Ever since the early days of the Rolling Stones “image” has been the prime ingredient for a rock band, increasingly eclipsing the music. When the Stones on a cold dark night in 1965 were refused to use the toilet of a petrol station in Stratford outside London they urinated against a wall in front of the garage, and uttered the famous words, “We’ll piss anywhere, man.” Subsequently there was a court case and manager Andrew Oldham made great capital out of that single line. The subtext he sent out to worried, puritanical parents was: while the Beatles pissed where they were told to piss, the Stones would piss anywhere. It was the definitive affirmation of their rebel image. Or as Jagger biographer Mark Spitz writes: “And still ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, alpha-song that it is, work of art that it is, is still just a song. ‘We piss anywhere,’ is an ideology.”
Five Bellville rockers took the old adage that rock rebellion is irreversibly linked with a catchy name and obstinate behaviour to heart. Like the Stones they looked as if they urgently needed a wash. Like the Stones they operated as a scruffy gang that exhumed a “we against the world” aura (unlike the Stones they didn’t have any deaths nor band changes). But all this would have meant nothing if they were called Cold Fingers or Sleepy Hollow. Instead they chose a name that radiated anti-authoritarianism in a readymade rebel-without-a-cause way: Fokofpolisiekar. See how that sounds when they play your song on 5FM, dude. And then came the crowning rebel moment: writing “Fok God” on the wallet of a young fan in Witbank, which became their version of “We’ll piss anywhere, man”.
The ramifications of the “Fok God” incident almost became too big for the band to handle, and if it didn’t really break them, it certainly helped them to grow up and contemplate. It was, in fact, a lot braver and more daring than telling a petrol attendant that you’ll “piss anywhere (you) want, man”. It was also a lot more controversial than the name. After all, the police in 2003 weren’t half as nasty and dangerous as they had been fifteen years earlier. No, “Fokofpolisiekar” is more something some lanky teenagers would say if they were caught smoking dagga in a silent park.
But “Fok God” has real danger. In the first place this was said in a town, in a country, where the majority of the population is still very Christian in its beliefs. And although the NG Kerk has suffered severe setbacks in its membership since 1994, the rise of the charismatic churches, especially among Afrikaners, is staggering. And their followers don’t take blasphemy very well either. So “Fok God” was comparable to the Sex Pistols sneering at that ultimate symbol of Englishness on their second single God Save the Queen (“she ain’t no human being”) from 1977, which got them banned from the radio, banned from theatres and beaten up by gangs of patriotic thugs. Something similar befell the five members of Fokofpolisiekar, who were banned from venues, received bomb threats and eventually were forced to make a half-hearted apology.
But, we learn from Annie Klopper’s excellent biography Biografie van ’n bende: die storie van Fokofpolisiekar, there was more to those two words of wallet graffiti. Four out of the five band members had previously belonged to a sect-like charismatic church, Focal Point, and one of them was also the son of a NGK dominee. They had joined the church when they were teenagers and left it, one by one, after a few years. From a non-drugging, non-drinking existence in a charismatic church (where rock-musicianship, albeit the Christian version, by the way was encouraged by its tattooed founder Steve Pienaar) they went on to become a bende that (over)indulged in every bit of decadent, hedonistic behaviour, from the swearing implicit in the name to calling their communal house on 49 Gillianstraat in Eversdal “Barracks of Rebellion”, which Klopper describes as a anarchic, chaotic place where the meaning of sex, alcohol, drugs and rock ’n roll was thoroughly explored.
So writing “Fok God’ on a wallet, even though it was done early in the morning, in a drunken state, must have been a cathartic moment, the ultimate break with guilt, a musician’s version of Malevich’s Black Cross painting from 1923, negating the past, while keeping the shape.
