The Beat of Wings

About a year ago, out of the blue, I got an email from Danny De Wet, the veteran drummer who played with so many iconic SA bands, but was also a manager and producer and all round personality on the South AFrican music scene. I knew Danny from the 90s when he ran one of the alternative rock scene’s most popular Jo’burg music venue, Wings Beat Bar, in Braamfontein. My band at the time, Occam’s Razor played there very often as well as hanging out there to watch other bands, many of them friends. Wings was more than a club, it was a community.

Anyway, the point of Danny’s email was to ask me to write a few memories about WIngs for his memoirs, which have now been published as “Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll…. In Africa”. GIving it some thought, the memories of that time came flooding back and I may have gotten carried away. The unexpurgated version I’ll reproduce below, and I believe a chunk of it made Danny’s book – which I plan to get my hands on as soon as copies make their way to the UK.

I have based this ‘mixtape’ on those memories. Here are the bands I remember, Some of them are good friends today, others I still admire from afar, and others I just remember fondly from the time we were all trying to make it on the music scene.

Most of what I have to say is in the text I sent to Danny, but here are a few additional notes: SOme of the bands I mentioned never recorded, but transformed or reformed and did so later. I don’t think Blue Chameleon of 8-Legged Groove Machine recorded, or if they did, their stuff is like hen’s teeth, so I have substituted their later incarnations as Boo! And Wonderboom respectively. Oh, and hippy duo Ocean Road became Qkumba Zoo, and actually had an international dance hit with The Child Inside.

In the spirit of mixtapes from back in the day, this one contains two tracks recorded off the radio – I can’t think where else you’d find the demo singles from Occam’s Razor or B-World today, so both are taped off the Barney Simon show on 5FM (in 1994), and I’ve left in some of the call-ins and banter from Mr Simon.

Two tracks, I taped myself at Wings via the sound desk: The first is Matthew van der Want singing Dying Of Love, and the second is me, with Heidi Bouwer on violin, playing Another Day – both from one of the folk evenings regularly hosted at Wings.

It is an eclectic mix of everything from folk to metal and a snapshot of the rock scene in Jo’burg in the 90s.

“The Beat of Wings”

The early 1990s was a strange and exhilarating time for a young South African rock musician. Freed from the burden of ‘national service’ and, with the release of Nelson Mandela and the anticipation of a brighter future in which we could hold our heads up high in the international arena, anything seemed possible. Except that is, for finding a gig if you were – like my band, Occam’s Razor – playing original music, a bit ‘alternative, and just starting out.

Apart from a few massive bands like Savuka, Hotline, Petit Cheval, eVoid, Mango Groove, and others, who played arenas, the local South African music scene in the clubs and bars had always favoured the cover band, and if it wasn’t blues-rock, it had to be FM radio-friendly pop, or of course, jazz. But the Voelvry phenomenon of the late 80s, built on the alternative scene around Shifty records and the famous Jameson’s bar, had spawned a new generation of young hopefuls even as they dialed back and closed down themselves.

So where was my band of ‘The Velvet Underground meets Metallica’ misfits (a concept so daft that it took Lou Reed himself another 20 years to think of it) supposed to go? Where was “The Scene”? Luckily the incredibly forward-thinking drummer, Danny De Wet, a veteran of at least two of the biggest acts of the 80s, saw there was a need for the burgeoning South African rock renaissance to have a home, a clubhouse, and a stage. And that’s how we found ‘Wings Beat Bar’ in Braamfontein, just near Wits University. There we found our home-base for the next few years, along with so many other bands.

Sadly, the South African record industry was not as quick to pick up on the emerging talent and so many of the bands that strutted their stuff on the Wings stage are now just a memory, remembered only through demos played by 5FM jock Barney Simon (another champion of local music), or self-released EPs and tapes, compilation CDs, bootlegs, and if nothing else, in legend alone. As I think back a quarter of a century, the names of these bands pop into my head like files recovered off a faulty harddrive: The Sarsipians, Blue Chameleon, King Ink, Live Jimi Presley, B-World, Just Encasement, The Kerels, 8-Legged Groove Machine, Albino Tarbugz, 10 Drops of Valium, Damn the Icebergs, Metalmorphosis, and of course, Danny’s own band, The Electric Petals, and probably many more that I will remember if pressed.

