South African Road Songs

For many people music and road trips are synchronous. Hardly ever is a road trip portrayed in a film without accompanying music as a soundtrack to the road stretching out ahead into the unfolding landscape. Music creates travel moods which cannot be captured in any other way. It can make one want to go on a road trip or perhaps it’s the other way round: road trips require music. Certainly, for many music lovers a road trip is cause for long deliberations over what music to pack in the cubby hole or add to a digital playlist. In the days when cassette players were regular features in cars, some of us spent ages putting together mixtapes, searching for that perfect road trip soundtrack. We knew to be careful to avoid songs with lots of ultra-quiet segments which were easily drowned out by the hum of the engine, or with volume swings that would necessitate continual groping for the volume control. One could become an expert in the road trip mixtape.

Clearly, car trip mixtapes can include music about anything and which capture any mood. But for this South African road trip mixtape we have chosen twenty songs by South African musicians which specifically refer to road trips in one form or another. From Bright Blue’s reference to “Taking a trip on a freeway, trying my best to escape” to All Night Radio’s song about driving at dusk, “with my windows open wide, lights are getting brighter as the sun is going down. There’s two more hours until I stop.”

Perhaps the song which most captures the spirit of road trips on this mixtape is “Lifetime On The Road” by Josie Field and Laurie Levine. These two singer songwriters formed a duo and promoted their debut and subsequent album by embarking on several road trip tours, travelling from town to town, day after day. The song captures the freedom of the road: “Rolled down the window, turned on the radio”, but at the same it expresses the drudgery of too much time on the road, travelling from gig to gig: “Left a town I barely know … so many places I’ll never call my own. A lifetime on the road.”

The tv show Going Nowhere Slowly romanticised the South African road trip, as the presenters journeyed from place to place, travelling down tar roads and gravel tracks, often to the accompaniment of music. It is therefore fitting that two songs from that programme are featured here: Liesl Graham’s “All Roads” and Seven Day Story’s “Going Nowhere Slowly” both of which capture the feeling of travelling on the road, music in our ears.

Many of the songs featured here use travel and the road as metaphors for aspects of our journey through life. Juluka often sang in metaphors and in this instance Johnny Clegg sings, “Spirit is the journey, body is the bus, I am the driver from dust to dust … Across this distance, this divide, I will be with you forever.” In “The Road Is Much Longer” Roger Lucey also uses metaphors to express his desire to cross the distance between himself and a loved one, although in this instance he is on the side of the road, trying to thumb a ride: “And now the night’s fallen and I’m nearer to home. And I hear you calling are you feeling alone? Well it’s up and down highways always returning.” The Gereformeerde Blues Band and Big Sky also sing about hitchhiking along the road while the unfortunate character in David Kramer’s “Matchbox Full of Diamonds” has to settle for walking along the road for hours, “under a sky that never cries”, yet he is nevertheless “happy as a hotel in the springtime, when the flowers bloom again.”

Also featured on this mixtape are Jack Hammer’s “Stay At The Wheel”, “Automobile” by the Blues Broers, Baxtop’s “Golden Highway”, Falling Mirror’s “Highway Blues”, “Rearview Mirror Blues” by the Radio Rats, McCully Workshop’s “Fast Car”, “Seat By The Window” by John Kongos, “Kelly’s Song” by Bobby Angel, Johnny Clegg’s “Ride In Your Car” and “Padkos” by Tony Cox, which is his acknowledgment of that very South African road trip tradition: of packing or stopping to buy food for the road.

If you can’t listen to this mixtape in your car we hope you can at least grab some padkos, sit back, imagine the road ahead of you and escape into the music.

