Gigs mean different things to different people. Ask the Shakey Rays how their Friday evening show in Bangalore went, and they’d probably tell you it was a bit of a nightmare. They blew an amp, broke strings on both their guitars at the same time, were losing their voices from excessive touring (this was their third gig in as many nights), and struggled throughout with the sound on their monitors. The crowd, on the other hand, saw it differently: for them, the Rays swung, and swung like hell. The on-stage mishaps weren’t anything more than convenient fag breaks; the guitars rang clear as bells outside, and no one could be bothered with a missed note here or there. The band were pushed into playing three encores, and the loonies dancing up at the front only got loonier as the show rolled on.
Conversely, in Pune a night earlier, they seem to have had the opposite experience, where a more polished set only met with half-hearted response. This has something to do with the choice of venue – people who hang out at places like the Hard Rock Café are also people who don’t know the first thing about rock ‘n’ roll – but that’s not the point. The point is, with a certain kind of music, it’s impossible to predict what will work and what won’t.
The Shakey Rays are a rock ‘n’ roll band. This seems blindingly obvious, but it isn’t: scene-monkeys, on the whole, don’t understand “rock ‘n’ roll”, except as shorthand for well-off middle-aged men doing never-ending versions of Johnny B. Goode in the kind of pub which hosts Woodstock theme nights, or some leather-clad farce posing in front of a motorbike for his publicity shot. Nor do the Rays flatter anyone’s “experimental” or “indie” pretensions. Their game is simple: so simple, in fact, that all the drunk kids – many of whom had bussed all the way from Chennai just to watch them here – get it instantly. It’s the society ladies and the cocktail brats, the restauranteurs and buzzword-merchants who bray the loudest in the magazines and on the internet about how the “Indian scene” is “going places” who don’t, and never will.
And what is it that the drunk kids get? They get the two bright rhythm guitars that are the core of the Rays’ sound*. They get the headlong rush of the mad boy who plays the drums**. They get the bassplayer who’s dying to be in the crowd. And they get the Rays’ songwriting, of course: those remarkably complex and groovy beat-pop tunes, sharp and snappy things without an inch of fat on their bodies. At the show, the Shakey Rays covered Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground, Cole Porter, and the Beatles. The selection is revealing: this is music the Rays have pored over for years. The Diddley beat, Mo Tucker, and a purely instinctive way with melodies and blue notes: these are the things that drive the Shakey engines.
By the very nature of their act, the Rays will run up against every obstacle the scene has, in its infinite laziness and lack of imagination, contrived to create for itself: recording studios will hate them because they can’t be made to play to a metronome (good rock ‘n’ roll is never played to a metronome); soundmen will not be able to get their heads around the chopping and twanging of the two guitars (years of mixing effects-drenched “indie” makes you an idiot). Restaurant managers will worry about their lack of a party trick (what they’re really looking for are rock ‘n’ roll clowns to go with the starters), and art festivals will dread their sharpness (you’re not allowed to be “art” if you’re not wilfully weird.)
And yet, their star suddenly seems to be on the ascendant: they are touring the whole country, which is better than not touring the whole country; in our tiny, inbred, class-conscious scene, getting a foot in that door is an achievement in itself. Their fans aren’t always card-carrying members of indie media royalty – which means the glossies always underestimate and undersell them – but, when Dhruva Gautham’s voice caved in at the Bangalore show, half the room sang the words aloud on his behalf: that doesn’t happen unless a lot of people know your record backwards, and people don’t do that when they don’t love you.
Last week, a man with over three decades’ worth of experience at some of Britain’s leading studios with some of the world’s biggest artists was asked by the Telegraph if there was an Indian group he wanted to produce. His answer? The Shakey Rays from Chennai.
Not Pentagram or Shaa’ir and Func or any of those preening nightlife darlings, you understand. It was the Shakey Rays he wanted.
* – Think Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Or Robyn Hitchcock and Kim Rew. Or Keith Richards and Mick Taylor (or Brian Jones or that new guy, depending on which way you’re inclined.)
** – Keith Moon in 1966.