And then there were the folkies, Matthew van der Want, Black Paul, and me, and the poets: Alan Finlay, Gary Cuminskey, Roy Blumenthal, and the purveyors of interpretive dance and monologues, who graced the stage of “Odyssey Theatre’ hosted at Wings on a Sunday night.

The soundsystem was thunderous. You could tell this venue was owned by a hard-rocker himself. There were no half-measures, like the clapped-out speaker-box on a beer crate you’d encounter at half-cocked clubs on the road. There was a proper mixer and a PA with headroom to spare so you always sounded great at Wings.

I have more vivid memories of Wings, I think, than any other venue I’ve played since and this was entirely down to the sense of community fostered by Danny and his business partner Patrick. Danny twirling his drumsticks like the moustache of Dali as the Petals showed how it was done, Matthew vd Want singing to a rapt audience about dying of love to a tune borrowed from Jennifer Ferguson, before launching into a blistering and raucous set backed by The Kerels, Live Jimi showing no regard for health and safety regulations as they attacked anvils with angle-grinders and god-knows-what to a pounding beat, Black Paul mumbling mysteriously, getting the funk out with the Groove Machine or B-World, and of course the pizza!

One of the perks of playing Wings was the pizza thrown in the deal. I’m not going to lie and say it was the world’s greatest pizza, but it was the greatest pizza a starving musso ever got! And for the student crowd and the young bohemians who guaranteed an audience on any night of the week, it was probably the cheap pizza that brought them there!

Of course for me, the night I remember the most was the time we got Wings into the Sunday Papers! Occam’s Razor will go down in Wings lore as the band that played a set stark naked. We had written a cycle of songs that saw us festoon the Wings stage with dismembered papier-mache cadavers and spray fake blood as we played exposing both body and soul. To this day I’m astonished that the Wings management let us make this “artistic statement”, but that is why I remember it as more than just a venue. It was a place that encouraged and nurtured artists and artistry in a way than few other venues ever did, and it was a sad day when Wings eventually closed its doors.

But how can you get a little of that Wings spirit today, you ask? Well, there is a dedicated Facebook group frequented by many of the musicians and punters; and there is the music, if you can find it: Matthew vd Want has released several albums which are on Bandcamp and can be found on online auctions shops and 2nds hand CD shops. Wonderboom (some of 8 Legged Groove Machine, with Danny on drums) released several albums which are easy to find. For collectors of CDs, The Electric Petals have an album called “Polynation’ and B-World put out a CD single which is like hen’s teeth, but out there somewhere. Some of the bands, like Occams, have stuff up on Soundcloud, and the absolute best source of Wings bands on CD is a two-volume compilation called “Soda Sex Fountain”, which is sadly hard to find, but not impossible. Oh, and Q-Zoo were originally a hippy-folk duo who were Wings regulars, but I don’t remember what they called themselves then. And Blue Chameleon morphed into Boo!, and they have several albums worth looking for.

At the end of the day, every scene is – to borrow words from Joni Mitchell – ‘a chalkmark in a rainstorm… the beat of wings’. Wings Beat Bar was of its time and place, and – as we contemplate the sterile world of Spotify playlists and ringtone music – I’ll stick my neck out and say, a better time, and a better place. I’ll always be grateful to have been given the opportunity to be part of it by Danny De Wet and his team at Wings Beat Bar. Long may it live on in our memories.

