Shifty September: Come on baby, 'Do the Lurch'

29 August 2014 - 02:36 By Andrew Donaldson
SOUL OU: James Phillips performs as his alter ego Bernoldus Niemand at the Market Theatre Warehouse in 1989. Phillips, who died from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1995, is having his life and work celebrated next month
SOUL OU: James Phillips performs as his alter ego Bernoldus Niemand at the Market Theatre Warehouse in 1989. Phillips, who died from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1995, is having his life and work celebrated next month
Image: JOHN HOGG

There was a bemused reaction among his friends at the inclusion of James Phillips in the series of stamps of musicians the Post Office issued last month.

While some wondered what Phillips would have made of his "co-option by the establishment" were he alive, others joked: "Ja, well, he always wanted us to lick his backside."

There was no doubt, however, that the honour was fully deserved. But there was a certain irony here: the writing of letters has all but disappeared with e-mails and social media, and what snail mail we still receive has been franked, not stamped; Phillips's presence in the mainstream remains as elusive as ever.

That may change. As part of its 30th anniversary celebrations, Shifty Records - the independent label that recorded and issued Phillips's music while the rocker was alive - is to be recognised next month for its contribution to South African music during the bleakness of the PW Botha era.

The artist's life and work will form a major part of the programme of "Shifty September" events, culminating in the Heritage Day concert at the Bassline in Johannesburg featuring artists associated with the label and its founder, producer Lloyd Ross. They include, among many others, Urban Creep, The Kerels, Jennifer Ferguson, Vusi Mahlasela, The Genuines and Robin Auld.

There's a fund-raising element to next month's event as well. Ross, who works as a filmmaker these days, wants part of the proceeds to bankroll a documentary on Shifty now that its entire catalogue is part of the South African History Archive.

More importantly, he wants to remix The Otherwhite Album - the recordings laid down by Phillips and his band The Cherry-Faced Lurchers in 1985 - and rerelease them next year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the musician's death.

This is the great "lost" South African rock album, a collection of songs that echoed the conscience and experiences of progressive, prodemocracy youth during Botha's emergency years.

Much of the album's subject matter was bleak - a torture victim loses his mind, men are sent to the gallows, thuggery and the threat of right-wing violence is ever-present - but there was no self-pity or surrender here; this was angry music, righteous in its condemnation of the wicked.

There was a lighter element here, too, one that complemented the giddy, drunken jol of 1985's Live at Jameson's, the Lurchers' first recording for Shifty. But mostly Otherwhite is "otherwise", a reflection of the time when the jol got "serious".

At the time, the Lurchers were arguably the country's greatest rock outfit. Phillips was something of a countercultural veteran when he and the band began recording Otherwhite in 1986.

He had first appeared on the scene with Corporal Punishment, the Springs punk outfit he'd formed in the late 1970s with Carl Raubenheimer and Mark Bennett.

At a time when such things were distinctly unfashionable, the Corporals pioneered - long before Die Antwoord - a skatey zef, East Rand attitude in their craft while their contemporaries opted to ape the British New Wave scene.

Following the Corporals' split, Phillips put together the Lurchers in 1983. That year, as Bernoldus Niemand, he also began work on Wie is Bernoldus Niemand?, the album that would inspire young Afrikaans artists like Johannes Kerkorrel and Koos Kombuis, who would later spearhead the Voelvry movement in the late 1980s.

Recording Otherwhite was not a happy experience, Ross recalled. The sessions were very much stop-and-start affairs, the result of what the producer called the "rock'n roll lifestyle" that Phillips was now embracing.

The project was eventually abandoned, but a version of it finally saw a cassette-only release in 1992 - and promptly sank without trace.

"I was never happy with the way it turned out," Ross said. "It was largely unfinished.

"But, with new technology, there's a lot we can do to correct that. And it will be good to have it out on CD. As it should have been released at the time."

Shifty went on to release other albums by Phillips - 1993's Sunny Skies - and the posthumous collections - 1995's Made in South Africa and 1997's Soul Ou. But Otherwhite's welcome release would complete an otherwise impressive body of work.

  • To contribute to the fund see www.thundafund.com/Shifty-September. For more information on Shifty September Events see www.shifty.co.za
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