Sometime back, an article in the Tehelka news magazine lamented that “original rock in India is still wandering around with its umbilical cord, trying to find some place to plug it in”. It is an old, familiar lament—rock music in India is unoriginal, elitist and disconnected from Indian traditions and realities.
In this context, here are some facts about Thermal And A Quarter (Taaq), the Bangalore-based band I have been associated with since it began playing at venues in India and overseas 15 years ago.
A thousand or so 30-something Bangaloreans might remember the date 24 July 1999. That day, Taaq performed at the Potatoe Junkie concert and hauled the city’s underground rock music movement to the surface. The theme song—its title inspired by former US vice-president Dan Quayle’s infamous spelling howler—sneered at the city’s growing obsession with cable television. The band played a 2-hour set consisting mostly of original songs and, after breaking even, donated Rs15,000 to a relief fund for the families of soldiers martyred during the Kargil war.
Cooperative efforts such as the Bangalore Music Strip and Freedom Jam had launched amateur bands in the 1980s, but the Potatoe Junkie concert marked the first time a single band executed—and profited from—original live music. The only paying avenues at the time were collegiate festivals but organizers favoured cover bands (that is, bands that played existing popular songs). Meanwhile, some bands started performing intimate shows for small, appreciative audiences, playing original songs that dealt with local themes. Notable among them was the Sarjapur Blues Band, which inspired younger groups to find their nascent voice.
Rooted: Taaq’s Bruce Lee Mani (right) and Rajeev Rajagopal (on drums) with jazz guitarist Vinny Valentino in Jakarta.
In 2000, with the dot-com bubble about to burst, Taaq released its debut album, Thermalandaquarter.com, which commented on the city’s obsession with information technology (IT)—everything had to be dot-commed to be cool (a barbershop in Lingarajapuram was called Haircut.com). The songs in the album warned of changes in the erstwhile pensioner’s paradise. One of those Days fumed at peak-hour traffic snarls in a city where commuting used to be a breeze and Somebody’s Fool smirked at simple folks confused by big consumer brands that had landed like aliens in their backyards.
Released in 2002, Jupiter Café was arguably the first concept album by an Indian band, reflecting the angst of Bangalore, notorious as the back office of the world at the time. Brigade Street was perhaps the first song written about everybody’s favourite downtown haunt and State of Mine was about being pink-slipped. While composing for the album, the band jammed on the sixth floor of a well-known high-rise notorious for suicides. One evening, we looked out below to see the body of a woman, her wedding invitation cards scattered in the air. That, along with reports of suicide by IT workers, inspired the gloomy Without Wings.
In the album Plan B (2005), the band members were frogs in a well, looking out. Among other things, the band toasted the Bangalorean’s ravenous appetite and deplored the metro-mania of an overzealous government that uprooted trees, stacked flyovers and dug up streets in the name of “development”.
City authorities clamped a ban on “live bands” in 2006, clubbing rock bands along with clandestine businesses such as dance bars. For three years, the band had few opportunities. Though they gigged across the country and abroad, they worried that Bangalore had no future. This sentiment was reflected in the title track of their fourth album This is It (2008).
There are more Bangalore stories in Taaq’s repertoire, and they will be told in albums to come.
Bijoy Venugopal is a biographer for Thermal And A Quarter.
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