Various Artistes. 100 Greatest: Singapore 60s – The Definitive Collection. Universal Music Singapore, 2009. 5-CD box set.
1960s have always been a heady decade for many around the world – In the USA, the people were fighting for the rights of the Afro-Americans, the military presence of the Americans in Vietnam, the corseted conservative moral and religious stranglehold of the mainstream mindset of the previous generations: the youth was struggling to get their voice heard through demonstrations and even riots, as well as mind-altering substances which were circulated around in dubious status of legality. In Japan, the generation who was born during and after the war was experiencing the new flush of wealth but at the same time rejecting the seemingly hegemonic and materialist influence of American culture and its role as the policeman of the free world of western democracy in the heydays of Cold War politics. In Brazil, the increasing polarizing societal tensions were dividing the citizens into distinct camps: while the youth and the intellectuals were gravitating more to the left politically, the powers-to-be with the landowners, the Church and the big businesses were shifting sideways to the right.
This brings us to Singapore in the 1960s: newly independent, this island republic was still grappling with endemic problems like unemployment, housing and hygiene while striving to push the declining entrepot trade from its status of Singapore main source of income for the past hundred over years aside to embrace export substitute industrialization to solve the problems and hopefully laying down the foundation for Singapore’s future sustainable growth. Politically, the PAP reigned large with the MCP and its fellow associates in Singapore already sidelined with the success of the Emergency and related anti-communist/trade-unionist policies in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Singapore still had the occasional racial related riots erupting in the course of the decade but by and by, Singaporeans were trying to move ahead in the midst of new governmental implements like Jurong industrial estate, HDB flats, and National Service.
So where did pop music and rock and roll come in in the 1960s? The lavishly packaged, pain-stakingly complied five CD boxed set which also comes with first-person-account annotation is an interesting artifact when one tries to set the historical and socio-political context of Singapore’s popular music back in the turbulent 1960s. Listening to the wide diversity displayed across the one hundred tracks in this boxed set, but with many covers of popular hits then by Rolling Stones, Beatles, Willie Dixon and many others, one however cannot be too optimistic about the originality of the music and lyrical content but this is by no means a putdown. In Japan, the kayōkyoku, which means “lyric-singing music”, also sounded derivative of the main acts and popular trends of the times: an umbrella term coined by the Japanese media to describe Japanese pop music during the 1950s and 1960s. Japanese artists’ attempts at blending the sounds of the first wave of rock and roll, surf music and a liberal sprinkle of enka (traditional-influenced ballad-like pop music) was purely a locally consumed music form but attracted much attention from the domestic market. Singing mainly in Japanese was definitely the main reason for this development. One often feels weird as many of the pop hits produced by Japan during this period of time sounded very much like cover versions of the Shadows and Cliff Richard, Elvis Prestley and Little Richard crooning in a foreign tongue. But more importantly, the musicians of both Singapore and Japan were mainly still trying to duplicate the sounds and feel of the new sounds of pop and rock and roll, which were themselves new youth-oriented music genres which were deemed as teeny-popper and even insidious influence on the moral fibre of the youth then.
Elsewhere in Brazil, rock and roll and pop music from the Anglo-American contingent were also treated with suspect. The Brazilians with its successful music export of bossa nova in the previous decade did not particularly welcome the crude sounding music form (with possible imperialistic undertone due to the countries of origin). The successor to bossa nova, MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) was all the rage in Brazil back in the mid and late 1960s – it proudly emphasized the non-usage of loud electric music instruments and it was seen as the preserve of the authentic voice of the Brazilian identity in the 1960s when the people were grappling with growing political and ideological upheaval streaming through the main veins of the society. MPB can be seen as the Brazilian parallel to the Greenwich Village folk scene spearheaded by Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan in the USA. Scene-sters in these two environs held similar viewpoints toward the crass nature of mass-appealing, commerce-driven nature of most pop and rock music.
Rock and roll and pop music in Singapore did not really suffer the fate of the early rock and rollers of the Brazilian rock scene as music was a luxury then a given to most people in the decades before the onset of rock and roll on the island. Rock and roll was seen as quintessentially “pop” and thus entertainment to the youth, even though the government was more suspicious about the phenomenon which we will come back to a bit later. The presence of the British military at the naval and air bases in Singapore until the early 1970s basically meant the import of the latest pop and rock and roll tunes from the shores of the USA and Britain via the British soldiers a de facto cultural influence on the youths here. Despite the perception of the reigning government of the popular music as “yellow culture”, not dissimilar to the sleazy transactions happening in night clubs, the gambling dens and other dubious venues for illicit activities of a semi-legal or even criminal sort.
