Tuesday, May 15, 2007
A TRIBUTE TO SINGAPORE INDIE MUSIC
Welcome to Rock In The Fine City. This is a uniquely Singaporean music blog that gives a retrospective look at the tiny island city state republic music scene of the past and archives what remains of its precious moments. This project was started in 2004 out of my passion for local music, the need to extol and justify its values, to quench the curiosities from the growing interests of music lovers on the local scene, to appease my distaste against the music industry of current and to kill the boredom during my undergraduate days. Most importantly, it is my conscientious effort to commemorate these underrated talents before they become lost forever in the everchanging landscape of this great cultural void, to show the world that yes, we had a glorious scene in Singapore.
Singaporean indie music in the period between the early '80s to the late '90s enjoyed a second renaissance that revived the lost spirits of rock n' roll not heard since The Quests. During this period, which I strongly regard as the true prime of Singaporean music, saw a great number of outstanding talents emerging from their underground hideouts bringing along exceptional qualities that made Singaporean indie exquisite in its own right. During this period, some of the greatest rockings were created, adding sparkles of life in the stern, lifeless backdrop of conventional Singapore. In most of the '80s, these bands were already staging guerilla warfare underground, undetected by the radar of masses. Perhaps the regular radio staple of commercial pop had its waning foothold among the younger generation of idealists who needs a more challenging stimulation than Dick Lee and Tokyo Square. Visionary intellectuals sought expression to convey their revolutionary ideas to their audience. However, in a closed and prejudicial society in those days, it was difficult to be heard. Anything "different" were deemed subversive by the herd of plebeians who cannot comprehend art beyond superficiality, who is satisfied living a boring existence without intellectual stimulus. That was when like-minded intellectuals started the underground movement.
Back in the days of old it was difficult for most local bands to get proper equipments and kits to play and record music so they had to "do-it-yourself" (DIY) and what they lacked in productions and sound quality they made up for with better song-writings and drive. Since they’ve got nothing to lose, and armed with an inherent rebellion against normality, they got bolder and experimental. Through this selection process the status quo was gradually shaken paving way for the emergence of talented "true" artists who lived the integrity of their music and created a whole new musical expression, perhaps giving rise to its unique "Singapore Sound" identity. That was how the history of most genres of indie music was revolutionized and written. That was how we got excellent bands like The Oddfellows, Corporate Toil, Opposition Party, Humpback Oak and Force Vomit delighting us for the large part of the late '80s and '90s.
But, albeit the great talents, these bands were severely underrated by the same herd of plebeian masses brainwashed into the refusal of intellectual stimulus, cultural pride or "changes" as to speak. The same bunch of people who took the Straits Times as literal truths, who is judgemental on the "different", who would rather hear music for enjoyment than to listen to and feel music. But most importantly it could be attributed to the great deal of insecurity and inferiority complex stemming from post-colonialism. These same masses with lack of self esteem could not imagine Singaporean music as anything better than the next foreign band with extensive airplay on radio, even though such situation happened many times. Try playing Concave Scream to a typical Singaporean dude/dudette and hear his/her response. Usually positive. But try telling them that this is a Singaporean band. Negative. And with the typical condescension "I don't support Singapore band, Singapore bands are no good". They stereotyped and condemned Singaporean music because they had been brainwashed by the same authority that condemned rock n' roll since the '70s. They hated their own cultural identity because they had their own culture put down by the same authority. Eventually Singapore will become void of cultural identity if these plebeian masses stricken with pinkerton syndrome continued to looked up to the west (or in some cases northeast asia) and despised their own cultural legacy. That sadly made the influx of local talents going nowhere but to fade away into obscurity.
However one might ask, "So why do you only feature old Singaporean indie bands from the past? Wah lao you so old fashion. Nowadays got a lot of young Singapore bands what? Since you lagi support Singapore so much, you should put more effort into the young bands mah." To answer that question, I will say that the state of the local indie music movement has reached a stage of stagnation, and the same ethos, passion and sincerity were all lost causes. And many local bands nowadays had become faceless masses playing insipid songs, a bunch of great pretenders and opportunists. Their music failed to stimulate and challenge my mind, or at least to touch me. Those feelings are gone. Maybe I am biased, maybe I am just nostalgic (=old fashion) but the spirit is long gone.