Image, we gather from the book, was hugely important to Fokofpolisiekar. Not only did the band excel in getting their name known before even a single note was played, but every move, every CD cover, every poster, sticker and T-shirt, every video, piece of clothing, even the hairstyles, were mediated. The band used highly talented designers such as Matt Edwards, who became a “sixth member” of die bende, and who combined typical South African images with those from horror, science fiction and comic books to create something quite original. Even the biography, with its photos, manipulated images, filthy fingerprints, lyrics and “censorship” (lines that have been crossed out with a black felt pen, reminding us of those not too distant dark days when this kind of censorship was still very common) perfectly suits a band that is in full control of its projected image. We’ll piss where we want, man.
Here it’s important to note that Fokofpolisiekar never aspired to be just another footnote in Afrikaner / South African subculture. Like the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols they wanted to upset and attack the mainstream, using words, looks and images in ways that went beyond your average alternative band. Fokofpolisiekar wanted to be big, they wanted to do what the Stones had done with Satisfaction and Sex Pistols with God Save the Queen: top the charts. Initially it was just directionless teenage rebellion, but with songs like “Hemel of die platteland” it soon became a critique of Afrikaner nostalgia and amnesia, harking back to the days of apartheid and Afrikaner history.
Curiously, Klopper doesn’t tackle this legacy or its influence on the five boys, who grew up during the final breaths of apartheid. Was this a deliberate decision on her part? A way to show that she thinks Fokofpolisiekar was meant as a complete break with the past? Surely that’s not true, because it wasn’t, as some of the lyrics, videos and behaviour testify.
There are more interesting aspects to Klopper’s book. Stylistically it’s far removed from the usual, hacked-out sycophantic approach that rock biographers often choose, full of meaningless quotes. Klopper’s book is anything but a hagiography. She uses the third person attached: we are permanently with the various members, looking over their shoulder, experiencing the ups and downs of the life of a rock ’n roll band from nearby. The advantage of this approach is that it provides a lot of detail (who, for example, knew that Hunter Kennedy used to go out with the murdered Inge Lotz?); the disadvantage is that it results in a certain flatness in the writing, where everything at some point becomes slightly samey and seems to be following the inevitable narrative of the rebellious rock myth: we fought the law and the law won, but hey, didn’t we have a great time! And by default, the extrovert member will get more space than the introvert one. Hence we learn too little about Johnny de Ridder, who actually been a member of that religious sect and who was responsible for most of the melodies.
It’s also an approach that leaves little room for criticism. One could, for example, pose the question: Was the music, without the images, without the controversy, without the gestures, without the words, actually all that good? I saw the band for the first time in 2004 in Johannesburg and must admit I was blown away. They had that explosive power of The Who, The Jam and The Damned, with a charismatic singer, a manic drummer and a high-jumping bassist who didn’t miss a note. And I duly listened to the CDs, which somehow never seemed to match that live performance and had that typical digital-age quality where everything is compressed to one murky block of sound. Sure enough, there were some excellent tunes, and a dozen anthems that the faithful sing along with at every gig. But essentially, the sound of Fokofpolisiekar is run-of-the-mill rock music, maximum four minutes, nothing fancy, nothing earth-shattering, nothing avant-garde, nothing subversive – a great way for young Afrikaner kids to let off steam and finally have their own version of Nirvana, Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Metallica, you name it. One can only imagine what a relief it must have been to have a home-grown alternative to Steve Hofmeyr and Kurt Darren, the feeling of liberation to scream along to a song that has “Fokof, Fokofpolisiekar, fok jou” as its chorus. Here were five guys who were just like them, five guys who showed them that they were now proudly part of a global community, where loud American and British bands were the main inspiration and no longer those weird folk hippies from the Voëlvry generation.
It makes for a great story. And despite the few shortcomings, Klopper has done an excellent job: showing us that long, strange and exciting journey that these five young men from Bellville have made to live out the rock ’n roll dream, the Afrikaner way, with all its temptations and pitfalls.
- Stel ’n vraag aan Annie Klopper in verband met dié boek en staan ’n kans om ’n kopie van Biografie van 'n bende geskenk deur Protea Boekhuis te wen. Stuur jou e-pos aan [email protected]