Illegal Gathering

After the band Corporal Punishment broke up in 1980, Carl Raubenheimer moved to Cape Town and James Phillips enrolled at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

There were many reasons for the break up of Corporal Punishment. Phillips said that it was mainly because the South African public would not accept local music. According to him, whenever anyone sang in a South African accent or wrote about local issues, the audiences would simply lose interest.

Raubenheimer, on the other hand felt burnt out and disillusioned because the band had not been able to secure a recording contract.

During his October vacation in 1981, Phillips decided to travel from Grahamstown to Cape Town. He arrived at Carl Raubenheimer’s home at 3am in the morning. Undeterred, Phillips decided to wake his old mate up by playing his acoustic guitar very loudly outside Raubenheimer’s front door.

Raubenheimer was unfazed by the early wake-up call. After indulging in some cheap whiskey and other substances, the two friends shared some new songs with one another. Raubenheimer suggested that the two form a new band and play some gigs in Cape Town. South Africa’s Glimmer Twins were ready to rock again!

The new band became known as Illegal Gathering and initially consisted of Raubenheimer, Phillips, Brian Rath and Brett Murray. Murray would later be named Standard Bank’s young artist of the year and became infamous for creating the portrait of Jacob Zuma, known as ‘the Spear’.

The band rehearsed some new songs and played one gig at a club known as ‘The 1886’. Phillips left Cape Town after the concert and returned to Grahamstown to continue his studies.

During his December vacation, Phillips again returned to Cape Town. Rath and Murray were no longer keen to be involved in the project and so their places were taken by David Ledbetter and Wayne Raath.

This visit by Phillips to Cape Town would be the first of many summer holidays that he would spend in that city. Phillips would stay with friends who affectionately called him “The Cherry Faced Lodger”.

The updated version of Illegal Gathering decided to record the new songs that Phillips and Raubenheimer had written. Carl Raubenheimer had a friend who was managing a recording studio, which he allowed the band to use. The studio was located in the Broadway building on Cape Town’s foreshore, two floors below the American Embassy!

The musicians used Raubenheimer’s Portastudio four track cassette recorder which they plugged into the studio’s 16 track mixing desk to record their sessions. Apart from the recording sessions, Illegal Gathering also played six gigs in Cape Town. Some of the clubs that they played at were the 1886, Scratch, The Pepper Street Theatre, The Space and The Roundhouse.

One of the songs that Phillips had written and which was included on the Illegal Gathering album was an early version of “Hou my vas Korporaal”. This version of Phillips’s iconic song featured Phillips playing on his own. Later Phillips would rework the song and include it on the album, which he recorded using the alias Bernoldus Niemand. The Bernoldus Niemand album was enormously important because it went on to kickstart the Voëlvry movement, which in turn revolutionised Afrikaans rock music.

Illegal Gathering was always envisaged to be a short-term project. In the end it hardly outlasted Phillips’s summer vacation. Phillips would later form another band, the Cherry Faced Lurchers, which became well-known for its performances at the legendary Jameson’s bar in Johannesburg.

Unfortunately, many of the songs that Phillips and Raubenheimer had written for Corporal Punishment remained unrecorded. However, a few years later, when Raubenheimer was called up to do an army camp, he and Phillips had a reunion gig for Corporal Punishment in Johannesburg.

Luckily, Lloyd Ross’ Shifty recording studio was available and so Raubenheimer and Phillips recorded some songs with Steven Howells on drums.

Eventually these tunes, together with the songs that had been recorded in Cape Town became “The Voice of Nooit” album. The Voice of Nooit was a cassette-only release by Shifty Records, which featured the music of Corporal Punishment on the one side and that of Illegal Gathering on the other.


Recording the Voice of Nooit by Carl Raubenheimer

October 1981. Three o’clock in the morning and there’s some bastard in the street strolling past my house playing rock ’n roll on an acoustic guitar with inflammatory disregard for everything that normally happens at three o’ clock in the morning. But I can hear there’s something special in the music out there. I find myself shrugging off the embrace of Morpheus and before the next quiet tic of my alarm clock; I’m at the front door. It’s opening and outside on the stoep is my old pal, James Phillips.

I’d thought that after the nuclear disarmament of Corporal Punishment, I’d never see him again. But there he is, very early on a damp Cape Town morning, raindrops slipping off his Yamaha nylon string guitar, a soggy joint clamped between his lips. Smiling!

