In those days, the young groups who played in Bangalore’s clubs and at parties mostly used wooden guitars and were all inspired by the Beatles, the Ventures, and the Rolling Stones, reminisces the author.
JS, the Statesman’s iconic youth magazine published in the 1960s and 70s, gave me some of my very first freelance writing opportunities. And I had the most fun doing them too. I was in the same age group as the magazine’s target audience and the wonderful editor of JS, the famous Desmond Doig, gave me a free hand to write what I liked.
Usha Uthup (or Usha Iyer as she was known then) featured in one of my earliest articles as the girl with the fantastic voice who sang pop songs dressed in a sari. I realised then that she and I were the same age. I met her when I was covering a two-day show called Sonorific Fantastic at the Lido theatre in Bangalore (before it became Bengaluru). Advertised as a “kinky, freaky musical blow out”, it was meant to showcase young musical talent. Music bands from other cities like Trichy, Mangalore and Madras had come down to take part in it.
In the 60s and 70s, pop shows were simple, laidback events. The young groups who played in clubs and at parties mostly used old-fashioned wooden guitars and were all inspired by the Beatles, the Ventures and the Rolling Stones. Trini Lopez was another hot favourite and every band included ‘Lemon tree’, ‘La Bamba’, and ‘If I had a hammer’ in its repertoire.
It was on the second day that I met Usha backstage and heard her for the first time. She was accompanied by a Madras group called the Spartans. It was a strange medley. Usha in her traditional sari and short-sleeved blouse stood out in the crowd of jeans-clad, long-haired singers. As her superb voice soared through the auditorium, it silenced the restless young audience who was prone to singing ‘Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram’ whenever bored.
I went to many more Usha Uthup concerts over the years, though I never met her personally again. I heard her sing in other cities like Trivandrum and Bombay. I watched her grow from a fresh young singer to a much loved and talented diva. And recently I saw her on YouTube singing as vibrantly as ever, at the age of 74, with her daughter and granddaughter.
Usha’s journey to the top has been quite spectacular and well-documented. However, I don’t know what happened to most of the other young groups that played at that festival. Maybe they disbanded and moved on to other things. Maybe some migrated to Bombay and Calcutta, where the nightclub scene was more happening. In those pre-synthesiser days, many of these young musicians also got a foothold in films.
Another musician I heard in those early days was Biddu Appaiah, a Bangalore boy who studied in Bishop Cotton. He started his musical career as a teenager, playing in restaurants much before he became internationally famous. In the 1960s, Three Aces was one of the most popular restaurants on MG Road (or South Parade, as it was once known). My classmates and I from Mount Carmel would bunk class and cycle up to this favourite hangout of ours to play the jukebox and share ice creams. This is where Biddu started off when he was in his teens. He formed a small group called The Trojans with two friends who later dropped out.
In his late teens, Biddu migrated to Bombay where he played in a popular nightclub called Venice for a while. I remember hearing him at a pop concert at the huge Shanmukhananda Hall in the city. He was calling himself the Lone Trojan by then. Soon, still in his late teens, he made his epic journey to London by hitchhiking and playing in nightclubs along the way. Many years later after he had achieved international fame, he told an interviewer in his hometown Bangalore that his only aim then was to meet the Beatles in London and play music.
But Biddu’s ascent was not so smooth. He reached London the hard way. He first sailed to Mecca on a Haj ship, then made his way across the Middle East to Beirut and then on to France. When he finally reached London in 1969, he found there were no takers for his music. For a couple of years, he had a day job selling hamburgers while he composed and sang music at night.
Biddu hired a studio with the money he had saved and began recording his own compositions. His first few creations sank without a trace. He first tasted success in the mid-1970s when he hooked up with the famous singer Carl Douglas and produced ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, which topped the British pop charts. From then there was no looking back.
It was another Bangalore boy, Feroz Khan, who gave Biddu his biggest break in India when he asked him to collaborate with him for the music for his Bollywood film Qurbani in 1980. This led to the discovery of the teenage Pakistani sensation Nazia Hassan, who also lived in London. Her ‘Aap jaisa koi’ was an instant hit. This was followed by the insanely popular ‘Disco deewane’. After a hiatus of a couple of years, Biddu resurfaced with indie pop songs like ‘Made in India’, and in the process launched a couple of singers like Alisha Chinai.
Time rolled by and I too moved on. I lost touch with the Bangalore music scene as I had moved to other towns and other subjects. Bands came and went. The nature of music changed. When I came back to Bangalore in the late 1990s, huge rock shows were in vogue. These productions were nothing like the more intimate little shows we had in the 60s and 70s. Their highly advanced stereo systems combined with their electronically enhanced musical instruments blasted music across the open grounds where they played and destroyed the eardrums of those living in the neighbourhood. By the 2000s, DJs with their mixers ruled the roost in clubs where the music was mostly synthetic. In the bars, canned music blared often drowning the conversations.
But there were other bands too. Some quietly played in hotels and at festive club events. Many bands switched over to a mix of Bollywood and Western pop. Some added dappan koothu, the popular Tamil dance music to the mix. Some restaurants still had retro nights.
Some weeks ago, I was invited to a Blues evening at the RCB Bar and Café on Church Street. It turned out to be a very pleasant experience listening to the two live bands in which 14 artistes were playing. The oldest band was The Chronic Blues Circus, which has performed without a break since 1991. They said their music depicted the ‘Bangalore mood aka the Bangalore Blues’. Joshua Lance, a bass guitarist, has been performing since 1990. MoonArra (meaning three streams), the fusion band created by Jagadeesh MR and his wife Madhuri in 2006, was also part of the programme. Unlike the bands of yore, these mostly played their own compositions.
As the evening wore on, the music and the ambience stirred up memories of listening to the bands of the 60s and 70s. Not just the Bangalore bands, but also the famous and talented Anglo-Indian bands of KGF who would come into their own during the Christmas season when there were dances in all the clubs. It evoked a pleasant nostalgia for a time gone by. A time when we were all young and life was more slow-paced and Bangalore was still a garden city where we could enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and the author of Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy.