It was a new decade. Singapore’s only independent rock mag BigO had come out of the underground and onto the newstands and bookstores all around Singapore. And their message was simple. Singapore music is as good as any in the world and we support it. I must admit that I had largely ignored the mag for most of its existence, but it was getting increasingly harder to do so – especially with Chris Ho glaring daggers at you on the cover.
In 1991, the mag launched the New School Rock CD series and effectively kickstarted the local scene. On this CD, the talents of The Oddfellows, Opposition Party and Coporate Toil were showcased. Whilst the recording standard was very rough ( do well to remember that this was before ‘lo-fi’ became a fashion statement ), certainly the potential shone through the murky productions. In particular, The Oddfellows’ Song For Caroline left a deep impression on me and would serve as an inspiration for certain musical ideas of my own.
It had become increasingly evident that any ambitions I cherish in relation to what I could do with my music lay very much in my own hands. With that in mind, I complied a cassette of songs that we had recorded over the course of a decade and sent it off to BigO.
This little effort on my part would have greater significance that I could have hoped for. Subsequently I was contacted by Yong Shu Hoong, a writer to whom the mag had assigned the task of checking the Watchmen out. Shu Hoong was encouraging and seemed to be taken up somewhat by our material. His impressions were printed in the April 1991 issue ( which sported a Patrick Chng cover ) under the mag’s Ruff Cuts section.
” What baffles me is how they managed to remain unknown all this time. Through the years , they never stopped believing in the music that they are playing – maybe now it’s time the recording companies start believing too.” * ahem *
As flattering as it was I was cynical enough to appreciate the irony of the reality of the local scene. It was never difficult to ‘remain unknown’ in Singapore and I am very sure that there are many in my generation that possessed the skill and talent to make their mark musically and artistically but never had the chance because of the paucity of opportunity and reward to motivate development of their craft. That I had taken a first tenative step towards ‘recognition’ made me feel very fortunate indeed. I had no illusions about how far this could go and in fact, I had in all truth expected it to end there and then. My three minutes of fame had come and go albeit on a very minor scale.
The reasons for my pessimism were simple. I had no band. My colleagues were in the States and there was no contact from them whatsoever and my contemporaries were too busy pursuing career and family priorities to consider a time-consuming sideline like music-making. No, this had been the first and last hurrah of the Watchmen.
Or so I believed.
Stephen Tan is an editor with BigO and indeed a founding member of The Oddfellows. Stephen was emphatic that I should release the demo compilation I had sent to the mag. I had never seriously considered it before but his encouragement gave me the impetus to do so and thus, Who Watches The Watchmen hit the shops in August of that year. The fact that it sold out briskly ( all twenty copies !!) prompted a second release – Industry And Commerce – two months later.
Although it had been suggested that this was proof of how prolific we were, actually both tapes were culled from existing material , some dating back to 1979, which somewhat deflates that claim.
Back in the real world, Patrick Chng and The Oddfellows were taking the local scene by storm with the single So Happy and the album Teenage Head. A new era had been heralded by these releases as for the first time since the Sixties, a homegrown song topped the radio charts all over Singapore. A new phrase had entered into the public consciousness – ” indie band ” – which to the unintiated simply meant, a local band performing their own original material. It seemed as if the island could not get enough of the band, as they dominated the airwaves and meida attention for that surrealistic period in the third quarter of 1991.
Despite all the hype and publicity, sales of Teenage Head were disappointing – less than 2,000 copies – the public it seemed were not convinced of the value of local music. On the personal front, I had embarked on a homemade recording of new material together with my wife’s cousin Phoon Kwong Mun, then eighteen. Mun was blessed with impressive equipment in his bedroom – four track machine, sequencer, synthesizer & electric guitars as well a keen head for music arrangements. Our gameplan was basic, I would record the songs on a portable recorder on an acoustic guitar and Mun would flesh out my bare bones into full-blown productions.The end-product would be This Savage Garden.
1992 witnessed the delivery of New School Rock II, and the introduction of the likes of AWOL, The Shades, Stomping Ground, The Padres, Fish On Friday & Black Sun. Co-ordinated by Patrick Chng ( who esle!), the disc moved decidedly into the mainstream direction with songs from AWOL ( Postcards) and The Shades (The 5 Cs) generating chart action and national attention.
A rosy future seemed inevitable for the bulk of these bands and interest in “indie bands” reached a new high. Gigs were well-attended affairs and the major labels watched the entire proceedings keenly. Certainly, it would not be long before the masses embraced the local musician warmly to their collective bosom.
This Savage Garden was released in February and was generally well-received. This collection of political songs was a watershed for me as it proved that my music-making days were only beginning. Stephen Tan again proved encouraging and put me in touch with Patrick Chng to explore the possibilities of getting my material properly done.
Without sounding too cynical about it, I had my doubts as to how much could be achieved.
As I was mulling over limited options, the trio known as Black Sun invested their time and hard-earned cash to independently release their self-titled CD in mid-1992. Whatever one thought of the easy-listening pop fodder of the actual material, the drive, motivation and the commitment could not be faulted.
However, as with most other local releases the first weeks of release were torturously slow sales-wise. Worse, for the band, they were constantly being written off as ” middle-aged rockers ” or derided due to the fact that they were wealthy enough to pursue their dream.
But, as fate would have it, radio picked up on Love You Now, the opening single and the band found itself with a Number One Song! Better yet, the accompanying musicvideo was a feature in the MTV Asia Top Twenty !! Had Singapore pop arrived ?
Sadly, sales again contradicted. Reportedly no more than a measly 3,500 copies! What would a local artiste have to do to sell albums?
In October, my contact with Patrick Chng paid off as he invited me to contribute two tracks to New School Rock III. So it was off to the Savior Faire studio in Sim Lim Square backed by friend Stephen Huen on lead guitar and Patrick on drums. My first recording experience was quite rewarding as we churned out On Orchard Road and Please Believe Me in a day. Certainly, the satisfaction obtained by putting the songs together was something I thoroughly enjoyed. I wanted more!
1993. On Orchard Road was the first of my songs to be played on radio. It was definitely a cheap thrill I could possibly get used to very quickly. It was also the first to be made into a music video ( courtesy of Eric Khoo ) and aired over national television. Things, it seemed were begining to happened. Remarkably by May I had secured a recording deal with local indie outfit Odyssey Music. At last twenty years of unfulfilled dreams were to be resolved.
For the next year, the pace could only be described as hectic as if to compensate for the long time it took for me to reach that stage. And through it all I had to take the good with the bad. My One and Only, whilst managing to be a #1 radio hit was also summarily snubbed at the Perfect Ten Awards. At gigs, the song would be wildly received by hundreds and yet the album Democracy failed to sell more than a paltry 4000 copies. I performed ‘live’ on National Television but would later be accused of falsehoods in The New Paper by former friends and partners. The Love EP was recorded and mixed in less than 22 hours only to be ignored by everyone.
By May 1994, Watchmen were history.
Indeed, though this journey appears to have ended, I am beginning a fresh venture with The Crowd. It doesn’t matter to me how many albums I sell, or whether The Straits Times writes about me, or if the radio plays my music. This adventure is for me, my family and whomsoever is interested in jumping on board. If there is but one person who is keen on following my art then it is certainlky worthwhile to soldier on. I see Modest not merely as a demo i.e. as a means to an end but an end to itself.
My recording career has only just begun.
Well, that’s where I had left it in 1995, which is now 14 years ago! Should I fill in the blanks? Comments, please…