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CAROUSEL GENERAL COMMENTARY

A Look Back At Singapore’s Alternative Music Scene in the 1990s

17 March 2021

A Look Back At Singapore’s Alternative Music Scene in the 1990s

The alternative music movement spanning from the 1980s to the turn of the millennium was perhaps one of the most exciting periods in Singapore music. Mainly influenced by the punk, alternative rock and New Wave movements in the West, bands such as Zircon Lounge, The Padres, The Oddfellows, and Opposition Party emerged and thrived. Their talents and bold ambitions, coupled with diverse support from across Singapore’s creative space, brought a golden age to Singapore’s underground scene.

Yet, despite the relative recency, not much is dedicated to chronicling this vibrant period. Partially with the nostalgia of The Substation in the air, we detail and pay tribute to this fascinating chapter in Singapore music, and celebrate the work of the people and places who made it all possible. With the scene picking up as music videos were emerging, we also looked to answer the question: “Who were the first music video directors in Singapore?”


It Takes a Village

“You gotta understand one thing. All three of us — the founding members of BigO. My brother Michael, Stephen Tan, and myself. We were all journalists from [defunct newspaper] Singapore Monitor. And in those years when we were with the newspaper, we used to write about rock and roll all the time. We used to live it, dream about it, and live it again the next day. So when the newspaper closed down, we knew we had to continue. We sat around and thought, let’s do BigO magazine — “Before I Get Old” —  because I think that, well, when you get old you don’t do this kind of thing..” — Phillip Cheah, 1991

There were numerous magazines and fanzines that made their mark during the 1980s but none would be as prominent for the music scene as BigO. Started by brothers Philip and Michael Cheah and Stephen Tan in 1985, the independent magazine caused a big sensation talking about their generation. 

Throughout its near two-decade-long print run, BigO tirelessly championed the independent music scene. BigO’s writers and contributors consisted of a who’s-who of the scene, including musicians, managers and dedicated fans. The magazine became the prime source of music news and a hotbed for analyses and conversations surrounding the local scene and its future.

Beyond print, BigO organised gigs and produced compilation albums. In 1986, the magazine struck a deal with recording company WEA to sponsor BigO’s cassette compilation “Not On The Radio”, containing songs from six then-unknown and unsigned bands. The cassette was distributed for free in that year’s February issue. Being the key tastemakers of its time, BigO and their label releases, such as the “New School Rock” compilations released throughout the early 1990s, would establish the canon of how we remember the scene today.

On August 9 1993, BigO editors teamed up with NTUC’s Radio Heart for an 18-hour non-stop marathon broadcast of locally made music. On top of these are the countless concerts and events highlighting local independent music organised by the magazine.

BigO editions from the 1990s / Image credit: @limbs54 on Carousell

The story of BigO is deeply fascinating and their role in shaping the independent music scene cannot be understated enough. To find out more, one place to start is with National Archives Singapore’s website and its collated interviews with Patrick Chng, frontman of The Oddfellows and writer for BigO. 

In a similar vein, the opportunities provided by select venues cannot be denied either. Padres frontman Joe Ng recently shared on his Facebook page how The Substation empowered the scene in its early days. TNT studio at Parklane Mall provided (and continues to provide) local bands with an affordable venue for recording and jamming. Both venues were known for their warmth and openness in welcoming musicians of all genres.

Singapore’s First Music Videos

“Highlights of the night were Concave Scream’s “Erase” which was directed by Royston Tan who incidentally showed off three other videos during the show. Royston was the kind of person who “spoiled the market” because he even cut an extra video for the song “Eternity” by Lee Synergy with what looked like scraps from the Concave Scream shoots (that would be questionable to the meaning of the video). But it obviously shows that he lived and breathed videos.” 1997 article on defunct local alternative music website Substitute.com covering “PLAY ON!”, an event at Temasek Polytechnic showcasing their students’ music videos. 

Similar to trends throughout the world, music videos were a launching pad for filmmakers here in Singapore. However, unlike contemporaries overseas, there were not a lot of opportunities in the early days of the medium here, especially with the high cost of productions and inaccessibility to film equipment. 

Amongst the pioneers in this space is Eric Khoo, a then-budding filmmaker who contributed illustrations and comics to BigO magazine. He would go on to direct several music videos for The Oddfellows and The Padres. Their music would also be featured in Khoo’s films, with Joe Ng starring in the director’s 1995 breakthrough Mee Pok Man. 

Additionally, from what can be gathered, there were also videos produced for the music of The Watchman, The Black Sun, ESP, and The Pagans. In a 1993 New Paper interview, Khoo estimated that about 50 music videos were made to date, with 15 directed by him. Rarely big-budget affairs (The Black Sun’s video being an exception), these early works reflected the brash attitudes of the scene at the time while incorporating effects — crash zooms, VHS style tracking damage — that wouldn’t have been out of place on MTV in the early 1990s. 

