A Shifty Story

The Rise, Fall And Resurrection of Shifty Records

By Lloyd Ross (MD & founder) – December 2006 – a personal account


In late 1977, at the age of 20, I returned to South Africa after spending a year in the UK, where I had been invigorated by exposure to the new punk phenomenon. In transit to Cape Town, I spent a few days in Johannesburg where I caught the Radio Rats playing at the Market Café, a venue run by Dave Marks inside the Market Theatre. Though not exactly punk, their music did have an energy and freshness that I wasn’t expecting to hear in South African music. I resolved to join the band, reckoning in youthful arrogance that they needed my input. I had been in a couple of unremarkable bands before this and fancied myself as a lead guitarist. Band leader Jonathan Handley kindly agreed to meet me a day or two later at the Koffiehuis at the Carlton Hotel, where he told me politely my services were not required.

Then followed a period of little ambition in Cape Town, assembling pizzas, dabbling in music, attempting to make guitars and going to the beach a lot. During this time the Radio Rats began making waves in the national media, having a hit with ZX Dan. In the Sunday Times I read that they were looking for a lead guitarist, prompting me again to get on the phone to Jonathan. His response was no different from before, saying that he had been misquoted in the article, but I was not easily put off. I grabbed my guitar and hitched to Johannesburg, spending the night of my 21st birthday freezing my butt off in the bicycle shed of a high school in Winburg. Because of my keenness Jonathan was obliged to give me an audition, which took place at the Rats’ practice room alongside the defunct Palladium Bioscope in downtown Springs. I got the job.

During my time with the Rats I got to know the East Rand and Jo’burg scene. The one band that stuck out was Corporal Punishment, featuring the 19 year-olds James Phillips and Carl Raubenheimer as songwriters. Their songs had the energy and lyric integrity of punk, though again the music itself couldn’t strictly be classified as such. They also had the early punk attribute of not being virtuoso instrumentalists, but that didn’t matter either. They were like a sister band to the Rats, so I got to know their music pretty well.

Maybe my memories are hyped by nostalgia, but for me, Corporal Punishment produced some of the most vital and deeply honest music ever made in South Africa. James Phillips was way above and beyond politics. In fact, the real measure of his genius was that he could write songs about totally ordinary things that made you want to laugh and cry at the same time, but it was when he turned his eye on our troubles that his strength as a songwriter really stood out. One of his lyrics got the band into trouble with a short-sighted segment of the white left who heard the word “darkie” shriek out over some crappy PA system and didn’t stick around to check out the context. Brain Damage was actually a brilliant exercise in irony.

Songs like Brain Damage were searing and haunting and even, so help me, danceable. I simply could not comprehend how the music so compelling could be so utterly ignored by the music industry at large. This is when I started having idle thoughts about getting a recording facility together. I say idle because this was long before the days of home recording. The release of the revolutionary Tascam Portastudio was still a year away at that point, and the capital needed to set up an orthodox studio was prohibitive.

I returned to Cape Town once the Radio Rats disbanded. The music scene there was very seasonal. You would start a band in spring and by autumn that was pretty much it. Of the bands that I was involved in, Happy Ships was the best known. In it were Warrick Sony, of Kalahari Surfers fame, and a few other friends. Unusually, even though its lifecycle wasn’t much different from other bands that I was involved with or witnessed, the band managed to regenerate itself every summer for 3 or 4 years. The music could best be described as experimental in a rock/pop sense. At the same time I began a career in the film industry, working with Dirk de Villiers’ C Films outfit in Cape Town. I ended up on a shoot in Johannesburg, realized how much I missed the energy of the city and decided to stay.

Shifty Studio

The year was 1983, and South Africa was on the brink of great convulsions. After 35 years in power, the National Party was growing confused and sclerotic. People in the townships recognized this, and there was a whiff of revolution in the air. The political slogans of the time were “Forward to People’s Power” and so on, but in my subculture, the music subculture, there was also a spirit of “Fuck apartheid, let’s dance,” as the magazine Vula put it. Young people were ignoring boundaries, listening to each other’s music, and playing together. Some even believed it was possible to rock apartheid into oblivion. But nobody was recording the music. Dave Marks of Third Ear had taped left-of-field artists through the seventies, but he was not that active anymore. Benjy Mudie of WEA had a heartfelt interest in the scene, but working for what was essentially a major record label meant that he couldn’t push things too far. This left rebellious young musicians stranded, because hiring a commercial recording studio was in those days extremely expensive.

