Singapore Music – The Rise and Decline of Local Bands

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.

singapore music 1960s

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.

jeffridin and the siglap five 1960sMalay 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.

class act album 1985

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.

oddfellows teenage head 1991Formed 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

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10 Responses to Singapore Music – The Rise and Decline of Local Bands

  1. steadyhands says:

    You have to make mention of Kassim Slamat & The Swallows. Their music was played on John Peel’s BBC programme in the 60s.

  2. rufino1995 says:

    Another, “hit” write up about the music of the 60’s, was a very young lad then
    yes, wonderful listening to the music from the local radio stations, Thanks again for the memories.
    My neighbours were briefly Rufino Solieno( RTS drummer) and also Maurice Patton and the Melodians. 🙂

  3. Peter Tame says:

    Very interesting. About the 60’s and 70’s I formed a ‘trad jazz’ band with some friends. During that time we played at many of the clubs and notably with The Shadows at the National Theater. This was the occasion when Cliff Richard declined to cut his hair and was sent packing! I remember it well as I had rather over-indulged in the Pebble Bar and arrived, trombone in hand on the revolving stage just as the band was starting. After the concert we returned to the Singapura where the Shadows were staying and being mobbed by a bevy of young girls begging to be introduced!
    I also played with a band formed from the Band or the Royal Marines where I played either trumpet or trombone depending on which couldn’t get time off. we played in the usual clubs and had two double dates with the Dutch Swing College Band at the Dutch club which were a great success.
    I used to sit on muted cornet in with Trudy Conner and Eddie Gomez in the Pebble Bar. They were my neighbors together with the wonderful Joan Booty when we lived in Scotts Road.
    I think the music scene died when dancing was banned in bars, bright lights were compulsory and everything shut down at midnight forcing us young people to carry on drinking in the less savoury parts of Geylang, but that’s another story!

  4. internet dweller says:

    Coming from the younger generation, I never got to experience the “golden age” for Singapore’s local music scene in the ’60s, so this is an interesting read! I know this article doesn’t touch on the ’00s and the present day but I will say this about the current local music scene: it is flourishing, spurred on not just by unprecedented musical platforms and opportunities, but also by a more locally appreciative audience of youths and surprisingly, the internet (yes). So much that I even feel that it will outstrip the “golden age” in the ’60s.

    That of course, depends on what you think constitutes a “golden age”. If it’s largely by the record sales of local bands, then I think it would be hard to top the ’60s. This is not because of internet piracy (try to find illegal downloads of locals bands and mostly you can’t because they simply don’t exist online), but because local bands and (local) labels do not put out a large amount of records for sale. Being an audience of the local scene, I do get a sense that, for the most part, it is a scene that is content to remain where it is (non-mainstream) without yearning for international acclaim. These independent artists are generally happy to have the small group of fans that they have, and do it as more of a side project, as an outlet of expression and fun. It is a scene that celebrates itself. And though the scene is generally non-mainstream, the amount of local artists (professional or casual) today is huge. I’d wager that it is more than it has ever been in Singapore’s modern history. More and more international bands are also putting Singapore on their tour list.

    Locally set up record stores, labels, gig locations, gig organisers for local and international bands, and even independent music review/news groups (I used to write for one) have sprung up exponentially since the ’00s, with very positive reception from the local scene and audience that grows with each passing year as people not only have greater means to producing music on their own but also finding an audience. Together with social media, all these sectors really help to promote local bands and serve as platforms for independent bands to have a greater reach to their audience. The DIY ethic is huge in the local scene currently.

    All these adds up to a healthy local music ecosystem which to me, is a “golden age” – and if it progresses at this rate, I’ll bet that it will outstrip the ’60s.

    I wouldn’t count international success as the biggest factor to determine whether the local scene is healthy. But if you do, there are also lots of present day “success stories”, with quite a few bands signing on to major international labels and touring Europe. Signed on to Earache Records (a big metal label) and having done European tours, Wormrot is one of those bands:

    Thanks for the great article! It’s really the best blog on Singapore’s history!

  5. Back in the 90s while I was still in Singapore,
    I listened to FM933 almost every evening.
    Cos DJ Lin Baobao (林宝宝?) was really, really funny. 🙂
    I miss her voice, “talent” shows, funny news comments so much now! 🙂

  6. charles tan says:

    you have left out the rolling stones’ performance at the badminton hall in either 1964/1965

  7. The Quests’ guitarist Reggie Verghese dies of heart failure

    The Straits Times
    Published on Jun 17, 2015

    Musician and music producer Reggie Verghese, best known as guitarist for popular local 1960s band The Quests, died at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital on Wednesday afternoon. He was 68.

    According to his wife, Mrs Virginia Verghese, he died of heart failure.

    His former bandmate, The Quests’ singer Vernon Cornelius, said that Verghese had been in ill health and had heart and liver problems in the past few years.

    Said Cornelius: “There have been many guitarists in Singapore but none who could play as well or last as long (on the scene) as Reggie.”

    Prior to joining The Quests while he was still in secondary school in 1963, Verghese played with another band from that era, The Checkmates.

    Thanks to their lively shows and songs, The Quests were a top draw in the music scene. In 1964, their instrumental song Shanty became the first local tune to top the charts here, displacing The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better. It stayed on top for three months.

    n 1966, the band again made history when they became the first band singing in English to release a full album, Questing.

    The band, whose line-up changed over the years, were also popular in the region, and regularly played shows in Malaysia and Hong Kong.

    After releasing four albums, six EPs and seven singles, The Quests disbanded in the early 1970s. Founder and rhythm guitarist Jap Chong died of a heart attack in 2014 at age 71.

    Verghese went on to be well regarded in the local music industry as a veteran producer. Jazz musician, composer and Cultural Medallion recipient Jeremy Monteiro remembers working with him in the late 1970s. Verghese was then the executive producer at music label EMI’s now-defunct studio in MacDonald House, while Monteiro, then a teenager, was a session pianist. Together, they worked on recordings by popular regional acts like Matthew & The Mandarins, Anita Sarawak and Sudirman Arshad.

    Monteiro recalls: “He was a hard task master, he used tough love and he would scold and shout, but he would also encourage and praise. I wouldn’t be the music producer I am today if not for him.”

  8. Rahim Paker says:

    I Would like to add with the increasing number of phillipinos musicians and singers brought in Singapore by local agents. These Musician and beautiful lady “Singers” paid cheaply at lounges stole local Musician jobs.

  9. It is an awesome article. Thank you so much for sharing such a vital information with us. Yes, it is true, we miss our local bands which are not playing the great music anymore. Thanks for the great article! It’s really the best blog on Singapore’s history!

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