It all started in the fifties when Radio Malaya’s popular singing competition Talentime attracted a huge fan base in Malaysia and Singapore. This inspired many wannabe-singers and led to the formation of local bands in producing homegrown music. It was then followed by a remarkable decade of live music, deafening crowds and successful albums.
The Sixties – A Golden Era
The sixties were arguably the golden era for local bands. In 1961, British singer Cliff Richard and his rock group The Shadows performed at the Happy World Stadium together with a local band called The Stompers. It was a defining moment, as the performance inspired and motivated many young music lovers to form Singapore’s own homegrown bands.
The local music scene began to flourish, represented by the likes of The Crescendos, The Quests, The Trailers and The Thunderbirds, who made their debuts between 1962 and 1964 with several chart-toppers and record-breaking singles. The Crescendos, in particular, was the first Singaporean band to be signed by an international record label when they signed with Philips International in 1962.
In 1964, The Quests’ “Shanty” knocked The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” off the top of the local charts and stayed at the number one spot for 12 weeks. It was the first time a local band had such a spectacular achievement. Several Singaporean bands became so popular that they were invited to perform overseas at Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.
Malay bands also hit the heights in the sixties. Pop yeh-yeh, a new music genre with a mixture of Malay rhythms and classic rock and roll, had emerged and influenced the likes of The Rhythm Boys, The Jayhawkers and Malay R&B outfit The Siglap Five, who had toured Malaysia and performed for the Perak Sultan. Sweet Charity, a Malay rock band established in 1964 and led by the legendary Ramli Sarip, had successes lasting into the seventies and eighties.
The Seventies – Rapid Decline
By the late sixties, most Singapore bands faced a decline in their popularity. A number of factors had contributed to the decline that muted the local music scene for more than a decade.
Singapore had achieved its independence in 1965. With the gradual withdrawal of the British troops between the late sixties and early seventies, there was a lesser demand for local bands to perform at the camps and clubs. At the same time, the Singapore society was starting to be influenced by the rising popularity of hippie culture from the West. Long hair-styles and bell bottoms became fashionable. A bigger concern, however, was the mixture of drugs and casual sex-related messages associated with the hippie culture. The alarmed Singapore government began to “strongly discourage” male Singaporeans sporting long hair.
The need to control the “bad” western influence led to the barring of British rock band Led Zeppelin into Singapore in the early seventies. In 1972, Bee Gees were allowed to hold their concert at the National Theatre, but they were requested to leave the country immediately after that. Locally, the Singapore bands faced a period of uncertainty and unsustainability in their music careers. Many disbanded and settled for more secure jobs. Others looked for opportunities at overseas.
The Eighties – Within You’ll Remain
In 1985, “Within You’ll Remain” by Tokyo Square surprised the local music scene when the song made it to the Rediffusion’s Top 10 list for five straight weeks. Although not locally produced; the song was actually written and first covered in 1983 by Donald Ashley of Chyna, Hong Kong’s leading rock band, “Within You’ll Remain” managed to charm many with its new instrumentation that was blended with guzheng, a Chinese plucked zither.
The same year saw five Singaporean bands Tokyo Square, Gingerbread, Zircon Lounge, Speedway and Heritage releasing a compilation named Class Acts. Selling more than 10,000 copies, it was the first time a local English music album had performed so well. In early 1986, another thousand copies were sold in Thailand, with “Within You’ll Remain” taking the top spot of the Thai pop charts.
The popularity of the song soon saw it targetted by music piracy. Just two months after the official album release, “Within You’ll Remain” and “Silent Talk”, another song by Tokyo Square, were picked up by music cassette pirates in their “Sentimental Hits of 1985” sold in the market. This was the first time the songs of a local band were affected by piracy.
The Nineties – Non-Mainstream Music
In the early nineties, a local indie rock band called The Oddfellows recorded a groundbreaking achievement when their single “So Happy” became the first Singaporean song to top the chart of local radio station 98.7FM.
Formed three years earlier, The Oddfellows were perhaps the pioneers in “do it yourself” music in the local context. They produced and financed their debut album Teenage Head before record label BMG picked it up for distribution in 1991. The album was a commercial success, selling a respectable 2,000 copies in Singapore and catapulting the underground band to fame in the mainstream.
The Padres, another Indie rock band, became the first Singapore English band to sign for Rock Records in the early nineties. Throughout the decade before the millennium, several bands formed by the names of Sideshow Judy, Force Vomit, Humpback Oak, Sugarflies and Concave Scream experimented in punk, garage rock and other types of non-mainstream music genres.
For more than three decades, due to music piracy, the lack of local support and other reasons, no Singaporean bands could ever hit the peak of the sixties that Singapore was once proud of.
Published: 19 May 2014