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Sudden success almost made him give up on music

Backlash from the indie scene: many musicians felt he had sold out because their music was on the radio. -TNP
Zul Othman

Tue, Apr 10, 2012
The New Paper

The year was 1991 and homegrown musicians The Oddfellows had scored a rare accolade.

Their single So Happy became the first Singaporean song to top MediaCorp station 98.7FM's radio chart.

For music fans, it was a major triumph as local radio has never been much of a playground for homegrown music.

A follow-up, Your Smiling Face, also became a hit.

The band's debut album Teenage Head, released that same year, was also a success.

But as the band's founder, Mr Patrick Chng, found out, fame can be a double-edged sword.

In an interview last week, he admits he was not too delighted by their success then.

"The success of the album was overwhelming, but after So Happy was released, I felt like giving up on music," says the 44-year-old musician.

He was speaking to The New Paper on Sunday from his Marine Vista apartment where he lives with his wife Stephanie Chok, 39, and seven-month-old son Matthew.

Their first hit on radio also earned them detractors.


Critics said that they had turned "commercial", he says.

"The song became so popular, I felt a backlash from the indie scene as many musicians felt I had sold out because our music was being played on radio," adds the soft-spoken Chng, who is now a consultant with guitar makers Gibson Guitars Singapore.

"But after a while, I thought to myself - I should not let the comments affect me. If your heart is in the right place, that is what is most important when it comes to making music."

Today, many music fans consider Teenage Head as one of Singapore music's pivotal moments.

Written over a five-year period and recorded in five days for $1,000 in the same year, the 11-track album had a roots-rock feel, which was unlike anything heard on radio at the time.

Back in the 80s and 90s, Singapore music meant pop music such as songs by Dick Lee and Jacintha Abisheganaden.

Teenage Head changed perceptions of what Singapore music could be.

Here was rock music with edge, closer in spirit to American alternative acts R.E.M. and The Replacements; bands that were off the pop-music radar but were gaining favour with music fans at the time.

The album eventually sold 2,000 copies - considered a respectable amount at that time as Singaporeans were not concerned with homegrown music.

"The reaction to our music was overwhelming," admitsChng.

"We actually recorded the whole thing to pitch to record companies but (record label) BMG decided to release it. I never thought it would take off the way it did."

Mr Chng remembers the 1990s to be an "exciting time" for Singapore music.

In their prime, The Oddfellows were playing to packed concert halls in front of appreciative music fans.

But in its formative years - the original line-up of Mr Chng on guitar and vocals, drummer Soo Wai Cheong and Stephen Tan on bass, became The Oddfellows in 1988 - their concerts were sparsely-attended affairs.

"When we were starting out, the opportunity to meet people in the scene was not easy at all," Mr Chng remembers.

But by 1991, things had changed.

Momentum built up with gigs at The Substation, the World Trade Centre amphitheatre (now HarbourFront Centre) and the SLF auditorium at Thomson Road, each attracting hundreds of fans of homegrown music.

"There was real diversity and that is what the audience probably found exciting," Mr Chng says, referring to the time when The Oddfellows shared the stage with popular Singaporean hardcore band Stompin' Ground in 1992 at the SLF Auditorium. They were supporting British punk band The Buzzcocks.

He was also a keen supporter of Singaporean bands, forming Tim Records in the 1990s and releasing music from underground favourites like Daze and The Pagans.

These days, homegrown music continues to draw crowds: The Esplanade's annual three-day Baybeats music festival, which features Singapore alternative music bands and artists, draws thousands of music fans each year.

While The Oddfellows are no longer active - they released two more albums (1992's Carnival and 2001's Bugs And Hisses) before going on hiatus in 2002 - they remain influential.

They re-group occasionally for the odd concert.

The Oddfellows last played together at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre in 2010.

If their contemporaries had branded them as "sell-outs", history has been much kinder.

Many bands now cite The Oddfellows' "do it yourself" ethos - the band had produced and financed the recording of Teenage Head before it was picked up for distribution by record label BMG in 1991 - as an inspiration.

Mr Chng, however, is quick to shrug off any suggestion that he is a pioneer.

But making music remains a passion. He now plays guitar for rock band TypeWriter, which he formed in 2001 with singer Yee Chang Kang.

He says: "I guess it is a lifestyle for me, it is something I cannot stop doing, even though people tell me the appreciation for Singapore music isn't what it used to be."

Mr Chng has also found himself in another role: As mentor to a new generation of Singaporean musicians.

Since 2006, he has played mentor to bands participating in the National Arts Council's annual Noise Singapore Festival - which began in 2004.

He also helps up-and-coming bands record their music at his small home studio in his spare time. Mr Chng says he jumped at the change to play mentor because it is important for the music scene to move forward.

"When I got involved in music, we had no one to look up to, so everything we did was through trial and error,"he laughs.

"It's good to share my experiences with the young talents, to let them know of the opportunities available to them when making music."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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