When one stops to think about the tumultuous history and continuously changing personnel of Freedom's Children, it's pretty amazing that they were able not only to record three albums during their brief existence, but three very good albums at that. This South African psychedelic rock band's sound was as audacious as their name, which was chosen during the bad old days of apartheid and at the peak of the country's international isolation. Although their three EMI LPs have been previously reissued in legitimate and not-so-legitimate capacities, Shadoks Music presents them in their best-ever sound quality on this limited-edition box set. All of the master tapes were apparently destroyed in a fire many years ago, which made it necessary for this project's producers to seek out near-mint copies of the original albums from collectors as source material. While not sonically perfect, these CDs are likely to be the best sounding reissues ever to be available. With that in mind, I have also made Freedom's Children's three albums available in FLAC format for those of you who are obsessed with audio fidelity.
South African rock historians generally identify Scottish-born bass player and lyricist Ramsay MacKay as the group's founder and main creative force. As was the case with numerous other contemporary groups around the world, he and other future members started out playing American R&B before venturing into more experimental forms of music. (As an aside, it's kind of ironic that black American music was popular at all in what was then one of the most segregated countries on the planet.) After stints in groups such as the Stilettos and the Beathovens, MacKay became acquainted with drummer Colin Pratley and Nic Martens, who would respectively go on to become permanent and occasional members of the future band. MacKay and Pratley eventually ended up in the coastal city of Durban, where they joined forces with guitarist Ken E. Henson and keyboardist Jimmy Thompson (nee Demetrius Thomopoulos), which completed the lineup of Freedom's Children Mk. I. This version of the group achieved a certain amount of notoriety in early 1967 for their freak-outs and psychedelic light shows, both practically unheard of in South Africa in that day and age.
The attention that they had garnered from their live shows led to their signing with a local record label, which insisted on marketing their material under the name "Fleadom's Children" because of the controversial nature of the band's actual name. It was around this time that further personnel changes took place with Thompson's departure and the additions of electric pianist/vocalist Craig Ross and magnificent lead guitarist Julian Laxton. This lineup proceeded to record a handful of early singles that were cover versions of songs that, for the most part, had been hits for other artists of the era. Freedom's Children then headed for the greener pastures of Johannesburg, but by early 1968, guitarist Henson had left the group and was replaced by singer and organist Harry Poulos. Further turnover occurred later in the year with Ross, Laxton, and Poulos leaving the fold. Before the end of the year, MacKay and Pratley were all that remained of the band. The duo traveled to England with the hope of establishing a new version of Freedom's Children, but not before spending time in the recording studio and laying down some backing tracks that producers at EMI would ultimately use to cobble together their first LP, Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde.
FREEDOM'S CHILDREN CIRCA 1968 (L TO R): HARRY POULOS,
COLIN PRATLEY, JULIAN LAXTON, RAMSAY MACKAY, & CRAIG ROSS
COLIN PRATLEY, JULIAN LAXTON, RAMSAY MACKAY, & CRAIG ROSS
Once in London, a reconciliation with Laxton and Poulos took place, and they rejoined Freedom's Children. Despite their reformation, however, the band struggled to find gigs in the UK since South Africa's racial policies led to other countries treating its citizens with disdain, regardless of their political beliefs. Indeed, the group could not even obtain work permits because of their homeland's pariah status at the time, a fine example of liberalism run amok since the members of Freedom's Children were against apartheid. Nevertheless, they did manage to find some work through illegal live performances, but their overall lack of commitments gave them plenty of time for practice, LSD trips, and further developing their sound. Laxton especially took advantage of this opportunity by working on his pet project, a modified echo box for guitar that would heavily contribute to the extremely distinct sound of their next album, Astra. Their first LP, Battle Hymn of the Broken-Hearted Horde, which predominantly featured a cast of session musicians, was released in South Africa around this time, but not long afterward, Pratley had to return home due to visa problems. Freedom's Children soldiered on with replacement drummers and other musicians but eventually left England and returned home in early 1970.
Poulos left the band not long afterward, although they were reunited with Pratley and added the powerful vocals of new singer Brian Davidson. Armed with yet another reconstituted lineup as well as the lyrical and musical material MacKay and Laxton had been working on in the UK, Freedom's Children headed into the studio to record their first proper album, Astra. Augmented by the keyboard work of Gerald Nel and old friend Nic Martens and encouraged to experiment by producer Clive Calder, the musicians proceeded to create a truly remarkable work. MacKay, however, abruptly left the band after Astra's release in 1970 and was replaced on bass by Barry Irwin. This incarnation of Freedom's Children recorded the equally excellent Galactic Vibes, which was recorded and released in 1971. The group then effectively dissolved after Pratley and Davidson resigned and joined back up with MacKay and Ken E. Henson only to create Freedom's Children Mk. VIII. Not surprisingly, this version didn't last long, either, and the band finally called it a day.
Most former members of Freedom's Children remained musically active over the next few decades, and some have even resurrected the group's name for various projects over the years, but a proper reunion never did occur. Be that as it may, they did leave behind a most impressive recorded legacy. Writer Nick Warburton contributes a mostly excellent set of notes to this box set, which have been scanned in their entirety for your perusal. For an online version of these notes plus additional information on and photos of South Africa's greatest rock band, go to this site.
Note: If anyone out there has the Fresh Music versions of these CDs that include bonus tracks (singles, etc.), please get in touch with me ASAP as I'm eager to hear that material.