Nelson Mandela lives. A continuing situation which is undoubtedly a source of great relief and comfort to his family, but possibly less so for the world’s news media who were at one point earlier this month on high alert for Major Public Figure Obituary Procedure but who are now nervously looking at their balance sheets as the costs of keeping teams and hotel rooms on standby in South Africa start to mount beyond anything they had budgeted for.
So while we have this breathing space, it seems an appropriate moment to continue the theme of the last post here and ponder some of the other big (at the time) but now largely forgotten moments of musical protest from the 1980s inspired by, and in direct opposition to, the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa and the continuing incarceration of the man who was viewed as the talisman for political change.
In the absence of any direct political sanctions against the South African government of the time, it was left to other organisations to show their disdain for the situation in the country by effecting what amounted to an almost total cultural boycott of the state. With the odd exception for so-called “rebel” tours of the country, South African sport was ostracised from all major sporting events, their biggest sporting stars forced to find other flags of convenience to free them to compete – the saga of runner Zola Budd and her rapid adoption of British citizenship to allow her to compete in the 1984 Olympic Games a classic case in point.
For the music business, the issue of just what form that cultural boycott should take was one that was open to wild interpretation. For all the critical acclaim heaped upon Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland, he was upon his release required to answer criticism for his use of South African musicians for the album – never mind the fact that his contributors were the kinds of black artists who more than anyone else deserved the patronage of the outside world. Few would view his championing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and their subsequent rise to worldwide fame as anything other than a huge cultural positive.
Even less clear cut were the millions being offered to superstars worldwide to play the Sun City resort, located in what is now the North West province of South Africa. The luxury casino resort had opened in 1979 but whilst geographically within South Africa was at the time legally in the independent state of Bophutaswana, allowing it to operate outside the legal strictures of the Johannesburg government, free to provide gambling and topless revue shows, but also significantly making it theoretically one of the few places that black and white people mingled freely and with relative equality. Quite how many black South Africans were able to afford to travel to and use the facilities of the resort were another matter altogether of course.
It was this level of racial integration which meant that a great many big name acts of the time felt able to accept the lucrative offers made to them to play concert dates at Sun City. Status Quo, Elton John, Tina Turner and Queen were amongst the superstars who played at the venue even at the height of the de facto cultural boycott. Not everyone thought they were right to do so, however, in particular E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt who had visited the resort in the early 1980s and was appalled at the luxury paradise which had been built in the middle of an otherwise impoverished rural homeland.
Van Zandt formed the pressure group Artists Against Apartheid and recruited a similarly stellar list of performers to the cause, acts such as Peter Gabriel, U2, Hall & Oates along with many hip-hop stars of the time who pledged not to play the resort to affirm their opposition to the apartheid regime. As part of the campaign, an all-star single and accompanying album was recorded in 1985, modelled on the USA For Africa and Band Aid charity productions which had made all-star charity records so fashionable.
Faced with an uphill battle to persuade radio stations to play the overtly political single, Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid (others had prior claim to the AAA initials it seems) struggled to gain sales traction in the USA and was only a minor chart single there at the end of 1985. Across Europe the single did rather better and in Britain the track was a moderately successful Number 21 hit just prior to Christmas. Very much a product of its time, the single remains all but forgotten today.
18 months later another largely forgotten anti-apartheid track was making its way up the UK Top 30.
Boy George began his solo career in 1987 with a tremendous amount of public goodwill behind him, the graphic newspaper images of his Heroin-induced fall from grace still fresh in the minds of everyone, fans and critics alike. Thus when his gentle cover version of Bread’s Everything I Own topped the charts at the start of the year, it was viewed as a welcome creative rebirth for the man who had provided so many memorable pop moments earlier in the decade.
However his debut album Sold when it emerged in the summer was rather less rapturously received. It wasn’t that it was particularly bad, and indeed its grooves contained the odd gem, such as the single To Be Reborn which would become a respectable Top 20 hit at the end of the year. Several of its tracks were brash, raucous and brass-heavy pieces of pop-rock, a world away from his Culture Club roots and sounding almost as if he was under orders to make the album as US-friendly as possible (an odd move if that was the case given that his drug convictions meant he would have severe visa problems attempting to enter the country to promote it). The album performed poorly both in the USA and back at home, although Wikipedia notes with arched eyebrows that it was a smash hit in Italy and outsold anything Boy George had been associated with before or since. After the laid back (and frankly rather dull) track Keep Me In Mind had limped to Number 29 in the spring, the album’s venomous title track was selected for its third single release. Sold was Boy George’s own contribution to the anti-apartheid cause.
