Lloyd Ross is synonymous with Shifty Records and the Vyfster theme, for releasing albums by Sankomota, Koos Kombuis, the Kalahari Surfers, Vusi Mahlasela, Tananas and many other artists who would probably not have been recorded otherwise. Shifty Records did ground-breaking work for alternative and underground music in South Africa and much of the credit for that is due to Lloyd Ross who started the whole thing with a few other people. Time to investigate. Lloyd Ross kindly let me interview him in person in Cape Town and yes, we did keep our social distance.
Q. Hi Lloyd, I heard you went to the UK and when you came back you auditioned to play in the Radio Rats. Did it start there or before that?
A. Hey Ernesto, I am one of those guys who was always into music and like a lot of people did before the arrival of the cassette tape, sat with my record player and my guitar and learned songs by playing a section of a record over and over again until you learned the notes.I had a band in the navy with two other guys. We had the great idea of heading for their home town of East London after we got out in 1976 or 7 to turn “professional”. The band was called Horses In Transit and it lasted only a few months. In 1978 I went to the UK and where I met people who were big fans of punk and I got very much into it. I was only there for about 8 months and when I got back, while passing through Joburg, I saw the Radio Rats at the Market Cafe, run by David Marks. I really liked them. Then probably at the beginning of 1979 I read in the Sunday Times that they were looking for a guitarist. I got hold of Jonathan Handley who said: no, that was a misquote, we are not looking for another person to join the band. I told him that I was going to come for an audition anyway. I took my Fender Strat and hitched up to Joburg, spending my 21st birthday in a school bicycle shed in some godforsaken Free State town. So anyway, I got up to Joburg, to their practice room in Springs, which they shared with Corporal Punishment, did the audition and the band said Ja, you are in. Then I sort of fell over for a month, because I’d picked up some kinda weird ear infection in that bicycle shed. Every time I stood up, I hurled. I went back to Cape Town, convalesced, got my things in order, went back to Joburg and played with them until they broke-up for the first time which was the end of 1979.
Q. Did you do any recordings with the Radio Rats?
A. Yes, I played on Rocket Road…
Rocket Road: that was me on guitar, Dave Davies (vocals), Jonathan (guitar & vocals), Herbie Parkin (bass), and a guy called Pierre de Vos on drums who I see played with Tim Parr as well. He was the drummer for Baxtop at one stage. Of course, Jonathan called the drummer Pierre de Sade, as he does, ha, ha.
Q. You returned to Cape Town after that and then co-formed the Happy Ships?
A. I arrived back in Cape Town and got a job in a pizza den and got various bands together. I was in a band called Rubbish which was kinda punky but more new wave. Energetic music. A three piece with a guy called Wayne Raath on drums and Mark van Niekerk on bass. I then met Warrick Swinney (Sony) who had been playing with Guillaume Rossouw in the Rude Dementals and put the Happy Ships together. That was Wayne Raath again, Warrick, myself, a guy called Phillip Nangle and Hamish Davidson who now meditates for world peace in the Rocky Mountains. Hamish is a Transcendental Meditationist. Their philosophy is if you get 1% of the world’s population to meditate, it will change the world. They pay for people to meditate and he is one of those guys… and he was on sax. The Happy Ships was a wacky stream of unconsciousness sorta band. A lot of fun to play with. Everyone played everything, except for Hamish, who played sax…and meditated. Oh, and we had another occasional member in Jonathan Partridge, who played the pocket.
Q. You said you made some good contacts in Joburg?
A. When I was playing with the Radio Rats I met a lot of musicians and in particularly Ivan Kadey. He was playing in a band called National Wake…
The way we met is, I was looking for a place to stay while playing with the Rats. I was walking through the dilapidating Randlord district of Parktown & it was evening and I heard the unmistakable sound of a Fender Stratocaster emanating from a rambling rundown randlordish house. I went up and knocked at the door. I introduced myself and said: nice riff, and asked if he knew of a place to stay. I ended up staying there for the time I was in Joburg. Occasionally National Wake would be staying there too, the whole band; the Khoza brother Punka and Gary, One Eyed Mike, etc. Ivan and I started planning the studio then, the idea of it at least…Was this the beginning of Shifty Records?
