/ 16 December 2023

Scratch that: unkindest cuts

Notes On Cuts Book 11
The first cut is the deepest: Notes on Cuts is a vinyl record and book project by US historian John Peffer which looks at censorship during the apartheid era by way of records that were physically damaged by censors at the SABC.

Each SABC censor had their own weapon of choice in the bad old days. They used whatever was sharp, or available, for as long as it took to properly scratch vinyl records to make them unplayable. 

John Peffer, an American visual historian and specialist in modern African art and photography, has just published Notes on Cuts

There have been several in-depth studies on censorship in South Africa during apartheid but this one is unique. It is a vinyl record and book project that researches the complexity of censorship by exploring records that were physically damaged by state broadcasters at the SABC to prevent them being heard.

“One used a pair of tweezers, another a razor, and some used a pen, others a china marker,” he writes in the fascinating, detailed and informative book which accompanies the vinyl, released by Nothing to Commit Records. 

The actual record is a stark reflection of the madness of the apartheid era, with re-recordings of selected songs which were brutalised and/or censored, scratches and all. 

It consists of 16 “short cuts” on side A, and on side B, which is titled “Longer Grooves”, four longer damaged tracks.

Peffer continues: “One former staff member described to me that when he started his job in 1980, he was given a long nail, a stack of records, and a list of items to cut on each album. But this nail hurt his hand, he said, especially on days when there was a tall stack of records to scratch. So, he devised a softer handle by wrapping rubber bands at the top. That did the job.”

The scratching job was mainly done at lunchtime and mostly by secretaries, Peffer told me in an interview via Zoom. 

It wasn’t systematic at all, he said. “And maybe they weren’t paying attention so much, so they cut the wrong ones by mistake.”

The idea for Notes on Cuts had its roots in 1995 when Peffer was living in Johannesburg, doing research on South African black modernist artists for his dissertation. He went crate-digging at a second-hand record store across from the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg. 

There were thousands of albums for sale with markings such as “SABC Bantu Diskoteek” and “SABC Cancelled” on them. It indicated they had been de-accessioned by the SABC, as the corporation was throwing out lots of albums. 

Many others eventually ended up in dumpsters, where people would melt down the plastic and send it to Zimbabwe, where there was still a record-pressing plant.

Peffer looked through those SABC-stamped records, including the transcription discs that the broadcaster produced in its own studios.

“I also started to notice that some of them had the titles scratched out on the discs or they had a sticker that said, ‘Avoid,’” he tells me. “And I would open it up.

“And sometimes they had also scored the record, the vinyl, with a sharp object of some sort. So, I bought some of those just to think,  puzzle about them. And I had heard that those were the internal censorship marks.”

Occasionally, as an arts professor, he would hold up these broken records in his classes saying: “See, this is what censorship looks like.”

In 2014 and 2015, Peffer was living in South Africa again, doing research. He brought his scratched records along, just in case, even though he thought “these and similar items relating to the internal management of apartheid” would have been “tossed into the garbage as that regime fell out of power and its personnel sought to hide their tracks”. Fortunately, he was wrong.

The SABC had centralised everything and kept only single copies of the originals — including the censored ones — in the record library. Peffer got permission to methodically sift through these shelves.

He tells me: “And I thought, ‘Oh, I see.’ You threw out the extras and you kept the originals, even the ones that were scratched, so you couldn’t play them. So, then I thought, ‘What the fuck?’

“Like, ‘Oh my God, this is weirder than I had thought. Let me look at all of these.’”

He went in once or twice a week for months and looked at every single record. And every time one had a scratch, Peffer would make a note.

He wrote: “First, I had to submerge myself in the dust of this huge propaganda bureaucracy. 

“I wanted to attempt to understand it against itself, in some kind of more fully visceral or sensorial way. I wanted to use my senses against the censor, to exorcise the cuts by holding them close, rubbing up against them and feeling their contours.

“In response, I wanted to get under the skin of this archive, to do more than recite the numbers and the institutional history, and find a way to have these silenced surfaces speak again,” he says. 

“Unlike most earlier researchers, I was able to spend significant time handling and examining the vinyl disks. I came to consider them as archives of inscriptions — as worthy of consideration as a collection of paper records.”

After looking at thousands of records, it became clear what “initially had seemed to me to be a monolithic and highly controlled enterprise appeared, on closer inspection, to have played out in an ad-hoc, or sometimes even sloppy, manner.

“Some say ‘krap’ (scratch), others ‘nie goed nie’ (no good), others ‘afgekeur’ (declined) or ‘banned’. Still others were marked ‘avoid’, ‘not available’, ‘restricted’ or ‘not suitable’. 

“Yes, even those transcription disks, paid for by the SABC, recorded in SABC studios by, in some cases, the SABC’s own orchestras, and pressed and packed at the SABC record factory. These, too, fell under the scribbly pen and the knife,” Peffer says.

It is important to note that, during the apartheid era, not many records were banned or, as they termed it at the SABC, “gazetted”. The formal government-appointed censorship body, the Directorate of Publications, only responded to complaints — and took decisions about banning material that was submitted to it. 

Fewer than 150 music records were officially banned between 1963 and 1992. It wasn’t necessary because the SABC did the job for the regime, preventing “undesirable” songs from being played. 

Artists were required to submit their music for scrutiny by an SABC body, called the Central Record Acceptance Committee, which interpreted the Publications Act of 1974 strenuously and with vigour. 

They met weekly to review all the music intended for airplay for evidence of anything that failed to comply with government policies. They censored thousands of songs.

The official, internal no-no list cited sex, drugs, blasphemy, indecent speech and political lyrics — also songs suggesting interracial mixing of any sort. 

The committee was spooked by slang and the  mixing of what they considered “national languages”.

“You know, a lot of the stuff was not political,” Peffer tells me from going through thousands of records on the SABC shelves. “It was more about sex and drugs. Immorality stuff, anti-Christian things.

“So, lots of rock ’n roll records obviously were cut. But then, [boeremusiek artist] Nico Carstens’ records were cut because sometimes the titles were a little ‘risky’. 

“They couldn’t say the word ‘witch doctor’, as in his song, Witchdoctor. So, they cut that song, even though it’s instrumental. Instrumental jazz pieces would be cut because maybe the song title was … ‘suggestive’. 

“They didn’t want to have to say the word ‘moaning’ on air. So, they would have to cut that song.”

Their decisions to scratch weren’t consistent. “And they were kind of just making it up as they went along,” says Peffer, and as he writes: “Some raunchy disco records were cut, but many were not cut. Christian choral music was cut, some square country music cut …”

Also, many of the prohibited records could be bought in shops, for example, Stevie Wonder’s. He became persona non grata after he received an Oscar for the song I Just Called To say I Love You, which he dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

A former head of the approval committee, who headed the committee during a time of political upheaval and intense paranoia in the SABC’s corridors, told Peffer: “But, remember, that was my job. And my cock was on the block.

“For example, we got this song in — ‘We don’t need no education’ [Pink Floyd’s 1979 Another Brick in the Wall]. I really didn’t know what it meant, and it was ‘passed’ by mistake and played on air. I was almost fired the next day. I get a call from upper management saying: ‘We are not allowed to incite the people.’”

Peffer quotes former SABC record library staffer who told him: “Some of the sounds were so beautiful, so interesting, it hurts you to scratch. But those were the instructions, you cannot ignore that. It was terrible the way that apartheid got into our skin, into our bodies.”