Time and fortune have not been kind to Third Eye. Back in the late 1960s they were one of the top acts in South Africa, recording three powerful albums that easily matched the creative output of their now better-known contemporaries. Four decades on, though, and they are the also-rans in the contest to name the nation’s rock royalty. Search the web for information on the band and all that pops up is sketchy information on their recording output and brief notes on recent revival concerts. Search for the recordings of Third Eye and you would – until this timely reissue – have been hard pressed to find anything other than the hugely expensive original vinyl pressings. Although badly reproduced CDs of their releases – Awakening, Searching and Brother – have been available on bootleg labels, the band have been poorly represented in digital form. Contrast this with the plethora of bootlegs and, more recently, official releases on offer from other South African artists of that era.
Perhaps their ‘misfortune’ was that they lived and performed in Durban, a coastal city several hundred miles away from the recording and musical hub of Johannesburg (although they recorded their three albums in Johannesburg). Perhaps it was the fault of their record label – Polydor – which did not promote them as heavily as EMI did its stable of artists (although Third Eye got to feature on two internationally released Polydor Super Groups compilation albums, in the company of global stars Cream, Hendrix, John Mayall and The Who among others). Perhaps it was simply that just not enough people outside of Durban heard their driving, organ-powered rock for it to remain lodged in their consciousness over the years.
Remember, back in South Africa in the early 1970s there was no television to give a band national coverage, radio airplay was almost exclusively on state-controlled stations and government censors had a very narrow view of what would or wouldn’t subvert the nation’s youth; Third Eye’s version of Arthur Brown’s Fire was kept off the airwaves by these very custodians of the nation’s morals. The band did get support from LM Radio, the first commercial radio station in Africa that was broadcasting from Lourenco Marques, now Maputo, in Mozambique. Fire b/w With the Sun Shining Bright was on the station’s hit parade for six weeks and Apricot Brandy, which featured on the Awakening album, later became a playoff signature tune on the station. But LM Radio and the state broadcasters focused solely on pop-oriented singles; and as for radio airplay of extended album tracks, the band’s forte – forget it.
Third Eye coalesced in Durban in 1968 around the young brother and sister team of Ron and Dawn Selby. The two – with Ron on guitar and Dawn, just into her teens, on Hammond organ – had played alongside bassist Mike Sauer in a Durban band It’s a Secret. Formed in 1963, It’s a Secret had played mainly commercial cover music, but the times they were a-changing’. The arrival of Maurice Saul, a guitarist who had worked the boards in what was then Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) before travelling the well-worn path south, and Robbie Pavid, a drummer who doubled as the percussionist for Abstract Truth, another Durban-based progressive outfit, saw the band morph into Third Eye.
Mixing original compositions with favourites from the overseas scene – such as Deep Purple and Hendrix – Third Eye gigged around Durban and the neighbouring city of Pietermaritzburg, with Robbie playing the cocktail set with Abstract Truth between 5pm and 7pm before taking up the sticks with Third Eye. At the start the band played ‘sessions’, with Third Eye blitzing a single venue alongside such groups as The Flames, The In Crowd and The Bats. As they grew in popularity, so did the number of gigs they played. ‘Battles of the Bands’, peculiarly South African musical contests that saw bands competing against each other at mini-festivals, were fought and full-blown festivals trawled. Soon Third Eye found themselves playing to bigger, more appreciative audiences and having the freedom to perform their own compositions. The scene was blossoming, on the verge of a massive creative flowering – and the record executives were sensing an opportunity.
In 1968 the song Fire had been recorded by the band on four-track at Troubadour Studios in Johannesburg under producer Billy Forrest, and it was the strength of this single that led to a more significant recording contract. Third Eye were snapped up by Trutone, on the Polydor label, one of the premier labels at the time, which signed them for three albums. It heralded a hectic couple of years, with Awakening released in 1969 followed by two releases in a single year in 1970 – Searching and Brother. Amazingly the three albums were recorded in just six days.