  1. Window On The World – Bright Blue
  2. Hopetown 1975 (Stolen Gasoline) – All Night Radio
  3. Stay At The Wheel – Jack Hammer
  4. Ry – Gereformeerde Blues Band
  5. Hitch-Hike – Big Sky
  6. Automobile – Blues Broers
  7. Golden Highway – Baxtop
  8. Highway Blues – Falling Mirror
  9. Rearview Mirror Blues – Radio Rats
  10. Fast Car – Mccully Workshop
  11. Seat By The Window – John Kongos
  12. Spirit Is The Journey – Juluka
  13. Padkos – Tony Cox
  14. Life Time On The Road – Josie Field & Laurie Levine
  15. Kelly’s Song – Bobby Angel
  16. The Road Is Much Longer – Roger Lucey
  17. Ride In Your Car – Johnny Clegg
  18. All Roads – Liesl Graham
  19. Matchbox Full Of Diamonds – David Kramer
  20. Going Nowhere Slowly – One Day Remains

Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1985

1985 saw a record number of 17 South African releases on the Capital Radio Top 40 Countdown. Yet there were several other songs which we think also should have charted. These included additional songs by musicians who did chart that year: Johnny Clegg’s “Gumba Gumba Jive”, Sipho Mabuse’s “Jive Soweto” and Tribe After Tribe’s “Life Of A Love Song”.

Several overseas musicians in exile released music in 1985 which was ignored or avoided by South African radio stations including Capital. These were District Six (with “Woza Wena”) , Kintone (with “Going Home”), the Malopoets (with “Intsizwa”) and Hugh Masekela (with “Lady”). These overseas releases involved several collaborations with overseas musicians: both District Six and Kintone comprised several overseas musicians while Masekela’s “Lady” was a cover of the well-known Fela Kuti track. Further, John Kongos wrote the theme tune for the British crime drama Cats Eyes and teamed up with British singer Louise Burton to record a vocal version of the theme (featured in this week’s playlist).

Meanwhile, Shifty Records was beginning to record an increasing volume of South African music which otherwise would probably have not been recorded. This week’s mixed tape includes several Shifty artists: The Cherry Faced Lurchers with their poignant “Shot Down”, the Kalahari Surfers (fronted by Tighthead Fourie) singing “Song For Magnus, a sinister cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking”, “International News” by National Wake (Off the 1985 A Naartjie In Our Sosatie compilation album) and Bernoldus Niemand singing a cover of the Radio Rats’ “Welcome To My Car”, which was specifically banned from airplay on the SABC.

There were also several township pop style songs: “Bongani” by Brenda And The Big Dudes, “Heartbeat” by Harari, “Jive Soweto” by Sipho Mabuse and “Skorokoro” – Lumumba and Condry Ziqubu. Zia ventured in that same direction with “Nobody Loves You” and to complete a wide range of South African sounds for 1985, Petit Cheval released the new wave influenced “Once In A Lifetime”.

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Capital 604 – 1987

There was a healthy variety of South African music in the Capital Radio charts in 1987 from the wistful South African pop rock of Bright Blue, the Afro pop of Sipho Mabuse and Brenda Fassie to the political energy of Savuka and Hi-NRG Euro disco of People Like us, and the novelty studio sounds of Pocket Lips with several other artists making up the 14 South Africans which made the Top 40 countdown.

If there is one particular theme which characterises several of the performers who charted on Capital Radio in 1987 it is a sense of artistic reincarnation combined with renewed creativity. After over a decade performing with Sipho Mchunu as Johnny and Sipho and then more prominently as Juluka and then a short hiatus as a solo singer, Jonny Clegged re-emerged with his new band Savuka and with a far more overt political orientation to deal with increasingly troubled times in South Africa. This is clearly borne out in the song that charted on Capital – “Missing” – which dealt with the disappearance of political activists opposing the apartheid regime. Neill Solomon had a very short period of success on the Capital charts in the early ’80s with the Uptown Rhythm Dogs but in 1987 returned with the Passengers. Cindy Dickinson, who had first made her mark in South Africa as a solo artist and then with Syndicate in 1987, appeared on the Capital charts with People Like Us, who, like Savuka, were as or more popular in parts of Europe than they were in South Africa. Several members of the early ’80s kwela-ska infused band Pett Frogg re-emerged when they morphed into Mango Groove who developed a sound which captured a growing mood towards a more harmonious South Africa.

