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Review: Singapura Uber Alles

Joseph Tham

X’Ho, Singapura Uber Alles, Warner Music, 2010.


This might just be the album I have been waiting for X’Ho (previously known as Chris Ho) to make. From the very title, Singapura Uber Alles, a double entendre of a line from the German national anthem associated with its Nazi past (more…)

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National Songs Revisited

From Propaganda to Pop to Anti-cool Kitsch

Tan Shzr Ee


There was a time, when people said that one Singapore song was too many – but maybe they were wrong.

Lame attempt aside at parroting that famous opening line of our 1987 hit, We Are Singapore, what can be gleaned from rusty minds which have forgotten how to factorise quadratic equations but remember every word to Count On Me, is that something in those tunes must have clicked over all these years. Yes, I’m talking about Sing Singapore. Since 1985, no fewer than 16 national songs, in the spirit of discovering and promoting original melodies ‘written by Singaporeans for Singaporeans… cultivating a greater sense of togetherness among Singaporeans’, have been bombarding state television, radio and other media platforms in the run-up to annual National Day celebrations.[1] Remember One People One Nation (1990) and Home (1998), long before the likes of home-grown pop rock band Electrico pulled their Coldplay chops in indie-Ah Pek tee-shirts for last year’s What Do You See and ‘community tunes’ like Chan Mali Chan, Dayung Sampan, plus – gulp – that evergreen Tamil ditty with its inimitable ‘ethnic’ diphthong, Muneeru Valiba?

When I was growing up (to use that cliché ), these were the mantras they made us sing at assembly and other ‘community’ sessions, shortly before we were corrupted by the ‘angmoh’ evils of Tiffany, Madonna and GNR. Unbelievably – we weren’t even really coerced into these exercises of what must now be viewed through politically-incorrect terminology as propaganda. Such, indeed, was the glee then of getting to skive classes for the surely innocent activity of simply opening our mouths to make a noise Yes, I happily admit: I was part of several Sing Singapore campaigns. I even made it to minor TV fame (raving belligerently over my celluloid debut as a yellow speck in a two-second flash of panned Betacam footage) when my school – Raffles Girls’ Secondary – was shortlisted in 1989 as a finalists in a performance competition promoting these songs.

In those days, we sang the straightforward tunes of awe-inspiring nation-building schtick: Stand Up for Singapore (1985) Count On Me Singapore (1986), One People One Nation and of course, We Are Singapore. We held hands and wept tears of pride when we re-imagined good ol’ Clement Chow and the ‘effectively-bilingual’ Samuel Chong croon their hearts out for ‘no dream too bold … that we can’t try for’.

We kept our promises not to smile when singing the pledge, while strolling prefects with furrowed brows suppressed giggle outbreaks, and hordes of pre-pubescents in sweltering pinafores brimmed over with a curious mix of collective schoolgirl hysteria and induced patriotism as we mouthed word after word with our fists clenched to our bosoms. We memorised all the lyrics to Muneeru Valiba and Chan Mali Chan in the name of multicultural inclusion, but never bothered to find out what they meant. The Cultural Revolution (and its accompanying swarm of similarly communitarian propaganda tunes) was something that happened in a different country’s even more distant past. We did not care – or indeed know – that many of the songs we held so dear to ‘my country, my flag… my future, my life’ were penned on behalf of the Ministries of Defence and Culture by a Canadian music producer called Hugh Harrison (now apparently residing in Thailand).

Of course, there are more objective ways to take stock of all this, as has been attempted by myself and others.[2] The emotionally-rousing power of music psychologically reifies messages through accompanying lyrics. The socially-interactive event of mass singing further bonds group identity, generating energy and collective consciousness.

Conveniently extrapolating, such a setup suggests that any kind of singing activity might therefore be understood as an ultimate demonstration of private or public propaganda, given that any kind of music will also be driven by a motion separate to itself – be it an advertisement jingle, a love song or a church hymn. But there’s ‘art for art’s sake’ – you argue. And yet: even this engine functions on the basis of an aesthetic value and inherent message of sorts, deeply couched in any kind of manifested ‘absolute music’. Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point out an obvious difference between Electrico doing its regular Love In A New Wave fare, and What Do You See for the National Day Parade.

My point is, there are different species of musical propaganda, even as evolving ways of experiencing and appreciating these separate styles over time exist: Hence a conscious attempt to revisit the old chestnuts in an age where almost everything is available for downloading or listening pleasure, thanks to the miracles of YouTube and Google.

onepeople

Let’s All Consume Some State Ideology!

So what happens, then, when you start digging up those old turkeys? Perhaps it’s the proverbial generation gap at work, but recent dinnertime musings over these tunes with a group of Singaporeans led to a curious consensus that it was the 1980s hits which had really ‘stuck’, instead of those slickly-produced pop tunes of the 21st century.

Perhaps the older songs were too well-drummed into our systems through the carefully-orchestrated school campaigns, even as newer songs have not necessarily been foisted upon teenagers in state-wide competitions. Perhaps their distinctively slogan-like and cheesy choruses made individual pieces stand out all the more from the emerging soup of parallel Cantopop and Mandopop offerings, which newer tunes were struggling to emulate. As a good friend, R, pointed out: ‘At least those early songs didn’t pretend to be anything else’.

