SHORT HISTORY OF A NEW CLIMATE ANTHEM, PART TWO
From conception to the final piece – The making of ‘20Twenties: Eve of Destruction’
Emotion. A great performance is first and foremost about the emotion that a singer can bring to it. This is the story of how Eve of Destruction found its 20Twenties soul.
Late one night in September 2021, I received an email from Branko Brkic, our intrepid editor-in-chief. It contained the lyrics to the song Eve of Destruction and a link to a YouTube video.
The video was a quick-cut montage of old black-and-white footage from the Vietnam War set against the original recording of Eve of Destruction. It looked like a music video from the ’60s, before music videos were a thing.
Branko wanted us to record a modern, updated version of the song that was focused on the climate crisis.
When I looked closer I realised the lyrics had been rewritten, turning the protest song about the war into an anthem about the climate crisis. It was an idea that Tiara Walters, Daily Maverick’s climate journalist, had come up with in July 2019 – Branko and Tiara turned the ’60s protest song into a thoroughly modern warning to our civilisation. The adaptation required deft hands but I was surprised, and depressed, by how much of the original song was left unchanged and was still relevant today.
Branko needed a demo video to show around and gauge people’s interest while he was working from New York City. His original intention was to approach established artists about a collaboration. Names like Annie Lennox and Bruce Springsteen were mentioned.
As exciting as those prospects were, I already knew I had the right person for the job.
I’d been a professional musician for the better part of my twenties. Anneli Kamfer and I had performed together for seven years as part of Manouche, a 1930s style jazz band with a modern twist. We built up a pretty decent fan base, recorded a few albums and managed to make a living doing it.
Anneli has a voice that will knock your socks off and I knew it from the first time I heard her. A friend of the band early on told me about this amazing singer from Swellendam I just had to hear. We met for a quick chat and jam session and she floored me with an epic rendition of It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing. My god, did she have the swing. On the spot, I insisted that she join us at our next gig to perform the song with us. She killed it. The crowd loved her and the rest of the band eventually forgave me for not consulting them first.
(And have you ever heard a better rendition of our anthem? – Ed)
A professional band becomes very much like a family. During this time we grew thick as thieves and she became like a brother to me.
I always knew she could be a star and so, many years later, when that email landed in my inbox, I saw an opportunity for Branko to see his vision realised and for Anneli to potentially land a great gig. I suggested we record a demo version of the track ourselves to see if it would work. He was thrilled about the idea, so off we went.
I didn’t have a lot of time to whip this up, so I attempted to recreate the instrumental backing verbatim for the purposes of the demo.
The instrumentation was simple: acoustic guitar, bass, drums and harmonica. As was the music: simple chords and rhythms. However, it soon became clear to me that it is enormously difficult to replicate the rich tapestry of detail that coalesces into an iconic song. There is an alchemy that could only have happened on that day, in that place, with those musicians.
It’s not just about replicating the notes, it’s about finding the soul of the song.
My initial tests strayed too far from the sound of the original and it wasn’t working. We realised pretty quickly that the sound of the original was essential to get right or we would not be able to tap into the deep nostalgia people have for the song. We were trying to subvert the expectations of listeners when they heard those first few iconic bars but then get a voice that is new and different. Out of desperation, I used an AI tool I found online to remove the vocals from the original Barry McGuire track. It’s a piece of technology that, I assume, is primarily used on the bootleg karaoke scene. Regardless, the results were surprisingly good and so after some clean-up and fixes, I had a decent-sounding instrumental track.
Anneli came to my flat to record our version of the song, and even though many years had passed, it felt very familiar. This was not our first rodeo.
I knew we needed to find the emotional core of the song if it was going to work. The original McGuire version has a fiery anger and intensity and it’s not an easy thing for a singer to tap into. Anneli had to draw from her own experiences to find the emotional place needed to embody the song.
She poured her heart into it. It took us two separate sessions to arrive at a version that captured the essence of the original and during that time, Anneli dug deep. Very deep.
There was an emotional intensity that was palpable and Branko knew it as soon as he heard it.
We were on to something.
The video reference Branko sent was a classic montage. It sounded simple enough on paper and I think we both underestimated how long it would end up taking.