They were heady days – both musically and politically. Awakening had been dedicated by Maurice Saul, driven by a “personal disgust with war and hatred”, to all “young men in this world forced to go to war”. It could have been directed nearer to home, where boys were being conscripted into the army and the white society was becoming deeply polarised. The increasingly authoritarian government clearly saw rock musicians as a threat, playing “devil’s music” to the gullible young. No one could escape the looming crackdown. And it all came to a head in October 1970 at the Milner Park 24 hour rock festival near Johannesburg, with Third Eye as top of the bill alongside a host of other big names – including The Flames, Otis Waygood, Freedoms Children, Abstract Truth and Suck. As the good-natured crowd gathered, they were stormed by conservative youths – divinity students from a nearby university, say some, while newspaper reports claim they were from a local police college – who dragged some of the audience away to cut their hair.
Trutone were not renewing the contract and there were no royalties coming from the three albums already recorded. “With no support from our record company in terms of publicity or marketing (despite having signed a very binding contract which still stands today) it was impossible for us to continue,” says Dawn. “If we wanted to play, and earn something back for what we had put in, we had to go commercial and do the gig band thing. It became a ‘chicken and egg‘ situation. To create the music, we needed to spend time with the band. But as the band was not earning any income we had to work in the day (I started teaching when I was 14) to support ourselves. But this limited our time for rehearsing or travelling to the better gigs.”
Maurice and Robbie called it a day. Ron, Dawn and Mike continued to carry the flag for Third Eye, although Mike eventually quit a year later. In 1973 Third Eye, with only Ron and Dawn as surviving members of the original line-up, returned to RPM Studios in Johannesburg to record some tracks for an album. Two of these songs – Caterpillar b/w What’s Going On – were released by Bluejeans Records in the Benelux countries and one – Free – made its way on to an EMI compilation album in 1998. Needless to say, no royalties have been forthcoming.
Disillusionment with the industry had set in but the band battled on. Ron remembers that “after the recordings of the albums, and with the band line-up changes, we were wary of dealing with untrustworthy promoters and managers so we undertook to do our own concerts, bookings and marketing. We recorded with Chris Kritzinger at RPM and the single Caterpillar was released.
“In the early ’70s we toured South Africa’s eastern Cape province, playing some of the original material as well as newly written compositions. We were very well supported, despite the Christian group outside Port Elizabeth’s city hall who were demonstrating with placards, we think because of the banning of Fire on state radio. The irony of this is that we were no longer performing Fire, as our new vocalist, Richard Wright, had a different vocal feel and we had a different repertoire to suit the new line-up. We realised that the market was not supporting progressive rock music, so we had no choice but to go the commercial route.”
Dawn is still championing the band – a task, she says, that is a load of fun despite time constraints. “I am grateful that I have been able to remain in the music industry for 46 years and am still very active (one big advantage of having started playing at such an early age), but it hasn’t been easy a lot of the time. I’ve always felt that Third Eye was a wonderful band creating great music and it is a pity that, at the time, we didn’t get what I felt we should’ve. We have had such a lot of fun with our recent reunion concerts [in 2008, 39 years after it all began, the members of the original band - minus Mike - reunited for concerts in Durban] and hopefully the reissue of the albums will change a few things for the better.”
Ron now runs an audio-visual and lighting company, Mike is in the motor industry and Robbie has a jewellery business. Only Maurice and Dawn remain deeply involved with the music industry; Maurice is gigging one-nighters as a solo artist, while Dawn still performs and is involved with orchestral arrangements and teaching.
Today, any revisionist rewriting of the history and influence of South African psychedelic and progressive music would see Third Eye back in their rightful place among the rock aristocracy – battered and bruised, but jostling in a mighty Battle of the Bands to see just who, among the many creative and innovative acts thrown up in such a peculiar place and time as South Africa in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was the leader of the pack. No one can say who would win. But what an awesome contest that would be.
by Roger Browning
1. A Sad Tale - 5:34
2. Selby's Hospitality - 2:09
3. Retain Your Half-Ticket - 3:56
4. Stagemakers - 5:34
5. Awakening - 13:52
6. I Can't Believe It - 3:07
All songs by Maurice Saul
The Third Eye
*Ronnie Selby - Lead Guitar
*Maurice Saul - Vocals, Lead Guitar
*Dawn Selby - Piano, Hammond Organ
*Robbie Pavid - Drums
*Mike Sauer - Six String Bass