I’VE always found the idea of a “best song" difficult, never mind a “best song ever". Ever is a long time, way too long for me to have a best song. “Best songs" are too personal anyway, and have little or no relationship to quality of the song as such. (Even “good" is a difficult concept when it comes to music. What is a bad song? One that doesn’t make the hit parade? That repeats, like bubblegum? That’s out of tune? That’s cliched, like um, Boney M?)
How about imagining that music is a river — noooo, not the Rivers of Babylon — being fed by hundreds of tributaries or blocked by weirs and dams that can radically change its character. Sometimes it’s in flood, other times it gurgles along nicely; it swirls, surges, gushes and swells, but it never stops flowing.
I like making playlists, but I rarely make “best of" lists. I’ve thought of making a list of songs that portray the very instant when a new tributary joins the river, or a fork that takes the music in a completely different direction. Like Elvis Presley’s recording of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song, That’s All Right. Suddenly the blues becomes rock 'n roll, and a white boy takes it where it’s never been before.
How about Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop that introduced most of the western world to ska, even if it didn’t know what that was, exactly, and where it came from. Or when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie got together and jammed one sunny Kansas City day, and Billie’s Bounce stuck its head out on the other side, turning jazz upside down. Or Coleman Hawkins taking the Bebop and giving it more freedom than it had before (though that's probably debatable). This list could be a lot of fun.
Of course, I’ve got a list of songs that I love, or rather, songs that have more meaning (to me) than other songs. I love a lot of songs, a LOT, but the ones that trigger emotions are few. How about a list of Songs That Changed Your Life?
Like the song during which you kissed a girl for the first time. Her name is long forgotten, but ironically, I remember the song — Hey Jude, a favourite at garage parties in the upmarket suburb where I grew up because of its length. Length is important — no, not in that way — because you had enough time to build up the courage for that kiss, and believe me, runway is crucial. Or Born to be Wild, Steppenwolf’s echo to my own little teenage rebellion at DF Malan Hoërskool; or God Save The Queen, the Sex Pistols’ punk anthem that plucked me from the claws of a headbanging heavy metal future and introduced me to the far more exciting world of punk rock and new wave in the late seventies; or Shot Down, James Phillips and the Cherry Faced Lurchers’ song that reflects the absolute horror of the entire apartheid eighties period in the 2min 53sec of its duration. I get goosebumps listening to it even now, and a great sadness, too. James… James, gone far too young.
These songs, and many more, reflect my personal development, physical and emotional, and my journey from a teenager to a young man. I can recall the era, even the exact moment, of most of these musical instances.
For example, my instinctive decision, as Paul in the second minute of Hey Jude sings “the movement you need is on your shoulder", that this is the right moment to make my move, and my feet get tangled up and I trip, and it's only the garage wall that keeps us upright as I stiffen my arm against it. Somehow in that almost-tumble I still get the chance to glue my mouth to hers, and that’s when the dancing stops, for the moment, right there against the wall.
Or the first time I listened to a tape a friend gave me on our last day in the navy. It contained 90 minutes of punk rock. His brother had a record shop in Natal and these songs were not yet available to the public. I slotted it into the tape deck of my little Fiat as I drove away from Simon’s Town, my heart light for the first time in two years, and the first song that played was God Save The Queen. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, the singer almost shouting the vocals in an accent that I recognised was not American, but not the British I was used to, either. The sound of anarchic rebellion immediately appealed to me, and I became an instant convert to this all too short middle-finger to the establishment. The rest of the tape contained songs by The Jam, The Damned, the Buzzcocks, The Boomtown Rats and several others, but at that moment it was the Sex Pistols that grabbed me.
Much later I appreciated the far more sophisticated talents of Paul Weller from The Jam, and The Clash’s more mature — and honest — position on politics: “We're anti-fascist, we're anti-violence, we're anti-racist and we're pro-creative,” the band said in an early interview. That struck a chord with me. London Calling, a song filled with dread and the powerlessness of Thatcherite Britain, informed my own views and influenced me in ways I only discovered years later. It would have to be on a list of songs that changed my life.