My first attempts were way too timid. Branko wanted images that were shocking. He wanted the viewer to look at the existential horror of our global situation but not be able to look away. A catharsis of sorts that would cut straight to the heart.
It took me some time to understand the scope of what Branko was aiming for, but we got there eventually.
I started scouring the internet for any appropriate footage I could find. It had to be real, and it had to be dramatic. Each clip that ended up in the video also had to very quickly and efficiently communicate all it had to say. A viewer only has a few seconds to absorb everything before being whipped to the next shot.
Each clip had to cut deep, and do so quickly. A great deal of time was spent finding the most powerful moments, in the most powerful shots, and stringing them together in a way that made sense visually and thematically.
The final 60-odd videos we used were only a fraction of the total footage I ended up combing through. In the end, I spent a whole month hunkered down, collecting watermarked versions of every clip I could find (that we would be able to legally obtain) and cutting them into a version that would become the final video.
From an early edit, Branko realised we needed to see Anneli in the video, not just hear her voice.
This was a tricky request. I wanted to avoid the cliches. I also really didn’t want to cut to a shot of Anneli in a studio or something entirely disconnected. That would dissipate all the tension that the edit had been building up and remove the viewer from the experience. My idea was to try a True Detective-style composite of Anneli. Layers, carefully designed and superimposed against a striking piece of footage, in keeping with the idea of communicating as much as possible in a single moving image.
I organised a shoot, again in my flat, and again, Anneli had to dig deep. The video had to match the emotional level of her original vocal performance and it had to be sincere.
She was able to reach into the deep place and give a performance filled with real emotion. Eventually I managed to capture real moments.
It ceased being a performance and became a moment of pure presence and emotion.
After the shoot I picked the strongest moments and started to re-edit the video around these. I was initially going to design slick-looking, intricate composites for the sections that included Anneli. After a few tests I quickly realised that something about a very simple blend felt very raw and honest. It allowed the two most important things to come to the forefront and shine; the footage underneath, and Anneli’s performance.
This all culminated in a version of the video that kicked like a mule.
We weren’t the only ones who thought so either. Branko was playing the video to everyone he could pin down (he has a truly impressive contact list) and the feedback was nuts. People were crying their eyes out. Especially if they had a connection with and memory of the original song.
Branko and I would continue to refine the final video right up until we published, but that version of the song and video captured the essence of the project and propelled us to the following stages.
The Pirate Captain
The demo song we recorded sounded good. So good that we originally wanted to release that version. I had to distort Anneli’s voice a bit so it sounded like it was recorded in the Sixties, but the song still had a powerful kick.
Then, in February 2022, we hit a snag.
We still had to pay a steep figure for the backtrack we created using the original recording. We would need to recreate the track ourselves.
I knew that recreating an iconic recording was not going to be an easy task. My early experiments had proved that and we were going to have to match the instrumental backing beat for beat.
I suggested we look to music studios used by the ad industry. I’d seen something like this done before and the results were spectacular. These highly skilled specialists would have the know-how, tools and connections to studio musicians we would need to pull this off.
Branko chatted to Mike Abel from M&C SAATCHI ABEL who said his go-to guy for music is Theo Crous of Springbok Nude Girls fame. Although Branko didn’t initially know who Theo was, I had grown up with their music. Blue Eyes, written by Theo and Arno Carstens, is still on my desert island list of all-time great songs. I was thrilled about potentially getting to work with my legend.
We set up a meeting and rolled up to Theo’s place in Bellville. We were led into a converted section of his house and into his studio. The rock and roll energy was caked on thickly. It was perfect. Theo sank into the couch on what seemed very much like his regular spot and lit a cigarette. He still had his long blonde rock and roll hair and was sporting a pair of Elvis frames for his prescription glasses, through which he looked at us expectantly.
He had no idea who we were, or why we were there.
Branko launched in, telling him about our project and how it was going to be a huge hit.
Theo, having come into this meeting completely cold, and at a time of the morning that seemed despicable to him, had clearly heard this many times before and regarded us with justifiable scepticism.
After showing him our video, though, he seemed to drop his guard a bit and we started talking about the practical challenges.
I think Theo was genuinely intrigued, but I later also realised that he might have been a tad scared of Branko. He can sound quite intimidating with his thick Serbian accent and no-bullshit approach, but I have been working with him for long enough to know; he is a teddy bear with a heart of gold.
