Shifting perspectives: a history of Shifty Records


Lloyd Ross at his recording desk at Shifty Records (Image: Shifty Records)

Shifting perspectives: a history of Shifty Records
• Bill Botes/Lloyd Ross
Shifty Records

Shifting perspectives: a history of Shifty Records
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It was the 1980s in South Africa that saw the birth of a new local music scene, as artists sought to voice their protests against apartheid and the stifling conservatism of the time through music that spoke of the real South African experience. Alternative local bands began making themselves heard, singing about what it meant to be South African.

To understand the music scene of that time, one has to recall an entirely different country to the one we live in now. While brutal apartheid laws to continue to hold the country in its grip, depriving the majority of its people of their basic humanity, there was also cultural oppression – where creativity was viewed as politically dangerous to the ruling National Party. In addition to this, South Africa, viewed as a pariah state, was completely isolated from the rest of the world, which had imposed cultural and economic sanctions. No one in the country even knew what Nelson Mandela looked like, as his image was banned from being published and he was last pictured when he was jailed.

This was a country where apart from the obviously political songs such as Brenda Fassie’s My Black President, Beware Verwoerd (Ndodemnyama) from an album by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, and Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials, films as harmless as the Rocky Horror Picture Show and books Black Beauty and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were all banned at some point in time.

South Africa’s National Party took the West’s Cold War paranoia to an extreme degree. Anti-apartheid activists of all colours were harassed, jailed and murdered. Universities were targeted by the government as hotbeds of radical anti-government activity. From the first State of Emergency in 1985 university campuses were invaded by police beating people and firing rubber bullets whenever a demonstration was held. Even student parties (at which many of the bands recorded by Shifty played) were frequently raided by police armed with teargas and batons and partygoers jailed for the night, because the events were seen as subversive, communist gatherings. Young white men who refused to be conscripted into the army faced serving six years in jail. Some did, while others left the country, or tried to evade it by continuing their university studies.

In those days, when radio play was key and there was no internet, alternative bands songs struggled to get their music heard in the public realm. Commercial record companies were not in the business of producing music that challenged the status quo and radio stations were strictly ruled by the pro-government South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Mainstream bands playing live churned out covers singing in fake American accents.

It was into this politically turbulent time that Shifty Records was to emerge, ensuring that genuine South African music, viewed as subversive by the government, was recorded, so that generations to come would be able to experience, through the lyrics and unique music of local bands, those culturally restricted yet creatively explosive times.

In late 1977, Shifty founder Lloyd Ross returned to SA at the age of 20 after spending a year in the UK, where he’d witnessed the punk phenomenon. After managing to join the band the Radio Rats, he got to know the “East Rand and Joburg scene”. The one band that stuck out for him was Corporal Punishment, featuring James Phillips and Carl Raubenheimer as songwriters. “Their songs had the energy and lyric integrity of punk, though again the music itself couldn’t strictly be classified as such,” he says.

Inspired by Corporal Punishment, Ross say they produced some of the most vital and deeply honest music ever made in South Africa. “James Phillips was way above and beyond politics. In fact, the real measure of his genius was that he could write songs about totally ordinary things that made you want to laugh and cry at the same time, but it was when he turned his eye on our troubles that his strength as a songwriter really stood out.”

On the song Brain Damage, which he found “searing and haunting” Ross says he couldn’t believe that music “so compelling could be so utterly ignored by the music industry”.

This is when he started to think about getting a recording facility together. This was long before editing programmes were available on home computers, and “the capital needed to set up an orthodox studio was prohibitive”.

One day as Ross was looking for a place to live, he heard the “sweet sounds of a Fender Stratocaster wafting from one of the houses. After walking through an open door, I discovered the guitar in the hands of Ivan Kadey, architectural lecturer and member of National Wake. Now, to find a punk band in those days in South Africa was a very unusual thing, so the idea of a mixed-race punk band at the height of apartheid was almost unimaginable. This is exactly what National Wake was. They were tight, loud and frenetic and sang about the kak that was happening in their lives. After I moved in, Ivan and I began hatching plans to set up a simple recording facility.

