332) Freedom’s Children — “Stories Towards the North (Parts 1 & 2)”
As Nick Warburton writes in Ugly Things:
One of the best rock bands the world never heard? . . . Just another one of those “what if” stories by your average ’60s rock aficionado bent on hyping their favourite obscure band[?]* But in the case of South African acid-rock legends Freedom’s Children, there is some justification in the hyperbole. Formed at the height of the hated apartheid era, Freedom’s Children swiftly became South Africa’s most innovative sons, incomparable to anyone both musically and politically . . . culminating in the groundbreaking Astra album [’70], arguably one of the era’s most overlooked recordings. The problem was no one was listening beyond South Africa. . . . [N]ow with the cloak of apartheid lifted and a growing interest among ’60s aficionados of the hidden treasures to be found beyond British and American shores, perhaps the brilliance of Freedom’s Children’s music can finally be appreciated.http://www.rock.co.za/files/fc_index.html
That quote is taken from Nick’s riveting, hilarious and moving retrospective and interview with band members. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here are a few tantalizing tidbits:
When Freedom’s Children tried to establish a profile in England during 1969, [as a result of] British policy on the apartheid system, most of the band’s members were refused work permits and could only play gigs illegally. All hope of establishing themselves on the burgeoning London rock scene was thwarted and with it any chance of launching the band on the international stage.
[T]he man responsible for providing the creative spark that drove the group through its glory years was poet, songwriter and bass player Ramsay MacKay[, who] was actually born in the Scottish Highlands [and a]rriv[ed] in South Africa . . . aged 7 . . . .
[As to the band’s name:] “You don’t call yourself Freedom’s Children in South Africa without a good reason,” says MacKay. “We were banned on most radio. Freedom’s Children meant something back then.” . . . [The] record label . . . was so scared of getting into trouble that it issued the group’s early recordings under the name, Fleadom’s Children. (Producer Billy Forrest later explained that . . . government-funded radio stations refused to play their singles as Freedom’s Children.)
[I]n March 1967, the group announced that it would be holding a “freak-out” . . . . According to MacKay, the band’s use of strobe lights was possibly the first time they had been used outside California. . . . “Due to the strobe lights and the intensity of volume people had epileptic fits. At this period in time, nobody knew that strobe lights gave people epileptic fits. This is how the band became notorious, because of society, the press, the police and even the Mayor of Durban who all tried to suppress [our supposed] brainwashing the youth.” So intense were the shows that some people ended up being hospitalised. . . . “It became known as having a ‘frothy’ and was quite a cultural event as people started having ‘frothies’ without being epileptic, but probably just stoned.”
[At] an audition to back American soul singer Geno Washington . . . “[h]e was just telling us, ‘play funky man, play funky’. . . . [W]e were this acid-freak group. We were looking at each thinking, ‘What the hell is funky?'”
[Mackay:] “South Africa [was] an extreme country because of the total cruelty and then everyone normalises it. That could drive you crazy on its own, and if you took acid on top of it…”
Astra remains a startling piece of work and dare I say it, a seminal album from that era. . . . [that created] an atmosphere that reflects perfectly the turmoil which characterised the apartheid era . . . . [with an] overall sense of isolation, fear and repression. . . . [and a vocal which] growls with anger at the injustice of the political situation home and abroad.
[“W]hen the Americans landed on the moon . . . we took all our beds and put them in a semicircle around this little black and white TV,” explains MacKay on the inspiration behind his writing for the album. “Anyway, we took this acid and when they landed on the moon we were tripping. It was such an experience, I shall never forget it and that’s what Astra appeared out of.”
As to “Slowly Towards the North,” which comes off like a solemn organ/bagpipe-led procession, Astra‘s CD reissue liner notes state:
There are many fans who believed that Astra, with songs like the Kid Who Came From Hazareth, the Homecoming and Slowly Towards the North, was based on the life of Jesus. Not so says [lead guitarist] Julian [Laxton:] “It was a concept album, but the story about the album being about Christ is not true. But who knows what was in Ramsay’s head when he wrote the songs. He was interested in many different things and read a lot, so he got his ideas from all over the place.” . . . Slowly Towards the North was — “I think”, says Julian — about his dream of one day returning to his native Scotland.
* This sentence strikes pretty close to home!
333) John and Philipa Cooper— “Man in a Bowler Hat”
Apparently Freedom’s Children’s lead guitarist Julian Laxton was involved in the recording of The Cooperville Times, the Coopers’s only album (’69), even though “he can’t remember the album, band or session.” (http://therockasteria.blogspot.com/2014/01/philipa-and-john-cooper-cooperville.html?m=1). Well, just like the saying goes, “If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.”