In 1979, working in a record shop in Stellenbosch exposed me to a local genre I should have discovered a long time before, but didn’t. Why didn’t I? Apartheid, of course, and my own whitey comfort zone. Typically, it was the radio that introduced us to new tunes. When I was younger, I listened to LM Radio (which became Radio 5) and the Springbok Radio Top Twenty, but they would never play a punk or reggae song, never mind mbaqanga, a form of township jive music. This was the staple of Radio Bantu, the collection of regional stations aimed at black listeners, and I, like most whiteys, rarely tuned in to it.
The first time I heard a mbaqanga tune was on a Saturday morning, when the record shop was overrun by farm workers who were jiving to Michael Jackson, but also to mbaqanga. The owner had an unofficial hit parade on the wall behind the counter where new tunes and hits from previous weeks were displayed, and these would be played full blast on the shop’s speaker system.
I was amazed at this music, and even more so when I thought I could hear echoes of Boeremusiek somewhere in the tangle of horns, drums, bass, guitar and squeezebox. This song was a tune called Voetsek Mahala, which could have been by West Nkosi, the Soul Brothers, Makgona Tsohle Band, The Movers, or any of the dozens of bands that most South Africans listened to at the time. I’ve searched for this song everywhere, because I’d like to listen to it again, to try to relive, if I can, what I felt on the day I heard it and its throwaway yet powerful title. No luck so far. But, in retrospect, I’ve realised that even listening to music could be an act of resistance.
In the same year, a few months earlier, I caught a lift to Koeëlbaai with one of my surfer friends, either Pilot, Hasie, Ryno or Durr. Typically, a joint appeared and was passed around. Sometime during the journey, the driver slotted a tape into the cassette player, and the sound that emerged shocked me, for want of better way to describe how I felt. Hearing that guitar chop, the offbeat drums and the heavy upfront basslines of a reggae tune was truly a shock to a system that was used to a far more regular beat. But it wormed its way deep into my head and my consciousness, and I could never unhear it. Not that I wanted to. Stoned, all of us in the kombi grooved to the song, which was followed by others in a compilation that included Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and most importantly Toots and the Maytals’ Pressure Drop, the song about karmic justice that turned me on to reggae.
Reggae was essentially political, a musical form of protest by black Jamaicans against the system that kept them impoverished and on the sidelines of development, even as Jamaica became independent. These dudes were angry. No wonder reggae was banned from our state-controlled airwaves for decades. If ever you need to be convinced of the power of song, look to Jamaican reggae and how the music of a small Caribbean island spread its irie tentacles over the entire planet in just a few years.
The South African eighties followed very much under their own steam. Punk rock was over and done with by the time it popped up here, with the exception of a handful of punk bands such as Wild Youth, Permanent Force, the Illegal Gathering, the Safari Suits and Housewife’s Choice. Isolated by politics and insulated by its counter-culture status, the new wave here produced a crop of musicians and music that should have had more of an impact globally.
Of all the songs that I heard, loved and partied to, such as International News (National Wake), Darky (Corporal Punishment), Fight It with Your Mind (Asylum Kids), ZX Dan (Radio Rats) and a host of others, Shot Down is by far the most powerful. Not that it changed my life, but it pegged it roundly into that square hole that was the eighties. As Shaun de Waal puts it so aptly in his liner notes for the Retro Fresh release of Live at Jamesons: “It is a song that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of youth taking a cold hard look at who they are as white South Africans.”
They say you never lose your connection to the music you grew up with. My formative years were the seventies and eighties. I have a natural fondness, perhaps even a nostalgic bias to the music of this time, especially local music. Naturally, I discovered much more through the years, but the songs that stuck were the ones I was exposed to during that hugely conflicted time. These moments, instances and songs are all crucial to me, but none of them is “the best ever". Honestly, I couldn’t choose one, even if I wanted to.
♦ VWB ♦
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