When indie music hit the radio, corporate interests followed, and in their world blinded by statistics and profit margins, they recognized the market for music that don’t follow the norm of regular radio staples. That’s when big words like grunge, alternative, nu-metal and emo were tagged onto bands mass marketed as such. Without the selection process applied, most of these bands turned out to be another faceless product from the music industry. This is worse off in Singapore because in our little proximity the trend hits like an epidemic upon our impressionable kids with the desire to be part of the bandwagon and of course commercial frauds like Superbands cashed in on this. We suddenly get a mushrooming of “indie” bands from all over the island and the ugly birds nest emo-influenced mess of a haircut becomes the teenage fashion norm.
The so called “indie music” and “underground” in the current local context are much abused misnomers that cannot really apply to many of these new bands which claimed to be. I mean how independent and underground can these bands go when every mean to making music is easily accessed. Nowadays any Tom Dick and Harry Lee can record some trash and put it onto myspace, and got readily accepted because being “indie” is the cool? Instead of living the music, the process of song writing, playing and recording became recreational hobbies for the bored kids sick of playing LAN gamings. I am sickened to the core whenever I bought a new local flavour of the month and got disappointed by its insipid pretentious garbage. Yes, I can tell that this Singaporean band is trying to sound like the next My Chemical Romance but they failed miserably because this is not music written from their heart, just another trendy bandwagon ride. I am sickened to the core too by the self-congratulatory attitudes of these new bands (AND OLD BANDS) congregating in their cliques of bourgeois bohemians acting intellectual and whereby the only competition is to outdo each other in being more fashionable and misunderstood. Of course I have to admit that there are still genuine musicians (e.g. Kelvin Tan) from this era that worked hard for their music below the radar and they greatly deserved all the rapport and support, but bands like these are not dime a dozen.
The reason why I relish the good old Singapore indie pop/rock could be partially traced to my formative adolescent years. Being the rebellious kid I sought art that defied normal convention. I read subversive literature, watched surrealistic movies and listened to music that dares to be different. It was back in old school days somewhere in 1990 in a gig organized in Boys’ Town, that I suddenly saw the brilliance of local music because The Oddfellows kicked my ass in all the right places. Their sheer energy, the catchy songs and the stage antics surprised me, never knowing that a Singaporean band could give such high standard of proficiency and appeal in music. Then before I know it, I realized that I’ve been listening to the songs from the same band I saw a while ago on radio. Inevitably I went beyond my usual fodder of My Bloody Valentine, Sepultura and Sonic Youth to check out local bands rocking their soulful tunes. The craving was intense, I bought nearly everything that local bands put out and would always be pleasantly surprised and delighted by their pieces. When I ran out of CDs to buy, I checked out demo tapes, and soon discovered the whole legion of the underground. Whenever there was a gig somewhere I will turn up to catch them bands playing. Some are downright crappy, some are awe-inspiring, but all nevertheless enjoyable. My adventures in the local leftfields eventually led me to Humpback Oak’s “Pain-stained Morning” which is the pinnacle of achievements for any Singaporean musical group, being the kind of album that made many eager young upstarts to play in a band and record a demo/album. It's no secret that this is my most favourite album of all times.
So relish the good old days and be proud of your Singaporean rockers while you can, it will not last forever.
About the Author
I go by the pseudonym of Sojourner in Rock In The Fine City and I wrote all the articles, designed all the layout and made my own tea. Needless to say, I am a great fan of music, be it indie, punk, metal, jazz, classical and avantgarde. I read alot, draw alot and made a little music. In the real world I am a professional in the life sciences industry and I am an avid investor. In the virtual desert of the internet I pretty much spend most of my time on Rock In The Fine City. Hope you like my effort here. Keep on rocking in the fine city!
--sojourner at 1:58 AM