Through the Third Eye
October 10 1970 and the great and good of the South African rock and soul scenes had gathered for the 24-hour rock festival in Johannesburg’s Milner Park. Competing for honours at the festival, a musical high-water mark for the country’s top talent, were Freedoms Children, Abstract Truth, Suck, Otis Waygood, Colin Shamley, Hawk and Brian Finch among others. But they weren’t the headliners. That honour went to a five-piece band from Durban with three dynamic albums to their name - Third Eye.
But within a few years of that October day in 1970 - now largely remembered for the off-stage events, when conservative youths backed by the police attacked festival goers and dragged some off to cut their hair - Third Eye had slipped off the South African musical radar. As an increasingly militaristic society withdrew into its cultural laager, accompanied by the relentless beat of disco music, there was no place for the rock heavyweights. Third Eye - as with many contemporaries - were swallowed up by the local cocktail circuit, regional tours and, over time, disappeared. But those three albums - Awakening, Searching and Brother - remained and, as the world slowly woke up to the depth and excellence of South Africa’s rock legacy, they attained mythical status.
At the core of Third Eye were Dawn and Ronnie Selby, a brother and sister team that had been playing together since 1963 in It’s a Secret. With Dawn on organ, Ronnie on guitar and Mike Sauer on bass It’s a Secret played local venues, catering to the insatiable demand for cover versions of Top Ten hits. But, come 1968, even South Africa was feeling the stirrings of the new music emerging from Europe and the US, despite the increasingly draconian government‘s best efforts to resist it. The international recording companies, already well established in South Africa, were looking for home-grown talent to carry the message locally. It’s a Secret - already with a Parlophone single, I Know a Man, to their name - were up to the challenge.
Alongside Dawn, just 14 in 1968, Ronnie and Mike were drummer Robbie Pavid, who moonlighted with the up and coming Abstract Truth, and singer, songwriter and guitarist Maurice Saul, who had come down from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he had played in the Etonians. Fire, a literally incendiary number written by Arthur Brown, was part of It’s a Secret’s repertoire and it was to record this song that Billy Forrest - singer, band leader and producer - brought the five into the Troubadour Studios in Johannesburg.
There was a problem. The producer felt that the name It’s a Secret was “too soft” and that something harder was needed to match “the vibe of Fire”. Third Eye, the title of a spiritual handbook written by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa (later unmasked as British-born Cyril Henry Hoskin), was suggested as an alternative and It’s a Secret transformed overnight into Third Eye. It was an auspicious beginning, and within a few months Third Eye had a hit on their hands. Fire b/w With the Sun Shining Bright began climbing the charts on LM Radio, the first commercial radio station in Africa that was beaming in from neighbouring Mozambique and offering a musical diet far different from that served up by South African state-run broadcasters. A poster for LM Radio’s Top Ten in October 1968 shows Fire challenging for chart honours with Hey Jude, Deep Purple’s Hush and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man. The single stayed in the charts for six weeks.
With a hit under their belts, Third Eye were soon back in the studio to record their first album, appropriately entitled Awakening. It was recorded for release on the Polydor label in just two days in Johannesburg (a trend continued on the next two albums; all three were recorded in a total of six days and released within an 18 month period, a prodigious output). Dawn was at school during the heyday of Third Eye, the others held down full-time jobs and could not take time off so the band had just a weekend to lay down the tracks.
“We didn’t have the opportunity of re-taking many songs as there wasn’t enough time. It was a case of one, two, three go - and see you at the end,” remembers Dawn of the recording sessions. Maurice recalls the primitive conditions. “They put me in a sound-proof booth with ear phones, screaming my lungs out. The band set up in the studio, one amp next to another with some partitions, mics in front of each amp, sound bleeding into each amp, you can imagine.”
Three of the 10 songs on Awakening were written by Maurice. “When I wrote songs I had Dawn’s playing style in mind,“ he says. “My favourite bands at the time were Procol Harem and Spooky Tooth, both using Hammond organs and the swirling sound of the Leslie speaker. That is what attracted me to Third Eye. It was Dawn’s playing style, especially the sound she got from the Leslie’s. She had an assertive attacking style; a genius.”
“At the time there was a magazine called Beat Instrumental,“ says Dawn. “It gave me a nice mention - a comparison to Jon Lord of Deep Purple who was my hero at the time. I was doing my classical piano studies around that time so had quite a classical influence in my playing, but the rock Hammond organ feel was, and still is, my absolute best.” A single, Snow Child b/w Valley of Sadness, was released to promote the album and another track, Apricot Brandy, was used as a play-off signature tune on LM Radio.