Indeed, straightforward musical propaganda was the early order of the day everyone from the Ministry of Defence to national newspapers celebrated what-would-now-be deemed as a somewhat distasteful marriage between art and politics. A 1987 report in the Business Times, for example, proclaimed:

Music is an exercise in harmony. Singing in chorus is more difficult than singing solo, because whereas in the latter the individual is his own master, in a chorus, an individual’s voice must be in total harmony with every other’s voice. A government is made up of people who bring exceptional qualities to their office, but it becomes a government only when these different people believe in, and find, the harmony of a common ground. When the Prime Minister and his parliamentary colleagues this week rehearsed songs for National day, they testified to existence of the bond between music and government: harmony. And when the rest of Singapore join them, full-throated, on National day, the picture will be complete: harmony, not just in song, not just among members of the government, but most important between a people and their government…[3]

The messages within the music – doubly reinforced by images of parades, military might, politicians at rallies and Singaporeans of the requisite Chinese, Malay, Indian and ‘Other’ ethnicities holding hands and beaming in front of an HDB block – were, in turn, clear and predictable. ‘Ethnic’ flourishes of the tabla or guzheng were inserted into individual tracks as token ‘cultural symbols’ in songs otherwise executed primarily in only English and Mandarin. We were reminded once again of how precariously Singapore teetered before the last generation strove to achieve today’s economic success that ‘young people now take for granted’. We were consciously creating new folk-songs for a post-1965 demographic that was as culturally-orphaned as it was merrily writing new scripts on a tabula rasa. We were in all honesty told that each new Singaporean song given to us was a piece of Singaporean propaganda, and henceforth cheerily encouraged to partake of it in the name of nation-building. So what went wrong – or better yet, what went right?

Associative Memories and Grassroots Reinscriptions

I’m pleased to tell you that many people actually bought – and continue to buy – into the literal nation-building ethos of Sing Singapore. This is was possibly as much tied up with the mass hysteria-fueled sentiment of watching a National Day Parade live, as with a longer-standing moral investment in the political promises of our trustworthy men-in-white. However, I know also that for many others (myself included), national songs have moved along a wider arc of changing taste: attitudes towards Sing Singapore began with happy compliance innocent school choral activities that swerved quickly into a phase of self-conscious embarrassment at one’s past co-option into a propaganda campaign, before re-emerging victorious in a warped but deeply-patriotic celebration of anti-hype-meets-self effacement-meets-trip down memory lane.

Allow me to explain. Over the years the very cringe-worthiness of many lyrics of national songs have kept me (among many other Singaporeans) from publicly or privately identifying with any notion of Singaporean nationalism. Yet, at the same time, I admit that I do retain fond memories of these songs, simply because they contain natural associations to memories of growing up during those early years; of skiving classes to sing in a quadrangle; of staying back after school to paint Sing Singapore banners. And thus, the evolving campaign agendas of Sing Singapore seem to have fostered a sense of personal-mini-historical identity.

But it’s not always that simple, of course. Even as national songs have been flooding our media channels and larger consciousnesses over the years, newer breeds of self-effacing and government-lampooning Singaporeans have risen to the challenge of re-inscribing the real ‘grass roots’ into top-down distributed musical ideology. Already back in the 1980s, way before the era of internet spoofs, Mr Brown, TalkingCock.com and piss-takes, alternative versions of anthems such as We Are Singapore and Count On Me Singapore were already floating around private chainmail networks. If the government was ready to spend money creating a piece of fake folksong, surely the onus was equally upon self-respecting, self-deprecating and happy-to-be-nannied heartlanders to re-fake the fake? Indeed, a well-known mutant version of Count On Me, whose anonymous vintage can be traced to the late 1980s (thus arguably authentically ‘of the people’), is reproduced as follows:

Count Money, Singapore

We have a revision of pay tomorrow
Just released, just released
We have a poorer Singapore
We won’t receive, we won’t receive__
You and me, we have to part
With our CPF for a start
We have to show the world that we take less money
We won’t receive, we won’t receive

There is nothing down the road that we can look for
We were told a dream that we could never try for

There’s a spirit in the air
That Seventh Month feeling we all share
We’re gonna build a better after-life for you and me
We were deceived, we were deceived

Count money, Singapore
Count money, Singapore
Count on me to give my salary and more
Count money, Singapore

You and me
We’ll do our part, give our kidneys and our hearts
We’re gonna show the world how to GIRO our body
We can’t resist, we can’t resist

Count money, Singapore
Count money, Singapore
Count on me to give my life and more
Count money, Singapore

Together Singapore, Singapore x 3

Anti-cool is the New ‘Cool’

But the fun only starts there. Even as anonymous mutant versions abound, publicly-authored ones with sharper satirical edges – including a well-known music-hall act by Dick Lee at the Esplanade (a cabaret rendition that has come to be a YouTube hit),[4] as well as numerous spoof posts by the likes of Mr Brown (aka Lee Kin Mun) and TalkingCock (Colin Goh) – have also surfaced.