Ivan and I set out to change all this. I bought a tape machine, a recently launched Otari 8 track on 1/2 inch. Ivan bought a Tapco 12-channel mixer, a couple of microphones and cables, and we were ready. For reasons that escape me now, we decided to house the equipment in a caravan, probably because we couldn’t afford to rent a room, or maybe because it offered freedom in terms of where a recording was done. We wanted a name that captured this itinerant idea and hence Shifty, to shift between places, to shift ideas.

The caravan was initially parked at Dan Roberts’ house. Dan was a commercials photographer who had helped out with publicity material for bands like National Wake and Corporal Punishment and had further proved to be a friend of the scene by allowing himself to be persuaded to fund National Wake’s first demo recording. The caravan eventually found a more permanent home alongside a lonesome house in Rand Mines Properties on the outskirts of Joburg. Ivan had been reading up on new theories in acoustic design and put them into practice in the acoustic treatment of the caravan (the control room) and a room inside the house (the studio). With our limited budget, this manifests itself primarily in us drilling different-sized holes in masonite boards and bending them into irregular shapes. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

The original idea was not to start a record company, but merely provide a cheap facility to document our and other peoples’ music. To support this, I started doing some TV and film scores using the gear in the caravan, best known of which was the theme to the TV series Vyfstêr in 1982. The title song became a surprise hit, going on to win a Sarie Award. I’ve never been a particularly political animal, but something about receiving a Sarie made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I boycotted the ceremony and was never invited back.

Ironically, the first full Shifty project was not a punk or new wave band at all, but Sankomota, recorded in Lesotho in late 1983. I had heard them whilst working on a documentary in Lesotho earlier that year. At that stage, the band was a three-piece, but they had previously toured South Africa with a larger outfit under the name Uhuru. Because of their lyric content, their name and the provocative onstage outbursts of a band member who went by the name of Black Jesus, Sankomoto were thrown out of the country.

They were now in a pretty dire situation for a band wanting to record. There were no studios in Lesotho, which was and is the only country in the world completely surrounded by another country – in this case, South Africa, where they were forbidden entry. They were of course too broke to fly elsewhere. This is when I discovered the benefits of owning a mobile studio. I parked the caravan outside the recently deserted studios of Radio Lesotho, ran a cable inside to one of the rooms and we were in business.

Recording Sankomota taught me a lot about producing music and working with artists, but I also learned painful lessons about the recording industry in South Africa at large. We had made what was patently a good album; its subsequent track record and critical acclaim confirm that. But no record company was willing to release it. The music did not conveniently fit into any of the industry’s pigeonholes, and no one could see past that. This bias against original, or edgy music was reinforced by the broadcast media with their safe and restrictive playlists. Sankomota failed a number of tests in this regard. Firstly, they sang in different languages, which violated grand apartheid’s pipedream of keeping all languages pure and separate. Secondly, the lyrics referred to what was really happening in the country, which was, of course, a total no-no. And finally, the music was eclectic, a concept that has confused industry marketing departments since the invention of the gramophone.

These experiences were to repeat themselves with almost every record that I produced over the next decade. But I was young and naïve at the time, so I decided to set up my own record company and do what nobody else was willing to do. Thus Shifty Records was born.

Shifty Records

After putting countless hours and not a little money into getting Shifty into shape and operating on a number of levels, Ivan decided to seek his fortune in the States and ended up as a partner in Waterland, designing top-drawer studios internationally. Warrick Sony then bought himself in as a partner in the studio by purchasing a Fostex 16 track tape recorder. He did his thing and I did mine. His thing was generally more experimental, starting with the Kalahari Surfers, probably the most prolific outfit on the Shifty catalogue. Shifty’s second release, after Sankomota, was the Surfers Own Affairs, and third was a recording of Warrick and my previous collaboration, the aforementioned Happy Ships. These albums introduced us to another form of creative strangulation in the person of Pietman, a cutting engineer at EMI’s record plant.

At that stage, EMI had the only cutting lathe in southern Africa, so you either dealt with EMI and Pietman or didn’t make records at all. Pietman got through the first side of Happy Ships without mishap, but halfway through the second, he heard the word “fuck” and stopped the lathe. The Kalahari Surfers’ album Own Affairs didn’t even make it past the second song! It is difficult to believe this now, but in 1984, a technician essentially had the power to decide what got released on vinyl in pretty much all of southern Africa. We had to send both albums to the UK, where they were pressed up by a Kalahari Surfers fan, Chris Cutler of Recommended Records.

Warrick ended up doing a lot of touring in Europe, where he became fairly well known on the avant-circuit. Very few people know the Surfers’ music in his home country though, which is hardly surprising. The Surfers released four albums in the eighties; not one song was played on the radio.

