4th January 2020
Having grown up in the hippy influenced kaftan and bead-clad years of the 60s, the first thing that attracted me to the New Romantics were the fashions. The theatricality of the movement struck a chord in me and heralded yet another colourful clothing era. Then there was the emerging synth-pop sound that was so refreshing at a time when most of the offerings from the old-guard were starting to become ‘more of the same’.
Today I am taking a look at a South African band that I think could have gone on to great things. Although Petit Cheval only released one album and an EP before disbanding, they produced some really fine music and achieved a few memorable hits. In a time when music (especially local music) seemed to be stuck in a shlock-pop loop, they were among the first of the new-order of musicians to rock South Africa’s somewhat bland musical diet.
When Pretoria born singer/songwriter Jon Selby formed Petit Cheval in 1982 it only took two years for them to land a deal with Warner Bros Records, and achieve success with their 1985 album, The Voice of Reason. Before we take a peek behind the rapid rise and disappearance of this short-lived band let’s listen to what was probably their biggest hit, and one that South African’s of a certain age will remember well, ‘Once in a Lifetime’.
It isn’t the best audio quality, but I chose this live recording to set the atmosphere of the time. Some of you may even recognise the Johannesburg hotel they are performing in.
Jon Selby spent his compulsory national service in the army band and, as he recalls, knew by the end of his 24 month stint that he wanted to be a part of a band. At the time drum machines were in their infancy, but he got hold of a basic kit and began to play around.
According to Selby the members of the band seemed to gravitate toward each other and soon the fledgling band was becoming the talk of the town. The first big break was at the leading Johannesburg night club of the time, Plumb Crazy, where SA legends Ballyhoo were in residence. Selby recounts “Plum Crazy was one of those occasions that I will always remember; as it was the biggest stage and audience we had played to in our short career. On the night we had the best sound yet and everything was good, so we cooked! People just stood there, mouths agape – it was surreal.”
Kim Saville, one of the promo team WEA convinced A&R head Benjy Mudie to sign the new band and the resulting debut single ‘Magical Touch’ became a radio hit. From that moment the gigs came pouring in. A change in line-up (and their distinctive style) saw the inclusion of Craig Else (who went on to play with Bay City Rollers), Sheldon Thomas and ex-eVoid drummer Danny de Wet (who went on to form The Electric Petals that eventually became Wonderboom). John Shaughnessy was brought in as live sound engineer and co-producer and Sue Carroll (ex-Elemental manager) was put in place to manage the huge and oft-clashing egos that were fast developing amongst the members.
Before we look at the last stages of Petit Cheval, I think some more music is in order. Here’s a favourite of band member Johan Griesel, who recalls “My favourite track is without question, ‘It Wasn’t You (It Was the Wind)’. The mix of ambient piano and near throbbing bass drumming was completely intoxicating; no matter how many times we played it”.
As with many bands that achieve fame quickly, the pressures of a hectic touring schedule, promotional appearances, and the infringement on one’s personal life, the cracks didn’t take too long to appear.
Saville recalls; “So many bands from that time, that were great, suffered from internal issues that few survived, and Cheval sadly fell victim to that.” Bass player Johan Griesel was the first to leave after the first album. “We were this big and popular band,“ Griesel claimed, “and yet we made little money, certainly not enough to live off of, which I found hugely frustrating.”
Petit Cheval returned to the studio augmented with some musical friends in 1986 and recorded the 6-track EP, The Perfect Gift, which was released to critical acclaim and fan approval. The recording saw a darker side of the band with less of the pop gloss that dominated the first album. The release failed to ease the tensions within the band and after a final performance at the famed Concert in the Park in support of Operation Hunger, the band split and went their separate ways.
All the members of Petit Cheval have gone on to successful careers. Jon Selby now runs his well established design and branding company, Johan Griesel is a highly respected international live concert engineer, Danny de Wet is still rocking Wonderboom, Craig Else is in LA and works with Tribe After Tribe’s Robbie Robb and Sheldon Thomas teaches Jazz Piano at UCT. They may have left the frills, sequins and make-up in the past, but while compiling this feature I found their contribution to local music as fresh as ever.
To finish today’s Petit Cheval mix I’ve chosen the moody ‘What Took You So Long’. Thanks for joining me for a trip into South African musical history. Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021