Regardless, it worked in our favour, and Theo said yes.
The Pirate Crew
Theo was just the man we needed for the job. We had one week to record everything, so he enlisted an A-team of the best session musicians in South Africa. It turns out you need highly skilled musicians to replicate their parts, even simple ones, with the right feeling, tone and intention in order to recreate a classic recording. Some of these names may not necessarily be familiar to the general public but in the music industry they are titans. Chances are, you’ve heard their playing many times before and just didn’t realise it.
Kevin Gibson came to the studio first. He has been at the pinnacle of the South African music scene since the early ’90s and is a legendary figure among musicians.
Theo took the helm behind his vintage mixing desk as Kevin sat down behind the drums and started fiddling.
They did a warm-up take which Theo recorded and proclaimed that all sounded good.
Kevin came out of the booth and sat down on a couch to my left. Theo was nestled into his well-worn spot just to my right. There was not a hint of anxiety or time pressure. They just started chatting.
I was treated to epic recollections of misconduct and borderline illegal behaviour at momentous times and places in South African music history. I was the filling in a legend sandwich and I was in my element.
After some time, Kevin suddenly looked at his watch, got up and said he was off. I was caught by surprise, but Theo seemed to be on the same wavelength. I hadn’t realised that three hours had passed and that the session was over.
At this point, it dawned on me that the warm-up take was indeed the one and only take we were going to do. I played it cool but I have to admit I was a bit concerned. With some apprehension, we listened back a little later and, sure enough, Kevin had nailed it. First time round. With not an ounce of wasted energy and the precise ease of an elite, movie-style hitman. I was in awe.
With the drums in the bag we moved on to the guitars. Theo wanted a raw edge to the guitar that only Albert Frost could provide. He came to the session with a big ziplock bag of crocodile teeth from his farm in Tulbagh, apparently so that Theo could make a Crocodile Dundee necklace for himself. I didn’t pry.
He offered the bag to me and I gladly took one as a weird and beautiful little memento from the day.
Albert got into the booth and knocked out his session with precision. He made it look easy and I couldn’t help but feel silly for the hours I had spent trying to unsuccessfully replicate the part myself with my now soft civilian fingertips.
Everyone was overqualified but the harmonica part was possibly the least-polished element of the entire original track. Asking Dave Ferguson to do this was like calling a plumber to fix a clogged straw. Dave had to try to forget all his training and channel the soul of a spirited beginner.
You have to remember that these are the most badass hired guns on the South African music scene. They can play anything you throw at them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to witness the session that day, but Theo’s advice to Dave was always apparently just “speel dit kakker”. In the end, they got there.
Last up was Schalk Joubert who recorded his bass parts in his own studio in Stellenbosch and sent us two options to put into our mix. He had dissected the original recording in detail and discovered the type of bass and strings used. Both takes were flawless.
Last in was Anneli to re-record her vocal parts. The session went well and before we knew it, we had our newly recorded version of the track.
Coming Full Circle
The song sounded beautiful.
Theo had managed to capture the essence and spirit of the original.
I sent the new version to Branko and we each took a couple of days to listen and absorb it.
But something was bugging us. Anneli’s performance was much more subdued than in the demo version we had done. It was missing that fire and just wasn’t feeling quite right.
During the week we got to work together, I tried to absorb as much of Theo’s experience as possible. During a slow moment, I asked him about Blue Eyes, their biggest hit – what it meant to him, what he thought about the song and what differentiates a good performance from a great one. It was remarkable hearing the author of an iconic song tell the story to me first-hand. In the end, his answer was simple. Emotion. A great performance is first and foremost about the emotion that a singer can bring to it. If they feel it and can channel that, the listener feels it too.
While wrestling with the decision, I couldn’t help but think back to this conversation. I knew how deep Anneli had to dig when we recorded our demo. The more we listened, the more sure we were that we needed to revert to our original vocal take.
It was a difficult decision to make, but Theo graciously agreed to accommodate us, possibly against his better judgement, and replace the vocal take he had recorded with the original performance we recorded in my flat.
Before we knew it, the track was on its way to Reuben Cohen, a friend of Theo’s and a Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer. This was the cherry on top of what had been an amazing collaborative experience. DM