But hey, rock and roll is all about breaking the mold, rebelling against the accepted norms and practices of any context it is placed in right? Therefore, nothing was able to stop the young people here from picking up their guitars, drum sticks and microphones to make some glorious noise. Furthermore, the government was not able to really put down the proliferation of pop and rock and roll with the presence of the British soldiers during the 1960s yet; this would only come in the 1970s, when the British eventually withdrew their military commitments from Singapore and when the perceived threat of illegal drugs was growing by the day as news of fear-mongers sold stories of drug exploits and casualties amongst the rock and pop aristocracy in the west. The presence of the British soldiers also provided the infrastructure for many local bands which were eager to display their craft to rehearse and to get onto a stage, at tea dances (a venerable teen cultural British institution), aside from other gigging venues.
However, very different from Japan and Brazil, Singapore did not and do not have a more homogenous market for rock music as heard from the songs on this box set, the lingua franca of the new pop sound was English and this alone was problematic to the determining of the reception and development of the music in the 1960s: bilingualism in the education system of Singapore, though was beginning to take shape was in its infant stage and thus the popular music here was still very much divided. The Chinese speaking crowd with many of them harbouring sentiments of anti-colonialism or simply the lack of the knowledge of the English language would be following the pop trend coming from Hong Kong while the non-English educated Indians and Malays were most likely not fans of the these acts then.
This is not to say that Anglo-American pop and rock music did not have its impact on local Chinese, Malay and Indian popular music scene but the exact co-relationship would have to be further determined with future research invested in the study of the demographics and language spoken by Singaporeans back then. But one thing is very certain which was that Singapore with its small population and populace divided along racial and language lines was still able to support the nascent music scene back in the 1960s. According to Joseph C. Pereira, the author of the book, “The Legend Of The Golden Venus”, and Alphonso Soosay, ex-drummer of a prominent local 1960s band, Naomi & The Boys, many top acts like The Crescendos, which are also featured in the box set were selling records in the range of 25,000 units and above and more importantly clinging the top spots of local music charts (which is non-existence in today’s English charts locally) which was a tremendously feat given that back then the population of Singapore was considerably smaller compared to today but the current Singaporean bands or acts could hardly muster that kind of sales figures. What had happened?
This could mostly likely be traced back to the change of political and social tolerance towards rock and roll in general in Singapore by the 1970s. Thus with the departure of the sometimes patrons and source of musical information, the British, the government came in: the threat of drugs and the accompanying lifestyle of decadence meant that rock and roll was not to be tolerated as it would mean Singapore’s overall industrial-economic progress and efficiency would be adversely affected if the youth here would to ingest drugs, psych out to rock music and carrying counter-cultural sentiments like the hippies, militant youth activists, social dropouts, pseudo-orientalist religious dopeheads and promiscuous sexually liberated delinquents. Anyone with longhair could be detained by the police due to his suspected insidious cultural alignment just because of how one wished to wear his hair. The paternalistic nature of the ruling government basically meant the stagnation of rock (as it was known from the late 1960s onwards in the west) as a cultural and artistic form in Singapore for many years to come.
On the other hand in Brazil, the superior attitude held by the Brazilians slowly changed with the appearance of Tropicália, a group of musicians, art renegades and cultural ideologues who did not discriminate between traditional music, popular music and classical music and with their irreverent approach to pop music and its presentation. They bridged the high brow with the low brow, joined the various strains of contemporary Brazilian musical trends as well as the courage to stand in front of a potentially abusive audience to perform their songs. Often expressionistic, socially conscious and rebel rousing even (two of its key leaders were kept under close arrest by the Brazilian authority after it became a military dictatorship in the late 1960s), the artists like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and the Os Mutantes brought rock and roll out of its teenage roots and pushed the art form towards maturity which was of course no sole merit of the Brazilians themselves but it was part of a worldwide evolution of rock and roll to rock when it dropped the “roll” and with it the appending commercially determined, adolescent targeted connotations.
Similar trend was developing in Japan as well by the late 1960s and early 1970s with many musicians becoming affected by the growing artiness of rock and roll to become rock. The release of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” as well as other milestone albums by the top pop and rock acts like The Who, The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, etc were seen as pivotal moments in rock and cultural history in the west which marked this change. The emphasis of an album as a statement of intent by the “artist” became current during this period of time and the format of release also moved from singles and extended playing vinyl to long players signifying the move to crafting and producing works of art worthy of their fans and anyone’s attention for the forty minutes or so on the turntable. The move of rock journalism from juvenile trivial pursuit to serious discussions, interviews and musings on the art form, the albums and the artistic intent of the bands and acts also helped pushed rock forward. Therefore, bands which treated the music form of rock seriously started emerging: Taj Mahal Travellers, The Jacks and Les Rallizes Denudes were just a few of the key acts from that era. Rock journalism also developed from teeny magazine reportage to more serious and artistic evaluation of the “works” i.e. albums of these rock bands and acts a la Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and the Rolling Stone rock-writer fraternity. Rock became the new form of artistic transcendence, after the French Symbolist/Decadent writers and poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. However, this trend was also accompanied by growing politicizing of the musicians and as well as the rampant association of illegal drugs with these bands in question.
