South African Head Music part 1 - Astral Africans and Freedom's Truth
It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely place for a fertile “head music” scene to emerge than South Africa in the late 60s. With racism and nationalism conjuring a cloud over social and artistic expression in a land isolated from the main stream of Western culture and commerce, it must have seemed that precious stones and metal were all the expedient West wanted from them. But natural forces respect none of these constraints, and the Summer of Love was a force of nature, a vibration that shook the world, with few places untouched by its promise of a passageway through the cosmic eye — Love, Peace and Understanding a possibility if you made the jump. A fertile sub-culture in South Africa did make the jump, creating a unique body of recorded psychedelia and progressive rock. But unlike that other Great Southern Land, Australia, not much escaped to the rest of the world. Unsupported at home, and unable to export their thing, the South Africa head bands generally winked briefly into existence, released what they could, and were gone. Almost.
Until recently, the guardians of the flame of SA psychedelic and progressive rock were original fans and participants like David Marks (whose excellent Third Ear site has a reservoir of stories and images under the banner The Hidden Years Archive Project), hermit-like collectors of stratospherically obscure vinyl, and, it must be admitted, a legion of bootleggers. Official reissue has always been hampered by the loss of many master tapes in a fire at an EMI warehouse in the early 70s, and a structured program of reissuing these artifacts is relatively new. In part, improvements in the technology available to remaster from vinyl originals can be thanked. A quick introduction to the scene can be had via the Normal Records compilation Love, Peace and Poetry – African Psychedelic Music (hereafter crunched to the acronym LPP). While of dubious provenance in copyright terms, and uneasily trying to service two completely distinct and non-contiguous scenes deserving of their own compilations (South African and Nigerian), it exposes key players to the light: Freedom’s Children, Abstract Truth, Third Eye, McCully’s Workshop, and Otis Waygood. A superior compilation to LPP (at least in terms of South African coverage) has just been released on prime-mover South African reissue imprint Retro Fresh: Astral Daze - Psychedelic South African Rock 1968-1972. (For all the reissues reviewed in this article, the links at the end will get you to the source.)
In this first of (hopefully) three columns, Freedom’s Children and Abstract Truth will be covered. These bands not only produced engaging and in some cases liminal work, but were the wellspring from which many other bands emerged. Some of these streams were more meritorious than others, but the source was crystal pure. The next column will cover Third Eye, Otis Waygood and McCully Workshop. (Third Eye rightly belongs in this first column, but they remain completely without official reissue, and the intent is to, where possible, cover what can be secured by any music fan via e-commerce.) Finally, we should arrive at the gnarly end of the scene, with Hawk, Suck, Wildebeest, Steve Linegar’s Snakeshed – and probably others since it’s a moving target.
Durban band Freedom’s Children, whose mutable line-up revolved around the core of Ramsey Mackay’s bass and songwriting and Colin Pratley’s percussion, took their influences not only from the usual British Invasion sounds, but a mix of acid voyagers on both sides of the Atlantic. Echoes of Pink Floyd, Cream and Traffic collide with West Coast influences – the Airplane and the Country Joe at least. The interference patterns caused by these collisions formed unique shapes, much like they did with the Australian band Tamam Shud. The resulting astral-rock should have placed them at the centre of things, but when they traveled, for example to the UK, they couldn't get work permits to perform. So they became mighty in a small pond, released a swag of singles and three fine albums and dissolved into other projects.
Battle Hymn of the Broken Hearted Horde (1968, SA Parlophone) has not and possibly will never be reissued, which is a shame, because not only does it capture a perfect moment in the evolution of SA head music, it has a wonderful acid-visionary quality that is genuinely strange, not least because of Ramsey Mackay’s drug-addled inter-track narrations in a hybrid Scottish/South African accent. “Season” is exemplary acoustic psychedelia, as is the lengthy “10 Years Ago”, with its tripped-out brass parts connecting the sound somewhat to black African music, though equally one can hear the influence of George Martin and even elements of Mariachi in these sound elements. In any case the swirl of organ, brass and mandolin is alien and beautiful. The LPP compilation is intentionally focused on the psychedelic rather than the progressive, and contains the more conventionally “trippy” psych-pop of “Kafkaesque”. Certainly a great track, but not the best the record has to offer. A maddeningly incomplete version of the Battle Hymn… album missing the tracks “Introduction” and “Eclipse” was issued as bonus tracks on the unofficial CD reissue of the later Galactic Vibes record on the Buy Or Die label in 2000. A campaign is surely required to have this record released on official CD from best available sources.
