In the 18 months I worked at EMI South Africa the group I believed the most in was Freedom's Children------this is with the line up of Julian Laxton,Colin Pratley,Ramsey Mackay and Brian Davidson.In fact I believed so much in them that I came close to leaving EMI to manage the group full time with a view
to trying to get them to London to "make it" on the world stage,so to speak.In those days ,however, there were all sorts of obstacles with work permits,UK Musicians Union,SA Exchange Control etc,not to mention the fact that I was only 23,had no capital and had virtually no contacts anywhere outside of SA........so nothing came of this particular "dream" and sadly the limitations of their having to try and evolve creatively within the narrow confines of the SA music scene at that time ,coupled with personal differences some of the members were having , ultimately led to the disintegration of what in my opinion was then and probably still is today (30 years later) the only SA rock group that given the right circumstances in the right geographical location,could have become an internationally successful rock band just by being themselves and doing what they did.
They play it down now. There was no "concept". It was just a straight album. A rush job. No second takes. No deep thought. No angst. No hidden meaning. No secret codes. No subliminal emotions.
Yet Galactic Vibes is an intriguing and compelling experiment in sound. A masterwork. A concept, indeed.
Now, some 30 years after it was recorded and issued on Parlophone vinyl, its apparent casual exploration of inventive technology can be said to have lipped the very periphery of the maelstrom of new sounds only today being refined. The result, then, was an extraordinary one for the times. And can't be repeated, despite the new wave of frightening, sophisticated digital technology. It can't ever be equaled either. The ambiance - the ethos - would be annihilated.
Even a casual examination of what emanated from the flying fingers of Messrs Julian Laxton, Brian Davidson, Barry Irwin and Colin Pratley so long ago leaves today's listener dry-mouthed and breathless - if not only at their sheer mastery, but at the lack of such musicianship in a world besotted by modern terminological inexactitudes like R&B (rhythm and blues is what the Rolling Stones used to play in their early years, not what whining orgiastic female singers attempt today).
An in-depth scrutiny of Galactic Vibes leaves the listener wishing he was in a time machine and could whoosh back the years to the famous dates in Freedom's Children history - like the Out of Town Club. Or the Durban King's Park New Year's Day concert in 1971. Or the other venues when audacious theatre was as much a part of their scene as music. Beam me back, Scotty. And throw away the key. But yesterday has gone. Never to be repeated. And tempus fugit - inexorably. However, I was there.
I saw them. I wrote about them. I talked to them. I edited, in the early 1970s, a weekly pop tabloid journal called Trend for the then Natal Daily News. It was a music publication. Nothing else.
What happened on every stage in Durban was what mattered. We did Scatby Hud, Abstract Truth, Suck, Band of Gypsies, Flames, Hocus, Humphrey, Third Eye, Wild Youth. We did Hawk and Otis. A host of others, too. And Freedom's Children.
But a really close examination of what they were doing never entered my mind. Then.
It was just raw energy, fanned by Laxton's incredible lead guitar, inflamed by Pratley's powerful drums, scorched by Davidson's voice and completed by Irwin's stunning bass. Galactic Vibes may have been a "one-off" - but this group should have found themselves regularly on stage at Wembley Stadium, London, instead of the political pop wilderness this country became, and they were relegated to.
They deserved better. So in your hands is an extraordinary and unique experiment in sound. One that, even now, sounds fresh and new as if it were done just yesterday.
Open your ears to:
Sea Horse (Laxton/Davidson),
The Homecoming (MacKay) (live),
That Did It (Laxton/Davidson),
Fields and Me (Laxton/Davidson),
The Crazy World of Pod: electronic concerto (Laxton),
About The Dove and His Ring (Barry Irwin),
1999 (alternative demo mix).
So where are those magick music men who made it?
And what are they doing now?
Julian was easy - he's in Johannesburg.
Brian I found in Thailand.
Colin is in Durban.
