Koos Kombuis tracks down SA music legends for Rolling Stone in the series 'Wish You Were Here'. In this edition Kombuis meets up with singer-songwriter John Kongos from Johnny and the G-Men.
First of all, congratulations with the success of your sons and their band, Kongos, who is touring South Africa in July/August. I am sure your fans will be happy to hear that you will be more than just the sound engineer, but will perform at least one song with them... Let me guess: will it be "He's Gonna Step On You Again"? I listened to some of their stuff and there certain intriguing similarities in some aspects of your sound. Do they like your old music, or are they like my kids, who recently told a TV crew "Our father's music is lame"?
Firstly Koos, thanks for the kind words on Kongos and myself. South Africa has been wonderful to the boys - it's very gratifying for us all - sort of "full circle". I don't have any plans to do any songs with them at this stage - time is a little tight on the shows - we'll see.
I think there are some inevitable similarities - it has been said that Dylan's vocal timbre is a little like mine - but I love his voice nevertheless!
Also, some of the songs, like "I'm Only Joking", have the whole Burundi drum type thing going, which is reminiscent of "He's Gonna Step On You Again" - as well as the octave voicings that Jesse did. They lived in SA for 8 years and they definitely embrace the whole SA vibration/essence - as do I - it's in my blood.
If they did like my old music I would think they were lame - not even I like a lot of my old stuff - it was pretty corny for the most part I'm afraid - later there were one or two tracks I was proud of. The problem was that I was listening to the Brits who were meanwhile listening to Black Americans - so my impressions and influences were "once removed". I keep threatening to make some more records now that I've almost grown up - I have a big backlog of songs that I actually like that I've written, demo'd, started, but never finished - like I said: "procrastination".
I need to say this tho' - the word "legend" is used too easily these days - it might apply to Bob Dylan, Pavarotti, The Beatles, Marlon Brando and a few others - it most certainly does not apply to me. We should never devalue our superlatives - "awesome" shouldn't be used for a hot dog!
I don't think you realise how big an influence you have been over here... David Kramer is one of the musicians who has admitted being influenced by you in his youth. Did you have any idea, back then, that you were ahead of your time, not only technology-wise but in terms of cultural references? You dropped a word like Shosholoza" into your 1982 track "Impi" exactly 28 years before most white South Africans had even heard it, and most of them still don't know what it means!
I'm not sure how much of an influence I might have been - I always embraced technology tho' - my mom bought me some tape recorders when I was a kid and I would be doing sound-on-sound between machines in the late 50's, so I learned to love that side of things. Later in London, at my studio, I was more or less at the forefront for a while with things like the ARP 2500 (the BIG one) and then the Fairlight CMI - I had the third one in the UK at the time and learnt a lot about sampling and programming etc. I had a commercial working studio so I spent every available penny on new equipment. I still do - the boys and I all love that stuff - it's a form of lust.
I even started trying to write an automatic composing program based on the ideas of Joseph Schillinger (a genius) - I finally stopped that because it made my brain hurt!
On Shosholoza etc - I have to thank my mom - I would often call her from London and say "I'm working on this or that - gimme some great SA phrases." In fact it was she who, when I was looking for a follow up to Step On, suggested writing a song about the Tokoloshe - that went on to become another big hit for me ("Tokoloshe Man"). Now Tokoloshe Records is the label we have - so one thing always leads to another.
I would love to re-do 'Impi' now with all the great sounds we have access to - that came so close - it was signed to Jive Records - Clive Calder and Ralph Simon's label, also good friends from that time.
As a young man, the British rock scene of the 70's must have been a wonderful environment to work in. I mean, it was the time of such diverse groups as Mott the Hoople, Mungo Jerry, 10cc, T Rex, and Hot Chocolate! What were your favorite British acts of this era and did you make any special friendships?
In fact, partly because of my studio, I got to meet lots of great people in the business - Marc Bolan was on the same label I was on, and in fact lived (and died in a car wreck) about two miles from my house. Tony Visconti, who produced him, was a good friend of mine - his wife Mary Hopkins recorded two of my songs. Morgan Fisher (Mott) is a friend - he lives in Tokyo now - also worked in my studio occasionally. I saw the very first important gig of Mungo Jerry at the Marquee in London - now Kongos occasionally does a great version of "In The Summertime" on their longer gigs! Hot Chocolate was produced by an old friend, Mickie Most - his guitarist Hank Squires was in my band in SA. Sadly both Mickie and Hank are now gone - I spoke to Hank in Canada a few years ago - he was a great guy and quite an influence on me in SA - he introduced me to the music of the US R&B singers and bands of the time. Mickie wanted to produce me in about 1963 in London - I turned him down - just before he went on to do "House Of The Rising Son" with The Animals - I kicked myself at the time! Of course now I'm old enough to know there's no sense in regretting anything.
So you hit a bunch of nails on the head, Kitchen (may I call you Kitchen:) with all those guys you mentioned. As to favorites - the whole scene in London in the 60's & 70's was amazing - the best - I loved so much of it back then. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, kind of stand out.
Lots of friendships and casuals - not many have lasted the geographical distance and time that has separated us tho'.
I gather from your website that you have a healthy family life and a home base in Arizona, USA. In whyat way is living in the USA different from South Africa?
Wow - how long have you got?! Basically, where we live in Phoenix - it's a little quiet and sterile compared to Jo'burg. SA has a vitality that is astounding right now - we hadn't been back for 15 years - it was fantastic. Everything here in the US is so formalized and regulated - kind of boring, but at the same time reliable - everything works and your physical mail actually arrives, which is nice! Obviously there are many differences - some fun, some not.
Many of us have often debated about that elusive Holy Grail called a "truly South African sound". Were you in pursuit of that when you mixed tribal drum rhythms into your songs? Do you have any idea what the typical SA sound will be like once we discover it, or would you agree with me and David that you were the closest we ever got to it?
Again, I would not presume to say I got closest - I was definitely mindful of trying to bring into my records something of what I sensed, having grown up in SA. I went to the "locations" late at night once or twice when I was a kid, with my uncles to listen to "Kwela" and township jive etc - that was great stuff and it entered my soul and being.
I don't remember ever meeting David Kramer - maybe sometime soon. I think the problem in trying to define or create a "South African" sound is that it would limit it in so many ways - there is a lot of diversity right now particularly - you've got blacks with so many differences in their music alone, Whites of different cultures and languages - each with some of that SA sound, but nothing which contains it all. We saw Hot Water at Up The Creek - they were great live and managed to capture some of it. Johnny Clegg also has - he seems to have put in a lot of work in trying to define it. Paul Simon did a wonderful job together with the great SA musicians on Graceland.
But I think it will be black South Africans who will most likely achieve the definitive mix, but in order to spread it widely, it's probably going to have to be in English so that the rest of the world relates - think Jamaica, Bob Marley and Reggae - it took over the world! I think SA music also has that potential - the world is certainly open to South Africans now, unlike in my day when we were pariahs - thank you Mandela (and De Klerk) - it feels good.