In more recent years, the trend has u-turned into a celebration of retro-meets-anti-cool. Here, the entire farcical nature of consuming and being consumed by propaganda has become a whole performance of cheerful irony in itself. By this, I am referring to an increasing number of private and public National Day-themed parties where these songs are deliberately sung for their cheese factor, alongside an expression of genuine pride in Singaporean identity. The trick lies in learning to experience and re-create different layers of intentionality and meaning in the process of consuming these songs. Such cumulative layers of meaning are postmodern in nature, signifying a celebration of the uncool as the new ‘cool’. Here, active endorsement of the ruling government’s exhortations on nation-building becomes more than a patriotic act of will: It embodies the status quo of supporting the state mandate to the extent that such an act becomes ridiculous and laughable, and is thus truly worthy to be celebrated for its own sake. In other words: national songs have become ‘so bad they are actually good’.

In 2003, at a fund-raising dinner held by theatre company W!ld Rice attended by several important politicians, 1980s Sing Singapore songs re-appeared in the guise of lightweight and officially sanctioned political humour. Guests, dressed in flag colours of red and white, watched a comedic revue of hit propaganda tunes performed by celebrity thespians Glen Goei and Ivan Heng dressed in tokenistic costumes that had now taken on kink value. Stage gear – some of which was worn in drag – included the cheongsam, the sarong kebaya, the sari, school uniforms and army camouflage wear. Performances were delivered with over-the-top theatrics, and musical nationalism was championed in the name of kitsch and camp. Old turkey tunes from Stand Up For Singapore to Count On Me were delivered and sung along with violent applause and laughter, alongside the frantic and orchestrated waving of toy flags. A double-edged delivery of patriotism – understood by the superficial acceptance of state ideology, as well as simultaneous awareness of its contrivance in singers who were triumphantly performing in the face of politicians– was the name of this new, reclaimed game. Today, national song parties and Sing Singapore sessions continue to be consumed by ‘the people’ in an ever-expanding plethora of platforms: at increasingly Mardi Gras-styled Halloween festivals at reunions of overseas communities in chacha and line-dancing backing tracks recorded for shopping centre roadshows phone-videoed (and released unto the internet); finally, in happy-ironic National Day parties within and without Singapore every year.

Between Home, Britpop, the Olympics and Truly Asia?

If the Sing Singapore ball was now bouncing so firmly in the ‘people’s court’, one might wonder here: what was the state doing all this while?

Ironically, from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, national songs began to move away from outright propaganda. Enter instead soft-sell, feel-good fare reminiscent of Mandopop and Cantopop genres prevalent in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, glossed over with an inspirational church song twist. Local TV stars such as Evelyn Tan and Gurmit Singh, as well as pop personalities Tanya Chua, Mavis Hee, Stefanie Sun, Kit Chan and Singapore idol winner Hady Mirza were all roped into the campaign, delivering melodies such as Together, Shine, Shine On Me, We Will Get There and My Island Home. Jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro was called in to re-interpret the oldies with a swing beat. Prominent business personalities such as Jennie Chua, alongside overseas-based but Singapore-born soprano Yee Ee-ping, were invited to guest different segments in updated and pop-ified versions of 1980s tunes.[5] As Singapore rode into the internet age, the campaign also developed virtual fronts, spawning official and unofficial sites and postings where visuals, lyrics and mp3s of new and remixed songs could be downloaded.

The original turning point, as many tell, came in 1998, when Dick Lee was hired to write the nostalgic Home, voiced by Kit Chan. Lee’s tune – which many hail for its fine craftsmanship and subtle lyrics that speak of personally-rooted ‘belongings’ rather than publicly-mediated communitarianism, bypassed the usual musico-textual rigmarole of ‘striving’ for some nebulous notion of loud, national achievement. Ironically, it marked the glorious start of a campaign that seemed to fade into the more generic struggle for style and substance alongside mainstream genres already dominating consumer and pop markets in Singapore. While Home marked a distinctive change in the identity of national songs and continues to be celebrated among many as ‘the best of the lot’, it also set a standard that would prove to be hard to meet.

Paradoxically, the more ambiguously signified meanings of national songs after Home seemed to be faulted by its target audiences for not being ‘propagandistic’ enough. This was a case for both sides of the pro-campaign and anti-campaign divide. 2007’s There’s No Place I’d Rather Be, for example, was faulted in The Straits Times for not mentioning the word ‘Singapore’ at all.[6] At the same time, its coy message of luring overseas-migrated Singaporeans home through soft-sell was tut-tutted by the sly and knowing for being less than ‘transparent’. To recall my dinner partner R’s words: ‘If you’re going to give us propaganda, you should just give it straight and not pretend that it’s something else’.

