Working for the people ... The Rabbitt Story

Great rock bands are born young, nurturing their own wild dreams through years of setbacks until they get their break. One is all it takes; by then they’ve built all the muscle and scar tissue they need to punch way above their weight and become icons of their generation. Three decades ago, South Africa’s Rabbitt ruled for five short years. They were dazzling on stage, innovative in the record studio, a media phenomenon in the Press and in the early years of television. They were world class long before offers of international contracts began flooding in.

Trevor Rabin, Neil Cloud and Ronnie ‘Robot’ Friedman were scared of no one. Luck didn’t feature in their planning. They studied their competition, practiced non-stop and went for it. At 16 they were the cocksure trio Conglomeration, wonder brats of clubs and the festival circuit countrywide. By 21, their debut album was a sensational first step to the elite of rock music in Europe and the States. Neil and Ronnie, on drums and bass, had the ability and attitude to match any rivals. The ace was Trevor – on guitar, up to speed with John McLaughlin and Eric Clapton; on keyboards, matching the classical arrangements of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. His musical discipline is inbred; his parents played for the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra and taught him to work creatively with precision, grace and passion.

Their journey began so young that their parents had to drive them and their equipment to gigs all over the city. “If Rabbitt had stayed together from that time, we’d be as famous today as Guns ‘n Roses or Aerosmith,” says Ronnie. “We were dedicated about making it all the way, worldwide. Neil and Trevor and I had been together from primary school. We had our first pro band before I turned 12; we called ourselves the League of Gentlemen, playing Beatles hits at birthday parties. The grannies thought we were cute but the kids of our own age took us seriously. We grew with our audience.”

Today, instant pop success is the format of reality TV. Back in Joburg in 1970, before television opened, a hot teen rock and roll band had no shortcuts. You played till your fingers bled and chased bookings for petrol money at every club around town, from the headbanging badlands of the industrial Reef to the treadmill of doing requests in upmarket city nightclubs. Frustration led to fistfights, often amongst each other. “We shared the same vision and even at 15 we knew it would take more than playing a six-month residency at clubs like Ciro’s playing cover versions,” says Trevor. “The anger was released through our music. There was no point being in a band unless we could play our own material and the harder we played the more frustrated we became. At times even punches would fly.”

It made them even hungrier. At 16 years old, they won a car on the Sounds 69 contest and used to get their gear to venues like Club Tomorrow and Benoni’s Spooky Tooth. “None of us had a driving licence yet but we used that car to play hundreds of gigs,” Trevor recalls. “But only those that would allow us to play our own music as part of the set.”

The pressures on the youngest of the city’s pro bands was intense, especially when they finished high school and army training split them up. They couldn't get a record contract but they were in demand all over town for recording sessions on pop, rock, blues, jazz, mbaqanga and gospel albums. Neil got his call-up first, leaving Trevor and Ronnie playing with headline blues-rock outfits like Freedom’s Children. When their own papers arrived, they wound up in the entertainment unit, playing waltzes and jive for regimental orchestras at dances for the top brass. By 1974, when they were all back in Johannesburg, Conglomeration was yesterday’s news. Trevor was playing in the theatre orchestra for Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and Neil was drumming in a Portuguese restaurant called the Cohimbra. They were bitter, hurting and wouldn't even talk to each other. It was Ronnie who broke the deadlock. “We needed to play together again but two giant egos were getting in the way,” he says. “The only thing all three of us were agreed on was that we were still the best in town. So I went looking for somewhere to prove it. Take It Easy was the toughest club to get into, run by managers from Eastern Europe who only cared about filling the place. I hustled them for weeks to give us a break.” Neil agrees that Robot was the driving force behind the reunion: “He found the club, got us together, then took us to Patric van Blerk to set up an album deal.”

Maybe the break was what they needed. They signed to Satbel Records in 1976 with the freedom to record their own music. They also accepted marketing advice from producer Patric. They changed their name Rabbitt to reflect the current the UK football graffiti - Rabbitt Rules, OK – but what appeared on Boys Will Be Boys however was ten tracks of pure Conglomeration, perfected in front of Take It Easy’s packed and screaming fans. Their cover of Jethro Tull’s hit Locomotive Breath sums it up. Neil and Ronnie’s precise beat launched Trevor’s searing guitar riffs and solos. “We didn’t do many covers but that song was always requested,” says Neil. “We developed a version far superior to the Tull single; we were better musicians. Ronnie and I were tighter on the rhythm section and Trevor was in the same category as Clapton by then.”

Locomotive Breath was issued as a single to test the market for a Rabbitt album. It made Top 10 and the album went ahead on a manic, ten-day recording schedule. Except for the last-minute addition of Duncan Faure’s voice on the harmonies of Hard Ride, Boys Will Be Boys is all Trevor, Neil and Ronnie. At 21, they weren’t intimidated - their experience of playing all those sessions for other album artists shines through all these ten tracks. The orchestrations set new standards in rock music, astonishing for a debut album made on a deadline. The cellos and violins woven into headbangers like Hard Ride and ballads like Charlie add a knife-edge to the beat. Trevor was as clever by then with string arrangements as Keith Richards was with guitar riffs, and he’s built his career on that understanding ever since. “I don’t care how high they crank up the amps on stage,” he commentated at the time, “it can never compare to the power of a full orchestra”. Patric’s lyric and Trevor’s melody turned Charlie into a radio hit; Boys Will Be Boys sold 25 000 within weeks and won the 1976 Sarie award (South Africa’s Grammy equivalent) for Best Contemporary Pop album. Concerts were deafening, even before the PA was switched on. Bringing in Duncan was Patric’s idea, widening the band’s stage appeal and adding another songwriter. It worked. Star acts like Tina Turner and Tom Jones came and went in venues like Joburg’s huge Colosseum or His Majesty’s Theatre, but Rabbittmania outshone them all.

