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Joseph Tham

Various Artistes. +65 Indie Underground. Universal Music Singapore, 2009. 3-CD box set.


It was a warm and humid evening. Fans of the band playing on the make-shift stage in the garden of the Substation (now the popular live space/café, Timbre and formerly Fat Frog) were euphoric and jumping and slam-dancing away as the thunderous thuds of the drums and the overdriven guitar sounds were emitting from the two speakers. Some of them were queuing up at the left corner of the stage; they were getting ready to stage-dive off the wooden platform, similar to what the kids do in the rest of the world at hardcore gigs but with one major difference– they waited for their turns and they, like all good Singaporeans, jump off, one by one, in an orderly manner. And that was the image which stuck in my head. This gig was my very first occasion catching the raw power of legendary hardcore band, Stompin’ Ground, live back in 1990.

Stompin Ground

Prior to that gig, I had just purchased my first copy of BigO magazine (more on it later), at a newsstand behind Funan Centre, properly printed and stuffed with interviews and reviews on the musicians and bands in both the underground and independent/indie scenes, locally as well as overseas. Yes, that year was the year I discovered Singapore indie underground: it was truly subterranean, and except for a couple of friends of mine, it seemed that no one knew anything about the scene nor did they care, let alone the record industry. We were of course showing our contempt for mainstream/commercial music by donning t-shirts of indie/underground bands and putting on our Doc Marten’s boots (a staple for punk/hardcore and a little later grunge fans). It was a real scenario of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, when supporting local ‘indie’ music meant putting in that much more extra time, effort and commitment to attend the once-in-a-blue-moon gigs and to hunt down the hard-to-come-by cassette releases of the local underground acts. By the way, I still kept the cassettes which were released by many of these local underground acts, though some of them have shown signs of mould through the clear plastic between the two spools of the tape.

Indie, Not Indie

65indie

So when I first saw the name of this compilation of Singapore’s underground music scene twenty years later, the thing which hit me first was: what is ‘indie’ in the context of today’s internet-dominated and hi-tech-saturated media-obsessed 21st century? Is there still such a cultural-political divide between the commercial mainstream and the countercultural underground? Before we look further, we need to first, examine the sea-change which has taken place in the music industry and its attendant context for the past two decades.

With the digitalization of music in the 1980s and major record companies discarding vinyl and fully embracing the CD format, they did not realize at that point of time, that with this once-hailed indestructible mode of storage and playback, it marked the beginning of the slow death of the transnational corporate dominated music industry. Bored music fans started, with ease, converting their favourite tunes from CDs into MP3 format and uploading them on the then nascent internet via peer-to-peer file-sharing platforms from the mid 1990s onwards. The protracted history of the legal battles between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the major record companies, bands (Metallica vs. Napster) and the MP3 file-sharing communities the world over basically overturned the entire industry: from multiple platinum selling albums in the range of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (released in 1982, 110 million), Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction (released in 1987, 28 million) and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (released in 1973, 45 million) in the 1970s and the1980s to today’s tops at only double/triple platinum (platinum means a sale of 1 million copies accorded by RIAA since 1976) sales of the top bill of the major labels. The mainstream music industry as a force to influence the minds and souls has been seriously compromised, and the trend continues despite the temporary necrophiliac ‘resurrection’ towards the end of last year as a result of the death of the ‘King of the Pop’, Michael Jackson, as well as the hyped re-issues of the remastered CD albums of the Beatles. Thus, the long running oppositonal stance between the mainstream charts and the indie underground since the late 1970s has been gradually turned upside down.

Today, ‘indie’ or independent bands and acts are invading the Billboard Top 200 almost as frequent as we see an ERP gantry for the past two years: just last year, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion reached no. 13 and Grizzly Bear’s Verkatimest peaked at no. 8; other chart showers like Bon Iver and The XX amongst many others have managed to place themselves comfortably within the upper reaches of the chart. And of course, this year in January, Vampire Weekend’s second release Contra actually debuted on the Top 200 at no.1! Can we still consider these acts as ‘indie’ in its original sense?

One can of course interpret this as signs of the bankruptcy of creative validity of most major label sanctioned acts who are more concerned with flashing around on music videos in spandex and fishnets, as well as the growing discerning taste amongst serious music fans (the not-so-serious ones are busy downloading) and it is reflected in the chart actions of these indie acts which broke through to a wider audience base. People who love and believe in music are still endorsing their favourite acts by going to the stores to purchase the CDs/LPs or paying for MP3 albums online legally.

In Singapore, however, it is a sad state of affair when most of the bands featured on the 3-CD compilation are still ‘indie’ in the old-school sense of the word, even for those active in recent years: independent, unheard of by most and strictly off the radar. Except for the occasional chart indenture once in a blue moon over the past three decades, the state of rock in Singapore remains unknown, under-supported and under-appreciated. (even chart action on the radio doesn’t mean anything – the Oddfellows, Daze and the Watchmen all had No. 1 hits on the radio in the 1990s, but it did not translate to CD sales) What contributed to this prolonged phenomenon?

