Freedom’s lineup: Ramsay MacKay, Julian Laxton, Brian Davidson and Colin Pratley …. remastered with 3 bonus tracks, definitive making-of liner notes, and newly discovered rare pics … Includes “The Kid He Came From Hazareth”, “Medals Of Bravery” and “The Homecoming”. This is the only authorized release of “Astra”.
It all began one manic weekend in 1970 in a recording studio in Johannesburg – and when it was over Astra, one of the greatest rock albums to ever come out of South Africa, had been born.
While the cream of the country’s finest bands were strutting their stuff at a rock festival at the ‘Out of Town Club’ a few kilometres away, Freedom’s Children were hard at work laying down the tracks for what was to become their seminal album – a powerful symbol of the rock creativity that flourished in South Africa in the early 70s.
It took three days to completed album, from recording to final mix, but little did anyone involved in the project realise then that what had happened over that magic weekend would live on more than three decades later.
Said Nic Martens, one of the engineers for Astra who also played organ on the album, in an interview in July 2000: “What many are unaware of, is that Astra was recorded from a Friday night, to the Monday morning…on a four track Studer, eight fader Siemans valve mixer, an echo plate, with some help from a Lesley amp and a modified echo box.”
This may sound archaic today when powerful software is freely available for anyone with the technical ability to create music using a PC. Seen in context, this makes Astra, if it is possible, even more remarkable.
Not only did the album capture for posterity the unique sounds – dubbed “astral music” or “acid rock” – of arguably South Africa’s finest band ever, but it also caught the mood of the drugs infused culture that had taken root on the southern tip of Africa in the post Woodstock love and peace era.
From the driving lead of Julian’s lead guitar, a perfect match for the amphetamine and speed culture of the day, to the surreal, trippy sound of the band that tuned into the growing use of LSD, Freedom’s captured the mood and the sounds of the early 70s South African music scene.
Not for them the hit parade sounds of the Beatles, Beach Boys and the Monkees. Instead – freakily unconnected in isolated apartheid South Africa – Freedom’s, like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane on other ends of the globe, were experimenting with creativity and musical styles that tapped into the new head spaces opened up by the growing worldwide drugs and psychedelic culture.
But the seeds for Astra were planted well before that crazy weekend in 1970 when, two years earlier the band headed off for the testing grounds of England to seek fame and fortune on the international stage.
So it was that Julian Laxton, who with his magical “black box” was responsible for Freedom’s trippy sounds, Ramsay Mackay, a tortured poet and the man responsible for penning the music and lyrics to some of the band’s greatest songs, drummer Colin Pratley and Harry Poulas, found themselves in London.
But from headlining their own sell-out gigs back home, the band – from hated apartheid South Africa and unable to legally work in London – were frustrated and unable to work.
Says Julian: “We had time on our hands. We got to see lots of gigs, but frustratingly we could not play so we had lots of time to practice. We started working on a new album, which was to become Astra and half of it was written while we were in England.
“By that stage, I had invented a gizmo, which was the beginning of my black box. I took it around to some music shops and got some interest from a company that was keen to develop it further and produce a prototype.”
In return, they gave us a place to stay and some music equipment, which is how we came to start working on Astra. It took about eight months of experimenting and hard practice to get it right.
“When we finally recorded the album back in South Africa we had no idea then of what it would become, it is sheer magic,” says Laxton. “When I listen to it now it still brings tears to my eyes, it was the very essence of our creativity at its peak.
“We could do what we wanted, just about everything was patched into the ‘black box’, the Hammond organ, the piano, the vocals, and the guitars. All the phasing, the echoes, all the effects, were the black box. Today these effects would be simple, but certainly not then.
So, is the urban legend that Pink Floyd made use of any early black box – and may even have been influenced by some of Freedom’s work, true – or just an urban legend? I want to know.
“When we were creating Astra we were not aware of anything other than what we were doing, we put our hearts and souls into it. They had developed in England, and we were from the other side of the world. We both developed separately and in our own ways,” says Julian.
When the album was finally released in South Africa in 1970 it was an overnight sensation and set new standards for local bands.
It was also an album, as time has proved, that would not go away.
Since it’s first release on vinyl in 1970 and on cumbersome 8 track a year later, Astra has been re-released six times over the past 34 years (including this latest Retro Fresh CD.) It also has the distinction of being one of the only – some say the only – South African album to be released in four different formats: LP, 8 track, cassette and CD.
Behind this is a remarkable story of an album that would not die: a few years after it’s release all the master tapes of that magical weekend were destroyed in a fire at EMI, which also saw the destruction of many of the original masters of Hawk’s recordings, as well as other important South African musical history.
It has survived because of the dedication of many people who fell under the spell of Astra.
So strongly did songwriter and producer Patric van Blerk believe that Astra’s songs “would live again”, that in the mid-1970s he bought the publishing and recording rights (the master rights were not available because the original tapes had been destroyed)
Amazingly, at that time there were many requests for the now unavailable “Astra” – some even from as far as San Francisco. Some of these people were willing to pay just about any price for a virgin album.
It was then, said Julian, that he and Patric, with the help of Phill Adoire (Engineer at Orange Studios in Orange Grove, Johannesburg), decided to remaster Astra from a virgin copy of the original album. It was released on both vinyl and cassette – but the album bombed, selling only a handful of copies, and was subsequently deleted by EMI from their stock.
Then, in 1993, came a rather poor unofficial German re-issue, but it was a flawed product recorded from a poor quality copy of the original 1970 album.
And then in 1997, it was again re-issued on CD by David Marks for Gallo on CD using van Blerk’s and Laxton’s remastered album as a basis, which is where the matter rested until this latest CD you now hold in your hand.
This time around, it’s Benjy Mudie of Retro Fresh, who has re-mastered the CD – using van Blerk and Laxton’s 1990 vinyl album. And, says Laxton, it is the closest yet to the original.
“When it was first remixed from an original vinyl copy in 1990, it was done on a 16 track. When we filtered out the surface noise and re-eq’d the upper mids to brighten up the tracks, the sounds that were hidden on the original came out. I was not very happy; the original had a mystical-mist shrouding the music, which was lost in the remix. It unlayered the music, but this latest CD is much truer to the original.”
But beyond the music, the stories surrounding the album encapsulate the madness, the bizarre setting, to what was apartheid South Africa at the time Astra was made.
When the original album was ready and samples cut, Freedom’s were suddenly faced with the prospect of it not being played on the radio after the national broadcaster, the SABC, ruled that one of the tracks, The Kid Who Came From Nazareth, was blasphemous.
Says Julian: “It was a huge problem, the album was already cut and processed and the covers printed, but the SABC would not give us airtime. So we went back into the studio and “fixed” the song, replacing the word Nazareth with Hazareth. The album covers were also reprinted, and only then was the SABC happy.
Equally bizarre was an objection by the SABC to the name Freedom’s Children right at the beginning of the band’s career, with the national broadcaster objecting to the use of the word “Freedom”. Only when they changed the name to Fleadom’s Children”, used on several early 7-single releases, were the SABC’s policies satisfied.
Two of these songs, Freedom’s debut single in 1967, The Coffee Song, and its B-side, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, originally released under Fleadom’s name, as well as the 1968 single Little Games, are included on this new CD.
Along the way, the band also had to deal with Mother Grundies who said the band was evil and their music would turn the youth into drug-crazed addicts.
It was a time in South Africa when it was common practice for bands to tour widely, playing live at clubs, bigger gigs and festivals and Freedom’s created controversy and headlines wherever they went. And, as they toured the country, city fathers and local police in some small towns often banned them.
Besides the trippy sound of their music, their image of bad boys was spurred on by their liking for long black capes and publicity photographs that pictured the band in graveyards.
From its earliest beginnings way back in 1966, Freedom’s Children (briefly Fleadom’s Children) went through many changes in its lineup, as some of the country’s finest musicians passed through its ranks. Something of a local version of John Mayall’s Blue Band – a nursery for some of rock’s finest musos – many of South Africa’s top rock musicians did stints in the constantly changing line-ups, with many going on to form some of the biggest bands of the day. Some of those who passed through Freedom’s revolving door included Kenny Henson, Mick Jade, Barry Irwin, and Rabbitt’s Ronnie Robot and Trevor Rabin.
But it was the line-up of MacKay, Laxton, Davidson, and Pratley, with Gerard Nel and Nic Martens, who joined forces with them to record Astra, that many regards as the apex of the band.
Speak to anyone who knew the band and two people, the tortured genius Ramsay, for his words and music, and Julian, with his driving lead and magic black box, are credited with helping shape the band’s unique sound.
Looking back today, Colin Pratley, who with his wife runs a shelter for abandoned AIDS babies in Durban, remembers how Astra came together.
“Ramsay had written words and music, there were the skeletons of songs and each of us put something of our own into the album. It was a mad weekend where all that counted was the music – and after three days we had Astra.