Astra (1970, SA Parlophone) is doubtless Freedom’s Children’s finest hour, and along with Abstract Truth’s Silver Trees is one of the twin pinnacles of South African progressive rock. Of its recording, engineer and keyboardist Nic Martens told a 2000 interviewer that “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.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, this (even for the time) recording primitivism, Astra is dense, experimental, ground-breaking. A mysterious “black-box” invented by guitarist Julian Laxton turned conventional sounds into their monstrous, mutated doppelgangers, presaging elements of an industrial and electronic future, as well as casting a nod to avant-classical movements like musique concrete. But all academia aside, it”s as entertaining as hell. “Aileen” (understandably mistyped “Alien” on one bootleg) is like being caught in a mudslide of damned voices and distorted sound – everything sounds like it is patched through a daisy chain of mad scientist electronic bread-boards. Signature track “The Homecoming” comes swathed in fog and density and just extraordinary sounds, becoming a freak anthem and scene rallying point. It’s simply one of the most startling tracks of the era from anywhere, and to have erupted in isolation makes it doubly so. In South Africa, astral days had indeed begun. The oppressive SABC enforced a name change and re-recording of “The Kid He Came from Nazareth” to the not-fooling-anyone alternative “The Kid He Came from Hazareth”, a title that persists even today. Regardless, of that, howlingly over-the-top psych-pop damage is the track's real legacy. “Medals of Bravery”, “Tribal Fence” and “Gentle Beasts Parts 1 and 2” consolidate in oceans of guitar, organ and the late Brian Davidson’s excellent vocal work - through the blender, through the looking glass. “Gentle Beasts Part 1” is on the LPP compilation, though it's an odd choice given the riches elsewhere. Perhaps track length was a consideration. “Gentle Beasts Part 2” taps into African tribal sounds then launches into full blown acid-guitar. “Slowly Towards the North Pts 1 and 2” strikes out with a traditional Celtic folk motif before staggering up the aisle of an acid cathedral. “Afterward” is a fitting bookend to the record's opener: bar-room piano and organ running through the themes of the album like an accompaniment to a silent film. Astra was officially reissued for the second time, with a sound most reflective of the original vinyl, by Retro Fresh Records in 2005 with comprehensive sleeve notes.
Puzzlingly, Galactic Vibes (1971, SA Parlophone) seems to be the Children’s best known release outside of South Africa, for it is not so much a cohesive album as it is a swansong and cupboard clearing. With Ramsey Mackay gone by this point, the record is an odd mixture of hairy-chested 70s hard rock (“Sea Horse”, “That Did It”), bombastic live material (stripped of effects and stretched out by gratuitous soloing, the 15-minute version of “The Homecoming” here is more generically prog-rock, but it does open a portal to what they must have been like as a live proposition, drum solos included), Hobbitish progressive-folk (the actually quite awesome “Fields and Me” and “About the Dove and His Ring” indicate that King Crimson is clearly an influence by this point), ahead-of-its time tape-loop dementia (a two minute “electronic concerto” titled “The Crazy World of Pod”) and the curiously dated (even in this context) single “1999”. It's all a bit unsatisfying, looking backward to previous work, and only suggesting at interesting directions that could have been taken. A great album to grab mix-CD tracks from though. Galactic Vibes was reissued on CD in 2002 by Retro Fresh with an extended version of “1999” as a bonus track and the usual excellent notes.
Where Freedom’s Children mostly sought liberation through fiery acid-soaked extroversion, the metaphysicians of Abstract Truth sought the still point and inmost light at the centre of the hippie dream. Abstract Truth (absence of prefix being deliberate – the doorway to many truths being left open) was formed by Kenneth E. Henson, again in Durban (there must have been something in those Indian Ocean waves) around 1969. Two studio albums in 1970, a compilation in 1971, then they too were gone. Henson had been in an early incarnation of Freedom’s Children (at one point issuing a single as Fleadom’s Children because apparently having the word Freedom in your band name was considered seditious by the ruling elite), but soon moved on to his own endeavors. Of the formation of Abstract Truth he says in the liner notes to the recent Silver Trees/Totum CD reissue on Retro Fresh: “In February 1969 I was approached by the owner of a local hotel. He had heard that I played the sitar and asked if I could get together an exotic/Eastern-sounding outfit to back a belly dancer in the hotel’s disco/pub.” Henson brought sax player Sean Bergin with him from his then jazz outfit The Sounds, and co-opted Brian Gibson, formerly from the British group the 004s to play bass and Robbie Pavid from The Third Eye on percussion and the core elements of the Abstract Truth sound began to take shape. Again from the notes to the reissue Henson says: “To fill out the evening after the belly dancer had done her thing, we started playing a hybrid of jazz standards, folk/rock and Eastern-type jams. We soon replaced the main attraction and the belly dancer was no more.” The Durban club was called Totum, and so was the independently released debut album (1970, Uptight, STIC 101).
