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