“It was insane. At one stage Julian was kicking the echo chamber to get sounds that today with modern equipment, we would take for granted. This was Freedom’s at its apex; it was the ultimate expression of its time, of the music and the lifestyle.”
There are many fans who believed that Astra, with songs like the Kid Who Came From Hazareth, the Homecoming and Slowly Towards the North, was based on the life of Jesus.
Not so says Julian, who today owns his own rock club in Johannesburg and prefers playing stripped down blues rock: “It was a concept album, but the story about the album being about Christ is not true. But who knows what was in Ramsay’s head when he wrote the songs. He was interested in many different things and read a lot, so he got his ideas from all over the place.”
The song Aileen – listed as Alien on the 1990 reissue – was written by Ramsay about a girl he once lived with, and Slowly Towards the North was – “I think” , says Julian – about his dream of one day returning to his native Scotland. But the origins of the other songs on the albums, says Julian are anyone’s guess. “For all I know he may have read the bible at the time he wrote some of the songs, but I really do not know”.
Ramsay, returned to live in Scotland, where he still has a band, from many years ago. He seldom – if ever – granted interviews – and always let his music speak for itself.
And then there was Brian Davidson, a slightly built man with one of the finest rock voices of his time. He was recruited from a soul band during a talent-scouting mission in Cape Town, soon after they returned to SA from England, Davidson, who went on to put together his own band many years later, died mysteriously in Thailand, where he was teaching English, in December 2002.
“Brian was a bit like Robert Plant, he used his voice as a musical instrument,” says Julian. “To this day I still cannot say how he managed to create some of his vocal sounds. The sounds on some of the tracks, some of the high harmonies, I honestly cannot say where they came from.”
If ever there was an album that has stood the test of time, Astra is it. The music is as relevant and as powerful today as when it was released 34 years ago. The high point of a great band is at its peak, so sit back and enjoy and feast your ears on the best of the very best.
Cape Town, November 2004
In the 18 months, I worked at EMI South Africa the group I believed the most in was Freedom’s Children——this is with the lineup of Julian Laxton, Colin Pratley, Ramsey Mackay, and Brian Davidson. In fact, I believed so much in them that I came close to leaving EMI to manage the group full time with a view to trying to get them to London to “make it” on the world stage,so to speak.In those days ,however, there were all sorts of obstacles with work permits,UK Musicians Union,SA Exchange Control etc,not to mention the fact that I was only 23,had no capital and had virtually no contacts anywhere outside of SA……..so nothing came of this particular “dream” and sadly the limitations of their having to try and evolve creatively within the narrow confines of the SA music scene at that time ,coupled with personal differences some of the members were having , ultimately led to the disintegration of what in my opinion was then and probably still is today (30 years later) the only SA rock group that given the right circumstances in the right geographical location,could have become an internationally successful rock band just by being themselves and doing what they did.
They play it down now. There was no “concept”. It was just a straight album. A rush job. No second takes. No deep thought. No angst. No hidden meaning. No secret codes. No subliminal emotions.
Yet Galactic Vibes is an intriguing and compelling experiment in sound. A masterwork. A concept, indeed.
Now, some 30 years after it was recorded and issued on Parlophone vinyl, its apparent casual exploration of inventive technology can be said to have lipped the very periphery of the maelstrom of new sounds only today being refined. The result, then, was an extraordinary one for the times. And can’t be repeated, despite the new wave of frightening, sophisticated digital technology. It can’t ever be equaled either. The ambiance – the ethos – would be annihilated.
Even a casual examination of what emanated from the flying fingers of Messrs Julian Laxton, Brian Davidson, Barry Irwin, and Colin Pratley so long ago leaves today’s listener dry-mouthed and breathless – if not only at their sheer mastery but at the lack of such musicianship in a world besotted by modern terminological inexactitudes like R&B (rhythm and blues is what the Rolling Stones used to play in their early years, not what whining orgiastic female singers attempt today).
An in-depth scrutiny of Galactic Vibes leaves the listener wishing he was in a time machine and could whoosh back the years to the famous dates in Freedom’s Children history – like the Out of Town Club. Or the Durban King’s Park New Year’s Day concert in 1971. Or the other venues when the audacious theatre was as much a part of their scene as music. Beam me back, Scotty. And throw away the key. But yesterday has gone. Never to be repeated. And tempus fugit – inexorably. However, I was there.