Now let’s be honest here, that was a rather scary prospect. Boy George’s previous attempts to move beyond love songs into the realm of social commentary had attracted derision in the past, Culture Club’s pleas for world peace extending no further than the bland statement that “war, war is stupid.” Sold appeared to be an attempt to move beyond those rather sweeping brush strokes into something rather more subtle, a move which actually only seemed to hide the true message of the song behind obscurity.
Hence the track was an eerie production, led by a solitary funk-rock guitar over which Boy George recounted the tale, first of his mother complaining about unpaid bills before turning his attention to South African president PW Botha on the BBC, his eyes “like a factory, about to be shut down.” Then the Level 42-esque brass kicked in for the chorus as George and backing singers announced they were “sold”. On what and to what is never really clarified. Not that the song didn’t have a rather fine songwriting pedigree, George having co-written it with no less a figure than Lamont Dozier.
It is an absorbing track to say the least, and thanks to its own rather limited chart performance (Number 24 in late July) remains largely forgotten in the grand scheme of Boy George’s long and storied career. As a protest song, it didn’t really work at all.
So I know what you are asking. Was there any anti-apartheid song from the period which had any kind of cultural impact at all? Well, there was one in particular, a jaunty reggae single from a music industry veteran whose pedigree for social commentary was already well established.
Eddy Grant could have been forgiven for thinking he would never have a major hit single again. At the very top of his game in the early 1980s, the former member of The Equals (and writer, lest we forget, of the enduring classic Baby Come Back) had hit paydirt in 1982 and 1983, first with the Number One hit I Don’t Wanna Dance and then with its follow-up, the sparkling Electric Avenue, a plea for social and racial cohesion following the 1981 Brixton riots which were centred on the street of the same name. After those hits however his career had taken something of a nosedive, a situation hardly helped by his loving created theme song to the 1984 film Romancing The Stone which ended up edited out of the film altogether, binned from its soundtrack album and a resounding flop even when released to coincide with the movie’s release.
His return to the UK singles chart in early 1988 came therefore rather out of left-field, but such was the charm and appeal of the hit with which he did so that there were very few complaints.
That should clue you in as to how much this record started under the radar, the budget for the video extending to nothing more than the band performing in a studio with a desert background chromakeyed behind them. Yet to listen to it again, for the first time in 25 years is nothing less than a joy. It is a perfectly crafted pop record, radio-friendly and with a singalong chorus which lodges firmly in your brain before you have had the chance to digest the lyrics.
The lyrics? A beautifully elegant piss-take of every single foible of the South African regime at the time, the apartheid system that “keeps a brother in a subjection”, the “golden money” to “buy new weapons in the shape of guns”, their practice of “sneaking across all the neighbour’s borders, now and again having little fun” and skipping Mandela altogether instead pays a sideways credit to the work of churchmen like Desmond Tutu (“the archbishop, who’s a peaceful man”) before finishing on the optimistic note that the tide might finally be turning. If only all political pop records were this well-conceived, not wrapped up in its own sense of importance or acting in the belief that people singing on a pop record can indeed change the world, but simply making its point with eloquence and charm and in a manner which is open and accessible to any audience who might stumble across it.
Stumble across it they did. Gimme Hope Jo’Anna returned Eddy Grant to the Top 10 of the UK singles chart for the first time in five years when it peaked at Number 7 in February 1988, going on to become a hit all over Europe and topping charts in both Holland and Spain. Theoretically its success should have been the shot in the arm that Eddy Grant’s career needed, yet although radio stations in its wake paid attention to the follow-up single Harmless Piece Of Fun they swiftly lost interest when the single failed to take off and its parent album File Under Rock sank without trace, taking with it any further chances of Eddy Grant appearing in the singles chart with new material.
However, we must once more finish on a cautionary tale, for of course appealing though Gimmie Home Jo’Anna was, the political freedom for which it was a plea did indeed come to fruition just two years later, instantly rendering its message out of date and consigning it all to swiftly to the status of a historical quirk. It meant that its fate was not to go down as one of the musical highlights of the 1980s, but instead to languish in the catalogue of a music publisher who had little time for the significance of the source material but who instead was only to keen to see it monetised when the right offer came in.
One day you are a bright, breezy political record and the only anti-apartheid anthem that ever really mattered. Next you are an advert for an unfortunately named Yogurt drink imported from the continent, and nobody seems to care.