Episode 12 - South African Music, The 1975, Johnny Cash

Musicology With Kurt - Episode 12 - South African Music, The 1975, Johnny Cash.jpg

Show Notes

Fresh from a vacation to my home country, I ponder what it means to make South African music, and offer 'The Answer' to any listeners interested in finding some great South African artists. We also deconstruct The 1975's brand-new pop-funk single 'Love Me', and delve into the archives of Johnny Cash's legacy-saving American Recordings series, focusing on 1994's stripped-down masterpiece of the same name.

You can find the following South African artists (and many, many more - seriously, we could've gone on for ages) on the SA iTunes store:

  • Fokofpolisiekar
  • aKING
  • Die Heuwels Fantasties
  • Van Coke Kartel
  • Goldfish
  • Jeremy Loops
  • Lark
  • BEAST
  • The 1999 performance of 'Asimbongana' by Johnny Clegg featuring an appearance by Nelson Mandela can be found on Youtube here.
  • The 1975's 2015 single 'Love Me' can downloaded from iTunes here.
  • Johnny Cash's 1994 album American Recordings can downloaded from iTunes here. I thoroughly recommend getting all 6 albums in the series: American II - Unchained, American III - The Solitary Man, American IV - The Man Comes Around, American V - A Hundred Highways, and American VI - Ain't No Grave.

Our theme music is provided by PodcastThemes.com - thanks!


Segment Times

Jump to your desired section at these points:

  • South African Music

00:30 to 09:17

  • The 1975

09:18 to 14:24

  • Johnny Cash

14:25 to 20:14


Show Transcript

 

Intro & South African Music

Hi there everyone, welcome back to Musicology With The Eagle! I am The Eagle, and we have returned with this our twelfth episode after a few weeks of vacation.

So I had the opportunity to take some leave from work, and the destination of choice was my home country, where I could visit family and friends. In case you couldn’t tell from my accent already, I am South African – not British or Australian or Irish (like one flight attendant has asked me before). And it’s something I quite proud of, you know – despite the variety of negative press that continues to float around about us. Every country has its fair share of problems.

Visiting there recently, I was once again reminded that we still have a lot to be proud of as South Africans. There is stunning natural beauty within our borders, and when you’ve lived in a desert for a while like I have, seeing mountains and forests and fertile valleys can be quite overwhelming!

Our country also has a rich and diverse tapestry of art and culture - and it’s an obvious selling point for our tourism industry. Every year, thousands of Europeans and Americans are wooed by the exotic romance of traditional Zulu dancing, or watch plays and films dwelling on the chaos and social change of the segregated or apartheid years of our history. Hey, it’s what’s making us stand out on the global map, and I’m glad that in the 21st century, more and more foreigners are starting to recognize our nation and pay it a visit.

But within South Africa, the discourse about art and culture – and in our case, music – sometimes feels like it’s being choked by authenticity and a need to overtly display a ‘Proudly South African’ story – one that captures something unique about our people, or speaks for one of the many cultures present in our society. It’s probably something people in other Third World countries can relate to as well. The world is shrinking, globalization is making us more homogenous, and it’s not surprising if a local band in Cape Town just wants to make rock music that doesn’t necessarily throw in socio-political lyrics about our corrupt government, or incorporate kwela-inspired beats into their music. If they end up sounding ‘American’, with no discernible ‘South African-ness’ is, then so be it. As long as the music is good.

That’s the standard which I hold all music to. Browsing through my personal collection, I oftentimes forget that a particular artist is South African – their songs sit alongside all the international greats, and wouldn’t be on my iPod if I didn’t like them enough to put them on there. As much as I love to support my local music industry, I hold simple yet tough standards, and don’t treat our musicians like a charity.

This points to a common trait with South Africans – we just know how to blend in overseas and do a good job. And with our musicians, it’s no different. On the airwaves or climbing the charts across the USA and Europe, there are South African born-and-bred artists hiding in plain sight, making a name for themselves - and not just in some niche genre.

Look at Dave Matthews of the legendary Dave Matthews Band. Born in Johannesburg, his family moved between the USA and South Africa a few times during his youth, before he finally settled in the land of the Stars and Stripes. The American Dream doesn’t get much better than being the only group to have six consecutive studio albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts.

