Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Is Wrong With The Kolkata Rock Music Circuit? Chapter:2 - The Way We Were

Lets go back some years... no not 1 or 2 years. Not even 5.
How about when I was still a school student? Like way back in the 1980s. When rock music was something only the "elite" few ever listened to. When only a handful of students from English medium schools and colleges would get initiated to. When English music was all about the melody and less about the genre. Unlike today.

Rock music. No not metal. Not punk. Not blues. Just "rock" - music that encompassed any type of popular English music form. Pink Floyd, Bob Dyan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, Dire Straits... classic rock to the core. But back in those days THIS just wasn't classic rock. It was the ONLY form of rock music available.
Back then you couldn't just do a search for a particular torrent and download the latest album of some obscure artist. Things were different back then. Hell, there wasn't even anything called a torrent back in those days. Downloading? In the 80s that would have almost sounded like something being done in a sci-fi flick.
So ok, maybe you could just walk into the nearest Planet M or Music World shop and get wowed by the collection of CDs on display... wait wait wait. Walk into "PLANET M"??? Walk into "MUSIC WORLD"??? Latest ALBUM??? CDs??? What the hell am I talking about!!!
Back then we didn't have CDs!!! We only had dinky cassettes and we listened to music on dinky cassette players. No CD players, no MP3 players and most certainly no I-PODS!!! Yes kid, you probably wouldn't have survived back then in the good 'ol 80s without these goodies that you obviously take for granted in the 21st century.
And nope we didn't have mp3s or the INTERNET. The latest albums were not available @ music stores because there WERE NO MUSIC STORES! Liberalization was still a distant dream. An album that was, say for example, released in 1981 in the USA would only reach our shores 2-3 years later. And these would be available only through HMV. On cassettes.
Back then there weren't any other recording companies around that were willing to deal with English popular music so this was as good as it got.
Yes, you might not like him, but you me and everyone around town have a lot of thanking to do to Dr. Manmohan Singh. He brought in liberalization to this country when he was the finance minister in the cabinet of then Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Yes, the guy involved in the Bofors scandal. And the Babri Masjid scandal. A scandalous dude no doubt - but at least he got Manmohan Singh to change the direction this country was taking.
So anyway, whatever we see now - the good stuff, that is, is post liberalization INDIA. I was born and brought up in the era just before that. In the 1970 and the 1980s. When rock music and pop music were things that you listened to if you were a part of the "in" crowd. Almost like a mini caste system - whether you were a fan of this music or not allowed you to be classified as "English-cultured" or mainstream desi. Funny no? Nowadays everyone is exposed to English music in some form or the other. Hell, yesterday I saw an auto rickshaw driver wearing a "BULLET FOR MY VALENTINE" tee :D metalcore fan is he? Sorry I didn't ask I was too busy laughing.
Anyway as I mentioned above, the latest music was hardly available back then - not at shops, not on the TV, not on the radio, not anywhere. We didn't have cable TV or TATA SKY or whatever. No Channel [V] or VH1 - MTV had just been given birth to in the USA anyway, so it was a long long way away from our shores.
If you had an aunt living in England or a brother working somewhere in the USA, maybe, just maybe she or he might bring you the latest blah blah blah played by blah blah blah. A big maybe. And not all of us were so lucky. You did get pirated cassettes galore here and there. And they'd probably play for a week before falling into ashes 
No FM Radio in India back then. MW radio was just All India Radio in a nutshell - and they would have the odd English popular music program with the same old songs played again and again and again, week after week after week. The same old songs listened to by us music lovers from all walks of life and from varying age groups. There was nothing else available anyway so what could you do?

