There was a time when the number of chocolate wrappers or freshly bought 20-pack-of-smokes you presented at the door determined your seat placement at a rock show. When Simla cigarettes and Cadbury chocolates were the financial backbone of India’s burgeoning rock scene and when your hopes and dreams as a young rocker circled around winning a college rock show. Two decades of outlandish outfits, packed dive bar shows and scintillating guitar solos gave way to the glory days of Indian rock.
Looking back on India’s rock scene from the 60s and 70s is a lot like looking back on images from Goa at the same period of time — the once pristine beaches which are now worn out by discarded beer bottles tossed by decades of disco bunnies have tainted what was at one time, pure. The memory of the garage bands which garnish the timeline of India’s rock n roll heyday have largely been lost except for a few polaroids, rare LPs and most importantly, anecdotes from the musicians who have thus far persevered against time.
Nevertheless, the original tracks of India’s bad grandads of rock n roll remain timelessly spinning round and round on the turntables of the few that remember how great those times really were.
In truth, this article is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as how deep India’s bygone rock scene was. The cross-pollination of band members, stories behind legendary songs and memories of rockers who ‘sparked doobies’ and lit up the Indian music scene in a heavenly, hazy joint effort. It was a time when bands battled at college concerts and the Simla Beat Contest, each one competing for a chance to perhaps go down in history. It was a time when Indian bands got deals from European music labels and young rockers got to jump onstage and jam with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
For those who yearn to have belonged to this distant time, we have the next best thing. A little glimpse into some of the iconic bands of the era and all the wonderful information we could glean together about them, via goldmines of information like Sidharth Bhatia’s book on the era and archives like these. Many even have little portals (read: hyperlinks) to pages where you can actually explore their sound for yourself. Needless to say, a time machine awaits.
I. Atomic Forest 1971 - 1979
Jesus christ! Place the needle of turntable down on the track Obsession 77’ (fast) and you’ll find yourself transported way out into the psychedelic stratosphere. A strange and badass concoction where at moments the guitar sings like Santana, a sassy Curtis Mayfield-like bass keeps the tune movin’, and when the drummer lets go, it harkens back to timeless Harlem jazz solos.
The entire band was made up of experienced musicians who were anti-top forty and all about fantastic fuzz guitar and strong vocals. A 2011 re-release of a few of their tracks was a must-have CD for rock lovers across the globe. Their original Polydor LP remains a gem in any record collection.
Influences of their style can be seen in contemporary bands like Goat World Music (Let it bleed). They are the sect of psychedelic rockers that didn’t just go for a trippy sound like stalwarts July, and preferred to balance out the otherworldliness of their songs by anchoring elements of groovy Funk and R&B elements.
Sadly, this successful group witnessed a hefty share of internal conflict, hence the outrageous amount of bands members that came and went.
Madhukar C. Dhas (aka Madhu Dhas & Madooo) — lead vocalist.
Neel Chattodpadyaya — lead guitar.
Keith Kanga — bass guitar.
Valentine Lobo — drums.
Fred Manricks, Arun Pathak, Glen Gilbanks, Abraham Mammen, Joe Alvares, Steve Sequeira, Roy Letchuman, Jerry Demos, Nandu Bhende, Roy Venkataram, and Kieth Viegas.
The Snehayatra Festival (The Indian Woodstock), Slip Disc, the Simla Beat Contest, Blow Up and Hell at Hotel Hilltop.
II. The Combustibles 1965-1972 (Bombay)
Aptly named, these fellows’ original tracks start out with a fiery explosion of guitar and steady vocals that embodied elements from the covers The Combustibles were famous for. Their musical tenure was primarily made up of playing the songs of bands, such as, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream and The Beatles. Although their bread and butter were rock n’ roll covers a few of their own tunes garnered a lot of respect, while their originality made them stand out amongst their peers.
