Our album of the month is Wells Fargo’s Watch Out! We had Matthew Shechmeister write the band’s history, since they are basically un-Google-able, and it’s important to understand for the context of the album.
THE CASE FOR HEAVY MUSIC
Music can be courageous. That might mean artistically daring, or politically risky. The music on this record is courageous in both senses. It doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard, and its message could’ve gotten the band killed. But that doesn’t tell you everything about the courage in this music. The rest is worth knowing, especially now.
The songs on this record are relentless and sometimes harsh. From beginning to end, the band never lets the tension resolve. The lead singer pushes his voice to the top of its range and keeps it there, threatening to go off-key. After hanging back for half the song, the bassist steps up and pummels you with the hardest possible groove. When you expect a cleansing power chord, the guitars go slack. In the middle of a jam where every instrument seems to be headed in a different direction, they’ll snap back together and turn on a dime.
No matter how bold the maneuver, the band plays with total confidence, denying themselves any margin for error. If one misses a beat or hits a false note, the whole song will come apart. All the confidence will feel unearned, and anybody who bought in will feel like a sucker. The music’s message will fall under grave suspicion, and the message is what matters most.
Only one of the songs on this record is bluntly political, but it only took one to attract the secret police. It seems strange. If what you care about is the message, and the cops are already on the way, why don’t you say more? If screwing up the music will wreck the message, then why push so hard?
The answer isn’t clear until you’ve played the album from front to back a few times, at high volume. That’s how contemporary listeners heard these songs, because vinyl copies were scarce, and kids came to shows not just because they liked to dance, but to feel solidarity. They didn’t want a political education, or need it. What they needed was courage, and that’s what this band gave them.
The music is invasive. The kids in the scene called it “heavy,” because they could feel the impact. The band batters its way inside you, and shoves aside any fear or uncertainty. All you feel is their confidence and conviction. What you feel is courage.
These songs gave progressives the strength to resist. They still can.
LOVE AND WAR
Rock music arrived in Africa as the sun was setting on the British Empire. The genre started as a teenage dance craze, but in the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, musicians used the new sound to voice their hopes for the future. Each colony broke free of the Crown during the 1960s, one as a fledgling democracy, the other a ferocious defender of minority rule. A black rock scene developed in both. In Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, the scene was a celebration of self-determination and freedom under the progressive Kenneth Kaunda. In Southern Rhodesia, the colony that would become Zimbabwe, the scene was part of a struggle to wrest the country from minority rule.
Southern Rhodesia’s heavy rock music had a political evolution that paralleled the American scene almost perfectly. In the late '50s, rock and roll was swept into the spotlight by a wave of hormones. Teenagers heard the thumping backbeat, saw Elvis on his pelvic bronco, and did the math.
By the mid-'60s, military escalation in Vietnam had injected American rock music with a critical purpose. Teenage sauciness gave way to anti-war anthems and calls for universal harmony. That message echoed through other countries, but for the kids who flashed peace signs in Copenhagen, there was no draft, no Kent State, no emergency.
Southern Rhodesia, however, was about to enter a violent decade. In 1965, the colonial government had seceded from the British Empire in a bid to maintain white control. The move, called the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, proclaimed the colony to be a sovereign nation called “Rhodesia.” The British didn’t take military action to stop the colony’s rogue leader, Ian Smith, but by the early '70s, the a liberation war was underway, fought by pro-democracy parties from within Rhodesia. Insurgents waged guerrilla campaigns against the Rhodesian security forces, and Smith’s government hardened segregation laws to maintain control of the black majority. As in the United States' involvement in Vietnam, young people would be called to the front lines. Fighting raged on Rhodesia’s northern and eastern borders, where the armed wings of the independence movement were based. Guerrilla cadres also operated inside Rhodesian territory, ambushing Rhodesian security forces and attacking infrastructure.
In the early '70s, many young progressives were inspired by hippie counterculture and its message of inclusiveness, and took up the music of Hendrix, Deep Purple, and Janis Joplin. During the heyday of the scene, rock fans of different races came together at festivals inspired by Woodstock. To the shock of the authorities, the gatherings were not only peaceful, but exuberant, proving that racial unity wasn’t an impossible dream.
Sadly, supporters of democratic change didn’t have the luxury of pacifism. Ian Smith drew the battle lines, declaring “I don’t believe in majority rule ever for Rhodesia, not in a thousand years.” Love and understanding could do only so much, and many rock groups rallied their listeners to arms.
