THE SAFARI SUITS
Original Cape Town new wave band (1978 – 1979)
Guillaume ‘Gap’ Graham Handley Paul Jarvis Steve Moni ‘Dish’ Devey
* When I was a little boy
The story of the Suits
It was the late ’70’s. The era of great Cape Town bands of the 60’s and 70’s had all but fizzled out. Live music was in the doldrums.
It was at this time (July ’78) that Steve Moni contacted Paul Jarvis through a mutual friend, Adré du Plessis, with the aim of starting a band. Paul had just returned from London and had witnessed the great revival of live music or ‘new wave’ there. Steve and Paul were both determined to push the band in this direction. Guillaume ‘Gap’, who was spotted by Steve performing in a pseudo punk production, Zombie, at the Space Theatre, soon joined on vocals. Guillaume had a great rasping voice and had already built up somewhat of a following in Cape Town. The late Jeff Knight joined on drums, and Charl Avenant, a long-standing friend of Paul’s, and who was studying at the time, agreed to fill in on bass until a permanent bassist could be found. The band was set, and went into intense rehearsals, determined to play out as soon as possible.
The Suits, inspired by such artists as The Clash, New York Dolls, and Elvis Costello, already had a few songs of their own. Their lyrics mirrored the idiosyncrasies of South African society at the time. It was from this concept that the name of the band had arisen. They were not embarrassed to use words such as ‘braaivleis’, ’rugby’ etc. in their songs, alongside more hard hitting lyrics in songs such as ‘Whites Only’. The music thus became an interesting mix of rock, reggae and kwela rhythms. Steve Moni said at the time, ‘In the process we hope, by drawing on people's basic emotions, to get them to think a little. We want to show people that a South African group can play without being ashamed of its South Africanism’.
The stage was set and it was time for the first concert. The venue was to be the Mowbray Town Hall, which had long since been used for any live band. The date was set for Friday, 27th October 1978 at 8.00pm. Entrance fee – R2.00. There was an excited buzz around town as word got out about Cape Towns first ‘new wave happening’. The Suits, wearing workman’s overalls stepped out on stage, and what greeted them was beyond their wildest expectations. Gerald Prosalendis, a reporter at the time, described the scene as follows: ‘Five hundred fans pack the Mowbray Town Hall to dance, scream and shout. There were women dressed in black mesh tights, thick, red lipstick, and coiffeurs arranged with plastic drinking straws. One ‘punker’ wore the traditional South African Safari Suit, with deep blue glitter sprinkled in his hair. And as the night wore on, the people grew more and more energetic, dancing, jumping, screaming and shouting to the high-decibelled, electronic rock and roll music. ‘I remember the heat’, said Paul, ‘it was so intense in that hall, that my fingers kept slipping off the fret board because of all the sweat’. ‘Man it looked like the whole front section of the hall was bouncing’, said Guill, describing the scene from the stage, ‘further back people were just standing and staring’.
This was it. The injection that was so badly needed to kick-start the Cape Town live music scene again. The ball had been set rolling, the momentum created…
The Suits rolled on as well, playing their music to an ever increasing audience. In March the following year they took their music on campus. Graham Handley had replaced Charl Avenant on bass. ‘When I first heard them. I was knocked out. I was also impressed with the way the audience responded to them. The Safari Suits, I felt, were not just a slick package deal. You see, young people don't want the intellectual bull people have handed out in the past.’ said Graham. The band was also strengthened by Graham’s song-writing and vocal abilities. They played to a packed Yellow Level at UCT, their new wave style of music becoming increasingly popular amongst students. One reporter at the time described it as follows: ‘Traditionally, UCT had been the stage for urban black jazz and other above-board liberal jorls. Campus music has particularly been second-hand, unchallenging and dreadfully safe. Dictated by record company royalties and DJ requests, the South African music sift and saturation scheme has resulted in The Suits appearing to be a band on the edge of everything else’.
The New Suits
When Guillaume expressed the wish to pursue a purer ‘punk’ line of music it was time for a change. He, and Geoff Knight left and The Suits consolidated into a four-piece with Richard ‘Dish’ Devey taking over on drums. This left the remaining members free to pursue the experimental music direction which they had created, believing the term ‘punk’ best be left to describe council flats and the dole. The parting of ways was amicable, however, with Guill putting together a highly talented band called Housewives Choice. Future gigs were to included bands from other parts of the country i.e. The Radio Rats and Wild Youth who were pursuing similar musical styles. These gigs often included the ‘Housewives’ as well. The Suits were also invited to open at The Good Hope Centre for The Bay City Rollers who were touring the country.
But towards the end of ’79 the band’s energy inevitably started running out and it was decided to call it a day. Steve and Graham moved to Johannesburg where they later teamed up with Jonathan Handley of The Radio Rats and formed a band called The Popguns. Paul and Richard remained in Cape Town and started a band called The News the following year.
Some lesser-known facts:
*’Safari Suit' - words by Steve Moni.
South Africa's Rock Classics