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From Genesis to Revelations: A Mythic Journey Through Pinoy Rock & Roll
Eric S. Caruncho
The genre we now know as Pinoy Rock is still awaiting a historiography. As with most bastard forms, pinpointing the exact DOB is often an exercise in frustration, involving as it necessarily does the framing of a definition. Just when did Filipino rock & roll become “Pinoy Rock”? And just what the hell is “Pinoy Rock” anyway? Filipino Lyrics set to rock & roll beat, i.e. 12-bar jump blues progressions jazzed up to 4/4 time? That would make “O Ang Babae” and “Bahala Na” our “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog,” and Bobby Gonzales and the Lo-Waist Gang our Elvis and the Jordanaires. Rock & roll played by Filipino musicians? Then the Riots, the Downbeats and all those Ventures covers bands would be in contention.
Just as movie stars rode on the countercultural reverberations from the west in such clueless movies as Beatnik (with Dolphy and Panchito playing espresso-bongo caricature bohemians) and Happy Hippie Holiday (with, God! Was it really Hilda Koronel?) –it is very likely that musicians of the day just picked up on what was happening on the radio. (Come to think of it, they’re still doing that now.)
Luckily, when history fails, there’s always popular mythology, and the legends that makes the most mythic sense is that Pinoy rock sprung full-grown from Joey “Pepe” Smith’s chemically-enhanced cortex when he composed “Ang Himig Natin.” Forget that the refrain has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the lyrics, and now seems touchingly naīve.
Ang himig natin
Ang inyong awitin
Upang tayo’y magsama-sama
Sa langit ng pag-asa
Here was the precise moment of self-definition, and one can only imagine what a flash of revelation it was for audiences to hear the Juan de la Cruz band perform it in public for the first time. It had always been our music. But now our music had a name.
In any case, it made Pepe Smith – even then a wasted, spectral presence –the music’s unlikely patriarch and living symbol. “Himig Natin” was the anthem ushering in the Seventies and the classic era of Pinoy rock.
The Juan de la Cruz Band were not alone, of course. They were simply the kings of a small but thriving music scene that included their closest rival Anakbayan (whose chief presence was a manic drummer named Edmund Fortuno), Boy Camara and the afterbirth (the likely ancestor of Wency Cornejo and the Afterimage), even a band named Redd Foxx (which mellowed down into the Hotdog, patriarchs of Pinoy bubblegum).
Meanwhile, over in Olongapo City, just outside the Subic Naval Base was a thriving band scene that fed on the US Seventh Fleet’s insatiable thirst for Asian poontang and American music, whether it be rhythm and blues (for blacks who frequented the section of Magsaysay Ave. known as “the Jungle”), “shitkicker” country-and-western (for the rednecks who preferred the ersatz cowboy bars) or Olangapo’s own brand of rough-hewn, rough and tumble rock & roll. Of the latter genre, the acknowledged leaders were bands like Balahibo, the unfortunately-named T. Tinio band, and the toughest of them all, the Psyclones.
The latter was fronted by a flamboyant lead guitarist and showman named Resty Fabunan, who was given to closing sets by dousing his fender guitar with lighter fluid, setting it alight Jimi Hendrix –style, and whirling it over his head by the whammy bar, drenching the audience with sparks and feedback. Later, infected by the Pinoy rock fever, the Psyclones suddenly went nationalistic and renamed themselves Maria Cafra, scoring hits with such songs as “Kool Ka Lang, Pare.”
Steel magnate and erstwhile surf guitar exponent Ramon “RJ” Jacinto was driven to ‘exile’ in the US by the martial law government. Luckily, the family-owned AM station DZRJ and its sister station DZUW were left in capable hands. And apart from providing countless adolescents with sustenance in the form of true rock-oriented programming, DZRJ soon began to air nightly program called Pinoy Rock and Rhytm. We had the airwaves.
