This is the year of SG50: 50 years as a nation, 50 years of independence, 50 years of being a united Singapore. For the people who grew up in the 80s or 90s, we were already enjoying the fruits of our forefathers’ labour — all just to make our lives better. Looking back, it also marks 50 years of Singaporean rock music — music that has been and will be influenced by the world around us, made distinctive by our stamp of racial diversity. It is music that has made its mark on the mainstream every now and then but has always made itself at home in the underground, whether musicians liked it or not.
We explored a while back how the 60s were especially an remarkable time for original local music. Major labels were signing promising local stars, concerts were packed, some of whom were determined groupies. A steadfastly rock and roll scene was alive and well, at least until the authorities stepped in. Through the 70s and 80s, it was not the best time for local music. Originals were brushed aside in favour of covers — such behaviour that isn’t so foreign in our time of extravagant YouTube artists. Original music was still being made and local musicians were still boldly playing in public spaces. Just not a lot of Singaporeans knew about it.
Posters of gigs in the early 80s that featured long-running rock band Heritage and a young Chris Ho with his band The Transformer.
By the time the 90s dawned upon Singapore, a new generation of local rock musicians were ultimately determined to form their own voice in music — hungry to get their music heard by many. Some could say that this period was a renaissance, a second golden age that rivalled the 60s. The parallels even grow further as authorities stepped in once again and general interest waned. “I’m not sure if it was the shift in public taste or stations changing focus but by the 2000s, it was quite bad.” Patrick Chng remembers. Patrick is best known for his contributions to the scene with bands The Oddfellows and TypeWriter.
In the late-80s, a little fanzine known as BigO became a visible proponent of original Singaporean music. With cassette compilations and concerts strictly made up of local bands, musicians were working hard to make their music available for the masses. “It was very inspiring and it spurred ourselves to make our own music.” says Patrick. “It was something exciting, for the first time going to a gig and seeing all these local bands making music that you wouldn’t think Singaporeans would make.”
Past issues of BigO. The magazine folded in the early 2000s but still exists as a website.BigO soon became a fully-fledged magazine, tying up with corporate brands like Levi’s to promote local musicians through advertising campaigns and free compilation CDs — a relatively expensive format at that time. “The Substation opened and they were very encouraging of bands performing over there.” Patrick fondly remembers. “Prior to the Substation, you hardly had any venues to perform at.” Inspired by the new wave of rock music with bands like R.E.M., Sonic Youth and the Pixies, local musicians were determined to establish their own unique indie rock scene. The Oddfellows, Stompin' Ground, Humpback Oak, Livonia, The Stoned Revivals, Zircon Lounge, Nunsex, Opposition Party — the list goes on. They were being played on the radio, with some songs even nicely sitting up high in the charts. Certain bands were also picked up by Pony Canyon, a prolific Japanese record label that made themselves at home here.
“When you had shows, you needed to get your friends to be bouncers and we had to start putting up barricades. We had to do that for the shows to exist, if not we would get fined.”
It wasn’t all roses for local gigs as the 90s went on. After a show by hardcore punk veteran Henry Rollins with his project, Rollins Band, the moshing (or “slam dancing” as they termed it) that occurred during the gig attracted controversy after a front-page report by The New Paper. “After that show, we had to put deposits when we wanted to do shows, up to $10,000.” said Patrick.
Scan of The New Paper's issue on 01/10/92, courtesy of Chris Ho.
“The number of shows dropped dramatically.” Little Ong remembers. “When you had shows, you needed to get your friends to be bouncers and we had to start putting up barricades. We had to do that for the shows to exist, if not we would get fined.” Little Ong was a prominent photographer in the scene and now heads the creative agency fFurious. Local music did eventually recover from the debacle, with regulations gradually eased over time and local songs appearing back on the charts. Even respected international bands like Sonic Youth and Fugazi were able to hold successful concerts here.
Sadly, with the sudden impact of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late-90s, Pony Canyon closed its doors and bands found it harder to afford recording their music. Live music pubs began shutting down. It also became harder to get their music through radio. “We became poorer, we spent lesser. Nobody sponsored gigs anymore, no one had money to spend on studios to jam.” recalled Patrick. “People were playing in their own bedrooms. They no longer had stage because pubs had fewer patronage so a lot of them closed.”
The story of Singapore rock is one filled with vigorous ups and downs, from music rooted in the underground to fully-blown radio hits — all accentuated by a struggle to make a statement with honest, original music. Recent efforts have been made to preserve this rock history of ours. We've written about the much-anticipated Museum of Independent Music (MoIM) but now manifests a brand new initiative, one that has been years in the making.
DOCUMENTING THE PAST
So Happy: 50 Years of Singapore Rock is a project started by Little. He was heavily involved in the scene back in the 90s, one of the few dedicated photographers who were at every gig, documenting the growth of local music. Conceptualised “out of vanity" by Little to showcase his own photos, he quickly realised it would be better to get other photographers involved. “Friends were already encouraging me but then I started thinking a bit more. I thought that if I wanted to show the scene, I couldn’t be so selfish.” says Little.
The group behind the project humbly aims to connect people from Singapore’s past in original rock music but it also serves a greater purpose — to educate the public and generate awareness with a comprehensive exhibition that original Singaporean music was always around and will forever remain. “I want people to come and learn from it,” Little explains, “to realise that we have this amazing past in rock music, to inspire people to take note of the past and present.”
Class Acts, a compilation featuring local bands in the 80s.
So Happy first found its legs as a Facebook group where they continue to encourage people to share their own stories of our scene's history. “Through Facebook, we hoped to reach out to a lot of people — both who were in the scene and outside of it.” says Little. Photos, videos, and of course music are all enthusiastically shared within the group of over 3000 members.
The aim is refined towards original local indie bands with English-language material. Explains Little, “If you start adding cover groups, it will never end and we want to celebrate our music scene for its originality.” The exhibition will be made up of 100 photos with accompanying write-ups drafted by a team of 16 veteran music writers. There will also be artefacts, gathered and preserved all over Singapore over the past 50 years. Newspaper clippings, vinyl records, cassette tapes, photocopied flyers, glossy posters, magazine covers — all collected over the past few months.
Merchandise and records of hardcore punk band Stompin' Ground.
With such ambition comes with its own set of challenges: gathering the artefacts. Assembling a team of volunteers and close friends, many of whom were involved in the scene themselves, they spread themselves out — posting notices on Facebook to gather certain items, tirelessly making phone calls while digging through their own collections. The photos have proven to be the biggest challenge by far. “It hasn’t been easy to collect photos because for pre-internet photography, everything was on film.” Little explains. “It’s very difficult to retrieve and it’s a hassle to scan them one by one. A lot of us who shot during the 80s and 90s didn’t think so far ahead of ourselves. Our negatives usually ended up in some envelope, in some stack that gets lost whenever we move to a new house so it’s hard to keep track.”
“A lot of indie bands could not afford recording in the studio without label backing unless they really saved up.”
One example he brought up was when he called one photographer to gather photos for a band called The Mother. “She said, "Ya ya I do, but I don’t know where they are. Can you help me find? I can find but I might not be able to reach that box." Can you imagine? how much stuff has been hoarded over the years!” Little recalled, whose own collection took some time to get through. “I had to dig up from three different boxes and my designers spent a week going through them — cataloguing them, scanning to see what they are inside and especially looking at photos of my ex-girlfriends.” he laughs.
POINT AND SHOOT
Among the group of eager photographers whose works will be showcased is one such individual who was known in the scene as Ah Fi. “He’s a hero to us.” Little admits. “His record of the scene is so important that without him in the picture, this story of Singapore rock is incomplete.”
While his photos will be featured and proudly displayed, there's a good chance he won't make an appearance at the exhibit. “He’s very much underground, deliberately keeping a distance.” says Little. “He’s kind of like dropped out of the scene entirely.” The reason he’s distanced himself from the scene remains unclear. It was Little’s chance encounter with the mysterious man a few years ago where he gave his blessings for his photographs be showcased — back when So Happy was still nothing but an idea.
Little recounted the unconventional behaviour of the photographer. “When we had the Substation gigs in the garden, especially if there was a hardcore gig happening, Ah Fi would be right in the middle of the moshpit taking photos.” Little remembers. “There were other gigs where he would be stationed in a tree and shooting photos too. He was crazy.”
A shot by Ah Fi featuring Stompin' Ground hanging out at The Substation carpark.
While our current scene still requires growth and nurturing, modern technology has been an invaluable tool for our local musicians. Bandcamp has been a terrific service for album releases while Facebook makes it easier for musicians to notify and update their fans. Looking back, we’re at a huge advantage compared to the bands in our past. “A lot of indie bands could not afford recording in the studio without label backing unless they really saved up.” said Patrick. “Now recording has become a lot more affordable and accessible.”
Little Ong and Patrick Chng, leaders of the So Happy project.With the unbelievably simple access that the Internet provides, Little hopes to further the education of Singapore’s history of rock music with a dedicated website. “We’re building a directory of all the bands that are featured in the exhibition and other bands we’ve managed to locate. We want to include all the photos from the exhibit — from the 60s all the way to present day.” says Little. “We're hoping the website will become a great resource for people beyond the exhibition.”
Other than to educate the uninitiated, Little and Patrick’s ultimate wish for this project is to inspire current and future bands — to encourage them to keep playing music and to dispel any notions there may be against Singaporean music. Whatever the future may hold for local music will depend on our current bands — and fundamentally us. The struggle is real and will probably never end but as long as there’s the music, we will forever remain So Happy.
So Happy: 50 Years of Singapore Rock will commence on April 8 - 17 at the Substation. More details will be released soon but you can join the official Facebook group here. This project is supported by the Singapore Memory Project’s irememberSG Fund and The Substation, as part of Singapore50 (SG50) celebrations.