Singaporeans, it seemed, wanted the lines between artistic creativity and political signification more clearly drawn. These emerging mindsets, evolving in the course of one-and-a-half decades of the state steadily churning out culturally-engineered musics, were no doubt also developing alongside the relaxing of social mores that ironically called for more clearly-defined political, religious and social-censorship classifications and differentiated markers. In many ways, the earlier, overtly-political songs were easier and bigger targets for sociopolitical reinscription (through alternative lyrics, ironic ‘takes’, anti-cool performances or otherwise). In comparison, the newer, more generic pop tunes were simply not blatant enough to be effectively satirised, transformed or reclaimed, even as they appeared unable to penetrate the Singaporean consciousness as fully in the wake of more competitive Mandopop and Cantopop parallels.

whatdoyousee

National songs are once again moving onto yet another paradigm. In 2009, local band Electrico – a church-originated indie act that has since achieved cult status in Singapore – was made the face of the new National Day Parade theme song. Its Britpop-inspired, ’emo’ and slightly ambient sound in What Do You See marked yet another new identity. This gear-switch from soft pop to a more alternative sound received equal amounts of praise and criticism from Singaporean listeners, who correspondingly argued that the tune came across as a tribute/rip-off of British alternative rocker Keane. While What Do You See appears not to have packed in the blatant punch of early hits such as Stand Up For Singapore, it has generated enough media interest for the sake of its novelty value alone, as seen in numerous blogs, FaceBook and YouTube comments that have flooded its multi-mediated existence alongside traditional media platforms.

What next for the National Song as a genre, then? Interestingly, the employment in recent years of well-known gay theatre practitioners as directors of the annual National Day Parade (even as homosexuality is technically still illegal in Singapore), has led many to believe that ideological, practical and creative tussles between art, politics and prevailing social mores (read state-mandated?) continue to be actively re-negotiated. Meanwhile, 2010’s national song lineup has re-entered the internet age proper, acquiring the front of a virtual music contest. This time around, as a joint project with the upcoming Youth Olympics in August, the larger extravaganza will be masterminded by no less than last year’s celebrated National Parade Director, Ivan Heng of W!ld Rice. As part of yet another revamped inspirational song competition , it is now not only Singaporeans but also ‘songwriters and music lovers from around the world’ who have been called to contribute, via the internet, original tunes embodying musical expressions of the Olympic spirit: ‘striving for excellence, fostering friendships, exercising respect, inspiring young minds’.[7]

Wherefore the national song today, in a world of emerging new media platforms allowing instant revisiting and reclaiming of Sing Singapore’s musical past via endless YouTube videos, alongside old-school TV screens found in coffeeshops and HDB sitting-rooms? How do they speak for an evolving sense of Singaporean identity co-constructed by the state and the nannied-but-not-disempowered people, and by everyone else in between? Indeed, national songs have been loved, hated, re-lyricised, re-recorded, re-mixed, re-voiced, re-learnt, re-consumed and created afresh over dynamic as well as tiny increments of time and space. If they have not exactly come to be ethnically-coded as Singaporean for lack of any identifiable pan-ethnic musical value to be found in the island’s culturally-orphaned scene itself – then they have been transformed into a rojak plethora of random multicultural offerings. These have included everything from propaganda kitsch to Mandopop, opera, new church song, chacha, line-dancing fodder and classical music essentialised (as seen in Chan Mali Chan delivered by a visiting Vienna Boys’ Choir complete with thinly-vibrato-ed ‘hoi hoi’ some years ago) and, finally, emo-rock. Indeed, the next frontier to be knowingly crossed in 2010 might well be rooted in the possibility of such new songs being voiced and created outside the national framework of Singapore itself: could our national songs – like Britain’s Jerusalem or Australia’s Waltzing Matilda – become internationally known and sung in time to come, in congruence with the original aims of this propaganda drive as a ‘new folksong’ campaign, even as they might be penned by foreigners? Trusty old R, who never tires of interesting suggestions, plays the devil’s advocate once more as he puts forward an old-school glam queen as his unlikely candidate: ‘We should get Anita Sarawak to front it next. But better check she’s not Malaysian… sekali Truly Asia!’.


Notes

[1] National Arts Council, 2002. Sing Singapore press release.

[2] Tan, Shzr Ee. 2005. ‘Manufacturing and Consuming Culture: Fakesong in Singapore’. Ethnomusicology Forum 14.1, 83-106.

[3] The Business Times, August 1 1987. ‘There’s a Sing in Singapore’.

[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eSQhXiAZvw

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr85UFtdo0U

[6] Chee, Frankie. 2007. ‘Why no Singapore? The Sunday Times Aug 12 2007, L2.

[7] http://www.singapore2010.sg/public/sg2010/en/en_newsletter/en_happenings/en_20091126_16_hp03_sing_singapore2010.html

Tan Shzr Ee is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, currently researching musical activities on new media platforms in the Chinese diaspora as well as folksong of Taiwan’s aborigines. Her research touches on phenomena ranging from viral videos to politico-musical activism on the internet. Shzr Ee is also an active musician in London, playing the piano, accordion and other lutes and fiddles in classical, jazz tango, Balkan Chinese and Okinawan bands.

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Joseph Tham

Various Artistes. +65 Indie Underground. Universal Music Singapore, 2009. 3-CD box set.