Juan de la Cruz eventually broke up as a result of the inevitable personality conflicts that rock bands are heir to. Bassist Mike Hanopol went on to a solo career, reaping much of the success that eluded his former band. Relying on his gravel-throated bullfrog voice and a penchant for punchy, three-chord melodies, Hanopol had a string of hits with “Buhay Musikero”, “Kagatan´and proto-punk anthem of the cough-syrup set –“Laki Sa Layaw (Jeproks).”
For his part, Pepe Smith shambled on as best he could, a legend in his own time, fronting one pickup band after another. But the die had been cast. The bandwagon was rolling, and riding merrily along were the record companies who had discovered that there was actually a market for Pinoy rock.
The genre soon had its first female star, in the person of Sampaguita, the prototypical female rocker. “Bonggahan” made fun of kolehiyala –speak, when Yano were still in diapers. Sam soon outgrew her status as novelty act with one catchy hit after another, many co-written with partner-in-crime lead guitarist Gary Perez.
As the music matured, it also mutated into sub-genres. Pinoy folk came into the picture as audience demanded a change of pace from the thundering, three-chord blues rock that formed much of the basis for the earlyPinoy rock hits. A hippie troubadour with waist-length hair named Florante de Leon emerged as Pinoy rock’s first acoustic artist, paving the way foe other solo singer-songwriters with compositions such as “Pinay”, “Tatang” and “Wikang Pambansa.” Florante was soon joined by Coritha, his distaff counterpart, whose undying hit “Sierra Madre” is still a jukebox staple in the provinces.
Although he mined pretty much the same territory as the other folkies, Ka Freddie Aguilar was a class all by himself. His humongous international success “Anak” probably sold more units than all Pinoy rock compositions up to the time combined. But Aguilar was probably too popular for his own good –or at least, too popular to suit the taste of the Pinoy rock audience, which still saw itself as an underground of sorts. His onstage shtick –the sequined hat, the matching suits –also branded him as “showbiz.” He could take the stage as easily with Imelda Papin as he could with Sampaguita.
The group that single-handedly carried the music furthest, however, was Asin. Powered by the spine-tingling voice of earth goddess Lolita carbon, and Saro Baņares’s incisive and eloquent compositions, Asin was a seminal band, prefiguring much of what was too follow. They were the first to write songs about the environment (“Hangin,” “Masdan Mo Ang Kapaligiran”), first to explore ethnic instruments (“Ang Bayan Kong Sinilangan”) and reggae (“Usok”), first to tackle cause-oriented themes (“Balita”) and first to combine Tagalog with Cebuano lyrics in a serious folk rock context. Perhaps more than any other band before them (and a lot of band since), Asin proved that Pinoy rock could be a popular vehicle for lyrics with social and poiitical content.
And even purer strain of protest music followed in the late Seventies with the emergence of highly-politicized musicians such as Heber bartolome and his band Banyuhay, the poet turned songwriter Jess Santiago, and street busker Pol Galang. Based mostly in the activist bastion that was UP Diliman, these artists pursued social commentary at a time when it was genuinely dangerous thing to do so. Heber’s anthemic “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy,” which celebrated having brown skin and blunt noses, was a tougher declaration of independence than “Himig Natin” ever was. Even tougher was Jess Santiago’s hymns to fallen unionist (“Halina”) and fathers who had to leave their families to take to the hills (“Meme na Aking Bunso”).
The closing of the decade found the music well-established as a genre. The major acts had garnered record contracts and released seminal recordings. A modicum of radio airplay had been given. True, no one had grown rich, and everyone still had their day jobs and survival gigs, but at the time the music seemed to be enough. Little did they realize that an era was about to end.
Punk was the shot heard around the world, a rude blast designed to shake up a rock establishment grown complacent. The punk virus originated in seedy, underground clubs in New York, spread to London, and from there exploded into a worldwide outbreak.
