Sing it with us: “Hold me tight, James Phillips”
South Africa in the 1980s was tough for everyone. Apartheid was at its ghastly peak, with the flabby-lipped finger-wagging PW Botha declaring States of Emergency all over the place, young white boys being called up to fight wars they didn’t understand on our borders and in the townships, black people slaughtered in the streets and in police stations, seemingly endless violence and riots, fear and confusion…
Yet during this turbulent decade, a generation broke away
They questioned what their parents tried to teach them. They rebelled. They protested. They called for the release of the mysterious man in jail, whose face few had seen because being caught with a likeness would land you in jail. They wrote the songs of struggle and freedom.
White Afrikaners like Johannes Kerkorrel and Koos Kombuis are names we knew then, and which live on today – some only in spirit.
Like James Phillips. But oh boy, what a spirit it is.
It was an era of great political importance in the history of South Africa, and the music of the time was equally significant.
The Fun’s Not Over addresses the role that music played during the struggle
This poignant feature-length documentary follows Phillips’s career, from the late 1970s when he formed his first band, Corporal Punishment, all the way to the outpouring of emotion following his death in 1995, when he was 36 years old.
For those of us of a certain age, it’s bittersweetly nostalgic to remember not only the seminal bands and songs of the time but how horribly, awfully our country was treated by the government and how the protest flag was flown by ordinary, brave men and women.
As for younger audiences, this film should be required viewing; it’s such an important chapter in our history, both musically and politically.
Just a guy…
Pieced together with live performances, music videos, interviews with Phillips as well as his friends, fellow musicians, family and journalists, The Fun’s Not Over (a title of one of his songs) is a carefully crafted portrait of just a guy …
A guy who loved to smoke weed, was awkward around women but fell in love with them – hard, studied music at university, and wrote songs that not only reached deep inside the listener to grab their heart but carried with them the zeitgeist of the 80s.
AKA Bernoldus Niemand
Hou My Vas Korporaal, by Phillips’s Bernoldus Niemand (Bernoldus Nobody) persona, became an anthem of the times – and the End Conscription Campaign.
Hold Me Tight Corporal was a song Phillips knew had to be written and performed in Afrikaans, even though he was English. The lyrics are haunting in either language, and their importance is explored in the film.
Interviewees include satirical cartoonist Zapiro, Pieter-Dirk Uys, journalists Max du Preez and Andrew Donaldson, and oh so many musicians – from the band Cherry Faced Lurchers (because their faces were red and, well, they lurched), which cross-pollinated with Radio Rats, Koos Kombuis, and even Jack Parow puts in an appearance to cement the importance of Phillips’s enduring role in Afrikaans rock.
The son of a preacher man
Phillips had a conservative upbringing in the East Rand town of Springs, and at one point he pleased his father, who was a minister, by finding God, for a while.
But he did love his dagga, and his beer. He studied at Rhodes and Wits universities, and shortly before he passed away, he worked with William Kentridge and Warrick Sony on a production of Faustus In Africa in Grahamstown.
The point is, he may have looked like – and been – a sweaty, stoned revolutionary at times, but he was undoubtedly a true artist, a poet, and, some might say, a prophet. Comparison with Bob Dylan is not misplaced.
The words of a prophet
Consider this voiceover by Phillips, which opens the film: “There’s so much fantastic music out there, that’s just been lost … it’s in some oke’s bakkie or in his bookshelf. So many wonderful songs have been written, and they’re all there to enrich our lives and make life a more meaningful better place to be.”
“Hopefully we’ll all stop killing each other and just become friends with ourselves. We’re all still very alienated, we’ve all got guilt trips still; being happy but being sad, all the paradoxes we live with here.”
The words and music are still as brilliant and still as relevant today as they were in the 1980s, and the good news is that Apple Music has several albums available to download should you wish to continue your education.
Recommended companion pieces to this documentary are Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (a scripted movie about a group of friends dealing with the fallout following Kerkorrel’s suicide), which Showmax anticipates returning to the platform possibly later this year, as well as the Afrikaans documentary Johannes Kerkorrel, available on Showmax.
For your reading pleasure, I recommend Carsten Rasch’s memoir, Between Rock And A Hard Place, which is a portrait of the South African music scene from the late 1970s through till around 1984. It includes stories and anecdotes about Phillips, the Cherry Faced Lurchers, and their song Toasted Takeaways.
Read, watch, understand.