It was a warm and humid evening. Fans of the band playing on the make-shift stage in the garden of the Substation (now the popular live space/café, Timbre and formerly Fat Frog) were euphoric and jumping and slam-dancing away as the thunderous thuds of the drums and the overdriven guitar sounds were emitting from the two speakers. Some of them were queuing up at the left corner of the stage; they were getting ready to stage-dive off the wooden platform, similar to what the kids do in the rest of the world at hardcore gigs but with one major difference– they waited for their turns and they, like all good Singaporeans, jump off, one by one, in an orderly manner. And that was the image which stuck in my head. This gig was my very first occasion catching the raw power of legendary hardcore band, Stompin’ Ground, live back in 1990.

Stompin Ground

Prior to that gig, I had just purchased my first copy of BigO magazine (more on it later), at a newsstand behind Funan Centre, properly printed and stuffed with interviews and reviews on the musicians and bands in both the underground and independent/indie scenes, locally as well as overseas. Yes, that year was the year I discovered Singapore indie underground: it was truly subterranean, and except for a couple of friends of mine, it seemed that no one knew anything about the scene nor did they care, let alone the record industry. We were of course showing our contempt for mainstream/commercial music by donning t-shirts of indie/underground bands and putting on our Doc Marten’s boots (a staple for punk/hardcore and a little later grunge fans). It was a real scenario of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, when supporting local ‘indie’ music meant putting in that much more extra time, effort and commitment to attend the once-in-a-blue-moon gigs and to hunt down the hard-to-come-by cassette releases of the local underground acts. By the way, I still kept the cassettes which were released by many of these local underground acts, though some of them have shown signs of mould through the clear plastic between the two spools of the tape.

Indie, Not Indie

65indie

So when I first saw the name of this compilation of Singapore’s underground music scene twenty years later, the thing which hit me first was: what is ‘indie’ in the context of today’s internet-dominated and hi-tech-saturated media-obsessed 21st century? Is there still such a cultural-political divide between the commercial mainstream and the countercultural underground? Before we look further, we need to first, examine the sea-change which has taken place in the music industry and its attendant context for the past two decades.

With the digitalization of music in the 1980s and major record companies discarding vinyl and fully embracing the CD format, they did not realize at that point of time, that with this once-hailed indestructible mode of storage and playback, it marked the beginning of the slow death of the transnational corporate dominated music industry. Bored music fans started, with ease, converting their favourite tunes from CDs into MP3 format and uploading them on the then nascent internet via peer-to-peer file-sharing platforms from the mid 1990s onwards. The protracted history of the legal battles between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the major record companies, bands (Metallica vs. Napster) and the MP3 file-sharing communities the world over basically overturned the entire industry: from multiple platinum selling albums in the range of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (released in 1982, 110 million), Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction (released in 1987, 28 million) and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (released in 1973, 45 million) in the 1970s and the1980s to today’s tops at only double/triple platinum (platinum means a sale of 1 million copies accorded by RIAA since 1976) sales of the top bill of the major labels. The mainstream music industry as a force to influence the minds and souls has been seriously compromised, and the trend continues despite the temporary necrophiliac ‘resurrection’ towards the end of last year as a result of the death of the ‘King of the Pop’, Michael Jackson, as well as the hyped re-issues of the remastered CD albums of the Beatles. Thus, the long running oppositonal stance between the mainstream charts and the indie underground since the late 1970s has been gradually turned upside down.

Today, ‘indie’ or independent bands and acts are invading the Billboard Top 200 almost as frequent as we see an ERP gantry for the past two years: just last year, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion reached no. 13 and Grizzly Bear’s Verkatimest peaked at no. 8; other chart showers like Bon Iver and The XX amongst many others have managed to place themselves comfortably within the upper reaches of the chart. And of course, this year in January, Vampire Weekend’s second release Contra actually debuted on the Top 200 at no.1! Can we still consider these acts as ‘indie’ in its original sense?

One can of course interpret this as signs of the bankruptcy of creative validity of most major label sanctioned acts who are more concerned with flashing around on music videos in spandex and fishnets, as well as the growing discerning taste amongst serious music fans (the not-so-serious ones are busy downloading) and it is reflected in the chart actions of these indie acts which broke through to a wider audience base. People who love and believe in music are still endorsing their favourite acts by going to the stores to purchase the CDs/LPs or paying for MP3 albums online legally.

In Singapore, however, it is a sad state of affair when most of the bands featured on the 3-CD compilation are still ‘indie’ in the old-school sense of the word, even for those active in recent years: independent, unheard of by most and strictly off the radar. Except for the occasional chart indenture once in a blue moon over the past three decades, the state of rock in Singapore remains unknown, under-supported and under-appreciated. (even chart action on the radio doesn’t mean anything – the Oddfellows, Daze and the Watchmen all had No. 1 hits on the radio in the 1990s, but it did not translate to CD sales) What contributed to this prolonged phenomenon?

