cape argus

The Cape Argus (8 February 2009)

8 March 2013

“Light years ahead of the pack”
8 February 2009
Evan Milton, The Cape Argus, South Africa

The Lightyears are a hardworking indie pop group with a special link to South Africa…

British indie-pop band The Lightyears are in Cape Town to play the Cape Town Tens afterparties, hang out with their South African flatmate Andy Skinstad – and launch Johannesburg, a song inspired by a tale of two Zimbabwean refugees.
The Lightyears’ pianist and songwriter Chris Russell saw a BBC documentary about two young Zimbabwean brothers who had fled the crippled country after their parents were killed, allegedly by government militia, and trekked on foot to Johannesburg. Leaving with nothing – mugged, beaten and with their shoes stolen along the way – the boys, younger than 15, sustained themselves on their trek with little more than the hope that South Africa’s City of Gold was rumoured to be a place where they could get food and shelter.

“Even though this story was obviously a million miles away from anything I’ve ever experienced, and told of hardship I couldn’t hope to understand, something about it struck a chord with me,” Russell wrote on the band’s online journal, noting that it reminded him of the story behind one of his favourite songs, The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
The origin of the 1969 ballad lies in a tale associated with Father Edward J Flanagan, the founder of Boys’ Town: a street urchin staggering along carrying a younger child on his back is asked about his heavy load and replies, “Why Mister, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”.

Described as “Toto meets Graceland-era Paul Simon via classic Bob Marley, sung by Crowded House”, The Lightyears have crafted a moving indie-pop slow song in Johannesburg. When Russell played it to his London flatmate, a South African, he suggested that the band should get to South Africa and launch the song here. The flatmate just happens to be one Andy Skinstad, brother of local rugby hero Bobby Skinstad, and one thing led to another.

It’s not The Lightyears’ first music/sport pairing. Last year, the band re-recorded Posh We Are, the football anthem for their local club, Peterborough United.

“The original was written 30 or 40 years ago,” explains Russell. “A local charity wanted to re-record it and update it to raise money for kids and sport. We were thrilled to do it, and then we did a lot of press in the local area to launch it. We played the stadium, in one of the last season matches – thrilling again.”
Russell is speaking via cellphone from one of Cape Town’s beaches.

The Lightyears are Russell, brothers George Owens (lead vocals, guitar) and John Owens (bass player), and Tony Lyons (vocals, drums). Described as “Babyshambles without the drugs – and with better manners” by one Irish reviewer, the band found themselves winning a British Indy Award in 2007 for “Best Pop/Rock Act”.

“We were stunned to be nominated as we weren’t expecting it at all,” says Russell. “We really didn’t expect to win, which is what I think people generally do in these situations. We were on tour in New York and we were listening on the phone… Then we won, and our friend Andy picked up the award. It was great, because it meant we were recognised for what we were doing, and we’re an independent band with no record label, managing and repping ourselves.

“A couple of months after that we got to record a few tracks with Hugh Padgham. He’s produced for Sting and sold 50 million records with Paul McCartney and Genesis. Not a lot of bands get that opportunity when they’re up and coming.”
It’s not all sunshine and roses for the band, though. “In the UK it almost seems like there are more bands than fans. On the one hand it’s great because people are really hungry for live acts. But, because of the UK’s thriving music scene… it is very competitive.

“London has a massive concentration of bands… So it’s good to get your face shown elsewhere. We like to get to different parts of the world, and test out different markets.”

The band is starting to see success in America, especially the East Coast, and in Asia, especially in South Korea. “We go to America once a year and I think we have a certain appeal, partly because we are British. We have a loyal fanbase in Philadelphia where it’s as if we’re playing to people who know us really well and always pack out the venues.”
In South Korea, the band was invited to play an annual fundraiser hosted by the British ex-pat community to raise funds for charity.