A. Not really. It took a while for us to get it together. It was only when I got back to Johannesburg to work in the film industry that we got together again.
Q. So it was you and Ivan that started Shifty Records?
A. Yes. I bought my gear with the money made in the film industry. Ivan and I bought different stuff. Ivan bought a mixing desk and some microphones. I bought the tape machine, some outboard gear, cables and that kind of thing. It was an Otari 8-track machine. The first affordable 8-track machine actually because it was a half-inch and before that, multi tracking was an expensive affair on 2 inch machines, completely unaffordable for people in our position. We came in at the right time to do independent recordings where you did not need to mortgage your house, not that we had one, to do recordings.
Q. So that was how Shifty Records was born?
A. We had the studio but where to put it? Ivan was in an apartment on Rockey Street and I was kinda footloose, so we bought a caravan! But what to call the enterprise? A caravan meant we had a mobile studio, so we though of words indicating moving and eventually came up with the name Shifty. Funnily enough we did not record our own music at that stage. I was bandless, and so was Ivan. This was 1983 and Ivan didn’t get much time off from his architectural duties. Even though he helped set it up he was unable to participate in the dream of recording, but he was always there in spirit.
Q. The first release was Sankomota?
A. Indeed. I went down and recorded Sankomota later in 1983, it was our first album release. On a shoot in Lesotho I had seen this band playing at the Holiday Inn and they were really lovely. Spoke to them afterward and asked them to send me a tape. They told me they were banned in South Africa because they had done a tour under the name Uhuru, meaning freedom (not such a good idea for a band in South Africa at the time) and the lead singer was called Black Jesus (an even less good idea) who made political comments on stage so…NO! I thought, we have a mobile studio, we will come to you. I drove down with Warrick Sony and recorded the album in a couple of days. I took the recordings back to Joburg and did some post-production and Warrick added some Tabla and we added some sax from Rick van Heerden and trumpet by Stompie Monana. It was a good album to start with considering where we ended up going… And this is Sankomoto…
Q. Then on to the Happy ships was it?
A.Jip, came down to Cape Town, and recorded in Robin Hawkins garage in Wynberg. He very kindly let us use the space. At that stage, Hamish (Davidson) was already meditating 4 hours a day so we would have to take long breaks.
Q. So when did Warrick (Sony) join you? Was it is the Happy Ships?
A. No, Warrick was still living in Cape Town. I think he was at UCT (University) in 1983 when we did the recording. I had gone to Joburg in 1981 and that is when the studio started coming together. You mentioned you thought the Vyfster theme funded Shifty but seeing as I recorded that on the equipment that I bought with Ivan, it was there before the movie score. That was a money-making exercise, my day job, so to speakThis is the haunting Vyfster theme from the legendary SABCTV series Vyfster….
…Going back to ’79 when I was cooking up this thing with Ivan, the energy of Corporal Punishment featuring James Phillips and Carl Raubenheimer’s creative coming together was very inspirational for me. I viewed it as an indictment on the industry that these guys were not hunted down and recorded. I mean the humour, the melodies, the energy. So that’s why I wanted to record music actually. We did eventually record some Corporal Punishment but that was after their early tour de force in the 70’s. When the studio was going, James came up from Grahamstown where he was doing a BMus and we put down a couple of numbers. Then he and Carl did that Illegal Gathering project in Cape Town on a 4 track cassette which I still think is such great work. I mean fidelity wise it’s crap, but the capturing of the moment was superb. A bit like shooting a documentary with a kak, shaky camera, but what is happening in the frame is an amazing or beautiful sequence. You feel the energy of it and never worry about the technology. The important thing is what is being put down not how it is being put down.