Us Versus Them

X’ Ho is spot-on to attribute the subterranean existence of rock music and its subsequent stunted growth in Singapore to the local censorial atmosphere due to the suspicions the government had towards anything to do with rock/popular culture from the 1960s through to the 1990s. [Editor’s note: Joseph Peirera’s Legends of the Golden Venus and Robert Conceicao’s To Be A Rock But Not To Roll: Autobiography of Jerry Fernandez offer the reason for the 1970s decline of local pop to be the withdrawal of the British naval bases from Singapore and the end of the Vietnam War – the Lion City was a hot spot for Rest and Recreation for American troops and that sustained the whole sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trade here as hinted in Saint Jack] The ban on slam dancing after the Henry Rollins gig at the Singapore Labour Foundation Auditorium in the early 1990s, which the local papers sensationalized, is just one example of the triggered government reaction to the decadent/violent/unsavoury/unbecoming practices/culture surrounding the music.

bigo005

However, the sustained impact of the long-armed paternal policies of the government in almost all aspects of life of Singaporeans since independence also acted as extra fuel, if not the main cause, for apathy towards the small but burgeoning underground music scene here. As the government basically planned, guided and single-mindedly focused the direction of the fledging nation towards economic sustainability since the 1960s via export-oriented industrialization, it has resulted in Singaporeans basically placing their faith in the government totally, and thus far, to give it credit, the government has indeed been successful in steering the nation towards what it is today. The prevalent socio-political climate and conditions present in other countries to allow for a vibrant arts scene were muted as a result, for the arts were seen as either unproductive or simply of a more frivolous nature, and this indirectly hindered the growth of a home-bred serious fan base for music. Most were ignorant of the fact that the arts are not mere entertainment, but possible forces of change, at least in cultural terms, like dada, Fluxus and of course, punk.

The entrenched ‘us versus them’ vantage point held by most ‘indie’ musicians, record labels, radio stations, record shops and live network systems began precisely because many in the West have stopped viewing rock music as mere painkiller to the drudgery of the capitalist system (especially so in the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was more entertainment than rebellion) but a possible conduit of self expression, change, independence and freedom. However, the existence of any such infrastructural framework for the ‘indie’ minded community to work in did not really exist then in the psychedelic/hippie 1960s when countercultural forces started to gain wider consciousness amongst the youth around the world (there were the Beats, the Beboppers, Free jazzers and the Situationist International before the folk revival and psychedelic rock). It only appeared suddenly but rapidly mushrooming via one of the most explosive musical/cultural moments in recent history in the 1970s: Sex Pistols and punk.

The Birth of Indie

In the UK, punk as a cultural and musical movement was seen as a force of great change in musicological, social and political terms by many critics and historians: the decaying British social system and the inability of the political structure to resolve high unemployment rates, soaring public expenses, rising debts and peaking fuel prices, were basically stabbing the zombie of an ailing British nation in the mid 1970s. It was a culmination of cultural ennui, political hopelessness, economic strangulation and social bleakness which created the context for Malcolm MacLaren, music Svengali cum cultural entrepreneur par excellence/former manager of the New York Dolls, to invest his time and handpick his ‘designer’ band in the form of the Sex Pistols which basically kick started the punk phenomenon in London and spread to first, other parts of the nation, and then swiftly to the other parts of the world. Despite the original Situationist-inspired intentions of MacLaren to subvert and ‘play’ in, and with, the music industry, he did not though, expect punk to encompass the spirit of do-it-yourself, ‘punk/independent versus mainstream/major’ stance, egalitarianism and bottom-up creativity which fans and musicians took to their hearts so earnestly later on.

The arrival of cutting edge punk/post punk groups, within the next few years after the explosion of punk in the national consciousness, like Public Image Limited, the Slits, the Pop Group, Gang of Four, Young Marble Giants, Scritti Politti and Crass, into the music scene, affirmed a couple of things: first, anyone can do it, even if you don’t even know a single chord (it helps a wee bit if you do), and second, the mushrooming of independent music labels and shops to record, release, distribute and more importantly, serving as inspiration and rallying point to anyone who showed the slightest sense of independent and creative spirit. By the beginning of the 1980s, independent or ‘indie’ chart (as listed in the pages of NME and Melody Maker) was inaugurated to champion and celebrate the fact that there was enough of a fan and structural base supporting the punk-inspired independent/indie scene with the likes of subsequently famous labels like Factory (home to Joy Division and New Order) and Rough Trade (home to later indie superstars, the Smiths). And interestingly, the proliferation of roots reggae and dub via the fans amongst the key punk practitioners like Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited), Ari Up (the Slits) and Mark Stewart (the Pop Group).

By the mid 1980s, independent record labels and acts took another turn due to the subsequent development of music zeitgeist in the increasingly post-capitalist and ‘me’ generation of the 1980s: the independent spirit was seen less as the mindset to provide a viable alternative to the mainstream which had been dominated by superstars, multi-platinum selling albums and goal-getters but more as another path to avoid major label bureaucratic burden with twice the efficiency in money-churning. By the end of the 1980s, top selling production houses like Stock, Aitken and Waterman (home of early Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan) were topping the indie charts in the UK due to the fact that it was not under any one of the major record labels.

