Intro: Back to the Creative Eighties
There is an intriguing irony about the rock and pop music of the 1980s. In several authoritative international surveys conducted in recent years, such as Colin Larkin's All-Time Top 1 000 Albums surveys, the 1980s tend to prevail as the least favourite musical decade of rock and pop music fans and critics, alike. Was it all the excessive makeup, pretentious hairstyles and pseudo posturing - not to forget those awfully extraneous synthesiser frills and the extravagant use of electronic drum kits?
In South Africa, thankfully, the 1980s was, in many respects, the most artistically creative, culturally diverse and politically outspoken musical decade - an intense passage in South Africa's cultural history that many of us will remember for a long time to come. Against the global backdrop of the Me Decade and the daze of the Cold War, Thatcherism, Reaganism and, at home, Die Groot Gevaar, a gathering critical mass of outspoken, eccentric, skilled and adventurous musicians began to reshape our aural landscape across South Africa in the aftermath of the punk revolution. A lustrous spectrum of individual singers and bands emerged on the South African rock scene - and with them came a new rock audience and a new market. From greasy garage rock, angry punk, mischievous ska, stoned reggae, infectious jive and savoury mbaqanga to thrash metal, grumbling grunge, blues boogie, scratchy soul and even some esoteric forms of electronic rock, the fringe cultural venues of cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria were crackling with new original rock sounds. Whether gentle and meandering, elevated and hypnotising, brash and boisterous, or simply bizarre and sardonic, South African rock musicians had collectively created an impressive microcosm of rock music.
Many regular club- and concert-goers will fondly recall the divergent talents of bands such as The Asylum Kids, Tribe After Tribe, Flash Harry, Ella Mental, Carte Blanche, Via Afrika, éVoid, The Gents, Neill Solomon and the Uptown Rhythm Dogs, The Passengers, Petit Cheval, Falling Mirror, The Party, What Colours, The Cherry-Faced Lurchers, Da Measles, The Zub-Zub Marauders, National Wake, The Rag Dolls, Bright Blue, Sweat Band, Radio Rats and Dog Detachment, to name a few of the more significant hard-gigging bands of the 1980s.
Out of the ashes of several punk, jive and other rock bands, including The Asylum Kids and Extremist, The Dynamics were conceived in 1983 in the City of Gold. In a passage of high creativity and intense political protest, The Dynamics fast became an integral part of the small vanguard of the South African rock bands that were truly enjoyable, original and influential at the time - not to forget politically aware and outspoken about the draconian regime of the time. On a good night, playing exuberantly in a tiny, smoky joint in Yeoville/Bellevue East or somewhere seedy and sweaty in downtown Johannesburg, The Dynamics were a sheer pleasure to watch and hear. So energetic, joyous, tight and free-flowing was their sound, they could have jived until sunrise - or until their saxophones melted and the Vox organ lost wind.
Politically, The Dynamics were acutely sussed and deeply serious - and, given half the chance, their colourful mix of black and white musicians would have articulated their political outrage in the dark, final days of apartheid. So much so, they had more than the usual share of musician/artist run-ins with the system during their comparatively brief tenure. Remember those creepy, moustached thugs in bad clothes and white socks who used sit on the front-row tables with untouched beers and those unmistakable dikbek faces that never smiled?
Yet, musically, The Dynamics were light, jubilant and refreshing, fusing a diverse palette of musical styles into their inimitable aural paintings that depicted their fascinating views of the urban landscapes of the 1980s. Blending post-punk ska and hard-edged new wave with mbaqanga and related South African vernacular township musical idioms, they could accommodate inflections of rhythm 'n blues, soul, mainstream pop rock and more. Almost 20 years on, it seems that The Dynamics pre-empted the rise in global popularity of world music and acid jazz, among other musical forms.
Besides their jubilant spirit, personal energy, danceable rhythms and very cool image (where are those hip shades now, Harvey?), one recalls The Dynamics with a special fondness because of the willingness to stretch themselves and explore musical styles without losing that quintessential Dynamics sound.
