Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sound Recollections: ‘Apache over Singapore’ by Joseph C. Pereira

Apache over Singapore by Joseph C. Pereira is subtitled ‘The story of Singapore 60s music’. The first of 2 books, Volume 1 covers the first five years of the decade which saw the local music scene reach a level of activity unparalleled before or since. Bands like The Quests and The Jets vied for places on the Singapore and Malaysia pop charts alongside The Beatles. Major labels like Philips and EMI were snapping up local bands to recording contracts. Even an act with no recorded output, Ronnie & The Burns, could sell out a concert at the Singapore Conference Hall.

Author Joseph C. Pereira devotes individual chapters to major acts of the period, and serves up an encyclopedic document on the bands and musicians: from the stories behind their formation and dissolution, to the respective discographies and even shows and tours undertaken. Being a latter period band member himself, Pereira is able to offer insights on the sounds and methods of the day. While the movement was undoubtedly catalysed with a plethora of bands imitating The Shadows, there was no shortage of creativity and experimentation as the musicians developed beyond simple party shows. New sounds and technologies were eagerly adopted, like the fuzzbox (as used by the Rolling Stones) and 16 track recording equipment (this at the time when the Beatles were recording on 4 track). For an idea of the proficiency of the time, consider Jimmy Appudurai (Meltones, Motif) commenting on his guitar tone: ‘I used a 1962 or 1963 Strat and the studio’s Dynachord amplifier…A clean split sound, from the bottom toggle switch, mixed in between the last 2 pickups.’

As the stories of the bands unfold, so too is a picture of Singapore society woven indelibly as backdrop. This was still Singapore the exotic third world port of call, a cauldron of British colonial expatriates, American personnel on R&R from Vietnam, and seafarers unleashed on shore leave. Within the local populace, gangsterism, communism and racial friction would soon rupture the fragile social fabric. As Patrick Seet of the Echo Jets recalled, trouble makers sometimes showed up at gigs and caused bloody fighting on the dancefloors, and for the intimidated bands, ‘the only thing we could do was to keep on playing’.

Emerging too from the narrative are reminders of a bygone era, where youths flocked to Sunday Tea Dances, and movie theatres such as the Lido and now defunct Capitol hosted live band and variety shows. This in part sustained the demand for beat bands, which would fill nightclubs and venues like the Singapore Badminton Hall and National Theatre in a way the present-day Esplanade Theatre would surely wish. It consequently made Singapore an exporter of performers to the regional entertainment circuits in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Vietnam, a mantle since assumed by the Philippines.

Reading between the lines, one is struck by a sense of excitement and possibility in the air at the time. Consider the story of The Flying Phantoms: a jamming band which took an on-looking schoolboy as singer - within several months of formation they were performing on national television! And those who think the Asian consumer market is a contemporary phenomenon may reflect that, back in the sixties, local bands were having their string backing tracks recorded in Holland, while The Crescendos, fronted by Singapore’s first teen superstar Susan Lim, was charting in the Philips International Top Ten alongside The Four Seasons and Dusty Springfield.

More than just a memento for nostalgic aficionados, Apache over Singapore serves up loads of fascinating anecdotes while enhancing our peripheral vision of a pivotal period in Singaporean history. Groovy indeed.

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