Sixties Mumbai Garage Rock Band Gets Vinyl Reissue
A chance discovery by a UK label head has resulted in the restoration of two originals by The Combustibles
There are many ways to begin a conversation with Nissim Ezekiel. It could take off from his famous name, which he shares with his poet uncle. It could be about Led Zeppelin’s legendary Mumbai trip in 1972, and the time he saw Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at a South Mumbai club called The Slip Disc. Or about the Indian music scene in the early Seventies, [when Ezekiel’s own band, The Combustibles, played] when chocolate wrappers were the equivalent of Blue Frog’s Friends Of The Frog card, and the number of wrappers collected determined one’s seating option at gigs. But the revival of the music of his ’60s band after over four decades is just as good a start.
Last month, Harkit Records, a recording company in UK that specializes in limited edition vinyl releases, released two singles that The Combustibles recorded in early 1970s and as a limited edition 7” vinyl record. So when Ezekiel, who is currently based in Las Vegas, where he works as a freelance finance consultant, calls the current turn of events “fortunate,” he isn’t being modest. It was a lucky coincidence that made his band record their singles at a small studio in Worli in 1972. “It was difficult to release original material back then. We were fortunate to have a very good vocalist and songwriter (Everett Perry), who wrote some very unique material. It was just pure luck that the manager of a record company saw us perform and asked if we would like to record with then,” says Ezekiel, “We recorded four tracks, though only two were released.”
Founded in 1967 by the Taylor brothers [George on bass and Lionel Taylor on lead guitar], The Combustibles, a band from Mumbai’s hippest suburb, Bandra, originally featured Max Crudgington (vocals and tambourine) and Paul Fishery (drums), but was retooled with a new lineup in 1969 featuring Perry on vocals, Bobby Furtado on drums and Ezekiel on rhythm guitar. While memories are blurred, “the name of the studio escapes me but it was on the ground floor of a residential building”, as Ezekiel puts it, he recalls their first visit to a studio: “We had never been to a studio before and the engineer who recorded us had never recorded a rock band before. But somehow, he managed to capture our sound in a completely different manner from any other band recording at that time.” “Watch Her” and “Some Peace Of Mind,” are the two tracks, which were recorded in this studio, that were released on Polydor previously.
Another fortunate incident occurred last year. It was this stereo recording that Michael Fishberg, CEO Harkit Records, chanced upon while rummaging through a clearance sale at a record store in Stockholm. Says Fishberg, “I remember I was intrigued a year or so ago, to see a beaten up copy [of The Combustibles] on eBay make over $700.00. I was fascinated as I’d never heard of this band. And I was especially interested as I may have even seen them (unknowingly) when I used to visit India in the 70s and 80s.” The recordings have now been remastered and repackaged for the re-release. “It sounds amazing now. There’s not a scratch, not a pop. The instruments are clear and the vocals professionally enhanced. It’s raw and not overproduced, but that’s what makes it attractive,” adds Ezekiel about the vinyl. Adds Fishberg, “In truth, I was totally blown away by the (excessive) use of that fuzz-box and the upwards chord-changes. I laughed a lot when I heard it. The bass line especially in the bridge… it sounds as though he’s playing in another room. I just kept playing it over and over.”
The interest of foreign record labels in returning to the vault of the Indian rock scene has been a curious one. Last year, American record label, Now-Again, issued a rerelease of Mumbai psychedelic rockers Atomic Forest’s Obsession. According to writer Sidharth Bhatia, who is currently working on a book about the Indian rock scene from 1963 to 1976, there has been a rise in the popularity of vintage Indian rock across the world. “Back then, record companies were mostly devoted to Hindi cinema, but there were small releases such as The Combustibles record. In those days, these records were just lying around, and just didn’t make money. That’s probably how The Combustibles singles landed up at a clearance sale abroad. But now it’s become a rarity and music by Indian bands from the 60s-70s is sold for large amount of money,” says Bhatia. “Somehow, the music of these old bands has become equally popular with DJs in Europe.”
Bhatia also adds that the Indian rock scene was not as underground as it’s made out to be. “There were shows every weekend,” he says, “The big difference was that sponsorship was almost impossible back then.” Unlike alcohol brands that are now responsible for some of the biggest festivals in the country, it was chocolate brands like Cadbury’s and cigarette brands like Simla that hosted most rock events such as the Simla Beat competition, where The Combustibles represented Mumbai for two years.
Like most bands in the early 70s, The Combustibles were packing in shows playing covers of “guitar-based” songs by bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream and The Beatles along with some of their originals. Says Ezekiel, “We were lucky to have really good songs that have stood the test of time. It amazes me to this today, when I think we were one of the few bands to have original songs as part of every setlist. Surprisingly, we would often get requests asking us to play songs like ‘Watch Her’ and ‘There’s A Love.’”
During the week, bands in Mumbai performed at venues that organized navy balls, dances or fundraiser or band competitions, but weekends were spent performing at clubs such as Blow Up at Taj Mahal Hotel, Hell at Hilltop Hotel in Worli, Talk Of The Town (now Pizza By The Bay), Blue Nile at The Ambassador Hotel and Sun N’ Sand in Juhu. Surprisingly, the shows that The Combustibles looked forward to the most were shows at Shanmukhananda Hall in Sion, which is mostly known for its Indian classical performances. “It was our favorite venue — it had the best acoustics and would always be full to capacity with multiple events. And it could seat as many as 3,000 to 3,500 people,” says Ezekiel. During their six-year long run, The Combustibles often did shows in neighboring cities like Ahmedabad, Baroda and Pune as well as in Kolkata and Kathmandu. “The band held contracts with Trincas in Kolkata and Kathmandu’s Saoltee hotel,” says George Taylor, founding member of The Combustibles.
Gigs abroad also ensured that bands could buy better quality equipment. While stores like Furtados in Mumbai are the go-to places for every kind of musical instrument today, they mostly stocked pianos and violins back in the Sixties, making it difficult for Indian bands to acquire gear locally. “It was not only difficult but very expensive. Most of the gear was bought secondhand from other musicians who had a chance to play outside the country,” says Ezekiel, “Before my family returned to India from the States, my dad brought me an Ampeg amp, Fender sunburst-red Strat and a fuzz wah pedal, stuff that these guys had not seen. I think when I auditioned for the band, it was my gear that impressed the band,” he adds.
With internet shopping, gear may no longer be bootlegged, but the struggles of the 21st century musician are not very different from their counterparts in the 60s and 70s. “Our band was always a labor of love. The shows we played were just for the fun of it, so once we grew older we realized there just wasn’t enough for everyone and that it wasn’t a sustainable profession,” says Taylor, who later joined Air India as a cabin crew member after the band disbanded in 1972.
Currently, though drummer Furtado is no more, the rest of The Combustibles are spread across London, Mumbai and US, with only vocalist Perry pursuing music by composing spiritual material in the UK. Adds Ezekiel, “It was a very different time. There were no music festivals like there are now. We never had sound mixing or even monitors on stage, so we really don’t know what we sounded like.” With their latest release, we can guarantee that contemporary listeners will be eager to join them at that “Some Peace Of Mind,” Perry once wrote of.
The Combustibles’ Watch Her is out on Harkit Records. Buy the record here.
Read more about The Combustibles here.
This article appeared in the September 2013 edition of Rolling Stone India