Hard rockers Seether are another group of South Africans who struck it so big in the States that they’ve become part of the post-grunge furniture. Thanks to a record deal from Wind Up Records in 2002, the band embarked on tours and collaborations with Evanescence, and have also made appearances on movie soundtracks. Before the big move though, the band changed their name from Saron Gas, and in order to make their lead singer’s name easier for the Yanks to pronounce, Shaun Welgemoed became Shaun Morgan!

More recently, the band of brothers known as KONGOS have started making waves in the American market, and I hope that their success will keep the door open for other South African artists of a similar vein. Their arena-ready alternative rock is spiced with polyrhythmic flavours of an African brew, which somehow really works when blended with staggering, spooky Americana. It’s definitely from the Deep South, but somewhere far further than you’d think.

Personally, I’d much rather have the brothers KONGOS be a blueprint for overseas success right now than shock-rap duo Die Antwoord, but hey, to each his own! Maybe it’s because when I visited the United States in 2013, the first thing almost every person asked me after I had told them I was from South Africa was “do you know Die Ant-worddddd?”. Each time, I used to the opportunity to firstly correct their pronunciation of the Afrikaans language (it means ‘The Answer’, especially if the question is “Do you want a gimmicky self-parody of Afrikaans culture similar to trailer trash?”). And secondly, I’d ask them if they rather want to know some other South African artists worthy of their listening. So if you want to know ‘the answer’, then let me you give die ware (or ‘real’) antwoord.

If you’re looking for controversial music sung in Afrikaans – a language indigenous to our country – I’d suggest alternative rock-punks Fokofpolisiekar, who were the genesis of an Afrikaans - as well as South African - rock scene in the early 2000’s. It’s all there in the rebellious name – these guys lit a fuse that is still burning, whether it was English speakers like me wanting to translate their poetic lyrics in high school Afrikaans class, or three equally great, if not more successful bands that were borne from the same group of musicians.

One of those bands is aKING, and their English lyrics and more melodic brand of rock has ensured them mainstream pop success from their formation in 2007. Other siblings from the Fokof father include electropop-rock group Die Heuwels Fantasties (translated as ‘The Hilly Fantasties) and Van Coke Kartel, another Afrikaans rock band which has built upon the Fokof style.

It’s not just rock ‘n roll us South Africans have got covered. Electronic music DJ duo Goldfish are cherished from their native Cape Town all the way to the sunny island of Ibiza, as well as the dance clubs in Miami. Their genre-defying mix of jazzy live instruments, house music beats and searing live performances have ensured that even big names like David Guetta and Fedde Le Grand are knocking on their door to remix their tracks.

Folk-pop star Jeremy Loops is also another proud South African export to distant shores, with his debut album Trading Change now on the US iTunes store, and international tours becoming commonplace for a man who gets his name from his innovative use of loop pedals.

Inge Beckmann is also a shapeshifting siren on the forefront of all things cool and experimental in our local music scene – firstly with the avant-garde electronica act Lark, and lately with the grungey hard rock supergroup BEAST, who are known for their unique twin-bass setup with no lead guitars. Her shrill operatic vocals and dynamic stage presence make whatever project she focuses on that much more bewitching.

South Africa’s music industry is relatively small compared to others in the USA, Europe or Australia, but the upshot of this is that many of these artists mentioned I have personally met and got the chance to have a conversation with, whether it was at the bar after a gig, or out in the fields at a local music festival. Our musicians are tight-knit, approachable and down-to-earth, and I am know that I am surely remiss for leaving out so many other great South African artists who populate my playlists and have been a large part of my musical upbringing.

I guess I could say that Die Antwoord about music comes from another South African man loved the world over. At a performance by local artist Johnny Clegg in 1999, Nelson Mandela joined him onstage for a rendition of ‘Asimbonanga’, a song written about Nelson during his 27 years of incarceration as a political prisoner. When given the microphone, Mandela told the crowd "it is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world, and at peace with myself". That’s something I think we can all believe in, no matter which country we come from.

 

The 1975

This week, we have a new single from genre-polyglots The 1975, and it goes by the name of ‘Love Me’.

