The second New Year’s treat is the album Blast Off! (1984) by Tamilian diva Usha (Iyer) Uthup. We know much more about Usha then the bands who competed in Simla Beat. Born into a musical Brahmin family Usha’s start in music was not propitious. Her voice, more husky and dark than what the Indian film world wanted, was labeled non-commercial. She was kicked out of her first music class.
Usha got her start in many of the same clubs as the bands of Simla Beat fame did. Places like Trincas and Mocambos and the Park Hotel, in Calcutta. (For an interesting history on the early days of Calcutta rock’n roll check out Bhasker Gupta’s article).
Uthup started singing in a small nightclub in Chennai called Nine Gems in the basement of the erstwhile Safire theater complex on Mount Road , when she was 20, wearing a saree and leg calipers. Her performance was so well received that the owner of the nightclub asked her to stay on for a week. After her first night club gig, she began singing in Calcutta at night clubs such as "Talk of the Town" and "Trincas". She met her future husband Uthup in Trincas. After Trincas, her next engagement took her to Delhi where she sang at the Oberoi hotels. By happenstance, a film crew belonging to Navketan unit including Shashi Kapoor visited the nightclub and they offered her a chance to sing movie playback. As a result, she started her Bollywood career with Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Originally, she was supposed to sing Dum Maro Dum along with Asha Bhosle. However, as a result of internal politicking on the part of other singers, she lost that chance but ended up singing an English verse. (Wikipedia)
Usha, who lives in Calcutta, still sings and is loved for her ability to sing, without accent, in seemingly any language. She’s been and continues to be a significant artist in the musical world of Indian film but has also released a number of albums of pop/soul music in English. Blast Off! was released in 1984. Other albums followed and I’ve collected a few songs and put them into a second collection called Beautiful Sunday, but make no claims that this is the original track list.
The music on these albums is fun and revealing. Usha sings with a natural fluency and confidence. While the song selection on Blast Off! is enigmatic to say the least, careering from bubble gum (Chewing Gum Lips) to seasonal (Christmas, Merry Christmas) to bizarre (Welcome Test Tube Baby) the musicianship is strong and Usha’s voice very attractive and engaging. Give the lady credit for being able to interpret some dubious material! But packed within this album are some real gems, especially Lucy Was Crucified (echoes of Marianne Faithfull) and a nice slap-bass driven disco number, Someone Switched Me On.
One does wonder who this album was marketed to as many of songs explore a territory (abortion, sex) too challenging for polite middle class Indian listeners, in an era before the internet and satellite TV. One hint comes from several tracks that could be interpreted as ‘Christian’ in some way (I Went to the Priest; Sinner Come to Me). Those tracks, and one that appeared on the original, Moses Stick, (but not on this collection) are a clear sign that the producers saw there was money to be made out of the English speaking community who were largely Christian. Though her husband is a Kerala Christian, Usha herself has never converted, as far as I know.
On Beautiful Sunday Usha sounds like an Indian Dionne Warwick circa 1968. The collection grooves and lilts with that light sunny southern Cal sound and the material is far more coherent and focused. Usha turns in an outstanding cover of Janice Ian’s angst ridden At Seventeen, as well as several other early 70s hits.
What really stands out throughout this music is the superb session work. The arrangements are tight and the musicians (all Indian) appear to be equally adept at running off jazzy guitar riffs as they are at getting funky or grooving to a reggae beat. All in all two delightful collections of Indian-English pop music.
|Back cover of the original album (1984)|
|Front Cover of the original album|
1. Chewing Gum Lips
2. Christmas, Merry Christmas
3. I Went to the Priest
4. Lucy Was Crucified
5. Pressure Cooker of Love
6. Sinner Come to Me
7. Someone Switched Me On
8. Top Me Up
9. Welcome Test Tube Baby
1. At Seventeen
2. Beautiful Sunday
3. Dance Little Lady
5. Going Out of My Head
6. I Believe in Music
7. I Feel Love
8. I Would Like to Dance
9. Ways of Fire