Ezekiel commented to Rolling Stone, “We were lucky to have really good songs that have stood the test of time. It amazes me to this day, when I think we were one of the few bands to have original songs as part of every setlist. Surprisingly, we would often get requests asking us to play songs like ‘Watch Her’ and ‘There’s A Love.’”
Their sound, especially ‘Watch Her’ was heavily influenced by The Beatles, although hints of Crosby Stills Nash and Young pop up, not so much in the guitar work, which pales in comparison, but via an astute understanding of rock n’ roll composition.
In 2013, Harkit Records, a UK recording company known for their limited edition vinyl releases, reissued two of their original songs on 7 inch vinyl record.
Everett Perry — vocals / lyrics / composer.
Nissim Ezekiel — guitars.
Lionel Taylor — guitars.
George Taylor — bass.
Bobby Furtado — drums.
Other Members : Maxim Crudgington - Vocals Christopher Valles - Guitars Croydem Maben - Drums Paul Fishery - Drums
Blow Up at Taj Mahal Hotel, Hell at Hilltop Hotel in Worli, Talk Of The Town (now Pizza By The Bay), Blue Nile at The Ambassador Hotel and Sun N’ Sand in Juhu. Shanmukhananda Hall, however, was their prefered spot for a gig, even though it was known as a venue for Indian classical performances. “It was our favorite venue — it had the best acoustics and would always be full to capacity with multiple events. And it could seat as many as 3,000 to 3,500 people,” said Ezekiel.
They also did shows across India and even in Nepal.
III. The Mustangs, (Madras) 1965 to 1968
Cali surf, while slightly countrified and a little filmy, The Mustangs had a great sassy sound. Enrico Morricone would definitely love these guys. During the sixties, Madras Universities (namely Loyola College and Madras Christian College) were a hotbed of musical talent, the competition heightening the level of play.
Instrumental music was the band’s forte, so of course they gravitated to The Ventures, a stalwart of American surf rock. Their cover of Ventures’ Escape, which was released as a single, turned a lot of heads, and was a memorable titty-shaker of the time.
Haroon Mohamed commented, “Those were the days of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards… and that’s the kind of music we played. Our greatest influences were the Ventures, the Shadows.”
The Mustangs cut two 45 RPM records with HMV, which was a dreamt of feat for Indian rockers at the time.
The Mustangs reunited in 2011 and played a few shows to the delight of their fans.
Derek Norris — saxophone and main vocals.
George Cherian — guitar, violin, and vocals.
Christopher Ratnam (Kittu) — guitar and vocals.
Anand Padmanabhan (Paddy) — drums.
Haroon Mohamed — bass guitar.
The Music Academy, The Boat Club, and Abbotsbury (a dance hall which was eventually replaced by Hyatt Regency, Chennai).
IV. The Fentones 1970-1997 (Shillong)
The Fentones kickstarted their rock n’ roll career by winning the Shimla Beat Contest in 1971. They were the first Northeastern band to do so, which first made them regional legends in Shillong; however, their dedication to creating original tunes and innate talent led them to national fame.
The Fentones’ original frontman was Lou Majaw, a well-known rocker in the Northeast. However, he wound up leaving his band for The Great Society.
Sherlock Giri replaced Lou Majaw as lead guitarist and the band practiced hard, thus taking the Simla beat contest in 1971. However, much credit is owed to the strong vocals by lead singer Roland and one of India’s all-time best bassists, Bing.
In 1997, Sherlock offered his opinon on the band’s success.“ The Fentones primarily won because we played originals and didn’t rely on gadgets and stuff. I recall giving interviews after the contest. Winning the contest was just the encouragement we needed as young musicians. It set me on the music path.”
The strong vocals juxtaposed against the often sweet lyrics of their original tracks gave their music a depth that fueled the band’s long career. Their track Until The Dawn demonstrates this sentiment to a T.