Us Versus Them

X’ Ho is spot-on to attribute the subterranean existence of rock music and its subsequent stunted growth in Singapore to the local censorial atmosphere due to the suspicions the government had towards anything to do with rock/popular culture from the 1960s through to the 1990s. [Editor’s note: Joseph Peirera’s Legends of the Golden Venus and Robert Conceicao’s To Be A Rock But Not To Roll: Autobiography of Jerry Fernandez offer the reason for the 1970s decline of local pop to be the withdrawal of the British naval bases from Singapore and the end of the Vietnam War – the Lion City was a hot spot for Rest and Recreation for American troops and that sustained the whole sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trade here as hinted in Saint Jack] The ban on slam dancing after the Henry Rollins gig at the Singapore Labour Foundation Auditorium in the early 1990s, which the local papers sensationalized, is just one example of the triggered government reaction to the decadent/violent/unsavoury/unbecoming practices/culture surrounding the music.

bigo005

However, the sustained impact of the long-armed paternal policies of the government in almost all aspects of life of Singaporeans since independence also acted as extra fuel, if not the main cause, for apathy towards the small but burgeoning underground music scene here. As the government basically planned, guided and single-mindedly focused the direction of the fledging nation towards economic sustainability since the 1960s via export-oriented industrialization, it has resulted in Singaporeans basically placing their faith in the government totally, and thus far, to give it credit, the government has indeed been successful in steering the nation towards what it is today. The prevalent socio-political climate and conditions present in other countries to allow for a vibrant arts scene were muted as a result, for the arts were seen as either unproductive or simply of a more frivolous nature, and this indirectly hindered the growth of a home-bred serious fan base for music. Most were ignorant of the fact that the arts are not mere entertainment, but possible forces of change, at least in cultural terms, like dada, Fluxus and of course, punk.

The entrenched ‘us versus them’ vantage point held by most ‘indie’ musicians, record labels, radio stations, record shops and live network systems began precisely because many in the West have stopped viewing rock music as mere painkiller to the drudgery of the capitalist system (especially so in the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was more entertainment than rebellion) but a possible conduit of self expression, change, independence and freedom. However, the existence of any such infrastructural framework for the ‘indie’ minded community to work in did not really exist then in the psychedelic/hippie 1960s when countercultural forces started to gain wider consciousness amongst the youth around the world (there were the Beats, the Beboppers, Free jazzers and the Situationist International before the folk revival and psychedelic rock). It only appeared suddenly but rapidly mushrooming via one of the most explosive musical/cultural moments in recent history in the 1970s: Sex Pistols and punk.

The Birth of Indie

In the UK, punk as a cultural and musical movement was seen as a force of great change in musicological, social and political terms by many critics and historians: the decaying British social system and the inability of the political structure to resolve high unemployment rates, soaring public expenses, rising debts and peaking fuel prices, were basically stabbing the zombie of an ailing British nation in the mid 1970s. It was a culmination of cultural ennui, political hopelessness, economic strangulation and social bleakness which created the context for Malcolm MacLaren, music Svengali cum cultural entrepreneur par excellence/former manager of the New York Dolls, to invest his time and handpick his ‘designer’ band in the form of the Sex Pistols which basically kick started the punk phenomenon in London and spread to first, other parts of the nation, and then swiftly to the other parts of the world. Despite the original Situationist-inspired intentions of MacLaren to subvert and ‘play’ in, and with, the music industry, he did not though, expect punk to encompass the spirit of do-it-yourself, ‘punk/independent versus mainstream/major’ stance, egalitarianism and bottom-up creativity which fans and musicians took to their hearts so earnestly later on.

The arrival of cutting edge punk/post punk groups, within the next few years after the explosion of punk in the national consciousness, like Public Image Limited, the Slits, the Pop Group, Gang of Four, Young Marble Giants, Scritti Politti and Crass, into the music scene, affirmed a couple of things: first, anyone can do it, even if you don’t even know a single chord (it helps a wee bit if you do), and second, the mushrooming of independent music labels and shops to record, release, distribute and more importantly, serving as inspiration and rallying point to anyone who showed the slightest sense of independent and creative spirit. By the beginning of the 1980s, independent or ‘indie’ chart (as listed in the pages of NME and Melody Maker) was inaugurated to champion and celebrate the fact that there was enough of a fan and structural base supporting the punk-inspired independent/indie scene with the likes of subsequently famous labels like Factory (home to Joy Division and New Order) and Rough Trade (home to later indie superstars, the Smiths). And interestingly, the proliferation of roots reggae and dub via the fans amongst the key punk practitioners like Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited), Ari Up (the Slits) and Mark Stewart (the Pop Group).

By the mid 1980s, independent record labels and acts took another turn due to the subsequent development of music zeitgeist in the increasingly post-capitalist and ‘me’ generation of the 1980s: the independent spirit was seen less as the mindset to provide a viable alternative to the mainstream which had been dominated by superstars, multi-platinum selling albums and goal-getters but more as another path to avoid major label bureaucratic burden with twice the efficiency in money-churning. By the end of the 1980s, top selling production houses like Stock, Aitken and Waterman (home of early Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan) were topping the indie charts in the UK due to the fact that it was not under any one of the major record labels.

In the USA, independent music took on a different turn: punk was never big in the way the Sex Pistols and the Clash were in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, instead, punk was seen as either a youth movement like the Straight Edge Washington D.C. scene (Minor Threat), the nihilistic Los Angeles punk milieu (the Germs), the mid-West Chicago thug punk crowd (Big Black and Naked Raygun) or, a concurrent development to the flowering of independent minded art-school blossoming in New York (the original punks, like Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Talking Heads and Ramones as well as their antithetical counterparts in the No Wavers like DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and James Chance) or San Francisco (art punk rockers like the Units, the Avengers and Tuxedomoon). Other than the first wave of punk rockers like Patti Smith and Television who released key albums on major record labels, corporate A&R execs were keeping their distance from anything remotely punk.

The attitude of the record industry in early 1980s Singapore was of course similar to their counterparts in the West. No distributors brought in punk records. [Editor’s note: This gives rise to the legendary story of Bobby of The Attic, then at Centrepoint, and his mythical gang of SIA girls who hand carried records back for him – they sold for $25 a piece back then] So don’t even talk about local punk bands. (that got to wait till 1986 for the birth of the Opposition Party) But to even mention anything made in Singapore would invite strange looks as well: besides Toyko Square’s Within You’ll Remain, how many ‘local’ hits can one remember from the 1980s? The mainstream was saturated with glitzy glam/hair metal rockers, post-disco rehash pop stars and MTV savvy rock icons flaunting their bust lines and tight spandex pants. Punk, surprisingly, infiltrated the consciousness of serious music fans in Singapore during this period. So if the majors were not paying attention, and we did not really need them, let’s do something on our own guys!