Totum is no masterpiece certainly and it's hard to even find a decent copy to listen to (it was first encountered four or five years ago at least by this listener on a doggedly lo-fi Japanese CD-R boot, which nonetheless had it own mystique). The recent 2-on-1 Retro Fresh reissue of Silver Trees and Totum (with exemplary liner notes but a witheringly tasteless cover replacing the fine original cover art [see image on this page – it shouldn't be hard to isolate from the rest]) does not include their definitive version of Donovan's “Jersey Thursday”, or their extended workout of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Take 5”, so a complete version remains to be issued. Even so, listening to the tracks available on the reissue provides a fair snapshot of the AT sound at this point in their evolution. One imagines a group of long-haired freaks jamming around a campfire on a beach near Durban; flute, acoustic guitar, tabla, sitar and sax riding a smoky, stoned jazzy groove through idiosyncratic reworkings of jazz, folk and blues standards by the likes of Donovan, Dylan, Gershwin, Mingus and Allison. The only band composition is the room-spinning, oddball freak-out “Total Totum/Acid Raga”, which isn't at all limited by only marginally competent sitar playing.
After many line-up shuffles, and the departure of Pavid to devote his energies to Third Eye full-time, Johannesburger Peter Measroch came in on keyboards and flute, and George Wolfhaardt left a Hendrixish trio in Cape Town to sign up to AT on bass, flute and drums (is three flute players in a band a record?). This is still 1970, but into the studio they go to record the classic Silver Trees (1970, SA EMI). Wishing to become more marketable and accessible perhaps, a full band sound is employed in the service of a suite of original compositions. Head concerns drive the opening track “Pollution”, which puts jazzy time signatures and flute up front, connecting the track to “Totum” somewhat, though it’s a tighter and more complex entity, transitioning to an African jive rhythm before the track closes out. George Wolfhaardt’s compositional skills are put to use on the following two tracks “All the Same” and “Original Man”, the latter being particularly cool, mining a vein of early Canterbury soft fusion-psych; another case in which the flotilla of flute action comes in handy. (“Original Man” is one of two tracks here that appear on the LPP compilation, the other being “Moving Away”) The title track is a hair-raising blend of gyrating bells, flutes, saxophones and zoned-out vocals forming a structured introduction to a free rock centre of the highest order. In classic improvised jazz fashion the introductory patterns return for a structurally perfect coda. The track shades early Caravan and Soft Machine, and that takes some doing. “In a Space” is a laudable attempt at replacing some of the dream-like jazz instrumental covers of their early work with an original equivalent. The sax and guitar solo-trading here is worth the price of admission alone, had it not been already paid by the title track. Just because they can, for the next track AT switch to astral folk for the gorgeous “Moving Away”, which has some nice neo-medieval harpsichord and a sax solo that blows through like a tropical breeze. What is intriguing with tracks like “Moving Away” is the unique way instruments from different traditions are arranged into a seamless psychedelic flow. “Two”, “Blue Wednesday Speaks” and “It's Alright With Me” all shuffle the kaleidoscope of genres, running strata of music together with both opalescent complexity and pellucid clarity of purpose. Available on the 2-for-1 2005 Retro Fresh CD reissue (see note previous paragraph).
The South African public (even the “head” constituency) was probably not ready for Silver Trees and without overseas outlets it seems that Abstract Truth had no option but to dissolve soon after. A compilation album Cool Sounds for Heads was released in 1971, featuring tracks off both the Totum and Silver Trees albums as well as a previously unreleased track, “My Back Feels Light/What Can You Say”. The unreleased track has been intelligently included on Retro Fresh's Astral Daze compilation.
Aside from the first Freedom’s Children record Battle Hymn of the Broken Hearted Horde, the output of the Children and the Truth is largely out there now, officially released and in pretty decent quality with histories and photos and the usual what-nots that collectors dig. Whether these two bands found the freedoms and truths they were seeking only the remaining members could say. Certainly, South Africa is now back in the international fold, contending with many problems certainly but no longer ostracized. This was doubtless inevitable regardless of any movements white South African heads made or were part of. Their records have few political overtones other than those implicit in their very existence. It’s uncertain if the members were activists then or later. It probably wasn't easy to be overtly political then, and in a sense these bands went through the same kinds of experiences as hippie bands from the South American countries, though perhaps with not quite the degree of repression (but close). Their will to record progressive music, and the fact that we are listening to it 35 years later is their contribution to the pursuit of freedom and truth. As a denizen of the same hemisphere, under the eternal spin of the same constellations, I feel a kinship with what these two bands did that probably goes beyond music and words. I raise a glass to their indomitable spirit of sonic adventure.