With the beach wind picking up, and Russell and bandmates needing to prepare for their debut South African gig – at the city’s new Speedway 105 Cafe – the interview draws to a close. “I wish I could conduct all my interviews from the beach,” laughs Russell, and goes on to enthuse about the band’s few days so far in the Cape.

“In Hermanus we had a braai which was fantastic. It’s a bit of a shock coming from winter in England with the worst snow, and to be sat here on a beach in the blazing sun. You probably get used to it if you live here, but for a Londoner, let me tell you that i’s amazing.”

The Lightyears play the Cape Town Tens after-parties on Saturday 7 February and Sunday 8 February at Hamilton’s Rugby Club in Green Point (see Download the song “Johannesburg” from

“We’ll always have Cape Town, boys…”

1 July 2009

South Africa's hottest supermodel stagediving to the LYsSATURDAY 7 MARCH, 9.30am (Table Bay Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa):
It’s the morning of the gig. The moment this whole week has been building up to. Last night we spent a few nerve-wracking hours getting to know the rugby players who will constitute a large proportion of our audience tonight and, whilst we escaped without any broken bones, we all remain a little nervous about whether or not we’ll win them over at the gig.

On the way to breakfast in the hotel I spot several copies of the Cape Argus, one of the city’s foremost broadsheets, resting on a side-table. Our interview ought to be published today. As I rifle through the pages, I discover that indeed it has been. I read the article over a breakfast of roasted duck pancakes with hoisin sauce, sushi, avocado salad, quail’s eggs, freshly-brewed black coffee and a few slices of exquisitely rare prime beef-steak (click here to find out where the Table Bay breakfast placed in my International Five Star Hotel Breakfast Richter Scale). The article’s great – the journalist has really done his homework and has some nice comments to make about the band and our recent track “Johannesburg”. Click here to read it.

After a few hours spent relaxing by the pool, we jump in our wicked tour-bus and head for Hamilton Rugby Club. It’s a scorcher of a day and, when we arrive, it becomes very evident that those not involved in the tournament have been hitting the drink pretty hard since early in the day. Saying that, the players themselves (aside from those taking it very seriously) have clearly been doing much the same thing and so the stage is set for an epic night in the beer tent.

We kick off around 8pm. Our plan is to mix up some of our original tunes with a bunch of crowd-pleasing covers, saving “Johannesburg” until the beginning of the second set. We start at a fairly chilled pace but, within about 20 minutes, the tent is full to bursting and the people are demonstrably ready to let loose. As we begin chucking in upbeat songs of our own such as “Emily”, and pot-boiling covers like “Bohemian Like You” and “A Little Respect”, the atmosphere is really starting to cook.

Our nerves fade away as the crowd surges towards the stage and the energy we’re giving out is matched easily by the energy coming back off the audience. It’s smiles all round. I can tell that we’re winning them over. After a short break we return with Set Two, which is where we properly seal the deal. We kick off with “Johannesburg”, explaining the story behind the song and, I’m happy to say, inspiring a mass sing-along from people who have never heard the tune before. As Alex James writes in his autobiography “Bit Of A Blur”, you know you’ve got a good song on your hands when the crowd are singing along by the end of the first chorus. And they were.

As the evening draws on and we get louder, the people get rowdier and the sun drops lower, I’m riding on a wave of adrenaline. People are hugging and kissing and dancing with each other. The police are hovering outside. Fully-naked men are throwing themselves across beer-flooded picnic tables. It’s magnificent, rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll chaos.

Suddenly, I realise what I have to do next.

My first ever stage-dive.

The circumstances are primed. Two thousand party animals are writhing as one in front of me. I’ve drunk just the right amount of beer to blunt the hard edge of caution whilst remaining capable enough to avoid grievous injury. I am poised. I am ready to fly.

Then, out of the blue, I am beaten to it. By an FHM supermodel.

And not everybody can say that.

Roxy Louw, South Africa’s foremost supermodel and a regular in lad-mag FHM, has mounted the stage during my period of prevarication and launched herself spectacularly into the crowd. I watch her surf about on the turbulent sea of excited hands, amused by the huge mob of pissed-up blokes virtually goggle-eyed at the opportunity to legitimately grope one of the world’s hottest women.

Whilst in some ways I can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment after the delivery of a supermodel, I resolve nevertheless to join the throng. After a run-up that would make Evel Knievel jealous, I bounce in a high, smooth arc from the stage onto the moving platform of heads and hands. What a glorious moment. Everybody is singing around me. I have come home. This, as they say, is it.

It’s a hot and sweaty night that sees many more stage-dives and a slew of encores. The organisers manage to keep the police at bay (just) and ask us to come back and play again tomorrow night. Sporting legend Bobby Skinstad calls us “the best band in the world”. He’s never seen Toploader play live, of course, but we’ll forgive him that.

“The real stars of Day One are The Lightyears, who blow the marquee apart with a roaring display that sees four encores and has the police sent to check noise levels dancing in the crowd…”
RUGBY 365.COM (read full article here)

SUNDAY 8 MARCH, 10am (My hotel room, Cape Town):
When I wake up, I have the fear. That distant, indefinable fear you sometimes get the morning after the night before, when the heady cloud of a hangover keeps you from pinpointing exactly what it is you did last night that you’re about to begin regretting.

At breakfast, I’m halfway through my smoked salmon, toasted muffins, hollandaise sauce, tuna steak and home-made guacamole when it slowly but surely dawns on me. After we left the stage yesterday following our fourth encore, I was approached by a promoter interested in booking us for a show in Johannesburg later in the year. I gave him my business card but he didn’t have one himself so he wrote his landline and mobile phone numbers down on the nearest available piece of paper – which happened to be a flyer for a local strip-joint. I didn’t think a great deal of it at the time, popping it down on the desk in my hotel room before crashing into a deep and happy sleep.

Something important, however, has just occurred to me.


The time I’ve spent in this hotel thus far has confirmed to me that the housekeeping staff are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to clearing up after messy British rock bands. Anything that appears to be rubbish is likely to be binned pretty sharpish. And there’s a good chance that the crumpled flyer in question, decorated with its illegible scribblings and tacky, pornographic imagery, would be immediately deemed as fit only for the bin. And this could lose us a potential gig in Johannesburg. I have to do something.

Making my excuses I dash out of the breakfast room and pelt across the lobby to the lift. I don’t know if you’ve ever spotted this but lifts rarely respond quickly enough when you’re in a hurry. When I finally make it back to my room, it immediately becomes clear that I’m too late. The beds are expertly made and the room is spotless. They’ve been. And they’ve taken the flyer.

The odds are stacked against me but I’m hoping against hope that I’ll be able to trace the flyer by working out which member of staff cleared out my room. It’s a long shot but I’m left with little choice. The concierge ought to be my best bet, I figure, so I head back down to the lobby, take a seat at the front desk and ring the bell. Presently the concierge appears wearing a neat uniform and a funny little hat.

“Can I help sir?” he asks, sitting down opposite me.

“Ah, yes, that would be great thanks. You see, the thing is, I left a really rather important piece of paper in my room this morning and I think the housekeepers have thrown it away.”

“Oh,” he replies, his expression dropping.

“… Yes, I know. Bit of a stretch, I realise that, but I was wondering if the housekeeping department would be able to keep an eye out for it in case it turns up?”

Duty-bound to humour my doomed mission, the concierge produces a small notepad from his top pocket and clicks the end of a shiny silver pen.

“Could you describe it for me?”

At no point in this little crusade had it occurred to me that, in order for the hotel staff to “keep an eye out” for my lost flyer, they’d need to know what it looked like. And what it looked like was, to be brutally honest, an oiled-up pole-dancer with her baps out.