With Awakening’s release and Fire a hit Third Eye found themselves in demand. “We played at the Tiles club, Scene 70, the Arena, stadiums and Durban City Hall,” recalls Maurice. “Twice in our City Hall concerts it was so full - people sitting in the aisles, standing at the back - that the fire department wanted to close it down. They were especially worried about the song Fire because when we performed that song - and I mean performed - anything could happen and probably did.”
The second album, Searching, shifted to a more ‘progressive‘ sound, in keeping with the times. All tracks on the album were by Maurice, many reflecting life in the band. Selby’s Hospitality gave a nod to Dawn and Ronnie’s parents; a gig without a stage at the Athlone Hotel in Durban inspired Stagemakers; while I Can’t Believe It reflected an eventful stay in a Durban hotel with communal bathrooms. The 14-minute anti-war message of Awakening, centrepiece of the album, chimed with the zeitgeist of the nation’s youth who faced military conscription and ever-stricter laws.
Never a band to sit on their hands, the five musicians were back in the studio within a few months of Searching’s release to record their third album - Brother. A return for an extended version of Fire and three tracks credited collectively to Third Eye hint at a more collaborative approach to song writing, with Dawn’s driving organ also reflecting the festival-topping unit that Third Eye had become. The music rocked but the lyrics revealed a more reflective dimension. Once Upon a Time Parts 1 and 2 were, says Maurice, “about a person searching for love and greener pastures, not realising that they are there in his own back yard” while Listen to the Bells was about “peace, love and tolerance. We just need to listen”.
Brother marked a watershed: there were to be no more albums from Third Eye. But the music and recording did not stop. The songs Brother and Retain Your Half-Ticket found their way on to Supergroups Volumes 1 and 2 - two Polydor compilation albums released internationally in 1970 that also featured Blind Faith, Jimi Hendrix, Julie Driscoll and John Mayall. A single - Caterpillar b/w What’s Going On - was released in Belgium in 1974 under the Bluejeans label. And in 1975 with Richard Wright, formerly of Leemen Limited, on vocals, a revamped Third Eye recorded three songs - Running Away and All the Time, released here for the first time, and Free.
The money wasn’t coming in, though, and the corporate indifference encountered by the band was taking its toll. Dawn points to the song Free to illustrate the hurdles faced by the band. The single was included in an EMI compilation album released in 2009. But astonishingly, says Dawn “we were never informed that it was going to be released and still don’t know whether our recording was used or if it was covered by someone else”. At least the band received some royalties for Free; they are still waiting for all record labels to pay them the cheques owing for the rest of their music.
“Not having the record company’s support (despite us having signed a very binding contract that still stands today) and the lack of any royalty payments meant it was impossible for us to continue,” says Dawn. “If we wanted to play, and earn something back for what we had put in, we had to go commercial and do the gig band thing. It became a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. To create the music, we needed to spend time with the band. But as the band was not earning us any income we had to work in the day (I started teaching when I was 14) to support ourselves. But this limited our time for rehearsing or travelling to the better gigs.”
Being based in Durban also had its problems. “There has always been a mindset in Durban that you moved to Joburg to ‘make it’. As musicians living 10 hours by road away from Johannesburg, which was the central hub of the South African recording industry, the distance made it extremely hard for us to keep in with what was happening on the music scene. Possibly this is why bands such as Suck, Otis Waygood and Freedoms Children overshadowed Third Eye at that time.”
Third Eye still occasionally emerge into the glare of the spotlight in Durban, fronted by Dawn and Ronnie. The present line-up comprises past members Craig Ross (ex-Freedoms Children and Gonks), Gerald Knott (ex-Allouettes), Graham Buckle (ex-Dunny and the Showmen) and Lynn Selby (ex-Equinox). “I can’t remember too much more of the 1960s,” says Dawn. “All I know is that we had fantastic support from local audiences and it’s amazing to see, so many years later, some of the same supporters coming to our gigs now.”
The last word on that time, some four decades ago, when Third Eye were riding the crest of a creative wave can go to drummer Robbie Pavid. “The late sixties was a time of breaking new ground and exploration and we were doing just that,” he remembers. “It was a good time to be alive musically. As a rock musician I came of age with the Third Eye.”