Sometime in the mid 1970s, my father bought a Philips record player. It was the size of a small suitcase, with a single speaker that worked as the turntable cover. The first thing I heard on it was Rajaji’s voice, a commentary to M.S’s Bhaja Govindam. This was the beginning of something like a ritual. At 6:00 pm, my mother would switch on the courtyard lights and my sister would put a new record on the turntable. Agarbattis would be lit and the faint scent of sandalwood would waft thrugh the hall. All the stuff we played was devotional. There was Baja Govindam, Lata Mangeshkar singing the Geeta and Meera Bhajans, the Vishnu Sahasranamam and my favourite, Kurai Ondrum Illai – the last two sung by M.S again.
Kurai Ondrum Illai was a piece composed by Rajaji, and I still get goosepimples when I hear M.S singing it. I have never been able to get Carnatic music, I can never identify a raga or a tala. But MS singing Kurai Ondrum Illai can still make the tears flow.
That summer, my aunt and her son brought with them a bunch of records of English songs. The only other “English” music I had heard was an LP record of nursery rhymes, eminently forgettable. This was different. The first record she played for my sister and me was something called “Usha Sings for You” by a woman called Usha Uthup. I thought it was horrible. There was a song called “Oh Sinner Man”. There was another called “Brown Girl in the Ring” and when she sang the line “show me your motion”, we would all crack up with laughter. There was another group called Abba that we all liked. Athai had two discs – one was called Arrival and the other was just called “Abba”. My sister, the resident “Western Music” expert, told us that Abba was named after the two guys and the two girls in the band. Two of them are married, but the other two, she said, with a dramatic pause, are living together. I think she was disappointed with the lack of reaction from us.
So, anyway – it was these guys for a while.
Technology was moving on as well, and we bought our first casette tape player, a blue and white Grundig sometime in the early eighties.
I started off trying to make tapes of my favourite movie songs, and one of the first I recorded was this one
And how can anyone who has lived in Madras in the 70s and Eighties forget this number…
And the smokers anthem
That was the time when one of my cousins went abroad – the first member of our family to do so. It wasn’t the US. It was the gulf. Saudi. His job was not a demanding one, but it paid a great deal.
I used to hero worship Ravi. He knew movies and music. The movies I had seen up to that summer of 81 were very general – movies that the school organized – like Benji and Treasure Island (the Robert Newton version). Ravi took me to “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” and “Mackenna’s Gold” and “The Spy Who Loved Me”. He would talk about Alistair Maclean and Arthur Hailey and Ian Fleming, sitting on the roof of his house, where all the teens of that street would gather to talk about girls or fly kites. Ravi brought back hundreds of cassettes. Boney M, Blondie, The Police, groups I had never heard of before. He knew all kinds of things as well. He would tell me who Rasputin was, as the song played in the background. He would talk about the Bible, and what the song “Rivers of Babylon” was about. He was the one who told me that the singer for Blondie had been in Playboy. When that didn’t mean anything to me, he told me about Playboy.
In 1983, I moved from the junior school to the main school. A week before school began, students were expected to turn up to pick up the textbooks, notebooks and registers for the year. On that day, I saw a class XII student wearing strange earmuffs. I learnt that it was a tape player, called the walkman. I managed to get a listen to it. The sound was stunning, like someone playing music in my head. I wanted one. Badly.
The eighties were beginning to kick off. The market for Western pop was soaring. There was a magazine called Sun that carries mini posters of pop stars – maybe they modeled it after Smash Hits or
I used to take my father’s transistor radio and sit on our roof in the evening. Every Thursday at 5:00 Ray McDonnell would count down the US top ten singles and albums. Then, at 5:45 pm was the UK top twenty countdown on BBC World Service. The Beeb was always cooler than boring old VoA. Their top twenty countdown did not play full songs, just snatches, except for the weeks Number 1 record. But there were many songs, one hit wonders, lesser known groups that stuck in my mind. There was this
and who can forget this song’s nine week run as the UK number 1.