Just last week, we wrote about how a group of people in Singapore are working hard to build a museum documenting the past and present of our music scene. While there hasn’t been a wealth of information about the evolution of Singapore’s scene, there have already been individuals dedicated to preserving the Singaporean scene of yesteryear. One of them is Joseph Pereira.
Joseph Pereira has made it a personal mission to document the music scene of the 60s; a time when Singapore’s impressionable youth had its first dalliance rock music, giving birth to a scene that continues to evolve to this day. But it was also a time when local music was actually celebrated and cherished by a majority. Major international labels paid close attention, eagerly signing acts that stood out.
(L-R) Cliff Richard & the Shadows at the Singapore Badminton Hall in 1961 and The Beatles arriving in Manila, Philippines in 1966.
The birth of a scene
It all started with a concert by Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Pereira claims. Their concert provided the blueprint of a ‘rock band’ for Singaporeans to start with; a charismatic singer backed by a highly skilful backing band. The emergence of The Beatles inspired the youth to sing while also crafting their instrumental skills. With his books that began with Legends of the Golden Venus, he chronicles how the scene flourished with huge support from Singaporeans: starting from the underground acts all the way to those who ended up being signed to major international labels like Philips, EMI and Decca. So where did it all go wrong?
A tough crackdown on youth culture by the government at the end of the 60s severely affected the sustainability of the scene. Many musicians gave up and embarked on other jobs. “They came down hard on culture,” Pereira remembered. “Censorship was hard on records then. Long hair was seen as bad. Songs like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ were banned because the censorship board knew about the alleged drug references.” He quickly pointed out the blunt irony when punk music became popular by the time the 70s came. “Some of these songs had their bans lifted when they saw the punk culture and how these guys were studded with safety pin piercings and outlandish haircuts. They thought the long-haired peace-advocating brothers were quite harmless after all!” he laughs.
Before the Singaporean music scene had its first major downfall, Pereira reminisced about the first time he encountered local music, at a club known as The Golden Venus. “Golden Venus was at Orchard Hotel. There were these ‘tea dances’ held at the club. It was very happening at that time from 1965. My classmate asked me to join him one Sunday afternoon to see some of these ‘underground’ bands that were performing there. At that time, the word ‘underground’ was magical. All these people there; they were wearing frill jackets and denim jeans.” It was an entirely new world to him.
Taking a sip out of his piping hot cup of kopi, Pereira admitted that despite the diversity of the scene, the Malays were the trend-setters. “When denim jeans were first imported, they were the first to fashion them. When rhythm and blues became popular because of The Rolling Stones, they were the first to jump on it. They thought it was raunchy, and they liked it.”
Recalling his memory of that first time at Golden Venus, he vividly remembered his first local live experience there. “This was the ‘progressive music’ of 1969, you know? No Top 40 stuff. They also covered Cream and Jimi Hendrix. At that time we thought that was the ‘real’ underground: to watch a local band. You know what was so special about them at that time? Their attitudes. None of them dressed the same, no synchronised dance moves. They all looked surly and we thought it was great! They exuded pure attitude to us. Sadly that was my only experience before the government did a blanket ban on these clubs.”
A scan of a matchbook given out at the Golden Venus.
Pursuing a passion
"...none of our local music was written about like that even though we do have a rich music past. It was then I realised I had to capture that and document it.”
It was this encounter with Singaporean music that struck him for the rest of his life. Unable to shake it off even while as a business consultant in Cambodia, he kept tabs on the Singapore scene and spent time whatever time he had here watching bands. But it was just wasn’t the same. Self-financed, he published a four-page fanzine he titled Legends of the Golden Venus. He distributed it for free but people wanted more. He ended up writing for now-defunct local music magazine BigO. Shelving his passion project, he had a sudden epiphany in 1995 while working for them. “The Beatles were releasing a new single then and the people at BigO were head over heels. I thought ‘Would the Beatles know or even care that they received such a glowing review from a magazine all the way from Singapore?’ By that token, none of our local music was written about like that even though we do have a rich music past. It was then I realised I had to capture that and document it.”
He ended up expanding Legends of the Golden Venus into an actual book but he already received dissatisfactory remarks from people that it wasn’t comprehensive enough. “People said my book wasn’t very good, that I didn’t mention this band or that band.” This egged him to continue to write and delve even deeper into the scene of the 60s, dawning upon him that there was so much more to the scene than he could even imagine. He has since published two more books, Apache over Singapore and Beyond the Tea Dance, both of which provide fascinating insights into what has been known as the ‘golden age’ of Singaporean music.
The books (L-R) Legends of the Golden Venus, Apache Over Singapore, Beyond the Tea Dance.
Singapore scene: how to keep thriving
“Musicians, your job is to just practice, write songs and take care of your art. The logistics need to be taken care by somebody who isn’t in the band. You need managers, booking agents.”
Can we ever get another golden age? It’s hard, he thinks, looking at how the scene is like now. He attributes one of these challenges to ‘cultural chauvinism’. “Singaporean musicians would think that they’re only good enough for here but not for the world stage. But who determines that? The Americans?” he scoffs.
He believes that if our current scene has any chance of thriving as it once did, there are some things artists need to work on. “Bands cannot manage themselves,” he stated firmly. “Musicians, your job is to just practice, write songs and take care of your art. The logistics need to be taken care by somebody who isn’t in the band. You need managers, booking agents.” He stresses the importance on this, not just for musicians. “Even I feel a need for a professional manager. I need to keep promoting my works. If not who’s going to hear about them?”
He pointed out something he observes now that bugs him. “Everyone is trying to take advantage of the musicians. Can you imagine a doctor, who studied six years in uni, getting asked to treat patients free of charge? Isn’t it fair to pay them? Then why do you expect musicians, also professionals in their own right, to play for free for their careers?” It was an issue so unmistakably close to him. “Bands should be brave enough to say ‘I rather not play’ if they are asked to play for free.”
Could it just be that modern Singaporean musicians don’t feel they’re valued enough that they end up playing for free? Pereira thinks that shouldn’t be the case. He brought up that in Japan, they adored Singaporean group Rita & Sakura. I can even remember when Kill Bill was released, director Quentin Tarantino gushed at how Singaporean film character Cleopatra Wong strongly influenced his films. Both are instances that show our country really can make an impact on the international market.
(L-R) Album art of a Rita & Sakura release, a promotional poster of the local 70s film They Call Her Cleopatra Wong.
“I asked foreigners what did they find so appealing about our bands?” recounts Pereira.“They say the fact that our bands are multi-racial. It’s a big deal to them, seeing Chinese, Malay and Indian musicians playing together. There are bands now around the world, especially in Central Europe who have multi-racial members but we’ve already had that for a long time!”
Even though a number of Singaporeans have been pursuing a music career by carving their own renditions of popular songs, he encourages them to start writing on their own. I told him that Pentatonix, famous for their a capella covers of Top 40 hits, sold out three nights at Marina Bay Sands. “Would the audience pay the same amount of money for a local act doing the same thing?” he asks. “Even free of charge they will not turn up. Because why? If it is foreign or white, then they will turn up. It boils down to cultural confidence. We need to be more confident in our own local culture.” Thankfully a show like the recent Gentle Bones EP launch show have shown that it isn't always the case.
“We need more performing platforms. The more a band performs on stage, they’ll become better. Repetition is always the key to any profession.”
That’s not to say he has shut himself off from music out of Singapore; quite the opposite, really. We shared our mutual affinity for post-punk forefathers Joy Division; a band that, despite not gaining a lot of attention in their heyday, have since become icons for a new generation of fans. “You know they had that song?” Humming that familiar melody of the band's single Love Will Tear Us Apart, “I love that song! It was real sad he [frontman Ian Curtis] committed suicide at age 23. There is this one concert footage of them in 77 or 78, the sound is a bit muffled but there was so much feeling. They were really going against the grain and they weren’t even that popular. You watch the music video [for Love Will Tear Us Apart] and you see bassist Peter Hook with his mournful look. That was his character and I thought then, man they captured it!”
Just the sight of him describing his love for Joy Division with fervour showed that he really believes bands here can reach a standard like that, if they have the proper environment to nurture them. “We need more performing platforms. The more a band performs on stage, they’ll become better. Repetition is always the key to any profession. The more time you do it, you’ll get the stage confidence and that is important for a great band. The craftsman needs to practice the craft in a proper space.”
After all, what’s most important is that bands here need respect for what they do, and for us to keep supporting them. ‘Support local’ is a flawed and frankly tiresome phrase but there is truth that still lies in it. “Our musicians need to be paid and heard. They need to be treated with respect. Not to be looked down upon and told ‘Oh, you need a proper job.’”
As someone who left a professional career to pursue his passion, he can identify with the inspiring amount of musicians still dedicated to their craft in this small little country. Having reached the golden age of 60, he still articulates about music with a heartening amount of vigour and unadulterated passion. Even if his books don’t get as much attention as he would want, he still strives on, spreading the love for music and the undying belief that we can achieve as much as the rest of the world. “Beyond music and all that, my motto is to live life with passion and believe in whatever you do.”
A LOOK INTO JOSEPH PEREIRA'S RECORD COLLECTION
Shirley Nair with The Silver Strings - You're the Boy / If You Ever Go
"They became huge here with the trend of girl-fronted bands in '64-65. She was quite good looking and she actually had a group of male fans following her around who were besotted by her. She also wrote original songs which was quite special at that time for a frontwoman. She left Singapore in the late 60s where sadly she died overseas."
Han River Girls - San Francisco"This was K-Pop before K-Pop even became popular. They toured Singapore and recorded a few releases here."
An EP by The Falcons & The X-periment - In the Middle of the Night
"This was when psychedelia got big in Singapore, as you can tell by the artwork on the covers."