Biddu Wants Actions
India’s biggest disco export to the West is back now, with an autobiography, a novel and a new live band
When Bangalore boy Biddu finally reached London in 1967 ”“ via Basra, Beirut and Paris – it was the first step towards realising his childhood dream of “making it as a musician in the West.” And make it he did. With over 38 million records sold, Biddu is easily the most successful Indian music producers on the international scene. Not that success was easy in the British capital of the late Sixties for an Indian with no formal training in music, apart from playing in local clubs. ”˜Daughter of Love,’ the first single that he released was a disaster, but taught him a valuable lesson: “I gave up singing and decided to concentrate on writing and producing. I realised that to make it big you needed a good producer and you cannot be both a producer and singer,” he says.
He struggled for more than five years, working in hamburger joints, before the elusive hit came his way. In 1974, he got a little-known Jamaican singer called Carl Douglas to sing his newly composed track ”˜I Want to Give You My Everything’ on an EP that he was producing. For the B-side he composed what he thought was a filler, a song called ”˜Kung Fu Fighting’ also sung by Douglas. On his distributor’s suggestion he made ”˜Kung Fu Fighting’ the A-side of the EP, before it was released. The rest, of course, is history. The song went on to become the defining hit of the disco era, selling over nine million copies, topping the music charts in most countries. Biddu followed it up with an album with Douglas called Kung Fu Fighter producing another chart topper, ”˜Dance the Kung Fu.’ While his collaboration with Douglas did not last beyond the album, he went on to score a string of hits like ”˜I Love to Love,’ ”˜Dance Little Lady,’ ”˜I’ll Go Where the Music Takes Me’ and ”˜Now is the Time,’ with the likes of Tina Charles and soul legend Jimmy James.
He also parlayed his rising fame to form his own band called Biddu Orchestra producing a number of instrumental successes like ”˜Summer of 42’ and ”˜Rainforest,’ the latter winning the British equivalent of the Grammys, the Ivor Novello award, one of the four that Biddu won through his career. He also wrote the music for two successful movies based on Jackie Collins’ books, The Stud and The Bitch, both of which became platinum selling albums. In 1987, he scored a Number One hit in Japan with ”˜The Look that Kills’ which he wrote and produced for top Japanese singer Akina Nakamori.
It was actor-director Feroz Khan who brought Biddu back to India, when in 1979 he asked the disco hitmaker to produce a song for his iconic Zeenat Aman-starrer Qurbani. Biddu got a London-based Pakistani teenager, Nazia Hassan, to sing ”˜Aap Jaisa Koi,’ which went on to become one of the biggest musical success of that era. Two years later he produced a 10-song Hindi disco album for HMV, also featuring Nazia Hassan, but this time with her brother Zoheb. It went on to become the biggest-selling pop album in Asian history, and the first Indian album to top the chart in fourteen countries. In the Nineties, he was primarily responsible for creating a entirely new genre of Hindi music called Indi-pop. Alisha Chinai’s Made in India which he wrote and produced went on to sell 3 million copies, and he helped launch the careers of singers like Shaan, Saagarika and Sonu Nigam.
Born Biddu Appaiah in a Coorgi family (his father was a doctor), Biddu has used a single name since the age of 13, when he first started singing publicly. Although his single word name did present problems for an Indian passport, the British passport office had no such qualms when he became a UK citizen. The only thing, he says, is that when he got his first passport it came with his name as X Biddu. He doesn’t know why. His most recent passport in fact features his name as XXX Biddu.
His close friend Suresh Bhojwani, the Mumbai businessman (he is also a co-owner of the Blue Frog) and music aficionado, remembers Biddu from 1962 when they first met as teenagers in Bengaluru, as a “guy who always wanted to make a career in music.” Dozens of school and college bands had mushroomed all across the country in the Sixties after the first of the Elvis/The Beatles/Rolling Stones’ EPs and LPs hit the Indian shore. But rarely did any of these musicians take their passion beyond school or college. “Biddu was different. He took his music very seriously,” Bhojwani says, “and he seemed determined to become a professional musician. And he knew right from the early days that his destiny lay in the West. He was always confident that he would be successful there.” In fact, for a brief period in the mid-Sixties, Bhojwani merged his teen band The Jets with Biddu’s The Trojans to form The Trojets.