Manila was not spared. The arch-punk himself, Pepe Smith, was predictably the first to embrace the new sound, emerging with buzz cut and wraparound shades as leader of Joey Smith and the Airwaves. In spite of its new-wavish name, the Airwaves didn’t sound much different from the pickup bands that Smith had fronted after he left Juan de la Cruz. But what did it matter? Pepe was punk long before anybody thought to apply the term to rock & roll. He still is
Little by little the old guard faded into the background. Some burned themselves out on drugs and alcohol, some succumbed to the temptation of better-paying gigs abroad, some dried up, and others simply went back to normal life. Little by little, the ground ceded to the next generation.
The Jerks were the advance party for what was later to become the alternative music scene. Since Juan de la Cruz, Pinoy rock bands had made a fetish of Filipino-ness in a bid to define their music as unique and original. The Jerks not only had an English name (harking back to the pre-Pinoy rock era when bands called themselves the Jovials, the Downbeats and the Moonstrucks), their first song to make it to the radio (“Romantic Kill”) had English lyrics. Although no one probably thought much of it at the time, this was a significant step forward, in that it was no longer thought necessary for a song to have Tagalog lyrics to be considered Original Pilipino Music. It was the attitude that counted.
The Jerks were a traditional band. Its members cut their teeth in the folk scene that gravitated around clubs like the Bodega and the Kola House, and honed their skills in Olongapo rock clubs. One, lead guitar ace Jun Lopito, had even played with Pepe Smith’s Airwaves. In their wake would follow the next generation of Pinoy rockers.
By this time, the initial enthusiasm for Pinoy rock had waned, and the band scene was in the doldrums. The Eighties saw the birth of a true underground scene, unsullied by anything as crass as major label attention. Punk’s major contribution was the do-it-yourself ethos. Since it relied for propulsion on basic three-chord-rock, played as fast and as loud as possible; and angst-ridden lyrics screamed as crudely as possible, punk rockers could get by on a minimum of musical talent. One didn’t have to be a Wally Gonzales or a Boy Katindig to play punk. Indeed, one couldn’t be. Punk took the music back from the virtuosos and gave it back to the kids, who promptly ripped it apart and refashioned it into something truly their own; hardcore.
Hardcore was probably Pinoy rock & roll’s most bizarre mutation. It derived its aesthetic, as usual, from the West. The British punks took Sixties American garage band rock and played it twice as fast. Hardcore took that and played it twice as fast, resulting in songs that were over in under 60 seconds, long before anyone could figure out what the words meant. It was hardly necessary. Hardcore was all about rage; the rage to live, the rage to be different.
Soon, teenage bands with names like the Urban Bandits, Dead Ends, Betrayed and George Imbecile and the Idiots were playing high school gym gigs to an audience composed largely of teens like themselves. An enterprising young punk named Tommy Tanchango put up the first independent hardcore label appropriately named Twisted Red Cross (after the punk’s swastika fetish) and started recording these bands. In no time at all, hardcore was a bonafide scene, with its own headquarters – a dive called Katrina’s that doubled as a rock club on weekends.
The Wuds stood out from the rest of the hardcore bands because they were devour Krishna devotees, and many of their songs had a hectoring, moral tone that was conspicuous by its absence from the other hardcore bands’ repertoire, obsessed as they were with nihilism and having a rocking good time. (In 1995, the rock magazine Spin published an article noting the emergence of “Krishnacore” bands – hardcore bands whose lyrics preached devotion to Krishna. Now it can be told: the Wuds were there first, 10 years ahead of their time. But hardcore wasn’t the only thing happening in the Eighties. Far away from trendy Manila, in the relatively insular cultural backwater that was Davao City, a writer named Joey Ayala decided to switch from writing short stories to writing songs. Closeting himself in a makeshift home studio, he soon produced a demo tape of original material. A transplanted Manileno, Ayala had been struck by the richness of Mindanao’s indigenous tribal culturesl, its relatively unspoiled (but nonetheless threatened) environment, and the armed conflict that was then raging in Davao and much of the rest of the country. The songs on the self-produced debut Panganay ng Umaga reflected these concerns in a poetic language that, while obviously influenced by the works of such artists as Asin and Jess Santiago, was singularly the artist’s own.
