Freedom’s Children interview

April 29, 2012

Freedom’s Children interview

Freedom’s Children are the most important South African progressive rock band. Locals call them the Pink Floyd of South Africa.

You were born in the Scottish Highlands. You arrived to South Africa in 1953. 

Ramsay Mackay: 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 mother’s father was a fiddler at local dances. A font of tradition. My other grandfather, I called … ‘Boss’ … and he was a man who loved engines. My grandmothers were both tellers of old folk tales and 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 … that’s 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 and 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 settled 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 and 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 and the British it really meant … ‘Go Home Bloody English! ‘When the Boers found out that we were Scots and not English their attitude towards us changed. Within six months I could speak Afrikaans and 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 and I even spoke Afrikaans to each other at home.).

Hunting, fishing and exploring was how we spent our free time and how none of us got killed is a wonder! We wandered miles away into the bush and koppies. We were only about 40 miles from the Kruger National Park so there were dangerous animals and snakes around. We were armed with air-rifles, bows and arrows, catapults and knives. We camped out. We were allowed to roam to our hearts content. This is no longer possible. We were very close to and felt a real bond with nature … in its 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) and 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 and 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 and try to find on my own guitar … that bush backbeat … by which one could walk the whole wide world . . . bare-footed.

“We spent all our time in bedrooms trying to find out that secret boo-boo.”

You played R&B music with bands like Eshowe, The Stilettos and The Beathovens…

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 and 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 … and 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.

“Even walking down the street invited confrontation.”

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.

“Hair back then was a new flag.”

Freedom’s Children

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 and 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 and 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 … and it is all … very familiar to me. Playing so often … for so long … makes the band sonic … and tight as skinny … assed spooks.

This was the age of speed. Black Bombs, Purple Hearts, Dexies were in abundance 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 and 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

‘Freedom’s Children’ was a revolutionary name for 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 … and 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 and the government. In certain situations. What is the difference? That is how it was back then. But we were riding the music and just lived for that and what it was saying to us.

Freedom’s Children in Teenage Personality

“The Mayors Office, the Churches and the Police wanted to have us banned.”

You started playing at Le Macabre club.

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 … and 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 seizures.” 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’ and I think a lot of people who did one did not have one. The Mayors Office, the Churches and the Police wanted to have us banned. We became front page news! We felt the urge to make it more outrageous and the music more hypnotic and at the same time having wild stuff going on. The Mayor and 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 (and 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 and further. This is the central problem of Freedom.

“It was a real acid trip before we actually dropped the acid.”

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 and never performed with all the lights, strobes and 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 … and 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 and all its cronies.

You were signed by Troubadour Records in 1967.

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 and had never seen amplifiers 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 and 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 and 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 saw the engineer again. But we parted better than we met … and I can still see his face his his greying RAF mustache.

Later you were signed by Parlophone Records and you went to record your debut Battle Hymn of the Broken Hearted Horde

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) and I decided to go to London. To see what their ‘freedom’ was at and 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 Colin Pratley and I. We put down some songs as backing tracks … things like “Judas Queen”, “10 Years Ago” and “Miss Wendy’s Dancing Eyes Have Died”. “Kafkasque” and “Eclipse” on the album were recorded by the full member Freedoms Children previously as a single. I did the voice over and 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 … and 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 and 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 and 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 …

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 ) and 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 and Unidentified Flying Objects … and Hordes of people in a world turned to Purgatory.

“The Americans were scheduled to touch down on the moon in the early hours of the morning so we took acid”

Your next release was Astra. 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 and 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. It’s 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 Hazareth” is about Religion … “Tribal Fence” is about race, “Gentle Beasts” is about South African … “Slowly Toward The North” and we are back in Space & Time … 1968 to 1970 … it’s 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 and Dunstable … early 1969 … about half was done like this … the other half was written in the studio. Like I said … we were camped there and would go right through the night into the next day as we had the keys to EMI’s studio and we could do exactly what we liked. Hats off to Clive Calder for this.

What kind of equipment did you use?

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

What was your involvement with Abstract Truth?

I was never in Abstract Truth. I jammed live with Kenny Heson and 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 and they recorded at the Island Studio and 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 and 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 and I found myself back on the Union Castle ocean liner sailing to Cape Town. The previous time I had been on one of their ships was when Freedoms Children sailed back to South Africa to record Astra.

“This was the first time blacks and whites played live together on a public stage.”

What were some crazy concerts that happened with Freedoms Children?

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 and white to appear together on stage. Freedoms Children were back to the original three of Colin Pratley, Ramsay Mackay and Kenny Henson plus the singer from Astra days … Brian Davidson. To cut a long and troublesome story short … We and 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 and also florescent paint for our arms and hands. There was seven of us on stage before the curtains opened … it was tense and hilarious … because we could hardly tell who was who till they picked up their instruments … 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 and 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 and with tears behind his skeleton mask  and says, “I can only play in my own country if I look like a spook” … and … then … the curtains went up … and the crowd, … the audience audibly gasped at the sight before them … 7 figures with skull heads and glowing hands.

Freedoms Children at Spring Open Air Pop Music Festival

I think I can say that this was the first time blacks and 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 ans whisked them away into the African night …

Do you have any regrets?

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 and 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.

Ramsay Mackay

Shadoks recently reissued your albums.

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

The Fumes of Mars

What currently occupies your life?

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

Ramsay Mackay today

Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.

Hello out there you Fanatics and It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine readers … always remember … Psychedelia … is a big part of Reality.

– Klemen Breznikar

  1. Good interview, very interesting read

  2. 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.

  3. Maurice says:

    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.

  4. Sarah says:

    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.

  5. Unknown says:

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

  6. Anonymous says:

    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

  7. Nic Martens says:

    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

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

  9. John Knottenbelt says:

    Hiya Fenn, John Knottenbelt here from Durban. We communicated via my Facebook page, soon after Ramsay’s passing. I was the chap who gave your dad the rare ‘full version’ of their last ‘Freedoms Children recordings under the working title Mummies. I was bequeathed those by Ken Henson shortly before he passed away, as I sat in on many of their rehearsals for that project at Ken & Debbie Henson’s home in Windermere road, Durban. I became friends with Ramsay, Colin Pratley & Ken Henson (also Harry Polous) during the early Freedoms Children stages mid late 1960s & attended many of their Durban gigs at various local venues & as those of us who ‘were there at those times’ knew how incredibly talented they were. I also hitchijed to Johannesburg to checkvthen out at 2 well known venues, 505 & Bonnie & Clyde in about 1967. Saw that Colin passed away about 6 months ago & while trawling Google saw this excellent interview with Ramsay. I certainly stirred my memories of gigs & home visits with Ken & Colin at a fkat they shared in Russell Street Durban & many house parties as well. Memories that colour my mind firever. Wishing you & all FC aficionados a safe journey on this plane, until we are reunited beyond the pale. Stay safe out there & keep worthy memories shining bright, to light the way for fellow travellers. Much love, light & peace to you all.

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