Coming back to this box set, a commendable effort at archiving the musical fertile grounds of the 1960s in Singapore makes one wonder about the subsequent historical development of rock and popular music in the 1970s and 1980s. Bands like the Thunderbirds actually would not sound out of place from some of the bands on one of the most important rock documents of the 1960s, “Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965 – 1968” meant that rock music in Singapore might just evolve and grow into something similar to the rock music as those found in Brazil, Japan or even the USA and the UK if the climate was more favourable here in the subsequent decades. Imagine this instead of just competent renditions of covers of the big hits of the day, or replicates of the songs and forms of the top of the pops. We cannot help but speculate.
The music contained in this box set can be divided into three broad categories: the pop tunes which are usually produced verbatim from their counterparts in the west, with lyrics about boy-girl relationships; the more rock oriented songs which are spirited attempts by the local musicians to emulate the energy of what they heard on the radio or vinyl and; lastly a few acts/songs which were moving more towards the next progression of rock and roll from a teen phenomenon to the more serious form that it was transforming to in the west during the late 1960s.
As mentioned earlier, many bands feature here are able to capture the sound and fury of the teen energy or emotional longings of many of the then current pop tunes of the day like Naomi and the Boys, The Crescendos, Bobby Lambert and the Dukes and Henry Suriya and the Boys. Competent and relatively well produced given the poorer production facilities which existed in Singapore then but thanks to the support and interest shown and given by the music multinationals, Philips, these bands were given a platform for their tunes to be recorded and disseminated and very often making it into the local English pop charts, nudging comfortably next to the top hits from Britain and the USA.
However, they were more or less dated in their sounds and for some even representing a cul-de-sac in the sense of musical development and growth as a valid art form as they were generally conservative in their playing and songwriting (if they are not cover songs). Therefore the few songs in this box set which demonstrated an interest to experiment or exploring the format of a pop or rock tunes were the true gems: Tony Chong’s I’m As Sad As I Can Be together with many of the Thunderbirds’ tracks as well as Cells Unlimited and The Clansmen somehow broke away from the confines of the bulk of the rest of the songs. Tony Chong’s amazing opening bars are exemplary of the chilled-bone psychedelic chords of rock coming alive: one can still hear similar moves on albums produced by the more adventurous psychedelic rock acts since the late 1960s till today.
The Thunderbirds, Cells Unlimited and The Clansmen all sound like rock renegades on the verge of collapse: not unlike many furious songs on the legendary Nuggets box set which showcased many American bands jamming away their own versions of the British Beat invasion bands like the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles (which were similar influences on many of our local acts besides the Afro-American bluesmen) and pushing the form of the songs to more extreme territory with more wayward chordal progressions or on-the-edge kind of playing and execution. We might have our very own Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Stooges, MC5, the Velvet Underground, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Pink Fairies, Les Rallizes Denudes, Os Mutantes, Keiji Haino, Soft Machine, Gong, Can, Ash Ra Tempel, Faust and Blue Cheer in our hands if the bands here were given the time and opportunity to experiment and grow.
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Meltzer, Richard. A Whore Just Like The Rest: The music writings of Richard Meltzer. Da Capo Press, 2000.
Pereira, Joseph C. Legends of the Golden Venus: Bands that rocked Singapore from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. Singapore: Times Editions, 1999.
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Various Artistes. 100 Greatest: Singapore 60s – The Definitive Collection. Universal Music Singapore, 2009.
Various Artistes. Love, Peace And Poetry: Japanese Psychedelic Music. Normal Records, 2001.
Various Artistes. Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965 – 1968. Rhino Entertainment Company, 1998 .
Various Artistes. Tropicalia: 30 Anos. PolyGram Brazil, 1990 [1967-69].
Joseph Tham is an educator working in Singapore who is interested in all genres of music, particularly the avant gardist side of things. A history graduate of the National University of Singapore, he also enjoys reading and films. He is keen to understand the social, economic and political context of music/literature movements and genres, and the interface between modernist art and music and its relationship with the cultural avant-garde. He used to co-run a hole-in-the-wall record shop specializing in alternative and experimental music.