“The year was 1983, there was a whiff of revolution in the air. The political slogans of the time were ‘Forward to People’s Power’ and so on, but in my subculture, the music subculture, there was also a spirit of ‘F**k apartheid, let’s dance,’ “as the fanzine Vula put it. Young people were ignoring boundaries, listening to each other’s music, playing together… But nobody was recording the music.

Kadey and Ross bought some basic equipment and set it up in a caravan, “probably because we couldn’t afford to rent a room, or maybe because it offered freedom in terms of where a recording was done. We wanted a name that captured this itinerant idea and hence Shifty, to shift between places, to shift ideas.

The caravan found a permanent home alongside a lone house on Rand Mines Properties in the south of Joburg. “The original idea was not to start a record company, but merely provide a cheap facility to document our and other peoples’ music. To support this, I started doing some TV and film scores using the gear in the caravan.”

Ironically, the first full Shifty project was not a punk or new wave band at all, but Sankomota, recorded in Lesotho in late 1983. Ross heard them while working on a documentary in Lesotho earlier that year. They had previously toured South Africa under the name Uhuru but because of their lyrics, their name (meaning Freedom) and the provocative onstage outbursts of a band member known as Black Jesus, they were thrown out of the country.

Ross simply parked the caravan outside the recently deserted Radio Lesotho studios, ran a cable inside to one of the rooms and recorded them.

Ross says recording Sankomota taught him a lot about producing music and working with artists, but he also learned the harsh reality of the recording industry in South Africa.

“We had made what was patently a good album; its subsequent track record and critical acclaim confirms that. But no record company was willing to release it. The music did not conveniently fit into any of the industry’s pigeonholes, and no one could see past that. This bias against original, or edgy, music was reinforced by the broadcast media with their safe and restrictive play lists.

“These experiences were to repeat themselves with almost every record that I produced over the next decade. But I was young and naïve at the time, so I decided to set up my own record company and do what nobody else was willing to do. Thus Shifty Records was born.

“After putting countess hours and not a little money into getting Shifty into shape and operating on a number of levels, Ivan decided to seek his fortune in the US. Warrick Sony then bought himself in as a partner in the studio by purchasing a Fostex 16 track tape recorder. Sony also started the Kalahari Surfers, probably the most prolific outfit on the Shifty catalogue. “Shifty’s second release, after Sankomota, was the Surfers’ Own Affairs, and third was a recording of Warrick and my previous collaboration, the aforementioned Happy Ships. These albums introduced us to another form of creative strangulation in the person of Pietman, a cutting engineer at EMI’s record plant.


“At that stage, EMI had the only cutting lathe in southern Africa, so you either dealt with EMI and Pietman or didn’t make records at all. Pietman got through the first side of Happy Ships without mishap, but halfway through the second he heard the word ‘f**k’ and stopped the lathe. It is difficult to believe this now, but in 1984, a technician essentially had the power to decide what was released on vinyl in pretty much all of southern Africa. The records were sent to the UK and pressed by a fan.

Former censor Cecile Pracher, manager of the record library at the SABC , told a conference on music and censorship in Denmark in 1998: “The lyrics of each and every pop item had to be checked on grounds stemming from the Publication Board of SA by law… My impression was that in those days virtually anything that was perceived as damaging to the state, to the SABC or to the National Party was regarded as not acceptable and we would ban it.”

Albums with songs considered too subversive to be heard often were sold with that track gouged, scratched by these very censors.

Shifty: independent and eclectic

Ross says, “I had set out to document South African new wave music, but now I discovered that many genres of vital music were going unnoticed and unrecorded. Over the next two years Shifty released a dozen or so albums that cemented our reputation for eclecticism.”

Kaapse goema, mbaqanga jive, rock, folk, avant garde, isicathamiya, worker songs, poetry, Boere punk, jazz, and maskande featured on Shifty records.