Evening shadows fill the night
Glowing starlight shining bright
I will be here till morning light comes round again
Nothing can harm you if you trust in me, my friend
Rest your head on my pillow
Until the dawn, until the dawn
Soon the night will pass away
Soon we’ll see the light of day
I promised you I’d never leave you alone
So close your eyes and hold me, never let me go
Rest your head on my pillow
Until the dawn, until the dawn
Rest your head on my pillow
Until the dawn, until the dawn
Sherlock Giri – lead guitar.
Roland Lyngdoh — vocals.
Bing — bass.
Radbah — rhythm.
Brightstar — drums.
V. The Caviliers
In truth, The Cavilers were merely bubble-gum pop, which is nothing bad persay, however bands with original tracks and eclectic covers usually garnered a stronger fan base. Their imporatnce lies in being one of the first “beat groups” (this term refers to the Beatles-inspired three-guitarists-one-drummer bands to pop up all around India). But over and above that, it was where Hilt and Balakrishna of High first met. After The Caviliers faded away and Balakrishna formed his band Great Bear, he hit up Hilt who had given him his first chance at playing in a big band - quid pro quo. Then the jamming really started.
VI & VII. Great Bear - High (1974-1990)
Great Bear created music that was a weird conversion of blues and psychedelic rock. They were a favourite in Calcutta but in the words of the Junior Statesman “the scene didn’t give them any money to live on.” Nevertheless, two years later, two members of Great Bear, Lew Hilt and Dilip Balakrishna would join up and create Calcutta’s rock n’ roll pride - High.
High had the kind of sweeping eclectic influence often associated with the Grateful Dead. In Calcutta, the band’s venues were always packed with ‘High Heads’, however the resounding endorsement of sweet Mary Jane was not what made these guys famous - that of course lies in the power of their music. Nevertheless, drugs do find themselves intertwined into High’s narrative, a statement which seems redundant to state given the band’s obvious name. As Hilt comments on the difference in lifestyle playing with High, it was where, “I had my first smokeroo, my first hit of acid.”
In 1974, Great Bear morphed into High, a band notorious for their eclectic covers that introduced young Indians to far out bands. “We did covers,” says Hilt, “but we did unusual covers: Frank Zappa, Allman Brothers, Mountain, Grateful Dead. No other band did these covers.” Although, it is a bloody miracle to find one of their original recordings. Of those that exist there is a remastered version of their song, “In The Land Of Mordor.” A few more of their covers survive, for example, their Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys cover of Traffic survives as a live recording on Youtube. It gives one an understanding of how well Balakrishna could manipulate his voice.
“Dilip, in my mind,” says Bagchi (Hilt), “is in the same league, maybe not lyrics-wise but melody-wise, as the Lennons and Dylans, and I’m fairly certain that people who get to know the music won’t argue with me.” Hilt cites songs like In the Land of Mordor, part of Balakrishnan’s rock musical based on The Lord of the Rings, to demonstrate how versatile and captivating his composition and execution was.
High also had gumption, which they displayed in every aspect of their shows, from lighting and projector shows to costumes. They also boasted ingenious makeshift instruments and equipment. Hilt who worker as a welder at the time, crafted a bass guitar by fixing metal wires to the body of a charkha and using a pick up made up of magnets. Band member Irani also made amps out of old sweet boxes. The untimely death of Balakrishna in 1990 brought the band to an end, but any 1970s rock fan in Calcutta has High’s tenure on the scene bookmarked as a chapter of Indian rock n’ roll history they’ll never forget.
Lew Hilt, Dilip Balakrishna, Nondon Bagchi and Adi Irani, who was later filled in by Subir Chatterjee.
Mostly in Calcutta, especially around Park Street.
VIII. Susmit Bose
If one figure had to be named the poet laureate of the Indian rock scene Susmit Bose’s claims this title with his Dylan-esque presence. Bose’s songs often framed themselves around prevailing social issues, such as, human rights and non-violence. Although his style of music is undeniably folk, rock n’ roll did not leave him on the fringes and made way for the strumming poet.