Q. What was next for Shifty?
A. We did Bernoldus (Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand LP), we did a couple of albums on that 8-track. We did Bernoldus, we did Sankomota, we did the Corporals recordings, the Own Affairs by Kalahari Surfers. Warrick probably recorded that on 8-track as well. I was not involved in that though. Warrick did his own thing and in fact, we very seldom collaborated, hardly at all. But we used to see each other every day which was great. If you want a fresh take every day, Warrick is the guy. Very tangential sense of humour. What was said the day before was not repeated the day after. Everything was gouged in intelligence and fun so it was always great to have him around…
Q. Carry on, please..
A. Just trying to think….. the first Mzwakhe album, it was later actually. Look, around that time Warrick came up to Joburg and we replaced the 8-track with a Fostex 16-track which Warrick bought. I had become aware that there wasn’t just this new wave thing happening, but there was this really broad spectrum of quality music from all sectors of society that needed to be recorded. The reason why it wasn’t being recorded by the industry is because it was not considered “commercial”, or was political. This meant it would never get played on the radio, which in turn meant it would be difficult to sell. So unlike pretty much the whole of the industry, apart from perhaps Mountain Records in Cape Town, we recorded music because we considered it worth recording for aesthetic, rather than commercial reasons.
Q. You mean like those worker choir groups?
A. Ja, who would record that in South Africa? Maybe a Hugh Tracy if he had still been around. That goes for a lot of Shifty albums, nobody would have recorded them.
Q. How did you record those worker choirs?
A. That I did with Brian Tilley who ran this thing called Video News Services.. Brian and I traveled around the Transvaal and Natal recording those choirs because it was exciting and we thought it was the right thing to do. That is how we did things, that’s how I still do things, generally speaking, and with my film making a lot of the time.
Q. So there were a lot of different choirs?
A. Sure, we went to the East Rand. West Rand, Britz near Pretoria and then we went down to Durban. Unfortunately, we didn’t film. It would have been fucking great if we had filmed. We recorded people in the midlands, at Mooi River, Durban, the hostels, all over the place. It was really lekker. And it was FOSATU, it was pre-Cosatu days so ja, that was quite an early album as well… This is the DTMB choir..
Q. What was next for Shifty?
A. Next was the Mzwakhe album,. I saw him perform at a leftie thing in Yeoville where I think Johnny Clegg was also playing. He was a poet and he had a lot of charisma and attitude and I thought it could be powerful with some musical backing. I got Ian Herman, Gito Baloi and Simba Morri to workshop the music with him, so that was very exciting. Just get in the studio with musicians that are good at what they do and just lay it down.
Q. How did you hook up with Jennifer Ferguson? Did you see her at the Market Theatre?
A. I probably knew her personally before I heard her play. Her boyfriend Christo Leach was a director of film and theatre and she was acting as a ghost in some weird TV drama. I met her then. She may have told me she played, but then she was doing quite a lot of cabaret stuff in Hillbrow. For me, it has always been about the songs and she was a great songwriter. Also, her headspace, in terms of where we were, politically, you know. It became pretty obvious that we should record her. She always pretty much knew what she wanted, so with her stuff I didn’t do very much production. In fact, generally I tried to be as much removed as possible and let the people get their own stuff together and just contribute on the technical side and arrangements. Although, I’m sure there are those that would dispute that, ha ha! This is Jennifer from her first album…
The second album, which was done years later… she did on her own. It wasn’t recorded with Shifty, it was done at Video lab I think and then we released it.
Q. OK, now for Koos Kombuis, aka Andre Le Toit. He sent you a demo?
A. I really loved the vibe of the demo so I wanted to replicate it with better quality audio. I invited him up to Joburg. I had a PCM machine, an early digital stereo machine that recorded onto Betamax tape. These tapes are like three hours long. So I set him up in the studio and I hit record and I went out. I said just try to do what you did on the demo. I am not going to be here. Imagine it is your own space and do your own thing and I went shopping or something. In those days the studio was in Rand Mines properties, way out near Nazrec on Baragwanath Road. When I came back he was just finishing off. He had been alone for two hours playing. I had also asked him to do the intros, like he had on the demo and I just edited what he had done. I then compared those intros to the ones the original demo cassette and chose the ones with the better vibe.
An interesting aside is that we are actually about to release that original cassette demo. Technically I cleaned it up quite a bit. I then sent it to Koos to see what he thought of the idea. He was initially a little worried about it, but he’s come around to liking the idea.