Sadly, when one reconsiders the band's popularity as a highly energised live act and its sustained creativity and originality, The Dynamics were horrendously underrecorded and underpromoted. The modest amount of released music is does not adequately reflect their talent and popularity.
In 1983, the original Johannesburg-based line-up recorded and released its seven-track debut album, It's The Dynamics, which was restricted to a cassette tape format for cost and logistical reasons. Recorded at Johannesburg's Downtown Studios, the album was produced by Ian Osrin and The Dynamics and mixed by engineer Richard Mitchell. In 1984, the band recorded and released a five-track mini-album in 12-inch vinyl format, Switch It On and Wind It Up. The mini-album was recorded at Hugh Masekela's mobile studio in Botswana with the English producer, Mick Williams (who later produced three tracks for the band in London).
After reforming in Cape Town a decade later, a third album, Organic, was recorded in 1996 at The Nuthouse, an independent Capetonian studio run by Julian Ford and Andrew Ford. Five-hundred self-financed compact disc albums were mastered and manufactured in Taiwan and distributed by the band in 1996. (The Organic album can be heard through the Internet, http://www.friedjam.com).
The band went through various incarnations, with the core members comprising - or mostly comprising - Harvey Roberts on tenor saxophone, Jimmy Florence on keyboards and bass, Winston Nyaunda on alto saxophone and Steve Howells on drums and, later, vocalist Ian Botha and guitarist Kevin Solan. The highlights of the band's history, however, is best told by some of its members, three of whom came forward in March 2001 to share some of their memories and insights.
Steve Howells' Beat
Drummer Steve Howells, who had also played with The Asylum Kids and What Colours, recalls: "The Dynamics played a unique sound with an infectious energy and enthusiasm, reflecting a positive vision of a new South Africa, challenging the old order with the music itself, playing and working together, living the life.
"The Dynamics went through three distinct periods with different line-ups. The original band, formed in early 1983 in a Yeoville rooftop apartment and consisting of Harvey Roberts and Paul Goodwin on tenor saxophones, Herbert "Bucks" Jawuza on bass and keyboards, Jimmy Florence on Vox organ and bass, and me on drums.
"Paul was on the first recording, It's The Dynamics, of which only 250 cassette copies were made. This record captured the spirit of the band's early days. Veteran South African mbaqanga master, Winston Nyaunda, replaced Paul shortly afterward, adding a new vibrancy with his alto sax and crazy dance routines and the band became a firm favourite on the jol. "This line-up released Switch It On and Wind It Up, from which local radio stations selected the track Thugs for airplay (the great opening track on this anthology). Herbert left to be replaced by Jimmy's friend and fellow band member from Da Measles, guitarist Kevin Solan. This line-up headed off to a wintry Britain in 1984, a trip not without its difficulties, especially for Winston travelling on a Boputhatswana passport, which was not recognised by the immigration officials at Heathrow.
"Winston was sent straight back to South Africa. Friends and bands in South Africa, notably the Pantsulas, organised a benefit gig to get another ticket and sent him on his way, with a new travel document.
"After six months in Britain, melting the ice with some blistering gigs, The Dynamics called it a day and we all went our separate ways, only to reunite two years later in Johannesburg for a very festive season and some memorable gigs in Yeoville with an extra tenor sax played by Vernon Matzopoulos and the bass driven by Themba Tshwete. Jimmy Florence moved to Cape Town shortly after that and so ended phase two."
Steve continues: "Jonathon Handley (of Radio Rats infamy) would later remark to Jimmy that the music of The Dynamics was timeless and, so, the seeds of the third phase of The Dynamics were sown that day. The Cape Town incarnation included Jimmy and me from the original band with Rob Whiteing on bass and Tom Fox on guitar (ex-Bright Blue and replaced shortly afterward by Alex Bozas), Doug Armstrong on trumpet, Ampie Omo on trombone and Heather Howells and Louis Raubenheimer on tenor saxes. "This line-up recorded and released Organic in December 1996 and the live shows were a potent mixture of new styles and groove, with a strong funky element and reworkings of old Dynamics favourites. The reaction of the sweaty throngs on the dance floors of the parties and nightclubs and the gatherings on the street corners and festivals was the same - old and young, black and white, rich and poor, all grooving along together and living their lives in a new era."