Sobusa Gula-Ndebele, a former Attorney General of Zimbabwe, left the Bulawayo rock scene to join the guerrilla forces in Mozambique. He described how bands repurposed Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” making it a tribute to the bravery of the guerrillas, but retaining its lament of violence. “Our social thinking was all love, peace, and happiness, that was the rock era. Make love not war,” he said, “and yet we found ourselves involved in a war of liberation.” For Gula-Ndebele and his peers, the message of “Machine Gun” was that they had to fight without succumbing to bloodlust. “Fighting for freedom was different, it was a duty,” but only because Ian Smith had given them no other choice.
BULAWAYO GETS ROCKING
The founder of Wells Fargo, Ebba Chitambo, got hooked on music by listening to his family’s wind-up gramophone. They had a stack of 78 rpm records, mostly vocal groups and traditional music. Ebba loved it all. Then his father brought home “I Got a Woman” by Elvis Presley. “It took all the other music out of me,” he explained, sounding a little awestruck. Five decades had elapsed, but he was still amazed by the power that single song.
Rock and roll captured the minds of many of Ebba’s contemporaries, too, and soon there was a touring circuit for homegrown acts like the Springfields. They were a little older than Ebba, and were already well-known when he came to see them play at the Pelandaba Township Hall in 1969.
When he arrived, just prior to showtime, Ebba saw the drummer was in a bad way. “He was drunk and collapsing,” and the remaining Springfields were desperate. The guitarist threw himself on the mercy of the audience, asking if anyone knew how to play drums.
Ebba volunteered. He had never played drums in his life, but there was no time for an audition. They handed him the sticks. One-two-three-four…
Somehow he pulled it off. “I just kept time and it worked,” he said with a shrug. The band seemed happy, and the audience didn’t demand refunds. In the audience that night was a guitar player named Josi Ndlovu. He had finished school a couple years before Ebba, and had a band of his own. They called themselves the Movers, and were focused on covers of cutting-edge rock and roll. The band was in need of a new drummer, so Josi tracked down Ebba a few days after his debut with the Springfields and asked him to try out. Ebba, feeling slightly less impulsive, explained away what happened at the township hall. “I said, ‘I didn’t even know what I was doing there,’” but Josi was insistent. Ebba relented, and came to sit in a rehearsal. To his surprise, he was able to hold his own.
Josi and Ebba became fast friends, bonding over their shared obsession with the latest in rock music. At Ebba’s suggestion, They changed the name a the band called to The Moove, making it sound more like “groovy.” The change happened just in time for the next musical earthquake in Ebba’s life, a song that laid waste to “I Got a Woman” and propelled the Moove into the hippie counterculture that had inspired their new name.
THE HEAVY STUFF
The song was Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” A friend had it on 45, and a few seconds in, Ebba was overwhelmed. “I thought, what’s happening!? What’s going on?” he exclaimed. Until the needle hit that record, the Beatles and Elvis had been his primary influences. “Jimi just came and kicked everybody else out of my mind,” Ebba laughed.
That same evening, Ebba and his friends went to see a local group called the Idols, who just happened to cover “Hey Joe.” It was lackluster. Ebba thought to himself, “they’re doing it wrong!” Soon after, Josi decided to take a crack at the song during rehearsal. It was a perfect rendition, and from then on the Moove was committed to a heavier sound. But despite having rapid success after making the switch, Josi decided to leave the band and spend time with family in Zambia.
One day, while thumbing through a comic book about cowboys, the words “Wells Fargo” jumped out at him. Like most Rhodesians, Ebba didn’t know there was a Wells Fargo Bank. The name was emblazoned on the door of a stagecoach, guarded by a man who killed outlaws with a shotgun. It was something that belonged to a lawless frontier, and that was exactly where Ebba wanted to take his next rock group, both musically and politically.
In 1973, when Ebba chanced on those words, the war against Smith’s government was entering a new phase. The armed wings of the independence movement were on the offensive, launching guerrilla incursions into Rhodesian territory from bases on the northern and eastern borders. The engagements were limited, and the Rhodesians were successfully repelling the guerrilla fighters. Still, the dynamics of the conflict had shifted. The independence forces were better organized and more numerous than they had ever been, and they would keep coming. Ebba knew it was a moment of opportunity, and he wanted Wells Fargo to spread the revolutionary message.
Josi had returned from Zambia, and Ebba invited him to join Wells Fargo. Josi was the perfect lead guitarist. He played with guts, and wanted to write songs with a political edge. They agreed that Wells Fargo needed a rhythm guitarist to fill out their sound. They pitched Wells Fargo to Handsome Mabhiza, who they played with in a previous group called the Hi Cords. Though he had been a jazz musician, Ebba got him to sign on with a little cajoling. Plus, Ebba said, “I promised him fame.”
