Wednesday, December 7, 2011


The esteemed Rolling Stone magazine launched in South Africa recently, at the behest of a few wealthy hipsters with nothing better to do. Whether or not the South African music scene will benefit from Rolling Stone’s brand of music journalism is beside the point (although the fact that the hipsters chose Rolling Stone over Mojo or Uncut is telling). The fact is, until the money runs out, South Africans have yet another American brand making taste amongst its youth culture.

With the print version, featuring Van Coke Kartel doing the only thing they do well (a fashion shoot), came the obligatory online version, and a teacup-sized storm was unleashed when RSSA published an op ed piece by one of the supposed gate-keepers of the South African music industry, a muso-turned-radio-DJ named Jon Savage. Savage’s piece, despite being appallingly badly written and full of grandiose self-glorification, attempted to stir up some kind of debate about the state of modern South African music, and thankfully failed on all accounts.

I say ‘thankfully’ because God forbid someone as rabidly untalented and far too over-connected as Savage should have any claim to the state of the modern South African music industry (except perhaps as one of the many perpetrators of personality-less muzak that define modern SA rock music).

That being said, his unsupervised (and obviously unedited; great start, RSSA) time in front of his laptop has ‘everyone’ (read: concerned white rock fans) talking, and some of the comments, including Savage’s own, are revealing. Most respondents happily rubbish his piece, which at least says something positive about the state of critical reasoning south of the Equator. The odd few responded positively to his piece with what amounts to “fuck yeah!!!” After all, his diatribe against local music ended with some kind of call-to-arms: 

“So let's act like we've grown up! Let's break down the walls! Let's revolt! Lets hoist our fists mightily in the air and announce together ‘LOCAL IS NOT LEKKER!’ “

Yes, let’s.

Pressed for a response, he whined:

It feels like a) people haven’t read my article, or b) don’t understand what I wrote. The whole point of my article was to say that 10 years ago, you could HEAR that a band was South African when they were on the radio. Partly due to production, and partly due to not being exposed to enough of the international scene, and partly because there weren’t enough really top bands so the bar was set low! And therefore, loving music BECAUSE it was South African was necessary to help grow the industry. But now days, our bands are finally standing up on an international level in every way! We’ve got bands like Shadowclub, Zebra and Giraffe, Aking, Jack Parow etc etc – and many others who are categorically world class in every way and you can no longer distinguish between “local” and “international” bands because our bands are great! And therefore, the bar has been RAISED!!! We need to stop thinking of SA bands as “local” and we need to start thinking of them as bands!!! And local bands need to realize that the bar is no longer at Prime Circle level (a band considered to be hugely successful in SA), but we need to be aiming at Kings of Leon level (a band considered to be hugely successful on planet earth!!!!).

So,  apart from an over-reliance on exclamation marks, no clarity there either.

The point of all this, and this blog, is this: for over 40 years, white South Africans of a particular musical persuasion have wondered why South African rock ‘n roll has never been able to make an impact on international music markets. We’ve blamed apartheid, population demographics, lack of access to inspirational music through the apartheid cultural blockade (which is patently bullshit), lack of studio techniques, lack of equipment, idiot record companies (true), lack of talented producers and engineers (true, until fairly recently)… in short, everyone. 
White South African English-speaking rockers have never made it overseas in a big way, in the way that Australia produced INXS, Midnight Oil, or even pop legends like Kylie and Olivia Newton-John (not to mention AC/DC and the BeeGees). Or New Zealand produced Split Enz/ Crowded House. Or our other old Commonwealth cousin Canada produced Bryan Adams, Neil Young or Shania Twain.


It is kind of odd, you have to admit.

We’re not talking about white Afrikaans rock and pop. In their limited market, they sell outstandingly. And black South African music is, of course, hugely innovative and internationally successful.

But the sout-piele just can’t cut it. White South African English-speaking rock is of a dismally low-standard in the one crucial area that all music revolves around (although the way things are going internationally, not for long): songwriting.

Most SA bands have gotten technically more proficient. There are more rock bands per captia than at any other time in SA’s short music history, and most of these bands have access to cheap consumer versions of recording technology that enable them to record singles and albums with minimal expense. The whole landscape has changed, and in one area some SA bands at least are world-class: videos. There are a lot of talented visual people here, and some innovative, groundbreaking music videos have been produced.

But hardly any actual songs.

Lots of gurning and aping and shape-throwing and hipster-fashion and Cobain/Nickleback-esque white-angst, but nothing to really sing along to.

That’s been the bane of white South African rock music since time began, although along the way people like Robin Auld, Johnny Clegg, Bernard Binns (The Helicopters? Anyone?), Tully McCulley and Patric van Blerk have done us proud.

Is that what you’re kinda-sorta trying to get at, Mr Savage? Do you think mediocre nothingness like Zebra & Giraffe or aKing is world-class?
How exactly do people like you end up dictating to the heaving masses what’s cool and what isn’t? And how do you expect SA rock music to have any future if people like you are the tastemakers?

We obviously can’t rely on Rolling Stone.

They let you write.

And then they published it.


  1. Well thank you Jon for putting that into perspective. My first question really relates to judging the success of a SA band? Much like an actor getting he nod from hollywood - is it when they land that international recording contract and move to Nashville or London? Is it when there song is covered by an 'international' act and they are suddenly acknowledged as a songwriter? Or is when they can simply afford to make ends meet buy he dog some food and get the kids through 12 years of school like the rest of us mediocre consumers do?

  2. Great response, John. I especially like your closing points. The most ironic thing about Savage's article is that people like him are the problem with South African music. Cassette made very forgettable, wishy-washy music. I actually liked Jon Savage and the Nomads when I saw them at R the D, but he was certainly the weak link in that band. We need higher standards, and a proper critical culture filled with listeners, musicians and journalists who are not too afraid to piss off their sponsors by speaking the truth.

  3. First of all, you are obviously ill -informed about the origin of RS south africa. The so called 'hipsters' are not nearly as much of a wannabe-hipster as yourself. Clearly you are also in need of a little attention - why else write this blog to slag people off? Secondly, the piece was published under OPINION. DUH. Whether you like Savage or not is beside the point. Fact is he was voicing his OPINION, just as you are now voicing YOURS. So criticise HIM and not the vehicle who gave you something to rek your bek about.

  4. Fantastic article, the the rock scene is dismal in terms of quality, but everybody's parading and shouting out loud, look how cool or great we are. Song writing is non-existent, just a lot of jumping and posing. There are good artists from S.A. mostly in other genres and only maybe a smidgen of good rock song writers. You have to call a spade a spade, can't lie and just hype local music despite the low quality. Too many clicks and over-connected bands and industry folk stifling unknown talent that can raise the bar but are blocked by so so acts usurping all the venues and festivals and limited airtime on t.v. and radio.

    The S.A. scene seems inverted,if you suck but have a connection your safe, or if your mediocre and know the right folk your labelled geniuses. It's like a bad dream, where bad taste and weak judgement is king. I would say the better acts in S.A. are unknown and incapable of breaking through because the gate-keepers are only letting their friends in or their terrible judgement promotes acts with no real talent.

    You have to have a connection true, but you can't run and sustain an industry on it. Why do we get our butt kicked by artists from Oceania, why? We have the talent but we can't see it when it is right in-front of us because of our inability to recognise it.

  5. Sussie vannie KaapDecember 8, 2011 at 1:50 PM

    Ja ek sien die punt van jou artikel - maar vir wat blameer jy die tydskrif? Ek het die Desember uitgawe gekoop - dis briljant.
    Miskien moet jy die hele tydskrif lees en dan kommentaar lewer. Baie goeie stories en amazing foto's. Ons eie Roling Stone...niks om oor te kla nie.
    Savage het 'n punt - baie van die SA bands klink alaml dieselfde. Miskien het hulle 'n wake up call nodig om uit die kake van verveeldheid te red?

  6. Sussie vannie KaapDecember 8, 2011 at 1:52 PM

    Gaan lees - deur Koos Kombuis

  7. Haha this article is ridiculous. I have just read both this one and the John Savage one in Rolling Stone and you are both saying pretty much the same thing. The only difference is that this one is full of bitterness and nonsense (and a fair dose of bullshit). Some of your points are valid (like the songwriting stuff) but it is drowned in nonsense about how crap bands like Zebra n Giraffe are, or Fokofpolisiekar for that matter - if you really think Fokofpolisiekar (i think it was actually Van Coke Cartel in the magazine by the way) is so shit, then you really don't have a clue! But it's still funny how you just reiterated the other dudes article!!!!

  8. Oh me, oh my-o, Look at Miss Ohio...Reading this article gave me the same feeling as getting caught between the mother's of two pageant girls slapping each other with cheap handbags backstage, a fascination to keep watching, but still a dire sense of just how much is wrong with the picture. Jon Savage, your pretty daughter still holds her rightful sash, your article addressed a bigger picture, without bitterness or jibes, and any personal attacks on you are unwarranted, the quality of your writing is a point completely separate to the issue you were addressing. You've been a tireless supporter of local music since your first forays with (the legendary) Buckfever Underground, all the way through to selfless dedication to radio, music, even SAMA production, and all in a blood-deep love for our industry. The writer of this article obviously can't see the wood for the trees, so cute bitter Mr Ellis, put down your handbag and go back and join your pageant loser, she'll be the one crying into her Runner-Up sash.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Anonymous.. grow a pair. You're so obviously Jon Savage or someone stroking his uhm, ego..
    It's pitiful that people like you (Savage) have a say at all in our industry..
    Please take your "selfless dedication" somewhere else.

  11. The problem is simple really. Out of the hundreds of bands that get air play (radio and TV) and preform live regularly in SA only a small handfull is really good. Because simply put, their music sucks.

    It's sad, but it's true.

  12. I have met both John and Jon on a few occasions. While Ellis is down to earth and both an incredible guitarist and songwriter. Savage is an idiot who resorts to Malema-like tactics for attention and publicity. His old band cassette never amounted to much, primarily due to the fact that they really really sucked. The most played Cassette song is actually a Bob Geldof cover. Covers have always been an easy way out for SA bands, without it The Parlotones would never have reached the masses. Let's see Savage write anything that comes close to 'A Million Lights'.
    I would also be worried if South African rock is represented nationally on 5FM and Rolling Stone by douche like Savage.