/ 18 September 1998

Grand gothic rock

Miles Keylock : Live in Cape Town

Many fans of the present South African music explosion could be forgiven for wondering why a bunch of ageing gothic rockers like No Friends of Harry decided to reform for a final farewell tour of South Africa.

I mean, after all, there are so many totally awesome new young bands on the scene at the moment making really cool original music that, well, sounds “current”, that why bother? But then, what the hell is so important about sounding “current” anyway? Don’t tell me that the Nude Girls, Sugardrive, Lithium, Blunt, Seed, Plum et al actually give a toss about sounding “current”.

Okay, so it sounds corny – but it is about the music, man. And NFOH understand this more than any other South African band of the last decade. They were never about mere pandering to musical trends. Think about it for a second – where are bands like E Void, Via Afrika and Petit Cheval today? NFOH were always as much about their music as their attitude.

In so doing they managed to give meaning to the term South African “alternative” music. Their fiercely independent ethic of releasing self-produced, self-financed albums at once ensured both their underground cult status as South Africa’s premier “alternative” band and ultimately signaled their own demise.

Wallowing in the afterbirth of an imploded mid-Eighties South African music explosion, NFOH were forced to take their music overseas. Okay, so like so many other South African bands of that era, they discovered that international “success” was not a given. But they didn’t disband, become a bar band or start embracing techno.

No, they stuck with their regular day jobs and played whenever they felt that they needed to get the music out there again.

Witnessing NFOH live remains a moving experience. For those familiar with the band’s material their hour-plus set at the Purple Turtle was very much like a “greatest hits” tour with such seminal songs as Competition Rules, On the Beach and Paint it Black proving that there is absolutely no substitute for the live dynamics resulting from more than a decade of playing together as a band.

Those bands intent on sustaining the present music explosion would do well to learn from NFOH’s band ethics. Merely being in a band, gigging and releasing a CD is not enough. It’s ultimately about maintaining a sense of artistic purpose as a band – not as a bunch of “rock stars”.

One band that will need to come to grips with this very soon is Supernature, who together with Waxy O’Connor, supported NFOH on the first leg of their Cape Town tour at the Purple Turtle. At the moment Supernature occupy the unenviable position of being hailed by many in the music media as “the next big thing”.

Make no mistake, as a band they do have the potential to be huge – their trippy-angst- filled take on Prodigy, Portishead and the Smashing Pumpkins is precisely what South African audiences seem to want to hear.

Supernature live can be an uncomfortable experience for band and audience alike – you’re never quite sure whether they’re gonna get it right or fuck it right up in front of you. At times the soundscapes the trio create can be truly sublime, at others merely noisy and incoherent.

It’s in these latter moments that you look forward to a time when the band will be able to explore their intense dynamics more effortlessly together onstage. On Friday they played a set of restrained polish, perhaps realising that because 90% of the audience had come to watch NFOH, it didn’t matter whether they danced or not.

Waxy O’Connor’s short set earlier in the evening suggested that it is entirely possible to entertain the audience as well as have fun on stage yourself without having to get people on the dance floor. With the recent addition of a slide- guitarist, their blend of country and western-tinged indie-rock has an added textural dimension, seemingly even more eclectic, yet equally accessible.

Hopefully this is a band that audiences nationwide will be hearing a lot more from. On an evening of predominant nostalgia, it somehow seemed fitting that “alternative” bands as diverse as both Waxy O’Connor and Supernature were playing on the same bill as the godfathers of South African alternative music, No Friends of Harry.