In the USA, independent music took on a different turn: punk was never big in the way the Sex Pistols and the Clash were in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, instead, punk was seen as either a youth movement like the Straight Edge Washington D.C. scene (Minor Threat), the nihilistic Los Angeles punk milieu (the Germs), the mid-West Chicago thug punk crowd (Big Black and Naked Raygun) or, a concurrent development to the flowering of independent minded art-school blossoming in New York (the original punks, like Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Talking Heads and Ramones as well as their antithetical counterparts in the No Wavers like DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and James Chance) or San Francisco (art punk rockers like the Units, the Avengers and Tuxedomoon). Other than the first wave of punk rockers like Patti Smith and Television who released key albums on major record labels, corporate A&R execs were keeping their distance from anything remotely punk.

The attitude of the record industry in early 1980s Singapore was of course similar to their counterparts in the West. No distributors brought in punk records. [Editor’s note: This gives rise to the legendary story of Bobby of The Attic, then at Centrepoint, and his mythical gang of SIA girls who hand carried records back for him – they sold for $25 a piece back then] So don’t even talk about local punk bands. (that got to wait till 1986 for the birth of the Opposition Party) But to even mention anything made in Singapore would invite strange looks as well: besides Toyko Square’s Within You’ll Remain, how many ‘local’ hits can one remember from the 1980s? The mainstream was saturated with glitzy glam/hair metal rockers, post-disco rehash pop stars and MTV savvy rock icons flaunting their bust lines and tight spandex pants. Punk, surprisingly, infiltrated the consciousness of serious music fans in Singapore during this period. So if the majors were not paying attention, and we did not really need them, let’s do something on our own guys!

Indie, Singapore Style

The Pioneers: Zircon Lounge and Corporate Toil

Zircon

The local scene started in the early 1980s with one key band, Zircon Lounge. Their track, Guide These Hands, included in +65 as the very last track on this three CD set, betrays traces of New York punk pioneers and New Wave (distilled through the Cars and Romeo Void) and Velvet Underground/Lou Reed (re-routed via the Dream Syndicate, a key band in the neo-psychedelic Californian Paisley Underground scene and on the first LP of Zircon Lounge, the group actually covered ‘Sweet Jane’ by the Velvet Underground). The group stood as a brave and defiantly firm statement in the local music scene then: the first band to embrace, ingest and produce an original sound back in the early 1980s, amidst general apathy, of course. One of the key members, Chris Ho, went on to become the John Peel of Singapore when he became a DJ with Rediffusion Singapore from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, influencing thousands of youths who either sat in front of the cabled radio speakers every Friday evening [Editor’s note: I did exactly the same thing, except I had to go to the Lower Delta Community Centre to do so, much to the disapproving stares of aunties watching their Channel 8 programmes at 9 pm] or found out about his monthly Eight Miles High charts in the pages of the one and only independent music/cultural rag, BigO (Before I Get Old, a line from 1960s mega-selling mod group, the Who, which specialized in instrument dismantling antics on stage). The band represented the first breath of independent music locally but after the band disbanded, all went quiet, or so it seemed.

When BigO became properly printed (with colours et cetera) and distributed locally in 1990, the local independent music scene started to grow. One act which had a controversial reputation then, is also featured on this CD set: Corporate Toil, though influenced by the more palatable post-punk/New Wave acts like New Order, Cocteau Twins and Japan, was Singapore’s answer to Suicide (the audience-taunting and axe-baiting duo from New York; arty yet hooligan-like in their demeanour, raw and brutal in their sound. Despite its tough New York persona, the duo still managed to squeeze in enough melody to make their tunes hummable: just imagine Elvis Priestley fronting a fearless, confrontational rockabilly band using keyboard-generated noise in front of rednecks back in the days before Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode); they were equally confrontational when they played live: audience heckling was nothing new for the duo, who duly gave the instigators reciprocal treatment in no time during their set. Often seen using a plethora of odd instruments like loud hailers and any sound making devices they could lay their hands on (even scotch tape – go figure), they were truly one of the most original independent bands of Singapore’s first wave of underground music with Zircon Lounge serving as the spiritual godfather to all.

The other tracks on this set adopted a chronological sequence albeit backwards: with the most recent acts/tracks in disc 1 roughly marking the 2000s as well as the third wave of the independent music/underground fraternity, disc 2 documenting the bands active from the mid to late 1990s approximately, which were themselves inspired by the first wave which staffed the first disc, tracing the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the releases of these bands were done in true indie fashion in less-than-satisfactory studio set-ups and transferred to cassette, the medium of choice and necessity of many 1980s independent bands and scenes all over the world from genres as diverse as Extreme Metal to Industrial, from Noise to Garage Punk (Coincidentally, all these indie and underground genres were off-springs of the punk milieu of the late 1970s).

