March 13, 2017

How Rock Music Was Passed Down in India

Desmond Macedo

The living room had three old bamboo chairs and a frame on the wall with George Harrison within.

Range Hills, a government colony of defense employees in Poona in the 60s and 70s, was an unlikely place to find rock music but often, there was a box guitar, too, in that living room, named ‘40 Miles Of Bad Road,’ and yes, though beat-up, when it had six strings on it, as it often did not have, it sounded thrilling enough for me to cycle down from Loyola School campus, in nearby Pashan, via a slope from Modern High School and a short cut from Poona University Circle around a hillock that the army used for range firing, which would get me down quickly to pick it up if nobody else was playing it.

If Big Freak, a sibling of that household, was playing it then I would have the joy of listening to Wah Wah or Art of Dying. Anyone who could play George Harrison was a big freak back then, usually with long hair, kurta, smelly jeans and beedies. Even the other way around was almost true: if anyone wore long hair, kurta, smelly jeans and beedies, he could play George Harrison.

Some days earlier, I had heard Big Freak do If I Needed Someone. It was the opening guitar notes that got him. I liked them, too. One day a bunch of kurtas, smelly jeans and beedies came down from Hill Road, Bandra, and did It Don’t Come Easy, and I thought the opening guitar notes sounded a bit like those on If I Needed Someone, but I loved them as well.

Once, Big Freak spent a whole week on Hill Road, Bandra and came back with Happiness Is A Warm Gun.  For me this was an adult song, to be enjoyed like being allowed into a theatre where an adult movie was showing. And this was the adult scene:

The man in the crowd with multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime

These songs never played on Radio Ceylon, my usual source of music. Mostly, it played Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Cliff, Jim Reeves, Sinatra, Elvis, Everly Bothers, country music singers and other such pop artists. My Ol’ Man once remarked as Hey Jude’s chorus faded out on the radio: ‘Sounds like Crawford Market on Sundays.’ Quite clear what he thought of rock. And most of the time I had to keep tuning the damn radio to get a clear reception. In the home of a friend in nearby NCL Colony, there was a record player and Sgt Pepper’s album – his elder brother owned it, with instructions not to play it. He himself seldom played it, so I couldn’t tell how it came to be there. This was another government colony of middle and lower middle class employees in the 60s and 70s, and an unlikely place to hear Sgt Pepper’s. There was still one other place where another friend and I saw this album – Poona’s Chor Bazaar or Juna Bazaar – where it wasn’t out of place since anything out of place found itself here, but, as my friend told me as he nudged me away, ‘The record inside is some other album.’

In Range Hills, however, I looked keenly at Big Freak as he played George’s songs and when he was tired, I’d pick up the box and try the chords with the tunes and words.

Big Freak had a younger brother who played Hey Joe. He had heard it from someone on Hill Road, Bandra. This became another adult experience for me:

Hey Joe, where you walkin’ down / With that gun in your hand? 
I’m gonna shoot my woman / She’s messin’ around town with another man 

Another song the younger brother played that I liked instantly was Dark Side of the Moon. And the two lines that I learned were: And if the band starts playing a different kind of tune / I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon 

These two boys would make frequent trips to Bandra, Bombay, and return with a new song.

When I met the younger brother at Range Hills again, some time later, he was doing the bass of Hey Joe. This was the first time I had heard bass all by itself; may be the first time I noticed bass. ‘Seems harder to sing a song and play its bass notes than to sing with its chords’ he had said. ‘Chords are the harmony of a song, so it’s easy to sing with them,’ he tried to explain while I did not try to understand, because I did not know what harmony in music meant.

Another time he returned with Angie, a song I would sing, just months later, to a girl I would meet in Ambala.

Then came the Malavli Youth Festival, a 3-day fest of rock music by Indian rock bands planned on the lines of Woodstock, and organized by a Jesuit priest at this village Malavli, a few kilometers from Lonavla. I arrived for the last night. There was plenty of hash around. All you did was join a circle and you’d get free pulls. For days later, there were articles and editorials in the local dailies on the festival and how it was mainly an orgy of hash and sex. I thought it was an orgy of Jumping Jack Flash - every band that came on did that number, and it delighted me.

Time came for me to move out of Poona and go work, which took me to several parts of North India and Punjab. When I came home to Poona on leave, I would cycle back to that house in Range Hills. On one such visit, I heard Big Freak play My Sweet Lord. I returned quite a few days in a row and asked him to do it till I learnt it. I had to learn the tune, lyrics, chords and how to sing and play a song together - the tricky part - so it would take quite a few days before I could do one on my own.

Back in Ambala Cantt, I practiced My Sweet Lord. On a Sunday visit to the local church, I said hello to the parish priest there as I had noticed a guitar in his room through the mesh in his door. A couple of more Sundays and I was playing and singing My Sweet Lord for him. He loved the song, which by now he referred to a hymn, so I had to, also. Next, he invited me to prayer meetings that were attended by nuns from a nearby girls’ school. We were singing My Sweet Lord at these meetings. It seemed to take the folk in white cassocks nearest to their creator. After singing it, they would each retreat into a kind of "Union and Oneness with Him,” mumbling Jesus’ praises, praying that one day they would join Him in heaven singing these beautiful hymns. Another Sunday later, an unfamiliar face in a cassock said hello to me. ‘Beautiful hymn you sing,’ she said. I smiled back. I was thinking of some “F Sharp Diminished” chord that Big Freak showed me in the song but couldn’t remember its formation. And then I forgot when the B7th came in.

Between the 80s and 2000, I used to meet acquaintances who would periodically return to India from the west, visiting families. We would meet for drinks, music and general conversation. On these occasions there’d be some information passed on about The Beatles – they were an experimental band, etc, etc. ‘Avant-garde,’ said one. And of course, the usual “why they broke up,” which got boring.

I had begun my own na├»ve reasoning: They broke up because they couldn’t innovate any more. Big Freak once said, ‘You compose two songs, they will sound alike. They did over 150 songs, and most of them sound different from each other.’ Tapes had replaced vinyl, and I had most of their songs, already fed-up of listening to them over and over again, so, instead, I used to come up with these theories about them and their music, another being, people will listen to The Beatles the way they listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, even two centuries later. I didn’t believe myself but nobody was listening to me and my theories so it was alright.

There were many songs I first heard guys play in that living room. Like See Me, Feel Me by The Who, Woodstock by Joni Mitchell, and No Sugar Tonight by I didn’t know who. I was also told that Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friend was better than the original. And there was this nice line I heard there: Too many hungry people losing weight.

Somewhere in the nineties, and in Bangalore, I walked into a music store and asked about the song Dark Side of the Moon. It wasn’t a song, it was an album. When the internet arrived in the 2000s, I learned it was among the best albums so I bought it.

By the time the millennium changed, Big Freak was already a respected guitar teacher in Pune.

By 2006, YouTube had arrived, and Too many hungry people losing weight, which my friends rocked up back then, was timid Paul McCartney, ex-Beatle pop.

Hey Joe went to the top of my favourite songs, with Noel Redding’s bass riff joining my fondest bass riffs, though, not before I learnt from the internet what a riff was, and after I learnt from the internet what a drum roll was, Mitch Mitchell’s drum rolls in the same song sounded like “mustard spluttering in hot oil” – the finest I’ve heard.

Likewise, Harrison’s lead riff for It Don’t Come Easy came to occupy another fondest space in me.

The songs I had first heard friends playing on acoustic guitar in that living room with three old bamboo chairs on the floor and George Harrison on the wall, I now heard recorded, many years later, for the first time.

40 Miles of Bad Road was a title better than the song.

The original Sgt Pepper’s vinyl album cardboard sleeve became a rarity.

Howard Goodall CBE, classical musician and award-winning British composer, in a documentary he titled, ‘The Beatles – A Musical Appreciation & Analysis,’ released on YouTube said their music was likely to live on for several generations. And somewhere in that script he mentioned, ‘They’ve innovated so much, there isn’t much left for any band to innovate.’

No Sugar Tonight by I didn’t know who, was by The Guess Who.

Someone commented on the Jumping Jack Flash  YouTube video: 'The best opening line in rock: I was born in a crossfire hurricane.' I picked it up in Malavali.

Western music was harmony, while Indian music was melody. Lennon’s Jealous Guy was built on melody, but don't ask me to explain.

 And then, a few years ago in Mumbai, I ran into the padre I knew in Ambala Cantt.

‘Holy Shit,’ I shrieked when I met him and he shrieked back, ‘Holy Water.’

After the shrieks had settled and the 'how have you beens?' done, he linked to the past and said, ‘I love the way My Sweet Lord changes key midway. So gradually, you don’t even notice it.’

‘So you’ve been watching YouTube, what?’ I said.

He smiled.

Then he turned to me, hands now locked firmly on his hips in mother-superior fashion, and interrogated: ‘You never told me, it’s a hymn in praise of Lord Krishna, did you?’

‘Yes, it ends on those chants, but father, what to do?’ I tried to explain, ‘variations from the original would’ve occurred because, for some people in India, rock music was passed on orally.’

We had a good laugh.

My Sweet Lord - Lyrics

My sweet Lord
Hmmm, my Lord
Hmmm, my Lord

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord

My sweet Lord
Hmmm, my Lord
Hmmm, my Lord

I really want to know you
Really want to go with you
Really want to show you Lord

That it won't take long, my Lord