I had set out to document South African new wave music, but now I discovered that many genres of vital music were going unnoticed and unrecorded. Over the next two years, Shifty released a dozen or so albums that cemented our reputation for eclecticism. The seminal Wie is Bernoldus Niemand, featuring James Phillips’ not-so-secret Afrikaans alter ego, came out at the beginning of 1985. This was the first time anyone had recorded rock music in Afrikaans, and the impact was revolutionary. Theunis Engelbrecht, who went on to become a rocker in his own right with the Naaimasjiene, has eloquently described the havoc Bernoldus wrought on the imagination of schoolboys trapped in conservative platteland towns. Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel also cited this album as a major influence, the spark that set off the Voëlvry movement.

On another battlefront entirely, trade unionists were creating powerful songs about their struggle against apartheid and exploitation. I spent the autumn of that year driving around the strife-torn Transvaal and Natal, recording union songs in community halls, factory floors, and churches. This gave rise to the Fosatu Worker Choirs compilation. In July I was at Jameson’s, the legendary rock bar in downtown Joburg, capturing the Cherry Faced Lurchers Live at Jamesons on a two-track digital tape. Later that year, the studio pulled up outside a community hall in Jwaneng, Botswana, to record the Kgwanyape Band, a hybrid of locals and ex-pats who were without a doubt making the most interesting music in that country.

These mobile recordings were interspersed with a host of studio recordings. “Jamesons” bands like the Aeroplanes and Wasamata juggled studio time with the likes of the Cape fusion outfit Isja and the eclectic Genuines, both featuring master drummer Ian Herman, who ended up playing on a large number of the Shifty studio albums. There were also numerous bands passing through recording one-offs for A Naartjie in our Sosatie, a collection of protest songs, or Forces Favourites, a collaboration with the End Conscription Campaign.

The “studio recordings” at that stage were done in the lonely house on Rand Mines Properties, just off Baragwanath road in the south of Johannesburg. The caravan was parked in a garage connected to a room in the house by a thirty-meter cable.

Up to this point, Shifty had never sold enough records to sustain itself as a business or pay its artists a living wage. I was basically supporting the habit by earning money in the film industry and spending it on making records. I upped the ante at the beginning of 1987 by applying to the Swedish embassy for money to fund an office, some marketing, and an upgrade of the studio. I was invited to Sweden to meet, and I suppose get checked out by, the chairman of the biggest youth organisation in the country. It was love at first sight, and Hasse Hjorth and I became the best of friends. He showed me around a few of the 180 or so chapters of his organisation. I was astounded by the facilities, money, and attention to detail afforded to Sweden’s youth by the establishment. Even in the smallest town, you would find a youth center with a coffee shop, a performance venue, rehearsal facilities, and often a radio station. Youth culture was energetically encouraged.

Coming from a country where exactly the opposite happened, it was difficult not to feel despondent. Toward the end of the three-year funding period, I was invited back to Sweden to give a talk at a youth convention on the state of youth culture in South Africa. It was an occasion I dreaded because I had hardly anything positive to say. But I’m jumping the gun here. There were exciting years still to come.

I first saw Mzwakhe Mbuli at a Jodac cultural evening in Yeoville. I was impressed by his presence, his big booming voice, and his thundering prophecies.

Admire me, I am the beat
From the conga drums of Thabazimbi
I convey royal messages to the people
Listen to the rhythm
Listen to the beat
From the Congo River to the great ocean
I am like a telex of culture…

I thought it might be interesting to put some music on his verse, so I pulled Ian Herman (The Genuines), Simba Morri (Wasamata), and Gito Baloi (later of Tananas) into the studio, invited Mzwakhe to join us and workshopped his first album, Change is Pain, which was to become Shifty’s biggest seller. As with all other Shifty albums, word of mouth accounted for its popularity. There was no airplay, and Mzwakhe’s record was banned from distribution on account of its seditious lyrics. Undeterred, we made copies with blank labels and distributed them mostly through bicycle shops.


At around this time, I received a shoddily recorded demo tape from someone in Cape Town. He had bronchitis, didn’t have much of a voice, and only knew four or five chords, yet the songs and the delivery of those songs totally disarmed me. I invited André Letoit to come up to Joburg and do a better recording. He showed up in May 1987. I obviously wanted the recording to be of good quality, but I didn’t want to lose the atmosphere of the demo, which sounded like someone sitting around telling stories and singing songs to friends. I set up a microphone and left Andre by himself to do his thing. After an hour and a half of shopping or whatever, I returned to the studio and turned off the recorder. Later, I did some editing, but that is basically how Ver van die ou Kalahari was made. So began the Voëlvry period, probably the most exciting time in Shifty history.

