Singapore: Where the music isn’t over3 min read . Updated: 15 Nov 2014, 12:12 AM IST
Singapore's rock 'n' roll culture of the 1960s faded awaybut the city is beginning to groove again
The band on stage is wearing matching red striped pyjamas.
I’m standing in a tiny traditional Singaporean shophouse converted into a space for music gigs. Fifty people have somehow been crammed in here. It’s across the road from the Masjid Sultan, Singapore’s largest mosque. Between songs, you can hear the call for prayer. A big sign at the entrance says, “No Drugs, No Alcohol". It’s about as un-rock-‘n’-roll as it gets. And yet…whoever said rock ‘n’ roll has to follow any rules?
I was there because I had seen some album covers.
Exhibit B: A six-piece multi-racial band, covering the spectrum of Singapore’s three major races—Chinese, Malay and Indian—wearing outrageous floral jackets, staring into the camera. Trousers so flamboyant that they glowed ethereally, as if emitting their own light. A wash of psychedelic colour in lieu of a background.
The images, part of a blog-post I had stumbled upon on a site called the Singapore 60’s Pop Music Hall of Fame, seemed disconnected from the contemporary Singapore I knew—straitjacketed, disciplined Singapore with its ruthless efficiency—complete with suits, high-rises and spanking clean streets. These images had a strange, jittery quality about them, as if they had landed from an alternate universe that surely couldn’t be a part of the same city that I was inhabiting.
The band on stage seems to share my thoughts. “We are The Pinholes!" the singer, Famie Suliman, shouts to the cheering crowd. “Chill out, relax…we’re taking you back to the 1960s!"
Those concerts must have sounded a bit like what I was hearing from The Pinholes —cheery, psychedelic music inflected with traditional Malay and Javanese rhythms. Jangly guitars, singalong choruses and a strong dose of rock ‘n’ roll theatrics filled the room. The genre is called “pop yeh yeh", after the chorus of The Beatles’ song She Loves You.
The scene, after growing and becoming a defining part of Singapore life, died a rather sudden death in the early 1970s, when a growing drug addiction problem led to a total ban on live music from 1972-77. Psychedelic culture was deemed inconsistent with Singaporean values—the authorities even banned long hair. An apocryphal story goes that the members of British rock legends Led Zeppelin, who had played in Singapore earlier in the 1960s, were turned back at the Johor-Singapore border with Malaysia after they refused to cut their locks.
Blog-posts led to YouTube playlists which led to compilation albums, and the trail led me to a thin volume at the Singapore National Library called Legends Of The Golden Venus. The book, by music journalist Joseph Pereira, was a history of Singapore bands in the 1960s centred around a single venue—The Golden Venus nightclub on Orchard Road. I took walks to the locations of the erstwhile dive bars and clubs that the book mentioned, discovering with a twinge of sadness that all these places—the Golden Venus, The Celestial Room, Tropicana—had given way to shopping malls and office buildings.
I met Pereira, the foremost archivist of that era in Singaporean music, and my guide into this rabbit hole. “Back then, Singapore was pop heaven," he says. “We had a record-buying public, companies hungry for new talent, and more shows than you could ever attend." In his “study" inside a modest 13th floor apartment, Pereira threw open a set of cabinet doors and pointed to his painstakingly acquired collection of vinyls and records. “Here they are," he said. “The crown jewels".
Pereira has also written three books on the Singapore 60s, with their own treasure trove of rare pictures and album covers from the era. He has collaborated with record labels to issue remasters and definitive editions of classic, sadly forgotten, bands like The Quests, and Naomi and the Boys.
In June every year, the durian-shaped Esplanade theatre hosts hundreds of local bands, new and old, for the annual Baybeats festival. At last year’s show, I saw the raucous cross-generational crowd that turned up for a reunion show by Force Vomit, a 1960s-influenced 1990s rock band. When they brought out their biggest hit, Spacemen Over Malaysia, thousands sang along, and those rose-tinted glasses seemed to reappear over Singapore for the briefest of whiles.
This September, a group of record labels and studios got together to announce the opening of the Museum of Independent Music, a permanent archive of the community’s oral, and aural, history. At the launch concert, punk band Daily Ritual put its finger on why it was important to remember Singapore’s psychedelic history: “We should never forget," they said, “that we once had a fierce belief in ourselves."