How I Killed Biko

by an angry Jon Savage

This is the story about why I’m never ever ever going to try to write about jazz again. I stayed up past 1am last night trying to “connect” to my emotions by listening to one of my most prized albums over and over again – an album I’ve listened to hundreds of times before – but this time to try to communicate in words what it sounds like.

When I woke up this morning and read it, I had to physically make retching sounds out loud.

It’s now obvious that I was caught up in trying to overthink myself in to apoplexy and describe the emotions within. Coupled with this, there’s an important historical Apartheid-based narrative that accompanies this incredible LP that is so entwined in our confused South African psyche that anything you try write about it, comes out sounding like contrived regurgitated offal. I hate what I’ve written so much that instead of just posting it up and leaving you guys with shit on your faces, I thought I’d take responsibility, go through it with you and share my thoughts on how terrible my article is.

In other words, I’m kindly putting the shit on all our faces so that we can get through it together so we can all understand how jazz made me kill my one of my favourite albums, Song For Biko. Let’s call it a social responsibility project.

Paragraph 1:

Greg was kind enough to tell me to cut paragraph 1 out. Here’s why :


On the eve that Pravin Gordhan exclaims that he will die to save this country from “thieves” while the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, drags the legacy of the Mandela ANC deeper into the dirt, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on one of my favourite albums in my collection.


What is wrong with me? Even though I do really share the sentiment on some level, why do I have to sound so much like a white Jewish boy trying to be politically perceptive when in the real world, I obviously even have trouble pronouncing Kgalema Motlanthe without hesitating. At least Jacob Zuma is easy to pronounce which is the one good thing I have to say about him!

Here comes Paragraph 2 and 3:

It is important to preface how much I really LOVE this album! It’s a masterpiece. Which is why the pressure to express such a thing can go oh-so-wrong oh-so-quickly. Eish.

Paragraph 2 are the fingernails and paragraph 3 is the chalkboard. Put them together and …


“The “Song for Biko” LP by Johnny Dyani Quartet (1979) is by no means an easy album to listen to, so if you are looking for something to put on while you potter around, it will only get in your way. It demands to be heard. And it rewards you if you do. There is not another album that sounds like it, and that is a guarantee.


The album is a complex and contradictory journey, troubled with mixed emotions, but it does what only real music can do; reflect a time in history that we can only remember what it felt like, but cannot be described. For this reason, Dyani’s first release on SteepleChase Records stands the test of time as one of the finest pieces of music ever cut into vinyl grooves. You just need to put it on to experience a true emotional time transporter. “


Firstly, I used the word, “potter.” Inexcusable.

Reading the paragraph about the complex journey hurts me deeply. At its core, it’s obvious that I am trying hard to express something quite genuine – and if you’ve actually heard this album then you’ll know that it sounds like nothing else – but I’m no jazz aficionado by any means so why the hell am I trying to write like one? I also really enjoy eating good food, but that doesn’t make me a chef? So why am I trying to write like the jazz critic of the New York Times ?

Do you see now what jazz can do to you? It can turn you into a bombastic snob in the stroke of a semi-quaver … shit! There I go again!!!

This blog was started because Greg and I are just passionate about vinyl and our music collections and somehow, Jazz, in just a few hours, turned me in to the self-loathing hack that wrote this piece. Fuck you, Jazz!

Paragraph 4 and 5 might be considered readable, if you can stay awake for them.


It’s the early 1960’s and Dyani was part of the legendary controversial Blue Notes with iconic pianist, Chris McGregor. Due to McGregor being white, this made them a mixed race band which was obviously illegal at the time, and so they were prone to constant untennable harassment by police. In the mid-1960’s the band fled the country, following in the footsteps of Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim.


They arrived in Europe and took the continent by storm, infecting the progression of jazz worldwide with genuine South African sounds and emotions. They told the story of the struggle to the world with their music, and because there was no lyrical content, they became true interpreters of the emotion of South Africa at that time.


Ok, so a bit of clever jazz history there for you, obviously most of which I was not aware of before writing this article. And just to show you how knowledgeable I am about jazz, I didn’t use Wikipedia at all! I just read the liner notes on the back of the album, so there’s almost no chance of being bust because it’s not online anywhere! Ponce-alert!

In paragraph 6 and 7, I’m back to trying to capture the emotion of the sound (the quagmire) but this time also trying to encapsulate the tone of South Africa after Biko’s death (this ought to go well) and it’s here that I think that the last-night version of myself really shines as – as the T-shirt goes – “Trying too hard and sounding like a dick.” . Look out for words like “sublime”, “joyous” and “epicentre.” All words that the dictionary classifies as “vom-vom words.”


In the wake of the deep grief, shock and anger following the death of Steve Biko in police custody, Dyani captured the mood with this sublime album.


The opening track, “Wish You Sunshine” immediately drags you back to a time in the 1980’s. Despite the darkness of the political landscape, there was a vibrant youth culture and music was at its epicentre – and this is what this album manages to capture so refreshingly – to be clear: the mood of the album is not struggle or sorrow, it’s purely and genuinely joyous, but with a darker mixed undertone.


Nothing makes me sadder than this next paragraph. In reality, the music on this album hits me like heartbreak but like all good music, there is no real way to describe it. So should one try? No. Here’s why:


Song For Biko is one of the most amazing pieces of music I have on record. It’s blue but it’s not blue, it’s heartache but it’s strong, it’s anger but it’s positive. And how do you describe a societal trauma that so deeply affects the fabric of your country in any other way? It can’t be done.



Finally, if you thought it couldn’t get any worse, prepare yourselves for the ending. Sigh.


As Pravin Gordhon takes a step forward in to the jaws of what can only be described as oppression, this LP has extra significance and listening to it again now, I can doubly appreciate how good it is, because it manages to capture some of the feelings I have today.


All I can say is that I’m not the same person that I was last night, thank goodness. Can we all just agree that we’ve learned from our mistakes and that this blog can resume to normality from next week?

Last night, Jazz made me destroy one of my favourite albums of all time for both you and me! It’s too dangerous to risk this again!

Here’s my review for all upcoming jazz LP’s – If you want to know what a record sounds like, go and FUCKING LISTEN TO IT YOURSELF!


We’ve  started an INSTAGRAM account : needlesfromthehaystack – follow for weekly pics of lovely rekkids!



4 thoughts on “How I Killed Biko

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