The impact of punk, D.I.Y. and cultural resistance continued here with the local bands struggling to fight to express themselves independently with integrity intact, though the odds were against them: almost zero radio airplay, public apathy (still more or less so if we look at how 1980s-themed retro radio/television programmes and club nights which air hits of yesterday from the USA and the UK constantly still get Singaporeans going today – go check out Mambo at Zouk on Wednesday nights) and general countercultural stance adopted by many musicians, fans and scenesters in the late 1980s and 1990s. The embrace of more extreme music forms says it all when many took a shine to, for example, the sound of hardcore/metal crossover before the term Metalcore was coined (though not very well documented here except for Opposition Party, Stompin’ Ground, S.U.D.S. and Global Chaos). Gritty but power-punched, raw but self assured, many of these bands were not thinking about crossing over to the mainstream or receiving widespread acceptance. The scene was, like scenes pre-Internet, truly for the believers: one had to look real hard for the next occasional gig, to score the hard-to-come-by vinyl or cassette copies of their favourite bands which they found out through either word-of-mouth, music rags (which were usually months late) and of course, Chris Ho’s programmes and, later on his illuminating articles in the ‘Pop Life’ column in The Straits Times every Friday in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bands that Stood the Test of Time: Nunsex and OP

Opposition Party

Opposition Party

Despite all these handicaps, the local scene produced a few truly originals besides Corporate Toil and Zircon Lounge, which have yet to get their dues: Nunsex and Opposition Party. Nunsex’s track, Riptide (Tons Of Black Clouds), on the set is an excellent showcase of the band’s thorough understanding of garage punk and psychedelia, equal part sneer of the Stooges and the manic energy of the 13th Floor Elevators with an extra dosage of the neo-psych guitar noise of Dinosaur Jr and Ride. The group managed to release a cassette which I still treasure till today. Sounding nothing like everyone else in the local scene, they could have gotten critical acclaim in the USA or the UK if they were not based locally. Opposition Party, on the other hand, is slightly misrepresented in the set as the track selected to appear here, Zombie, is from their recent album in 2005 and not from the un-self conscious experimenting days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the honcho of the group, Francis Frightful (yes, staying true to the group’s original spark in English Punk), decided to up the power quotient of his penchant for angst-infused Discharge (a key UK punk band from the 1980s) with the crunching chords of metal. Today, critics are talking about punk/metal crossover in the USA and UK for the past two decades but OP had already done that, years ago.

X’cuse Me, You Still Indie?

The rest of the set features some of the ‘top’ names in the local scene and one can feel the change of influence from the early days to today’s post-rock and indie (as a genre with a sound which sometimes suggests fey, whimsy and a strong sense of melody, but not its original definition of ‘independent’) saturated tunes in disc 1. Today, with Internet, indie or independent music has gradually lost its sense of alternativeness and countercultural significance. Any band can go on Myspace, upload their songs (today there are many studios for local fledging musicians to rehearse, ‘jam’ and even record with ease whereas back in the 1980s and 1990s, everything was an uphill struggle) and social-network with people all over the world. If we were to look at the number of independent acts coming to our shores to perform, we had in the early 1990s, only Henry Rollins, Buzzcocks and Fugazi, while in the 2000s, music fans expect at least a couple of groups of such caliber to perform right at our pinnacle of culture excellence, the Esplanade: Mogwai, Jaga Jazzist, Envy, Biosphere, Kreidler, Andrew Bird, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise, Kode9 & the SuperApe, Ryoji Ikeda and the list goes on.

Simon Reynolds, renowned music critic, commented recently in one of his articles, that the gap between the mainstream and the underground is no longer as wide and as significant: with the slow decline of the major record labels seemingly impending and the apparent triumph of indie labels in the USA and UK at least seen in the recent chart actions, the two key words in the name of this excellent CD set will lose their meaning and validity in the near future. A band like Electrico penning the National Day tune in 2009, performing it live on national television, and leading the nation on a sing-along no less – this was definitely beyond the dreams of even the craziest indie fan in the 1980s.


Bibliography

Books
1. Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001.
2. Cavanagh, David. The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize. London: Virgin, 2000.
3. Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
4. Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of The Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990.
4. Nobakht, David. Suicide: No Compromise. London: SAF Publishing, 2005.
5. Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. London: Faber & Faber, 2005.
6. Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock And Beyond. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
7. Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t The Summer Of Love: Conflict And Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Magazines
1. BigO magazine (various issues from 1991 to 1996) http://www.bigozine2.com/

Internet
1. Reynolds, Simon. “Simon Reynolds’s Notes on the noughties: The changing sound of the underground” available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/dec/21/changing-sound-underground
2. Tham, Joseph. “Let Us Rock, Singapore!” published in THINK magazine and then available online at http://gashaus.com/component/content/article/57-scenes/109-let-us-rock-singapore.html

CDs/Sleevenotes
1. Various Artistes. +65 Indie Underground. Universal Music Singapore, 2009.

Joseph Tham is a history teacher who used to run the indie record shop, Flux-us and was a founding member of the experimental band, I/D. He blogs at http://www.psychmetalfreak.blogspot.com/

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Review: Dark Folke

Ang Song Ming

The Observatory. Dark Folke. Singapore, 2009.


On their fourth album Dark Folke, The Observatory continue charting a path that, quite frankly, no other Singaporean band has managed to do over the span of five years. (more…)

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