Diverse bands such as National Wake, Corporal Punishment, Illegal Gathering, The Sanity Inspectors, Desert Moves, The Limp Wrists, The Cherry Faced Lurchers, Bernoldus Niemand – Phillips’s Afrikaans alter ego – The Softies, The Spectres, The Aeroplanes, Nude Red, Rapula, The Party Dolls, The Dynamics, What Colours, Die Kerels, Koos Kombuis, Die Gereformeede Blues Band (GBB), Mapantsula, Tananas, The Genuines and Simba Morri rocked their devoted fans at venues such as King of Clubs, Jamesons, and the Bozzoli Hall at Wits in Joburg’s inner city, and at various Free People’s concerts, as well at farmhouse parties on the city’s outskirts. A number of these bands recorded with Shifty.

Gary Herselman of Die Kerels first heard of Shifty while working as a buyer at Hillbrow Records: “Shifty wasn’t scared to take on the politics of the time. And I was immediately taken by their policy of recording music no other companies would go near. If you played your own songs, there were no gigs. Someone once told James (Phillips) – ‘we don’t want songs about toasted cheese in here’ (referring to the Lurchers song Toasted Takeaways ripping off a grumpy café owner shouting at customers). I was floored when Lloyd approached me and said he wanted to record Die Kerels. There was (and still is) no money [in the local music scene] so it’s primarily about love and determination.”

Paul Strathern, the drummer for the Softies, has fond memories of accompanying Phillips on trips to the CNA in Braamfontein where Phillips would sneak copies into the singles bin and tear down posters of Michael Jackson. “Shifty was the voice for alternative rock ‘n roll,” he says. “It was the only outlet for bands who had something to say about the situation in SA – whether it was about hating the army (Hou My Vas Korporal), the political oppression (Shot Down, Detainees) or just getting drunk on a Friday.

Bernoldus Niemand and the trade union choirs

Ross says the “seminal Wie is Bernoldus Niemand, featuring James Phillips’s not-so-secret Afrikaans alter ego, came out at the beginning of 1985. This was the first time anyone had recorded rock music in Afrikaans, and the impact was revolutionary.” Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel also cited this album as a major influence, the spark that set off the Voëlvry, “feel free”, movement. The movement challenged conservative Afrikanerdom and apartheid.

Ross recalls how, on another battlefront entirely, trade unionists “were creating powerful songs about their struggle against apartheid and exploitation”. He drove around the strife-torn Transvaal and Natal, recording union songs in community halls and churches, and on factory floors. This gave rise to the Fosatu Worker Choirs compilation.

“In July I was at Jameson’s, the legendary rock bar in downtown Joburg, capturing the Cherry Faced Lurchers’s Live at Jamesons on two-track digital tape. Later that year, the studio pulled up outside a community hall in Jwaneng, Botswana, to record the Kgwanyape Band, a hybrid of locals and ex-pats who were without doubt making the most interesting music in that country.

“These mobile recordings were interspersed with a host of studio recordings. Jamesons bands like the Aeroplanes and Wasamata juggled studio time with the likes of the Cape fusion outfit Isja and the eclectic Genuines. There were also numerous bands passing through recording one-offs for A Naartjie in our Sosatie (a phrase that resembled ‘Anarchy in society’, but which directly translated means ‘a tangerine in our kebab’), a collection of protest songs, or Forces Favourites, in collaboration with the End Conscription campaign.”

Shifty often made use of a core group of musicians who appeared on different artists’ recordings as support instrumentalists, like drummer Ian Herman and trombonist Jannie Hanepoot van Tonder who can both be heard on many albums from the Shifty Catalogue.

Mzwakhe Mbuli

Ross recalls when he first saw Mzwakhe Mbuli at a Democratic Action Committee cultural evening in Yeoville. “I was impressed by his presence, his big booming voice, and his thundering prophecies. I thought it might be interesting to put some music to his verse, so I pulled Ian Herman (The Genuines), Simba Morri (Wasamata) and Gito Baloi (later of Tananas) into the studio, invited Mzwakhe to join us and workshopped his first album, Change is Pain, which was to become Shifty’s biggest seller.

