NOT EVEN THE TV
by Richard Haslop
South African group Not Even The TV often seems as much an idea, or even an ideal, as a band. How else do you explain the fact that the members still meet on an almost weekly basis, privately in what is termed 'rehearsal' by David Master (their vocalist and their elemental force) to make what is consistently among the most provocative, uncompromising and intriguing rock music in their country with almost no hope that it will be heard very much more widely than within the confines of that rehearsal room?
After all, the concept of rehearsal seems to presuppose an end result, and in the life of a rock group, that usually means a live performance in front of an audience or a recording intended for even the paltriest commercial distribution. Not Even The TV have been playing, pretty well uninterrupted, for a quarter of a century. Yet live opportunities are so scarce that there will, if all goes well, be exactly one year, one month and one day between their previous gig (which caused considerable enthusiasm among those who attended) and their next. The dates, which appear numerologically significant, but which happened quite by chance, are 07/07/07 and 08/08/08.
In addition, the only nationally broadcast radio shows that might have played their music were discontinued earlier this year, and there is precisely 66 minutes and 35 seconds of their recorded output available to the general public via two CDs enjoying little more than word of mouth distribution. You might also, by some miracle, lay your hands on three cassettes that found their way into a few grateful record collections many years ago, but these are now all impossibly rare, and probably technically unplayable anyway. Word has it that a song from one of them once actually garnered a few votes towards legendary British radio DJ John Peel's annual Festive Fifty and may even have been played on his show.
East London, a city of about a quarter of a million inhabitants on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast, is hardly the sort of place you would expect to find a band like Not Even The TV. It is, rather, precisely the sort of place you might expect to encounter the almost total media apathy that has led to public ignorance of their very existence, much less their quality. Of course, you can't necessarily tell when a town is going to produce a great rock band, but East London's pedigree is more meagre than most. Its best known contribution to popular music has been an inexplicably successful '70's outfit called the Dealians whose most memorable foray into the limelight may have been their insufferable local hit version of the Monkees' "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow."
East London is much better known as the city whose museum houses the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have been extinct for millions of years until one was caught nearby in the late '30's. The image of the fish has been adopted as a kind of logo by Not Even The TV, and the connection between the two seems somehow appropriate. Named after a phrase from William Burroughs that Masters found himself intoning at an early rehearsal, the band, if not quite a Lazarus taxon, has operated so far under the radar for so long it might almost as well have been extinct. Prospects of much more are slim in a country whose relatively small rock audience prizes nothing as highly as (and usually little except) industry airbrushed so-called alternative rock that sounds like something that has already sold millions of copies somewhere else in the world.
Very early in its career the band, which started out trying not to consciously copy other music they'd heard, would cover the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard" in live performance, but in a version at least as close to Pere Ubu's less frequently heard rendition. It is the spirit, if not always the sound, of the latter group that provides a convenient touchstone for those looking for a way in to the music. Indeed, Masters, who sings in various voices, and occasionally seems even to sing in tongues, has been compared more than once vocally with the Ubu frontman David Thomas, though Masters himself denies any imitation, suggesting instead that that the highly idiosyncratic style might constitute something of a fall-back position for conventionally technically disadvantaged vocalists with something to say.
Early audiences, most of which consisted mainly of students in Grahamstown, a university town around a hundred miles from East London, where the band's first gig took place in a brick kiln, thought they heard traces of Joy Division and the Birthday Party in the band's psychedelically tinged post-punk row, and Masters himself, who has always displayed an interest in the obscure and the arcane, as well as a collector's ear for the rock 'n' roll margins, has mentioned Ubu antecedents the Electric Eels as an influence. However, musical intersection with other band favourites like Captain Beefheart, the early Fall, Krautrock's relentless drive – rather than its more kosmische elements – and Faust's artistic ethic, which looms large in the band's musical philosophy, took them on a path uncharted by other South African bands. Most of these bands try harder to avoid the commercial oblivion that has been Not Even The TV's lot, and nearly all of whom sound less interesting as a result.
Two of those early cassettes led to a third, a six track overview of the band entitled Notes From A Quiet City that was not so much released as eked out in about 1990. A couple of its tracks can be heard on the band's recently established and still somewhat rudimentary web page at www.myspace.com/noteventhetv, along with two more from the first CD release, a self titled five tracker that came out on its own Anathema imprint in 1997. The band's sonic swirl and surge at this point was such that it's hard to imagine that the Black Angels, for example, haven't heard it and been affected, though the explanation for that lies, no doubt, in a common ancestor in the psychedelic Texan garage.
Steadily, though, the rumble and drone of one underground stream gave way to the sharper angles of another and an experimental approach that led to the release, in 2004, of First Course. Here, several spontaneous pieces are segued, like a kind of avant-rock suite, into forty minutes or so of enthralling, occasionally fairly extreme sounds, but always musically bracing, with ebb and flow present. It's fair to say that nothing else to emerge from South Africa has ever sounded quite like it, although comparisons with New Zealand's The Dead C, another band of confrontational improvisers from an unlikely geographical source, may not be entirely out of place.
As the group's approach has become more improvisational in nature, allowing longer songs to coalesce and cohere in a way often only vaguely insinuated by the figures or riffs or phrases that seem to bind them, the advantages of lineup's consistency have become obvious.
Three of the current members were in the band in 1983 when it first tasted what Masters has called, with a keen sense of irony and no little self deprecation, 'the glare of public life.' Masters and guitarist Jimmy Cooras have been cohorts throughout, with the exception of most of an early year that Cooras spent in Greece, and Masters' long term musical and life partner Gail Frank is back on bass after a spell in semi-retirement. The other guitarist, Kim Leyland, who forms a truly fearsome coalition with Cooras, joined very shortly after inception, though originally as a sax and synth player.
Confusingly for local rock historians, there was once another Kim Leyland in the band. Needless to say, the kind of commitment shown by its members, all of whom have had to hang onto other jobs, is rare among musicians looking to make even a little money from their endeavours. So, one of a succession of drummers was the guitarist's then-wife, and there was also Kim Leyland who learned to play specifically to fill the band's vacant drum stool. For the past few years, that mantle has settled on the highly proficient Brahm Malherbe, a former racehorse trainer who was once in successful Afro-rock pioneers Hawk.
Recent musical emissions from the Not Even The TV rehearsal room suggest that the band is currently moving in a more textured, open-ended direction, but with no loss of the thrust and intensity that has been its trademark, and there is talk, once again, of a new album and even perhaps a couple more gigs. Astonishingly, the East London coelacanth has been followed by others, found mainly along Africa's more northerly East Coast, and, while it remains critically endangered, there is hope for its survival. With any luck, some of its good fortune might still rub off.
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