Q. Why is Koos worried?
A. It wasn’t so much the fact that he had bronchitis, which comes through as coughs and sniffles on the demo, but rather because of some references to girlfriends from back in the day. He had changed names for the studio recordings to avoid hassles. The one has become a lawyer and he doesn’t want to cause shit. I have bleeped those, so he’s okayed it. There are a couple of songs that aren’t on the original. I’ve always loved that tape and I think his fans will do likewise. It is called Voedselvergifting. Though that was one of the few demos I responded to positively, I think I pretty much answered everybody that sent me a demo. And there were lots. Still have them in the archive.
Q. Kerkorrel? How did you get to record him?
A. Ralph Rabie (Kerkorrel) was sent down by Beeld or the Rapport to interview Koos/Andre and they liked each other. Ralph said that he also plays and played him some of his stuff, to which Koos said, well, you are a much better musician than me. I should be interviewing you. When Koos came up to Joburg they got together and the rest is history. The original Gereformeerde Blues Band, Koos was in it but that was for like one or two gigs. He was not a team player.This is Die Gereformeerde Blues Band…
Q. Simba Morri, was he a Shifty artist and was that after the Mapantsula band he was in?
A. Yes, we first recorded Simba as part of Mapantsula for the End Conscription Campaign album and shortly thereafter on his solo Wasamata, with Gito Baloi and Ian Herman backing him up and Jannie Hanepoot arranging the brass. He makes such gentle music, just like the man himself?This is Simba Morri with the album released by Shifty. https://simbamorri.bandcamp.com/album/wasamata
Simba has had some serious health issues earlier this year and had to be admitted to the hospital for treatment. He is home now but I am not sure what the prognosis is so please help the guy out by ordering his albums on Bandcamp.Shifty Records 3 July 2020: ‘Live – Simba Morri’ is out now exclusively on Bandcamp at https://simbamorri.bandcamp.com/album/live … all funds raised will go towards the Simba Morri medical assistance fund (first Friday of the month is a good day to purchase it as Bandcamp takes no percentage of sales on that day… Go get it and share, share, share Thank You!
Q. What other Shifty shifty artists didn’t we touch on?
A. Oh, there are a lot, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Q. Roger Lucey?
A. Ja I recorded his After the Thunder concerts way back, but we never did a proper release with Roger, just a single with his alter ego Tighthead Fourie and the Lose Forwards, which is really a hoot!…
Q. The Genuines, how did that recording happen?
A. I was working with Ian Herman from the very early days, probably even before our first Shifty album when I recorded that Roger Lucey concert and Ian was playing drums. He was like nineteen or something, he was living at Crown Mines, maybe at the back of Roger’s place even, and as soon as I heard him play I wanted to use him on every recording that needed a drummer. He probably ended up playing on 50% of the Shifty repertoire. The Genuines must have come along in 1986/87, the rest of the guys were from Cape Town and Ian hooked up with them. As soon as I heard the Genuines I wanted to record them. It was crazy that I didn’t have to fight the rest of the industry off for them, but that’s just how the SA industry was back then. Probably still it. An incredibly technically proficient band with charisma and a helluva vibe. First we recorded the rock album. This was the single from the Genuines album Goema released in 1987…
Even more fantastic album was Mr. Mac and the Genuines, which was the goema album, not the album called Goema, but the album using the goema tradition. I love the very tight sound of that recording. At that stage, I was using a lot of reverb on everything which is really embarrassing for me now, you know? But that album I produced really tight and the energy that comes through is amazing. That’s what you look for as a producer, you know- which is to manifest the immediate energy of people playing together to be heard for eternity. Not always an easy thing. Robby Jansen and Tony Cedras provided the brass. And here is that groundbreaking album in full…