“As with all other Shifty albums, word of mouth accounted for its popularity. There was no airplay, and Mzwakhe’s record was banned from distribution on account of its seditious lyrics. Undeterred, we made copies with blank labels and distributed them mostly through bicycle shops. Change is Pain was banned shortly after its release by the government because of its ‘influence among revolutionary groups’.” Attracting unwelcome attention from the authorities, Mbuli spent most of 1988 in solitary confinement and used this time to write and memorise his next album while in prison.


“I received a shoddily recorded demo tape from someone in Cape Town… yet the songs and the delivery of those songs totally disarmed me. I invited the singer, André Letoit, to come up to Joburg and do a better recording. He showed up in May 1987,” Ross says. Not wanting to lose the informal atmosphere of the demo, Ross left Letoit to his own devices returning later to record what was Ver van die Ou Kalahari.

So began the Voëlvry period, probably the most exciting time in the Shifty history.

“Ralph Rabie, a journalist on an Afrikaans paper, went to interview André when Vêr van die Ou Kalahari was released. There was a meeting of minds, which eventually led to both of them playing in the first incarnation of the Gereformeerde Blues Band.

In 1989, Shifty Records, in partnership with alternative Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad, organised the nation-wide Voëlvry tour featuring Koos Kombuis, Bernoldus Niemand, Johannes Kerkorrel and the Gereformeede Blues Band. “Before Voëlvry no-one was singing about the real issues facing Afrikaans youth. There were no icons for them to identify with. The Voëlvry Tour changed all that, introducing alienated young Afrikaners to Afrikaans artists they could relate to, singing about issues they were grappling with on a daily basis,” Ross says.

A short while later, André left to forge a solo career as Koos Kombuis, while Ralph, by then known as Johannes Kerkorrel, went on to record the seminal Eet Kreef (Eat Crayfish) album with the remaining members of the Voëlvry tour. Featuring Koos Kombuis, Bernoldus Niemand, Johannes Kerkorrel and the GBB, it “became the stuff of legend… As with Mzwakhe, there was no airplay. We just did a few live appearances and word spread like wildfire, at least in part because people were so hungry for the message. “

The new South Africa

With the release of political prisoners in late 1989 and Nelson Mandela early the following year, things changed in the country and also at Shifty. Ross heard Vusi Mahlasela and brought him into the studio and recorded When You Come Back, a collection of “mostly struggle-type songs”.

After money was embezzled from Shifty, Ross made a deal with BMG Records to produce Mahlasela. The deal lasted around three years.

“Shifty put out a few good albums through BMG, among them Sunny Skies by James Phillips, End Beginnings by Lesego Rampolokeng/Kalahari Surfers and Robin Auld’s Zen Surfing in the Third World. Unfortunately, most of this music was lost on the sales force at BMG.

“After more than a decade of battling to popularise independent music in South Africa, I was burned out. Shifty had released nearly 60 records that I like to think captured something of the desperate and exalted spirit of that era. We even recorded Nelson Mandela, whose speeches were set to music on a project called The Homecoming. Most of our artists got respectful or even adulatory reviews, and a few – notably Tananas and Vusi Mahasela -went on to win global acclaim.

In 2005 Ross produce Radio Kalahari Orkes’s album Stoomradio and went on to record an album by famous local author Rian Malan called Alien Inboorling.

Gary Rathbone, who played with the Aeroplanes, What Colours and the Spectres says, “I suppose that was really what Shifty was about – moving things forward and never standing still. Shifty had shifted us…as Lloyd and his team had shifted so much great South African musical talent over the years, from rehearsal rooms and small clubs across the country, into the public domain.”

Shifty Records has partnered with the Alliance Française in Johannesburg and the South African History Archives for the Shifty September Celebration, a Heritage Month tribute to the music label, which features exhibitions, documentary screenings, panel discussions and, of course, concerts.

For information on Shifty records visit its website: or their Facebook page.