Steve, today, lives on the north shore of Hawaii with his wife, Heather, a nurse and fellow musician. By day, he is working as a scuba diver, taking Japanese tourists down to admire fish on the near-pristine coral reefs, while playing exciting music with some creative musicians and surfing after work.
n Harvey Roberts' Jive
Tenor saxophonist and frontman Harvey Roberts looks back today: "Nineteen-eighty, what a time! South Africa, being a bit behind, as usual, was slowly coming to terms with the musical revolution that had started with The Sex Pistols and punk in the UK. Groups like The Asylum Kids had led the way for a host of young, disaffected white youth who wanted nothing to do with the politics and the army, but would rather enjoy their youth before being faced with an uncertain future.
"Out of this background, The Dynamics emerged - two young guys, drummer Steve Howells (ex-Asylum Kids) and bassist Jimmy Florence, a long-time admirer of The Kids and Steve's ferocious drumming.
"In what was then a maid's room on top of a block of flats in Yeoville, Johannesburg, The Dynamics came into being, shaped by a diverse motivation of its members: Steve, disillusioned by the unrealised potential and implosion of The Asylum Kids; and Jimmy, who had been in a string of bands, but constantly strived to find an outlet for his writing talents and his love of playing.
"I, in turn, had no playing skills, but was highly inspired by the punk ideal that anyone could be in a band, and Winston Nyaunda, who had a lifetime of sessions and poorly paid recordings to his name a typical black working horn player in South Africa's highly exploitative music industry."
Harvey continues: "Playing for the fun of it was always the key, from the very first free gigs on the streets of Johannesburg, constantly arousing the curiosity of people unused to seeing a multiracial ensemble playing a sound that was part-pop and part-ska with a large dose of mbaqanga, courtesy of Winston, thrown in.
"The lack of lyrics added to the confusion until people finally realised that it was the music and the spirit that counted. These things, along with the racial mix, said far more than words could ever convey."
Gradually, the jiving band progressed from streets to play in clubs and rock venues of the time, says, Harvey, including Legends, The Mix and The Chelsea and, a few months later, secured a low-key record deal. For their debut, The Dynamics recorded a seven-track cassette-only album at Downtown studios with producer Ian Osrin and engineer Richard Mitchell. For the next three or four years, the band became one of the feature acts at the annual Free People's Concerts hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand, among other major gigs on the alternative rock scene. "As South Africa's political fuse continued to smoulder ever quicker, the reality of military service and all that it symbolised forced the band to leave and resettle in the United Kingdom. Nailing our colours firmly to the mast, our first ever UK appearance was at the African National Congress' New Year's bash at the Porchester Hotel in Bayswater, London. The gig featured a hastily rehearsed and spirited rendition of the then outlawed Nkosi Sikelele' iAfrika.
"In spite of some notable achievements, among which was a blinding gig with the Housemartins in their hometown of Hull, our lack of management, direction and money led to our inevitable breakdown and, although the band continued with an ever-increasing diversity of personnel, the original spirit was gone.
"In 1993, when Jimmy returned to South Africa, the band reunited for a final series of shows in December 1993 and January 1994 - and we came close to capturing the excitement of our best days.
