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Freedom's Children interview with Ramsay Mackay

Freedom's Children are for sure the most well known and important band from South Africa.
Some call them the PINK FLOYD of S.A. and if the political situation in S.A. would have been easier they would have had the same status in the international music market as Pink Floyd does. Beautiful composer songs, amazing instrument work, well-crafted guitar work and great singers. The extra heavy prog. sound beats most albums in the same direction coming from UK or USA.


It's a great pleasure to do an interview regarding Freedom's Children. I would like to start with the very beginning. You were born in the Scottish Highlands. You arrived in South Africa around 1953. What can you tell me about your early childhood at Scotland and later in South Africa? 
Well, thank-you for the interest. It was all a long time ago. Yes, I was born on a farm in the Highlands of Scotland on the last day of the Second World War. As a boy I used to wander. Unlike these times ... my mother never knew ... where,  exactly I was all day. Easter Ross was then an isolated part of the UK. Strongly Celtic. My grandparents spoke Gaelic ... though they spoke English as well. My mothers father was a fiddler at local dances. A font of tradition. My other grandfather, I called ... 'Boss' ... & he was a man who loved engines. My grandmothers were both tellers of old folk tales & as I remember went about their work all day singing very old songs I could not understand. I don't know if I am idealising this distant past ... but ... thats how it seems to me now. This world was left behind on our arrival in Africa. When we are very young we take everything in good stride. Everything & everywhere in the world is natural. To me arriving suddenly into the wilds of South Africa seemed as just another part of my wandering.

We sittled in the almost exclusively Boer dorp ( village ) of Graskop. It lies perched on the escarpment over looking the mythical Low-veld made famous in the book ' Jock Of The Bushveld.'

On arrival we were made to feel like Uitlanders ( foreigners, but the word in Afrikaans has a more bitter ring & every day after school the Boer children went round outside our house chanting ... "Huistoe Rooinek! Huistoe Rooinek!" ... meaning literally ... 'Go Home Redneck' ... but in the long history of conflict between the Boers & the British it really meant ... ' Go Home Bloody English ! '  When the Boers found out that we were Scots & not English their attitude towards us changed. Within six months I could speak Afrikaans & made friends with the local children especially ... the van Antwerpins ... all nine of them. So from the age of 7 to 12 I grew up as any Boer lad of that time. My brother & I even spoke Afrikaans to each other at home.

Hunting, fishing & exploring was how we spent our free time & how none of us got killed is a wonder ! We wandered miles away into the bush & koppies. We were only about 40 miles from the Kruger National Park so there were dangerous animals & snakes around. We were armed with air-rifles, bows & arrows, catapults & knives. We camped out. We were allowed to roam to our hearts content. This is no longer possible. We were very close to & felt a real bond with nature ... in it's more wild manifestation.

The only thing I can say about 'race' from this period is that every Sunday the African drums used to sound from the Location ( where the Blacks lived ) & that by the end of the day I felt myself in a sleepwalk from them. I did have what I can only call 'mystical experiences' in Graskop from about the age of ten. I think this happens to many children but they tend to forget them in growing up. Or they have it rationalized out of them. Mine are still very clear. But ... even more of a mystery.

To end this question I would like to say that the among the Africans around Graskop were many Shangaans who have the most haunting guitar picking style which they played while they walked the dust roads that cut through the koppies & thorntrees for miles ... and miles. It would come through the bush seemingly from nowhere. Unknowingly it made a deep impression on me. Now many years later ... I sit & try to find on my own guitar ... that bush backbeat ... by which one could walk the whole wide world . . . bare-footed.

Some of the first bands you were involved were Eshowe, The Stilettos and The Beathovens. You played R&B music and I would like to know if you ever recorded and released anything?
I think we must have been among the first bands in South Africa to play R&B. There was an American at school, ...a Paul -  who's father was a missionary and who went back to America  on the long school-holidays - whom I asked to get albums by any Black dudes he thought fit by asking questions at the record shops. So he returned with ... Bo Diddley ... Chuck Berry ... Howlin' Wolf ... Muddy Waters ... Champion Jack Dupree & many more. We were smitten ! We spent all our time in bedrooms trying to find out that secret boo-boo. No kidding. To this very day.

We did make a very basic recording once. There was four songs . . . 'Stop& Listen' ... 'Beautiful Delilah' ... by Chuck Berry ... & one of our own compositions ... is what I remember. We actually drove all the way to Johannesburg (  in those days it was like going to Mars for country boys like us ! ) which is about 500 miles . . .  to play the tape to a record company. The people we eventually got to play the tapes to were well known personalities on the radio. They listened. They shook their heads. " The guitar is finished," they said. And this is about 1961-62 ! Later on through Freedoms Children I got to know these people but I never let on that I was the callow youth from those years ago. 'The guitar is finished' . . . is a joke for the way this world is set-up.

Later you and other Beathovens members (Angelo Minietti and Gary Demmer) moved to Pretoria. What happened there?

This was a strange time. South Africa was up-tight. Our hair was getting very long. It was like walking around with trouble on top of the head. The 'straights' did not dig it. They wanted to punch us in the puss. They did. Fights broke out. Even revolvers were drawn. Going into a bar one had to have nerve. Even walking down the street invited confrontation. All this is forgotten now. But I reckon it still stands ... fashions have changed but the beat remains the same ... what does 'freedom' mean. Hair back then was a new flag. Now it is straw. Perhaps that is why we see so many Yul Brynner's these days ... looking tough ... like a bald penis. Yes, the Penis Men ... these day's ... they are to be seen at all the power points ... their noses in the trough.

Well ... back to us innocent lads in Pretoria. We practiced a lot. In a small town hall. We lived in caravans. And human kindness. We had no money. We did do a number of gigs. One of which ended in a brawl ... riot ... cannot really remember what ... the memory ... is such a myth maker.

The vibe was heavy ... as they say ... at that time in South Africa. The white men who ran the show everywhere ... saw everything as a threat ...  ( things not like them ) ... and that included long-haired beatnik teen-age ducktails like us. Oh boy ... it is almost impossible to recapture that time. It had a certain smell.

Soon Freedom's Children were born, but before we start talking about that, I'm curious what was the scene back then?

The scene for bands back then was that you got an agent if you were very lucky ... who got you a gig in a three monthly residence rotary system. You would then play six nights a week & usually also on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. You played on average four 45 minute sets with a 15 minute break every night. You also had to rehearse at least three times a week to get new songs to keep the act sharp. The agents & the Club/Hotel managers were kings of this system. We did not really care about money. We just wanted to play. They took advantage. We once played at the famous 505 Club for a whole year . . . 6 nights a week ! The people came. I have not got a clue now ... how much we were paid. Lately I have been reading about The Beatles in the early days in Hamburg ... & it is all ... very familiar to me. Playing so often ... for so long ... makes the band sonic ... & tight as skinny ... assed spooks.

This was the age of speed. Black Bombs, Purple Hearts, Dexies were in abundence in South Africa. Very ironic. On that speed one could play forever. And we did try to. Again it is very similar to the scene in Hamburg. We did not eat much ... being fueled by brandy & pills. 

It was a great time for music. To play ... to listen ... to learn. South Africa was still very influenced by Britain in matters of culture. The only thing was we never heard any of the bands live because of the boycott. We were cut-off from living contact. Musicians learn a lot from watching what other musicians are doing. It is a whole other universe. In South Africa we had to make do with listening only. We did not have a clue what these bands sounded like live.

Freedom's Children was quiet a revolutionary name of the times…

Yes ... the very word ... " freedom" ... was a taboo ... in the land of taboos. It was electric when we made it up. What ! FREEDOMS CHILDREN ? It cut through the air. On our first single the record company would not release it unless it was changed it to FLEADOMS CHILDREN ... & we put up with it just because we wanted to hear ourselves on the radio. It was laughable. But we did not laugh so much. Freedom ... to Fleadom. This is 'reality'. When the fuckers with all the power call the shots. The record company & the government. In certain situations. What is the difference ? That is how it was back then. But we were riding the music & just lived for that & what it was saying to us.

You started playing at Le Macabre club. Tell us about your first shows…how was it?

Well in South Africa Freedoms Children became notorious overnight. Le Macabre was our first residential gig. It is here, early on that we started doing 'Freak Outs' which lasted for one whole set. Unheard of then. We created our own home-made strobe lights which did not exist as such ... we had projectors showing films on all the walls ... we had jelly ... & dry ice etc. The music we played was a heavy beat with anything goes. We had tapes ... monks chanting ... bombs dropping. The first time we performed this it was a sensation. Also ... somebody took an epileptic fit ... nobody then knew ... that strobe lights can cause these fits. The fit was pounced on by the press. The authorities thundered ... " This orchestra ... this Freedoms whatever ... want to corrupt the youth. Look they are giving them siezures." The next time we did the Freak Out not all the people who came could get in. There were more epileptic fits. They became known as 'frothies' & I think a lot of people who did one did not have one. The Mayors Office, the Churches & the Police wanted to have us banned. We became front page news ! We felt the urge to make it more outrageous & the music more hypnotic & at the same time having wild stuff going on. The Mayor & the Police Chief came to see and hear for themselves. We were ordered by the Le Macarbe management to tone the whole thing down drastically otherwise we were going to get banned ( & they were going to lose big bucks ! ). So we toned it down for that show. And turned it all up again the next time. Eventually these Freak Outs took their toll as one had to think up things to take it further & further. This is the central problem of Freedom.

We got a lot of offers to play elsewhere. Before too long we were off to play there. We really left the 'Freak Outs' back there at the Macabre & never performed with all the lights, strobes & films etc. ever again. It was a real acid trip before we actually dropped the acid. It became scary. After-all ... we were in a Police state ... & it was Apartheid South Africa. This whole period started me to thinking . . . is there such a thing as Evil . . . outside of the men who carry it out. It is like Hitler is now personified as Evil incarnate. A monster. But is he ? If we allow History to become mere mythmaking . . . we shall be gobbled up by phantoms. The entire past is contrived. To suit the purposes of the new/old agenda & all its cronies.

Troubadour Records signed you around 1967. How did you get signed, since you played »revolutionary music«?

Billy Forrest, a singer but also one of the pioneers of South African music approached us to to do a single. As we had not yet made a record we were keen just to get into a studio.

This turned out to be quite an experience as the engineer was about fifty something & had never seen amplifyers as big as ours ... nor how loud they could play ! We had the evening to get four tracks down. It was live. There was only two tracks. On our first run-through the engineer went bonkers. " All my needles are on red ... it is too loud ... I cannot record this." Or something along those lines. Someone went out & bought two bottles of Cane Spirit ... a potent liquor peculiar to South Africa made from Sugar Cane. Billy probably saw to it that the engineer's glass was always full. By the time we put down the tracks he had opened up all the controls & we were all well pickled and making a lot of noise. The solo in 'A Better Man Than I" when turned up gives one a good idea of that night. It is all live ! And we do four tracks in a evening. We never see the engineer again. But we parted better than we met ... &  I can still see his face & his greying RAF mustache.

Later you were signed by Parlophone records and you went to record your debut titled Battle Hymn of the Broken Hearted Horde. I would really like to hear about the concept behind the LP.
The real culprit in the concept behind this album - looking back now - is speed. South Africa was getting very paranoid. The 'summer of love' was drifting off. Darker regions began to move in.

Colin Pratley ( the drummer ) & I decided to go to London. To see what their 'freedom' was at & to play in a different scene. And just to get away from the oppressive situation in South Africa.

I can't remember which way about it happened but EMI were expecting a record from Freedoms Children ... who no longer existed ... other than Cpolin Prattley and I. We put down some songs as backing tracks ... things like Judas Queen, Ten Years after & Miss Wendy. Kafkasque & Eclipse on the album were recorded by the full member Freedoms Children previously as a single. I did the voice over & sound effects. The rest of the songs were in the hands of the producer. So it is quite a strange album in that Colin Pratley and I were not playing on the rest of the album ... neither were we there for the production and mixes ... or for any say in the matter at all. As I said ... I cannot remember how things came to this. They did ... & that is that.

I did spend sleepless nights before I left for London teaching the songs to Dennis Robertson who was a singer I knew from Durban.. I thought he would be on all the songs but things turned out different. He only appears on a number of songs.

Getting back to the concept ... as I mentioned ... we were taking a lot of speed back then. During one of these episodes I saw all the masses of this world huddled under the powers that be & the 'way things are' ... all of history and its murderous rages ... over what ? At the same time I was suffering withdrawel symptoms from a long romantic interlude. I thought how alien we had become on our own planet. Like a horde. A heartless mass. So this is how war begins ! The battle ... hymn. It was all broken up ... just like this. When I put the voice over down I was in some state ... there was no engineer ... I had to go in & out of the studio to turn the tape machine off/on ... all the while speeding on Black Bombers. Perhaps I once really knew what the concept was ... I don't know ... I do not listen to the album ... not yet ... anyway. I think the people who do listen to it ... find their own concept of what it is. That is fine by me . . . 

