Madras Underbelly

There’s a small homemade revolution brewing here right under everyone’s noses. In the past year, three improbable little records have come out of Chennai which knock a modest, but significant, hole in the otherwise very sensible view that nothing good is ever going to come out of this country the way it’s going. These albums – Tunes from the Big Belly by the Shakey Rays and Curious Toys by Harsha Iyer, both débuts, and Dead Loops from Adam & the Fish-Eyed Poets, a sophomore – make up an oddball trio: in an industry lorded over by over-privileged brats playing the superstar to crowds conditioned to not erupt in outrage when yet another too-well-known-for-their-own-good rock group shows up and condescends to them and insults their intelligence by hawking triteness and bloat, these three stand by the backdoor, looking smarter-than-thou and refusing to make friends.

This poor party rock ‘n’ roll is the outsider music of our times; it speaks for, and ought to speak to, every literate Indian city kid who’s tired out of his poor caffeine-soaked skull of the deadening drag of twenty-years-of-schoolin’-and-they-put-you-on-the-day-shift, kids with electric guitars and sex on the brain, bumming out of college, sleeping till mid-day, plugged in to their computers and preoccupied with Woody Allen films and the Rolling Stones, while their peers go on to land outrageously paid jobs in investment banking. This is music bolted together in bedrooms, in front of the PC, music that’s not made as a means to the end of being popular with the lipstick-and-legs lasses – though how could that possibly hurt? – but born of, and fuelled by, a puritanical obsession with records which, in this day and age, nobody really cares for any more.

The Chennai Three are musically dissimilar: Adam & the Fish-Eyeds have chosen tightly-knit riffy new wave as their medium of choice, their guitar parts more and more tend to fall together like Tetris blocks, and it’s nice that they aren’t quite as obscure any more as they might have been – at least two hundred people in the country know who they are, which is practically striking gold under the circumstances. The superbly named Shakey Rays do twanging rhythm-and-blues with a great, swinging backbeat, like shakey rays of sunshine coming out of the stereo. The singing and writing Bobsey Twins who head them aren’t just good – they’re complete naturals, a rare and wonderful breed; on record, it’s near-impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Harsha Iyer goes for something more lush and large and posh-sounding altogether, although recently he’s taken to terrorising people with dire talk of a “more streamlined” second album.

Between these three, they’ve ploughed a furrow hitherto unthought of in these parts: smart, economical songs sparking with neurotic brilliance, not weighed down by having to provide for the needs of the dinner-and-drinks crowd or by having to make room for preening frontmanship. These are early stabs yet – for now, these boys deliver intellect without bad poetry, visceral thrills without jock dumbness, hookiness without being simplistic. I’ll wait and watch for them to now dig deeper into their own heads, to throw all those movies and books and records they listen to together and have them explode in a polychrome mushroom cloud of mad melodic happiness.

Onward and upward, lads: the people need you and they don’t even know it yet.

7 thoughts on “Madras Underbelly

  1. Aaaaaah I can’t believe you said all that. So true so so true but I think you might’ve jinxed something or at least qualified them to be struck by a bolt of lightning!!

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