Indie, Singapore Style

The Pioneers: Zircon Lounge and Corporate Toil

Zircon

The local scene started in the early 1980s with one key band, Zircon Lounge. Their track, Guide These Hands, included in +65 as the very last track on this three CD set, betrays traces of New York punk pioneers and New Wave (distilled through the Cars and Romeo Void) and Velvet Underground/Lou Reed (re-routed via the Dream Syndicate, a key band in the neo-psychedelic Californian Paisley Underground scene and on the first LP of Zircon Lounge, the group actually covered ‘Sweet Jane’ by the Velvet Underground). The group stood as a brave and defiantly firm statement in the local music scene then: the first band to embrace, ingest and produce an original sound back in the early 1980s, amidst general apathy, of course. One of the key members, Chris Ho, went on to become the John Peel of Singapore when he became a DJ with Rediffusion Singapore from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, influencing thousands of youths who either sat in front of the cabled radio speakers every Friday evening [Editor’s note: I did exactly the same thing, except I had to go to the Lower Delta Community Centre to do so, much to the disapproving stares of aunties watching their Channel 8 programmes at 9 pm] or found out about his monthly Eight Miles High charts in the pages of the one and only independent music/cultural rag, BigO (Before I Get Old, a line from 1960s mega-selling mod group, the Who, which specialized in instrument dismantling antics on stage). The band represented the first breath of independent music locally but after the band disbanded, all went quiet, or so it seemed.

When BigO became properly printed (with colours et cetera) and distributed locally in 1990, the local independent music scene started to grow. One act which had a controversial reputation then, is also featured on this CD set: Corporate Toil, though influenced by the more palatable post-punk/New Wave acts like New Order, Cocteau Twins and Japan, was Singapore’s answer to Suicide (the audience-taunting and axe-baiting duo from New York; arty yet hooligan-like in their demeanour, raw and brutal in their sound. Despite its tough New York persona, the duo still managed to squeeze in enough melody to make their tunes hummable: just imagine Elvis Priestley fronting a fearless, confrontational rockabilly band using keyboard-generated noise in front of rednecks back in the days before Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode); they were equally confrontational when they played live: audience heckling was nothing new for the duo, who duly gave the instigators reciprocal treatment in no time during their set. Often seen using a plethora of odd instruments like loud hailers and any sound making devices they could lay their hands on (even scotch tape – go figure), they were truly one of the most original independent bands of Singapore’s first wave of underground music with Zircon Lounge serving as the spiritual godfather to all.

The other tracks on this set adopted a chronological sequence albeit backwards: with the most recent acts/tracks in disc 1 roughly marking the 2000s as well as the third wave of the independent music/underground fraternity, disc 2 documenting the bands active from the mid to late 1990s approximately, which were themselves inspired by the first wave which staffed the first disc, tracing the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the releases of these bands were done in true indie fashion in less-than-satisfactory studio set-ups and transferred to cassette, the medium of choice and necessity of many 1980s independent bands and scenes all over the world from genres as diverse as Extreme Metal to Industrial, from Noise to Garage Punk (Coincidentally, all these indie and underground genres were off-springs of the punk milieu of the late 1970s).

The impact of punk, D.I.Y. and cultural resistance continued here with the local bands struggling to fight to express themselves independently with integrity intact, though the odds were against them: almost zero radio airplay, public apathy (still more or less so if we look at how 1980s-themed retro radio/television programmes and club nights which air hits of yesterday from the USA and the UK constantly still get Singaporeans going today – go check out Mambo at Zouk on Wednesday nights) and general countercultural stance adopted by many musicians, fans and scenesters in the late 1980s and 1990s. The embrace of more extreme music forms says it all when many took a shine to, for example, the sound of hardcore/metal crossover before the term Metalcore was coined (though not very well documented here except for Opposition Party, Stompin’ Ground, S.U.D.S. and Global Chaos). Gritty but power-punched, raw but self assured, many of these bands were not thinking about crossing over to the mainstream or receiving widespread acceptance. The scene was, like scenes pre-Internet, truly for the believers: one had to look real hard for the next occasional gig, to score the hard-to-come-by vinyl or cassette copies of their favourite bands which they found out through either word-of-mouth, music rags (which were usually months late) and of course, Chris Ho’s programmes and, later on his illuminating articles in the ‘Pop Life’ column in The Straits Times every Friday in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bands that Stood the Test of Time: Nunsex and OP

Opposition Party

Opposition Party

Despite all these handicaps, the local scene produced a few truly originals besides Corporate Toil and Zircon Lounge, which have yet to get their dues: Nunsex and Opposition Party. Nunsex’s track, Riptide (Tons Of Black Clouds), on the set is an excellent showcase of the band’s thorough understanding of garage punk and psychedelia, equal part sneer of the Stooges and the manic energy of the 13th Floor Elevators with an extra dosage of the neo-psych guitar noise of Dinosaur Jr and Ride. The group managed to release a cassette which I still treasure till today. Sounding nothing like everyone else in the local scene, they could have gotten critical acclaim in the USA or the UK if they were not based locally. Opposition Party, on the other hand, is slightly misrepresented in the set as the track selected to appear here, Zombie, is from their recent album in 2005 and not from the un-self conscious experimenting days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the honcho of the group, Francis Frightful (yes, staying true to the group’s original spark in English Punk), decided to up the power quotient of his penchant for angst-infused Discharge (a key UK punk band from the 1980s) with the crunching chords of metal. Today, critics are talking about punk/metal crossover in the USA and UK for the past two decades but OP had already done that, years ago.

X’cuse Me, You Still Indie?