A compilation of Khoo’s music videos can be found on Little Ong’s YouTube page. Little Ong is the co-founder and creative director of multidisciplinary agency fFurious. He also designed, illustrated and photographed for BigO magazine between 1996 to 2002. 

Trace the history of Singapore’s filmmakers and achievements in the music video space is probably in their resume. One significant example is Royston Tan, winning the National Panasonic Video Award with his music video for Concave Scream’s “Erase” early in his career. 

From the 2000s onwards, lower costs and easier access to equipment would exponentially increase the number of Singapore-produced music videos. Prominent names in Singapore’s filmmaking space today — Wee Li Lin, Derrick Lui, Nicole Midori Woodford, Ler Jiyuan, Jeevan Nathan, Boo Junfeng — have all made their mark in the medium. Objectifs has also been integral in furthering the art form through its educational events and collaborative efforts bringing together filmmakers and musicians.

The Limited Impact of Singapore’s Early Music Videos

Through the benefit of hindsight, there is now a clear recognition of the importance of music videos as promotional tools. However, these weren’t a pressing concern in late 1980s and early 1990s Singapore, especially when the means to create them were so limited and with the general consensus of the scene being against commercialising. 

Local television programmes such as Vidz and NiteRage were dedicated to showcasing music videos but, given the high cost of producing them, only a handful would be from local acts. Competing for attention in Singapore — whenever television reception was kind — were television channels across the Causeway, namely TV3 and their music programmes.

A notable highlight for the local music scene is how the Oddfellows’ first music video was aired on MTV Asia in the early 1990s, when the station was still based in Hong Kong. When MTV Asia was relaunched in 1995, the channel’s headquarters was moved to Singapore but the same issue of scarcity persisted where the airwaves were mainly filled by regional and Western music videos.

How local acts weren’t able to catch up to this trend is only a minor reason for why the indie scene’s highwater mark subsided. Western trends had a huge influence on these musicians and the local audience. The bands were cranking out hits that would have fit right at home in the US and the UK (The Padres did make its way onto John Peel’s radio programme in 1994). 

The Pagans is one of the first few shoegaze bands in Singapore, emerging together as the subgenre took off in the UK in the early 1990s

Nirvana’s breakthrough into the mainstream in 1991 must have played a huge role in enabling local bands to take off as well, given how their lyrics also dealt with themes of alienation and angst. Concurrently, more obscure (but still popular) genres such as shoegaze were also picked up in the local scene. 

There are several reasons why Singapore’s alternative music scene in the 1990s waned by the turn of the millennium such as the Asian Financial Crisis, changing trends and longstanding bouts with piracy. Yet, it’s also no coincidence that just as the West’s alternative music moment faded, so did Singapore’s. 

Looking Ahead by Looking Back

This exciting chapter in Singapore music remains an inspirational reminder of the heights Singapore artistes can achieve when the entire village comes together. It’s a time well worth commemorating and celebrating when the pandemic has forced everyone to adapt; when no creative will be able to survive on their own or even within their disciplines.

Having a depth of talent is just as vital as the needs for opportunities and recognition. When there were none, the Substation, TNT Studio, and BigO magazine stepped up in tremendous ways. The magazine, in particular, went above and beyond in the pre-Internet world, serving as both an editorial platform home to cutting-edge discussions, and a proactive organiser to countless initiatives that pushed the music scene forward. 

Scene from Rocking the Sub Concert at the Substation in 1997 / Image credit: Reynold Pereira via Nostalgic Singapore

It’s indeterminate if this period would have prolonged if more music videos were produced. Neither MTV Asia nor local programming broadcasted a lot of music videos from local bands given the general lack thereof; whether the story would change if there were more feels like futile guesswork. What seems more certain is that, even in Singapore, music videos were a starting point for filmmakers who have gone on to be household names.

While the excitement of the 1990s alternative music movement has long waned, there are still fragments of its sprit living on today. Bands and groups such as Urban Xchange, Electrico, and The Sam Willows have all reached unprecedented heights. Prominent members of the movement continue to on mentorship roles such as with Noise Singapore’s programmes and the establishment of Baybeats. Platforms like Bandwagon have been significant in promoting and recognising local musicians.

With the Internet, we could easily remember and retell this period of time a decade or two from now — but not so much for the equally recent past even if the information is out there. When we don’t have the means to remember, it becomes far too easy to discard and abandon the hard work of past generations who laid the foundation for their next. Numbers and results grow more appealing in justifying change — even if they will never be able to tell the complete story.

For how music videos are able to so effectively capture a generation’s cultural zeitgeist, and with the number of them produced nowadays, hopefully we will be able to better commemorate, celebrate and remember the accomplishments of Singapore’s creatives today years from now.

Banner image credit: Reynold Pereira via Nostalgic Singapore

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.