For about two years before he left for London in 1967, Biddu was the most popular rock singer in Mumbai, playing mostly at the then Mumbai hotspot, The Venice at Hotel Astoria, which still stands near Churchagate station. “He kept it simple, just a guitar, vocals and drums,” says Bhojwani, “but he packed the place. He did two shows, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. College and school kids who were part of the emerging rock music were crazy about him.”
In the early Seventies, when Bhojwani was a student in Boston, he and his guitar playing American roommate had an idea of composing an album to cash in on the growing popularity of rock & roll. They roped in Biddu from across the Atlantic for help and the three put together a demo tape that they hawked to record labels across the US. The only man who evinced any interest was Jerry Ross of Colossus Records, who was then at the height of his fame and success as the man responsible for the “Dutch Invasion” of America, after he scored a string of hits with bands from Netherlands like Shocking Blue (which had a Number One hit in America called ”˜Venus’), Tee Set and George Baker Selection. He told the trio that if they produced the album with their own money, he would then sell it in America. The four songs that made up the album were recorded in London where it was cheaper to produce music. But by the time they finished and came back to America, Ross had sold his company to MGM because of financial problems. The enthusiastic youngsters had lost their would-have-been patron and the album died a natural death. Suresh went back to his studies in Boston, and Biddu, with yet another failure against his name, to London.
By all counts, for the 65-year old Biddu, who looks remarkably fit and youthful for his age, it has been a fascinating journey. He captures it all in his new autobiography Made in India (Harper Collins). Not a great fan of listening to music or reading, he says he suddenly developed a taste for writing three years ago, writing the first draft of a novel based in Darjeeling in the Fifties. While trying to market the novel to Delhi publishers last year, Harper Collins came up with the idea that he should first write his autobiography. The novel comes out later this year.
In typical Biddu style, the book promotion tour is in the form of three concerts with a specially formed band, which will play old covers in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai over the next few weeks. It will be Biddu’s first live performance in the country in several decades. He will also take time off to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Jack Daniel’s Annual Rock Awards at Mumbai’s Hard Rock CafÃ© on February 5.
A teetotaller who hates to socialise (despite his huge success, he was never part of the drug-fuelled psychedelic world of London rock & roll of the Seventies), Biddu shuttles between his homes in Spain and London. He has been coming to India at least once a year for many years, accompanying his English wife, a follower of the mystic Meher Baba, on her trips to his ashram near Ahmednagar. His home in Mumbai for many years has been the historic Sun & Sand Hotel, where much of this interview was conducted.
If we were to start from the beginning”¦ You were born in Bangalore or born in Coorg?
Born in Bangalore. Most Coorgis study in Bangalore because Coorg is mainly just a hill. It’s got a few schools, nothing to write home about. And all we’ve got is coffee, pepper, paddy, oranges. So most people come to Bangalore to study. So Bangalore is my hometown and I started from there at the age of 13 as a singer. First entering contests, losing and then finally winning”¦ and then thinking I wanna get out of this country”¦.
The band was formed just after school, or were you in college?
Yeah, I was in school”¦ No, I never went to college. I didn’t do college.
That would have been the time that rock & roll hadn’t even arrived on Indian shores”¦
No, then it hadn’t, but I was very lucky because my friend in class got an album of one Elvis Presley. And we played this album and the primal rhythms got me. And then later on, came the Beatles and the Stones and everyone else. A month after the Beatles brought out their album Please Please Me, a Greek boy in our class in Bishop Cotton, came back from his holidays in England with this album. At first we didn’t listen to it”¦ it didn’t look appealing. But the next day we had a party, and we were compelled to put it on because there was nothing else to dance with the girls to. So we put it on and we all hated it. But after about the tenth hearing, it grew on us, till it reached a point where at about 11.00 in the night, we were in love with it! And I think that’s when I said, ”˜Okay, I’m gonna form a group”¦ seriously.’ Because then I had a group but we were doing songs like ”˜The Wanderer’ by Dion and the Belmonts. Then we loved these songs on this album so much we started doing the Beatles. We got the jackets made, Cuban boots, drainpipe trousers”¦
And this was the Trojans?
Yes”¦ we were sixteen when we started.
And you were the vocalist”¦
No”¦ let’s say I was the Paul McCartney. I did the vocals, I was the frontman. Then there was a quieter guy who played better guitar, called Ken. I would say he was the George Harrison. Then we had another guy called Skinny who had even more hair than I did and a longer nose, and he was like the Ringo Starr, but he didn’t play any instrument. So we had two guitars and three singers.
Where would you play?
We stared at the 3 Aces in Bangalore and then we would play at small private parties, where we got twenty rupees”¦
But by then you had made a decision that this was what you were going to do”¦
Yeah, it was a choice between being a filmstar in Hollywood or a rockstar [laughs]. But I realised I never looked to be a filmstar, so maybe I could be a rockstar. That’s how it started.
This would have been the mid Sixties?
No no, this would have been the early Sixties”¦
In the early Sixties, that was not a profession people aspired to”¦
No one aspired to but Bangalore was a hip town. I find my favourite people are Anglo Indians because they enjoy life, they love life. So because of the influence of the Anglo Indians, Bangalore happened”¦ And because of the Anglo Indians, Calcutta was even better than Bangalore. Bombay was actually pretty subdued while in Calcutta we had seven night clubs on two streets every night, seven night clubs.
From Bangalore, we got an invite to a wedding in Hyderabad. We did the wedding and we kept moving. We didn’t go back [laughs]. From Hyderabad we went to Cal”¦
And where did you play in Calcutta?
Well, we were lucky. The day we arrived, we have 200 rupees between the three of us. A friend took us to this restaurant on Park Street where there was a jazz band. A bassist with dark glasses cooking away”¦ a pianist”¦ a sax player”¦ a very svelte-looking girl crooning away in a figure-hugging dress”¦ dance floor”¦ and the tables crowded”¦ people smoking and drinking and eating. It was something you would imagine in New York. And the three of us young kids dressed in our Beatles outfits, when we walked in, everyone stopped and looked at us and started clapping. I’m sure they must have thought ”˜Who’re these dudes? Maybe they are the Beatles themselves.’ [laughs] So we sat down and we are watching this thing and the two owners came up to us and said, ”˜Everyone’s asking who you are.’ So my friend says, ”˜We are the Trojans.’ Which didn’t mean a thing. So he said, ”˜Do you guys sing?’ I said, ”˜Yeah.’ He said, ”˜Would you sing a number?’ So when the band took a break, we went on stage, we borrowed the guitar from the band, told the drummer to keep a simple beat and we sang a song”¦ I think we did two”¦ ”˜Love Me Do’ and something else”¦ And the crowd loved it. And the owners came to us and said, ”˜Would you like to perform regularly?’ and they offered us a deal.
So how long did you stay on in Calcutta?
We stayed for six months, then we came to Bombay, went back to Cal, came back to Bombay and then the group split up.
Where did you perform in Bombay?
At the Ambassador hotel in Churchgate.
Did you spend any considerable amount of time in Bombay at all?
Three months. Then we went back and then came back for another three months. Then we broke up. That’s when I became the Lone Trojan. Without the Trojans, I was the Lone Trojan and that’s’ when my career took off even bigger.
Where was this?
At a restaurant called Venice at Hotel Astoria.
So the scene was bigger here in Bombay, is it?
There wasn’t really much of a scene in Bombay. But what happened was I finally got this job and as luck would have it, about six weeks into the gig, war broke out between India and Pakistan. And we were not allowed to play ”“ there was curfew after 8 o’clock or whatever. After about ten days, the owner of the hotel thought, ”˜Shit, I am paying all these dudes.’ So he came to me and he said, ”˜You have to play in the morning tomorrow. You gotta play at 12 o’clock.’ So we did. I called four of my friends, so I had four people there in this restaurant, and me singing. Then they told a few more friends and the next day we had about 16 people. And then by about the fourth day, we had to keep some people out. Then for the next two years, it was the most happening scene ever in Bombay.