The album is “[s]pooky psychedelic folk rock . . . featuring the unmistakable guitar sounds of Julian Laxton” and “[u]nquestionably one of the rarest South African albums ever” (https://www.lpcdreissues.com/item/cooperville-times-2), a “South African psych-pop rarity . . . buried so far beneath the drifts of history that even the skilled archivists of the Shadoks label had a hell of a time digging up the original recordings for reissue.” (James Allen, All Music Guide).
Allen goes on:
Recorded right in the psychedelic sweet spot of 1968 and released the following year, The Cooperville Times is the only album by brother-and-sister duo John & Philipa Cooper. It blends the pop and folk ends of the ‘60s U.K. psych spectrum . . . . All the hallmarks of the paisley-patterned era are here — Baroque bits of harpsichord accompaniment, pastoral flute lines, tremolo guitar — just the sort of touches guaranteed to make psych collectors foam at the mouth.** . . .
As to the enchanting “Man in a Bowler Hat,” Allen says:
[W]hile [John’s] got a strong melodic sense with memorable hooks to spare, his lyrics are particularly meritorious; on the surface, they seem to delve into the trippy, canyons-of-your-mind territory so common to psychedelia, but a closer listen reveals that Cooper has a well-developed sense of poetic imagery, and a gift for surreal settings. When he sings about the “Man in a Bowler Hat,” for instance, he’s in keeping with the surrealist tradition of the legendary Magritte painting that is the song’s namesake.
John Samson concurs:
“Man In A Bowler Hat” tips it’s, erm, hat to the artist Rene Magritte . . . and his picture of a man in a bowler hat (you know the one). It’s a folky tune that weaves a grating fiddle and searing, if somewhat muted guitar . . . . Lyrically, [it] seems to try capture the emotions while wondering round an exhibit by Magritte . . . . suggest[ing] someone lost in the surrealism of the artist’s work. But these lines could equally be applied to listening to this song. Somewhat surreal, certainly magical and rather dreamy, it will have your mind spinning around.https://www.google.com/amp/s/1001sasongs.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/man-in-a-bowler-hat-john-phillipa-cooper-2/amp/
Ioannis Katsigiannis writes that:
This amazing album has the same class as those by Billy Nichols, Duncan Browne and Blossom Toes. . . . full of ideas and masterfully played. This album would have been a great success if it was produced in the UK. It just has the right feel, with the combination of great songs with a ‘60s art vibe. . . . a perfect slice of ’69 underground folk-rock.https://johnkatsmc5.blogspot.com/2017/01/john-philipa-cooper-cooperville-times.html
She goes on:
I normally shy away from ultrarare psych nuggets. The fetishization of a recording’s rarity can and often does obscure any clear-eyed assessment of the music itself, and when discussions about a record revolve around the object and not the music, well, those discussions are more appropriate for Antiques Roadshow . . . . So, yes, discussing the [album] would be entirely conducive to crate-digging one-upsmanship (look what I found!) and nothing more,*** except for the insignificant trifling issue that its first four songs [including “The Mad Professor”] are actually stupendously deliciously excellent. It’s true: Even when considered on their own merits and not as crate-digging artifacts, these songs are great. . . . Perhaps one of the rarest albums from South Africa.
“My mind is spinning around, is that all real? All my reds have turned green, that’s how I feel. Now that’s how I feel. Now that I have you with me, I don’t need a thing. First I know I want to cry and then I want to sing. A man in a bowler hat an ivory tower; a fragile siamese cat; a garden of moonlight flowers. You show me magical things that I’ve never seen. Seems when I’m walking around that I’m in a dream. I think about what you say and I see it’s true. My mind has just come alive and it’s due to you. My mind is spinning around, is that all real? . . .”
** So that’s what was wrong with me! I thought I had been bitten by a rabid dog . . .
*** Yeah, this hits pretty close to home too!
334) John and Philipa Cooper — “The Mad Professor”
Ioannis Katsigiannis says of this song, also from Cooperville, that:
The Mad Professor” is a fairly standard axe-wailer recast by its explosive intro and unusually funky drum pattern (which is absolutely begging to be sampled by the RZA) into something at once odder and more engaging. . . .
The song sort of reminds me of McCartney’s oft-maligned “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (in a good way!):
A mad professor lives next door to me, he makes my life an awful misery, he starts explosions in the midnight hour, wakes me up with dynamite and power. But when the morning comes, he’s off to work before the sun, in his big black Homburg hat, grinning like a Cheshire cat. I’m afraid I see a bitter end, slowly his mind is going to bend. I will see him driving down the road, then the mad professor will explode. And when the morning comes, he won’t be there to see the sun in his big black Homburg cat, grinning like a Cheshire cat. . . . At his work he seemed so very kind, people thought he had a gentle mind. He came home with black and evil eye — he blasts explosions right into the sky. . . .