Brett Houston-Lock
April 2021

  1. Damn The Icebergs – Cycad
  2. Squeal – Long Pig
  3. Boo! – Lucki
  4. Qkumba Zoo – The Child Inside
  5. Wonderboom – She Cries
  6. The Electric Petals – Thank You For The Book James
  7. Occam’s Razor – They Can’t Find You
  8. B-World – Walk The Wire
  9. Matthew Van Der Want – Dying Of Love
  10. Brett Lock & Heidi Bouwer – Another Day
  11. King Ink – Wonderful Art
  12. Just Encasement – It Feels
  13. Urban Creep – Tightroper
  14. Sugardrive – Form The Habit
  15. Sarsippians – Crazy
  16. Metalmophosis – Passion Mother
  17. Albino Tarbugz – Motormouth
  18. Live Jimi Presley – Vorhaut Zur Freiheit
  19. The Kerels – U-Turn
  20. 10 Drops of Valium – Never Get Old

Special – Gary Herselman Fundraiser

Gary Herselman is a legend of the alternative South African music scene. Recently Shifty Records championed a campaign to raise finds for Gary who, like many veteran indie South African musicians, has fallen on hard times. As Shifty noted:

It has recently come to our attention that notorious (only in the best way) shorts-sporting Kêrels frontman Gary Herselman (AKA Piet Pers of the Gereformeerde Blues Band) has fallen on hard times, within already hard times for him, within what are, as I’m sure you are aware, hard times for everyone. To help Gary out, we have organised a Back-a-Buddy campaign and are working on a compilation album of his best tunes (https://shiftyrecords.bandcamp.com/releases), as well as a few other treats for fans. Visit https://www.backabuddy.co.za/gary-herselman to lend your support .

Gary Herselman is best known for his band The Kêrels, but prior to forming the Kêrels he began his career in the music industry by forming various bands while at school before getting a long-standing job at Hillbrow Records in 1980 and during that time playing in the band Hard Lines (contemporaries of The Asylum Kids) and then the Kêrels. Like many musicians of that time they ended up playing at Jamesons and, also like several musicians of that time, were signed by Shifty Records. In 1988 they recorded the album Ek sê. As Gary remembered:

“Lloyd … came up to me after one gig at the Jameson’s and said ‘look I want to record your band.’ And it took me about eight months to accept that this guy was actually serious, you know, I thought he just was pulling my leg! But eventually I accepted that he was serious and went and make the record.”

The album did not sell very many copies but gained a cult following. Not long after that the Kêrels broke up but a second phase of the group formed in the 1990s and they released a second album, Chrome Sweet Chrome (1995) which met with a similar fate to the first album. meanwhile Gary had formed his own record company, Tic Tic Bang, recording some South African music and distributing both their own and other independent artists as well as licensing overseas music.

Musically, from 1989 until the late 1990s, Gary was involved in other projects, such as being a member of Johannes Kerkorrel’s Gerefomeerde Blues Band for the Eet Kreef (1989) album and on the Voëlvry tour, playing on the Koos Kombuis Niemandsland (1989) album and on the Radio Rats Big Beat (1990) album and also playing with the Radio Rats around the same time. In 1997 the Kêrels played on two tracks on Matthew van der Want’s debut album, Turn on You (1997) and also periodically backed him on stage.

Gary has always been supportive of other musicians and worked with the likes of Matthew van der Want, Jo Edwards and Sue Charlton in recording music in the late 90s/early 2000s period. For Gary, music wasn’t just a serious business, it was a creative calling and fun. Matthew van der Want remembered he and Gary recording the satirical song “The Worst Song in the World … Ever! (Battle of the Bads)”, about a terrible Battle of the Bands competition, where the musicians played their instruments badly:

“It’s supposed to be a dig at crap SA bands: ‘It’s Friday night at half past ten the band’s about to start. Everyone who’s nobody is loitering at the bar. The singer is a looker, she’s invested in her clothes. Isn’t there a law against lyrics like those?’ and behind the vocals, there’s this drummer who keeps playing on the wrong beat and a bass player who is intent on making the song go in another direction. I did the music with Gary Herselman and we were in hysterics while we were doing it.”

