It’s been 40 years since a little ol’ band from the south ventured north to spread its driving music … but Blues Gang isn’t about to call it quits just yet.
WHEN American fiddler Hart Wand recorded Dallas Blues in 1918, almost a century ago, he wouldn’t have fathomed the revolution he set in motion. That performance announced the arrival of the blues in its most recognised format, the 12-bar, which laid the foundation for the genre, allowing it to reach any culture that appreciated rhythm in music.
The soul of the blues would later emanate from the deep south of rural America in the post WWI years, eventually giving birth to rock ’n’ roll. Likewise, in the south of Malaysia, the blues grew and migrated up north to the capital by way of a bunch of individuals tired of 1960s pop and weary of the 1970s rock juggernaut.
And what did they do about it? They dug deep into the sounds they heard as youngsters on the radio and their LP collections, courtesy of 1960s British blues boom exponents like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Alexis Korner and Fleetwood Mac, mixed it up with their rock sensibilities and ethnic roots, and conceived Blues Gang in the end. It’s hard to believe, but the nation’s foremost blues purveyor turned 40 this year. Yet, it all seems like only yesterday!
Time has certainly flown by for the quintet, too. But the band’s classic line-up, comprising Ito Mohd (vocals, harp, saxophone), Julian Mokhtar (guitar, vocals), Abdul Ghani Datuk Abu Talib (keyboards, guitar), Jim Madasamy (bass, vocals) and Shaik Karim (drums, vocals) is back for a 40th anniversary jaunt.
Back in 1973, during the band’s genesis, all this was nary an inkling of the times ahead. Bass player Madasamy still remembers those early days lucidly.
“Karim, Mat Dollah (original guitarist Ahmad Abdullah) and I started playing together in the late 1960s. We had no money to even own our own instruments,” he said over a round of tea recently.
The story goes that drummer Karim (who played bass then), a childhood friend of Madasamy’s from Kampung Pasir, on the fringes of Johor Baru, enrolled his band Changing Time – based in Woodlands, Singapore – in RTM’s Juara Kugiran band competition in 1972. Unfortunately, the band failed in the first round.
Using instruments from the defunct band, the boys duly slipped into the Singaporean live circuit for a year.
This was in the pre-Blues Gang days, when Madasamy, Karim and Mat Dollah went by the menacing moniker Messenger From Hell.
Manager Abang Ali predictably suggested a name change.
“James Gang inspired us, and we wanted a tough image, like the Rolling Stones, so we knew we wanted the Gang part in the name,” said Madasamy, laughing as he recalled those halcyon days.
“In the end, putting blues in front (of the name) seemed the natural thing to do because we were hardcore blues guys, to begin with,” he added, intimating that counter culture was frowned upon then ... particularly in Singapore.
The band soldiered on in the face of adversity, even bringing on a rhythm guitarist, Hatta (whose full name escapes the band now), for the ride but would suffer for it later. The hottest place to play at then was the Anzuk Club, the army base for Australian, New Zealand and British armed forces personnel serving in Singapore.
“Hatta didn’t drink, but got drunk at our first gig there. Dollah had to pull his guitar cable out to stop the noise he was making. When Hatta realised what was up, he kung fu kicked all the microphone stands on stage,” Madasamy recalled. The rapturous applause the band got was not enough to secure a second gig, though.
The band ended up crossing the Causeway back to Johor Baru in 1974 with little fanfare or fortune. The guys held down day jobs to keep their heads above water – Madasamy was an electroplater chroming bicycle rims while Karim worked at a biscuit factory.
With no major shows then, the band decided to move up to Kuala Lumpur. Having acquired Ito and Ghani the same year, Blues Gang spent its time at the band’s house in Medan Damansara (which then manager Zainal Ariffin had acquired for the band), honing its craft.
Ito, who spoke freely of days gone by recently, revealed that Blues Gang was just what he needed.
“I was just out of ITM (Institut Teknologi Mara in Shah Alam) and blues was the music I was into ... Muddy Waters, Rolling Stones, though I was into Grand Funk Railroad and James Gang before that.”
The mix gelled well and the band had its first taste of the big time at the tail end of that same year when the Rhythm & Blues Festival at Stadium Negara in November presented the-now quintet with the perfect opportunity to test itself in front of a sizeable audience, although the band had to beg for its half-hour slot. Blues Gang pulled out all the stops, performing Johnny Winter and Rolling Stones tunes, stealing the show in the process.