Ralph Rabie, who was at that time a journalist on an Afrikaans paper, went down to Cape Town to interview André when Vêr van die ou Kalahari was released. There was a meeting of minds which eventually led to both of them playing in the first incarnation of the Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band. A short while later, André left to forge a solo career as Koos Kombuis, while Ralph, by then known as Johannes Kerkorrel, went on to record the seminal Eet Kreef album with the remaining members of the GBB. Both artists featured on the Voëlvry compilation, which came out around this time.

The Voëlvry tour, featuring Koos Kombuis, Bernoldus Niemand, Johannes Kerkorrel and the GBB, has justifiably become the stuff of legend. I had always hoped that one day the music I was recording would, against all odds and obstacles, find its way through to a larger audience and influence people’s ideas. The time had come. As with Mzwakhe, there was no airplay. We just did a few live appearances and word spread like wildfire, at least in part because people were so hungry for the message. Before Voëlvry no-one was singing about the real issues facing Afrikaans youth. There were no icons for them to identify with. The Voëlvry Tour changed all that, introducing alienated young Afrikaners to Afrikaans artists they could relate to, singing about issues they were grappling with on a daily basis.

The New South Africa

With the release of the political prisoners in late 1989 and Nelson Mandela early the following year, things changed in the country and also at Shifty. I received another demo tape that really impressed me. This time it was the voice more than anything else. I brought Vusi Mahlasela into the studio and we recorded When you come back, a collection of mostly struggle-type songs set to the sweetest melodies. Not long afterward, a large amount of money was embezzled from Shifty by a trusted co-worker, leaving the company seriously wounded. When Keith Lister from BMG Africa fell in love with Vusi’s voice, prompting him to offer me a joint venture deal, I went for it.

Shifty put out a few good albums through BMG, among them Sunny Skies by James Phillips, End Beginnings by Lesego Rampolokeng and Kalahari Surfers and Robin Auld’s Zen Surfing in the Third World. Unfortunately, most of this music was lost on the sales force at BMG. After two or three years, I negotiated our separation.

James Phillips died from what was essentially his drinking habit soon after South Africa’s first democratic elections. It was like an omen. After more than a decade of battling to popularise independent music in South Africa, I was burned out. Shifty had released nearly 60 records that I like to think captured something of the desperate and exalted spirit of that era. We recorded a bit of almost everything: trade union freedom songs, avant-garde jazz by Carlo Mombeli, boerepunk by the boereseuns aforementioned, jol-jive by Winstons Jive Mixup, Mr Mac and protest songs by singer-songwriters Roger Lucey and Jennifer Ferguson. We even recorded Nelson Mandela, whose speeches were set to music on a project called The Homecoming. Most of our artists got respectful or even adulatory reviews, and a few – notably Tananas and Vusi Mahasela – went on to win global acclaim.

I did go on to produce a few more albums, albeit through entities like Tic Tic Bang and Sheer, but the will was fading. What could I tell bands like Urban Creep or van der Want/Letcher other than the truth: “We will do a good album, it will go out to rave reviews, but in two years time you will still be broke and you will still be looking for an audience”. Such was the reality of producing “independent” music in South Africa.

I moved into filmmaking. Two or three years later, as a kind of test, I did a second album with van der Want/Letcher ‘Bignity’ was one of the most interesting albums I’d ever had anything to do with, and it passed the test by sinking like a stone. Convinced now that I’d made the right decision, I carried on making documentaries, some ironically arising out of my musical past Famous for not being famous was a film about the life and music of James Phillips. Voëlvry documented the rise of the Voëlvry movement.

So after all, that knocking my head against the wall, why did I decide to start working with music again? It was partly the fault of Dan Roberts, who asked me to produce the Radio Kalahari Orkes album Stoomradio in early 2005. But it was also the songwriting of Rian Malan, which Dan was instrumental in catalyzing. Dan had asked Rian to translate some of his (Dan’s) lyrics into Afrikaans. He also suggested that Rian try and write some songs of his own. A short while later Rian sent a demo up from Cape Town.

I’ve always been a sucker for a melody and good lyrics. With Rian, I felt the same excitement as the first time I heard André Letoit’s songs and it’s difficult to sit still and pretend it isn’t there when you have the opportunity of being in on something like that. You will find Rian’s songwriting credit on many of the RKO’s songs, but after the reaction that the demo got from various quarters, he started hatching ideas of doing his own album, keeping some of his best songs for himself.

– By Lloyd Ross, December 2006