In the heavy rock scene, no band had a bassist. They had a bass man. Josi knew just the right bass man for Wells Fargo. But Ebba was shocked by his suggestion. “You mean that kid?” The surprise pick was Never Mpofu, another Pelandaba local. He was several years Ebba’s junior, and had once received bass lessons from Ebba, who considered him a perennial understudy. Though he seemed too young for the roll of bass “man,” Never demonstrated some rock and roll chops and won over his former teacher.
Wells Fargo quickly built up a following by playing bars and clubs, and also became a favorite at battles of the bands, a hallowed tradition of the rock and roll days. Battles were open to all comers, regardless of color, and took place at stadiums rather than the small venues where rock bands played most of their shows. The audiences included black, white, mixed-race, and Indian fans. Many of the kids had never socialized across racial lines. “When we started,” Ebba explained, “the whites used to stay by themselves, the black by themselves. By the end it was like real integrated.” The scene also united black Rhodesians of different ethnic groups, some of which have a long history of conflict. The members of Wells Fargo were from diverse ethnicities, but rock music led them into the kinship of the counterculture.
Though the deck was stacked in favor of white groups, bands from the townships did take the top spot. The same bands played at all the contests, and after a while, some of the white kids were cheering for Wells Fargo, and booing when an undeserving white group got the trophy. It came as a shock to Ebba and his friends, who expected that the white kids would be as racist as Ian Smith. “A guy can look at you, and call you by name, and not hate you,” Ebba recalled, “it was amazing.” To the surprise of black musicians, white bands were eager to play in the townships, in violation of Rhodesia’s segregation laws. Soon Ebba found himself sneaking in a group called the Short-Sighted Guavas for a gig in his neighborhood.
Rock band contests continued to attract the best of the heavy rockers until the scene died out, but their most important role was as a catalyst for the counterculture. A The contests often took place at the Rhodesian equivalent of a country fair, but a bustling fairgrounds wasn’t the right place to start a revolution. For that, the heavy rockers would have to carve out their own turf. They were waging a social rebellion, demolishing the government’s claim that without the racial hierarchy, society would break down. Though Rhodesia was segregated, the separation was nowhere near as complete as under Jim Crow in America, which meant that rockers could actually get together and prove the government wrong. They did, with increasing boldness.
The movie Woodstockhad arrived in Rhodesia during the early 70s. It was a postcard from hippie headquarters, and offered an inspiring glimpse of the American counterculture. It was also a blueprint for local rock promoters, who formed a company called Woodstock Promotions and organized rock festivals throughout the country. The events were a more grown-up version of the Texan Rock Band Contests, and quickly caused alarm in the Smith government.
In 1972, the Rhodesia Herald ran cover a cover story titled “Why Pop Festivals Cause Official Frowns.” The article explained that the government believed the events were rife with “miscegenation” and “drug-taking.” Racists did have reason to fear, because there was plenty of interracial romance in the heavy rock scene. Drugs, on the other hand, were tough to come by, thanks to the highly aggressive Rhodesian police force. There was some ganja around, but the mind-altering substance that was closest at hand was legal. The more adventurous rockers would pour methylated spirits into a bowl and light it on fire. They let it burn like a flambé, then blew it out and chugged what was left. It was called “Purple Haze,” and got you high for a whole weekend.
The most famous of the festivals was held on February 26th and 27th of 1972, at an out-of-the-way vacation spot called Nyamanhindi’s Resort. Unlike previous festivals, which had been one-day affairs, Nyamanhindi was to take place over a weekend, and feature traditional music as well as the country’s top rock acts. The authorities let the anti-establishment bacchanal go forward, hoping that fans of different races would turn on each other after a two days and three nights of sharing communal resources. It’d be perfect propaganda for the Smith regime, an object lesson in why segregation was the only way to keep order in Rhodesia. As the concert got underway, police watched in horror as young people of different races camped out, drank, and danced together. They splashed around, in various states of undress, in the river that was also the show’s sole bathing facility. The headliner was an all-white group called Holy Black. The plan had backfired.
As the '70s wore on, more and more people from the heavy rock scene crossed borders to join the pro-democracy forces based in Zambia and Mozambique. These young soldiers often adopted noms de guerre to protect their families from retaliation should they be captured or their units were infiltrated by Rhodesian informers. Many took the names of rock and rollers from abroad, calling themselves Jimi Hendrix or Mick Jagger. To keep up spirits, the guerrillas sang the songs that local rock bands were writing to encourage the liberation fighters. The most popular was “Watch Out,” which became the anthem for a generation at war. Ebba and Josi started writing “Watch Out” together before Josi left for Zambia. Ebba continued to develop his own version, which is included on this album. When Josi returned to Rhodesia and founded Eye of Liberty, he did own take on the song, but no recordings of it have been discovered. Both versions included the provocative line: “Watch out/freedom is coming/have gun will travel/you better hold on!” Years after Independence, a man who fought with the guerrillas came up to Ebba on the street, and told him that he joined up after hearing “Watch Out.” Ebba wept.
