Take A Rock Music Tour Of South Mumbai

February 17, 2014 8:04 am by
The Combustibles perform at Eros cinema during the premiere of the 'Woodstock' documentary.

The Combustibles perform at Eros cinema during the premiere of the ‘Woodstock’ documentary.

When most Indian rock fans talk about the early days of the genre here, they speak of 1980s band Rock Machine (now known as Indus Creed), and of the Independence Rock festival, which was first staged in 1986. But rock music – at least the British if not the American version of it – came to our shores not too long after the Beatles first hit the airwaves. By the mid-1960s, our country was full of beat groups that not only covered the music of their US and UK counterparts but also composed an original or two. Journalist Sidharth Bhatia’s new book India Psychedelic narrates the stories and experiences of these bands of the 1960s and ’70s and explores how they provided the soundtrack to the sweeping social, cultural and political changes taking place in India at the time. With its multitude of venues and opportunities for young musicians, Bombay became the hub of Indian rock, says Bhatia who took us on a walking of the city’s music landmarks, many of which have disappeared, shuttered or changed form. Together, we came up with two short walks in the South Mumbai neighborhoods of Colaba and Churchgate. Take them on your own, or conduct a guided jaunt for friends and impress them with your detailed knowledge of Mumbai music trivia.

Start your walk on CSM Road in Apollo Bunder. Behind the petrol pump opposite Dhanraj Mahal you can see Suleiman Chambers, the former residence of Mike Kirby, lead guitarist of The Jets, and Ashok Daryanani, the band’s manager. Formed in 1964 and named after one of the gangs in the musical West Side Story, The Jets are widely regarded as Bombay’s first beat group, which along with Kirby featured Suresh Bhojwani on lead vocals and bass, Malcolm Majumdar on rhythm guitar and Napolean Braganza on drums. The band, which was best known for their covers of hits by groups such as The Shadows, The Ventures and the Beatles, staged a reunion concert at Blue Frog on March 7, 2009, 43 years after their farewell show on the same date in 1966 at the long-shuttered Bhulabhai Desai Auditorium, near the head office of the Life Insurance Corporation of India in Nariman Point.

Walk down the road towards the Gateway of India, and then take a right towards the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The spot on which now stands the Taj Mahal Tower, which was built in the 1970s, used to house Greens Hotel, which served as the location for a beat contest that The Jets won, a triumph they attribute to the fact that the band has something no other group in the city had at the time – a Fender Stratocaster guitar that one of Bhojwani’s uncles got for him. “We won because our sound was better, though the others were superior to us as a group,” he tells Bhatia in India Psychedelic.

India PsychedelicWhile at the Taj, take a pit stop at the Shamiana coffee shop, a portion of which was once the location of Blow Up, a member’s only discotheque that the hotel opened in 1969. Almost all of the city’s biggest bands were hired by the venue on contracts that lasted a month or longer to play gigs there six days a week (Blow Up was closed on Monday). The first Indian band to perform at Blow Up was The Combustibles, who rendered covers of acts such as the Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Credence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf. Among the other groups on their roster were Brief Encounter and its subsequent avatar Savage Encounter (formed with members of The Savages), Human Bondage and Atomic Forest.  “Since the members of Human Bondage were from out of town, they were given a flat just behind [the hotel],” said Bhatia. But even before Blow Up opened, the Taj was hosting concerts at venues such as the Rooftop Rendezvous and the Crystal Room.

Exit the Taj and walk along the harbour until the end of the road, then take a right to reach Arthur Bunder Road, the lane now best known for its strip of art galleries and LGBT-friendly bar Voodoo, the latter of which was earlier known as Slip Disc (there’s still a sign outside that says ‘Slip Disc Restaurant, Bar and Permit Room’). Unlike the posh Blow Up, where non-members had to get a member to sign them in, the relatively grungier Slip Disc was open to all who paid the Rs5 entry fee. The venue has gone down in Bombay folklore as the site of an impromptu gig in October 1972 by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page who were staying at the Taj and decided to check out Slip Disc after they found Blow Up too stuffy. “They played ‘Friends’, an improvised blues [number] about coming to Bombay, and some riffs for a new song,” said Bhatia. “They also played ‘Whole Lotta Love’.” Incidentally, Atomic Forest was the first band to perform at Slip Disc after it opened in 1971. The group, which went through a number of line-up changes through its existence, is best known for its impressive psychedelic rock covers and originals, which can be heard on their albums Obsession 77 and Film Themes.

