From The Ground Up: A History Of Metal In South Africa

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“Into the mosh pit, Boet?” [1]

Odyssey, one of South Africa's first metal bands.

Odyssey, one of South Africa’s first metal bands.

Hillbrow, 1985. Two long-haired boys stood in the Golden Banana club with their eyes fixed on the guitars being wielded onstage by Odyssey. The razor riffs being played were as unstoppable as wrecking balls, and those boys just wanted to rock it!

Nowadays, former Odyssey vocalist Brin Addison notes, “I don’t think any of us knew at the time that our one and only record would garner such cult status twenty years on. The first time I saw a single copy of the Odyssey LP on eBay sell for $400, I was shocked! It’s almost like payback for being sequestered in the land of Boer music and Township-Jive all those years ago.” 
Odyssey is one of the forefathers of heavy metal music in South Africa alongside a number of other forgotten precursors, namely Ragnarok and Urban Assault. “In South Africa, heavy metal was perceived as the retarded bastard son of the music industry,” remembers Michael Gill, former member of Urban Assault. “Most people knew it existed but few would have anything to do with it.

In 1980s in South Africa, furious angst was loaded into the electric guitars and brutal drums. It was a time when beautifully grotesque music flooded out of the smoky, dingy clubs that supported heavy music, gripping the alternative crowds with unidentifiable styles and sounds. Heavy metal music from abroad was the most crucial influence by far, creeping its way into South Africa and ensnaring a small but stealthy army of metalheads. “It wasn’t easy to fill clubs, because there were not many supporters, but bit by bit things started to happen,” says Addison. “The problem with South Africa was that the music market was geared towards ‘Black Music’ and ‘White Pop’. I think it still very much is, but we had our little clique and we had fun breaking the mould. Most importantly, we had a very dedicated fanbase who would follow us from town to town and help create those real rock ‘n’ roll moments.

A live review of Odyssey and Urban Assault.

A live review of Odyssey and Urban Assault.

Ja, Boet! This band is flipping awesome!

However, not everyone agreed. “The community generally despised us, called metalheads ‘dirty long haired good-for-nothings’,” claims Dean Smith former guitarist of Ragnarok and Odyssey. “They hated us; there were often fights at the clubs. The Lebanese, police and biker gangs used to come to the clubs where we played and beat the shit out of everyone, really stupid and unfair! The N.G Kerk [2] didn’t help too much either, I remember them banning all sorts of recordings from bands like W.A.S.P, Iron Maiden or anything they deemed evil.

Even across the seas in South Africa, heavy metal was branded as the ‘devil’s music’ in the mid eighties through to the nineties, after the coverage of Norwegian black metal in the media exploded, as well the infamous incident of Ozzy Osbourne biting a bat’s head off, having thought it was a plastic prop. [3] 
Addison of Odyssey clarifies, “I think it was all very new and misunderstood. We were branded Satanists for obvious reasons but we really weren’t, we just wanted to rock!

Urban Assault live

And rock they did, but the Apartheid regulations throttled their strings. There were a lot of constraints placed in the music industry during those frustrating times of racial segregation, ranging from the taxing cost of musical equipment, rarity of imported albums, lack of venues, restriction of metal releases and shortage of quality recording facilities. Conversely, the political unrest prior to 1994 became the fuel for the aggression in heavy metal and resulted in encompassing a very ‘real sound’. “Metal was a real escape from the bullshit police state that South Africa was back then – it was to escape the pressure from school, jobs, police, parents or any form of authority,” states Smith.

Metal music became a form of escapism, a way to stand-up and stand-out from everything that was hostage around the political embargo. Heavy metal music allowed headbangers to give society the middle finger. South African metal turned the turmoil into a creative outlet like bands from other troubled lands like Israel, and more recently Baghdad.
 As Gill elaborates, “Without a doubt, we knew the country was changing. We hated the fact that we had to go to the army, we hated ignorant people who couldn’t see the power and genius in metal, or the rebelliousness and change that it promoted. Basically headbangers didn’t subscribe to anything but metal, so we rejected everything else.

While Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden were producing ground-breaking records abroad, local metal bands were breaking the Apartheid laws to play in venues that supported the ‘heavy’. In chief, the Irish Pub, The Golden Banana and Club Image were favoured locations in the regions of Hillbrow. “I saw it as a mini New York with lots happening and always on the cutting edge of fashion and emerging trends. There were also more clubs, hotels and pubs who were open to metal. Many venues were hidden away, so it goes without say that things developed in Hillbrow,” recalls Urban Assault’s Gill. The bustle of Hillbrow created a magnet effect with people from different backgrounds and interests and had become an ideal place to recruit more metal heads. Of course, this being prior to the time of mobile phones and the internet, so there was a landline and a ‘bangers list’. Smith elaborates, “There was a list that we all added our names and phone numbers to, and it circulated for a long time, every time there was a gig or a meeting the person with the list would call everyone and spread the word.

Urban Assault Phil Wright


“Hey, Boet, did you hear that metal band on Lavine’s show?

The metal scene was tiny yet tight and the headbangers devoured any heavy news or recordings floating around. Air play was a major bonus, but few radio shows supported hard rock and its culture. The treasured hosts were Rafe Lavine of The Rockin’ Horror Show, Chris Prior and later Phil Wright with their self-titled shows and the controversial Barney Simon. Smith remarks, “There was a DJ on Radio 5, Rafe Lavine, he was probably the first guy to play bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Venom, he introduced a lot of metal bands to South Africa. Apart from that, people who were into metal had friends who were from the United Kingdom or elsewhere who would often go back for holidays and attend things like the Monsters of Rock festival; they would bring back all the news and make everybody else jealous.”
 Today, downloading and music piracy is an ongoing problem, though that was how metal was fostered in the past. “Taping music from friends was a social pastime for teenagers, accompanied by a beer or two and maybe a joint,” says Gill.

For Gill, Smith, Addison and fellow band members – social pastimes were spent exercising their fingertips on their guitars and other inexpensive music equipment. They nabbed international music influences, combined that with their own particular social circumstances, and created the first down-tuned sounds of South Africa. In a way, Ragnarok, Urban Assault and Odyssey battled to create something powerful, to sound better than their metal Demi-gods and to stifle their everyday surroundings. Each band was hungry to get their message out to the masses. Subsequently, recordings had to be pursued. Addison states, “We [Odyssey] plugged in and rocked out live to tape. There was no trickery, just a few vocal and solo overdubs. Inhouse Records were instrumental in trying to break metal to the local scene, so we followed and led at the same time. It was all very exciting back then, no rules and no examples, just discovery.

Odyssey CD

Side one of Odyssey’s only album.

Metal music in South Africa was – and to an extent still is – bitterly betrayed by the larger recording companies as Gill discusses, “Local labels such as Gallo concentrated on radio-friendly Pop and African music. As always, big business (and more importantly the National Party Government) ran the media, and what was promoted in the media is what the populous bought or thought to be good music.

As far as the original South African metal bands were concerned, there was one record company who was the halo of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and that was Inhouse Records. Former co-founder of Inhouse Records, Petra Markovic, elaborates, “Inhouse Records was the brainchild of Phillip Nel and myself. It was at a time where the major record companies were only investing large sums of money in the “Black” music market. English “White” music was not performed as the locals only supported overseas acts.”
 Inhouse Records were not only a part of creating records, but they stretched their limbs to promote and publicize their roster, as Markovic states: “We organised gigs for the metal bands, which went down very well. In those days we managed to draw a crowd of approximately five-hundred in Johannesburg. Phillip Nel being a sound engineer had definitely improved the quality of sound for the gigs. With the support of radio DJs Phil Wright and Barney Simon we managed to get airtime. In those rare moments where we managed to draw a crowd of a thousand and more, we felt extremely successful.

After having held their arms wide open to Odyssey, Urban Assault, Voice Of Destruction, Debauchery, Retribution Denied and many more, Inhouse Records had to douse the flame and close their doors. “We spearheaded a movement which could not have succeeded unless it had the support of a huge fan base, unlimited finances and maybe some support from a major or two. We also tried too hard. Being young and idealistic gave us the energy to get the movement up and running, but with the financial drain we were forced to turn our focus elsewhere. Phillip [Nel] then started offering sound engineering courses and for a while managed to run these concurrent. It encouraged young people to become musically educated and since their training was with metal bands, they went out there and head banged their way into the music scene,” says Markovic.


“Dude, I fuckin’ dig this band!