Q. Tananas was another great Shifty band. Can you tell us about them, please?
A. This is Tananas featuring Ian Herman, the late, great Gito Baloi and the enigmatic Steve Newman… https://tananas.bandcamp.com/album/tananas Ian was living at the studio at that time, that was the second place we occupied at Rand Mine Properties. In the former, we were in a single-story building where we rented rooms from someone called Jackie Quinn who was involved in the ANC. We didn’t know that at the time and she had connections with people in Lesotho. It was after she had moved out of the house she got taken out by the South African military in Lesotho. There was a picture of her lying in the morgue on the front page of the Sunday Times. I could not believe it. The SA press had never published a picture like that before. It was shocking to me, not only because I knew the person, but because of the blatant disrespect that the publishing of the image represented. That was the first house and then there was the mine doctor’s house across the valley that we moved into a few years later. There were only two houses there in this wide open veld near Uncle Charlies. Warrick was also staying at the house. It was just music, that is all it was about and I remember recording the Genuines, both albums there. By the time of the second house, the caravan was no more. Of course, when the caravan was around I did other recordings not yet mentioned, like The Cherry Faced Lurchers Live At Jamesons in 1985. Pulled the caravan outside of Jamesons and ran a cable in and straight on to 2-track. There was no multitrack, no mixing afterward. 2 nights recording, wonderful …
I also took the caravan down to Swaziland in 1985 and recorded a band called Impandzi which was never a Shifty release and then we went to Botswana as well and recorded the Kgwanyape Band. It was like a Tswana-Celtic sound, a beautiful mixture. There were some ex-pats playing in the band, the guitarist was from Germany, Mandolin player from England, a flutist from Australia and the rest of the guys were Tswana.Here is that beautiful album.
Q. OK so Gary, Herselmann, The Kêrels, we have to talk about them…
A. They were playing around Jamesons where a lot of the Shifty A&R was done. I loved The Kêrels, like just about everyone else who saw them. Gary’s personality just shone through the music. You know Gary, he has always got a take on things that transports you from the serious, put it that way. The eternal binger. I think that Jannie (Hannepoort van Tonder of the Gereformeerde Blues Band) has a fantastic description of him: he is the kind of guy that would be jolling for 3 days with no sleep and still be the sharpest, funniest brain in the room. Koos describes him turning into a dog for the Voëlvry Tour, which he did for the whole tour! He would sit under the table and snap at people’s ankles as they passed by. But anyway, this is the first Kêrels album released by Shifty, Ek Sê..
Q. The Radio Rats Big Beat album because I think that was one of the best releases on Shifty. Was that an enjoyable album to make?
A. We did Titus Groan before that, a single called Agony.. https://sjambokmusic.com/2014/10/13/titus-groan/
It was interesting for me to do that. The Radio Rats were the first proper band that I played in so to revisit them almost ten years later was kinda interesting. The songs were maybe not quite as in the box as their debut Into the Night We Slide but there were some really great songs there. Which was my favourite now? Pesthouse…
Q. The live Shifty releases and there were some really good ones…
A. The Jameson’s thing of course (Cherry Faced Lurchers Live At Jamesons)..
Winston’s Jive Mix Up, I think that album is great but it has never been properly released. That is one we must do on vinyl I think…
Q. There were a few really good compilation albums that featured some artists who did not do full albums with Shifty like Nude Red.. Can you tell us about those?
A. We did 2 compilations back then. There was A Naartjie in our Sosatie and then Forces Favourites and those were quite early albums. Naartjie was probably number 5, around 1985. That had Bernoldus on it and this guy called Timothy that just arrived on our doorstep fresh up from Transkei. I don’t know how the hell he found us. Very sweet guy, he couldn’t play an instrument, but he sang us some stuff and we really liked it. We composed a backing, recorded him and then he disappeared again… He’s on that album but we didn’t even get to know his surname…
Q. there was also this guy Stan James on there wasn’t there?
A.Stan, yes, a very good friend of Roger Lucey and in-fact he performed at Roger’s After The Thunder concert. Both Rogers recording and Stan’s recording on A Naartjie In Our Sosatie are from that concert…Here is Roger..
and this is Stan..
Q. So what are you working on now?
A. It is as you find the time. None of these things are going to make anyone any money. It just happens to be lockdown now so I found a little time to remix The Other White Album (James Phillips). I’ve got the brains trust in – everyone involved that was still around to criticism the mixes. I am also using Willem Moller’s ears as a second opinion. That is going to come out this year to mark 25 years since James’ passing. On the 31st July, on the anniversary of his death we put out a compilation album of the people that performed at the Concert For James. I put the video of the show up recently as part of the Shifty Lockdown Viral Picture Show…
If you go to the Shifty site and go to the Lockdown Festival you will find that almost all the movies are still there… https://shifty.co.za/records/documentaries/
Shifty September, that was a roaring success. what did that mean for you?
