Two weeks ago I watched Jiving & Dying, a documentary by Michael Cross about a legendary band from Springs called The Radio Rats. In all likelihood, you have never heard of them, and that’s not really surprising. They were all but gone by the time I got to Jo’burg in the early Eighties, and they hardly ever gigged outside of the East Rand anyway. That was their biggest handicap, I guess. Had Springs been Brixton (London), The Radio Rats could have been big.
The love-child of popster Jonathan Handley, featuring Dave Davies on vocals, The Radio Rats sound is an interesting mixture of Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Just listen to ZX Dan and tell me I’m wrong. Only they weren’t really glam. A glam band would never have survived in Springs. Apart from being the Ducktail Capital of South Africa and the Centre of the Universe (according to local legend), Springs was pure Rock ‘n Roll.
The screening at the Labia Cinema was fantastic. The audience, to my surprise, were not only oldsters, but contained a fair number of laaities – that is, people downstream of 40. And everybody was very, very excited. Jonathan Handley gave a short intro, the lights went out, and into the night we slid, straight into an era when things were simple, where everybody had landlines, films were shot on film, and cars had wings. Well, in Springs anyway …
I’ve always wondered how this town got its name. Originally called ‘The Springs’, it was actually founded on “oorskiet grond” – leftover land from indistinct farm borders. In other words, a mistake. When it was declared a town, its name was changed to just “Springs”, and subsequently lost all meaning, or gained other meanings. Now it could be a. to be released from a constrained position; b. to issue forth suddenly, as water, blood, sparks, fire, etc c. to become bent or warped, as boards; d. to explode, as a mine; e. to secure the release of (someone) from confinement, as of jail, military service, or the like; f. a source or fountainhead of something, etc etc.
Despite its weird name, Springs punches way above it’s weight when it comes to rock’n roll. The Radio Rats were the inspiration for James Phillips, who started Corporal Punishment with fellow Springster Carl Raubenheimer. Lloyd Ross, who would go on to start the legendary Shifty Records, hitched all the way from Cape Town to see the Radio Rats and ended up playing bass for them for a while. James would later start the Cherry-Faced Lurchers and still later morph into Bernoldus Niemand, who would subvert an entire generation of young Afrikaners (or Rockspiders, as Afrikaners were known on the Eastrand) by hitting the road with the Voëlvry tour.
I have an admission to make – I grew up in Springs. Yep. In a suburb called Selcourt, on a street called Wanderer Road, which ended at the beginning of a mealie farm. I was there, on 2nd or 3rd Street, holding my mommie’s hand, the day Verwoerd was attacked by Tsafendas, the streets eerily deserted, apart from pockets of shocked people discussing the news, many of them weeping.
But somehow I never met Jonathan Handley, Carl Raubenheimer or James Phillips, all sons of Springs and contemporaries of mine, no doubt riding their bicycles to school and goofing at the Selection Park public swimming pool (reserved for Whites Only), just like I did. I wonder how life would have changed for me if I had met up with them, then.