In the middle of Kulri Bazaar in the Mussoorie of the 1960-’70s was the Rialto Cinema. This is where, every Saturday, my friends and I flocked to see scratchy copies of American movies – blockbusters one week, dismal B movies the next. If our parents were up from the plains, we sometimes were treated to a ham banjo at Kwality’s but usually our lunch was taken at Neelam or Greens where the seekh kebabs were spicy and affordable.
One venue that was always off limits was the Naaz Club. Set back a little off the main drag, and right across from the Rialto, the Naaz was a place of mystery and imagined vice. We knew by some sort of osmosis that booze was served inside and that was enough to keep us clean-cut sons and daughters of missionaries on the outside.
One weekend my curiosity got the better of me. Dragging a friend along for moral support, I decided to take a peek inside this den of iniquity. Being the middle of the day, there was a disappointing silence around the place. This encouraged us to approach closer. We stuck our heads in at the front door and surveyed the room. Not a dozing waiter in sight. Like a couple of frightened mice, we scampered across the dance floor towards a stage and bandstand. Off to one side, refracted light made some bottles behind the bar sparkle. We drew our breath as if we’d seen Zeenat in all her natural glory.
The bandstand was empty except for a rather tired looking drumkit. As we passed by I gave the tom-tom a bit of a bang and jumped when it echoed through the room. The tour was over. We raced towards the door and back out onto the sunny Mall. The Naaz had been conquered! But the lonely drum kit has stuck with me all these years. It was the first evidence I’d seen of modern pop music in India. Indeed, so unexpected and impressive was the sighting of what I thought was an entirely American invention in our little backwater town, I never quite got over it. The idea of rock music existing in India was nearly beyond comprehension.
The only live rock music I’d seen up to that point was a band put together by some older boys at school. They called themselves Guava Jam and though they played but a handful of occasions, I loved them. It wasn’t until many years later, and not too long ago, that I learned about the tiny but rather active beat group scene that was developing in the big cities of India around the time I snuck into the Naaz.
This week we travel back in time to listen in on some of these sensational groups.
As I Went Out One Morning
We open proceedings with an unusual Bob Dylan cover. Dylan was never huge in India – he himself has never visited. And this song from his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, is hardly his best known. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find one of Mumbai’s most famous beat groups, The Savages, covering this enigmatic piece of poetry composed while Dylan was enjoying an extended period of self-imposed exile from his fans in Woodstock, New York. The Savages, according to the journalist Sidharth Bhatia, who traced the history of India’s rock and roll scene in his book India Psychedelic, were crowd pleasers who knew how to get the audience revved up. Sadly, the appreciation that roars forth at the end of this track is entirely canned and spliced into the tape during post-production. The Savages interpretation of the song credibly recreates the signature electric bass loop of the original while adding some sweet electric organ into the mix. Top marks!
This song flew to the top of my personal Indian beat chart the first time I heard it. And it’s not lost many places since. With its jangling sitar and bemused narrator, it sums up the Indian attitude toward European hippies who suddenly materialised in places such as Benares like so many long-haired locusts.
This lonely man so lean and clean
roams the streets of Benaras
Watching the sages on the banks of the Ganges
He’s a hippie Hindustan-a
Love his beads and inner trance
Lovers dream of Shiva’s dance
A patch of blue a touch of red
he’ll surely drive you mad
This little ditty is a near perfect pop song. Catchy hook, great story and conciseness. Goan Bonnie Remedios sings jazz standards these days and there is precious little about him and this record available on the Internet. But in this song, he’s secured himself a little slice of pop music immortality!
Surf music was a minor subculture in the land of its birth – the USA – though it did have a few years of near mainstream glory. So how weird is it to uncover some very cool surf sounds coming out of 1960s Pakistan? We know less about the Aay Jays then we do about most almost all other of this week’s acts. I’d venture to say they were probably from Karachi and, like their fellow rockers across the border, may have included a Goan or Christian or two. But until someone who actually knows comes forth, we have only their music to fire our imagination.
Bursting out of the gates with an unrelenting intensity, you can detect some of the same urgency that drove John Coltrane in this music. They simply HAVE to get this music off their chests and share it with as many as will listen. The guitar, organ and drums together form a wave of melody and beat that samples spaghetti westerns, The Shadows and the wailing organ solo of Light My Fire! Listen again and again to this amazing instrumental!
Never At the Same Time
This is the sort of singing and music I imagined was found in the Naaz Club. Swinging, slurred jazz that filled the dance floor with elegantly coutured couples every night of the week. Who is Ranjan Mitra? Where did he learn his phrasing? And where did he find his band? Sparkling piano chops, gutsy swinging jazz guitar and silvery exclamation marks from a hot trumpeter! This must be why they said Park Street in Calcutta was the best place in India for music.
Story of the City
Inspired by Dylan as well as Indian classical music, Susmit Bose was, according to Bhatia, one of India’s early urban folk troubadours. On the cover of this EP he resembles Cat Stevens. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter, Bose fell into the category that later became known as singer-songwriter. His lyrics are heavy and call out for universal brotherhood and compassion. While this track seems to have been marketed as Train to Calcutta, there is nary a reference to a train or the city throughout, so another title has been suggested. Perhaps Bose, who still performs could set the record straight?
Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes
One hit wonders, Edison Lighthouse, recorded this mega hit in 1969/’70. The Indian cover version seems to be from around the same time and is a testament to the permeability of even austere socialist India’s borders when it came to the sounds of the hippie generation. The Shadooks must have some explanation for their name but I’ve not been able to find any reference to them anywhere, not even in Bhatia’s fantastic book. So even though its time to wrap up this nostalgic episode of Sunday Sounds I hope you’ll enjoy each of these fabulous tracks throughout the rest of the week.