Do you perhaps know how many copies were made and a few words about cover artwork would also be much appreciated.

I do not have a clue as to how many copies were made. The cover artwork I did with the Jurg ( I cannot remember his other name, Geznar ... I think ) & we had a good time doing it ... he was a photographer ... so we both mucked in on the design. We hired a suit of armour ... we cut out UFO's to photograph. Yes ... that's the concept of the album ... Armour & Unidentified Flying Objects ... & Hordes of people in a world turned to Purgatory. 

 Your next release is legendary Astra LP. What is the story behind this album?

I think the story of Astra begins the night the Americans landed on the moon. I have always been fascinated with Space. Freedoms Children had reformed in London ... must have been late 1968. We were living in West Kensington. The Americans were scheduled to touch down on the moon in the early hours of the morning so we took acid & got our beds in good positions round the black & white TV set. When they landed we were spaced ... like we were there with them. I thought how existentialist the situation of the men on the moon was ... what it would be like if they could not get back down to Earth ever again. Its there in Slowly Toward The North, part II ... " Cannot get my way back down to you. " Also in the beginning with The Homecoming. But this space thing is mixed with happenings here on Earth ... Medals Of Bravery is about the Vietnam War . . . The Kid He Came From Nazareth is about Religion ... Tribal Fence is about race, Gentle Beasts is about South African ... Slowly Toward The North & we are back in Space & Time ... 1968 to 1970 ... its like a Freedoms Children journal ... even the sound. Clive Calder our A&R man ( and eventual manager ) gave us total freedom in the studio. No EMI engineers were present. We did everything ourselves. We camped out in the studio. It was a great experience.

We started work on Astra in London & Dunstable ... early 1969 ... about half was done like this ... the other half was written in the studio. Like I said ... we were camped there & would go right through the night into the next day as we had the keys to EMI's studio & we could do exactly what we liked. Hats off to Clive Calder for this.

What gear did you guys use?

Julian Laxton had a 30 w Vox amp with his Black Box ( something of his own invention ) & a Gretsch guitar. I had a Fender Precision bass guitar with 100 w Vox amp. Colin Pratley had Rogers drums. Nic Martens was on a Hammond organ. Gerard Nel played a grand piano, hapsichord & bells. This is what we used on Astra. When we toured the album we had 200 w Marshall amps.

What happened next for you? You went away from the band and form another called Abstract Truth. What can you tell me about that? Abstract Truth released some albums, but you were not a part of that. What followed next?

I was never in Abstract Truth. I jammed live with Kenny Heson & some others in Durban ... but that was it. I was asked to join Joburg Hawk as a song-writer. They were signed to Charisma Records in London. So in 1973 we were in London & they recorded at the Island Studio & played gigs all over Britain. It was not like Freedoms Children at all ... as I was not in the band. The band had 5 white members & 4 black. This was the time of strong anti-Apartheid demonstrations and action in England. The band became embroiled in behind the scenes politics. I don't think the ANC in London particularly welcomed a mixed race band from back home in South Africa at that time. The paradox of politics. Trouble from within the band stirred from outside influence. They were supposed to go to America but the 'revolution' got them first. Charisma Records put a lot of money and goodwill into Joburg Hawk ... but ... the bullshit ... came out on top. The band fell apart in mid-air & I found myself back on the Union Castle ocean liner sailing to Cape Town. The previos time I had been on one of their ships was when Freedoms Children sailed back to South Africa to record 'Astra.'

We would be all really happy if you would share a crazy story from concerts back from the late 60's.