Barry, too, is out there somewhere, and when last heard of was teaching jazz in the United States, after studying at Berklee in California.
He is the only one still "missing."
Ramsay McKay, - included because he played bass on the seminal, long version of The Homecoming on this album - is in Scotland. Word has it he has just mastered yet another solo album, ready to knock British socks off.
But Galactic Vibes - despite the protests - is a concept album.
In the 1970s everyone was doing them - and Freedom's Children was no exception. They made Astra - swathes of sweeping, strong melody lines, and freaky, twirling sounds, and took the country by storm. It was light years from anything ever produced in South Africa.
"It was done on a four-track, plus two track and two metre echo-plate. By pushing and pulling and plugging and unplugging and using my magic box (a combination of early synthesiser, flanger and echolette) and spending 72 hours without sleep, we managed to produce it," Laxton told me some years ago.
"It cost an enormous amount of emotion and we broke every recording rule in the book. In the end we had sounds that nobody had ever heard, or produced, in this country before. But because the multi-tracks were limited we had to layer and layer and layer overdubs. And because there was no noise reduction, we created a sort of musical mystical mist of sound - it became synonymous with us."
It is those same sounds that make up whole segments on Galactic Vibes.
Laxton: "I don't think there was an actual concept, we just tried to do some new and different stuff. As for Pod . . . it was dedicated to a crazy girl I was going out with at the time and I had nicknamed her Pod. She was a strange chick."
Strange as the sounds Laxton pulled from his magic box - strange as the sounds being made then by Pink Floyd, like Ummagumma.
Floyd had made the stunning album on the new EMI Harvest label in October 1969, using wind machines, taped loops and concocted sounds. It was the freedom to experiment that gave each band member half a side to himself. The result was a dynamic, different double album containing tracks like Set the Controls to the Heart of the Sun, Astronome Dominee, the fretfull, ghastly Careful With That Axe Eugene and others like the Grand Vizier's Ball. Crux of it all was the wall of weird sounds into which the music was dropped.
James Barclay Harvest produced similar concept stuff in 1969.
Genesis did Trespass in 1970, again breaking away from ordinary sounds.
Deep Purple did The Book of Talisyn the same year. The Nice turned into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in 1970, experimenting with similar sounds, with Keith Emerson pictured stabbing his keyboard with a huge knife to retain the chord he wanted.
Kraftwerk began sending loops of sound through tapes in the middle of 1970. Tangerine Dream began their experimentation in 1970 with Electronic Meditation; the Moody Blues did Days of Future Passed and the Strawbs (with Rick Wakeman) produced Dragonfly.
Freedom's were a part of that international wave of sound experimentation. But they were stuck in South Africa, a land writhing with political discontent, and cultural embargoes. Effectively it could be said that apartheid ended Freedom's burgeoning, brilliant life.
They should have been in London.
They were banned from playing there. The British Musicians' Union was too strong to defy. Nevertheless, they produced Galactic Vibes for local consumption.
Laxton: "Funny thing is, we weren't into Pink Floyd at that time, even though some people thought our music sounded similar.
"I recently even had an e-mail from someone in London asking how it was that Pink Floyd was 'copying our sound.' They never did. And we didn't copy theirs either. There were even reports of me passing on to Roger Waters the secrets of the magic box. Point is, we were experimenting, all of us.
"But it was a strange question. I didn't reply. Some of my arrangements and sound on Fields and Me were prompted by King Crimson's The Court of the Crimson King. It had nothing to do with Floyd.
"On Pod, I made sound loops and multi-tracked them. Then overdubbed more sounds from the magic box, with its flanges, echoes, and synthesiser modes. I felt that we were doing something different, I still do."
Laxton has always been different. Today he runs his own club - Julian's - featuring local musicians. He's been doing film scores for years and says another one is on the way. Currently, Julian's features the music of Jimi Hendrix.
The night Colin Pratley broke his wrist, 10,000 people saw him do it. He bashed it on the side of his drum-kit as he went into one of the seminal live solos of South African music.
