Review: Jiving and Dying- The Radio Rats Story

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A review by Etienne Shardlow:

Radio Rats (1977) Left to right: Dave Davies, Herbie Parkin and Jonathan Handley
Radio Rats (1977)
Left to right: Dave Davies, Herbie Parkin and Jonathan Handley

I’m a music lover first and foremost, well known thanks to my radio show as a jazz fan, but those who know me, know that I’ll listen to good music in most genres. Great music is great music, I won’t box myself into listening to one genre. My mood as it swings, and boy does it swing, determines what I listen to at any moment. I was lucky to be raised by a father with what I consider good taste in rock, jazz and classical music. I’m not so sure about how lucky I am to have been raised in Springs. A lot of great people have come from Springs, coming from there appears to be good for people. I am not convinced however that going to Springs has the same effect.

The people I know who live in Springs seem almost trapped, in a blissful ignorance perhaps, a fear perhaps of the world at large, comfortable in their little town on the outer edge of a bubble of civilisation centred in Johannesburg. I suspect that in the 70’s and 80’s Springs was still isolated enough that the population not wanting to travel to Johannesburg for entertainment took care of itself. I remember the Springs Civic Theatre holding its own well into the 90’s. Springs had a drive-in and a cinema complex years ago too, these days it takes a trip to a neighbouring town to watch a film on the big screen. In the days when Springs took care of itself, there appears to have been a thriving music scene too, and it was this scene that allowed the formation of bands like the Radio Rats.

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Jiving and Dying, a new film by Michael Cross tells one of a number of Springs’ success stories, the almost 40-year journey of the Radio Rats, famous for their chart topping hit ZX Dan which was held from a number one spot on the charts by Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”. Theoretically, the Radio Rats are a one hit wonder, but as Jonathan Handley says a number of times in this film, commercial success or money were never drivers for himself or the band.

This documentary shot entirely in black and white, even new footage portrayed in black and white with a static filter that worried me a little at first, takes us on a journey starting with Jonathan Handley and the band Slither. Cross takes us through the numerous changes to the make-up of the band which at one time consisted mostly medical students, even included John Ireland (one of many interesting facts I learned from this documentary), through the formation of and story of the Radio Rats. The story is told by members Jonathan Handley (lead guitar and background vocals), Dave Davies (lead vocalist and Herbie Parkin (bass) alongside other musicians, including some who made up the rats over the years.

Jiving and Dying: The Radio Rats Story, a new film presented by Rogue Productions in association with Radium Wreckords.
Jiving and Dying: The Radio Rats Story, a new film presented by Rogue Productions in association with Radium Wreckords.

Born in 1975 I was aware of the Radio Rats growing up, they were famously from my home town, and I, like everyone had heard ZX Dan which by the time I was musically aware was still getting occasional airplay on the radio. Jiving and Dying makes me wish, as does lots of music really, that I had been born 10, even 20 years earlier, that I had been old enough to appreciate the band at the height of its success.

Watching this film gave me an appreciation for the Radio Rats that I never had, I blame my age for my ignorance. I learnt so much about the influence that Jonathan Handley had on James Phillips, another legend of the South African music scene who helped pave the way for the Voëlvry movement and musicians who stood up for the rights of others. The band itself was affected by the conscription campaign which saw Leonard Dickson, one of its many drummers flee to Lesotho to escape military service. Art has always been interwoven with politics, art is a voice, rock and pop music are no exception.

Apart from my parents still living in Springs, in spite of my efforts to encourage them to move, I have no ties with the town anymore. Watching this film filled me with a nostalgia I’d have bet money on not experiencing. Driving to see my parents a few weeks ago, I past the Tip-Top Dry Cleaners in Selcourt, and it occurred to me then for the first time, that I’d never seen one outside of Springs. It turns out that this business was one of the first to adorn its walls with Radio Rats’ posters. I’d also never have guessed that Cyanide Lake was about Murray Park, a well frequented picnic and camping spot to the north of the town.

The Radio Rats have a new fan, I won’t be singing Springs’ praises any time soon, but I can say now that I’m a little prouder to say that I’m from there. I am even considering venturing back there one Friday evening to catch Dave Davies live at The Coffin Shoppe.
Look out for a screening of Jiving and Dying near you, I highly recommend this to anyone from Jo’burg’s East Rand, lovers of music and anyone who has at any time been curious about the band behind ZX Dan. I’m off to find a padded room, to help me get the song ‘Padded Rooms’ off repeat in my head.

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