James Phillips was one of the finest rock musicians ever to kick out the jams, but there’s a fair chance that, unless you’re a South African of a certain age, you probably haven’t heard of him.
Perhaps some day he will be more widely known as a result of Michael Cross’s magnificent documentary The Fun’s Not Over: The James Phillips Story. I truly hope so, for Phillips was the genuine article worthy of a much wider hearing.
He was a significant force in South African rock music from the late 1970s through to his death, aged 36, in 1995, yet he never ended up with any of the trappings of success. Such was the nature of a local music scene that didn’t reward those whose work went against the commercial grain.
I was lucky enough to meet Phillips once in 1993, and, as a fan who had loved his music for years and considered him a hero, was astonished by his humble existence. I’d always assumed that as the frontman of The Cherry Faced Lurchers he’d be doing all right for cash. But here he was in this small flat in Yeoville, Johannesburg, having to do shifts as a newspaper sub-editor to pay his rent.
He certainly didn’t whine about his lot, but at one point during our chat, he mentioned that his band – now simply The Lurchers – was about to release a CD, yet he couldn’t afford to buy a CD player, at that time an expensive strain of new technology. I found this strangely haunting.
I was introduced to his music through The Cherry Faced Lurchers’ album Live At Jamesons in the mid-Eighties. It was a raw recording that captured a band absolutely rocking all the way out there, hard and tight yet somehow also loose and swinging, the songs full of soul and sardonic wit. It felt like party music that also conveyed despair and anger at the madness of a very fucked-up society; this was South Africa in the dying years of apartheid.
Soon after hearing the album for the first time, I saw the band live at what was then the University of Natal in Durban. As is often the way, it was even better than the recording, viscerally loud and wild, and the whole place lurched like crazy. At one point during the show, hacking at his guitar with frenzied abandon, Phillips bust a couple strings and slashed his fingers in the process, bleeding for his art. The image has stayed with me ever since.
I left South Africa a year or so later, and Live At Jamesons was one of the albums that helped carry me through many a dark night of the soul as I struggled to adapt to life in the UK. It still has the ability to make me smile and cry and get off my arse and dance and tempt me to take up frying my brain again; that music is etched deep in my psyche and I love it.
So I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the chance to spend a couple hours with Phillips after I returned to Johannesburg for a while in the early Nineties. I’ve got a good few musical heroes, but he’s the only one I’ve had the chance to meet. We got very wasted, Continue reading →