The Home Coming. The long version.
It was given all the artistry he could muster - and at some 14 minutes long, that was considerable. It was awesome and bizarre.
As Laxton's swirling electronic sounds faded spectrally out, Pratley's right hand caught the edge of his one drum.
He cried out, faltered for a few seconds, and then carried on. From where I was sitting, on the grass just below, it was an agonising moment.
Only at the end, when he slumped from the kit, did the ecstatic crowd packing King's Park Stadium, Durban, realise what had happened.
He had been playing with a broken wrist.
In agonising pain, he thrust his long flowing black hair from his face, and was helped into an ambulance. And the stadium crowd, calling for an encore, went quiet with concern.
It was the evening of New Year's Day 1971.
Freedom's Children, despite the temporary loss of South Africa's finest rock drummer, had conquered again.
Pratley: "The Homecoming drum solo started as an interlude but soon developed into a solo as such. It was an African drum technique, a natural rhythm that I later expounded on (in the group Wildebeest for instance) when we played live.
"I discovered that I could expand on various techniques, but eventually I found there was little new I could do with the sticks - so I experimented, using my hands on a conventional drum kit - you can hear it clearly on The Homecoming on Galactic Vibes. There is a distinct break when I shift from sticks to hands.
"The rest of them wandered about when I began the solo - and when I picked up the sticks at the end, it was a sign for them to come back on stage.
"Sometimes, Julian, Brian and Barry would disappear completely when I started that solo and much of my technique was employed trying to get them back on stage. I never knew if they were watching me. They could sure hear me.
"At times, there were tense moments. I couldn't see because of the spotlights. But eventually they came back on stage - although I had to improvise until they did.
"I worked on a basic framework for the solo but no version was ever the same. Oh, and there were times when I broke the bass drum skin and had to play without it."
Pratley's version of The Homecoming on the Astra album was curtailed - because there was not enough room on the vinyl to contain the whole 14 minute track.
Touring was part of the deal.
Pratley: "What I can remember about those days vividly was being sent on a nation wide tour in a VW Kombi. EMI paid us R1 a day each.
"But the real 'trick' was to get Laxton to stop the bus in order to find the nearest bush - and believe me, through the Free State, this took some creative planning.
"Laxton was always wanting to get there. He was always a man in a hurry. We were always very tired. I was angry at the 'system' and it came out through my drumming I suppose. We were all affected by the politics at the time.
"Barry Irwin was never allowed into hotels and had to sleep in the Kombi and at some concerts in really politically sensitive towns, had to wear a T shirt over his head. Barry wasn't white like us.
"It's a pure miracle that we came out alive.
"I have not been active musically since establishing our home Shepherd's Keep - a home for abandoned AIDS babies in Durban. But I have lately applied myself to the African drums again. I have developed Drums Triumphant - A Voice for the Voiceless . It's a show in which I use 100 hand made drums, all to raise awareness of the plight of AIDS sufferers and the tragedy of HIV positive babies who are regularly abandoned. Shepherd's Keep takes them in.
"This is what I am currently working on. It's the time in my life that through my drums, I can focus my musical talent on that which I believe is part of God's purpose for my existence.
"I don't visualise Drums Triumphant as an ongoing vehicle. My life is consumed together with my wife, Cheryl, in caring for abandoned babies at Shepherd's Keep."
Pratley: "I was listening to it the other day. It could never be compared to Galactic Vibes which you can describe as a 'naked expression' of Freedom's music on the road."
Brian Davidson (via e-mail from Thailand): "It will be quite difficult to remember all the things that happened so long ago on the making of Galactic Vibes.
"While it may have seemed so, Ramsay McKay never sang on Astra at all. His vocal contribution was the poetic speaking voice on the last track.
"All the voices, the harmonies, double or treble tracks were sang by yours truly.
"Ramsay played bass on the live version of The Homecoming which was recorded at the Out of Town Club.
"He also wrote the version of 1999 which appears on Galactic vibes.
