James Phillips

Photograph  :  John Hogg.  (c)

James Phillips, who died aged 36 in July 1995, was a composer, musician, bandleader and the voice and conscience of a generation of white South Africans. His music was born at the same time as the Soweto Riots and then fused in a strangely comfortable way with the punk musical explosion. His songwriting bloomed through apartheid’s darkest years and into the dawning of the new era.

James was a complex human being, selfish whilst showing extraordinary selflessness, giving time and often what little money he had to those in need. He drew people in, everyone was a friend of James. He lived too the rock & roll lifestyle, his capacity for the jol was legendary and abstention foreign to his nature. But despite his often arrogant and undisciplined way of approaching his life, the legacy he leaves is that of one of the most aware, articulate and passionate artists to have been produced by this strange land.

This is the band that inspired me to start recording “non-commercial” South African music in the first place. I was lucky enough to be around when they were peaking in the late Seventies. I remember their performances as generating the kind of energy that only seems to come from flirting with a certain degree of chaos. Though this mayhem was amplified by badly organized gigs and crap sound systems, their youthful brilliance never failed to shine through. They also had a street political consciousness that was raw, angry and credible – never PC, but driven by the idea of what was right. And brave – who else would write a song with the word “kaffir” repeated many times in the chorus. Because of this ironic perspective, Brain Damage is one of the most powerful protest songs ever to come out of South Africa. Lloyd Ross.

The second collaboration between James Phillips and Carl Raubenheimer was a band in the Cape Town summer of 1981. Over 6 weeks Illegal Gathering gestated, gigged and recorded, leaving behind a collection of eclectic and inspired songs that reminds one of a low budget White Album.

Quoted as one of the main influences for ‘boerepunk’ heroes Johannes Kerkorrel and Koos Kombuis to start writing the songs that would later change the face of Afrikaans music, this could be regarded as the album that started all the trouble. Songs about smoking zol, girls, cars, the army, moustaches, Springs, Pretoria and other aspects of white trash SA lifestyles. A cataloguers nightmare. File under B for Boerepunkountryrockballadreggaepopubblegum.

James Phillips’ early incarnation of the Lurchers, a three piece unit dedicated to keeping the fire of the jol burning throughout the darkness of the apartheid Eighties. And on fire they were on a memorable night in 1984 at Johannesburg’s numero uno live music venue, Jameson’s. Captured in glorious stereo by the Shifty Mobile this album features ‘Shot down in the street’, one of the greatest ballads to have been written in or about South Africa.

James’ piece de resistance, his homage to ‘serious rock and roll’. Together with stalwart bassist Lee Edwards, he drew together the cream of SA rock musicians, horn section and all. Written during the early 90’s in that bizarre period when the Rainbow Nation was experiencing the political poo hitting the fan before South Africa’s first democratic elections, the album walks the path of careful optimism, with a healthy sprinkling of pessimism.

Originally recorded as a demo, this session turned out to be the definitive example of the essential James Phillips: intimate, single instrument and voice, lots of emotion. Recorded in one two hour session in 1991, it was only released after his death four years later. The songs span a large chunk of his writing career, from his time as a student in Grahamstown to new compositions that would end up on ‘Sunny Skies’.

A ‘best of’ album of Made in South Africa collects James’ most memorable songs stretching over his entire career, from the raw energy of Corporal Punishment to the sophisticated arrangements of ‘Sunny Skies’.