Circus (South Africa)

Band members                              Related acts

  line 1 (1975-77)

- Ron "Bones: Brettell -- keyboards

- Wally Cullis -- drums, percussion

- Chris Demayer -- bass

- Bernie Millar -- vocals

- Pat van Rensburg -- drums, percussion

- Sandy Robbie -- lead guitar


  line 2 (1977-78)

- Ron 'Bones' Brettell -- keyboards

NEW - Wally Cullis -- drums, percussion (replaced 

   Pat van Rensburg)

- Bernie Millar -- vocals

- Sandy Robbie -- lead guitar

NEW - Gary van Zyl -- bass (replaced Chris Demayer)




- Clout (Bones Brettell, Robbie Sandy, Gary van Zyl)

- Hotline (Pat van Rensburg)

- Little Sister (Robbie Sandy)

- Messiah (Bernie Millar)

- Millar-Matthews Band (Bernie Millar)

- Never-B-Four (Bernie Millar)

- Substitute (Bones Brettell, Robbie Sandy, Gary van Zyl)

- Tank (Gary van Zyl)

- Top Dog (Bernie Millar)

- The Unemployed (Bernie Millar)

- What (Bernie Millar)



Genre: rock

Rating: 3 stars ***

Title:  In the Arena

Company: EMI Sunshine

Catalog: GBL(I) 507

Country/State: Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+

Comments: South African pressing

Available: SOLD

Catalog ID: SOLD 5992

Price: SOLD $150.00


Circus were apparently one of South Africa's biggest mid-'70s rock outfits. I've seen them labeled as South African progressive giants, but  I'm not sure that's saying a great deal given there probably weren't all that many mid-'70s South African progressive bands to compare them against ...   In fact, I'm not even sure I'd label them progressive since, judging by their debut album,  they seemingly had a thing for British hard rock and glitter bands.   


Keyboardist Ron Brettell and singer Bernie Millar formed the band in 1975.   They quickly recruited a line-up consisting  of bassist Chris Demayer, drummer Pat van Rensburg, and lead guitarist Sandy Robbie.  By the time the band got around to recording an album Demayer had been replaced by former Tank bassist Gary van Zyl, while drummer van Rensburg was replaced by Wally Cullis.  Originally known as "Rock n Roll Circus", the band spent the next two years playing South Africa's club circuit, mixing popular rock covers with some of their own material.  They also had the common sense to go with a abbreviated name.


back left to right:  

front row: Millar - Brettel - Robbie (guitar); back row van Zyl (hat) - Cullis


Signed by the EMI associated Sunshine label, their debut album was produced by Graham Beggs.  1977's "In the Arena" featured a largely original collection of rockers that went a long way to capturing the band's club sound and repertoire.  Largely penned by Millar (several other members contributing to song-writing chores), this wasn't intended as thought-provoking music-as-art, rather was the South African version of let's-party rock.  If nothing else, song titles like 'In the Arena', 'Long Legged Lady' and 'Speed Queen' made it clear their interests were typical rock and roll fodder.   I've listened to the album dozens of times and while I've never been able to figure out who these guys took their main creative cues from.  At various times I've heard echoes of Mott the Hoople, Queen, Lou Reed-swagger, Styx, and even big hair rockers like Deep Purple.  Since I like all of those bands, the album sits at home with me.  On the other hand, if you don't have a taste for those other groups, this might not be up your alley.  I guess the take-away here would be don't expect to hear anything with ground-breaking originality.  At the same time, the album had more than its share of charm; even more impressive when you recognize these guys were operating in the midst of worldwide cultural and economic embargos.   I'm guessing the closest they ever got to seeing any of those other bands I mentioned were via smuggled video cassettes.


"In the Arena" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) In The Arena   (Bernie Millar) - 4.25   rating: *** stars

The opening audience noises coupled with Brettell's synthesizers left you wondering what you'd gotten into - a group of South Africa n Styx wannabes ?   Luckily things got better when Robbie's melodic guitar kicked into the mix and things got even better when Millar's crusty voice kicked in.  That said, the rock and roll as a circus concept wasn't the most original thing you'd ever encountered.   Still, a fun way to open the album and I bet it was a blast to hear in a small club.

