Thursday, January 6, 2011

Rockin' the Hillstation: Garage Rock from 1970s India

This post delivers an obscure milestone from the intersection of western garage rock and Indian popular music. We are all familiar with the rock ‘n roll that was written into the scores of hundreds of Indian films. And what a fantastic jangly tango of musical kichidi that is.   But Kalyanji-Anandji, Bappi Lahiri, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, the Burmans were composing and arranging ‘rock’ and jazz for an Indian audience, for those who spoke Hindi or other Indian languages. Their music was unique and though ‘westernised’ it was sufficiently and comfortingly familiar to ears raised on Indian musical scales, rhythms and traditions.

But the albums I share with you in this and the next post are something very different. Western pop music made by Indian artists for audiences familiar with rock n roll, soul and folk. Nothing to do with Bollywood or Indian vernacular languages. This is rock from Bangalore and sweet soul music from Madras. Sung in English with an eye cocked towards California rather than Mumbai.

There were only two ways to get rock ‘n roll in India in the early 1970s:  someone brought in records from overseas or; Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a weekly pop count-down across South Asia. Rock n’ roll bands were virtually non-existent. Restaurants and the more racy clubs in cities like Calcutta and Madras often had combos that played covers of Western pop songs and jazz standards. But bands that took their inspiration from the Stones, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doors had tiny audiences and fewer venues to play their music. The very scarcity of this sort of music confirmed its foreignness to most Indians. That the only radio station on which this music was heard, Radio Ceylon, broadcasted from beyond the country’s borders, reinforced the notion this was definitely NOT Indian music.

But obviously the urge to grab a guitar and sing your lungs out was not completely unknown in India. The Indian Tobacco Company in an attempt to sell itself as a ‘Brand Cool’ to a young generation, sponsored a national rock ‘n roll competition, called the Simla Beat. Two albums worth of their efforts have been collected as Simla Beat 70-71.

Little is known of these groups though the Washerman’s Dog is trying to pump a few contacts in the ITC for further nuggets.  Great Bear (featured on CD 1) later evolved into High, which is often claimed to be the pioneer rock ‘n roll outfit of India. Its members were a mix of Anglo-Indians, Parsees and Bengalis.  Check out their FaceBook page. (

Velvette Fogg won the competition for I Am So Glad (CD 2) in 1971. Their lead singer, Nandu Bhende, went on to front other groups and sing in Hindi films. That the Indian diaspora in Singapore was involved, as some individuals claim, makes sense as the availability of electric guitars and drum kits was much greater than in India. The sounds on these two amazing collections are classic garage rock.  The musicianship is basic which is not to say poor. Merely appropriate for the occasion. In fact, some cuts sound eerily similar to the early Doors work. Even down to the Hammond B 3. In most cases the playing is quite accomplished with gritty, distorted guitar runs and solid, energetic drumming.  The lyrics and sonic atmosphere on many of the tracks perfectly drugged out and psychedelic. Indeed, some aficionados believe the India connection is a hoax, because the music is simply too good (ref. Voice from the Inner Soul by the Confusions from Madras).  I’ll let you be the judge. But if you have even the slightest interest in Indian popular music and rock ‘n roll, then Simla Beat 70-71 is a definite must have. 

Track Listing CD 1 (1970)
1.     Voice From The Inner Soul. The Confusions
2.     You Can't Beat It. The Dinosaurs
3.     Psychedelia. The X’Lents
4.     Zorba's Dance. Innerlite
5.     Proper Stranger. Genuine Spares
6.     What’s Going On. Genuine Spares
7.     Sinister Purpose. The Dinosaurs
8.     Mist. Great Bear
9.     Born On The Bayou. The X’Lents
10.  Baby Baby Please. Innerlite

Track Listing CD 2 (1971)
1.     Simla Beat Theme. The Fentones
2.     I Am Gonna Erupt. The Eruptions
3.     Until the Dawn. The Fentones
4.     Psychedelic Web. The Brood of Vipers
5.     You Can't Judge a Book. The Eruptions
6.     Aimless Lady. The Hipnotic Eye
7.     The Mod Trade. The Black Beats
8.     Nothing is the Same. The Nomads
9.     Killing Floor. The Hipnotic Eye
10.  Hey Gipsy Girl. The Mini Beats
11.  I Am So Glad. Velvette Fogg

For those of us who grew up in India during the 70s we know how rare and even strange this music is. If anyone has any further information about these bands or similar groups, I’d love to hear from you. 

In the meantime, stay tuned for another wonderfully baffling piece of Indian pop in the Dog’s next post.


Poster for a HIGH concert in 1975, Calcutta

Velvette Fogg performing in the Simla Beat Competition.


litlgrey said...

There are corrupt files in both archives... three in the first, and two in the second.

Just to let ya know!

ajnabi said...

sorry about that. will reupload.

litlgrey said...

Thanks much! I'll check back in a few hours.

ajnabi said...

yeah ok. let me know if there are still problems.

litlgrey said...

All fine now - bless ya'z !