"After Astra and Ramsay's departure from Freedom's Children, EMI were screaming for a second album.
"We had no time, really, to consider any particular theme, but Jules and I sat down to work this problem out. After Ramsay's artistic control on Astra it was really great to let it all out ourselves. After the gruelling tours we were both at the top of our game anyway.
"The album took no time at all to record. Single takes were the name of the game. Jules was absolutely superb in everything he touched. Barry Irwin and Colin slotted in perfectly. It just came flowing out.
"Jules just used, as usual, his magic box to get the most amazing sounds again, and he played acoustic guitar on all tracks, as well as electric. We combined the EMI orchestral division on some of the tracks and that also worked out wonderfully.
"I really loved the album. I had the freedom to sing what I wanted, how I wanted. Jules brought the chords and I brought the voice. This simple, free partnership paved the way to the album. I'm very pleased about the way it's being presently handled.
"I'm teaching English in Thailand, at a secondary school full time and also singing with a great Thai blues band. I'll be in South Africa soon on holiday".
Like Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra and later Gemini Suite, marrying the sounds of electric guitar, bass, drums and voice to orchestra was yet another milestone in the art of the "concept" album.
On Galactic Vibes, they add to the space and depth.
Robin Netcher was the arranger - with Laxton, moulding sound sequences around the main themes.
At the time, this is how EMI's publicity machine saw the original issue of Galactic Vibes:
Engineered by: Leo Lagerway
String arrangements by: Robin Netcher
Cover design and photography by: Ricky Alexander
Lettering by: Jemima Hunt.
Galactic Vibes is about Colin Pratley's outstanding drum solo, applauded by audiences all over the country, and captured 'live' at the Out of Town Club. It's about Barry Irwin's transition from driving bass player to lyrical composer on the orchestrated About the Dove and his King which features a 25 piece string section. Galactic Vibes is about the magic that is Brian Davidson. The emotion of Fields and Me and the taste of blood and dirt. It's about the technical brilliance of Julian Laxton illustrated on The Crazy World of Pod, which features his electronic synthesizer.
Galactic Vibes is the presence of Ramsay Mackay on 1999. It's the influence of people looking into tomorrow. Freedom's Children are the No. 1 group in South Africa today. Their last album Astra was acclaimed by critics as a milestone in pop recordings. The group has twice toured the country and played to capacity houses everywhere. At Durban on New Year's Day they received a standing ovation from 10,000 beautiful people.
"If you've seen them, you know. If you haven't seen them, we're sorry that your life is a little emptier."
And in a press release:
"Undeniably the greatest 70s heavy psych band to come out of South Africa and arguably in the top ten of the world for the genre and era. This album (their third and final LP) followed the well known and amazing Astra LP and has an incredible 16 minute live version of The Homecoming . . . a classic blistering, wailing masterpiece song of 70s heavy psychedelia whose shorter, studio version was featured on the Astra album.
"This live version allows the listener to travel back in time and experience the thunderous raw cosmic energy of this great group, replete with banshee wailing, swirling psychedelic fuzz-wah guitar, intertwining and twisting, screeching, fazed out vocal, heavy-as-lead thumping, melodic bass & and arm-breaking megalomaniac drumming.
"At live concerts the drummer would play a drum solo with his bare hands until they began to bleed (listen for the hand drum solo halfway in the solo).
"The guitar player cavorted about like a mad scientist, squeezing frightening leads out of his guitar, while twisting knobs and hitting switches on a 3 feet high self-made effects machine (similar shape to a time machine).
"The singer catapulted all over the stage, screeching and using his microphone stand as an axe to chop amps, organs and P.A. speakers.
""Colin, the drummer used to walk in from the back wearing a white sheet and a candle and that's how the gig would start . . ."
And that's how thousands of Freedom's Children fans will remember them.
Helped now by this issue of Galactic Vibes.
A masterpiece in time and space.
- Owen Coetzer, Cape Town.