Rock is music for revolution and should be kept that way.
In 1970 I had just shifted from Madras to Bangalore. Rock had yet to arrive in Madras and local bands like The Missiles and Heart Beats were into groups like The Ventures and Shadows. All the Madras bands, including mine – Los Gitanos – were playing instrumental covers of tunes like Apache, Escape and Cruel Sea. Bangalore opened a whole new world for me. Bishop Cotton’s, socials, smooching – all very new after the half saris and lovely jasmine bedecked hair of Madras.
“What?” I thought. “Daytime jam sessions? Mini skirts?? Yummiee!!”
Around then I heard Bangalore rock band Void with Gussy Rikh (originally from Devil Beats) on a locally made guitar. With his infectious smile, Sai Baba hair and incredible talent, he played his magically inter-woven solos. The 12th fret of his guitar was not true and you had to pull the tremolo arm to keep it in tune, yet he did so effortlessly. His playing was not imitative but inspired. Watching Void perform Jimi Hendrix’s Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire or Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown with Fiaz hitting the high notes with his voice and keeping the bass groove with his fingers was exciting.
Winter in Bangalore. In the words of The Incredible String Band (the Scottish acoustic-rock band, legendary in those days), “chilly, chilly winds blowing, inky scratches everywhere, always looking for a paradise island, help me find it everywhere.” A group of about 60 people in drain pipes and beetle boots standing outside Three Aces on MG Road. The Rs 10 tickets were always sold-out for a concert at 6pm. Human Bondage was on. No PA, just stage amps and a Fender twin reverb for vocals. Playing their original composition Silver Cities, sounding as good as they come. The rage then was Raga Rock. Thus the psychedelic Indian emerged. It was electric, it was addictive. A music that united the young at heart. That was not caught up in bourgeoisie trends. Rock was here to stay
Young people started gathering in parks and open spaces like Parade Grounds, Bannergatta and Nandi Hills. Remember there was no internet then, so it was all word of mouth: “I heard it thru the grape vine”. People came to listen to live music, to witness spontaneous compositions. Many brought guitars, flutes, mandolins and participated. The gathering not only supported the music and the musician’s inspiration, but also identified with the value system and beliefs of the artist. Three guys from Australia busked on the erstwhile Promenade of MG Road. They used to sleep in Cubbon Park. I bought my first semi-acoustic Eko guitar from them.
By the late 70’s our trio, Konarak, had been playing in Bangalore for a while, and got a six-month gig playing three sets a night at Cellars, the hippest discothèque in Delhi. We had a giant Vox amp, the Big Daddy Foundation bass with two 18” speakers. The average age of the band was 16. At that time Bangalore had the best bands in the country. We had access to Carnatic music as well as Western classical music teachers like Marion Fewkes, and then rock via Radio Ceylon and Voice of America.
We were taking songs of bands like Traffic, Moody Blues, King Crimson, Jimi Hendrix and owning them, changing them around, paying homage to other musicians in other lands. In the words of one of our songs at that time “Jimi Hendrix was a good friend of mine. We used to play together to pass the time. Now he plays his white Stratocaster in the sky, he even has wings to fly.”
We were adding extensions such as 9ths, 11ths, #5s, b5s and 13ths, playing varied scales over the changes. We were infusing jazz styles into rock. We used a Handel Prelude for piano as a rock instrumental and it worked so well. The amount of creative energy in the air was exciting. Trying to constantly break parameters and add one’s individual expression to the music was what got us high. That and being mobbed one New Year’s while performing, falling back onto the speakers, but most importantly still playing guitar.
The shows to remember were “Weirdo Whirligig” where Renuka Rao alias Dynamite and Meera Rao modeled, as we played “rock and poetry” with the poet Sujatha Modayil. “Opus ‘81”, where we played Chopin, Chic Corea and our own stuff. And “Yali” in ’79 with TAS Mani and Rama Mani. We merged two kinds of music and brought the house down.
There were so many great Bangalore bands. The Spartans, a group of brothers with incredible voices who sang songs from Woodstock and CSNY. Others I remember were Hot Rain, Missing Links, Slaughter House Rebellion and Barber Shop Harmony. Embryo, the German band, traveled all the way to Bangalore in a bus. They recorded Indian percussion in my tiny loft till 4 am. The USIS and Max Mueller brought down musicians who interacted and hung out with local musicians. Exchanging ideas, instruments and equipment was key. The excitement of meeting and hearing new music was transforming.
But the world was changing. The Beatles were a huge success monetarily and Elvis was a whole empire. Business had infiltrated rock and eventually this started to control and decide artistic expression. People’s focus moved from rebellion to security and conformity. Disco came into the scene very innocently and overnight the rhythms got monotonous. The only drug was the beat and the beat got mechanical. The pop-rock juggernaut followed. Around this time, a band from Sri Lanka called The Graduates came to Bangalore. They played at Kwality’s on Brigade Road – lots of dancing that night. But once the business world caught on that music was big money, they were not going to let go that easily.
Sadly, nobody questioned this and a majority of the audience followed like sheep. Rock, the way I see it, as being owned and created by musicians, as being subversive and wild, was now packaged and tame.
Quite soon it became a second hand art form and paved the way for DJs and loops to take over with ease. The former don’t necessarily have to be musicians in the real sense i.e. as knowing how to play a musical instrument. And loops, well, they’re just that – loops. I like the form of Dj ing, using phrases of music, grooves, loops, changing the BPM to create a musical picture. But this is one step away from an actual musician who can tune his instrument and use it to create music. The sum total of this disengagement is a certain collusion of interests to keep mind and body free from any active intellectual debate. This isn’t good for rock, which depends on edginess, has to critique society and stand apart.
When I look at Bangalore today, I see traffic, pollution and crassness. I can’t believe at one time people played music where the Metro is going to wiz by. Civility is dead and music has been reduced to a feel-good pill. Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of talent around. There are still many in our city that take pride in their vision and hold on to it during the bad times. My heart goes out to them. But more needs to be done.
Recently I heard Scott Henderson live. I knew him in Los Angeles. His dedication to his instrument is clear and his guitar talks to you. Joe Diorio epitomises utter commitment to his guitar and his theory of parallels. And while on tour in Hungary, I met a guitarist who played a baritone eight-string guitar and was looking for the lost Makaams of his country.
This is the kind of passion and enquiry that rock needs to remain revolutionary and autonomous. The passion for a lifetime of practice and scales. And then the guts to throw it all away and jump of the cliff of improvisation. To be a musician, time is essential. Rhythmic time, I mean. Once you have time in your hand you can do anything.
So, rock is here to stay, some people just looked the other way.
More about Konarak Reddy here.