I saw them. I wrote about them. I talked to them. I edited, in the early 1970s, a weekly pop tabloid journal called Trend for the then Natal Daily News. It was a music publication. Nothing else.
What happened on every stage in Durban was what mattered. We did Scatby Hud, Abstract Truth, Suck, Band of Gypsies, Flames, Hocus, Humphrey, Third Eye, Wild Youth. We did Hawk and Otis. A host of others, too. And Freedom’s Children.
But a really close examination of what they were doing never entered my mind. Then.
It was just raw energy, fanned by Laxton’s incredible lead guitar, inflamed by Pratley’s powerful drums, scorched by Davidson’s voice and completed by Irwin’s stunning bass. Galactic Vibes may have been a “one-off” – but this group should have found themselves regularly on stage at Wembley Stadium, London, instead of the political pop wilderness this country became, and they were relegated to.
They deserved better. So in your hands is an extraordinary and unique experiment in sound. One that, even now, sounds fresh and new as if it were done just yesterday.
Open your ears to:
Sea Horse (Laxton/Davidson),
The Homecoming (MacKay) (live),
That Did It (Laxton/Davidson),
Fields and Me (Laxton/Davidson),
The Crazy World of Pod: electronic concerto (Laxton),
About The Dove and His Ring (Barry Irwin),
1999 (alternative demo mix).
So where are those magick music men who made it?
And what are they doing now?
Julian was easy – he’s in Johannesburg.
Brian, I found in Thailand.
Colin is in Durban.
Barry, too, is out there somewhere, and when last heard of was teaching jazz in the United States, after studying at Berklee in California.
He is the only one still “missing.”
Ramsay McKay, – included because he played bass on the seminal, long version of The Homecoming on this album – is in Scotland. Word has it he has just mastered yet another solo album, ready to knock British socks off.
But Galactic Vibes – despite the protests – is a concept album.
In the 1970s everyone was doing them – and Freedom’s Children was no exception. They made Astra – swathes of sweeping, strong melody lines, and freaky, twirling sounds and took the country by storm. It was light-years from anything ever produced in South Africa.
“It was done on a four-track, plus two-track and two-meter echo-plate. By pushing and pulling and plugging and unplugging and using my magic box (a combination of early synthesizer, flanger, and echolette) and spending 72 hours without sleep, we managed to produce it,” Laxton told me some years ago.
“It cost an enormous amount of emotion and we broke every recording rule in the book. In the end, we had sounds that nobody had ever heard, or produced, in this country before. But because the multi-tracks were limited we had to layer and layer and layer overdubs. And because there was no noise reduction, we created a sort of musical mystical mist of sound – it became synonymous with us.”
It is those same sounds that make up whole segments on Galactic Vibes.
Laxton: “I don’t think there was an actual concept, we just tried to do some new and different stuff. As for Pod . . . it was dedicated to a crazy girl I was going out with at the time and I had nicknamed her Pod. She was a strange chick.”
Strange as the sounds Laxton pulled from his magic box – strange as the sounds being made then by Pink Floyd, like Ummagumma.
Floyd had made the stunning album on the new EMI Harvest label in October 1969, using wind machines, taped loops, and concocted sounds. It was the freedom to experiment that gave each band member half a side to himself. The result was a dynamic, different double album containing tracks like Set the Controls to the Heart of the Sun, Astronome Dominee, the fretful, ghastly Careful With That Axe Eugene, and others like the Grand Vizier’s Ball. Crux of it all was the wall of weird sounds into which the music was dropped.
James Barclay Harvest produced similar concept stuff in 1969.
Genesis did Trespass in 1970, again breaking away from ordinary sounds.
Deep Purple did The Book of Talisyn the same year. The Nice turned into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in 1970, experimenting with similar sounds, with Keith Emerson pictured stabbing his keyboard with a huge knife to retain the chord he wanted.
Kraftwerk began sending loops of sound through tapes in the middle of 1970. Tangerine Dream began their experimentation in 1970 with Electronic Meditation; the Moody Blues did Days of Future Passed and the Strawbs (with Rick Wakeman) produced Dragonfly.
Freedoms were a part of that international wave of sound experimentation. But they were stuck in South Africa, a land writhing with political discontent, and cultural embargoes. Effectively it could be said that apartheid ended Freedom’s burgeoning, brilliant life.
They should have been in London.
They were banned from playing there. The British Musicians’ Union was too strong to defy. Nevertheless, they produced Galactic Vibes for local consumption.