Finally, in 1977, the band got a break but had a rude shock initially at its audition, where after playing a bunch of blues tunes, the owner suggested a name change and adopting more commercial tunes into its repertoire.
Consequently, in between playing disco gems like Fly Robin Fly and That’s The Way (I Like It) under the supposedly more economically viable name 15 Shillings, the band also got to throw in its blues tunes, giving it its first real growth spurt as a band at Fujiya Pub, in Old Town PJ.
Taking in the live scene in the Klang Valley in split-personality fashion – 15 Shillings for the commercial gigs and Blues Gang for creative satisfaction – allowed the band to maintain a public profile. Blues Gang also had a coveted year-plus stint at A&Z Pub in Bukit Damansara.
The band finally hit pay dirt when the Warner Elektra Atlantic (WEA) record label set up shop in Malaysia in 1978 with an office in Kuala Lumpur. WEA managing director Paul Ewing signed the boys on a five-year contract, joking that they were “signing their lives away”.
Life must have been cheap as the band earned a miserable 5% in royalties – shared between five people, but Madasamy confesses that the band was just eager to get an album out under its name at that point.
Anytime, Anyday arrived in 1979, a collection of largely English originals penned mostly by guitarist Mat Dollah amid a backdrop of changing musical trends. According to Madasamy, the album shifted 20,000 units legally, and 400,000 illegally. Piracy would plague the nation and the band throughout the 1980s.
However, even before the band had the chance to enjoy the modest success of its debut, Mat Dollah migrated to Australia, to be replaced by upstart Mokhtar.
“I was a pest ... I used to hang around those guys from when I first saw them in 1975. I’d try to jam with them whenever they’d let me. Then one day, when I went over to their place, I saw Dollah sitting outside looking glum. When I went in, I saw the rest of them looking glum, too. Then their manager pulled me aside and told me Dollah wanted to leave, and asked if I’d be willing to play with them. And within 10 minutes, I was in,” related the guitar player.
Still lacking proficiency in his craft, Mokhtar was engaged only for a brief, two-week stint. But in the middle of 1980, he bumped into the band’s manager and was given the chance to reunite with the band, which had recently secured a residency at the newly-opened Club Med in Cherating, Pahang.
“We decided to go with Julian rather than find someone new since he was so willing,” said Madasamy.
Madasamy, Ito and Mokhtar have great memories of their time at Club Med.
“That was the time of our lives. Club Med was a culture shock – the women in the stage productions there were often half naked,” Ito recalled with a broad smile.
“It was boot camp for me, being the youngest. After my nightly lectures from Jim, I’d be given homework to learn new songs,” said Mokhtar, revealing that he was able to remove his “L” (now “P”) plate when the band took off.
Club Med prepared the band for its follow-up, 1980’s Blues Gang, the band’s first all-Malay album. It wasn’t until 1982’s landmark Apo Nak Di Kato, however, that the band attained household status. The title track, a tune featuring the Minang dialect of Negri Sembilan, strangely has roots in Australia.
“I wrote that song while on a Greyhound bus travelling from Sydney to Melbourne, when we tried to tour Australia. I just recalled things back home and was inspired to share our culture with the world,” Ito explained.
The tour was a shambles because some members had visas while others didn’t, a gaffe by the band’s then manager, who was clueless about immigration requirements.
Apo Nak Di Kato hit gold, selling close to 50,000 units and placed the band among the nation’s most followed at the time. Blues Gang flexed its muscles as a lean, mean touring machine then, taking in a nationwide tour with Sweet Charity in Konsert Raksasa in 1984, covering everywhere from Machang in Kelantan to Teluk Intan in Perak.
But it was a concert in Arau, Perlis, just before Konsert Raksasa, that earned the band earned serious street cred and some notoriety, too, courtesy of its fans.
“We saw no one at our soundcheck, but after the gates at the expo (expo shows were commonplace in the 1980s, where music and funfair entertainment was all rolled into one) opened, 100,000 people rushed in. The place was so packed that we couldn’t drive in to the stage, so we had to walk nearly two kilometers,” Madasamy recalled.
“That show was reported about in the news and the papers the next day because about 20 people were injured in the stampede. I remember seeing people’s faces and shirts with footprints on them,” said Mokhtar, casting his mind back.