And you were playing covers?
I did only Trini Lopez. And I always did only three songs.
There’s a story that I have heard. Bombay at that time had a serene, dignified jazz scene and you sort of helped kill that scene with your singing at Venice.
Yeah, well”¦ You see, the jazz scene was there. At every kind of restaurant it was de rigueur to have a resident jazz band play. But it didn’t appeal to the youngsters. So when I came along, I appealed to the college kids till the point where I was getting letters from teachers of schools and colleges saying ”˜Please do not have your shows in the daytime because no one is attending college.’ But the owner of the restaurant wouldn’t stop because here we were getting 3-400 kids crammed into the place at 12 o’clock. It was a great scene.
So you virtually created the rock & roll scene in Bombay. There were no other bands, right?
Then, you started getting the Jets, the Hellions”¦ all good groups”¦ all better groups than us. But we had one thing going for me because I was just an entertainer, I suppose you could call it. The music was in many ways, secondary.
Were you pretty much sure at that time that you wanted to go West?
Always”¦. from the age of 13. I wanted to go West, and I don’t mean Bombay. I wanted to go past Bombay.
And how did you get to the West?
Eventually on a boat to the Middle East, to Basra and then I walked the sands of time, till I finally got to Beirut”¦
So you hitchhiked”¦
Without a penny. The original travel agent who was going to fix my airline ticket and my black money and everything else, did a runner on me. He emigrated. With my money [laughs]. So I ended up without a passport, without a birth certificate, without anything. Then another agent and helped me. And I didn’t have that much money left. So that’s why I had to go by boat.
From Basra, you went to Beirut”¦
Eventually, yes”¦ I was just going where my thumb would take me. I went to Dubai, I went to Aden. I went to Syria.
What were you doing there?
Nothing. I had no maps, so wherever I could get a lift ”“ Kuwait, Bahrain ”“ I was just going. Eventually I reached Beirut and from Beirut got to Paris, to try to get into London.
You flew to Paris?
From Beirut, yes. Because I sang for six months in Beirut, made some money. A friend of mine from India joined me in Paris. From Paris we went to London, to Dover, by boat. And at Dover they wouldn’t let me in.
Oh, you didn’t have a visa”¦
No, I didn’t have enough money. In those days, you didn’t have visas, you had P Forms. Then my friend fortunately lent me some money so I went back to the immigration officer and said ”˜Look, I forgot I had some money with me,’ and I showed him 200 pounds and he reluctantly let me in.
London at that time must have been this thriving rock & roll city?
London was really happening and I arrived while the Beatles were going to Rishikesh, to the Maharishi. So that flower power thing was happening big.
Now what did you do? What was the idea behind going there?
The idea behind going to London was to be a singer and shake the world. The fact that I wasn’t a very good singer hadn’t come into my equation because I was top dog in India and that’s your criteria, isn’t it? Till you go somewhere else and you realise, ”˜The guy cooking next door sings better than me.’ [laughs] So I thought, I can’t make it as a singer. Then I thought I would take up writing. I wrote some songs and I produced a record”¦
Where did you get the money from?
I worked in a hamburger joint, the first hamburger joint in England. It was called Yankee Doodle. And I was hired as a chef making hamburgers. I had never been in a kitchen and there I was cooking for England, you know [laughs]. And then I saved money and then I went into the studio and made my first record.
What record was it?
