Youth culture is a powerful thing. It’s amazing to think about all the different permutations that rock music took on when it went out into the world, all the different tributaries branching off the main river — if there ever even was a main river in the first place. And it’s especially amazing when you think about all the repressive, dangerous places where it took hold, where young people decided that this particular form of self-expression was worth whatever risks came with it. We’ll probably never hear most of what’s out there, but just the idea that places like Iran and Cambodia had flourishing psychedelic rock scenes — it’s enough to make you feel good about the world, about music’s power to change lives.
The same is true of Wells Fargo. Ebba Chitambo, the man who founded the band, didn’t even know he was taking the name of a banking institution. To him, it was a pair of words written on the side of a stagecoach, from a picture he’d seen in a comic book about cowboys. Those two words didn’t mean monthly credit card bills or canned air conditioning in bank lobbies. Instead, they promised something wild and otherworldly. It’s a weird little microcosm for the story of the band itself. Wells Fargo took things that were happening in America, things that promised freedom and openness and lawlessness, and they made them their own.
We’re lucky we get to hear these songs at all. Wells Fargo never released an album. Instead, they cranked out these singles, knowing they’d never get paid for them, thinking they’d just serve as advertisements for their live shows. So what we’re hearing on Watch Out! isn’t some grand unified statement. Instead, it’s a collection of songs taken from different points in a band’s decade-plus career. We can hear their songs evolve overtime. We can hear reggae and funk and even disco influences slowly trickle in. But even from the beginning, we can hear something special -- the sound of American guitar-rock, heard from afar and reshaped into something fresh and important.
If you go into Watch Out! cold, without knowing anything about the band’s backstory, you’ll still hear something special. The band’s sound reminds me, in its own way, of the Midwestern American garage bands of the mid-’60s, the ones collected on the Nuggets compilations. Those bands heard something exciting in the British Invasion bands of the ‘60s. They tried to make their own versions of it, and they failed, but in failing, they made something altogether new. And when you consider that those British bands were trying to ape American blues musicians, you get into this strange ouroboros of influence, all these sounds being passed back and forth across the Atlantic, becoming new things along the way.
Consider, too, that rock and roll, in its original form, had a strain of tribal African music in it -- one that had survived through the centuries, through slavery and hardship and the advent of recorded sound. Consider that there was still some trace element of that in Hendrix and Creedence and the American bands of the late ‘60s. And consider that Wells Fargo, in trying to make their version of those bands, ended up with something altogether new and altogether theirs. Because you couldn’t mistake the music on Watch Out! for something that could’ve happened in an American garage. The guitar sounds on “Love of My Life,” or the bassline strut of “Bump Bump Babe” or the harmonic give-and-take of “Carrying On” -- these were all the products of a specific set of circumstances, and of a remarkable group of musicians.
There’s an immediacy to the music on Watch Out!, one that reminds me of punk rock. This is music that had to be made quickly, music with the force of conviction behind it. But it’s also music with its own sensibility. By the ‘70s, American rock music was fast becoming a segregated scene, with heavy-guitar music mostly being made by and for white kids. Precious few of those bands had anything like the rhythmic force and sophistication that we can hear on these Wells Fargo records. But then, precious few soul groups had the ragged wildness you can hear in these guitars. In its own way, the sound of Wells Fargo comes from some imagined past, from a world where America’s rock music never became a racially splintered thing.
But it’s also music with force and meaning behind it. After all, Wells Fargo were making music in a racist colonial state, one where the white minority was determined to hold onto its power. Wells Fargo had secret police at their shows. They had to face the threat of riot cops and attack dogs. As Matthew Scechmeister writes in his extensive and fascinating liner notes, Wells Fargo really only had one protest song, and that one song had to come disguised. The lyrics to “Watch Out” were a sort of dog whistle that only the people fighting for Rhodesian independence could hear. If the authorities asked Wells Fargo about it -- and they did -- they could say that the “big storm coming” was their music. It was really a message of solidarity, albeit one that had to come hidden. But that’s youth culture: A series of coded messages, rebellious messages that make their way to the kids despite the best efforts of repressive authorities. And with Wells Fargo, those messages took on an extra layer of importance. There were greater things at stake.
Scechmeister writes that, by the end of their run, many of Wells Fargo’s countrymen considered the American-influenced rock music that they were playing to be Eurocentric, less authentic than the chimurenga music of the great revolutionary bandleader Thomas Mapfumo. Wells Fargo kept playing together into the ‘80s -- long enough to see Rhodesia gain its independence and become Zimbabwe. That shift might’ve been rough for the members of the band at the time. But in a way, that’s a great thing: They played for long enough to see their revolution materialize, for their style to become old. The music we can hear on Watch Out! is the music of what was ultimately a successful struggle. They won.