The Special Branch, Rhodesia’s terrifying internal security department, took notice of the song’s influence. They had informants everywhere, even at Teen Time, an after-school dance where a newly-formed Wells Fargo sometimes provided the music. Hip-looking strangers would drop in and hit on girls who knew Ebba, then ply them for information about his politics.
When the Special Branch started sniffing around, Ebba toned down the lyrics of “Watch Out,” using coded language that fans would recognize, but still gave Wells Fargo plausible deniability. When he knew the coast was clear, Ebba kept “freedom is coming/have gun/will travel” in the chorus, but for the recorded version Ebba worked out the euphemism “Big storm is coming/Thunder and lighting.” Every rocker knew the “storm” was the revolution, and “thunder and lighting” meant gunshots and muzzle flashes. However, when Wells Fargo was interrogated by intelligence agents, the band members had their story straight. The “big storm” was Wells Fargo, and the song was just them bragging about how powerful their music was.
Still, the Special Branch higher-ups knew Wells Fargo were political agitators, and assigned two young agents do an in-depth investigation of the band. They were nominally undercover, supposed to blend into the crowd at Wells Fargo’s gigs so they wouldn’t hold back on anti-government rhetoric. But everyone instantly recognized them for who they were. The agents knew it, and after a few shows, the pretense felt absurd. They asked a few half-hearted questions about the band’s politics, and “Watch Out.”
Never Mpofu was emphatic that the agents loved the song. They were the same age as the fans, and didn’t really want to stop a good party. It was a weirdly convivial atmosphere. Young people on opposite sides of a brutal conflict boozed and joked around. Bands blasted rebel music, and the secret police rocked out to it. By the later 70s, that environment had disappeared, and government agents arrested Josi Ndlovu for playing “Watch Out” with his band Eye of Liberty.
The liberal white Rhodesians who ran Afro Soul, a subsidiary of South Africa’s Teal Records (the same company that established Zambezi as their rock imprint in Zambia), thought they might get the coded version of “Watch Out” past the government censors. They hoped to get radio airplay, but the gambit didn’t work. The Rhodesian authorities were too well-acquainted with “Watch Out,” and they banned it from being broadcast.
Any record company that released the music of Wells Fargo or other politically progressive rock bands risked serious retaliation from the government. The execs knew controversial songs like “Watch Out” were surefire hits, however, and the profit motive made them take the risk. According to Ebba, the single containing “Watch Out” was a big seller by heavy rock standards. Despite the media blackout, Ebba recalled that Afro Soul moved 15,000 copies or better.
Rock musicians viewed vinyl releases as a way to advertise their live shows. Bands had to put out singles for DJs to spin, but knew from the jump that the record company would shaft them. It’s one of the reasons that most rock musicians didn’t hang onto copies of their records. They were an afterthought, even when they first came out, in some ways, the old 45s were mementos of exploitation.
As the '90s wore on and old record players broke down, nobody bothered to replace them. The records were not only offensive but useless, and they ended up in the trash.But that brief moment in which Wells Fargo was offered the chance to release music – always in the 7” single format - allowed the band to record an album’s worth of material, even if Ebba and his friends never could imagine that an actual long-player would ever be released.
By the mid-70s, Wells Fargo was arguably the most prominent band in the heavy rock scene. “Watch Out” had become an anthem on the battle lines and at home. They managed to get more original tracks committed to vinyl than most of their contemporaries, and though it didn’t earn them money, it brought their catalog to radio listeners across Rhodesia. George Phiri and Never Mpofu were musical alchemists, turning obscure B-sides by bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears into fan favorites. The covers cemented Wells Fargo’s reputation as musical innovators, and helped keep them on top of the Rock Band Contests throughout the '70s. But no amount of success could keep the ground from moving underneath their feet.
After Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, the rock scene dissipated. Bands focused on celebrating the country’s traditional music, which had been disparaged by the Eurocentric government of Ian Smith. Bob Marley, whose song “Zimbabwe” had let the freedom fighters know the world was with them, had encouraged local musicians to make reggae their own. Many of Wells Fargo’s later compositions had a Jamaican feel, and their repertoire fused traditional styles with reggae and funk. In the decade following Independence, Wells Fargo continued to enjoy success both at home and in neighboring Zambia and Botswana. They finally parted ways in 1989, and though the core members all continued to have professional careers in music, none returned to rock and roll.
Watch Out! is our album of the month for June, 2016. You can sign up for Vinyl Me, Please here.