A couple of years later, Ayala had taught himself to play such tribal instruments as the kubing or Jew’s harp and the two-stringed hegalong and formed a band. He called it Bagong Lumad, after the lumad or indigenous tribes that he so admired. Bagong Lumad, as he never tired of saying during the band’s countless performances, meant “new native”, or better yet, “alter-native”.
Into the Alternative
Bagong Lumad was of course not the first alternative band. The idea of “alternative” music has been around at least as early as the mid-Seventies, when mainstream success –in terms of a record contract with an established record company and radio airplay –had become a reality for many Pinoy rock artists. To the music business, Pinoy rock was just another genre, and therefore just another market. It certainly wasn’t an “alternative” to the Filipino pop songs that constituted the local record companies’ bread and butter.
Even as Pinoy rock was gaining mainstream acceptance, however, certain artists were considered commercially unviable. Either their music was too sedate (or too loud), their lyrics too critical of the establishment (or too obscure), or they failed to fit into easy categories. Artist such as Jess Santiago and Pol Galang, both accomplished songwriters, had to content themselves with playing in street demonstrations and folk houses. Gary Granada had given Florante a hit with “Kahit Konti”, but his own music –while sometimes echoing the down humour of a Yoyoy Villame –dealt with social themes that were deemed too serious for pop. They were alternative, though they probably didn’t think of themselves as such at the time.
After the classic Pinoy rock era, the audience splintered into various, insular subcultures –each with its own bands and its own scene.
The kids who outgrew hardcore embraced a new slew of post punk bands such as the Dawn, Identity Crisis, Hayp and Dean’s December. Playing in a more conventional pop format, these bands nudged at the gates of commercial success and some –like the Dawn –even made the breakthrough.
Meanwhile back in Diliman, the protest music movement grew with the emergence of such unique voices as the iconoclastic humourist Gary Granada and the singing duo Inang Laya. In the succeeding years, they would be joined by the likes of Susan Fernandez-Magno, Buklod and the militant Patatag.
The final years of the decade also saw the emergence of a real club scene. The relatively plush Makati clubs such as the Roxy and Harlem saw gigs by the Blank and the Jerks. Over in Espana, Mayric’s was the altar at which the faithful of enterprising young music lovers pooled their meagre resources to start Red Rocks in Timog Ave. in Quezon City, a tiny one-room club which was later renamed Club Dredd.
Brave New World
Something was clearly in the air as the Eighties cusped into the Nineties. Everyone could feel it: something big –or at the very least, interesting –was about to happen. Kuh Ledesma’s Music Museum, a ritzy Greenhills music lounge intended as a venue for, well, the likes of Kuh Ledesma, imported the Blank from Baguio, where the bands had been languishing after the demise of Rock session, a rock-cum-art “happening” hangout run by Baguio Arts Guild. (The move was apparently too much of a strain for the band, which broke up not too long after.)
Meanwhile, sensing that Manila was at last ready for him, Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad flew in from Davao, packing their drums, gongs and batik pyjamas.
From the ashes of Asin rose, phoenix-like, Lolita carbon’s Nene Band and Pendong Aban’s Grupong Pendong –both struggling to carry on Asin’s weighty legacy.
Perhaps more significant of all, new generation bands was spawning at that very moment. Unlike their forebears, who had only the US and UK to turn to for influences, the new generation were the inheritors of diverse traditions, from the classic dinosaurian Pinoy rock of Juan de la Cruz and their brethren, to frenetic trash of hardcore, to environmentally-sensitive, politically-correct lyricism of Joey Ayala and company.
Thus was the stage set.