His work, especially on his track ‘Train to Calcutta’, has a global presence, with the talented songwriter even playing the International Folk Song Festival in Havana, Cuba in 1978. In 2006, Bose returned to the music scene after 25 years and released his album “Public Issue”, which was well received.
Many other tracks of his have been released since then, showing that age has not deterred Bose, but only made him wiser and more compassionate. His 2009 released “Rock 4 Life”, an album on HIV/AIDS featuring eight Rock bands from the eight States in North East India, offered a much needed gesture of support to India’s STD population.
A lone and soulful wolf.
Pan-India and global.
IX. The Savages 1960s - 1974
Out of India’s many garage bands, this particular one from Bombay not only ‘painted the town red’, but had remarkable recording success, especially during the mid-sixties. The founder and drummer Bashir Sheik managed to be the only consistent members of the band that went through many members, produced several albums, and constantly put on an entertaining show. The Savages’ legacy thrives on one of their later albums Black Scorpio - a record collector favourite in domestic and international circles.
Although they didn’t have many original songs, The Savages, in all their many incarnations, will remain one of the original badass Bombay bands. Listen to their original tune their (The Girl Next Door), and you’ll see why they were so beloved.
Combo 1: Lenny Cason (guitar), Clifford Lee (rhythm guitar), Piorino Manzi (bass guitar) and Bashir Sheikh (drums)
Combo 2: Prabhakar Mundkur (keyboards, vocals) Ralph Pais (bass guitar), and Bashir Sheikh (drums), Russell Pereira (vocals), Hemant Rao (guitar)
Combo 3: Hemant Rao (guitar), Prabhakar Mundkur (keyboards, vocals) Ralph Pais (bass guitar), and Bashir Sheikh (drums)
Combo 4: Prabhakar Mundkur (keyboard), Ralph Pais (bass guitar), and Bashir Sheikh (drums), Remo Fernandes (vocalist)
Combo 5: Prabhakar Mundkur (keyboard), Ralph Pais (bass guitar), and Bashir Sheikh (drums), Barry Murray (lead guitarist), Joseph Alvares (vocalist)
They played in may popular Bombay venues, such as, Venice, Talk of the Town, Hell, Blow Up, and even a Mogul Lines cruise to Mombasa.
X. Human Bondage 1971-1976
In the words of Sidharth Bhatia, Founder and Editor of The Wire, whose name is tied to memory of India’s rock legends (his book ‘India Psychedelic chronicles India’s 1960s and 70s rock movement for those of us who weren’t popped out early enough to witness it first-hand) “If a peer review of musicians from the 1970s were to be conducted, the group whose name would pop up repeatedly would be Human Bondage. Many rockers mentioned them as not only one of the tightest acts of the time but also spoke about the individual genius of its members.”
Sadly, very little of their music was recorded and much of it that was no longer exists. In a desperate attempt to find a secret treasure trove of the band’s music Bhatia kindly responded, “Whatever is there is there online. Human Bondage never recorded, so you will not get their stuff easily.”
Unfortunately, younger music fans like myself can never get to know the sound these apparently mesmerising players as well as we’d like to. However, tales of their individual genius are brought to life knowing that even after the band split up in 1976, they all continued to pursue musical careers across the world.
Radha Thomas - Vocals / Lyrics Henry Joseph - Vocals / Flute Babu - Vocals Xerxes Gobhai - Bass Suresh Shotham - Guitars / Composer Ramesh Shotham - Drums / Percussion
Notably, Three Aces (Bangalore) and Cellar (Delhi).
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[We will be continuing this chronicling of iconic Indian rock bands in a second volume. If you have interesting anecdotes from this time–about musicians, artworks, venues, culture and anything in between–we’d love to hear from you and see if we can continue to shed light on this wonderful era for independent musicians in India. Write to us at [email protected] with the subject line ‘Old Indian Rock’ and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can!]