Laxton: “Funny thing is, we weren’t into Pink Floyd at that time, even though some people thought our music sounded similar. “I recently even had an e-mail from someone in London asking how it was that Pink Floyd was ‘copying our sound.’ They never did. And we didn’t copy theirs either. There were even reports of me passing on to Roger Waters the secrets of the magic box. Point is, we were experimenting, all of us.
“But it was a strange question. I didn’t reply. Some of my arrangements and sound on Fields and Me were prompted by King Crimson’s The Court of the Crimson King. It had nothing to do with Floyd.
“On Pod, I made sound loops and multi-tracked them. Then overdubbed more sounds from the magic box, with its flanges, echoes, and synthesiser modes. I felt that we were doing something different, I still do.”
Laxton has always been different. Today he runs his own club – Julian’s – featuring local musicians. He’s been doing film scores for years and says another one is on the way. Currently, Julian’s features the music of Jimi Hendrix.
The night Colin Pratley broke his wrist, 10,000 people saw him do it. He bashed it on the side of his drum kit as he went into one of the seminal live solos of South African music.
The Home Coming. The long version.
It was given all the artistry he could muster – and at some 14 minutes long, that was considerable. It was awesome and bizarre.
As Laxton’s swirling electronic sounds faded spectrally out, Pratley’s right hand caught the edge of his one drum.
He cried out, faltered for a few seconds, and then carried on. From where I was sitting, on the grass just below, it was an agonising moment.
Only at the end, when he slumped from the kit, did the ecstatic crowd packing King’s Park Stadium, Durban, realise what had happened.
He had been playing with a broken wrist.
In agonising pain, he thrust his long flowing black hair from his face, and was helped into an ambulance. And the stadium crowd, calling for an encore, went quiet with concern.
It was the evening of New Year’s Day 1971.
Freedom’s Children, despite the temporary loss of South Africa’s finest rock drummer, had conquered again.
Pratley: “The Homecoming drum solo started as an interlude but soon developed into a solo as such. It was an African drum technique, a natural rhythm that I later expounded on (in the group Wildebeest for instance) when we played live.
“I discovered that I could expand on various techniques, but eventually I found there was little new I could do with the sticks – so I experimented, using my hands on a conventional drum kit – you can hear it clearly on The Homecoming on Galactic Vibes. There is a distinct break when I shift from sticks to hands.
“The rest of them wandered about when I began the solo – and when I picked up the sticks at the end, it was a sign for them to come back on stage.
“Sometimes, Julian, Brian, and Barry would disappear completely when I started that solo, and much of my technique was employed trying to get them back on stage. I never knew if they were watching me. They could sure hear me.
“At times, there were tense moments. I couldn’t see because of the spotlights. But eventually, they came back on stage – although I had to improvise until they did.
“I worked on a basic framework for the solo but no version was ever the same. Oh, and there were times when I broke the bass drum skin and had to play without it.”
Pratley’s version of The Homecoming on the Astra album was curtailed – because there was not enough room on the vinyl to contain the whole 14-minute track.
Touring was part of the deal.
Pratley: “What I can remember about those days vividly was being sent on a nationwide tour in a VW Kombi. EMI paid us R1 a day each.
“But the real ‘trick’ was to get Laxton to stop the bus in order to find the nearest bush – and believe me, through the Free State, this took some creative planning.
“Laxton was always wanting to get there. He was always a man in a hurry. We were always very tired. I was angry at the ‘system’ and it came out through my drumming I suppose. We were all affected by politics at the time.
“Barry Irwin was never allowed into hotels and had to sleep in the Kombi and at some concerts in really politically sensitive towns, had to wear a T-shirt over his head. Barry wasn’t white like us.
“It’s a pure miracle that we came out alive.
“I have not been active musically since establishing our home Shepherd’s Keep – a home for abandoned AIDS babies in Durban. But I have lately applied myself to the African drums again. I have developed Drums Triumphant – A Voice for the Voiceless . It’s a show in which I use 100 hand made drums, all to raise awareness of the plight of AIDS sufferers and the tragedy of HIV positive babies who are regularly abandoned. Shepherd’s Keep takes them in.
“This is what I am currently working on. It’s the time in my life that through my drums, I can focus my musical talent on that which I believe is part of God’s purpose for my existence.
“I don’t visualise Drums Triumphant as an ongoing vehicle. My life is consumed together with my wife, Cheryl, in caring for abandoned babies at Shepherd’s Keep.”
Pratley: “I was listening to it the other day. It could never be compared to Galactic Vibes which you can describe as a ‘naked expression’ of Freedom’s music on the road.”