Through this time, the mainstream record industry had been cautious about this newfangled alternative thing, preferring the safe and sure drawing power of established pop stars. They were not entirely oblivious to the band scene that was sprouting around them; they just didn’t see it as having any commercial potential. As early as the late Eighties, in fact, a few record companies had dipped their toes in the alternative stream, through such compilation albums as Dear Cory and Karapatang Pangtao, both produced by music biz wheeler-dealer Ed Formoso and featuring a slew of the new bands that were now being lumped together under the alternative banner. (The records sold shit, which confirmed their suspicions.) Previously, Formoso has assembled a studio-only supergroup of sorts called Lokal Brown, which –in spite of a stellar cast that included Lolita Carbon, Pendong Aban and the Jerks –also failed to take off.
All this changed in 1991, when, much to everyone’s amazement, Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad signed a record deal. Until that time, the band had been quietly producing and distributing its own albums, all of which had become underground bestsellers. Ayala’s booster’s had never tired of saying that he was the one and most likely to break through the alternative-mainstream barrier, but they never thought the record company executives would actually buy it.
In the wake of Bagong Lumad’s commercial debut (which, sad to say, has had disappointing results for both artist and record company), other labels began to look twice at the so-called alternative artists. Grace Nono, having gone solo after the Blank’s untimely demise, was quickly signed. Pretty soon, most of the other labels had begun sniffing around the fringes of the alternative scene.
At this point, it must be noted that few alternative musicians thought of themselves as “alternative.” Apart from a few iconoclasts like Gary Granada, who would have nothing to do with the mainstream record companies, most bands wanted to “make it,” in the classic rock & roll sense of landing a record deal and getting their songs played on radio. (Few were fool enough to believe that they would actually make money from the deal.)
Most alternative bands courted mainstream success the way bands have always done –by getting gigs, obtaining some form of talent management, recording demos and pestering A&R types to listen to them.
What set the “alternative scene” apart from the early Pinoy rock days was its ethos, in large measure a carryover from the punk and hardcore era. An early punk manifesto declared: This is a chord. This is another. Now form a band.” Punk encouraged kids to “do it yourself,” therefore the bands emerged from the audience itself. They were basically the same kids as the ones thrashing in the mosh pit, except for the fact that they knew a few more chords and could string words together into a semblance of a song. They dressed in the same ratty T-shirts and jeans, had their hair cut the same way, hung out in the same clubs. They were not “rock starts” like the first generation of Pinoy rockers were. But the alternative music scene had shared a sense of community not seen since the early days of Pinoy rock, when one could still accept a toke from a perfect stranger without undue paranoia.
The rock clubs were like the band’s neighbourhoods –everybody knew each other, and each other’s song. It was no big deal to pass bass players and drummers: good rhythm sections were hard to find. This was the milieu that spawned the current generation of bands: the Eraserheads, the Youth, Yano, Color It Red, Alamid, Tropical Depression and scores of lesser known bands with names like Feetlike Fins, Tame The Tikbalang and Poppy Field.
As the band scene burgeoned, things began to take shape and take on a momentum of their own. Critical mass was finally reached at the end of 1993 with two events: the release of the Eraserheads’ ultraelectromagneticpop! Album and the mammoth Bistro sa Amoranto concert. The former demonstrated conclusively that an alternative band could sell in multiplatinum quantities. If anyone still harboured doubts, the record attendance at Amoranto offered visible proof that a significant market existed, a market that was significantly bigger and more sophisticated than the record companies thought.
The Eraserheads, four mixed-up dorm kids from the University of the Philippines (then as now a fertile breeding ground for bands of all stripes), had been playing weekly gig at Club Dredd for years, building a small but loyal following. They were not the most accomplished of musicians, but the heads had something even better: they had the finger on the pulse of Nineties adolescents and a gift for writing irresistible pop hooks not seen since the heyday of the Apolinario Mabini Hiking Society.
Record labels were initially reluctant to sign the Eraserheads for two reasons: one, they were barely proficient in playing their instruments; and two, alternative music was still unproven commercial entity. The labels, in fact were busy looking for the next Andrew E.