 “Want a hit?”

Of course, I want a hit. I know James. He knows me, we both want a hit, but neither of us will ever have one. And, we haven’t really spoken since I stupidly took the few recordings Corporal Punishment had produced to those idiot record company exec types in Johannesburg and tried to interest them in the stuff. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Corporal Punishment didn’t so much as break up as disintegrate. James went to Grahamstown, I fled to Cape Town, Herbie Parkin and Henry Jantzen stayed in Springs and Mark Bennett … well, someone dressed in a Taliban turban at the Salt Rock Country Club Christmas ball spilled beer all over Mark’s keyboard. The cost of the repairs ended Mark’s career as the Corporal Punishment keyboard player. Later, Herbie emigrated to Sweden and Henry managed to get himself killed in a mining incident. So, things were a little splintered.

But here’s James in my lounge now and one ‘ting turns to another and three o’ clock turns to four o’ clock and five o’ clock goes, etc. Suddenly its morning, I’m feeling ill and I have to phone the shipping company I’m working for and tell them so. They’re sweet and rusting like their ships, so they tell me to come back to work when I’m feeling better which makes me feel better already. So, feeling better, James and I decide on a trip to the local purveyor of fine whisky – six bucks a bottle – and only one per customer.

We’re out of our trees! We’re smashed like cars at the Goodwood drag strip! We find ourselves at the Grand Parade. James buys a “J&B Met” style fashionista hat from a Chinese stall and, realising our lack of the wherewithal, we head off to Gympie Street to see what we can score.

Gympie Street is one thing on a Friday night, but it’s totally another jol on a clear crystallised Friday morning. When this guy who’s got POES tattooed on his forehead scrapes himself over to my Combi and tells James that he likes the hat, we hand it over without an argument. We score. We run for home. We smoke. Life’s looking good.  We take turns sharing our new songs. I show him mine and he shows me his. I suggest we start a band and play a gig at the weekend. A light flashes in his eyes. I know temptation when I see it!

‘The Illegal Gathering’ is gazetted. All we need is a couple more people and we’ll be constitutionally declared undesirable! I get hold of my friends. Brett Murray, a part time bass guitarist who, years later is to become the Standard Bank young artist of the year – though not for his bass playing, thank God – and Brian Rath, a drummer, world renown for his prodigious experimentation with mood altering substances, are keen. We set up some practice time but for the life of me I can’t remember any of those rehearsals. We must have had one or two because six days later, we play an utterly uproarious gig at ‘The 1886’.

Thirty-six hours later James is thumbs-out back on the road to Grahamstown and I’m behind my desk tapping a desultory rhythm on my adding machine at Co-Op Shipping.

But the seeds were sown, and even though we both knew this wasn’t going to be a long-term thing, we decided to give it another go later that year. December and James Phillips arrived simultaneously in Cape Town. The only problem was that Brian Rath and Brett Murray had had enough. The fame was too much for them, I suppose.

As it happened, one of our old Springs chinas was in town. James was a bit skeptical when I suggested we phone Dave ‘Mr Jazz’ Ledbetter. But when Dave agreed to eschew soloing of any sort and play nothing but the bass guitar, there was no dispute. I can’t remember if we found Wayne Raath (no relation to Brian) or he found us, but he somehow became our drummer.

And we found ourselves a practice room somewhere in the middle of memory lapse and started rehearsals. The Argus agreed to do an interview and a photo session and our publicity machine sprang into action. John Yeld was the photographer and he took the one and only picture of ’The Illegal Gathering’. The band lasted for six weeks and played about the same amount of gigs. Venues like The 1886, Scratch, The Pepper Street Theatre, The Space and The Roundhouse in Kommetjie spring to mind, but for the life of me apart from the odd arrangements of songs, everything about these gigs escapes me.

In the new year we went in to a studio to record what we had written. A pal of mine had somehow talked his way in to running the place. He had no idea about sound recording, but he was a wide boy and never let understanding cloud his vision. The studio was located in the Broadway building in the Foreshore, two floors below what was the American Embassy. It was a very bemused bunch of security guards who watched us traipsing in on that first day with our instruments and bottles of wine.