A. Hmmm, You came up for it especially, didn’t you?
Me: Ja, I couldn’t miss that…
A. That was such a roller coaster ride for me, hey! Jean Bourdin from Alliance Française approached me to use Shifty to celebrate 20 years of democracy in South. Now, that is a compliment. It was only supposed to be one or two events at the Alliance but it just started snowballing in my head. So eventually we had six events at Alliance, plus the big concert, so it became six months of work. I went through all the archives, videos, all the memories came flooding back. Jean was amazing, you might mention him in this. He is one of those enablers of culture in the most subtle way. He was however there for you every time you needed him, you know, organising the events, trying to find funding, whatever. The Alliance’s are really a language school. That is what they do, but part of their mandate is to promote culture, but Jean was so into music that he always walked the extra mile. He is back in France now, but it is his biggest dream is to open up a jazz club in Joburg because he loves the country and the music so much. As anyone will know, this is not a good idea, but it is a fine dream. Ja, so he was a great help and that is also where Bill (Botes) got involved, another amazing guy. Just does it for the love of it. Tried to pay him, tried to get him to take money from ticket sales, he refused. he spent months on that. He is driven by the love of the music and he makes things happen. It’s nice to have people like that around. and it is a great compliment to a guy like me who is recording the stuff. I really don’t like the act of trying to sell it. Bill loves that shit. Where was he in the heydays of Shifty! Would have been amazing to have had him around.
And then we got to a stage when things started to change. The Robben Island prisoners were released and Mandela was released and we had just recorded Vusi. The CEO of the newly formed BMG Africa was incredibly keen on Vusi and I surmise that he did a joint venture with Shifty just to get Vusi. There were a couple of records that were recorded in that period: Sunny Skies with James (Phillips), Zen Surfing with Robin Auld. I think Matthew van der Want and Urban Creep as well, though maybe I’m wrong about that. That was probably with Tic Tic Bang. Confused. Van der Want/Letcher was after that, brillianT!…
We were only with them for 3 years because it was a fuck up. Their sales staff were not interested in what we were doing so we would make the records and then nothing would happen. It was almost worse than before when we had little idea of what we were doing in terms of trying to sell things, but by that stage, I had had it. There were just too many repeats of these really incredibly talented young people coming through my doors with nowhere to go. Towards the end of the ’80’s, I knew there was no hope for them in terms of a career in SA, so what do you say to them? Stop recording, stop playing, no, you can’t say that. The only thing you can say is: “Go overseas”. It almost felt as though I was facilitating an illusion, you know what I mean? I was incredibly excited about the music, the people around Shifty were incredibly excited about the music, we knew we had done good albums, but often with just one venue in Joburg, sometimes a venue in Durban and maybe one or two in Cape Town, that was it. No radio play because the music was too interesting for radio. And then absolutely no other infrastructure in terms of management, etc. So after you have been doing that for 12 years…
Q. Neil Johnston on Radio 5 was a great help wasn’t he?
A. Ja, Neil was great, Benjie was always very supportive of what we did and journalists were always very supportive – you know Gus Silber and Richard Haslop, all those guys. We only got radio play every now and then. Tim Modese was a DJ at Bop radio and he broke Sankomoto for us. Richard Prior said he wore out 3 albums playing Sankomota over and over again. Sankomoto was always an evergreen for us. Never huge sales, but it always sold every month, timeless, you know… So by the mid-’90s, by the new dispensation, I was ready to move on……You can find the parts of the Shifty catalogue on most online platforms, but Bandcamp has all of it: https://shiftyrecords.bandcamp.com/
Also check out the Shifty website: https://shifty.co.za/
On behalf of all the artists recorded by Shifty Records, I would just like to thank Lloyd for all his incredible work and for all the albums that would not otherwise have been heard. Shifty Records is a very important part of South African Music and Lloyd Ross and Ivan Kadey can feel very proud. Cheers Lloyd and thank you for the incredible music.
Ernesto Garcia Marques 12/08/2020