Thai Beat A Go-Go: Volume One
n the 1960s, with war raging in next-door-but-one Vietnam, Thailand experienced a sudden influx of American visitors. These were almost exclusively GIs on rest and recuperation or from army bases set up in support of the war effort, and they were looking for a good time. Naturally, they headed straight for Bangkok, and it’s likely they didn’t move around too much in their free time. Why would they? Everything a hard-working soldier required lay sprawled out in front of them: the food, cheap beers, scorching weather and a city notorious for its whores. All they needed was something to dance to.
Of course, we all know the ’60s to have been a sonically pivotal time, and it wasn’t long before rock n’ roll would join the troops out there; a gift from the folks back home. At first, it came in the form of radio broadcasts, but it wouldn’t be long before native musicians spotted a potential shift in styles that wouldn’t just be lucrative but relatively simple, too. Guitars and basses were already being explored by many young players around Bangkok, and the sounds they made were quickly crafted into chords, and from there into twelve-bar progressions, then accelerated, sexed-up and there you have it. In a nutshell, that was how the genre was born everywhere, and it was no different for the Land of Smile.
The sleevenotes to Thai Beat A Go-Go don’t elaborate, but they do impress upon us that this music was Lost, and is now Found. We’re told that pitiful few of the original records, sleeves, and promotional ephemera still exist. Curiously, we’re also told that almost nobody in Thailand remembers any of the artists featured herein. Nonetheless, these recordings (surface noise and distorted interference sometimes included) survived, and we’re encouraged from the offset that this is a Good Thing.
Johnny’s Guitar formed in 1963 and instantly reigned as the “king of the string bands” in Thailand. Tempting as it would be to compare their ubiquity to that of the Beatles, I can’t say I know exactly what they sound like, but four of their songs feature here. “Kratae” opens like a Red Indian war cry, then grooves on guitar licks and blasts from a Hammond. “Supannahong” (named after the native drum played throughout) has an almost funereal feel, if the funeral march took place on some fictional Californian-Thai boulevard. Their other songs match this high psychedelic standard, and elsewhere the emphasis on dancing strengthens with each passing riff.
Sodsai Chaengkij’s “Shake Baby Shake” rocks out like Lulu for the Far East. Bubbling over with beat-group cliché (musically, lyrically and thematically), at the solo’s climax Sodsai explains, “you ain’t nothin’ but a rollin’ stone”. Cover versions offer more honest sounds, and Payom Moogda’s wild rendition of Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say” (here titled “Tamai Dern Sae” or “Why Do You Walk Like A Drunkard?”) is the pick of the bunch. The Cat’s less-successful English-language take on “Hit The Road Jack” isn’t so much funky as quirky, but still it doesn’t disappoint.
Rock n’ roll is of course an extremely limited genre, and its major proponents seem to achieve most when they strayed a little from the territories of its rigid formula. It appears this was as much a reality in Bangkok as it was everywhere else. However, The Viking Band’s unlistenable “Phom Rak Khoon Tching Tching (I Really Do Love You)” strays a little too far, as the vocalist rattles pots and pans over a simple rhythm section whilst repeating the song’s title sporadically and awfully. It can be said that the cover version of the “James Bond Theme” as performed by The Son Of P.M. doesn’t go far enough. In fact, within the confines of the album’s motif, it sounds exactly as you’d expect.
Perhaps the album’s most bizarre example of boundary-crossing is “Muay Thai” (translated as “Thai Kickboxing”), which is an unashamedly chilling and apparently unmusical envoy to the set. The music is volatile: its percussion tribal and its lead like a snake charmer’s flute, strangulated forever. This is the sound of the sport of the same name, a version of the Western sport that increases brutality ten-fold. I suppose the soldiers may not have been rockin’ in the aisles to this the way they would to Johnny’s Guitar or the Starlights’ straight cover of “Day Tripper”, but they probably heard an awful lot of it. And as perverse as it sounds, thanks to Thai Beat A Go-Go, I want to hear more too.
Reviewed by: Colin Cooper
Reviewed on: 2004-11-15