Well, what happened was that I went into the studios to cut a record. The studio was in a building complex which housed Polydor Records. And while I was making this record, the door opened and a guy poked his head in and said, ”˜Who’s making that music?’ So I said, ”˜Me, sir.’ And he said, ”˜Oh, I like it. Can I talk to you later?’ So when I finished an hour later, he came in and said, ”˜Would you like to produce a record for us?’ I thought it was incredible! Here I am a cook and suddenly a guy asks if I would like to produce a record. I’m hardly going to say no. ”˜There is a group coming from Japan tomorrow,’ he said, ”˜and they want a record in English.’ The Tigers were a big group in Japan and like every monster group, they wanted to eventually make a record in English. So they came to England, we recorded the songs and two months later, the songs went to Number One in Japan. And I saw it in Billboard. I thought, ”˜I’m now a record producer with a Number One in Japan.’ So I gave up my job and went to the record company and I said, ”˜My record has gone to Number One. Can I have my advance?’ And the head of the company said, ”˜Yeah sure. Just let me see the contract.’ I said, ”˜What contract?’ He said, ”˜Your contract for producing the record.’ I didn’t have anything, no one ever gave me anything. He said, ”˜I am sorry, if you have no contract I can’t give you any money.’ I said, ”˜But look, Billboard says produced by Biddu, Number One.’ I showed him the record that said ”˜Produced by Biddu.’ ”˜That’s enough, isn’t it?’ He said, ”˜No.’ I had only two pounds with me because I had given up my job. So I was a bit desperate, to be honest. I asked him for a hundred pounds. He said no. Then I came down to fifty, and he said no. Then I asked for ten pounds and then I asked for five pounds because I was so desperate. He says, ”˜No, I can’t.’
I couldn’t believe it. That guy could have given me something from his pocket and said, ”˜Look asshole, you got no contract but here’s five pounds from me and now get out from my office and whatever”¦’ and he didn’t. And it taught me a lesson to never ever be pompous.
What happened next?
I did all sorts of things. I was really broke, so I did cleaning jobs”¦ you name it”¦ Then my friend, Suresh [Bhojwani] asked me to come to America because his American friend wanted to make a record. Then I started making a few more records and started making small bits of money, nothing to write home about.
What kind of music was this?
It was very danceable. For some reason everything I made sounded very danceable. And we were selling small amounts at the clubs because the radio wouldn’t play it. And then I did some music for a movie called Embassy .
How did you land up with that?
Because it was made by a film company called Hemdale and I had produced for an artist for them. So they asked me to write a title song. I wrote a title song and I wanted a singer and I found Carl Douglas. He had a lovely voice. But we were all unknown, all broke”¦ And then when I formed my own company, I started making records, and I signed Carl up. That’s when we made these two songs, one of which was ”˜Kung Fu Fighting.’
What was the origin of that song?
What happened was that I had another song which we rehearsed as the A-side and I put all my time and effort into that song. And when I asked Carl if he had anything for the B-side, he showed me this A4 sheet with some lyrics. And I read it”¦ ”˜Kung Fu Fighting.’ And I have to admit that at the time it sounded a little bit, what’s this about”¦ So I took this song, picked up my guitar and I started working out some chords and Carl started singing. Then we went into the studio and because it was the B-side, I did this – “hoo”, “haa” – purely for fun. Because it’s the B-side and no one’s gonna listen to it, we had some fun on the record. Eventually the “hoo’s” and the “haa’s” helped make the record, I think.
And how did people come to know? Was it played on the radio?
No, it was never played on the radio – it didn’t get one play. I went into a record shop thinking I’d buy a copy and that it might boost sales by one. I went to the counter and said, ”˜Do you have Kung Fu Fighting? And the guy said, ”˜No.’ I’m standing there and this girl comes in and asks the guy, ”˜Have you got Kung Fu Fighting? He says, ”˜No.’ Two or three minutes later, another girl comes to the counter and says, ”˜Have you got Kung Fu Fighting?’ So I told the guy to order some copies and I wrote to the record company to send copies. And it’s Catch-22. They’re like, ”˜Yeah, we’ve got it ready but they’re not ordering it.’ Then the next week, we started getting calls from the sales people at the record company, and it’s selling. From the clubs it went into the charts at Number 49, and the next week, it went from 49 to Nine. And more the radio played it, it was Number One. You need the oxygen of radio”¦ It sold 3 million copies just in America”¦ it was massive.
How many copies have you sold totally?
