Turning up the volume on Malaysian rock music history

  • Books
  • Monday, 29 May 2023

Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail's new book project - written in Bahasa Malaysia - is a welcome addition in documenting Malaysian rock music history. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

In Malaysia, rock music and its fans have been generally discriminated against for a long time because of the unruly image it conjures of long-haired men and their unkempt appearance and later, quite the opposite with the use of make-up and tight-fitting clothes (known as the period of glam rock in the 1980s).

It was a genre the authorities used to target regularly, blaming rock music for promoting drug culture and being the cause of social ills.

Notably in the 1980s, there was heavy-handed government censorship when long-hair rock bands were banned from TV and radio (the RTM channels) while in November 1992, a live RTM TV1 broadcast saw the late Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat (then Information Minister) cutting off the locks of rock vocalists Amy and Awie, the main men from Search and Wings respectively.

For a long time, one would point the finger at a rock music fan or musician and say things like “this is what’s wrong with the youth today” – that Malaysian youth (more accurately, Malay youth) were unduly influenced by a foreign and Western culture and were heading down a wrong path in life.

Things have changed with the passing of time, and rock music is no longer the “black sheep” it once was.

Rock T-shirts, torn and tight jeans are now just another fashion statement; nothing more, nothing less. Anyone who rails against the corrupting influence of rock music now will only be met with puzzled looks and probably laughed at for being “triggered” or simply using it as a scapegoat for misdirecting the real and bigger issues at hand.

It is also especially opportune that a book about the history of rock music in Malaysia during the mid to late 20th century is now available.

The book 65 Tahun Muzik Rock Di Malaysia Dari Rock Proto ke Glam Rock Melayu (1955-1986), which translates as “65 Years of Rock Music in Malaysia from Proto Rock to Malay Glam Rock (1955-1986)”, is written by Associate Professor Dr Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail, a political science academic from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in Bangi, Selangor.

This book, written in Bahasa Malaysia, is the first of a two-part series and is 420 pages long, filled with rarely seen photos, articles and documents as well as 187 interviews of musicians, producers, concert organisers, film directors and even fans.

The book is divided into eight chapters, beginning with Takiyuddin’s definition of the term “rock music” before moving on to locally-coined terms such as “rock kapak” and more.

Early rock roots in Malaysia

“The term ‘rock’ was not used in the 1950s and 1960s of course, but it comes under the umbrella of rock n’ roll and blues in those early days. And the concept of an electric guitar-driven band really kicked off here in Malaysia in 1964 with the pop yeh yeh genre exploding unto the scene. The influence of Western music in Malaysia goes back even further than 1955 but I used that year as a starting point for this book,” said Taki, as he is better known, in a recent interview at UKM.

In brief, he looks back at how M. Osman and The Mods’ single Suzana gave the young music scene back then a Bahasa Malaysia pop yeh yeh hit, before moving on to how the movement took hold of a generation and beyond.

Muhamad Takiyuddin has finished the first part of his two-volume book project, and he is open to the idea of seeing his books translated into English once the entire project is complete. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon Muhamad Takiyuddin has finished the first part of his two-volume book project, and he is open to the idea of seeing his books translated into English once the entire project is complete. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

The author covers a fair amount of local music history, from the 1950s and 1960s, with Singapore-based bands playing a big part in popularising pop yeh yeh music in Malaysia.

For the 48-year-old Taki, it was Malay and Western rock music in the 1980s that shaped his musical tastes. But he is now on this personal quest to document, as much as he can, the different eras of rock bands in Malaysia with this book.

“I grew up listening to, what I call Malay glam rock, in the 80s and from there, the term ‘rock kapak’ came about and is still used today. A lot of musicians I interviewed, and myself included, do not like that term at all because it comes with negative connotations and prefer instead to call it, Malay glam rock,” he said.