Which brings me to the topic of bands. In order to have a live music scene you need bands to perform "live". No?
And there were bands certainly. College bands. Established bands (Shiva was one of the noteworthy ones). Trincas was no more a viable music venue - The days of the swinging sixties (and prior maybe) where Usha Uthup and Carlton Kitto and Lou Majaw and all those stalwarts would be gigging @ Trincas were long long gone. Someplace Else? Hahahaha! Non-existent for at least another 10-15 more years.
Basically there were 2 categories of bands - the English music playing bands which would only play classic rock because the musicians here were ONLY familiar with such artistes. And nothing strange with that - that was the only kind of music they had been listening to. Also, the people who came in to listen to them play ONLY listened to that stuff as well. Classic rock and pop. That was the music you played if you were in an English band.
Category 2 was if you were in a Bangla band - something new and trendy in the college circuit. A different story altogether. The concept of Bangla bands was a growing one, and it later blew up into a totally new sub-culture in Kolkata (and other parts of West Bengal). But we shall leave this topic for later. But suffice to say, if you were a musician and interested in rock music then you (a) followed the majority and played in a band that performed classic rock covers and popular contemporary English mainstream songs. OR (b) you rebelled and joined a bangla band which would play folk, folk rock or classic rock - whatever took your fancy.

Such bands would play the odd gig @ college fests or @ college band competitions but that was about it - you would most likely see them playing @ your college canteen in all honesty. A few bands at the top did go on to record albums... but all this later later later :D

So yes, back to the classic rock bands. Bands like Shiva - they would play the odd gig @ The Open Air Theatre (now called Nazrul Manch), sometimes be the headliners @ college fests like Xavotsav... but more than likely you would see them playing @ the clubs. The hang-out for the "elite" - the "English-cultured" of our society. Shiva, Fifth Dimension, Rila 'O Brien (nee Banerjee, and yet to marry Sumeeth Ramachandran - you know the story. If not ask an old-timer.). They'd wow the crowd with a "Hey You" or a "Comfortably Numb" or a "Jumping Jack Flash" or a "Sultans Of The Swing". And they crowd would go wild. A few would dance. Most would sing along to the chorus. And the band would be in 7th heaven.
So the next time they were up on stage the same old routine - play the tried and tested covers. And watch the crowd go wild.
As easy as pie. And you got instant fame as well. Plus the girl too. (Yes sexist I know, but the scene was and still is kind of male-centric even today).
Bands turned into live jukeboxes. Yes, they probably did play some of the covers really well, but at the end of the day, they were just that, covers. And so bands were just that, live jukeboxes.
New bands that came into the scene didn't have any role-models BUT these jukebox heroes. And so all new bands wanting to play in English did nothing BUT covers. And thus did get born the culture of the Calcutta cover band. This culture had it's hey days in the 1990s and was still going strong even as recent as 2000 - 2005.Young bands thought aping was the next big thing. Never did they even try to break the trend - and hey, why would they? Because playing covers WAS the trend.
And this, while the rest of the major music hubs in India were already well into the concept of playing their "OWN" music. Original music. Such a culture shock even within the same country.

Kolkata was well and truly in a 70s and 80s time-warp post-2000. And no one even thought this was a strange thing.
No wonder we are lagging behind the other cities. Someone once wrote, "What India thinks tomorrow, Bengal thinks today"... or something like that.
Well this certainly wasn't applicable for rock music.

Luckily things have started to change. A kid fresh out of school and into the music scene TODAY would be really surprised how much the scene has changed in just a couple of years.


the snake said...

a very interesting read..pray continue..

Rila said...

Dear M3, just to bring you up to speed - Sumith and I got married in 2008 - you wouldn't know, you weren't invited! As for performing 'covers only' - if you were clued into the Kolkata music scene (which you clearly aren't), you'd be privy to a whole lot of originals I am regularly invited perform : chk out - you may be jerked out of your metal fatigue. Till then, continue to wallow in your negative musings...

p@tr!(k said...

I like what you're saying Prasanna, always have. You're certainly someone who takes more than a passing interest in the live music scene in Calcutta and have contributed much and I hope, will continue to do so.

Keep on truckin'!...and blogging!

sohini said...

it is really an interesting blog but did rock music ever get the same momentum as it was in uk or usa? not really. it was and still is stuck into a quasi rock culture where all that a band can do is perform in random school and college fests. peers regard it as a whimsical creative outlet that is so surely going to fizzle out once they get a taste of the "real" world. we dont have legendary pubs like the CBGB, heck we dont have any musical pubs. so in spite it all i hardly think that we are missing out on anything in kolkata - there wasnt much there to begin with.

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