Indian Rock Pioneers High Celebrate 50th Anniversary Of ‘White Knight’s Tale’
The Kolkata group’s bassist Lew Hilt and drummer Nondon Bagchi reminisce about the band, the songs as well as their late vocalist-guitarist Dilip Balakrishnan
In 1971, then 21-year-old singer-songwriter Dilip Balakrishnan composed one of India’s earliest original rock albums titled White Knight’s Tale, inspired by the works of English writer Lewis Carroll. Balakrishnan would go on to form rock outfit High alongside bassist Lew Hilt, drummer Nondon Bagchi and guitarist Adi Irani in 1974. High performed at various concerts over the years gaining a cult following. Although Irani departed the group in 1979 and was replaced with guitarist Subir Chatterjee, the band soldiered on right through till 1990 until Balakrishnan’s untimely death.
While no studio recordings of White Knight’s Tale exist, this year marks 50 years since the conception of the music and the band has put together a record comprising remastered versions of the songs from home archives featuring Balakrishnan and Hilt. In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Hilt and Bagchi talk to us about what it was like being in High, remember their dear friend Balakrishnan and more.
I first want to ask you to take me back to 1974 and tell me about the formation of High and what it was like putting a band together back then?
Bagchi: It wasn’t difficult for High because we had all played together before so we just decided that the four of us would get together. I can’t remember whether Adi Irani was in the very first lineup but I think he was, so he was the only guy we hadn’t played with a lot. But Lew, me and Dilip played a lot together.
Hilt: I’ve got to go back actually because Dilip and myself played in the Cavaliers in 1966. Our beginning was there before I met Nondon so we go much further back. Dilip’s choice of songs was slightly different from the Cavaliers and we were more of a pop band but Dilip started moving ahead, introducing bands that we guys had never heard. So from the Cavaliers, Dilip already had a few of these ideas that he wanted to create. So after he left the Cavaliers, Great Bear was formed. That was comprised of John Brinand on vocals, P.C. Mukherjee on lead guitar, Devdan Sen on bass and Nondon Bagchi on drums and Dilip Balakrishnan on harmonium in those days, and guitar and vocals.
When Devdan left the band for whatever reason, Dilip pulled me into Great Bear and that’s where I met Nondon. So Great Bear had taken a step in a different direction from the normal pop scene in Calcutta. We started playing slightly heavier stuff like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Steve Winwood and all that type of music. Adi Irani had actually done a small stint in Great Bear when P.C. Mukherjee had gone into hospital. So Adi had played with us also. So we went in our different directions and Great Bear split. Then in 1973 when I returned from Jamshedpur, I went to stay with my mother, I hadn’t met her for years, I returned and then I met up with Dilip first obviously and he came up with the idea to form a band again so obviously we took Nondon and we took Adi Irani, who was quite a well-known musician and we formed High. We decided on doing music that we had done in Great Bear that had long jams and long solos. But now we wanted to go a little ahead with more organized type of rock music. Dilip was instrumental in this because he was the vocalist too, he had to choose the material. And that’s how we formed High. We did covers, but that’s it, that was the beginning of a great time and I was happy that all of us managed to get together at that point of time in our musical career.
Let’s talk about White Knight’s Tale, it’s been 50 years since the music was composed. What can you tell me about this batch of songs and the recordings too?
Hilt: Nondon will agree with me that Dilip actually had this idea before we actually started recording any sort of stuff and we started off recording with very, very primitive equipment. Dilip and myself used to record on two tape recorders. Record on one, playback from there and record on the other. Dilip actually was instrumental in most of all this and we started a very, very simple type of music but at the same time we were doing covers also, the crowd still had their mind open to original music but gradually when we started writing and Dilip… I mean he had all these fabulous melodies in his head. We’d record just bass and guitar and then that’s how we started writing and then he came up with this idea of White Knight’s Tale and then slowly we’d involve Nondon because Dilip and myself would work on the material separately and Nondon was the only person around who understood how to play with us and understood us guys and hang out together. It was very important for a band to hang out together… you just don’t play and go your different ways, your life has to be together and that’s how we started recording White Knight’s Tale.
Bagchi: What I remember was especially that whenever we played a song, we all instinctively understood what each member should do. I was always comfortable with the bassline and Dilip’s arrangements and it was very comfortable for me to play to those basslines and arrangements.
I want to touch upon Dilip Balakrishnan and get a sense of what he was like and what he would make of the current music scene in India?
Bagchi: Oh, he would have been a senior songwriter by now. And I consider him a singer-songwriter of international standards. His singing and his melodies and his lyrics and his sheer act were phenomenal. He’s got about six hours of music he composed in his life and he’s a national stanzaic writer and songwriter.
Hilt: I would go with what Nondon said, Dilip was up there with the best. A great songwriter, great vocalist, his note sense was absolutely incredible. He was a natural at it, he never studied music as such, but he was a natural. When I played with Louiz Banks and people like that, and at the time, Mr. Banks was teaching me and opening a door to a new avenue of music. I was a rock musician. But after I played with Mr. Banks, I learned a lot from him. And then I’d come back and use that knowledge that I learned from Mr. Banks with Dilip. Some of them were these extended chords, altered chords like jazz, but Dilip’s melody was always right there with whatever I had played. So what Nondon says, Dilip Balakrishnan is probably India’s greatest songwriter I mean there will never be another Dilip Balakrishnan.
What’s some of your best memories of being in High?
Bagchi: I remember that we had an automatic understanding. We didn’t have to sit at the drawing board and plan out anything. Dilip wrote a song, the song was born and we all knew what we needed to do with that song. My part, Lew’s part, it all came naturally. And so High was like a roller coaster ride. It was just rich, rich, rich and no tension at all.
Hilt: I can add to that. It was the sheer joy of being together and playing music. You know, the thing is, a lot of people procrastinate… it’s like you’re going for tuition or for a class. You know you procrastinate and try and make it as late as possible and land up late. But we were a bunch of musicians who actually rolled up for rehearsal way before the actual rehearsal time. I mean, we would just look at our watches and say, ‘Let’s go!’ Nondon, myself and Dilip used to rehearse at Adi Irani’s house and we used to leave a place called Second Lane much before the actual rehearsal time, get to Adi’s house, Adi would not be there because he had work in his shop and his business that he ran. But we guys would just go in there and start playing music and just the joy of just playing the kind of music that we enjoyed and lived with, it became life after that.
Finally, I want to ask if White Knight’s Tale will be followed up with any other releases that are hidden away in High’s archives?
Hilt: There was plenty of music but the unfortunate thing is we didn’t have the facilities for recording. At that time Dilip managed to procure a four-track recorder so a lot of the work was just done on a four-track and the quality of the recording compared to what the guys in Bombay had… with all due respect, our facilities were much poorer. But the beauty of the entire thing is that it was the self-belief that this music is good music and music from our souls. But anyway, the most important thing is for this music to be heard. We had a cult following, I mean we worked for it and Dilip’s music is alive today. Even though Dilip is gone, his music still lives on in every High head that ever attended our concerts and heard our music. It will live on no matter how it was recorded, the sheer soul of them will live on. There are many, many songs and hopefully, I can get it across. Recordings which I had with just Dilip and myself. If we can find it, we’ll put that out also.
Stream ‘White Knight’s Tale’ below: