The Happy Ships

As remembered by Hamish Davidson

Cape Town in 1980 was a wonderful place. Warrick Sony and I had just got out of two years of compulsory national service and it felt like getting out of prison. We were ready to party and the New Wave was sweeping the Peninsula. I got into “The Lancaster Band” playing sax in a trilby and shades and Warrick joined “The Rude Dementals” a punk outfit. Lloyd had a band called “Rubbish” in which Wayne Raath played bass or drums or both.

In terms of venues, there was “1886” and later that year, “Scratch” opened. Scratch was maybe the first reggae club in Africa. If it wasn’t the first then it was surely the best! Jerry Dixon had an incredible sound rig set up and Henry Coombs imported and spun the latest and hottest disks.

By the end of 1980, we had all left our respective bands and were working in small units pursuing experimental stuff. The units were basically Warrick and me on the one hand and Wayne and Phillip Nangle on the other. If it had not been for Lloyd Ross, the “Happy Ships” would not have happened. He seemed to have the energy, positivity, and desire to get us together.

I remember a meeting at Phillip’s house where we all just sat around talking music and seeing if we liked each other. At one point in the evening, Lloyd asked Wayne and Phillip to do their ‘guitar thing’. Warrick and I weren’t expecting to be impressed I can assure you, but what they did was incredible. It consisted of two out-of-sync and somehow interlocking guitar parts that were positively ‘unhinged’. It was pure Captain Beefheart! After that, we both thought, “OK we can work with these guys”. That guitar thing became Egg and Bacon Plantation.

I’ll talk a bit about Egg And Bacon Plantation to give you some idea of how we worked. Warrick found a slow 3 underneath that guitar thing on drums, in effect turning the piece into a waltz and I put a ‘hokey’ horn melody on top. In the army where Warrick and I had both been in a military band, I had learned to get this fractured sound out of the saxophone by singing and blowing through the horn at the same time. Lloyd dug it and from then on I was a happy ship only to the extent that I shredded my reeds. The melody goes into a Star Spangled Banner quote that helps to give the tune its ‘Yankee Doodle’ vibe. We added roosters crowing to complement the manic singing. The whole thing is a bit like a redneck barn dance in the deep South where the moonshine has been spiked with acid!

Towards the end of the piece, the guitar part starts modulating upwards in half steps. On saxophone, this was not as easy to do. Being a relatively limited player at that time, you can hear that I lose it after a while. But not to worry, the whole band loses it shortly afterward and the piece ends in a glorious cacophony. This was a standard Happy Ships type ending. Things fell apart. The center would not hold.

We did only three live performances at the end of the years 1980, 1981 and 1983. We skipped 1982 because that was the year that Lloyd moved to Johannesburg to set up Shifty Records. The first two were resoundingly successful, and the last one, was more of a reunion after we had finished recording the album.

The reason for the success of the first two performances had a lot to do with the venue. Scratch Club had an incredible sound system and a large following. To play through that sound rig was a sheer pleasure. Christ only knows why they took a chance on an experimental band like us because, to my knowledge, no one had played that gig before. They seemed to like us. Jerry Dixon had a history of experimental music himself.

Another reason for the successes was the mix of technology and anti-technology. We had several lovely old analog synths at our disposal, plus effects pedals and drum machines. Then on top of all of this, there were a battery of pots and pans and a plethora of kiddies’ toys. “Not so much Dada as Gaga” I recall one critic saying, which leads on to the final reason for our success……. in a word, ‘expectation’. With at least a year between performances, we were well-marketed and anticipated so that people came there expecting a wild and unpredictable time.

They got it!

An insiders perspective by Warrick Sony

This was a perennial band found in Cape Town during the Christmas holiday season when Lloyd Ross the chief instigator made a southerly pilgrimage to take on a particular type of stress that he wasn’t getting in Joburg, i.e. playing in a band with four very difficult Capetonian slackers, each of weird political and religious leaning. One of the first gigs we ever did was at the reggae /dub club called SCRATCH in Shortmarket Street Cape Town. It was run by a group of very serious hipster/politico/gay/lesbian reggae dub fanatics.

When we arrived for our sound check, our drummer, Wayne, had hung an enormous swastika behind his kit, “To piss the owners off, ” he said. He hated their smugness and political correctness. It took a major dispute to get him to take it down. Then Phillip announced that he had given up normal musical instruments in favour of farming implements, which he unpacked from his bakkie onto the stage. Creative microphone placement was required to correctly capture the sound of a hoe, saw, hammer, and shovel.

Our lead singer, Jono, didn’t actually sing but was very pretty and blonde, which was good for us, given the nature of the club. He also played loose change in his pocket rather well, which required more creative microphone placement. The skill was to capture “the Pocket” with its tiny dynamics. This unique instrument was featured in many songs but never made it onto vinyl due to the fact that its recorded sound was rather like tap dancing mice.

Hamish played sax and guitar between extremely long periods of doing Transcendental Meditation (he paid R5 for his mantra – that’s how long ago this was). He was on a 4-hour-a-day habit occasionally broken by bouts of Whiskey and Marijuana. We also had to put up with the puffy Guru shirt and beard and wild free association rants which came from the seat of pure consciousness. There was some tension with Phillip’s “I AM” – the Pat Grove thing – especially the subliminal lyric inputs with words appearing in songs that went “ I think I should go and get rebirthed”.

While we’re on the subject of lyrics; Wayne had a song called Cigarette, which he refused to write lyrics for on the grounds that no one would ever hear them, “because the PA systems are always so crap”. He fudged along mumbling incoherently and then sang loudly the words “from the outside”. My neurosis about things of meaning propelled me to write more lyrics when we recorded the album, but it had to incorporate that one line. I started with “Cigarette stubs out my brain – sucking it in from the outside”.

I think Lloyd and I were the boring guys in the band who wanted instruments to be played correctly, lyrics to be heard, and everyone to play what they played the same as the time before. I played bass mostly, but we swapped instruments a lot. I never had a turn with the farming implements though. I did play drums on Car Hooter, a song about a new kind of urban terror where at a given moment everyone puts their hands on their hooters and the walls of the city come tumbling down. Anarchy was hip then!

Lloyd played guitar mostly but did everything else with mad Joburg energy (something about the altitude that speeds JHB people up at sea level or maybe just the character type). He came down to Cape Town once a year to do this and weathered the moans and aches and meditations and preparations. He got us to rehearse and even brought down his mobile studio to record us and made an album…a vinyl record. He got his girlfriend to design and silkscreen beautiful covers and he paid the kindly people at EMI to press 500 vinyl copies.

The Happy Ships and Lloyd’s studio were instrumental in making me decide to pack in a career in textile design and head for Joburg, the bright lights of Jameson’s Bar in Commissioner Street, the film industry, and that wonderful studio built in a caravan, the Shifty Mobile.

“Tell that to the young people of today and they won’t believe you”