At the height of the band’s popularity in the early-to-mid-1980s, Blues Gang opened for a slew of international acts like the Ian Gillan Band (1982) and the Climax Blues Band (1983) at Stadium Merdeka, and Uriah Heep (1984) at Stadium Negara. The shows were all great successes for the band, although the Uriah Heep one didn’t go without incident.
“Heavy rain had drenched our equipment, so we needed to dry it all out. When the audience got edgy because of the delay, Uriah Heep’s roadies demanded we go on immediately. The situation reached a head and I remember picking up a mike stand and swinging it at one of the guys. Fortunately, someone pulled me away in the nick of time, so it missed,” Ito said with a hearty laugh. The mike stand might have missed its target, but his cussing and spitting hit the spot.
The quintet maintained its prolific album output through the 1980s, but piracy was never far off, forcing the band to rely on the live circuit and concert tours to make ends meet.
Blues Gang’s wheels started to come off sometime in 1986. Ito left first, and was soon followed by Ghani. The band then signed off the 1980s with 1988’s cryptically-titled Mencari Penyelesaian.
In an attempt to stay afloat as a band, Karim’s younger brother Shaik Abdullah was roped in on drums while the older sibling stepped into the frontman’s role. The band even added a second guitar player with Azizi Ithnin joining the ranks for a while, but by then, the band had lost its mojo, although it carried on into the early 1990s before Mokhtar left in 1993.
Ito had two solo albums out by then, the aptly titled Aku and Perempuan, but joined Madasamy and Karim’s club band Purple Haze later on for a while. “I think my joining them allowed for the continuity of our relationship, which is why we are here now,” Ito admitted.
After leaving WEA, the band signed on to Universal Music and released Ribut Pendamai in 1998, with Englishman Ian Anderson on guitar. It gave the band a second wind of sorts at the turn of the century, but fans and band members harboured for a return to the glory days, which is why Blues Gang has kept up with numerous reunion shows over the years with its classic line-up.
The recent fund-raiser by the National Press Club at Istana Hotel in Kuala Lumpur was a case in point. Although it was the hits that the audience was there for, the biggest news for the night was the band’s plan to release an album next year.
“We are thinking of re-recording a couple of our old tunes, and writing a few more new ones. Between, Karim, Ito and I, we should be able to put a bunch of songs together. We’re really looking forward to this,” Madasamy said.
It’s evident that the dynamic within the band is still firmly intact, even with the inclusion of Azizi once again.
“Blues Gang is the best band I’ve been in. Everyone is on the ball and in fact, it’s more fun doing this today ... maybe because we’re hungry again,” Ito enthused.
He laments at how times have changed, with the ban on cigarette companies – who were responsible for the growth of the rock scene in the 1980s – sponsoring concerts. He still has one wish, though, which is to get the endorsement of RTM again.
“We owe a great debt to RTM for spreading our music back then, likewise the media and our fans,” Ito said.
Blues Gang has survived the times, from piracy to ill-advised business ventures like the band’s blues club, K Blues Music House, and from changing fads to Karim’s debilitating diabetes, which saw him lose two toes on his left foot. But through it all, the blues has kept the band on the straight and narrow.
“I never imagined a 40th anniversary. The blues has always been about the attitude to succeed, independent of personal hardship. If the Rolling Stones can do this even now, we are going to try, too,” Ito concluded.
This all seems a far cry from the days when Madasamy and Karim sat atop the hills at Bukit Timbalan in Johor Baru and dreamed of the big time. Who would’ve thought that 40 years on, the Blues Gang would still be singing the blues?
Origin: Born in Malacca, but raised in Kuala Lumpur
Most influential guitarist: Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards
Favourite blues songs: Dust My Broom (Elmore James) and Hideaway (Feddy King)
Origin: Born in Singapore, but raised in Johor Baru
Most influential keyboardist: Champion Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair
Favourite blues songs: Nobody
Knows You When You’re Down And Out (Allman Brothers Band), Stormy Monday Blues (T-Bone Walker)
Origin: Born in Alor Gajah, Malacca
Most influential singer: Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger
Favourite blues songs: Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters) and Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
Origin: Born in Penang, but moved to Kg Pasir (off Johor Baru), Johor
Most influential drummer: John Bonham, Charlie Watts
Favourite blues songs: To Know You Is To Love You (BB King) and Out Of Reach (Fleetwood Mac)
Origin: Born in Pontian, but raised in Kg Pasir, Johor
Most influential bassist: Paul McCartney, Larry Taylor
Favourite blues songs: Looking Back (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) and Love In Vain (Rolling Stones)