As revolution continues in the Middle East, we seem to be eager to find out how it’s happening, and why it’s happening, though what exactly is happening and where it will lead—with the exception of the xenophobic ideas that the region might not be “ready” for freedom—is a bit trickier to figure out. It takes a patience and perspective that has become increasingly alien in a time of endless, seemingly disposable news cycles. We want answers, simple reasons, so we can move on to the next crisis.
Those Shocking, Shaking Days (an anthology of Indonesian hard rock, psychedelia, progressive rock, and funk from 1970-1978) is an antidote to that quick reaction, the sort of document that can capture, in part, the lasting effects of living imbedded in social upheaval. If culture is indeed what other people see of us, what we display of ourselves, and representative of what we value, then popular music takes on a weighty importance. All of a sudden, especially in times of strife, what music says, whom it champions (or avoids championing) and whom it condemns (or avoids condemning) matter.
The influential psych-rock that emerged in 1970s Indonesia was born out of deep-seeded social unrest. The country’s leader in the ‘60s, Sukarno, had no use for “Western cultural imperialism”, and thus dismissed and censored bands who took their influence from the huge Western acts of the day: notably, Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. For a country that spent three centuries under Dutch colonial rule, perhaps a dismissal of Western imperialism was, in part, understandable. This approach by Sukarno, though it may have steered musicians towards a distinct Indonesian-pop sound—one rooted in traditional Indonesian folk—also alienated many acts, sending them to Europe, finding shelter and artistic freedom in places such as, ironically, the Netherlands.
After a military coup in 1965, new leader Suharto orchestrated the blood bath that was the “Communist Purge”, opening the gates in the vacuum that followed for Western culture to come in. As a result, the psych-rock and funk scenes boomed. Bands like Panbers, AKA, Shark Move, Koes Plus, and Black Brothers were influential, in-demand artists. It’s their time in the spotlight that is highlighted so well on this compilation, but there’s more than a little tension riding through this glut of great music. Though Suharto welcomed Western influence, he suppressed any anti-government sentiment, censoring and even, in some cases, exiling artists who would not comply.
This is part of the reason you’ll hear a number of acts sing in English here, since it was a way to slip these songs past the censors. Shark Move’s “Evil War”, a dramatic, jangling psych number, takes the strife head on, while AKA’s “Do What You Want” filters its rebellion through notions of sexual freedom. Ivo’s Group’s “That Shocking Shaking Day”—from which the compilation takes its title—is a more pining but no less urgent cry for change. It’s also interesting to note the anti-drug vein that runs through many of these songs, which seems a bit counterintuitive to our notions of this music. The Brims’ funky “Anti Gandja” is the most obvious example, but the best may be AKA’s “Shake Me”, a riff on James Brown that starts with a shouted statement of principles. In a moment Zappa would surely love, they denounce a series of drugs before yelling a resounding “Yes!” when band leader Ucok Harahap asks, “Do you like sex?” In a country so often trying to find its feet, to find a peaceful clarity of vision, it makes sense that the cloud of drugs might seem unappealing. As danceable as it can be, this music is not about escapism. It’s about an intricate and tuneful confrontation.
All of this is just what makes Those Shocking, Shaking Days endlessly interesting. What makes it endlessly great are the songs themselves. It covers a wide swath of sounds, from the spacey folk of Ariesta Birawa Group’s “Didunia Yang Lain” to the eight-minute epic rocker “Don’t Talk About Freedom” from the Gang of Harry Roesli. You can feel these bands channeling, alternately, the likes of James Brown and the heftier sounds of various prog-rock acts. Make no mistake, though, these songs are not mere exercises in clever borrowing. These bands sound very much in their own skin, capable of being just as funky as the J.B.‘s or just as intricate and expansive as Rush. They’d mesh elements of folk and rock and jazz from the West with regional influences, particularly sounds from Dangdut, Indonesia’s own brand of dance music. The results make for a striking confluence of cultures, in which disparate elements prove themselves to have a fundamental harmony with one another. Time has also proved this exchange of culture to be a two-way street, as these acts have a wide influence, and are often sampled by big-time producers like Madlib.
Those Shocking, Shaking Days is, first and foremost, an exciting batch of songs. It shows the breadth of sounds coming out of Indonesia during this fertile, tense time. Collected here, and remastered with a beautifully light hand—so the fuzz and scuff of these recordings comes through, capturing what it must have been like to spin the original LPs for the first time—this is no somber document of artists toiling under a regime. It is, instead, a vibrant celebration of rebellious sound, an example of how the long arm of culture can often reach further and last longer than the iron fist of oppressive rule. It might not have any clear link with upheaval in the Middle East today, but it sure does show what people can do, the powerful sounds they can make, when they unify and push back.