The rest of the set features some of the ‘top’ names in the local scene and one can feel the change of influence from the early days to today’s post-rock and indie (as a genre with a sound which sometimes suggests fey, whimsy and a strong sense of melody, but not its original definition of ‘independent’) saturated tunes in disc 1. Today, with Internet, indie or independent music has gradually lost its sense of alternativeness and countercultural significance. Any band can go on Myspace, upload their songs (today there are many studios for local fledging musicians to rehearse, ‘jam’ and even record with ease whereas back in the 1980s and 1990s, everything was an uphill struggle) and social-network with people all over the world. If we were to look at the number of independent acts coming to our shores to perform, we had in the early 1990s, only Henry Rollins, Buzzcocks and Fugazi, while in the 2000s, music fans expect at least a couple of groups of such caliber to perform right at our pinnacle of culture excellence, the Esplanade: Mogwai, Jaga Jazzist, Envy, Biosphere, Kreidler, Andrew Bird, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise, Kode9 & the SuperApe, Ryoji Ikeda and the list goes on.

Simon Reynolds, renowned music critic, commented recently in one of his articles, that the gap between the mainstream and the underground is no longer as wide and as significant: with the slow decline of the major record labels seemingly impending and the apparent triumph of indie labels in the USA and UK at least seen in the recent chart actions, the two key words in the name of this excellent CD set will lose their meaning and validity in the near future. A band like Electrico penning the National Day tune in 2009, performing it live on national television, and leading the nation on a sing-along no less – this was definitely beyond the dreams of even the craziest indie fan in the 1980s.


Bibliography

Books
1. Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001.
2. Cavanagh, David. The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize. London: Virgin, 2000.
3. Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
4. Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of The Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990.
4. Nobakht, David. Suicide: No Compromise. London: SAF Publishing, 2005.
5. Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. London: Faber & Faber, 2005.
6. Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock And Beyond. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
7. Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t The Summer Of Love: Conflict And Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Magazines
1. BigO magazine (various issues from 1991 to 1996) http://www.bigozine2.com/

Internet
1. Reynolds, Simon. “Simon Reynolds’s Notes on the noughties: The changing sound of the underground” available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/dec/21/changing-sound-underground
2. Tham, Joseph. “Let Us Rock, Singapore!” published in THINK magazine and then available online at http://gashaus.com/component/content/article/57-scenes/109-let-us-rock-singapore.html

CDs/Sleevenotes
1. Various Artistes. +65 Indie Underground. Universal Music Singapore, 2009.

Joseph Tham is a history teacher who used to run the indie record shop, Flux-us and was a founding member of the experimental band, I/D. He blogs at http://www.psychmetalfreak.blogspot.com/


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19 Responses to “Review: +65 Indie Underground

  1. Ivan Thomasz says:

    Good insightful post, Joseph. But, begging your pardon, I believe you meant to say “burgeoning” (i.e. newly emerging) rather than “bludgeoning” (i.e. to strike with a heavy object) under your “US. vs Them” section.

  2. Ivan Thomasz says:

    And it’s “Within You’ll Remain” by Tokyo Square, not “Within Your Remains”! Heheh!

  3. Ivan Thomasz says:

    Good essay, but I feel you did give enough attention to the important role that BigO magazine played in helping to sow the seeds of what the local indie scene has grown into, today. BigO was instrumental in being the conduit through which the young local fans of the day could connect and communicate with one another about the music which mattered most to them. The writers were basically a bunch of young local rock fans talking to other young local rock fans with similar tastes to themselves, through their writings. It was basically a bunch of young music geeks (like yours truly) trying to tell other kids their age (we were mostly in our late teens to early 20′s then) about what was really cool in either the local or international music scenes. BigO was basically started by ex-Singapore monitor reporters, Michael and Philip Cheah and their brother-in-law Stephen Tan to introduce non-mainstream pop culture (music, movies, books and comics) to a local (mostly young) audience that had grown disenchanted with the popular/commercial offerings in the mainstream media of the day. If it wasn’t for BigO bringing people like Patrick Chng and Stephen Tan and Casey Soo Wai Cheong and even Joe Ng together, it could be argued that key pioneering bands of the First Singapore New Wave (1988 – 1992) like the Oddfellows and Corporate Toil, might not even have been formed. For a time, BigO was the only place through which the kids of the day could find out what was going on in the local scene, until a few other local “photostat” fanzines like Pale Shelter and The Reckoning came along. BigO helped to put on some of the island’s first alternative rock gigs at the Botanical Gardens and The Substation. Many people keep talking about the bands that started it all, but if it wasn’t for BigO, the magazine that was the “unofficial” voice of the then nascent indie community back then, many people would not even have heard of, much less attend gigs by these bands and eventually become fans of these bands, at all. BigO played a very significant role in not only sowing the seeds, or even keeping the nascent indie music community informed, but in many ways in its original form as a pop culture magazine, it was a force that helped to foster a sense of community and perhaps even unity amongst the indie musicians and fans of the day. Its influence is being felt in the local indie scene today, and many of those who used to write for BigO are still key players in the scene today. Patrick Chng plays for TypeWriter (and occasionally with the Oddfellows) and continues to be heavily involved in producing local gigs for many up-and-coming bands, Ben Harrison is still soldiering on in Etc, Kevin Mathews of the Watchmen still plays and also acts as mentor to young, budding local musicians, and Joe Ng, when he’s not composing music for local indie films, hits the decks as one third of the indie disco collective Beat! which plays Friday nights at local indie haunt, the Home Club. So, let us give enough credit where it is rightfully due. If it was not for BigO, the local English indie pop music scene might not be what it is, today.

  4. s/pores says:

    Thanks Ivan, we’ve corrected the mistakes.