Luckily, alternative music had taken off in a big way in the US, with left-field success of Nirvana and the other grunge bands from Seattle. One label decided that maybe there was something to this local alternative thing after all, and took the plunge.
Ultraelctromagneticpop! Took the airwaves by storm. In a matter of months, the album went platinum, then double-platinum, going on to outsell crooner Ariel Rivera, then the label’s flavour-of-the-month.
The Eraserheads had blown the lid off the underground.
In the space of a few months, struggling bands were transformed from no-commercial-potential to money-in –the-bank status. Record labels scrambled to sign up the best of the lot. Latecomers had to settle for second-best, just so they wouldn’t be left holding an empty bag.
The artist-and-repertoire men started by skimming the cream off the club scene. In short order, they signed Yano, another UP band whose Ramones-like clangour served as a vehicle for bitter diatribes against the ruling class and lyrics dripping with an acid wit. Nest to be signed was Color It red, another Club Dredd staple, whose chief attraction were Barbi Cristi’s quirky, introspective songs and lead singer Cooky Chua’s honeyed alto. Another label snagged Alamid, a Malabon hair band who played atypical brand of pop-rock.
The major-label feeding frenzy continued, fed by brisk sales and media hype. By the following year, even bands as unlikely as the Weedd and Agaw-Agimat had record deals.
The boom also gave Pinoy rock dinosaurs a new (though temporary) lease of life. Mike Hanopol came home from the US, transmogrified into a heavy metal guitar hero. For the nth time, Pepe Smith rose from the grave to reclaim his crown as the Godfather of Punk. Even Florante gave it a go, though he has sensibly gone back to wherever he came from.
At first, the so-called alternative bands bewildered the record companies because, unlike parallel trends such as disco, hip-hop, there was no single, identifiable alternative sound. The label covered a lot of ground: the power pop of the Eraserheads and Color It red, the protest punk of Yano, the reggaefied Afro-beat of Tropical depression and the retro-ska of Put3ska, the coņo metal of Razorback and wolfgang, the deviant girl-group Keltcross and Tribal Fish, the psychedelia of poppy Field, the ethnic-flavored folk rock of Grupong Pendong and DJ Alvaro, the ambient New Age experiments of Shant Verdun, the cosmic world beat of Kontra-Gapi and Pinikpikan, and scores of other sub-genres.
It didn’t take the industry long to catch on, however.
By the time the Eraserheads released their second album Circus in late 1994, the alternative tag had become just another catch-all marketing ploy. Corporate sponsors, eager to corner the youth market, began recruiting bands to flog their products, from beer to corn chips. New rock clubs began to open, and compared with the dumps that had given birth to the alternative scene, many of them were relatively plush, with decent sound systems, air-conditioning that worked. There followed a band explosion, the likes of which had not been seen since the combo era of the Sixties.
Had then so-called alternative music succeeded in infecting the mainstream music industry? Or had the music industry simply co-opted the alternative sound? The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The unprecedented success of the Eraserheads forced the music industry to take a long hard look at the musical underground, and to discover new market. On the other hand, once the industry had a handle on it, alternative music was just another product to be packaged, promoted and pushed on the market.
Bigger is not necessarily better, however. Already there are signs that the alternative scene is about to collapse under its own weight. It’s the same old story: too many bands, too few gigs, not enough royalties to go around. As in the first Pinoy rock era, many of Today’s bands will probably end up as one-hit wonders, fading into oblivion after their 15 minutes of fame are up.
The artists also have to contend with the limited attention spans of today’s audience –the “been there, done that, next trend please” syndrome.
But when the rubble clears, the musicians that remain standing will probably shape the music of the next decade to come.
Excerpts from Bencab’s Rock Sessions, 1995
Punks, Poets, Poseurs
Reportage On Pinoy Rock & Roll, 1996
Eric S. Caruncho
Last edited by zepol : 01-08-2011 at 09:21 AM.