New documentary out on iconic Springs band The Radio Rats

They came from the Far East … the Far East Rand, that is. Somewhere out beyond the pale of Johannesburg proper, Springs to be precise, a new kind of South African rock was born just as punk was booming overseas.

Among the first to get going as a new punk-style band was a group called The Radio Rats. Their Starman revamp, ZX Dan, even hit the charts in 1979. It got to number two; only Michael Jackson kept them from the top slot.

Michael Cross’s documentary about the band and related matters, Jiving and Dying: The Radio Rats Story, revisits the origins of the group and touches on the social context from which it emerged.

It was the brainchild of Jonathan Handley, who wrote the band’s quirky songs and played guitar. In the documentary, Handley talks about being a songwriter and how he just had to, and still has to, produce ever more examples of the three-minute rock or pop song.

After a few years of gigging here and there, and the release of the album Into the Night We Slide, the Radio Rats faded into the shadowy limbo of the South African rock band: they never officially disbanded, but were silent for long patches between sudden reunions.

Cross documents the latest such reunion as he brings Handley back together with singer Dave Davies and other members of the original Rats. They whip through a few songs as though they’d never been apart.

Alongside the singing and guitar-playing, there are interviews with key members of the band and various associates reminiscing about the band’s glory days. Interviewees include the late James Phillips, who, like Handley, sprang from Springs — and whose later influence on other rock groups and songwriters would be considerable.

Phillips pays tribute to his friend and songwriting rival Handley, but also sets the scene for a sidelong investigation of the South African music scene of the late 1970s and into the 1980s, when a true “underground” appeared in the largely white musical environment.

This is a bit of a nostalgia trip for people who, like me, grew up at that time, and keenly sought out any hint of a musical world that was breaking free of the stultifying officially approved stuff.

These white bands making pop and rock actually sounded like South Africans, as opposed to all those hit-parade bands doing their best to sound American or, if they were a little more advanced, British. They were a charged link to real lives in South Africa rather than a fantasy version of some other world. Yes, the youth wanted the fantasy, but some of us wanted to get a handle on reality first.

Of course the Radio Rats, as with other bands, were in part influenced by British movements such as glam and punk (and the Rats threw those aesthetics together with abandon) but, in the do-it-yourself spirit of punk, they indigenised them.

Certainly their work felt more authentic, and thus more compelling, to a sector of the South African music audience. That it almost never made it on to the radio after the success of ZX Dan became part of its appeal.

Rock should be rebellious; it should shock one’s parents. The Rats did that but, most importantly, they did so with witty, clever songs.

And, under whatever name, Handley has kept writing songs, producing an oeuvre well worth checking out. It would have been great to get more news on Handley’s further ventures from Jiving and Dying, but it certainly fills in a great deal of the background to this extraordinary moment in South Africa’s musical history, and makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Jiving and Dying shows at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg on Friday September 23 at 6pm, as part of the Alliance’s September Jive music festival.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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