Brian Davidson (via e-mail from Thailand): “It will be quite difficult to remember all the things that happened so long ago on the making of Galactic Vibes.
“While it may have seemed so, Ramsay McKay never sang on Astra at all. His vocal contribution was the poetic speaking voice on the last track.
“All the voices, the harmonies, double or treble tracks were sung by yours truly.
“Ramsay played bass on the live version of The Homecoming which was recorded at the Out of Town Club.
“He also wrote the version of 1999 which appears on Galactic vibes.
“After Astra and Ramsay’s departure from Freedom’s Children, EMI was screaming for a second album.
“We had no time, really, to consider any particular theme, but Jules and I sat down to work this problem out. After Ramsay’s artistic control on Astra, it was really great to let it all out ourselves. After the grueling tours, we were both at the top of our game anyway.
“The album took no time at all to record. Single takes were the name of the game. Jules was absolutely superb in everything he touched. Barry Irwin and Colin slotted in perfectly. It just came flowing out.
“Jules just used, as usual, his magic box to get the most amazing sounds again, and he played acoustic guitar on all tracks, as well as electric. We combined the EMI orchestral division on some of the tracks and that also worked out wonderfully.
“I really loved the album. I had the freedom to sing what I wanted, how I wanted. Jules brought the chords and I brought the voice. This simple, free partnership paved the way to the album. I’m very pleased about the way it’s being presently handled.
“I’m teaching English in Thailand, at a secondary school full time and also singing with a great Thai blues band. I’ll be in South Africa soon on holiday”.
Like Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and later Gemini Suite, marrying the sounds of electric guitar, bass, drums and voice to orchestra was yet another milestone in the art of the “concept” album.
On Galactic Vibes, they add to the space and depth.
Robin Netcher was the arranger – with Laxton, moulding sound sequences around the main themes.
At the time, this is how EMI’s publicity machine saw the original issue of Galactic Vibes:
Engineered by: Leo Lagerway
String arrangements by: Robin Netcher
Cover design and photography by: Ricky Alexander
Lettering by: Jemima Hunt.
Galactic Vibes is about Colin Pratley’s outstanding drum solo, applauded by audiences all over the country, and captured ‘live’ at the Out of Town Club. It’s about Barry Irwin’s transition from driving bass player to lyrical composer on the orchestrated About the Dove and his King which features a 25 piece string section. Galactic Vibes is about the magic that is Brian Davidson. The emotion of Fields and Me and the taste of blood and dirt. It’s about the technical brilliance of Julian Laxton illustrated on The Crazy World of Pod, which features his electronic synthesizer.
Galactic Vibes is the presence of Ramsay Mackay on 1999. It’s the influence of people looking into tomorrow. Freedom’s Children are the No. 1 group in South Africa today. Their last album Astra was acclaimed by critics as a milestone in pop recordings. The group has twice toured the country and played to capacity houses everywhere. At Durban on New Year’s Day, they received a standing ovation from 10,000 beautiful people.
“If you’ve seen them, you know. If you haven’t seen them, we’re sorry that your life is a little emptier.”
And in a press release:
“Undeniably the greatest 70s heavy psych band to come out of South Africa and arguably in the top ten of the world for the genre and era. This album (their third and final LP) followed the well known and amazing Astra LP and has an incredible 16-minute live version of The Homecoming . . . a classic blistering, wailing masterpiece song of 70s heavy psychedelia whose shorter, studio version was featured on the Astra album.
“This live version allows the listener to travel back in time and experience the thunderous raw cosmic energy of this great group, replete with banshee wailing, swirling psychedelic fuzz-wah guitar, intertwining and twisting, screeching, fazed out vocal, heavy-as-lead thumping, melodic bass & and arm-breaking megalomaniac drumming.
“At live concerts, the drummer would play a drum solo with his bare hands until they began to bleed (listen for the hand drum solo halfway in the solo).
“The guitar player cavorted about like a mad scientist, squeezing frightening leads out of his guitar, while twisting knobs and hitting switches on a 3 feet high self-made effects machine (similar shape to a time machine).
“The singer catapulted all over the stage, screeching and using his microphone stand as an axe to chop amps, organs and P.A. speakers.
“Colin, the drummer used to walk in from the back wearing a white sheet and a candle and that’s how the gig would start . . .”
And that’s how thousands of Freedom’s Children fans will remember them.
Helped now by this issue of Galactic Vibes.
A masterpiece in time and space.
– Owen Coetzer, Cape Town.