Great SA Songs: Thugs

Artist: The Dynamics
Song: Thugs
Album: Switch It On and Wind It Up (1984)

From the driving organ comes the muted sax, then the first audible word, 'killer”. A newsreader recounts the crime scene of a gruesome murder. 'A half naked body” has been discovered. Chants of 'thugs”, 'watch ya back” and 'back stab” punctuate the music. The bass strolls in with a little dab and then the song explodes into a punchy ska-jive mashup.

Thugs is one of the greatest pop songs recorded in South African music history. Listening to it 26 years on, it still sounds vibrant and alive with possibility. When it was released in 1984 it must have felt like a musical revolution.

It was a sinister anthem for a sinister time, the dark days of the dying Apartheid regime. The paranoia and fear that most people in South Africa were living with drips out of the speakers, the "thugs" an immanent threat, yet completely unknown. Were they muggers, a gang of murderers, a hit squad from the security police?

In the liner notes to Retro Fresh's reissue compilation The Dynamics, Mike Waddacor talks about the security police who spied on SA's musicians, 'those creepy moustached thugs in bad clothes and white socks who used to sit at the front-row tables with untouched beers and those unmistakable dikbek faces that never smiled.'

'One could say that the band serviced the alternative set in South Africa,' says keyboardist Jimmy Florence. 'That is the anti-army, anti-police and anti-racism folk.'

'The police were surreal in their mindset, actions and justifications,' says Florence. 'The bosses proved to be squillion times worse.'

Listening to Thugs in 2010, what has changed?

Who are the thugs now, a blue light brigade, reactionary right-wingers, tsotsi hi-jackers or just some trigger-finger members of General Bheki Cele's shoot to kill police force?

But it doesn't really matter who the thugs were, because the song was dealing with serious subject matter in a way that people could identify with and, more importantly, dance to, because Thugs is one swinging track. But where did its inspiration come from? Well, the British ska-revival of course.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Britain was teaming with Rude Boys in pork pie hats. Multiracial ska bands like the Specials, the Beat and the Selecta were reviving ska for a new generation.

Punk and reggae had always been closely related in British music; both audiences were outsiders and both felt very strongly about racism.

So when punk bands like the Clash, the Slits and the Ruts started sharing the stage with British reggae outfits like Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and Matumbi, the foundation was laid for a musical movement that took elements of both styles to create what is now referred to as 2-Tone.

By 1984, the year that the Dynamics was recording Thugs, Dammers and The Special AKA were climbing up the charts with Free Nelson Mandela. Taking a stand against military service in South Africa, the Dynamics relocated to the United Kingdom, performing their first gig at the ANC's New Year's bash in Bayswater, London.

The Specials's Jerry Dammers has always claimed that anti-racism was intrinsic to the formation of the Specials and this lead to the integration of white and black musicians in one band. Similarly, Dynamics tenor saxophonist Harvey Roberts says that the racial mix of the band said 'far more than words could ever convey'.

The Dynamics took the punk-edge of the 2-Tone movement's ska and blended it with the South African music styles such as jive and mbaqanga. Add to this mix some hard-edged new wave and post-punk stylings and you had one skanking soundtrack to which South Africans could cut loose on the weekend and dance the night away.

Their spell in the UK was the undoing of the Dynamics and despite some reunion shows in the 90s, the band members admit it was never the same. Alto Saxophonist Winston Nyaunda and drummer Steve Howell would drift off to form Winston's Jive Mixup and continue the fusion that was occurring in the Dynamics, exploring jive and mbaqanga.

As Producer Lloyd Ross from Shifty Records recounts, 'If you were at the Jamesons Bar in downtown Jo'burg in the dark days just before the fall of apartheid, you probably couldn't have avoided having your feet moved by the liveliest band around.

'Winston's Jive Mixup drove away your blues and put a skip in your step. Just looking at the them was enough to give you hope, with the youngest member being from a conservative Afrikaans family, fresh out of the army, while the eldest was a humble night watchman in his forties.'

Thugs – lyrics

It's cold and its damp, as you walk down the street
After workin' all day, never once off yer feet
The blackness surrounds you, the mists in your eyes,
You thought you heard footsteps, could be just the night.

You stop by the streetlight, stop breathing to hear,
Is it the chill in the air, or the feeling of fear
Turn round to the darkness, a shadow, a shape
The thugs are behind you, make no mistake

Walk on, movin' quicker, yer pulse and yer feet,
The silence is shattered by yer screaming heartbeat,
From nowhere come footsteps behind you again
The mists in your eyes and yer sweat feels like rain

Trip up on the pavement crash hard to the ground—.
You know what you'll see but you still turn around
Your nightmare comes true, you succumb to the pain
The thugs strike again——.yer screams are in vain.

Make sense of your world

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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