31 July 2014

You light me a light...

"...the key rock n' roll intelligence of the Eighties" - Shaun de Waal

"There is no exaggerating the importance of Phillips' music to the struggle for a new South Africa"- Darryl Accone

"Phillips deserves recognition as South Africa's greatest pioneering rocker" - Pat Hopkins

Collage of album covers of James Phillips' various bands and musical identities

31 July marks the anniversary of the death of musician James Phillips in Grahamstown at just 36 years old.

A man of many musical incarnations, from early Springs band Corporal Punishment and short-lived summer holiday band Illegal Gathering, through his turn as satirical Afrikaans alter-ego Bernoldus Niemand, to his time as a Lurcher, Phillips is described by his friend, musical collaborator and fellow Corporal, Carl Raubenheimer, as an "East Rand cowboy, singer, songwriter, musician, guitarist, composer, cultural icon, voice and conscience to generation of apartheid-era (and after) white South Africans."

For many, Phillips was the real South African musicians' musician, inspiring awe in many of his musical collaborators at Shifty Records. Koos Kombuis, when interviewed in the Voelvry DVD, stated that "he was way before his time. In another time, at another place, James Phillips would have been an international star."

More recently, when speaking with Professor Michael Drewett, as part of SAHA's Shifty Records Legacy Project, Koos Kombuis went on to explain how James contributed to his career:

I became one of the Shifty crowd, with Shifty – one of their recording artists. I – and I finally realised my dream of meeting James Phillips in the flesh, becoming friends with him, it was – it was – I was quite awestruck, I remember...James, sort of took me under his wing for a while, and he – he tried to teach me – music. 

Then speaking about recording his second album, Koos recalled how James brought his musical expertise to bear on the collaborative recording model that was such a feature of both his career and the Shifty Records modus operandi:

...it was a very professional product. Thanks to James, who actually wrote sheet music for every song, and arranged every song. And then we did it the hard way, we – we did a live recording from – from the music. We rehearsed it, with a full band, and then we played it all together, there were no separate tracks. And that was – that was – I thought at the time that was the way you do it. I didn’t realise that was the – that was the hard way to record – also the most decent way to record, ’cause that – that was a true, authentic recording of us playing together. And I think – I still think that’s probably my favourite Koos Kombuis recoding, it was fantastic. And the spirit of everyone really came through, it was a great record.

In another interview, musician and songwriter Matthew van der Want recalls meeting James at the Shifty Records studio:

James Phillips would wander in and out of the studio and say ‘Howzit,’ and … I mean he came and watched me play the one time, which was pretty amazing because I was completely in awe of that music, and I suppose I still kind of am, especially his – especially James. I think, I think that guy made – some of the best music, or the best music, certainly the best songwriting that we’ve ever had ... it still amazes me that it’s not really recognised, that music – his music in particular... was just – extraordinary. And – and it still is, and I still listen to it often.

Extract from James' notebook with draft lyrics for

Recognition of James' talent is not limited to old Shifty friends. In July 2014, James was recently acknowledged, along with fellow Voelvryer Johannes Kerkorrel, iby the South African Post Office in a new stamp series singing the praises of South African popular music legends.

Recently, two of James' songs appeared on a Sunday Times list of The 100 Greatest South African Songs. Tymon Smith described the 1985 Bernoldus Niemand track "Reggae Vibes is cool" as follows:

A stomach-thumping, smoke-infected dub classic, with a beautifully executed guitar riff, all channelled through the pidgin Afrikaans-English of James Phillips's alter ego - a soutie from Springs. Ja man, "maar dis lekker." The conscription generation may be more partial to "Hou my Vas Korporaal," but there's no better South African song than this, with its still poignantly relevant chorus, which asks the fundamental question of how one lives in this strange place.


Lyrics to The other track to make the list is the Cherry-Faced Lurchers track "Shot down in the streets", an anthem for white resistance to apartheid that remains scarcely heard by most South Africans as it was specifically refused airplay by the SABC upon release in 1985. Shaun de Waal described the song as such:

"...James's songwriting skills can be heard coming into their full maturity in Shot Down, a song that for many is the very essence of the Eighties, of the Emergency Years, of the last and most terrible writhings of the apartheid state.

It is a song that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of a youth taking a cold hard look at who they are as white South Africans. We knew exactly what James meant when he said he saw his life gathered in the palm of his hand and saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man - that one who got shot down in the street. They shot people in the streets in those days. A lot."

To commemorate his contribution to South African music, Oppikoppi's main stage has forever been named in Phillip’s honour. And this year, revellers at Oppikoppi's 20th anniversary festival will have the opportunity to support Shifty September in raising money to get James Phillips and the Lurchers' lost classic "THE OTHERWHITE ALBUM" re-released this time next year.

And if you'd like to get your name in this long overdue re-release, head over to the Shifty September crowdsourcing page on Thundafund and buy a WIE IS JAMES PHILLIPS? reward...

To mark James' passing, The Bioscope independent cinema is screening the documentary about James, Famous for not being famous, reflecting on the political and social forces at play that formed his unique consciousness.

Screenings are on Friday 1 and Saturday 2 August.