Gary’s life has always centred around music and he has been most satisfied when able to make music and make a living from music. Back in 1998 he commented:

“In my books I’ve been successful already. I’ve managed to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do. The music was absolutely without compromise, and there was a sector of the population that accepted it, that really loved it. There was a kind of a feeling that I had there that you either really loved it or you really hated it. So I think that the success in the first time that the Kêrels played was just in making the album. That was the success. I never wanted to be on the cover of Billboard or to change the world or you know … I just wanted to maybe change a few people’s minds and have a bit of a laugh along the way … to me I think the success is in having not made a compromise in that I don’t have to take a job at the OK Bazaars and I’m still working in music and I can record the music that I like.”

Since the demise of the Kêrels and Tic Tic Bang, Gary has battled on, working with other musicians, including co-producing (with Matthew van der Want) the tribute to Koos Kombuis Kombuis Musiek compilation album and periodically putting out his own music, including the highly acclaimed Die Lemme’s Rigtingbefok (2014) album in which he collaborated with several South African musicians and House For Sale (2018).

This mixtape is our attempt to celebrate Gary’s contribution to South African music. From his own work with the Kêrels, as a solo artist, and with Die Lemme to his output as part of Die Gereformeerde Blues Band and the Radio Rats and his collaborations with South African musicians Matthew van der Want, Sue Charlton, Q-Zoo and Jo Edwards. Whatever he has done, ultimately Gary has always played his music on the outskirts of the music industry, and having a hellova time while doing it. As Gary noted:

“musicians … going down, getting their own together with the help of no corporates or no major companies were behind things like the Voëlvry tour. It was an Indie like Shifty who understood what was going on. And it was in fact a case of that: that you just actually took the microphone for yourself rose up and took … the small man rose up and took a slice of the boerewors!”

Capital 604 – The Miss Parade: 1988

1988 was a poor year for South African musicians on the Capital Countdown: only eight artists with nine songs made the Top 40 (there were two songs by Cinema). As always, we have put together a playlist of additional songs which we think should have charted.
Once again, we have Shifty Records to thank for recording various musicians who otherwise would not have been recorded and thus more easily forgotten: The Gereformeerde Blues Band, The Kêrels, Koos and Tananas. Shifty got behind the Voelvry tour in 1988 and three of these groups: the Gereformeerde Blues Band, The Kerels and Koos were included on the Voelvry compilation album of that year. As the Voelvry spirit of white Afrikaans rebellion swept through the dorps and cities of South Africa it is strange that Capital missed out on the opportunity to capture that moment.

1988 saw further releases from now established artists: Bright Blue, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Dog Detachment, Sipho Mabuse, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Malopoets, Mango Groove and Savuka all released great new music, while David Kramer was back with music from the Cape Town musical, composed by Kramer and Petersen. Veteran folk guitar player, Steve Newman, was back with a group formed with two established Shifty artists, Gito Baloi and Ian Herman. 1988 also saw the emergence of Ralf Rabie (Johannes Kerkorrel) who was the main force behind the Gereformeerde Blues Band. Both of these Shifty initiatives went on to greater mainstream success over the next decade and a half. 1988 also saw a once-off album from the Jazzanians. While they did not record another album Zim Ngqawana went on to enjoy a successful solo career.

The Psycho Reptiles also recorded their first and only album in 1988, and are still remembered for their single “Monster From The Bog”. Bakithi Kumalo had risen to fame through his collaboration with Paul Simon on the Graceland album and tour and he released his first solo albumin 1988. Shake Baby was one of several Carl Raubenheimer initiatives after his collaborations with James Philips (Corporal Punishment and Illegal Gathering) but although they were a popular band on the live circuit in Cape Town they never went on to release a full album. Koos were a bilingual English-Afrikaans avante garde punk band who sadly also only brought out one album. The Kêrels released their debut album in 1988 and their “Golden Days” single has ended up on the occasional compilation album.

This eclectic mix of songs makes for interesting and enjoyable listening. Sit back, turn up the volume and have fun!

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