While setting the pace in the rock market the band also kept in step with the next generation of South African music - working in the studio with a wave of talent from Soweto and the Cape like Jonathan Butler, Margaret Singana and Richard Jon Smith. The Rabbitts played on dozens of albums, often uncredited, on material ranging from supermarket pop to blues, jazz and mbaqanga. Mike Makhalamele’s Mind Games jazz album, for example, has Mike playing John Lennon standards with Trevor, Ronnie and Neil. Trevor and Mutt Lange were the two young producers in demand. It was invaluable experience that Trevor would later use to win a Grammy award and Mutt went on to use on recordings with Bryan Adams and Shania Twain. “Mutt wanted to produce Rabbitt in London,” says Trevor, “but I wasn’t keen. Why go over there? I was with the biggest band in South Africa.” American Don Arden at Jet Records was also interested back then, believing the Johannesburg band had more musical potential than his prized ELO – a grungy-looking crew making a fortune from cello-sawing Beatle-pop. Knowing this, Trevor and Duncan began writing material which would measure up to expectations for Rabbitt’s second album – while also calling in favours to get the SABC to film them playing feature tracks live in studio. The costumes were over the top and the acoustic levels were kept below the red zone but songs like Hold On To Love and Everybody’s Cheating were the first rock videos in the SABC’s early days of television. A Croak and A Grunt In The Night sold gold on advance orders ahead of its release in 1977. The 17 tracks laid down in its plush new Main Street studio measured up to the standards in Europe and allowed Trevor to push the creative limits. He worked with Duncan to reshape his songs the Rabbitt way. Neil analyzed Nigel Olssen’s drumming on Elton John’s top-selling Yellow Brick Road double album and added it to his own technique. “We were ready to make a great album,” Neil says now. “Expectations were high.”

‘Croak’ carried on Rabbitt’s reputation for innovation. Duncan’s Sugar Pie and Lonely Loner Too were crafted for London’s commercial pop sound. His Dingley’s Bookshop was the first South African sitcom theme by a rock group. Veteran Joburg session musicians came by late at night to hear the pre-mixes and and shake their heads in amazement. The short intro cuts TC Rabin in D Minor and Schumann on each side of the vinyl were dazzling samples of rock orchestration, sliding into the sleek ballads I Sleep Alone and Hold On To Love. Working For The People is a power salute to the Soweto school riots the year before. The band also does a version of anarchic poet Ramsay McKay’s Tribal Fence, making their own statement in the growing protest movement in a full-throttle, up-yours, rock and roll style. ‘Lady Afrika’ Singana duets with Rabin on vocals at the height of her powers, shortly before the stroke that would confine her to a wheelchair. The lyric eerily forecasts the year that Nelson Mandela would walk out of jail and end apartheid rule: “Say you are my lover/Say you are my child/But there’s bound to be a mother/Though she’s 1990 styled”.

Nowadays, Trevor composes the soundtracks for mega-budget Hollywood movies, enhancing the performances of stars like Will Smith, Nicholas Cage, Denzel Washington and Samuel L Jackson. His theme music backs the American baseball and basketball games and his Remember The Titans score thunders behind the Olympic Games telecasts. He plays guitar with symphony orchestras and the elite of MTV. Some don’t even know his name when they set out to find him, but they all know his unique sound. It was carved into vinyl thirty years ago. “When Michael Jackson called to ask me to play on his History album, for example, he wanted the guy playing guitar on the Yes album 90125,” Trevor says. “That was what he knew. He didn’t know it came from those sessions I did back in the Rabbitt days. I learned everything from those albums we made in 1975-7.”

The second album, and the chaotic, sell-out tours they played all over Southern Africa to promote it, wound up the two-year Rabbitt contract with Satbel. The momentum was too great to sit around waiting for the record companies, attorneys, agents and promoters to agree on a deal for the group to continue. The giant EMI company wanted them in London but each member had competing offers to go solo. By early 1978, Trevor was recording a solo album, Beginnings, in downtown Johannesburg before remixing it in London as the next step en route to rock stardom and Hollywood. Neil was touring the US with platinum seller Peter Frampton. Duncan joined Britain’s teen icons, Bay City Rollers. Ronnie opened his own record company in Joburg, and like Patric, became key players in the next big news in South African music – township pop, R&B and soul. Ironically, the long-awaited breakthrough came a decade later - when Paul Simon spent six weeks, like Rabbitt, in the same Satbel studio, recording ‘80s township mbaqanga artists for his mega-selling Gracelands CD.

Could Rabbitt have made it worldwide? Every chord in this collection backs it up. And the trajectory of their individual careers since then proves they’re four of a kind together or apart. Duncan, who was in the States during interviews for these liner notes, went on to write for Madonna. Neil moved into the office furniture industry and is now an innovative force in the world décor market. Ronnie’s still in entertainment, closing in on a million DVD sales worldwide in the children’s education sector. Trevor won his Grammy for the 1983 rock classic Owner Of A Lonely Heart as guitarist and producer of Yes, and he still maintains he could have done even more with Rabbitt. He and Neil bought the rights to the Rabbitt catalogue. This re-release marks the band’s 30th anniversary, not as a business move but as a tribute to their brotherhood in creating this short and dazzling chapter in the story of South Africa’s music.

Doug Gordon
Johannesburg 2006