"After that Jimmy and Steve moved to Cape Town, where the band once again resurfaced with a new crew and recorded another independent album (Organic) featuring a mix of some old, unrecorded material by The Dynamics, as well as some new compositions. Touring and playing festivals, including the Grahamstown Festival, things finally came to an end around 1996." Harvey went on to work for CCP Records, where he became managing director. During his post-Dynamics musical career, he says he has had a lot of pleasure working closely with many of South Africa's best-known singers and musicians, including Brenda, Arthur and Rebecca. He resigned from CCP in 1998 to start a new independent label, Bula Music, whose artists include Lundi, Boom Shaka (and Lebo), Ihashi Elimhlope and DJs at Work. While no longer performing music for a living, the operations of Bula Music at Richmond, Johannesburg keep Harvey creatively involved in his greatest passion: original African music.
n Jimmy Florence's Boogie
Organist and bassist Jimmy Florence, who has also played with the Port Elizabeth-based band, Extremist, and later the Johannesburg-based Da Measles, recalls: "The Dynamics' main joy for me was the fact that those involved played self-written music together like an inspired engine - accelerator and all! In the heyday of the band, the music was sorted and we used to (don't laugh now) beam the energy out to people. The result, invariably, was frenzied boogying.
"This phenomenon occurred with all variations of the band, but particularly with the line-ups featured in these recordings. Another huge pleasure was that the band played all over the country and Africa, especially at the kind of places other bands of the time would not normally play: shebeens, back of trucks, boats, all-night house parties (the old style way in lounges and kitchens with beers chilling in the bath). "We recorded our mini-album in Botswana at Hugh Masekela's mobile studio in 1984. We toured Malawi as the support act for Steve Kekana and his band. Playing hotel lounges and soccer stadiums, and buying peanuts in cones of Braille paper (Steve Kekana is partially sighted), homemade radios and the most potent marijuana in the world ( just about )."
Jimmy continues: "One could say that the band serviced the alternative set in South Africa - that is, the anti-army, anti-police and anti-racism folk. Not too many people, it seemed at the time! The police were surreal in their mindset, actions and justifications. The bosses proved to be squillion times worse. We blithely and naively sailed through all this on the back of great songs and a rock-solid band. In hindsight, I get goose bumps for all sorts of reasons."
In between the different band incarnations and since the final demise of The Dynamics, Jimmy has "done all sorts of things to keep going", while also raising a family, with whom he lives at Howick in KwaZulu-Natal since leaving Cape Town at the beginning of 2001.
"My main burden, today, is dealing with the songs that race through my head with not much chance of capturing them - a natural consequence of diminishing time and increasing responsibilities. Being stuck with an awful and unhelpful (possibly ignorant) publisher does not help matters at all. "I have to date almost 60 songs written and recorded and all safely tucked away with SAMRO (South African Music Rights Organisation) and dozens more being developed. For me, songs are wonderful: I love the way good ones sound and are constructed, the way they trigger feelings and memories. I must thank my friend Jonathon Handley for many things - mostly for all the beautiful and quirky songs he has given us. I still write and play and demo away to this very day."
n Outro: The Cathartic Dance
The former band members' memories remain clear, positive and warming. But better yet, for memory's sake, listen to this compact disc anthology, which spans almost an hour of The Dynamics' inimitable and big-hearted jive. Seven of the 18 tracks have been selected from the sessions for the debut record, It's The Dynamics, while the balance of the tracks comes from Switch It On and Wind It Up and Organic, as well as the band's archives of previously unreleased material.
Enjoy all 18 of these spirited compositions because they form an indispensable part of South Africa's lustrous, though sadly undervalued, twentieth-century musical heritage. Bands like The Dynamics deserve an extraordinarily large hug of appreciation for helping to endure the fear and loathing of 1980s in South Africa. And I can think of no better way to express one's gratitude and joy by performing a simple, four-step ritual in the quintessential spirit of The Dynamics:
(1) Kick off your tacky work shoes and all other pieces of onerous apparel. (2) Take in a deep, invigorating breath of oxygen and relax. (3) Let go of all your mundane preoccupations. (4) Now, jive with all the energy you've got - because the music of The Dynamics remains cathartic after so many years.
Johannesburg, March 2000
Notes compiled and edited by Michael Waddacor of The Writehouse with much-appreciated personal and inspirational support and input from Steve Howells, Harvey Roberts and Jimmy Florence