  5. Joseph Tham says:

    Thanks Ivan about the add-ons on the role of BigO, it was certainly great to help focus the review on Singapore’s nascent indie scene back in the late 1980s and 1990s. I have actually written an article earlier which dealt more on BigO in THINK magazine a few years ago which I do not want to reiterate too much in this review, the link for it is: http://gashaus.com/component/content/article/57-scenes/109-let-us-rock-singapore.html

  6. Vivian Wang says:

    Joseph… a very educational read and very insightful, thank you… but I was honestly expecting a review of +65 and the bands/songs featured. Instead, I got more an academic rendering of what ‘indie’ means than your thoughts on THREE CDs worth of Singaporean music.

  7. Joseph Tham says:

    I understand the apprehension Vivian felt after she read my “review” on the 3 CD set of Singapore Indie Music but I think I would like to qualify a few things in response to her reaction as well as some more personal musing on music as well.
    I think music as part of culture can never be separated from politics, society and ideology; the hippie music in the late 1960s, punk in the late 1970s, etc were a ground-up reaction to the socio-political as well as economic contexts then. We seldom create art, music and literature in a vacuum. The apolitical (apathetic even) nature of most Singaporeans is a reflection and product of our system. Music and the arts to me is never about ‘entertainment’. William S Burroughs was blacklisted by the FBI, why? The governments around the world, ours included have always been wary of popular music in the past as music is a mode of expression which could in turn critique the society and the authorities and challenge stale social conventions. Rimbaud’s poems are not elegy to trees but a direct questioning of the values of France and Europe in the mid-19th century. Godard’s films are highly controversial and debatable as they throw the prevalent societal norms into sharp relief in contrast to the rising unhappiness and ennui of the French in the 1950s and 1960s. The list goes on. As one of Val Wilmer’s books go, music and the arts should be AS SERIOUS AS YOUR LIFE.

  8. tuxsin says:

    eh joe, sorry i came so late into the game…

    i agree that “culture can never be separated from politics, society and ideology”, but i think you have the tendency of over-valorizing whatever is critical and progressive within the cultural currents and impulses you bring up.

    so i dig, buy and listen to a lot of so-called ‘experimental’ or ‘underground’ music (works the same for film or theatre, for that matter), but so what? punk and acid-house might have rewrote the british musical landscape but what exactly were their net contributions to social and political change in the united kingdom, footnotes and minor moral panics aside? didn’t we all have to live through the golden years of thatcherism and new labour still? the more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? same goes for godard and the nouveau vague and the of promise and disappointment of may 1968, for example, huh?

    i just dun quite buy this ‘resistance’ as a badge of honour line of thinking. it’s just your choice as a consumer ultimately. and maybe that’s it all. i agree it’s serious, but it’s about as serious as which piece of mid-century modern furniture you’d want in your loft or what kinda statement you think your pick of wheels presents you to be. it’s just another kinda badge to adorn your self, an opportunity to accumulate some (sub-?)cultural capital.

    notions of identity, authenticity and distinction will always be ambiguous, especially in a world given to totalizing and homogenizing characteristics. in evading the spectacle of the everyday, we often find ourselves merely replicating the moral bankruptcy, hypocrisy and shallowness of the spectacular.

    pointless, really…

  9. Joseph Tham says:

    Hi tuxsin, thanks for pointing out the irony of it all; of course I am aware of the seemingly “pointless” flipside to much of where my viewpoint stand from. I am consciously reminding myself of not falling into that kind of “choice” and “mindset”, as much as possible. As recent as reading Peter Doggett’s excellent book “There’s A Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s” somehow reaffirms the fact that the so-called political/social/cultural allegiance which one takes would lapse into a facile form of individual accessory. But I think for me it is not to give up in the face of certain daunting and disagreeable stuff going around us to just submit or not question them. Noise and Industrial musics are cases in point which though often point out the depressing and pessimistic landscape of our environs which increasingly look inescapable, they persist but perhaps rather than resist, many choose to reject. So Hakim Bey’s idea of the TAZ is to me a viable option today, though not so much for Singapore but they are in existence all over even before Bey’s conceptualization of the term in the late 1980s. Zapatista would be an excellent case. It does not matter if it lasts as nothing last forever, even the British empire, the Roman empire and all would one day collapse, but it is the effort, I think.

  10. tuxsin says:

    well joe, you’ll agree that singapore isn’t exactly chiapas and that choosing a certain genre of music or a certain category of literature to consume definitely isn’t the same as participating in a peasant’s revolt. so subcomandante marcos is a fashionable symbol of angst and revolt that compares favorably with the likes of che guevara when it comes to the iconography of t-shirt design…but so what? doesn’t it actually prove that the spectacular is indeed capable of swallowing every countervailing current thrown directly or obliquely at it and recuperating it all by incorporating those very memes and currents back into the spectacle? i suppose all that ia a little bit too simplistic and black-vs.-white but i’m sure you get my drift… anyway, i’ve never been a big fan of bey so i’m quite skeptical with respect to the applicability of his theses, whether in singapore or elsewhere.

