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Articles Home » 1977 Articles » Circus (South Africa) - 1977 In The Arena
Circus (South Africa) - 1977 In The Arena

ARTIST: Circus (South Africa)
ALBUM: In The Arena
YEAR: 1977
CD REISSUE: 2001, Retro Fresh, FRESHCD 116


LINEUP: Bernie Millar - vocals * Sandy Robbie - guitar * Ron Brettell - keyboards * Gary van Zyl - bass * Wally Cullis - drums

TRACK LISTING: 01 In The Arena * 02 Liberated Lady * 03 Stupid Boy * 04 Conquistador * 05 Long Legged Lady * 06 Speed Queen * 07 I Wanna Be Free * 08 In Spite Of It All * 09 Michelle

Here's a South African band who were a big fish in their local backyard between 1975 and 1978, but unfortunately weren't able to break out internationally. Formed in Port Elizabeth in 1975 by Bernie Millar and keyboardist Ron Brettell, their original name was Rock N Roll Circus which was truncated to the shorter Circus later on. Joined by the trio of former Tank members Robbie, Van Zyl and Cullie, the five-piece set about their plan for South African dominance, and with a million ideas for musical style and stagecraft. Due to Millar's influence, the band created a theatrical set which revolved around his ability to work within the framework influenced by the likes of Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger. From a musical perspective, it's a glammy 70's brand of hard rock with a hint of pomp. Brettell's keyboards gives them that pomp edge, but it doesn't permeate right across the album as I would've hoped. Still, this is a pretty good record that cemented the band's reputation up and down South Africa's eastern seaboard during this timeframe.

The Songs
Swirly keyboards introduce the title track 'In The Arena', the band giving a good account of themselves within the first minute. Millar's theatrics become apparent. Perhaps Millar is to Circus what Denton Young is to Canadian theatric kings Zon? 'Liberated Lady' is a fun-time romp, it's followed by the acoustic jangle of 'Stupid Boy', the band's first real ballad. Circus give us a cover of Procol Harum's 'Conquistador', a different variation with guest Glenda Hyam (Clout) on castanets. The Peter Frampton influenced vocoder makes an appearance on 'Long Legged Lady', a pop rocker which could've lived on any aspiring rock band's album during the heyday of 1977. 'Speed Queen' is another standout track, with its faster pace and abundant energy. 'I Wanna Be Free' is a five minute experience in meandering progressive rock, some nice keyboard and guitar parts but the tempo is restrained. 'In Spite Of It All' sees Circus working in a funkier environment, more a Euro funk pop/rock style a la Randy Pie than the U.S versions. The closer 'Michelle' is a rapid-fire arrangement with some dextrous drum work from Wally Cullis. The vocoder also makes another appearance plus there is some stylish synth solo work from Brettell. A good finish!

In Summary
During their busy period, the band did various paid session gigs, one of which was to back the pop band Clout; their efforts can be heard on their worldwide hit 'Substitute'. Circus' connection to Clout would prove to be their undoing, as their success would ultimately overshadow Circus' efforts, to the point where Robbie, Brettell and later on Van Zyl would leave and join up with Clout, playing all around the world for the next three years. Eventually, Clout singer and keyboardist Glenda Hyam would return to South Africa and end up marrying Bernie Millar. All the Circus members were active for many years after their brief reign. The original LP for 'In The Arena' was released by EMI South Africa, though guitarist Sandy Robbie managed to digitally remaster the album for the Retro Fresh label in 2001. Still a rarity to track down, it would be well worth your efforts to do so, as this is a superb one-off effort.

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#1 | swazi on April 02 2012 13:11:13
Great review, George, and a really good release. I actually missed these guys completely, while I lived in SA at the same time. My friends were all into Dylan, Creedence, CSNY and so on, which influenced me a lot.
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