2.) Liberated Lady   (Bernie Millar) - 5.17   rating: *** stars

So you would have thought a tune like 'Liberated Lady' would have reflected a fairly progressive and pro-feminist stance.   Nope.   Millar and company came off as pretty Neanderthal in terms of their outlook.  Joe Walsh would have smiled at Robbie's attempted at a guitar voice box sound effect solo.  The song was also about a chorus too long.  Bet the South African Broadcasting System had a meltdown hearing these lyrics.   

3.) Stupid Boy   (Bernie Millar) - 2.59   rating: *** stars

'Stupid Boys' theatric structure and over-the-top touches have always reminded me of Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople at their most excessive.   I guess this would have appealed to me as a snotty 17 year old.  Not sure it would have a great deal of attraction elsewhere.   I will admit I liked Bones Brettell's synthesizer touches. 

4.) Conquistador   (Keith Reid - Gary Brooker) - 5.46   rating: *** stars

Musically the band's cover of Procol Harum's 'Conquistador' didn't mess with the song all that much.   The introduction and closing sections were given a slightly more rock-ish feel that suited Millar's manic vocals well.   In contrast the mid-section descended into a needless extended progressive-flavored instrumental .  Millar seemingly used the song as an opportunity to channel his attempt at a Freddie Mercury impersonation.    Overall it didn't do a great deal for me.   Not sure why it was tapped as a South African single since there were far better tracks on the LP:






- 1977's 'Conquistador' b/w 'Stupid Buy' (EMI Sunshine catalog number GBS 127)







5.) Long Legged Lady   (Waterman - Bennett) - 2.50    rating: **** stars

Probably side one's best tune, 'Long Legged Lady' abandoned any effort sound sophisticated in favor of a slinky, glitter-flavored rocker.   This time around Robbie's voice box touches were first-rate, giving the song a highly commercial edge.   This is the tune that should have been tapped as a single.  Interestingly that was the plan, but unfortunately the band ran into issues with the South African Broadcasting Corporation which banned what was intended as their debut single/video.   The board of concerned citizens that reviewed all material for SABC to ensure society was aptly protected from the forces of vice, apparently took offense at the video which showcased Millar's mascara and the fact his nipples were exposed.  The decision effectively banned the group from South African airwaves.  


(side 2)
1.) Speed Queen   (Bernie Millar - Sandy Robbie) - 2.42
   rating: **** stars

Side two opened with more Hoople-styled glitter rock.  While there wasn't a single original note or thought throughout the song's 2:42 running time, it was one of the album's better rockers and would have made a nice single. 

2.) I Wanna Be Free   (Bernie Millar - Gary van Zyl) - 4.50  rating: *** stars

So where would a mid-'70s album be without an AOR ballad ?   Co-written by Millar and bassist Gary van Zyl , complete with cheesy synthesizers  'I Wanna Be Free' was easily the album's most readily commercial tune.  Interestingly it didn't sound like Millar handled the lead vocals on this one with the resulting being a tune that sounded a bit like an Alan Parsons Project tune.

3.) In Spite Of It All   (Bernie Millar) - 4.00  rating: *** stars

Hum, ever wondered what Styx would have sounded like if they wanted a dance hit on their hands ?  Well, that's kind of what 'In Spite of It All' sounded like to my ears.   

4.) Michelle   (Bernie Millar- Bones Brettell) - 5.06  rating: *** stars

Hum, I'm guessing 'Michelle' reflected an overdose of Deep Purple on the band's part.   Same kind of aren't-we-sp-heavy vibe throughout this hard rocker.  Not bad, though most folks will probably turn to the original when they need a dose of the genre.



As far as I know, the album and single are the extent of the band's recording catalog.   After they called it quits most of the members remained active in music.


Brettell  became a touring musician and moved into writing and acting.

Cullis toured with a number of bands, including Stingray.

van Zyl became a member of Johnny Clegg and Juluka's touring band.