    noise and industrial are cool…no doubt about it, but i’d think there are better ways of highlighting urban blight or the tyranny of our streets that reaches out to more people and that that concretely attempts makes a difference, than say, a merbow gig only attended by thirty very self-satisfied chin-stroking schmucks, dun you think? and that merely seems to remind me how our own attitudes towards the culture we consume and the ideologies they supposedly embody are but a sad reflection of the self-serving, vain and fetishistic hubris that is such an integral part of the whole gamut of subcultural practices and consumption in the first place. there’s just too much posturing around, too much badge wearing, and too much self-congratulation or self-importance that the irony of it all simply collapses in on itself. most of us here are middle-class first world folks who work day jobs, pay taxes, drive around in cars, shop online or in giant air-conditioned malls, vote whenever we can because we’re told it’s compulsory etc etc etc so i still think it’s a bit rich to turn around and suggest that making a big, self-aggrandizing show outta listening to what is seen as the right sorta tunes at the right place and time is somehow supposed to make us all better global citizens and more decent human beings. some pats on the back are simply a bit less than deserved, no? the world is a frightening and oppressive place and everyday we continue with our lives, we probably ignore and continue to ignore countless acts of injustice and cruelty right under our very noses. we do it because it’s just so easy and convenient…and then we excuse our guilt and culpability by saying there is no other choice. we are enmeshed within networks of suffering, pain and death and embedded near the apex of a complicated global system of power and oppression and yet we want to somehow pretend that our middle-class conceits and luxuries are somehow more important than the hypocritical vanities they are? i dun want to ramble on or over-simplify things so i will shut it at this point. all i’m saying is that let’s all enjoy our preferred choice of music, films, clothes, books, furniture, cars etc. as they are and be mindful of our own self-deceit and hypocrisy. a knowing ironic wink – ironically, irony is now a prized aesthetic quality of the quotidian – perhaps that’s all it’s worth? anyway, life is short and fragile so let’s just try to enjoy the moment and do what we must. better the cynical honesty of defeatism than the pretense of lifestyle anarchism or champagne socialism, no? sometimes the most radical gesture is nothing more than a hip, empty and vague pose.

  11. Joseph Tham says:

    Dear tuxsin, well let us agree to disagree but just some points about your take on the “popularity” of the Noise scene, when you said that “a merbow gig only attended by thirty very self-satisfied chin-stroking schmucks”. Do read up about No Fun Festival (the queue stretched to many blocks and most nights were sold out plus attracting major press coverage on its “success”), All Tomorrow’s Parties and Pitchfork and some other “major” indie web portals and you will know that Noise might not be Lady Gaga standard in terms of units shift or tickets sold at the door but it does have a sizable audience around the world. Bryon Coley of Forced Exposure and Yod drew comparison to the hardcore scene of the 1980s; when there is a Republican dud head as the head of the so-called number one power of the world, it will definitely stir some grassroot reaction. Perhaps you are mistook them for Peter Brotzmann, Alex von Schlippenbach, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford of the European free imrovisation world, no? For Industrial, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and NON could crew quite a crowd in their heydays, of course. I do agree that amidst most of the fans, most are posuring and fashion-baiting minded more than anything else. But just like the saying on Velvet Underground, (which I cant remember in verbatim but it goes something like this) all the few hundreds who heard VU went out to form a band and influenced popular music forever. To end off, Che and Subcomandante Marcos might be fashion icons on t-shirts today but Black Panthers, Yippies, Weathermen, Red Army Faction, Baader Meinhof Gang, SDS (both American and German) and recent events in the UK and Italy must mean something, no? The middle class of the late twentieth century and twenty-first century is the new working class of the day, no?

  12. Joseph Tham says:

    To conclude, life is about an existence of personal struggles and for some, fighting at a larger scale of the society and the global level; perhaps that is what make us humans, maybe I am wrong but for me it is either resist or reject, but never give in. Misanthropy might snick in sometimes (like the first generation Black Metal pioneers) but going back to the basic idea of dialectical thinking and in today’s neo-liberal capitalist jargon, to embark on the “conceptualise, impliment, review” cycle, we ingest, we think, and if possible we make a difference. If not it is like saying that “what can we as individuals do about the worsening global environmental issues, let us just party on!”.

  13. tuxsin says:

    hi joe. there are obviously some things we disagree about but there are also a few things that we can agree on. either way, it’s no major concern. i certainly see eye to eye with your thoughts on how life is a struggle and how important it is to try and make a difference at the end of the day somehow, however difficult circumstances might be. so my position is definitely not one that advocates “partying on” with nary a care since the individual is kinda powerless and voiceless in the larger scheme of things anyway.

    nonetheless, where i take issue with some of the things you’ve expressed is at the pivot where awareness, alienation, angst, understanding and intention are translated into meaningful action. of course dialectical thinking and critical questioning are important. but thinking and talking about something isn’t quite the same as doing something concrete about anything. there is only this far that a little knowledge will bring you…and what next? like i mentioned in my previous post, it just seems a bit arrogantly self-aggrandizing when middle class first world folks who sit near the zenith of criss-crossing and far-reaching systems of power and oppression (which they largely acquiesce to in most aspects of their lives) and who are otherwise comfortable, complacent and oblivious enough to dismiss and ignore the countless injustices and affronts that pass them in the banality of everyday life, begin acting like they are playing some all-important role on the frontlines of some cosmic conflict just because they happen to watch, read, listen to, think or talk about certain issues, products or ideas. the uncomfortable disconnect between theory and praxis reveals however, just how hypocritical and conceited these kinda empty notions and gestures ultimately turn out to be. we can all talk about oppression and wrongs…but how much injustice has one REALLY fought today, or even lately? truly, let’s start with the smallest acts before talking about high-minded revolution and change, please…and how many have actually started the ball rolling at all, eh? sorry, but putting what is, with some qualifications, nothing more than a series of lifestyle or consumerist choices up there on the pedestal is not only intellectually dishonest, but morally bankrupt as well.

    by the way, heheh, jargon and newspeak ain’t the monopoly of neo-liberal managerial ideologues alone…surely you’ve encountered the voguish gibberish of ‘poststructuralese’ or ‘postmodernese’ for example, errr, no?