You know those kind of artists where you find yourself sneakily putting on their music on even though you should be listening to other albums because you have a music podcast and need to do background research but you can’t because their music is so damn catchy? You don’t? Okay, well The 1975 is that kind of band for me. Despite just having one album and four EP’s building up to its release in 2013, this Manchester indie-rock group traverses a wide range of styles and emotions, which is actually the reason why they released those four EP’s in the first place.

Despite their schizophrenic musical palette, The 1975 are noticeably self-aware and tightly-controlled about their image – and I’m not just talking about their impossibly hip haircuts. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Matt Healy has stated in interviews that instead of just releasing their diverse debut in one go, they wanted to reveal different aspects of themselves through the EP’s, with ambient interludes and odd electronica exercises interspersing their powerful pop-funk pastiches. This kind of tactical thinking from an artist themselves, particularly one finding love on the pop charts with guitars slung over their shoulders, speaks volumes in today’s musical climate.

This makes The 1975 listening experience all the more interesting: at one stage you’re listening to some awesome guitar hooks, and then all of a sudden, you’re warped into a deeply electronic soundscape full of wobbly bleeps and bloops. All the while, their songs feel like one connected film, something which the self-professed worshippers of 80’s teen comedy filmmaker John Hughes have acknowledged. There’s wry humor, sex, drugs, lies, introspection, and a lot of coming-of-age in their lyrics, and for a band who have been together in some form since they were young teens in 2002, a flood of experiences must’ve informed their heartfelt and relatable music.

So after the last two years of tasting the trappings of fame – while earning the title of ‘Hardest Working Band Of 2014’ from Songkick for playing 195 shows in 29 countries and travelling approximately 250,000 kilometres – where do you go to next? What big statement do you make for a sophomore record?

Well firstly you toy with your young fans’ hearts and minds by temporarily deactivating the band’s social media accounts in June this year – which in this day and age is the equivalent of a full-on band breakup. Then you relaunch them all with a distinctly garish pink aesthetic – a bold move from the carefully-monochromed publicity of your debut. And then you comment on the inherent narcissism and banality of fame, over a lithe, funky beat that closely resembles David Bowie’s ‘Fame’. Which happened to also be released in 1975. Coincidence? I’ll let you decide.

For listeners who don’t immediately recognize those similarities, you might draw comparisons with something more 80’s-influenced, such as Prince’s Dirty Mind era, Duran Duran, or INXS. Or even Peter Gabriel at his poppiest. The 1975 really is a misnomer for this ‘New Romantic’ band, as they seem to have absorbed everything after January 1st, 1980 to produce another prime cut of light-hearted pop-funk brilliance that recalls the likes of ‘Girls’ or ‘Hearts Out’ from their self-titled debut. Healy’s Manchester modulations sound strong and assured over a snapping backbeat from drummer George Daniel, and you can’t forget the most potent ingredient of any funk cocktail: the bass. Ross Macdonald’s playing underpins the comparatively-sparse track, and an archetypal spiky guitar riff from Adam Hann rounds off a song that could very easily have had a release date in 1985, not 2015.

At the time of the song’s world premiere on Annie Mac’s BBC Radio 1 show, a cryptic typewritten note appeared on the band’s Facebook page. This manic mini-essay turned out to be the deliciously biting lyrics for ‘Love Me’, including witty phrases such as ‘Karcrashian panache’ and ‘you look famous let’s be friends and portray we possess something important’. They also revealed the album title for their next record, due in February 2016, which, I kid you not, is called I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. Where did the minimalism go??

Healy has been quite outspoken about the deplorable state of pop music at present, saying that they “want to be ambassadors for this generation" and “be like all bands that we have loved before, where you reinvent yourselves but make it feel like a natural evolution". Whatever reinvention they’re undergoing, I’ll be ready to load it up and allow it to steadily distract me from everything else I needed to do.

 

Johnny Cash

For this week’s retrospective, we catalogue a country music icon’s final act that secured his legacy for generations to come.

Johnny Cash’s gritty American album series stretched from 1994 to his death in 2003 at 71 years old, and even beyond that, when the sixth and last chapter closed the book in 2010 on The Man In Black’s final years. It was a fairy-tale flourish to a long career that was dwindling after the insurmountable heyday of 1950’s and 60’s, and is probably the reason why most people who aren’t necessarily country music fans are attracted to Cash’s outlaw image and weighty lyrics.