Also in 1987, Wendy Oldfield left Sweatband to embark on a solo career in which she could move away from a rock sound dominated by the band to explore her own pop-soul sound as a singer-songwriter in her own right, to create what she referred to as “a new kind of Wendy thing”. Also reinventing herself as a solo artist with her first solo album in 1987 was Brenda Fassie who left behind the Big Dudes and began a hugely successful solo career. Meanwhile, Bright Blue, who charted on Capital in 1984 with “Window on the World”, had taken a forced break of two years while Dan Hartman and Ian Cohen served two very reluctant years of conscription in the South African Defence Force. Bright Blue re-emerged in 1987 without former lead singer Robin Levetan but nevertheless with what was to become one of the anthems of the transition to a post-apartheid South Africa, “Weeping”.

Established artists such as Lesley Rae Dowling, Jonathan Butler and Sipho Mabuse continued to chart on Capital, as did Sweatband (still with Wendy Oldfield as vocalist) and new arrivals on the scene Pocket Lips and 909, both of whom developed more in the studio rather than on the stage.

The most successful of the South African songs on the Capital charts in 1987 were Mango Groove’s “Move Up” and Wendy Oldfield’s “The Real World” which both reached number 1. Surprisingly, “Weeping” by Bright Blue spent two weeks at number 2 but missed out on the top spot. Jonathan Butler also peaked at number 2 with “Lies” but lower down, at number 5, with “Holding On”. “It’s Amazing” by Pocket Lips reached number 3.

Savuka’s “Missing” got as far as number 8 while “Tonight” by Sweatband peaked at number 10, as did Lesley Rae Dowling with “When the Night Comes” and “Hold On” by the Passengers (where it spent two weeks). 909’s “What Are We Going to do About Love” and Sipho Mabuse’s “Shikisha” both peaked at number 20 while Brenda Fassie’s “Mr. No Good” only reached number 21 and “Hiroshima” by People Like Us peaked at number 22.

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Capital 604 – 1985

In 1985 seventeen South African songs featured on the Capital countdown: the most of any year in the 1980s. Although most of the songs could be described as some or other variation of pop or rock there was some variety: the township pop of Sipho Mabuse and Steve Kekana; the smooth pop of Jonathan Butler, the Afro-rock of Tribe After Tribe, the slightly rock-edged pop of Robin Auld, the more mainstream pop of Lesley Rae Dowling, Syndicate, Ella Mental, Stewart Irving and The Helicopters and a turn towards a more international sound from both Juluka and the solo Johnny Clegg.

The top artist on the Capital Countdown in 1985 was Sipho Mabuse with two songs reaching the top 10: ‘Let’s Get it On’ peaked and number 5 and ‘Burn Out’ reached number 6 where it spent three weeks. ‘Fever’ – Juluka reached number 8 where it spent two weeks, as did Lesley Rae Dowling with ‘Give a little’. Also peaking at number 8, but for just one week, was Jonathan Butler with ‘I’ll Be Waiting for You’ while ‘See Yourself (Clowns)’ – Ella Mental reached number 9. Robin Auld peaked at number 10 with ‘After the Fire” and number 15 with ‘All of Woman’. Steve Kekana peaked at number 11 with ‘Paradise’ (Tip Of Africa)’ while ‘Only for you’ – The Helicopters spent two weeks at number 14 and ‘Don’t Go Into Town’ – Syndicate also reached number 14, but just for one week. John Irving’s ‘Superstar’ peaked at number 15. None of the other South African songs made the Top 20.

We would like to thank Marq Vas for his help in tracking down a copy of Lesley Rae Dowling’s ‘Give a Little’. This is not the first time Marq has come to our assistance. We recommend his YouTube channel of South African music – some very rare songs that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. He also has a Facebook page which is a wealth of information.

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