    hahaha, that bit about the kinda audience you might find at a merzbow gig was a bit polemical, i’ll gladly concede. still, how many people do you honestly think a gig by relatively big names in the field of noise such as merzbow, haino or axolotl will be able to attract in singapore huh? or maybe it’s really dependent on how the product is positioned in the market, whether it is, for example, held within the dingy, stinky confines of an “underground” bar or the antiseptic enclosure of an upmarket art gallery, eh? anyway, what did you think of the turnout at the recent sutcliffe jügend (or should that be sutcliffe jugend, without the trema? but i think the band did wanna include a metal umlaut in there at some point in time, if only as a joke since the original german word is clearly spelt “jugend”, though i could well be wrong about their intentions, of course) gig here, huh? heheh, no fun was a qualified success because the original festival was centred around, of all places, WILLIAMSBURG, for goodness’ sake! as an aside though, ATP isn’t strictly noise-oriented, but it’s usually one helluva show, no matter where it goes and whatever the lineup…;p hmph, my original point was merely that if one wants to raise awareness of urban decay and inner city despair and help coordinate some kinda concrete campaign to alleviate such troubling ills, there are definitely far better ways and more productive means to do so. after all, only a pompous and pretentious wanker would think that going to a noise gig is, ABOVE ALL, a chance to artistically engage with a critical theory of urbanism…no?

    i’ll also have to take exception to your characterization (you were paraphrasing byron coley though) of the growth of the noise scene as a kinda “grassroots” reaction against a decidedly right-wing administration in the white house. again, i don’t think it’s entirely fair to call the anger and disenchantment felt by a fringe subculture to be emblematic of a wider, much more complex discontentment with the presidency of baby bush and the direction that america had been taking. of course i’m not saying that the folks out there in the trenches of the scene, mostly cultural producers and innovators, but also the other nodes in the extended subcultural eco-system that these good souls are all trying to engender, who are doing their best to build up alternative, independent, deterritorialized, free-form, anti-corporate, non-hierarchical, non-commercial, non-market-focused ways of building relationships, finding meanings and banding together, do not deserve to be lauded for what they’re doing. nor am i saying that some of the folks that turned to, for example, noise during the heyday of america’s imperialist hubris in the previous decade did not share some of the anxieties felt by liberals and others on the broad american left (since i would assume that many noise lovers are nominally liberal, socialist, leftward-leaning etc in their political orientation)…but rather that it is somewhat simplistic to say that there is necessarily a strong co-relationship that can be established in tracking the trajectory of one social phenomenon vis-à-vis another; and in addition that, isolated (and probably insignificant) bursts of output by a minority section of cultural producers should not be so unthinkingly exalted with a loaded political term like “grassroots”. after all, many left-leaning folks might baulk at using the term to describe some social currents with a far wider reach and deeper impact, especially one as potentially offensive (to the folks in question at least) as the tea party movement. yet the grassroots analogy is in this case certainly more applicable if only because the “movement”, if it can be spoken of as such, enjoys a far greater degree of genuinely ground-up support in many communities across the united states. there is some kinda obvious double standards, self-applauding selection and hypocrisy at work then, or is it wrong to point out the less-than-critical biases and conceits enjoyed by the left? am nitpicking, yes, but just playing the devil’s advocate there, i’m afraid…

    hahaha…all of us here are to one extent or another music fans so i’m sure we can all agree at the very least that the velvet underground has been positively influential. they will definitely be up there somewhere really high up somewhere in the annals of music history. and yes, that famous quote (mouthed by eno, of all people, originally) goes: “the first velvet underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” but forming a band isn’t quite the same as participating in community voluntarism, engaging in political activism or taking up arms in a guerilla war. and in any case, not all rockers and tune-heads out there are politically aligned (often not even notionally) with progressive causes so i’d rather not read too much into how youthful rebellion and teenage myths have necessarily made the world a better place (apart from enriching our musical landscape – with among other things, literally thousands of lookalike bands mimicking the sound of say, the killers or kings of leon… *gulp*). i agree that the shifting context that music subcultures are sited within will always be a complicated, rolling and dynamic terrain influenced and informed by elements as diverse as politics, economics, social structures, cultural flows, ideologies, technology, media systems and fashion trends so i think it’s more efficacious to “complexify” things, rather than paring everything down to a black vs. white, simplistically constructed causal reductivism.

    i also do not know what to make of your list of organizations (some might be termed militant, others are certainly terrorist organizations even if they styled themselves as “urban guerillas”) from the counterculture era (and the immediate period that followed) in the context of this discussion. many of them might have been deified by a generation of angry and embittered youth since they provided a poster-ready source of inspiration…nonetheless…what gives? it has been many decades since the golden age of left-inspired (in theory if not quite in substance) violence and terrorism and one has to wonder what is the true legacy of this era, both in terms of the salience or relevance of the ideology and thought that propelled this spate of colourful turbulence, as well as the accrued effects and outcomes of the actions that these individuals ultimately chose. it seems weird that one of the biggest and most protracted challenges confronting contemporary “global” (read “western”?) civilization, on the most fundamental levels – call it a sharp difference in weltansschauung or whatever – is the emergence of a decidedly particularistic brand of religious conservatism that doesn’t even bother to pay lip service to the highest ideals of the enlightenment that many of us take for granted as key universals, and not something else from the left. somebody transported from the seventies to our world today will simply be astonished at this transformation. the cold war is now well behind us and not many people seems to remember just how titanic and violent the ideological contest between the first and second worlds actually was. marxism? just what has happened to marxism as a viable alternative outlook?? holed up in literary criticism and cultural studies departments up in the ivory tower, i’m not sure to what extent the (subculturally?) fashionable discourses preferred by these “cultural” marxists and their other fellow-travellers on the academic left can still speak to a larger audience out there or if it will be anything even comprehensible to them. so really, i’m not sure what you mean by saying that the activism and terrorism of that particular section of the old left that you cited “must mean something”. of course it means something, but whether that something is worth more than a cursory footnote is really up there in the air. the evidence speaks loudest, more than anything, don’t you think?

    really, there is no need to look so far for examples. of course the circumstances are somewhat different, but closer to home, the conclusion is just as stark. seriously, just what happened to a whole generation of leftist intellectuals and activists, here in the lion city? who remembers their ideals and struggles? who lives to tell their stories and follies, in all their black, white and gray glory? against the dominant national narrative, these voices have long been silenced and erased. and in the context of a depoliticized, instrumentally-oriented life-world without either ample civil liberties or a rich culture of civic involvement and engagement to create an ideal climate for debate and questioning, the fact remains simply that the “meaning” that you allude to is for all intents and purposes, even if it exists, meaningless to the vast majority of people out there.