Looking back at the project now, it’s amazing that it got any attention at all. The 1980’s had not been kind to Cash, and he - like many pioneering artists of his ilk who had found fame a few decades prior - had struggled to find relevancy so late in his career and adapt to shifting trends and technologies. Even his long-time record label Columbia had dropped him, and Cash seemed to be drifting, with nothing left to lose.

Enter Rick Rubin: founder of Def Jam Recordings, and a producer better known for his work with hip hop and heavy metal artists. Rubin had started another label called American Recordings in 1988, and continued the diverse artist roster of his previous company, with the likes of Slayer being released alongside Sir Mix-A-Lot.

Rubin had been producing young artists for a while, and his next challenge was to find an older legend who was stuck in a rut, and recalibrate them. Cash was in the unenviable position of touring the oldies circuit, and didn’t think of himself as a serious recording artist anymore.

So what was Rick’s grand gimmick to resurrect Johnny’s career? Um, do nothing. And by that, I mean just sit the man down in a room and let him sing and strum his acoustic guitar. Unaccompanied, no string orchestras, no barbershop-quartet backing singers, no gimmicks. And what a revelation it was. Cash had long fought with producers of his previous 80 albums about how he wanted to sound, and here was one that just let him be.

According to Rubin, 1994’s American Recordings album was meant to just be a set of demos, a chance for Cash to feel out the cover material that had been brought to the sessions, which included music from artists such as Glenn Danzig and Tom Waits. It wasn’t even recorded in a fancy studio – just Rick’s living room. Can you imagine what a simple yet bold idea that must’ve been?

The hardest part was getting Johnny to believe in himself, to believe that he didn’t need to compete with his past, where having a Number One hit single was what kept you afloat. And once he was on board, the music just flowed out of him.

Setting the tone for the series, the first album was a combination of covers, rerecordings of earlier songs in Cash’s career, and a few new songs that were brought to the table. Regardless of who wrote what, the most powerful instrument on record across the American series is Cash’s unmistakably gravelly voice, and it’s captured here in glorious detail. As his health declined over the decade, the voice became even more ragged, showing the scars of his 1998 pneumonia scare with unflinching determination as he approached death.

But at the start, things were comparatively light for the then-62 year old. Well, as light as things could be for a Johnny Cash song. The man peers into the dark corners of the American soul across these thirteen tales of love, death, murder, and spirituality with a wizened intensity. The contrast is fascinating: ‘Delia’s Gone’ hears a convicted man lamenting the shooting of his wife, whilst ‘Why Me Lord’ is an unabashed gospel track originally recorded by his friend Kris Kristofferson.

Cash’s new originals hold up equally well in their first outing, and it’s hard not to see parts of himself and his life story in the grim vignettes, such as the Vietnam War veteran’s memoir ‘Drive On’, which is as much about the acceptance of old age as it is coming to terms with the trauma of leaving a war zone. The concept of redemption is also one frequently explored in Cash’s catalogue, and he continues his musings on the topic with a song of the same name, his low baritone finding it in stream-of-consciousness fashion.

For a man with a deeply serious demeanour on record, Cash has a wicked sense of humour, and one of my favourite songs in the American series is album-closer ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’. On it, Cash delivers a deadpan tragic comedy about a macho man who is incapable of expressing emotion, and leaves the audience in stitches at the Viper Room club in Los Angeles where it was recorded.

Moments like these were few and far between over the next five American albums, as Cash and Rubin knew that time was running out, and they had the responsibility to get as many poignant tracks down as possible before Cash breathed his last. Not even the death of his decades-long sweetheart June Carter Cash in early 2003 could stall his creative commitment – in fact, it gave him the conviction to burn through at least 50 songs in the American V sessions before his death a few months later.

The 6th and final American recording in 2010 was titled Ain’t No Grave, taken from the opening song ‘Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down). It was the ultimate fulfilment of Rubin’s goal when they started this series – and now not even death could quash Johnny Cash’s legend.

 

Outro

Well that’s about all that we have for you this week. Thank you very much for returning to listen to our podcast, and continuing our journey of music discovery and discussion. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time