On the same road is Grants Building, the former home of both manager and promoter Yusuf Gandhi, who can be credited for recognising Page and Plant when they were almost stopped from entering Slip Disc by the security guard who had been told to keep the likes of hippies away, and Fred Manricks, who was a member of The Fourgone Conclusions, Human Bondage and Atomic Forest. Human Bondage, according to Bhatia, is the band that most musicians cite as the one with the best chops. The group, which featured brothers Suresh and Ramesh Shottam from Madras, was among the first to attempt a fusion of rock and Indian classical music. End your walk at the end of the lane, on the right side at Kartar Bhavan (look out for the Nokia shop); this was the erstwhile location of Sharon’s coffee shop where The Jets staged their debut gig.

Begin your tour at the Astoria Hotel, where the erstwhile restaurant Venice “was the place to be…where jam sessions during the mornings were the big craze”. Students would cut class to attend the gigs, and principals would occasionally attempt to drag them back to college. Among the bands that performed at the venue were The Savages, Unit 4 + 1, the Fourgone Conclusions and Elvis impersonator Iqbal Singh. Also on the roster was future international and Indian pop hit maker Biddu, who in 1963 had formed what is arguably the country’s first beat group, The Trojans in Bangalore. After the band broke up, Biddu adopted the name The Lone Trojan and fashioned himself after American singer and guitarist Trini Lopez. Venice, alas, no longer exists and the space where it was located is now Indigo, a restaurant that’s only open to the hotel’s guests.

Hop across the street to Art Deco cinema Eros, where the premiere of the Woodstock documentary was held in January 1971. To attract an audience, the distributors got local band The Combustibles to perform in the foyer of the cinema, a gig rhythm guitarist Nissim Ezekiel describes in the book as probably their “best performance” even though they didn’t play any songs from the legendary festival. Ezekiel’s cousin, singer Nandu Bhende would go on to form groups such as the Velvette Fogg, Brief Encounter and Savage Encounter. Bhende is among the few veteran Bombay rockers who continues to perform at the city’s music venues; he most recently staged a tribute to the Beatles at D’Bell in January.

The Jets adStroll straight down towards Veer Nariman Road or what used to be called Churchgate Street. While almost all the restaurants on this famed stretch hosted dance bands, perhaps the busiest of them all during the beat group era was The Other Room at The Ambassador Hotel, where both The Trojans and The Jets did stints. Diagonally across the street is Pizza by the Bay, which has seen many avatars; the best-loved among them is Talk of the Town, where The Savages and Human Bondage performed. The venue however favoured solo singers such as the Neil Diamond-esque Ajit Singh and Usha Iyer, who now goes by her married moniker Usha Uthup and still manages to sell out concerts at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

Take a right from Pizza by the Bay towards the Intercontinental Hotel on Marine Drive, which replaced Hotel Natraj, where the performers included the city’s most prominent all-girl act The Pop-pets, made up of four students from Fort Convent school. Like some of the boy bands of the time, the Pop-pets wore identical outfits; however, they did not play any instruments but sang in harmony, much like the vocal groups of the 1960s in the US.

Although away from the music hubs of Churchgate and Colaba, the 2,763-capacity Shanmukhananda Auditorium in Sion, by virtue of being the largest in the city – a distinction it continues to hold to this day – was not only the venue for weekly morning jam sessions but also the location of rock competitions such as the Sound Trophy, organised by HMV in 1967 and won by The Savages, and the annual Simla Beat Contest, sponsored by ITC from 1968 to 1972. The Savages, who beat The Combustibles and The Mystics to win the Sound Trophy, are said to be the most popular band of their time. The group, the best-known line-up of which featured founding members drummer Bashir Sheikh and guitarist Hemant Rao with keyboardist Prabhakar Mundkur, bassist Ralph Pais and vocalist Russell Pereira, was among the few 1960s acts to release albums, and their LPs The Savages Live and Black Scorpio are considered collector’s items today. Listen to their cover of “Born To Be Wild” here.

India Psychedelic – The Story Of A Rocking Generation by Sidharth Bhatia, Harper Collins, Rs599, is available at all major bookstores.