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James Phillips: Famous for not being famous

Hey rock 'n roll where did you go,
when the okes started moving at the disco?
Won't you tell me if you're still around
because I'm not going to listen to that factory sound.

- "Rock and Rolls Royce", James Phillips

This is a black and white photograph of James Phillips as Bernoldus NiemandOne of the most influential stalwarts of the Shifty Stable, James Phillips was a performer, composer and cultural pot stirrer who refused to compromise. James the Boptist, Bernoldus Niemand, Bartholomew Biased, ex-Private Willie Smit from De Aar... he used various musical incarnations to show that white musicians could sing about what was happening in their own backyards, in unashamedly South African accents, or even in Afrikaans, using mordant wit to poke at the belly of the apartheid beast.

It was the raw, angry, frenetic, politically incisive street sound of his first band, Corporal Punishment, with tracks like “Brain Damage” and “Darkie’s going to get you”, that inspired Lloyd Ross to start thinking about recording non-commercial South African music.

He's a supervisor, takes a lot of skill
To be in charge of forty kaffirs, that's responsible
He doesn't mind that he gets all the pay 'cause
Mr Arrie Paulus say they're just baboons anyway

- "Brain Damage", James Phillips and Carl Raubenheimer

James Phillips performing in the band Corporal PunishmentAfter a short-lived summer holiday band, Illegal Gathering, that also pulled no punches, and his sly turn as the satirical, enigmatic South African everyman, Bernoldus Niemand, Phillips formed the Cherry Faced Lurchers in 1984. ‘Do The Lurch’ became the signature song at Jamesons bar where they kept the fire of the Jo‘burg jol burning.

But it was the Lurchers’ “Shot Down” that evoked the terrible Emergency Years and spoke “directly to the hearts and minds of a youth taking a cold hard look at who they are as white South Africans.”1

Commercial success eluded James, but he remained the real South African musician’s musician. According to Koos Kombuis:

“he was way before his time. In another time, at another place, James Phillips would have been an international star.”

A homage to serious rock and roll (horn section and all), his Sunny Skies album drew on the talents of Shifty comrades. Willem Möller called it:

“James’s most accomplished and most sophisticated album... his new songs reflected his hopes and fears for a new South Africa, and the dark and angry words of the 80’s were being replaced with songs of optimism…”

James died in 1995, aged 36, after a car accident but he lives on through his extraordinary back catalogue. For Lloyd Ross, the honour of having recorded James Phillips’ entire repertoire remains one of Shifty’s greatest achievements.

I want to wash the tears away
I want to soften all your pain
I want that no more should remain
I want the world to start again.


1Shaun de Waal,  liner notes to the Retrofresh CD release of ‘Live At Jamesons’  


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