“They were making rebel music”: ‘Psyche Oh! A Go Go’ curators on Malaysian and Singaporean bands from the ’60s

The book-and-music compilation collection, which documents lost tunes from Malaysia and Singapore in the early ’60s and ’70s, is more than just a pet project for the writers – it’s in their lifeblood

“Our hope is that this book would inspire more people to come join the fight,” says Adly Syairi Ramly, writer, web-show host and co-creator of book-and-music compilation project Psyche Oh! A Go Go, before correcting himself. “I mean, for more people to join the fun.”

To be officially released on August 29, Psyche Oh! A Go Go details some of the forgotten songs and musicians of the Malaysian and Singaporean pop music scenes from 1964 to 1974.

Freudian slip? No matter. Adly’s initial sentiment encapsulates the notion that the need to document music from this part of the world is something that can only be accomplished through some personal struggle, and that it won’t come gift-wrapped in a pretty bow. “Rather than wait for someone else to do it, why not just do it ourselves?”

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The ‘struggle’ to birth this project is most accurately embodied by its other co-author Naza Mohamad, lead singer of indie band The Times and owner of Kuala Lumpur-based record store Sputnik Rekordz, who sold his personal collection of vintage tees to fund Psyche…’: “I knew this book needed to happen, so I had to just find a way.”

Psyche Oh A Go Go Malaysia Singapore pop music 60s 70s
L-R: Adly Syairi Ramly and Naza Mohamad, co-creators of ‘Psyche Oh! A Go Go’. Credit: Adly Syairi Ramly

The result is a full-colour, 116-page hardcover that looks as groovy as the music it features on an accompanying 22-track compilation CD. The impressive book design by Syazri Zamrod (better known as CultKids) takes centre stage. “It was important to us that everyone involved with this project understood the music and where we were coming from,” shares Adly.

The idea for Psyche…, which was published by Sputnik Rekordz and Obscura Malaysia, germinated from an episode of a web series, hosted by Adly, called ‘Korek Fizikal’, where Naza appeared as a guest. In the episode, they discussed how there was so much great local music that no one knew about. That thought eventually grew into the book.

A large portion of the music collected in the book originated from Naza’s personal collection; his interest in local ’60s psychedelic music and pop yeh yeh started when he wanted to research the origins of Malay music as his band was starting to write in that language and format. “I wanted to learn from the original Malay music artists,” he recalls.

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Watching Naza prowl around his cosy record store, you get a sense that if you asked him what his dream job is, he’d still tell you: owning a record store that’s located in a wet market. (No kidding, look it up.)

He constantly enthuses about the music featured on Psyche…, showing us his impressive collection of local seven-inches proudly displayed on his store wall and telling us about a “two-day Malaysian Woodstock” that happened back in 1972 in the Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood of Cheras. He’s like a kid in a candy shop.

“I just think it’s exciting that these artists, from random locations across Malaysia, were making edgy, non-mainstream music,” he shares. “How were they influenced to make music like that?”

He has a theory: when British soldiers were stationed in the country in the ’60s, they may have introduced the local bands they hired for their dinner parties to fresh sounds coming out of the UK and the US.

Psyche Oh A Go Go Malaysia Singapore pop music 60s 70s
Credit: CultKids

Playing through the CD that comes with the book, it’s clear that these bands were not simply mimicking popular mop-top pop. The opening track ‘Kembali Lagi’ by Johor-based A. Halim & De’Fictions features a fuzzy opening guitar lick that could’ve been found in a post-punk track from the ’80s, while the track from Kelsom Hashim & Plastic Deers (a brilliant name) opens with a driving punk backbeat before transitioning into a bright, choppy three-chord riff that’s straight out of Charlotte Caffey’s playbook.

They sang about life in the city, prostitution and infidelity through drinking too much – not strawberry fields or streets in Liverpool. They sang about life in this grimy part of the world in the ’60s, and, in some ways through their music, we get a glimpse of what was actually important to the youth on the streets at the time. The twang of their Stratocasters provided an escape from their conservative surroundings. “They were making rebel music,” says Adly.

According to Naza, these songs were quick-and-dirty recordings: “They had the entire band in a room and they just hammered out the tracks in a couple of takes.” The recordings were published by little-known record labels all across the length and breadth of Malaysia, from Ipoh to Batu Pahat. “An interesting thing we discovered was that a lot of these labels were owned by Chinese businessmen at the time, who were also owners of sundry shops,” adds Adly.

The research to put together a historical project like this can be painstaking. Literature on these artists is rare. They weren’t written about, and hardly spoken of. Even if you did own a copy of some of these recordings, there’s almost no information on its sleeves.

So in putting together Psyche…, the writers instead chose to combine whatever available information they had with their own perspectives on the music. They would’ve loved to track down these artists to get their front-row views on how the music scene looked and felt like back then, but they were cognisant of the challenges in doing that. “We did not want to be too ambitious, otherwise the book would never be published,” says Adly. “What we wanted was something we could put out there quickly.”

It was therefore serendipitous that when NME stopped by Sputnik Rekordz to pick up our copy of Psyche… that we bumped into Adibah, the daughter of Rubia Lubis, a musician featured in the book. She was there to pick up a complimentary copy for her mum. Dubbed the ‘Connie Francis of Malaysia’, Rubia’s singing career started after she won a singing contest at 17, then released a seven-inch single and an EP.

Adibah says her mum is surprised that people today are interested in her music: “The family was never really exposed to her music. We knew about it, but it all happened before we were born. I’ve never seen any copies of her records in our home.”

That seems to be a running theme as Naza recounts an instance when a musician that was featured in the book offered to buy a copy of his own album off Naza: “I told him, ‘Sorry, but it’s my only copy’.”

Psyche Oh A Go Go Malaysia Singapore pop music 60s 70s
Credit: CultKids

There is a sense of relief that a whole generation of music that was made in this part of the world, which had disappeared into musky storerooms and dusty boxes to be eventually discarded as trash, would’ve been lost forever if not for the work done here on this project.

The first print run of 500 copies of the book is by all accounts sold out through pre-orders, but Naza says there will be a second and final print run that would be made available in conjunction with the book’s official launch later this week (August 29). “It’s amazing that a lot of the people buying the book are kids. Some even came to pick up the book with their parents,” he says. “It’s exciting that this body of forgotten music is being exposed to a new generation of listeners.”

From speaking to both Adly and Naza, it’s clear that Psyche… is not meant to be just a pretty coffee table book. It’s something they feel is crucial to the tapestry of Malaysian and Singaporean music, and they want as many people as possible to experience the great forgotten musical gems from a bygone era. “Please read the book and listen to the music on the CD,” says Adly. “This is not just some cool thing. Only if you read it, then it’s cool.”

Psyche Oh! A Go Go will be officially launched on August 29 in conjunction with Record Store Day Drops.

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