I recently had an interesting conversation with a good friend on Facebook about music in our lives. This and a short reunion with old school friends brought back memories of the entertainment options available to us growing up, as we did, on the cusp of the modernization of India.
The very first mode of entertainment in my life was running around the neighbourhood with two significant episodes. The first was the hide and seek played in the trenches of a construction site next door leading to an intake of lime dust into the eyes. I well remember the doctor cleaning out my eyes with what seemed to be coke bottle caps. The second was a fight in a ditch culminating in a gaping gash in the front of the head at the age of five. Needless to say all diplomatic relations with “that family” were snapped.
The second discovery was Radio Ceylon’s Binaca GeetMala with Ameen Sayani on a big wooden, valve radio which had to be started up and left to warm up at least 5 minutes before the show. Careful tuning was necessary, rather in the fashion of the safe-cracker, especially on the Shortwave bands.
There was flying kites off the terrace. Balancing the string harness was an art, preparing the string with cut glass and dueling with other kite flyers was a science. You went under the opposing kite pulling up, never, ever letting him get under you. Ah! The joy as the spring kite flying festival came around and the terraces all around came alive with whole families, young and old alike and the street urchins ran around frantically trying to capture the lost kites as they flip-flopped to earth.
There were the 78rpm records running on a windup turntable with pickup needles that looked like fangs (and had to be replaced often) that played scratchy Pankaj Mullick or KL Saigal for the enjoyment of my father and the wonder of a pre-teen.
The family’s first “transistor radio” was an acquisition of much joy. You still had to be a master safeblower to get the BBC with Arlott and Johnston as they provided a virtual pavilion seat and brought to life the spectacle of one Imran Khan, on debut in far-away Edgbaston, Birmingham, sharing the new ball with Asif Masood.
And one day the family went shopping and obtained a stereo, system components consisting of a Garrard turntable, a stereo amplifier with a pair of matching speakers that stood 3 feet high. What a glorious noise! This was followed by an orgy of shopping weekly for records at Harmony House – which had private listening booths where you could sample the record before buying, headphones not being freely available.
Entertainment also consisted of Lunchtime variety and Musical Bandbox that played a blend of crooners and country singers but at 7pm you could hear the alternative stuff – post-Beatles Harrison, The Guess Who, The Rolling Stones, CSNY and Cat Stevens – far removed from the content and style of the afternoon shows. With their conversational approach Dubby and YC talked to the listeners directly.
And then one day came JS. Desmond Doig’s baby took the stodge out of the Statesman and brought to all young people the changes that had been happening in fashion, style, music and sensibilities since the middle and late sixties in the West. It brought together elements of Bollywood and the far-away rock legends – where else could you see a picture of Bibi Bonesetter sprawled seductively across the folded page one page over from a time-phased photo of Carl Palmer’s drumsticks flashing through his performance with ELP? This is where Ajit Singh and Asha Putli became known while a generation discovered The Who, Led Zeppelin, Traffic and Jethro Tull. Centerfolds featured rock stars and Bollywood actors. JS gave us Cordell shirts, paisley see-throughs and bellbottoms.
To balance all that there were James Pond, Wonder Worm, the Perils of Paula and the highly entertaining, if only because she invariably managed to get down to a bikini within 3 frames, Modesty Blaise with her platonic sidekick, Willie Garvin.
JS linked the 7pm AIR rock show with the images of the performers, framing the energy of Jimi, Jim and Janis for a generation starved of news of the young west, 5-6 years behind in the viewing of (brutally censored) movies and music released by executives that seemed to think the Beatles were mainstream and palatable but The Doors were not.
When Woodstock the movie was released, heavily censored but unable to drown the funk of Sly and the Family Stone and the raw energy of The Who, Alvin Lee and Mike Shrieve it was a seminal moment. Rock music appreciation classes 101 to 501 were completed in 2 frenetic hours by an impressionable 14 year old.
This led to a wave of buying, sharing and swapping music not freely available. Friends gathered around, everyone brought along a stack of LPs and an entertaining afternoon was spent drinking tea and playing records and absorbing the sounds and poring over the album cover art. Some readers will remember, as I do, what it was like to hear Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Knights in White Satin for the very first time.
And that brings me to the trigger for this long post. The passing of the “music listening party” where the record was played over and over to extract all the nuances, where bands were researched (without the benefit of Google) and innovations marveled at – “he played that with a violin bow across his guitar!”. And while vinyl is making a comeback, the modern teen does not set aside time to “listen” to music anymore. And is that not the point of music – being an aural art form? Instead music has become a background “white” noise to our lives and the art has gone out of it. This feeling is shared by some of my friends, notably, the Slo-Man who was incensed by the news that the not-particularly-talented-teen, Rebecca Black, had gained enough notoriety to appear on Jay Leno’s show and was driven to write a caustic piece on his blog.
No one is listening to music anymore. The image of the performer has become bigger than the music – we have become followers, not leaders. The media and the studio executives tell us who has become famous and we agree with our wallets.
But do we “listen” to the music – with our eyes closed, in a quiet room, letting the music engulf us? Well, I say today is Les Paul’s birthday, so take some time off and go listen, really listen to at least one cd of your choice.
(Header is from “Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream)