The story of Wells Fargo is a refreshing taste of music’s transcendental qualities: Rhodesian boys, influenced by the streaks of Elvis and Hendrix and Marley, band together thousands of miles apart from their idols to soundtrack the revolutionary efforts of their lifetime. It’s classic in a sense that’s almost film-like, with their music being powerful enough to get the Rhodesian government to censor it and the secret police to forget their mission and vibe out. Watch Out!is a classic case of upbeat, unflinching heavy rock that serves as a tool to motivate its listeners to struggle.
There’s plenty of struggle tucked underneath the rhythms, but they rest more in the implicit considering how damn good the vibes are. This album bleeds funk, rock ‘n’ roll, and a bit of reggae to do what politically-charged records do best: provide a snapshot of the time and give power to whomever craves it dearly. Every record carries a near-irresistible anthemic quality, the kind of poppiness that easily shoulders the weight of the world around it. It feels almost effortless, the way Wells Fargo glides song-to-song in the heavy rock quality that’s designed to be in arenas one moment and on the battlefield next.
Watch Out!served as a jarring experience for me, given how the story is as thrilling as the songs it inspired. It’s the type of shit that gets Paul Giamatti or Giovanni Ribisi cast as the type of Ian Smith that’d make life a living hell for the boys who won’t take segregation at face and use their music to rebel. I’m surprised some vinyl-obsessed Hollywood scoundrel hasn’t taken a crack at casting a light-skinned Black actor as Ebba - look at how they’re doingNina- or inserting the random white provocateur who “discovers” Wells Fargo and takes them to the big time while giving the boys Cadillacs instead of record royalties. We’ve seen those stories before, but unfortunately they repeat themselves: white Rhodesians running a label called Afro Soul pressed the initial “Watch Out” single, moved over 15,000 units, and the band didn’t see a damn thing from it.
But they saw change. They had a war anthem on their hands. They moved past the cover circuit and got enough fans to cheer them on at those racist-ass talent competitions where white bands won no matter what. Nyamanhindi’s Resort was bigger than fucking Woodstockand Rhodesian color lines dissipated if only for a weekend. Come to think of it, I doubt Hollywood would go out of their way to suggest melanated people can utilize a white-coded (African-rooted) art form to become the bearers of their own revolution. Look at how they stilldo hip-hop on screen…
Returning to the coded idea, the Watch Out! Collection is a textbook example of how appropriation of culture can maneuver across boundaries, whole continents, in a graceful manner that pays respect to the origins of the context while constructively building upon it in the new one. Wells Fargo is a collective that maneuvered through time, utilizing contemporary waves abroad as vehicles for their own dialogue. Before the band was the band, they ran the gamut of Elvis covers to please their audiences. When rock ‘n’ roll was the American wave for anti-establishment power, Wells Fargo seamlessly transitioned to heavy rock in the middle of a war. When rock ‘n’ roll became more cliche, they incorporated more reggae into their sounds at the call of Bob Marley, who dedicated his “Zimbabwe” record to the struggle Wells Fargo was all too familiar with.
If rap stars are the new rockstars, Wells Fargo is some true hip-hop shit. Never was fixing pinball machines at one point. Ebba accidentally became a fire drummer. Some of the members left for their homelands because a war was coming, then came back ready to write the songs of their generation. “Big storm coming! There’s thunder and lightning!” The setup was purely ragtag, but the end results were fantastic. “Too Long Away” sounds like I’m picking up a gun to defend what I believe in even if I don’t know how I’ll do that, and “Carrying On” sounds like I came back to the crib with a little blood on my shirt and my mother’s tears on my sleeve. “Love is the In Thing” has a defiant groove with gems you’ll definitely miss:
“You can burn me, shave me, any way you want! / You can break me, [unintelligible] me, still I’ll make it out! / I still love you!”
Once the police realized how much clout Wells Fargo had with the youth, they’d show up en masse and beat them bloody at concerts. Regardless of where one stands on violence and the context of that violence, the aforementioned bar displays a serious maturity that doesn’t have to compromise one’s empathy for defense of oneself. But the empathy never displaces the reality of what Rhodesia is like for a Black body, and this reality sneaks itself between the lines yet again:
“Money, I ain’t got none / Honey, it’s dragging me down / This place is so unkind, so I’ll take the first train out!”
If I was handed this album without a single liner note to draw from, I’d never imagine South African boys with naps and t-shirts like mine. These sound like Hendrix records because that’s just how far this music shit carries, and this was before a YouTube. Perhaps this defines the essence of why records like these, bands like these, deserve the unearthing in an era where the impact and influence of powerful media only grows more instantaneous by the second. I’m wondering who Wells Fargo will be in another World War, during a potential Trump presidency, in an America growing sick and tired of itself. Thankfully, today’s Wells Fargo need not sign for 3% of their worth, or run everything past the government; they may face the pushback (ask YG) but the incentive will be higher than ever as well.
The heavy rock of our Woodstock never made it to my eardrum, but I’m insanely thankful I can turn to the decades before me and see what I’m trying to be.