A little over 9 million”¦ between 9 and 10 million”¦
Then you had ”˜Dance the Kung Fu’ as well”¦
”˜Dance the Kung Fu’ as well, yes. And at that time Carl hired himself a new manager and the manager decided to break us up. A Number One record should be a time when everyone should be celebrating and here we have this friction between the two parties because of this man who’s come in and who’s decided to manage Carl.
But, see, with every bad there is a little good. He would not let Carl finish the album. So I was two tracks short for the album. That’s when I wrote an instrumental called ”˜Blue Eyed Soul’ which I put on his album. And his album came out and everyone started playing the instrumental. And CBS called me up and said, ”˜Look man, this instrumental is going crazy in the clubs. Will you do a deal with us for yourself? As the Biddu Orchestra?’ So that’s how the Biddu Orchestra came about.
And you had a few hits with it?
Yeah”¦ luckily I had quite a few hits with that and the album sold really well. I had ”˜Summer of 42’ and ”˜Rainforest’ which won me a couple of awards as well. So yeah, I had a little bit of a career. Apart from writing and producing other people, I was writing and doing instrumentals for myself.
How did Tina Charles happen?
Tina Charles was pure luck. I was telling a friend of mine that it would be nice to have a girl singer and he knew this girl who sang in a club. So I went and saw her. She had a nice voice. So I asked her if she would sign up with me and she did. We made this song ”˜I Like to Love’ which was in many ways as popular as ”˜Kung Fu Fighting.’ At the same time I signed this guy called Jimmy James, a soul singer who’d been around the business for a long time. The first record I made with him was a rap kind of a record, although we didn’t call it rap then. It’s a song called ”˜I Am Somebody’ and it did very well in the clubs. And then I did another record with him, called ”˜A Man Like Me’ which was a massive club hit. But it never got any airplay to push it up into the top echelon till I finally made ”˜I’ll Go Where Your Music Takes Me,’ which went to Top 3”¦ And then I made ”˜Now is the Time.’
This would be the late Seventies?
Yes, the late Seventies. Then Tina was having a lot of hits and then I went with her in ’81, I think, to Japan for the World Song Festival. I composed a song called ”˜Love Rocks’ and she sang it. And I was lucky, I won the first prize, which was money, which was much better than getting an award [laughs]. Not that I mind awards but money can buy you another hamburger [laughs].
We came back and that was when Feroz Khan approached me to do a song for his film [Qurbani] and I really had no interest but he was kind of persuasive. He said, ”˜Look man, we are Bangalore boys”¦ we gotta do it.’ And he told me of this Pakistani family in London who had a young daughter who probably sang. So I toodled off to see them, which was the Hassans. And I met Nazia and her brother Zoheb. I think Nazia was sixteen and her brother was fifteen. She auditioned for me”¦ she sang one of my songs, ”˜Dance Little Lady.’ It was not an outstanding voice or anything. I mean it definitely wasn’t a voice in the kind of style that they were used to India.
And I then composed the song very quickly and recorded it, and Feroz liked it. He went home and that was that, until six weeks later he called to say it is a sensation. And it didn’t really touch me till much later on when people would all be raving about this song ”˜Aap Jaisa Koi.’ And then nothing happened till a year later, when HMV asked me if I would like to do an album with Nazia Hassan.
You did have a short career as a music director for some Hollywood films too”¦
It was a British-made film called Embassy”¦
And you did The Stud and The Bitch”¦
Oh, yeah, that was later. That time I was riding high because the disco scene suddenly became big and because I was one of the guys who helped to popularise the disco scene, I got called out to do the music for The Stud. The film was based on a book by Jackie Collins and the main lead was Joan Collins. That was a very successful film and a very successful album”¦ fabulously successful. The film, because it was, quite frankly, soft porn, but good enough to get to the main cinemas. And the music was a hit. It wasn’t just my music – there were also some well-known disco songs.
About a year and half later, they decided they were going to do The Bitch, which was another thing she wrote. [It was] successful, but not as much as The Stud.
