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Rock Of Ages

Sidharth Bhatia’s new book tells the story of India as seen through the lives of iconic Indian rock bands from the 60s and 70s

Lalitha Suhasini Dec 19, 2013
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Sidharth Bhatia. Photo: Naman Saraiya

Sidharth Bhatia. Photo: Naman Saraiya

In the Seventies, Slip Disc, a disco­theque, which was a stone’s throw from Taj Mahal Palace, was a landmark venue for cash strapped musicians and less up­wardly mobile clubbers in Mumbai. Slip Disc is also the starting point for journalist Sid­harth Bhatia’s as yet untitled book, slated to be released early next year by HarperCollins, on the country’s biggest rock bands of that time. Says Bhatia when we meet him at his Mumbai res­idence, “Some three years ago, I wrote a piece for Time Out Mumbai called ”˜Led Zeppelin in Bombay.’ They came to Bombay in 1972. This was an urban legend. I knew it because I was around in Elphinstone at that time and I had vaguely heard my friends tell me about it. And of course, it was in the papers.” Bhatia re­calls being overwhelmed at the response to the piece. He says, “It was simply amazing. People who had been around [at Slip Disc] said, ”˜This is exactly how we remember it’.” What began as a 3,000-word article developed into a book that tracked the cultural history of India as seen through the journey of the country’s icon­ic bands. While the alternative music scene has changed very little since the Seventies as far as music label support and venues are con­cerned, Bhatia points out one of the key chal­lenges of the time he writes about was access to information and equipment. “While I don’t make a big deal about the internet, the fact that it was so difficult to get equipment forms a major part of my book.” Bhatia’s book is rel­evant to the current generation of music en­thusiasts in that it traces the roots of Indian rock and if we were to go by this interview, the book appears to be packed with fascinat­ing stories from a time when tickets to a show were priced at Rs 5 and Shanmukhanan­da Hall was the hub of rock music in Mum­bai. Excerpts:

 

What is the central idea of the book?

I would like to think of my book as a study of the cultural history of India. It’s not a story of the rock bands. It’s not an encyclopedia of rock bands of that time.

I began going to college in the 1970s and this [rock music] was all around. All around in Bombay, there was this atmosphere ”“ monumental events were happening ”“ po­litical change culminating in 1975 with the Emergency and when I became a journal­ist, those things were in bolder relief. So the idea was in the vague subconscious. You never get a sense about your contemporary times because you’re too close to the event, but some years ago I began to think about the fact that there was no book on the Sev­enties in India.

Then I wrote that piece on Zeppelin in early 2011 and I think, soon after, I spoke to the publishers, they said yes. I felt the way to enter a story about a generation was to use the rock bands as a device. On the face of it, it’s a book about bands, but it is the story of a rocking gener­ation. A generation that was born after 1947, grew up and wanted to express themselves in ways different from their parents’ time. So music, fashion, attitude, politics, every­thing changed. So while my parents’ gener­ation may have grown up under the Raj and listened to, say, Frank Sinatra, this genera­tion just rejected that ”” they rejected jazz.

 

Naresh Fernandes’s book Taj Mahal Foxtrot ends with a chapter on how the beat groups had arrived. So did you exchange notes with Fernandes for your book?

Not at all. We talk all the time. He’s a sharer, so he’s helped me with various things, but I con­sciously wanted to keep that world out. For ex­ample, his world shows people at the Taj sing­ing in the ballroom. Mine has no mention of that barring to say that the whole idea of the dinner-jacketed, slick-haired, bow-tied musi­cian was so anathema to the rockers that they rejected it.

As Naresh’s book shows, jazz went on until 66-67 and by 63-64 rock bands had started ”” they were called beat groups. The first band in India were the Trojans from Bangalore. There was a slight overlap in the sense the first act to perform at a venue would be a beat group, but the main act would be the jazz band. That overlap was there because the older genera­tion was the one spending the money. But the youngsters came, heard the beat group and left by the time the serious entertainment started. By 67, you couldn’t find a jazz band anywhere and that shift was what interested me and I had a story in mind and, as I started writing it, my framework became clear.

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What is the world in your book like?

In the early Sixties, when rock began, it was novel. No music was filtering into this coun­try. You couldn’t buy a record. All India Radio was playing Hindustani classical music. Peo­ple relied on Radio Ceylon, Voice of America and BBC to listen to some new music. Among the new music that came through was this music of four lads from Liverpool. Youngsters all over India, unknown to each other, start­ed listening to this [The Beatles] ”“ harmonies, pleasing sounds, beautiful guitar work etc.

You couldn’t get a foreign magazine, you couldn’t get foreign music on the radio and yet, these people [rockers] were in step with the latest trends in the world. How? It could have only been a certain kind of madness, so that is what I’ve tried to reflect.

 

What were the main venues that support­ed this new music?

Restaurants in Bombay were not so sure about rock bands. The first Bombay group, The Jets, played at St.Xavier’s College. Then, rock start­ed picking up at parties and smaller restau­rants. Sharon’s in Colaba was one such venue. In Kolkata, everyone went to Trincas in Park Street to play.

By 1965, possibilities exploded. Of course, in Bombay, rock bands also played at Sa­chivalaya Gymkhana [in Nariman Point] for New Year’s Eve and special occasions. December was a great time for bands. As­toria Hotel, which had a restaurant called Venice, a well known spot for cabaret, and Talk Of The Town, which is now Pizza By The Bay, were the small venues. But the most unlikely venue, which became the main venue for all big rock concerts, was the Shanmukhananda Hall. This was in the heart of conservative Tamil land and Shan­mukhananda Hall was only available in the morning. I remember going to concerts at 10 in the morning. It used to be jam-packed and Shanmukhananda Hall had a capaci­ty of 3,000.

