[24 June 2013]
My parents used to call the earliest hits of the Beatles “yeah yeah music” or “shouting.” As annoying as that was, it seems they somehow caught the zeitgeist. Here is a release documenting the music scene—called Pop Yeh Yeh—which sprang up during an era of economic boom and modernization in Singapore and Malaysia inspired by early 1960s Western pop. The CD is compiled by Carl Hamm, and his eight years of research are also reflected in the accompanying pair of fantastic 40-page booklets, which are as detailed and illustrative as many published music books.
Apparently one of the biggest influences on the rise of Pop Yeh Yeh was not the Beatles but Cliff Richard, who is now best known as the everlasting, celibate, Christian, Peter Pan of UK pop. To some people, the idea of him being a rocker is about as weird as discovering that Lee Perry has lived in Switzerland for decades and that Osama Bin Laden was an Arsenal FC supporter. At this rate, any day we can expect the discovery of a subculture in Uganda inspired by Captain Beefheart, or a remote Amish community devoted to The Fall. However, John Lennon declared that the first rock record in the UK was Cliff Richard’s “Move It”, from 1958, when Richard was seen as a Euro-Elvis: a lewd, immoral, rebel influence. By the time of his 1963 hit movie and record Summer Holiday, he was well on the way to becoming an all-singing and dancing wholesome teen-idol cash-producing whirlwind—albeit with the benefit of the twangtastic Shadows backing him.
Now let us consider relevant cultural geography and history. Malaysia is a smorgasbord of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, European, and indigenous cultures. Before WWII, British colonialism had inflicted and nourished an appreciation for big band and Latin dance music upon the locals. The biggest Malay icon of all time, film star and singer Tan Sri P.Ramlee, had blended these influences with a local flavor to create popular romantic music and movies. Then pop culture, and indeed life, was interrupted by invading Japanese forces and their subsequent control of all radio stations. In 1946, though, Radio Malaya began broadcasting freely again, and by the 1950s the spread of coffee shop jukeboxes and transistor radios provided the means to broadcast the soundtrack of a new era. A decade later, The Kinks, Rolling Stones, and other Western groups fired up the youth with performances in the region, but a 1965 concert by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, in particular, spawned the copycat formation of five-piece guitar-based groups. Suddenly the new pop idols were local kids appearing in teen mags and shocking their elders with mini skirts, floral shirts, beads, quiffs, and, er, sunglasses! Of the many groups and artists who took part in the Pop Yeh Yeh explosion, most were only paid a flat fee for their efforts and did not give up their day jobs as teachers, plumbers, or whatever. Yet, even if music was a passionate hobby to them, they still managed to create a vibrant and revolutionary sound. These 26 tracks all have an electric rock sound accessible to Western ears but demonstrate how these groups managed to incorporate melodies from the region, sung in Malay or Bawean.
Amongst their sensational catolog, Sublime Frequencies has released several compilations from nearby Indonesia, and collecting this explosion of youthful exuberance makes great sense. At times the SF modus operandi is to unadorned documentation without worrying too much about fine-tuning quality control. This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand you feel as if you are taking an exotic trip and seeing life beyond some edited highlights or fake touristic experience, but on the other you eventually may feel you are stuck for hours watching a slideshow of someone else’s vast collection of holiday snaps—all of them. All that to say Pop Yeh Yeh is not as raw or wild a listen as we have come to expect from the label. But there is some gorgeous romantic singing and high-spirited guitar twanging here, and it is simple stuff all the way. The “psychedelic rock” subtitle is somewhat misleading I feel, but since my idea of a genuinely psychedelic track is Marta Sebestyen’s “Fly Bird Fly” let’s just leave that genre tag discussion for another time. Meanwhile, 50 years ago, the Pop Yeh Yeh era was a short-lived phenomenon as the music industry absorbed the energy before tweaking the economic model. By 1970 the five-piece group was all but done, obliterated by the spreading sounds of Bollywood Indian film music, Indonesian Dangdut, and disco records made by a variety of singers often backed by the same session musicians.
I don’t want to focus on any individual track or artist as much as encourage you to hear them all. The overall sound is light and breezy, as was the production of that time, ideal for transistor radios and a far cry from the bass-heavy sounds of today. Let me again stress that the magnificent booklets are full of great detail about the artists, history of the scene, wider economic context, record cover art, and photographs of the groups. They could easily form the basis of a lovely book. Talking of which, in one odd coincidence the translated song titles of tracks 23-25 by J.Sham & The Wanderers, A.Halim & De’Fictions, and A.Rahman Hassan and Orkes Nirwana are “My Letter to You”, “It Will Be Lost eventually” and “Nevermind” —a sequence which very pleasingly brings to mind Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books.
Meanwhile back in 2013, Hamm reports that a new surge of interest in the Pop Yeh Yeh scene has led to local reissues of films such as A-Go-Go-67. Similarly, he notes that welcome documentation in such books as Joseph Pereira’s Legends of the Golden Venus and Apache over Singapore only tends to get local release, so I for one am grateful for this compilation bringing these sounds to a wider audience. As mentioned, Cliff Richard’s 1960s output continued apace, and if nothing else, he would go into the annals for “Summer Holiday” as sung, by him, in Peter Yates’ debut film of that name—in which Cliff and mates rent a red double-decker bus for a freewheeling holiday spree on the continent. Fittingly, “Summer Holiday” remains a lovely piece of cultural escapism: an archetype of carefree fun for young people striking out for independence. The film also features The Shadows (one of whom married the young Olivia Newton-John) and also stars Una Stubbs, later to appear as the daughter in Til Death Us Do Part (remade in the US as All In The Family). The single reached number one in the UK charts and didn’t hurt the popularity of tourism to the continent where Greece, France, and Spain were key destinations. Not even the intervention of Franco could slow the British tourist boom, despite the General secretly dictating that Spain’s dreadfully pathetic “La La La” would pip Cliff’’s awfully pathetic “Congratulations” by one point for tawdry glory in the 1968 Eurovision pathetic Song Contest.
Pop Yeh Yeh and “Summer Holiday” now exist outside of fashion and still sound fresh and hopeful, as does another of Richard’s early hits which unwittingly spawned the cult TV show The Young Ones. Perhaps the only way to make any sense of this is to quote the title of a Duane Eddy LP: Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel.
Or to put it another way:
“Darling we’re the young ones,
And young ones shouldn’t be afraid.
To live, love
While the flame is strong,
for we won’t be the young ones very long.”