Looked for Sugarman. Found him. Now, where’s Tony Bird?

I was reading a book by Nik Cohn. It was called  Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Cohn’s thesis was that pop music is always pulled out of its doldrums by something shocking.

Shocking as in, say, the opening line of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti from which Cohn borrowed his book’s title. It was like a call to arms to something indefinable. As was Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel released two months later.

The Beatles, bless them, weren’t really shocking at the beginning (apart from their hair; and who now would call that ‘long’?), but The Rolling Stones were. And so was Bob Dylan. And then, well, then it was all plain sailing really for a good 10 years.

It was during this plain sailing period that I was reading Cohn’s book and thinking, “Yes, where is the next shock coming from, and how can I find it?”

And the very next day I was called up to the managing director’s office where a pale, curly-haired, skinny guy was getting his guitar out and preparing to audition for a record deal. (Yes, it did happen like that sometimes!).

He was shocking on so many levels, the hairs stood up all over my body. His delivery was aggressive, he stood like he was ready for war and when he started singing his face contorted like he was in pain. His voice was, literally, a shock to the system, like glass paper on a chalk board.

And on top of all that, he was South African. A white South African.

God, we hated South Africa back then. We hated apartheid, we hated the white minority, we even hated the way they spoke because it sounded, well, hateful. Nobody would buy South African wine, or apples, or anything really, as long as it was obviously from SA.

And now here’s this white South African, looking for a record deal, and he is absolutely knocking me dead.

He sings about the Rift Valley, he sings about The Cape Of Flowers. He makes South Africa sound like a country so beautiful we should all love to visit.

But he also sings about hatred, and violence, and fear, and Cape Town, and Johannesburg. “Man I’ve seen a mad dog running, and it’s gonna come and bite us all.”

Long before he’s finished, I not only want to sign this guy, I want to produce him. He is my Bob Dylan, he is my shock of the new. And he is going to bring to the world the bad news about South Africa just as Bobby brought the bad news about America.

As soon as he left the room, I told Dick Asher, “We really have to have this guy!” He was dubious. “Really? Do you think?” “Yes Dick. This is important, really important.” And since Tony Bird had been introduced to Dick Asher by Ben Nisbet, Bob Dylan’s UK song publisher, Dick let me have my way.

I set up sessions. I scoured London for black South African musicians and singers. This was 20 years before the emergence of world music; 20 years before Paul Simon’s Graceland. They were hard to find.

While I waited for contact, I took Tony into CBS Studio One, the big bugger on Whitfield Street. My plan was to record Tony just like early Dylan – everyone in the studio, playing together and I chose the big room because I wanted ‘room’ on the tracks.

I lined up Tim Renwick, the world’s greatest unknown great guitarist, and his  Quiver bandmate Pete Woods on piano and organ, Pete Zorn on bass and Richard Burgess on drums.

Man, it sounded great. Tony was super-nervous, but he kept his own with the other players, and they absolutely loved him and his songs. Everything was a revelation to them, particularly the fact that a white South African could be sympathetic to the plight of the blacks.

The only problem I had was that Ben Nisbet hung around the sessions like an anxious nanny, and he clearly didn’t like what I was doing. Never mind, I thought, he’ll come round when the South Africans get here.

They trooped into the studio a few days later, nervous, some carrying percussion, huge smiles, so friendly, wearing the most colourful clothes imaginable (we were going through the beige rage in London).

Tony played them a couple of the songs I wanted them to sing and play on. They smiled some more. They liked him. They liked the songs.

And then something magical happened. Without anyone telling them what part to sing, and when to come in, they started to sing in harmony. There were maybe 20 of them, strung out across the end of the studio, and they each knew exactly which part they would sing.

We set up the percussionists down the left and right walls of the studio, and Tony was at the top end. What came over the studio monitors for the next couple of hours or so made me as happy as I’ve ever been in my life. It was pure joy.

But, you know this story doesn’t end happily, because you’ve never heard of Tony Bird, which is a tragedy to be honest.

Despite the sheer joy of the experience, Ben Nisbet was like a wraith at a funeral. With Tony out of earshot he said some stuff that was so negative, I got very pissed off. I closed down the sessions. Then I went to see Dick Asher to see if he could get Ben to back off.

Oh dear. I was in trouble. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was never again to close down a session without permission, whatever the provocation. Wow. That was news.

After that, Ben got his way, and Tony was whisked off to New York to be produced by Tom Wilson, who actually had produced Bob Dylan. I’d love to tell you the results were fabulous, but they really weren’t. Tony’s career limped along in ever-decreasing circles.

You’ll find him online, always raved about, always the subject of frustration that he never made the breakthrough. You’ll also find the album Sorry Africa on iTunes. Give it a listen.

Meanwhile, my tapes languished, unmixed and unheard in the CBS vaults. I took home monitor mixes which went into boxes, and then into attics. Forty years later, I’ve had them digitised and I have to say, although they don’t completely live up to my memory of them, they are authentic and true to what I believed was Tony’s vision.

So here’s one of those tracks, Athlone Incident. This is not one with the other South African musicians, because I want you to hear Tony’s power, and his anger, and for you to judge what might have been his impact if we’d ever finished these sessions.

 

And here’s a YouTube clip of Tony performing live, something I still hope to see, one of these days.

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