Amazingly, by 66, there were entrepre­neurs who were setting up shows in various halls in Bombay. The entrepreneurs used to organize Sunday concerts at Sophia Bhab­ha Hall in Sophia College and invite maybe six bands to play, print a souvenir, get ads, sell tickets for 5 bucks or 3 bucks. If the show got 1,500 peo­ple, they made 4,000 or 5,000 ru­pees from ticket sales, and a lit­tle more from ads. This was huge money in the Sixties for a 20-year-old who set up this whole thing. So I also spoke to these entrepreneurs for the book.

A poster for a gig in 1975

A poster for a gig in 1975

 

What was the music like? There were originals, but weren’t there a lot of covers as well?

In the beginning, there were just covers. The Jets composed one or two pieces, but there’s no record of that. No literal or physical record. They don’t even have notes about it. Real orig­inal music came around 65-66 with The Sav­ages. One of the discs has a couple of songs by them that are their own. But recording com­panies were just not interested.

The Mustangs, a very well known group from Madras, who did only instrumentals, re­leased a record. Their bassist was in love with an Anglo-Indian girl and wrote a song for her that made it to Side B. But Side A had “Es­cape” by The Ventures. The Mustangs refused to play anything but instrumentals. Madras was a very hot scene. Madras Christian Col­lege and Loyola were packed with bands. Ma­dras had something that people don’t get ”“ it had a music culture. Everybody had some­body in the family who knew music. Second­ly, Madras was a hugely Anglicized city. So the Mustangs guy was telling me that everybody in the band’s family had a gramophone player and while they listened to English music, they were also exposed to Carnatic. The other thing Madras had that very few people pay attention to is the film industry, so there was no dearth of music instruments. In Mumbai, bands had to go to a police band to get a drum kit.

 

What about the film industry in Bombay?

I suspect it was because the groups in Bom­bay were from Colaba and Byculla, mainly Colaba, that they had zero connection with the Bombay film industry. Madras, for some strange reason, was linked to the film industry. [Actor] Bhanu­mathi’s son was part of a rock group and he had access to all instruments. I shouldn’t exaggerate the film con­nection, but it adds to the whole cul­tural environment. But, here is one big difference between the jazz era and the rock generation ”” not a sin­gle rocker had anything to do with the Bombay film industry.

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Why was this the case?

Snobbery. Pure snobbery and a sense that they are rockers. I was talking to Nandu [Bhende, of Mumbai rock band Savage En­counter] the other day and he said, “I sang my first Hindi film song in the late Eighties.” For Bappi Lahiri, no less.

 

How was rock music perceived back then?

A tiny fringe activity, which was very im­portant and big in its own universe, but oth­erwise a fringe activity. Most kids in bands came from middle class and upper middle class Anglicized backgrounds. What was def­initely understood by mainstream media was that there was a generational shift happening in the country and even mainstream maga­zines like The Illustrated Weekly of India re­corded it.

The big word in those days was generation gap. Since rock music became the musical expression, the anthem so to speak, of rebel­lion, of protest worldwide, of a generation de­manding social change for reasons totally ex­traneous to India ”” the Vietnam war, drugs ”” that registered here also. You couldn’t ig­nore beat groups once the beat group com­petitions began in 1968. There were events all over the country and they were being ad­vertised, kids were demanding to go and see the show. They had sponsors. The Simla Beat contest had a cigarette sponsor.

The Combustibles. Photo: Courtesy of Bhatia

The Combustibles. Photo: Courtesy of Bhatia

 

What kind of lives did these rockers lead?

Many of them had day jobs. The others were college students. When they finished, they took up jobs and played for the rest of the time. In Calcutta, there was a band called Great Bear, a really fine band, which later on became an even finer band called High. It was impossible to get an album by them. The band had a cult following in Calcutta. Their lead guitar player worked as a young manager in a company called Metal Box. They frowned at the idea that he had long hair and said, “What! Are you taking three days off to go to Delhi to play a rock concert. Are you nuts?”

 

Who were the most influential bands of the time?

They were influential for different reasons. The Savages, because they were the first real band in Bombay that had a long life, were more or less committed musicians who be­came quite popular. They started making re­cords and were invited to shows. They were not one of the herd. They were the first group to make that kind of impact in Bombay as a proper professional band. The Jets were very professional, but they didn’t last too long ”“ maybe a year and a half or something. Then, there was Great Bear. The Mustangs, for me, are very significant as a group because they were from Madras and they were fully instru­mental and, despite being from Madras, they made a name for themselves.

The best band by all accounts was Human Bondage. They were tight, highly skilled mu­sicians ”“ the Shottam brothers. Suresh Shot­tam was supposed to be the ultimate gui­tarist. I’ve got a guy talking about Shottam saying that when he played Hendrix, you couldn’t tell the difference. This is, of course, memory and nostalgia. Human Bondage was also significant because they brought in the raga and they tried a little bit of fusion. They never cut a disc because they didn’t believe that they were good enough.

Atomic Forest was also very significant be­cause they came at a very interesting time ”“ when psychedelia and funk were coming in. The problem with Atomic Forest is that they changed musicians every three months, so it was a very troubled group. They were all about attitude, psychedelia and had serious drug issues. Atomic Forest also had show­manship with Madhukar prancing around the stage, the hair had become longer, the beard was wild. Atomic Forest lasted for years and the first Atomic Forest and the last Atomic Forest had nobody in common, but the name lasted.

 

Listen to The Savages from Mumbai below

 

 

Listen to The Mustangs from Chennai below

 

Listen to Atomic Forest from Mumbai below

 

Listen to the Bombay Sessions by Led Zeppelin below

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