In his youth, Taki listened to bands such as Def Leppard, White Lion, KISS, Ratt and Motley Crue among others and some of his favourite local rock bands were SYJ, Ariwatan and Bloodshed.

He was well-aware that there was not enough written material about the rock music scene in Malaysia and it was this lack of documentation of the music scene and bands (from the previous eras) that drove him to map out this book project.

That, and the fact that he had had enough about writing “heavy” books on Malaysian politics for the last 15 years. He even earned the Anugerah Buku Negara award in 2019 for his book Bantuan Demokrasi Dan Pendanaan Asing Di Malaysia: Melewati Pertukaran Regime.

Taki mentions he is busy promoting this new book, and is also working on finishing the second volume. But he is open to this rock book series being translated into English in the future.

“There are still a couple of ground events and a series of talks to plan for this first book. I’m focusing on those events first and to share as much as I can with the masses about this (first) book,” he said.

Forgotten stories and more

Taki looks back at the pandemic as a catalyst for his Malaysian rock history book.

“I really wanted to write something outside of politics for a change and when we went into lockdown (in March 2020), I started researching and writing this book. It happened concurrently, the writing and the research. A lot of archival material from newspapers and journals was accessible to me through the UKM library,” he said.

“When the movement control order was lifted I could conduct interviews face-to-face or spent time researching in the library. The lockdown definitely slowed me down otherwise I could have finished this book earlier. I also wrote about the struggles I had writing this book so people can read about that as well,” he added.

One of the things that Taki wanted to highlight in this book is what he called the “unsung heroes” in the local scene ... the bands, musicians, club owners and even artists/designers who did the artwork for the (rock) albums which the public don’t know about.

“People in Malaysia tend to think, when they hear the term rock music, is that it began in the 1980s, as if to say that rock music was birthed in the 1980s ... or since 1986 with such events as The Battle of the Bands. But the genre – and culture – goes back much farther than that ... whether you called it rock ‘n’ roll or pop yeh yeh.

Muhamad Takiyuddin's book also contains a poster insert that maps out the rock scene in Malaysia through the key players and historic events. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon Muhamad Takiyuddin's book also contains a poster insert that maps out the rock scene in Malaysia through the key players and historic events. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

“In the 1970s there was the ‘rock underground’ scene in Malaysia, and that is the missing link that a lot of people don’t know about. People generally know about pop yeh yeh from the 1960s and rock music from the 1980s with bands like Search and Wings, but one of the main contributions to this book is the rock underground scene from the 1970s.”

Taki takes readers on trip through heavy rock terrain with blues and psychedelia-inspired bands that emerged in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, with names such as The Strollers, Brown Black Blues (considered to be the first blues rock band), The Falcons, Teenage Hunters, Grim Preachers and The Gypsies discussed in the book.

The book has interviews with some of these ageing band members who he managed to track down.

“The musicians and bands from the 1970s were one-of-a-kind. They were focused on becoming great musicians rather than being signed by a label. They played (music) for themselves,” said Taki.

There is also mention about the “Woodstock” Cheras 1972 music festival (at Kem Semangat, Cheras, KL) and accounts by festival goers about how it was raided by police, and the media coverage later which dubbed it a festival for “hippies” and how it sensationalised its counterculture elements.

In Malaysian, rock musicians would continue to suffer further discrimination through the years.

However, Taki noted that such things were happening every decade since the 1950s.

“Rock music and rock bands were always labelled as the black sheep in our society and I found the same thing being used by the ‘moral guardians’ and politicians from the 1950s up to the 1980s,” he said.

Despite all that, local rock music and rock bands, past and present, continue to thrive to this day.

Taki’s book helps to capture the historical narrative and – bumpy roads – of the rock scene in Malaysia and there is more to come as he is working on the second series.

Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail’s 65 Tahun Muzik Rock Di Malaysia Dari Rock Proto ke Glam Rock Melayu (1955-1986) is published by Universiti Malaya Press. For more details, Whatsapp: 019-206 0568

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