After Tina Charles, you did have a hit with the Japanese singer Akina Nakamori”¦
That came about purely by luck. I was going through a slight fallow period. Suddenly my success wasn’t in abundance. My friend and I wrote a couple of songs. And one of them was a song called ”˜The Look That Killed.’ And my publisher took it and we spoke no more about it. And then five months later she said, ”˜Oh, there’s this girl singer Akina Nakamori in Japan who’s recorded it’ and it didn’t really mean anything to us. Two months later she again called to say it’s Number One in Japan. And that’s when we got excited you know.
So after Tina Charles you didn’t really go after anyone”¦
I didn’t because then suddenly I started doing Nazia and Zoheb.
How many albums did you do with them?
Apart from Disco Deewane, I did Star, Young Tarang and Hotline. So about four albums.
After the mid Eighties, the disco boom started to peter off, right?
Yes, it had. And that’s when I was busy with the Akina Nakamori thing and a couple of other Japanese singles. Then I was busy doing Nazia and Zoheb. That kept me going for quite a while. Then the early bit of the Nineties was a quiet period. I was writing but I was kinda a bit directionless. I was trying to figure out what style I should go into.
You didn’t want to get into mainstream rock, considering you started the Trojans?
Yeah, I know. But ironically I was not into rock at that time.
In the Eighties, didn’t you miss having the monster hit that you had in ”˜Kung Fu Fighting?’
No, I didn’t”¦ What happened was in the Eighties I had ”˜Aap Jaisa Koi,’ I had ”˜Disco Deewane,’ which were monster hits in Asia. Yes, it wasn’t a hit in America, but there was so much going on for me that it didn’t really matter.
How did you come back to India with Shweta Shetty and Alisha Chinai?
What happened was I was at Midem, the music convention in the south of France. I met a gentleman called Shashi Gopal, who had a stall there, and he had started a new label called Magnasound. About six months later, he called me and said ”˜I’ve got an artist, Shweta,’ and asked me if I would do a pop album. ”˜I’m trying to create a pop scene in India,’ he said. So that’s how I did Shweta.
The album did rather well. That led to me writing Made in India, deciding to do it with Nazia Hassan. When I spoke to Nazia about it, she said she couldn’t do it. As a Pakistani, already some people were telling her, ”˜You go to an Indian producer and your music comes out in India’ and all that. So she thought the title Made in India would be a little bit sacrilegious from her countrymen’s point of view.
When I told Shashi that Nazia couldn’t do it, he said he had just signed another girl, called Alisha. So Alisha Chinai came to London and I met her. Lovely bubby girl, nice voice. I took an instant liking to her voice. And we recorded the album and it was a great album”¦ ”˜Lovergirl,’ ”˜Made in India’”¦ it had lots of bubbly songs.
When I mixed ”˜Made in India,’ I knew it had to be a Number One. I felt the same way that I felt when I did ”˜Disco Deewane.’ The only time I didn’t recognise a Number One was ”˜Kung Fu Fighting,’ because it was meant to be a B-side [laughs]. But this one, I knew nothing could stop it.
What would be a big selling album at that time? 500,000 copies?
No no”¦ Shweta sold 180,000. I would say 250,000 would be considered a good one. The only other guy who did as well was Daler Mehndi. Made in India sold 30 lakhs in India. But don’t forget that’s a phenomenon. It’s like Disco Deewane”¦ they don’t come often.
How much did Disco Deewane sell?
It sold probably a little bit more than 30 lakhs
What else did you do after Nazia Hassan?
I did Shweta, I did a couple of albums with Alisha. I did a Pakistani group called Vital Signs. I did one or two other albums after Made in India which didn’t do that well. My album, Boom Boom, did quite well”¦ Â Quite well is 250,000.
At 250,000, you were making money?
Oh yeah, you make money. And I had royalty and all that. I would not wake up in the morning if royalty weren’t involved. Why should I put my work and effort to create something for someone else to make the money? I could never do that. I would live in regret, and living is tough enough without regret [laughs].
In the last ten years, though, you haven’t done much. It’s a time when so many more singers have come out, there’re so many more avenues of promotion. Technically you could do a lot more in India, and you are the sort of guy who seizes the moment”¦
Yes, but I don’t see the moment. I don’t see the moment in India”¦
Despite all these things being available?
