Vox Populi –The Spectres in their own words

The Spectres story goes something like this: The first incarnation appeared at the end of 1984 and comprised of Gary Rathbone, Richard and Megan Frost and Allan (Scotty) Lusk. Gary, Richard and Megan had worked together along with Tara Robb in their experimental jazz-pop combo Urban Camouflage which had recently broken up while Allan, long time friend and bassist for pop rockers No Exit, had just quit a band called Gaelic Swerve. Everyone was looking to start something new.

Richard’s practice room in St Georges St, Yeoville was the stomping ground for many bands of the time and proved the ideal workspace for the group to start composing.

No matter what time or day of the week you could shut the door on the outside world compose a piece and invite players to contribute (“Brave New World” was the result of that kind of situation).

Gary, Richard and Megan had already been collaborating together on some new pieces and invited Scotty to come and listen. Mostly musical ideas without lyrics, Scotty got down to the business of writing the words that infused the songs with the absurdist humour that became such a defining feature of The Spectres sound. Bearing this in mind it’s no surprise that one of the initial names under consideration for the group at the time was “Don’t Panic Bert!” (taken from a random line in a Commando comic). But the final choice was The Spectres which combined a shared love of the resurgent comic book scene (The Spectre being a comic book character) and a nod to the nascent gothic/horror/kitch that appeared on the fringes of the ‘80’s counter-culture.

Megan Frost left shortly after (maternity leave) the group started off playing at the new generation of alternative venues around Jo’burg in the mid ‘80s like the Prince of Wales, The Chelsea Underground and King Of Clubs, performing these quirky, off the wall pop tunes such as “The Cowboy Song” and “The Epic” (three songs held together by a central theme which spanned over seven minutes when played. Why? Don’t know!) and “Teddy Bear” – a song worked out in the rehearsal room as an ironic statement on the soppy love songs that infested the charts at the time. Humour was always an important part of The Spectres songs - evident in another tune written at the time – “Be-Bop Pop” which poked fun at South African mainstream culture, spiritual pretentiousness and hippies.

This version of the band with Scotty, Gary and Richard sharing vocal duties, split in early ’86 after Scotty received a military call up and retreated to the UK for an lengthy period only to reform (with Megan Frost once again back on guitar) towards the end of the year on his return but now featuring the dynamic Tara Robb as vocalist. The first gig with this framework took place at the Golden Banana in Hillbrow.

Over the next few years the band consolidated its place on the South African music scene gigging constantly around Johannesburg, Durban and Pietermaritzburg as well as doing the obligatory end of year stints in Cape Town for two consecutive years. By the time the second Cape Town residency rolled around Richard had left the band to join The Cherry Faced Lurchers and Megan had left to look after her family. Jeff Kantor replaced Richard on drums and for a brief period the band was joined by Tamara Dutch on keyboard.

But it was at Jameson’s Bar that The Spectres really made their mark, becoming an integral part of the popular venue’s landscape and playing numerous gigs down there. A bit of useless info for the anoraks out there – The Spectres name appeared on more Jamesons gig posters decorating the bar than any other band!

Richard’s return to the band in 1988 marked a period of focus and intense work ethic that had The Spectres practicing three times a week and playing live every weekend and taking the band to another level in their stage performances and song writing . Tracks like “Dreaming”, “Try To Forget”, “Ancient (Secret of Love)” and ‘Pas de Chat’ all come from this period when Tara, Scotty, Gary and Richard started to craft the new material in the rehearsal room. The band also recorded their first proper demo, at Shifty studios, which went on to be named by local music magazine Top 40 as the “Demo of the Year”, earning them a recording contract with Principle Records.

However, the deal with Principle was not to be. After having long expressed an interest in the band RPM A&R Fiona Schenkman finally convinced her colleague Duncan Gibbon to take a look at The Spectres in action. Impressed after watching them play at a Wits Free People’s Concert, Duncan offered the band an opportunity to come through to Gallo studios and demo four songs over two nights. The band went in, including ‘Teddy Bear’ in that session for a bit of a laugh, because it had always been popular at gigs but had never been recorded during any previous demo sessions. Duncan came through to the studio on the second night, when the band were mixing the tracks and happened to arrive just as they were busy with Teddy Bear’. After listening to what was happening for a few moments, Duncan turned to the band and said, “That’s the one… that’s the hit, come to my office tomorrow morning and let’s sign a deal”.

In the end, Duncan Gibbon’s foresight was 20/20. Turning down the offer from Principle, The Spectres signed to RPM and were immediately sent into the RPM studios to record two tracks that would be the band’s first two singles – ‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Ancient (Secret of Love)’ – with the experienced John Lindemann producing. Within weeks of its release, ‘Teddy Bear” was making an impact on the local charts topping first the local music chart on Radio 5 before going to No1 on the Radio 5 charts proper, as well as reaching the top of most of the regional stations such as Radio Algoa and Radio Oranje. 1988 was the year that marked the end of the 7” vinyl single, but ‘Teddy Bear ensured that, from a local perspective at least, the much loved medium went out in style as it became one of the few local releases that year to crack the South African Top 30 in terms of single sales.

The success of the song resulted in the band having to get down and do a lot of work in a very short period of time. “Ancient (Secret of Love)” followed Teddy Bear up the charts (although never quite reaching the heights the debut single achieved) and the band recruited new keyboard player Hilary Kromberg, to augment their live performances and replay the excellent keyboard riff then unknown keyboard player Alan Lazar (Mango Groove) had created for the songs during the studio recordings. Work also started on the album proper, but not before another session at the Gallo studios took place (featuring Hilary on keyboards) where a number of tracks were recorded and considered for inclusion on the album.

These tracks were all one-take live recordings and provide six of the additional bonus tracks on this re-issue (tracks 12-17).

Of the album itself, which was ready for release in 1989 with the title track ‘Be Bop Pop’ as the 3rd single, it is universally acknowledged as being an incredibly well produced record that stands out among the many other dire productions that were prevalent on the music scene at the time.

The album recording took place over many late evenings at the studios with Lindemann insisting that the band keep it “tight as a sharks arse”. How tight is that? “Watertight!”. The sessions demanded a lot of improvisation on the part of the band members with backing vocal and additional pieces being composed there and then. The only negative note struck during the process was Gary’s conflict with John Lindemann over his insistence in adding chunks of overbearing ‘70s guitar rock clichés to some of the tracks, most notably “King of Hearts” and “Working Week” (which explains why the band decided in the end to cut the song from the vinyl version of the album – it appeared as a bonus track on the cassette release only).

At the time, the band continued to be associated with the fringes of urban South African counter culture and political activism of the late ‘80’s particularly the End Conscription Campaign, of which Gary was an active member. The album sleeve included the phrase 'Support Construction Not Conscription’ to clarify the band’s position regarding the politics of the time and to hopefully help increase public awareness of issues such as apartheid conscription. In retrospect, printing this could account for the major album distributor of the time being reticent in stocking and promoting the album despite the commercial success of the 3 singles. As it was, very few copies of the album were to be found in the major chain stores across the country.

Some time after the release of the album Scotty decided to call it a day. He was replaced by bass player Malcom Aberdeen along with keyboard player Richard Pullon and backing singers Tanya Koenderman and Gina Schmukler as the band continued playing live (as well as making some embarrassing appearances on local TV shows such as ‘Musik A La Carte’, the Toyota Top 20 and a predictable string breaking performance from Gary on 'Hot Hits’.

Although the new line-up helped take the live shows to a new level the band finally called it quits when Gary handed himself over at the end of 1989 for arrest rather than render any further service in the SA military. His subsequent trial as a conscientious objector lasted 7 months although the case was eventually dismissed in the new climate of change and reconciliation blowing through South Africa during 1990 following the release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC and the eventual demise of military conscription.

The Spectres story reached its conclusion with a final gig in support of the ECC at the beginning of 1990, at the Wits Student Union Hall with another well known SA pop band from the ‘80s, Bright Blue.

The remaining members of the band would like to reprint this tribute to Tara, who died in 2000, written by Mark Harris and published in Amuzine- African Music Magazine.

“Tara Robb passed away at 5.00am on Wednesday 13th September after a long and brave battle with cancer. She sang her last song at about 7.00pm the night before, surrounded by many friends in her little Wynberg house.

Tara’s voice has been heard by many as the singer for the 80’s band The Spectres. Remember ‘Teddy Bear” and ‘Be Bop Pop’? She also sang with Neill Solomon, Ronnie Domp and, more recently, as one of the Tasty Free Radicals. She was also a clever songwriter and has left behind some good songs which some of us will hopefully keep alive such as ‘Pandora’s Box’ and the enigmatically titled ‘Aspoesterjie, war is Prins Charming nou?’ Tara also had a successful stint as editor of Top 40 Magazine and amongst other achievements, produced a daughter, Savannah.”

From his perspective on the band as the person who signed them to RPM, Duncan Gibbon remembers: “I really don’t have much to add to The Spectres’ story – At the time I recall being hugely frustrated by the appalling crap that came in as demos, and wanting to find something that was a little more intelligent than the clone bands that were simply feeding off the UK and US markets. Personally, I was listening to all the music coming out of Shifty, while knowing that the Gallo cloth-ears would not know how to deal with something so removed from the Pierre de Charmoy/Bles Bridges/Face to Face type act that they were familiar with. Then I heard The Spectres!

There was something fresh and sparkly about the band that veered between the feet and the ears – you could move to them but they also made you listen, and they had none of the false veneer of sophistication that clouded their very strength – simplicity. Live – they were great – a boppy little outfit that broke the mould of the traditional South African pop moodiness, and Tara’s dark voice was the perfect counterfoil for the preppy sound of the band. I still think ‘Teddy Bear’ is one of the great South African singles, and it’s an absolute joy to hear it again (and again and again).

It was very unfortunate that the team that had brought them in to the record company had split before the release of the album, and therefore probably contributed to the lack of continuation of the band’s recording career, but that was pretty symptomatic of the “white” local scene. The good news is that we now have this re-release – a little snapshot of a time when all things were possible – and a very strong testament to local talent”.