Corporal Punishment

In 1978, the Radio Rats, who had signed a contract with Jo’burg Records, booked a day in a studio to record a demo with producer Greg Cutler. The Rats allowed fellow Springs rockers, Corporal Punishment to use the studio for three hours to record as many tracks as possible.

Corporal Punishment, including James Phillips on guitar, recorded the tracks Brain Damage, Johnny’s Conscience, In the Night and Rock n Rolls Royce. Whilst Corporal Punishment have been labeled as punk rockers, Carl Raubenheimer who co-founded the band with James Phillips did not regard their music to be punk rock. Raubenheimer said that the band was influenced by the UK New Wave bands, and in particular, the Boomtown Rats.

Many of the lyrics of Corporal Punishment’s songs passed scathing commentary about the social issues that plagued South Africa at that time. So from that point of view, their songs were definitely consistent with the social consciousness of the UK punk bands.

Instead of adopting fake American or British accents, Corporal Punishment insisted on singing in their flat South African accents. According to Phillips, people would say “What a nice band, but they sound too South African”.

Phillips was determined to reflect his white suburban background in his music. He was quoted as saying, “I could never pretend to be éVoid and stick beads on me. I’m from white suburbia. I don’t pretend to be anything else”.

After a journalist from the Sunday Times hypothesized that Phillips’s alter ego, Bernoldus Niemand was an English-speaker who was actually making fun of Afrikaners, Phillips said, “He doesn’t know there are people like me alive in this country. I scheme he’s got it all wrong. He doesn’t think people who speak Afrikaans are real”.

Two songs by Corporal Punishment that stand out as being clearly critical of the apartheid government are Darky and Brain Damage. Darky is about the culture of fear that the government induced in whites about their black South African counterparts. Brain Damage is a scathing attack on racism and the policy of job reservation for whites that existed at that time.

Unfortunately, Corporal Punishment songs never received any airplay. Ironically, Carl Raubenheimer who wrote the songs with James Phillips, said that due to the inferior equipment that the band was forced to use, sometimes even audiences at their gigs did not actually hear the lyrics! Worse still the words were misinterpreted as being racist. In particular, the lyrics of the song, Darky, were often misunderstood by audiences.

Corporal Punishment had started off playing “funky” music but after being influenced by the music of the Radio Rats they began to play the music that Raubenheimer has described as being “more alternative”.

As a result, Corporal Punishment was not very popular in their hometown of Springs because audiences there preferred to listen to disco music.

The band contributed two tracks to the compilation album “Six of the Best”. They also recorded a four-song EP titled “Fridays and Saturdays”. Raubenheimer tried to secure a recording contract but was unable to do so. Eventually, Corporal Punishment broke up in 1980, when Phillips went to university in Grahamstown. Raubenheimer moved to Cape Town, guitarist Herbie Parkin moved to Sweden and the drummer, Henry Jansen died in a mining accident.

Corporal Punishment was to have a lasting legacy not only through the influence that James Phillips, by way of his alter ego, Bernoldus Niemand, later had on Afrikaans popular music but also because of the way in which the band had used the lyrics of their songs to pass social commentary.

Corporal Punishment was one of the first South African bands that used their lyrics to attack the status quo in South Africa, instead of simply replicating the UK punk lyrics that had commented on working-class issues in Great Britain.

Carl Raubenheimer said that the social commentary in the lyrics was not something that the band set out deliberately to do. Rather, the words came about as a result of the experience of growing up in working-class Springs, which at that time was struggling with high rates of unemployment.

Jonathan Handley of the Radio Rats said of them, “…the Corporals were completely fucking unacceptable. They smoked dope and were very political”.


The Amazing Corporals (or Corporal Punishment)
The band that should have made it by Herbie Parkin (2009)

I was told that The Corporals had met in a mental clinic in Springs in the late 70’s. Or maybe they didn’t.

The original line up was Carl Raubenheimer (bass and vocals), James Phillips (guitar and vocals) and Mark Benett (guitar and vocals). They ploughed through drummers (including a gravestone carver), until they recruited O’Henry (Henry Jantzen) from the doldrums of Odendaalsrus.

Always a band teetering on the edge of total chaos, they played the discos, clubs and hotels of the East Rand to bewildered crowds. They managed to get a couple of songs on the original SA punk vinyl compilation Six of the Best, but not much happened.

Being in another Springs band, the Radio Rats, I had been hanging around in Springs with the Corporals before and after the Rats demise. I joined the band and we all moved into a house in Grung Rd. in Springs.

We managed to get together a self-produced EP “Fridays and Saturdays” featuring the classics “Brain Damage” and “Johnnys’ Conscience”. Later that year we went on a bizarre summer tour with the all-girl band “Leopard”, playing camping spots and country clubs up and down the Natal coast. 

Lloyd asked me to write something for this site, so I sat down and listened to the Corporals again to refresh my mind. I listened and was flummoxed. I had remembered the Corporals as punk and straight on in your face music. What I heard was three part harmonies, Bach inspired double-guitar solos, more hooks than a fisherman ever owned, arrangements that took hours of rehearsals, and an intensity that inspires me thirty years later on.

And the lyrics!! The throw-away song “Rock and Rolls Royce” has this strange coda towards the end…

“I used to be in love with Mabel before the war
Killed everybody else, Now I’m just in Love with myself….and Rock and Roll”
And then in Goddess of Depression
“You wear the sky as a negligé….” (?)

The amazing guitar arrangements on “In The Night” (with cow-bell), and then the mock-ska of “Johnny’s Conscience”, with one of James’ finest guitar solos (one take). I could go on and on, but there are so many songs I remember that were never recorded and even more that I’ve forgotten. Endless rehearsal jams with nothing to show to history. The Corporals recorded canon is pitiful. A dozen or so songs on record, CD, whatever…

And the more I listened, the prouder I felt. People pigeon-holed us as punk or new wave, and we listened to all of that music, but it was always more than that – Little Feat, Be Bop de Luxe, The Band, Boomtown Rats and Talking Heads. And endless discussions about everything under the sun, forged with a jol-ethic of superhuman proportions.

Live gigs were always intense and filled with sweat and broken guitar strings and beer falling over keyboards and a rush that consumed one so much that afterwards you could hardly remember what had happened…

Such intensity took it’s toll on the band, and we finally split up when James went off to Rhodes University, “Illegal Gathering”, “The Cherry Faced Lurchers” and well-deserved fame. Karl moved down to Cape Town, “Illegal Gathering” with James, and then the sublime “Karl Helgaard and his Singing Teeth” (Karl get it released!!!). Mark, O’Henry and I formed “The Softies”. O’Henry died in a freak mine accident, and I got married and sailed for Sweden.

I miss those times, but I miss O’Henry and James even more….