THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD My Bittersweet Life as a Local Musician
NB. More than 10 years ago, I contributed an article to a book on local music called No Finer Time To Be Alive. I’m serializing the piece here at Power of Pop over the next couple of days. It’s an interesting snapshot of where I stood, as a musician, in the mid-90s. Maybe I should update it, eh? Comments, please.
The National Theatre, a hot & balmy Saturday night, sometime in the tailend of the Seventies. On stage, the impossibly thin lead vocalist ( with the incredibly tight jeans ) of rock band The Unwanted is caught in an unfortunate quandry – he’s forgotten the lyrics to that classic rock chestnut Burn – and the crowd ( naturally ) jeer him unmercilessly. Uncomfortably, he asks whether he was ‘ unwanted ‘ and receives a predictable response!
Pest Infested are next in the firing line and suicidally decide to play the blues. Midway through an impassioned run through Like A Rolling Stone, the predominatly Mat Rok crowd make their own decision – its intermission time! Those who remain, continue to heckle the luckless bluesboys with the chants of ‘ WE WANT SWEET !!! ‘ slowly but surely gaining momentum and strength. Disgusted, the group simply give up.
The snacking mass soon return to welcome their darlings – Sweet Charity – and it seems like the entire auditorium erupts into a frenzy of unbridled excitement. Led by Ramli Sarip, the band are in their element, making the right moves, striking the right poses and singing the right songs – they can do no wrong.
Welcome to a typical gig in Singapore circa 1978, where the ticket to audience appreciation is providing faithful fascimiles of classic rock i.e. Deep Purple / Led Zeppellin / Black Sabbath, and nobody but nobody even thinks of the words ‘ artistic integrity’.
As a mere seventeen year old, my own thoughts were not about whether local bands would forever be doomed to play second fiddle to their foreign cousins. Rather, it revolved around perfecting that tricky organ solo in Highway Star. Yes, it seems strange, but the ultimate goal for any local band two decades ago was to strutt your stuff on the National Theatre stage and hopefully avoid the heckling.
And being part of a fledging outfit myself, my own ambitions did not stray far from the norm. In any case, the conventional wisdom was that this was only a teenage phase and nobody would take pop music seriously either as a career or an artform.
Once the heady days of the Sixties were over, the scene entered its darkest period and would not emerge back into the sunshine for two decades. The perception of musicians as ‘band boys’ was solidified during this time as whatever artistic merit of local musicians was totally stripped away and reduced to mere functionaries to provide background muzak during dinners, parties & dances.
However as far as my bandmates and I were concerned, none of these matters concerned us as we lived from jam to gig, hoping for greater things, maybe one fine day. Our principal inspiration being The Beatles, we rehearsed and rehearsed, played at various functions and slowly but surely developed our own original repertoire.
By 1979, we knew in our hearts that a bold step was required to bring us to the next stage. And so, we set up an appointment with a A&R representative from WEA and armed with a ghetto blaster and a demo tape, we plunged into the unknown.
Memories are a bit hazy about the actual details-how this man looked like, what his office was like-but what was clear was someone pressing ‘play’ on the player and listening to the opening psychedelic strains of Fool’s Paradise fill the room. After three nerve-wrecking minutes, the man pressed ‘stop’, stared intently at us and told us that it was quite good BUT ( and there’s always a ‘but’ ) WEA were only releasing Mat Rok albums.
Now, chew on this. If indeed this man was telling the truth, it seems ridiculous. The material was ‘good’ but not ‘marketable’ i.e. it would not sell enough to make it a worthwhile risk for a record company. There appeared to be a reality gap between the value of ‘quality’ and ‘commerciality’ as far as popular music was concerned-at least in Singapore.
For us, it marked the end of an era and for me personally it was the beginning of a long and winding road that would often bring dissapointment and frustration. This experience also served as a rude awakening for me-it did not matter how ‘good’ your music was, could it sell? That question continues to haunt all local musicians to this day.
… still there’s more …