Johannesburg, 2012. The fans want blood, the fans want horror, and the fans want a show, not just the music. Metal has evolved in South Africa, with bands becoming extreme – funnelling their fury into pig squeals or technical death metal patterns. Apart from the change in style, sound and musicians’ etiquette, bands still face a number of challenges similar to those of their predecessors. Cape Town’s iconoclastic band Beeldenstorm are blistering, enigmatic and have a charming female guitarist who turns the axe up to eleven. The band’s guitarist, Waldi Van Hunks, discusses his perspective on the new wave of metal: “The only thing keeping the scene from growing is the lack of proper venues as well as the lack of professionalism in band and event management. The people [organizers]from Metal For Africa put on a great show twice a year and they set a standard all venues and organisers should meet. Metal in our country does not get enough exposure unfortunately compared to other countries but the tables should be turning soon. Bands like Contrast The Water and Voice Of Destruction have proven that the ‘outside world’ is accepting of our unique brand. All we have to do is work hard and persevere.

Beeldenstorm live

Beeldenstorm live

The music industry is hard as nails, and most artists find a marker of inspiration for their attempts as Addison reflects on his Odyssey experience. “With a cheap Gibson SG copy in my hands, everything started making sense and the rest is history. In 1987 I met a drummer in school and we started Odyssey. We were young at the time and didn’t know much about the industry but we were inspired and dedicated to putting songs together. Eventually after a few line-up changes, we signed a record deal with Inhouse Records and recorded Odyssey’s first full length LP, a first for South African metal, I believe…

Almost twenty years later, Odyssey’s self-titled LP has travelled far into the hands of metalheads in Greece, Brazil, Switzerland and many other corners of the globe. There are frequent requests for more LP copies – a true metal rarity. It is easy to see why, Odyssey’s members were zealously enthusiastic, and their music announced a new regime – metal music in South Africa had begun to move forward.

Outcast in the late nineties due to their technical death metal sound, South African band Damnatia still pursued their musical vision capturing a small set of core fans along the way. Later band mate rivalry reared its ugly head on-stage, and the band disintegrated, only to reunite in 2009 with a darker and more gnawing sound. Damnatia guitarist Julian elaborates on the current metal scene in South Africa. “The scene has always been challenging, but Damnatia is not concerned with the problems. We just play our best, slay, and leave, whether it’s to five or five hundred people. As far as getting people to our gigs in the nineties; we had to design, photostat and cut out paper flyers, which were then distributed by hand by ourselves, traipsing around town looking for anyone who looked ‘metal’. Now with social media, the whole advertising thing is obviously way easier.

Things have come a long way since this poster of Ragnarok.

Things have come a long way since this poster of Ragnarok.

Social media is a buzzword these days. If you are not online or using the plethora of technological fruit, your life is considered to be in a dismal state. Ironic really, as those aforementioned, original metal bands had no such equipment as metal artists have today. Gill reminisces, “Not to blow my own horn, I personally worked all the time to find venues, my weekends consisted of driving around looking for potentials…With help from one or two band members, I also promoted and advertised our gigs well by printing and hanging a decent number of street posters and positioning flyers on cars outside other clubs or any place where I could get away with it. Urban Assault branding was distinctive and consistent which people could recognize easily over a short space of time.

All those days of trekking and hustling paid off for Urban Assault, cementing the band’s reputation as one of the greatest influences in South African metal. Their spitting thrash riffs and endless fortitude makes the eye gleam and doing justice to what Metallica could not. It is a damn good thing that it all got preserved on the cassette album Don’t Bother Running – You’ll Just Die Tired. 
“It needs to be said that Ragnarok changed the sound of Johannesburg metal from the classic heavy rock to a more thrash metal sound. ‘Moshing’ in Johannesburg was also first brought into The Irish [club]under the influence of Ragnarok,” states Gill.

That said, moshing has progressed to a large angry circle pit, exclusively reserved for the army of headbangers, who are probably the friendliest partygoers at a gig. The neck-breaking heavy sounds paved the way for present-day South African metal, as well as bolstering the scene for an increasingly growing family of wayward souls. In the words of Ronnie James Dio, “The ending is just a beginner.

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Footnotes:
1. ‘Boet’ is an Afrikaans term meaning ‘brother’.
2. http://web.archive.org/web/20080822012126/www.rollingstone.com/Mythozzy
3. NG Kerk is the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, a reformed Christian denomination.

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