I will tell you why”¦ Incidentally I did Sonu Nigam who I thought was a fabulous singer, and I did Shaan, and I did Asha Bhonsle. So it wasn’t that I didn’t do anything at all”¦
But you feel there’s no moment right now”¦
Yes, firstly because there’s no industry. There’s no sales. Today, a record company will bring out an album, if you pay for the album, you pay for the video, you pay for this, you pay for that. Then you might end up selling 10,000. Today, apparently if you sell 20,000, it calls for celebration. 20,000 calls for celebration!
So what do you think happened after Made in India, to ten years later? Why would the market change so much? Is it only in the Indipop scene?
Partly. Change is not brought about by one reason; it’s a cornucopia of many reasons. One is that Hindi films have become more and more pop. Hindi film songs took the ideas from pop, inculcated it into mainstream Bollywood. And TV stations started playing only Bollywood. There are also more TV stations so the viewership got fragmented. So, many reasons have contributed to the eclipse of the pop scene.
So in the near future, you won’t be doing any music?
Never say never, as James Bond said.
How did you decide to write a novel?
I was in my house in Spain and I wasn’t in the mood to do music. And I’d been thinking for about six months that I’d like to do a novel. But it’s easier to write a rock & roll song than a book. Then I started getting ideas and I started putting them down. I kinda felt a bit inspired. It’s five stories kind of interlocking into one at the very end.
What’s it about?
It’s set in Darjeeling, in 1951. Without giving too much away – because plagiarism is rife – it’s an adventure story with a lot of romance, with mysticism, murder and also unrequited love where the Hindu girl wants to marry the Anglo Indian boy and the parents say no. It’s a lot of things”¦ it’s almost a masala, if you know what I mean.
Is there any music and musicians involved?
No, no music, nothing like that.
So no rock and roll…
No rock and roll, nothing like that [laughs].
Are you an avid reader?
No, that’s the funny thing. I’m not a reader, which may have helped. So I now have no template”¦ Or maybe it’s a deterrent not having a template. So I started writing and then the story started evolving. Then I came last year to India and I saw a couple of publishing houses and Harper Collins said, ”˜Look, we’d be interested but we’d also be interested in your autobiography.’ I said, ”˜No way, my private life is my private life.’ They said, ”˜Come on, you’ve led such an interesting life, that really would be good. If you do that, we’ll give you a three-book deal.’ Now a three-book deal is like a young artist getting a three-album deal. So I thought maybe I should sell my soul to the devil and write that autobiography. The second novel – or the third book – I have started but I won’t finish till about June. But at the moment I’m so busy with the second one.
When did the idea come about, the whole thing of launching it with this concert tour?
So I got the deal and I was very happy. Then I said, ”˜I’m not a known writer. The book might sell 15 copies because I’ve got 14 friends.’ And I might buy two copies. So I felt I should do some shows to do a little publicity. I said, I will do Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. The next bit was finding the venues because I only wanted to do small clubs. The way I perform, I interact with the crowd and it’s very difficult to interact with a crowd of more than 500 people”¦ the intimacy goes.
Looking back, do you think you have achieved what you sought to achieve?
The dream when I left India was to make it in the West. You know I’ve sold over 38 million records – certified 38 million records – so I have to say I have achieved what I set out to do. I could say ”˜Well I could do more”¦’ but I’m not gonna give that kind of bullshit. I have been lucky, I’ve had a lot of success. And in two different genres”¦ in Western music and in Indian music. So I can’t grumble.
Where do you see yourself in say another 5-10 years?
Probably on a funeral pyre [laughs].
But you look remarkably fit and young.
But yeah, that’s the outside shell, man. Inside I’m quivering like a jelly. No, I’m lucky, my mother lived to be 95. I’ve got my own hair, my own teeth. Never had any plastic anything. But where do I see myself? I’d like to make it as a writer. I don’t mean like being Number One or anything but I’d like my novel and my autobiography to sell. I’m more content now. I’m not a 19 year old guy setting out on my life. I’m near the sunset of my career. I’m not at the sunrise. So I’m quite content.