    the intensifying immiseration of the middle classes in many contemporary societies didn’t happen overnight. there is a whole plethora of complex and even contradictory factors that account for this current state of affairs. whatever the case may be, it is still a bit conceited to think that the middle class losing a little of their purchasing power in relative terms ought to be considered in the same light as the plight of the global underclass, particularly those in developing economies. class-conscious proletariat the middle class of the first world isn’t. i would think that self-involved idiots claiming to represent “the people”…who through their words and actions end up insulting and diminishing the plight of folks in truly shitty situations, just to make themselves feel or sound more important, really do not deserve the place on the podium they have reserved for themselves. to that extent, i’m not sure if i agree that the recent protests in the UK (and elsewhere) really ought to be seen as some neo-marxist renaissance. i’ll freely applaud anyone’s right to assembly and free speech but i don’t think interest groups pursuing a narrow (and often self-interested) agenda ought to be seen as the selfless, altruistic “progressives” that they may sometimes pass themselves off as. the smug vanities of a (otherwise privileged) select few isn’t the voice of the people or the bulwark of the future, but simply another example of self-congratulatory bourgeois decadence collapsing on itself. what is clear is that the social compact exemplified by the coexistence of a strong variety of capitalism with entrenched state welfarism doesn’t quite work anymore in many cases. while some may recoil at these trends, the fact that many voters in the first world have moved rightwards at the same time in the last few years also isn’t something that can be dismissed. in times like this, it might be more productive to step out of our own delusions of grandeur rather than sticking with tried and tested myths that only provide a very limited view of the world and that only reinforce our own petty prejudices.

    anyway, back to the music. i suppose we both appreciate the socio-political contexualising of music. but whereas you’re more into the ideological undercurrents that inform music ;scenes’, i just happen to be more into how people use music, the social networks engendered thereof, the messages and feelings involved etc to build different layers of meaning. i guess even if it’s bullshit, intellectually suspect or morally inconsistent (and that is to a certain extent what i’ve been asserting), is it not important as well that people find something to hold on to? all i’m saying that in trying to hold on, it’s not that different a variant of consumption from other folks’ habits, preferences and patterns. it’s funny how one can rail against the tendency of self-righteous bigots to pontificate but end up behaving in the exact same ignorantly arrogant and pompous manner…the mirror is almost never kind enough when you finally choose to finally take a long, good gaze into it. at the end of the day, maybe we just live in an incomprehensible world that terrifies us with its trivialising, homogenising and conformist tendencies. everyone of us is just trying to define our own tenuous and fragile sense of self and identity by negotiating with this reality. for some of us, it means a herman miller chair, a chanel bag, a volkswagen hot hatch or a district 10 apartment. for others, it means being a social entrepreneur, mouthing recycled new age mumbo jumbo, regular rough-it-out backpacker adventures to “unexplored” lands or taking a somewhat leftfield job. i could add more examples but what would the point be? taste, purpose, lifestyle, distinction…just where’s the big gulf? most of the time, ‘difference’ is just a concept that just exists in our heads alone anyway. everyone is simply trying to find his or her own bit of authenticity and purpose in this era of instantaneous diversity and zero-effort ‘alternativism’…so who is truly wrong or right? well, live and let live and to each his or her own, eh? makes no sense to judge or characterise people just based on their taste in music (or films or dressing or preferred cuisine), right? It’s just a lifestyle or consumerist choice ultimately, isn’t it? if it means something to you, then it does. but that doesn’t make it any more real or concrete or legible than somebody else’s consumption fantasy either. truly, it’s everyone’s or anyone’s right to be a armchair anarchist or lifestyle liberal, for all i care. but let’s just be a little mindful of parading the hypocrisy and deceit that is implicit. that is all i’m saying…

  14. Joseph Tham says:

    Well tuxsin, I hate to admit it but there are ideological forces today which can rally the middle class and the working class together to fight and and even die for their causes: see the rise and rise of religious fundamentalism (no longer the domain of poor, below the poverty line kind of support base but increasingly, the educated and upwardly mobile middle class across the globe of various faiths). Just look at the profiles of many of such transnational terrorists you would know what I mean. The current situations in North Africa and the Middle East are partly contributed by such deep sentiments too. This might not be the forces I am talking about or swear allegiance to though. Music and culture play a part in the spread of the news and networking of the events in these troubled areas, go Youtube take a look.

    The middle class guilt can be converted into rebellious, revolutuonary and even militant actions but most successful regimes understand that by providing the context for all to have access to this “coveted” social strata basically blind many to their mindless pursuits of careers, properties, insurance-enhanced retirement plans and lifestyle. Governments are greatly overrated today; there are many around the world exploring non-governmental way of doing things, be it “1st world” or “3rd”. The key thing here is a turning point, a pivot where people flip over to the other side as their current situations basically entrapped them. Books, music, films, whatever keep this awareness and option(s) open and available you see? So how can, e.g., the word be hypocrisy be a catch-all descriptor for what you have deposited here when some people in other parts of the world are acting and not just merely talking or posing?

  15. Joseph Tham says:

    By the way, there are right-wing forces in alternative music and culture too, see neo-folk, some strands of oi-punk and National Socialist Black Metal. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s the left and the right were fighting and singing and playing music in the streets in support of their beliefs and causes. Not everything is down to choices and lifestyle consumerist options… Just dont be so pessimistic and cynical; life still have meaning(s) for each individual beyond what to buy, to drive, where to live and eat and to be seen. Of course constant reminders are needed, cultural artifacts are not the only one, but one of the key ones available to us, still.

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