“OK, erm, so…. this is what it looks like…” I stammer, stalling for time, searching for a polite way of describing a photo of a nude sex-worker. “So, it’s black, and sort of gold round the edges. Rectangular, probably a little crumpled. There are some important phone numbers written on it. It’s maybe eight inches long, three wide….? And, erm… I guess that’s about it.”

A short pause.

“And there’s a fully naked chick on the front.”

The concierge raises his eyebrow. “And you say this leaflet has very important phone numbers on it?”

“It does,” I reply.

He allows himself a wry smile. “Yes, I wouldn’t want to lose phone numbers of that nature either”.

Oh god. They think I’m a pimp. But it’s too late to back-pedal now. “No,” I offer with a nervous laugh, “I guess not.”

Note to self: mistakenly introducing oneself as a pimp to the concierge at a five-star hotel – even if it is Snoop Dog’s hotel – may reasonably be considered an unwise move.

SUNDAY 8 MARCH, 6.30pm (Hamilton Rugby Club, Cape Town):
Today we swagger into the Cape Town Tens exhuding an easy confidence, satisfied that last night’s high-octane performance has permanently ingratiated us with the locals. As we stroll through the front gates of the club, suited and booted and carrying guitar cases, the MC momentarily ceases in his commentary of the current rugby match to announce “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Lightyears have arrived!”. To my childish delight this prompts spontaneous applause from all round the ground. This is definitely the closest we have ever come to “Elvis has left the building”…

Today’s gig starts with the laid-back swing of a Sunday evening, but before long it has erupted into a party to rival last night’s performance. There’s more stage-diving, plenty of sing-alongs, police hovering outside and a lot of sweating. Afterwards we hit the clubs for our final taste of the Cape Town lifestyle, and are able to beat the queues at Cafe Caprice, the city’s trendiest night-spot, on account of arriving with Bob, who is pretty much regarded here as the country’s answer to David Beckham.

Standing outside the club several hour’s later, watching the waves lap at the beach and feeling the warm night air on our faces, we reflect on the tour.

“We’ll always have Cape Town, boys,” muses John, prophetic as ever.

Bob’s brother Dan, A.K.A. The Commander (and something of a legend about the town), throws his arms round us and nods his head in agreement.

“It can only get better boys,” he says, “it can only get better. Which, when you think about it, is actually quite scary.”

Which, I reflect, is exactly how I like it.

Chris Lightyear

News from The Cape…

4 February 2009

Here’s something I’ve discovered about journalists in South Africa – they’re extremely diligent. I’ve been interviewed by a few local writers over the past couple of days and every one of them had done extensive homework on the band. In fact, the guy I spoke to yesterday knew things about us I’d forgotten myself!

On the subject of press attention, iAfrica – the country’s biggest web portal with 5.7 million hits per month – has just run an article on us on the front page of their music section.

Read iAfrica’s article on the band by clicking here.

Tony made it over here against all the odds. With Heathrow at a virtual standstill, 800 flights were cancelled on Monday and only six left the runway. His plane was the sixth. Extraordinary. As a result, he joined us on the beach this morning for a game of Touch Rugby and you couldn’t wipe the grin off his face if you tried.

We’ve got a gig tonight at the Speedway 105 Cafe. This has been attracting a fair bit of press attention and will hopefully get us some reviews over the coming days. We’ve got a feature coming up in The Cape Argus on Saturday, which is great news as it’s one of Cape Town’s most widely-read daily papers. 

Oh, and as for you guys back home, building snowmen and jingling all the way, I have to say that in a way it’s a shame we’ve missed London’s biggest snowstorm in 20 years. Thing is though, we’ve become so accustomed to the sun that I think the extremity of the climate would probably have killed us. The peculiar Snow-Vs-Sand dichotomy that separates our hometown from our current location was underlined for me yesterday when we passed a lamp-post in the street bearing foreign headlines. The sign, framed by a stunning blue sky and a beaming South African sun, bore three simple words: “SNOW SHUTS LONDON”.

Funny old world, eh?!

Chris Lightyear