In 1972 Freedoms Children began to play with a black group called 'The Malombo Jazzmen'. This was against the law in South Africa. It was illegal for black & white to appear together on stage. Freedoms children were back to the original three of Colin Pratley, Ramsay Mackay & Kenny Henson plus the singer from Astra days . . . Brian Davidson. To cut a long and troublesome story short ... We & the Malombo's had hatched a plot to play together on stage at the Durban City Hall. We were booked as Freedoms Chidren to play on a bill with other groups. Nobody other than our manager of the time ... knew about this. We had bought skeleton masks to wear & also florescent paint for our arms & hands. There was seven of us on stage before the curtains opened ... it was tense & hilarious ... because we could hardly tell who was who till they picked up their instuments ... Colin Pratley was calling to who he thought was Kenny Henson when Julian Bahula the Malombo's tribal drummer said ... " Hau ! No ... it is not Kenny ! ... it's me ... Julian !"..... Well, this was very funny when you can be arrested & charged for playing music with someone you don't know who. But in all this lunacy Lucky Ranku, Malombo's guitar player turns to me & with tears behind his skeleton mask  & says, " I can only play in my own country if I look like a spook " . . . and ... then ... the curtains went up ... & the crowd, ... the audience audibly gasped at the sight before them . . . 7 figures with skull heads and glowing hands.

I think I can say that this was the first time blacks & whites played live together on a public stage. The Malombo's played three songs with us then rushed off stage and down the stairs out into the street where our manager was waiting in a parked running car & whisked them away into the African night . . .

Before we end our interview I would like to mention, that it's really shame that because of the political status of South Africa and many other things you could not make it huge. Many people think, that being from the UK, there is plenty possibilities to become a world known act. What is your opinion on that?

I have no regrets. I am doing new music. I still take flights into psychedelia in the studio. Into other things too. Astra has lived for forty something years. Most likely it will grow. There is no other album like it. It comes from a certain time & a certain place. That people are still interested in Freedoms Children ... is, I think for us very fine ! More than we ever expected ... back then. Recording Astra was a emotional/spiritual experience for all of us in Freedoms Children. I have not seen some of the members for over 25 years ... but I think they would agree ... that we are forever bonded by what a time we had making it. We were very young. Yet it had still taken years of shit to get into that studio with total freedom to do whatever came into our heads.

Shadoks did a great job reissuing your albums. Are you satisfied?

Yes, the sound is very good ... I listened to Astra for the first time in years ... & was taken by surprise. The box & all the covers are of high quality. 

 Hats off to Shadoks & Thomas Hartlage !

What occupies your life these days?

I have had a studio in the house & have recorded about 140 songs with another musician, Henry Dennis ... We call ourselves The Fumes Of Mars & we are building a website of the same name on which we are down-loading the songs, artwork, photo's & a whole lot of writing on the world, politics & the present financial robbery.

Thank you very much for the interview! Would you like to send a message to your fans and to It's Psychedelic Baby readers?

Hello out there you Fanatics & It's Psychedelic Baby readers ... always remember ... Psychedelia  . . . is a big part of Reality.

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2012

© Copyright 2012


Heavypsychmanblog said...

Good interview, very interesting read

Andrew Martens said...

As a youngster in South Africa one of my favourite records was Ramsay's The Suburbs of Ur. I bunked out of boarding school to see him performing songs from it at UCT. I would love to know how to get hold of it again.

Maurice said...

I'm wondering how to get hold of Ramsay Mackay. I want to find out about a song he wrote called the Ballad of Rockey St, about a place called Yeoville where much music was happening in the 1980s.

Sarah said...

I also love Suburbs of Ur, and I have a very old casette tape of it, plus a photocopy of the sleeve and sleeve notes.

Based in Scotland now (me) and rather stunned to discover that Ramsay is back in Scotland too.

I also met Colin Pratley last year, through a very strange connection (my adopted son, who is now 9) ... so it is all pretty amazing.

I lived in Yeoville for most of the 80s and a wee bit of the 90s. Yeoville is still there. Rockey Street is where it all used to happen.

Unknown said...

Ramsay McKay died last week in Kelty, Fife and will be buried on the Black Isle where he was born

Anonymous said...

I'm Ramsay's son, Ramsay did indeed pass away on the 4th December 2018, but he died in Perth Scotland. He died in Cornhill Macmillan Centre while being treated with cancer.

Fenn Mackay

Nic Martens said...

Hi Fenn.
My condolences on your Dad's passing.
It was a privilege to have engineered and played on Astra, (my final contribution to the music business in 1970). I know it would probably seem strange that (out of the blue) I would be aware of Ramsay's passing, but as with Brian Davidson, there is a bond stretching from 1965 when I joined Colin and your dad in Pretoria.
Nic Martens

Gaynor Paynter said...

Hi Fenn, so sorry for your loss. This was a great read.

Alisa Ray said...

Hi Nic. Is it possible to email you?