A Long Road to Success
I was born into a musical family in Weston-super-Mare, England and from a very early age was exposed to a broad variety of music from big band to pop. We moved to the industrial sprawl of the Vaal Triangle in South Africa when I was five years old where I continued to be obsessed with music. This led to a couple of (not pleasant) piano lessons and learning to play the drums.
In my early teens I switched to guitar and formed a succession of bands with dodgy names like Pterodactyl, Airlift, Mindwarp and Neo Classic where we attempted an amazing array of musical genre, from prog rock to ska to electronic pop. It was also a time when I began writing original songs with varying degrees of success.
While honing my song-writing skills, I formed the first iteration of The Helicopters which from a fledgling, garage-bashing, neighbour-annoying start would one day morph into one of South Africa’s foremost pop-rock bands.
One of the early highlights was winning a recording deal for a one-off single in a local Battle of the Bands competition. The song “Flying High” sung by vocalist at the time, Carol Welsh was recorded at Klingel studios in Johannesburg and received a grand total of one play on radio!
But these were amazingly creative times and despite an ever-changing line-up due to the usual band dynamics, The Helicopters – now with yours truly on vocals – burst onto the South African music scene with the infectious hit song Mysteries & Jealousy and we were subsequently signed to WEA Records – years of solid gigging, frustration and member changes finally having paid off. Mysteries & Jealousy became a major hit and topped the charts driven by massive radio time and numerous TV appearances.
However, that was to change again within a couple of months when we released our second single “Miles Apart” which bombed spectacularly. How the hell did that happen? One minute we’re omnipresent and the darlings of the music industry and the next minute we’re being derided as a ‘flash in the pan’ – a fluke from South Africa’s industrial heartland that statistically shouldn’t have happened…..if we’d come from Jo’burg, Durban or Cape Town, then fine – but Vereeniging, NEVER.
We tried a bunch of other singles from our debut album “Love Attack” and despite reasonable radio play from some supportive stations (particularly independents Capital 604 and Radio 702 where we had a medium hit with the single “Only For You”), a few budget videos and an ever-supportive fan base, nothing matched the debut success of Mysteries & Jealousy and people came and went; the only original members being yours truly and John Mason the keyboard player.
Contracting in various bass players and drummers we continued to gig around the country mainly on the back of our earlier success, drifted back into playing more and more covers versions to secure work and got very little support from a disappointed record company.…….oh, and experimented with band images to try and create a new identity, many of which bordered on the bizarre and others downright ridiculous! Pink fun fur!!!!!!!!!?
During this trying period, I wrote a song called “I Want to Live in Hollywood” which featured a crowd sing-along chorus and a cool slapping bass riff.
The record company reluctantly agreed to release it but together with a live re-mixed version which received huge airplay on the largest station in the country Radio 5, we had another chart hit on our hands. So things were looking up again. Or so we thought.
Dropped by our record company, without a bassist (again) and me having moved to Johannesburg, things looked pretty bleak. That was until we went into the studio to record some new material which we had to fund ourselves this time around.We chose a song I’d written a couple of years before called “Whisper Your Secret” as the first single and recorded it using the latest Fairlight synthesizer technology. The song struck a chord with record label Tusk/Gallo who not only signed us to the Epic label on the strength of the single but financed the entire album as well.
“Whisper Your Secret” went straight to the top of the charts and actually eclipsed “Mysteries & Jealousy” in terms of sales and popularity. With new band members, image, a succession of singles, tons of TV appearances and the release of our second album, “In The Flesh”, The Helicopters stormed ahead and soon became a household name touring extensively filling huge arenas across the southern continent.
We now had a massive following and continued to have huge success but despite the extensive airplay, sold-out nationwide concert tours, the release of our final album “What Affair” which spawned another charting single, “Love Breaks Down”, The Helicopters – as with the majority of SA bands at the time – were restricted to playing in the southern African region due to the country’s dire political situation and subsequent pariah status among the international community.
So we finally called it a day after many exciting years with band members drifting off and pursuing new careers: Paul runs a staging and video production company, Nick’s one of South Africa’s leading music lawyers and a director of various companies, John plays in a number of bands in Vereeniging and makes a living as a mural artist, Alistair’s apparently still gigging in the UK and South Africa and I continue to write and produce music.
The Helicopters still continue to receive good airplay today and have appeared on numerous SA compilation albums: the most recent being Fresh
Music’s The Helicopter’s Greatest Hits album which features 14 tracks of studio and live recordings, SA Hits volumes and the highly successful Rocking Against the System.