1983 was the year in which the fewest South African songs charted on the Capital Radio Top 40 countdown: only eight songs made it. Yet this week’s playlist reveals that there were many more chart worthy songs. As per usual, there artists who charted but who had further songs that could have been hits, for example eVoid, Juluka and Via Afrika. But there were several others who inexplicably did not chart at all, such as Brenda and the Big Dudes (with “Weekend Special”), Steve Kekana (with “Night Boot Control”), Sipho Mabuse (with “Rise”) and Stimela (with “I Hate Telling A Lie”).
While Juluka had been experimenting with a fusion between western and South African musical styles for several years and Hotline had begun to do so in 1982, 1983 saw such musical hybridity becoming more of a trend than something unusual, especially with the very noticeable arrival of debut albums from eVoid and Via Afrika. In addition, The Dread Warriors and Splash provided a South African influenced reggae sound while The Boyoyo Boys, Steve Kekana, Sipho Mabuse, Letta Mbulu, The Soul Brothers and Stimela performed pop songs based in neo-traditional township forms. Dog Detachment and What Colours released songs influenced by the UK new wave scene and Sue Charlton, Lesley Rae Dowling and The Insisters released more mainstream pop songs. James Phillips, in his Bernoldus Niemand guise, continued the satirical tradition of the likes of Jeremy Taylor and David Kramer by using his voice as a vocal costume, critiquing society from the perspective of what Randy Newman referred to as an untrustworthy narrator.
1983 was also the year in which two members of Splash – Jose Charles and Rufus Radebe – were sentenced to effective four-year prison terms (later reduced to 17 months) for singing ‘revolutionary songs’ at a Wits Free People’s Concert. One of the songs was a cover of Steel Pulse’s “A Tribute to Martyrs”, which included references to Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. They were charged with promoting violence and supporting the ANC, even though they argued in their defence that they were Rastafarians and as such were anti-violence.
Indeed, it was difficult to perform as a South African musician with left-leaning sympathies in South Africa. Pete Spong of the Dread Warriors noted that it was difficult for a band with a white and black members to travel together, especially when it came to arranging travel documents (including to neighbouring countries). Sipho Mabuse and Johnny Clegg both spoke about being stopped at road blocks and interrogated because of whites and blacks travelling together while touring, with Harari and Juluka respectively (Harari has a white woman manager who travelled with the group).
All the artist here have their stories about how difficult it was to be heard at the time. Fortunately we can give them a listen now.
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As we researched and then listened to the South African music that charted on Capital Radio throughout the 1980s we were surprised at how many good South African songs did not make the station’s Top 40. We were also surprised at how few actually made the charts at all: there were years when there was on average less than one South African song per month on the charts. So our thoughts turned to a second season of mixtapes in which we offer up playlists for each year which feature songs that we think should have made the Top 40 countdown but which did not do so. This exercise is partly critical of the music management at Capital Radio: those people who decided on what music should make the weekly Top 40 Countdown, but the issue is much broader than that: sometimes musicians recorded demos but record companies were not interested in signing them, other times record companies did not market music as well as they could have done, or perhaps they didn’t release songs as singles which had the potential to be popular amongst listeners.
To be fair, several songs on this ‘Missed the charts’ mixtape were play-listed on Capital but did not make it to the Top 40: the sounds of Baxtop, Dog (later Dog Detachment), Falling Mirror, Roger Lucey, Ramsay MacKay & the Bushveld Pygmies, Letta Mbulu, Colin Shamley and Wild Youth all drifted out of the Port St Johns studio back in 1980 (although not very often). And Harari and Juluka did do very well on the countdown charts in 1980 but with only one song each. We think those songs should have been followed-up on the charts with the songs we feature here.
Also included on this mixtape are songs by musicians who, like Letta Mbulu, were living in exile at the time: Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, both of whom never made it to the Capital charts in the 1980s but who did release music worthy of any South African Top 40 chart. Local stalwarts Blondie And Papa and The Movers who both didn’t survive very long into the 1980s surprisingly also didn’t feature at all.
Fringe artists like Baxtop, Corporal Punishment, Dog, Falling Mirror, Roger Lucey, Ramsay MacKay, National Wake, Colin Shamley and Wild Youth desperately needed extended radio play to become known more widely than in the local areas where they performed and yet they did not receive that support. David Marks at Third Ear Music and Benjy Mudie at WEA were excited by what they were hearing and signed some of these musicians when nobody else would do so, but a record deal needed to be followed by radio play and then hopefully record sales and larger audiences at gigs and concerts. Unfortunately that did not happen and some of these bands imploded, without a viable musical future ahead of them. But in 1980 all the fringe musicians featured here were hopeful that they would get a break. There is an excitement and energy in the music, together with some poignant lyrics commenting on issues of the time. Sadly it wasn’t heard by a wide audience but nevertheless we are fortunate that it was written and recorded and that we can at least listen to it today …
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