The studio was a pretty cool place with about a 100 sq metre live area and a separate isolated control room about a quarter that size. The heart of the studio was a 16 track mixing desk, which only had two outputs. Whoever had been running the place before us had removed the actual tape machine but that wasn’t a problem because I had a ‘Portastudio’, a four track cassette recorder that we plugged the desk’s two outputs into. We had no plans to go commercial with our rocking horse shit so this was good enough for us.

The previous tenants had left their collection of sound effects records. So, to start off, we decided to do a couple of skits, mainly because we needed to learn how to operate the bits and pieces of equipment, but also because we were fucking stoned at the time and we thought it was all very funny.

I’d written three bits, one a rip off of a Kelly Tyres advert – Kelly Tyres Are Tough! Remember that? Then there was a piece on the stand off between PW Botha and Andries Treurnicht in the race for supremacy in the Transvaal, and the Willie Smit thing. But we decided to start with an idea that James and Van (who played bass for The Softies) had been knocking around over a waterfall a couple of years earlier. It was ‘The Voice of Nooit” and it became the title of the record.

To get the ‘witchy’ sound of James voice, we used a wonderful little thing that came with the Portastudio. It was a speed control knob that could be twiddled while he was talking. Also we violently abused a Roland cube amp, which had a built in spring reverb to create the cheesy thunder sounds. Lovely! And of course there were the sound effect records. When ‘the footsteps of the voice of Nooit retreated into the cold wilderness’ James went stomping down the corridor with his size tens. In fact, the corridor became quite a useful tool later.

When it came to recording the actual songs we realised we had some serious limitations. We only had two amps, the aforementioned Roland cube, which I ended up using, and someone’s borrowed something or other with a torn speaker that James fell in love with. To get around this we plugged Dave Ledbetter’s bass directly into the desk – luckily the old tenants had also left a bank of headphones there. Now we had the beginnings of a sound we could jam to. All very well, but the object was to record the stuff.

The Portastudio was limited to four tracks and could only record two simultaneously. We worked out that we needed two tracks for a stereo drum mix, one each for bass, rhythm and lead and at least two for vocals. That already came to seven without any additional effects and stuff. This would mean a bouncing down of tracks and an audio quality loss was on the cards. So stereo went out of the window. I don’t remember it taking too long to get the basic drum and bass things down. Once we had them all, Wayne and Dave’s jobs were ostensibly all over bar the shouting. Then it was up to me and James to jam our guitars over the top. 

Altogether the whole process couldn’t have taken more than a couple of days and we found ourselves with time to spare, zol to smoke and vocals to sing. There wasn’t a reverb machine in the studio, so we took to recording most of the vocals outside in the corridor. We found that different areas had different reverb lengths. The area nearest the lift had a fantastic short reverb so we spent a fair amount of time down there. We finished most of the singing and started adding all kinds of sound effects and odd cheesy keyboard bleeps and blops. We made shakers out of boxes of matches, half empty wine bottles and pretty much anything that made a sound. There was an old battery operated keyboard of mine that made strange noises when the batteries were run down, so that got used a fair amount.

Wayne and Dave dropped in every now and then. I remember Wayne being a bit horrified at what we were up to but it didn’t stop him from joining in. He was very good at cymbal dropping and bottle bashing if memory serves. After James left, Dave and I carried on messing around with the arrangements. Apart from ‘Wind up Lollipop’, we left James’s songs as they were, mainly because he wasn’t there, but also I felt they were pretty good as they were. You can hear the songs I wrote because there are all kinds of harmonies and extra guitar and keyboard effects on them. I’ve subsequently heard that Wayne was quite pissed off about this messing around phase, but quite honestly I think the juxtaposition of the fiddled with the unfiddled gave the project an added dimension. Also, who cares! The record was never meant to go platinum. It became a wonderful souvenir of a time of mayhem. True there are some songs that got lost and some like ‘Wind up Lollipop’ that changed completely from a semi-punk number into a sweet little pop gem. If there’s anyone out there who still has a Portastudio, I’d love to borrow it and I’m sure I’ll unearth some other half finished pieces.

Too many things slip past us when we’re young and thick with the strengths and excesses of youth. But occasionally something sticks and for me it was the period of time that I played in ‘The Illegal Gathering’. It was a band that should never have been and mostly never happened. But nobody can take that experience away from me. I still listen to ‘The Voice of Nooit’ every now and then and, even after all these years, I still feel proud of what we did.