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V/A - Singapore A-Go-Go, Vol. 1

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Artist: V/A

Album: Singapore A-Go-Go, Vol. 1

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Jan. 14, 2010

The city-state of Singapore, dangling off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula just above the Indonesian islands of Riau, is not generally known for its music, in spite of being the birthplace of perhaps the most important pan-Asian singer of the late 20th century, Dick Lee (Lee Peng Boon). Culturally diverse, with a population of ethnic Chinese, Malay, Indians, and Eurasians, Singapore’s potential for wild hybrids of Asian, European, and American music has never been fully realized. Nevertheless, there has been a local scene for pop music for a century. Singapore A-Go-Go provides a narrow window into that scene from the 1970s with nearly two dozen cuts of vocal and instrumental music digitized from surviving 45s compiled by writer and editor William Gibson.

First a little on what this disc does not include: title to the contrary, the music sampled here is not in the genre known in Singapore as A-Go-Go or Hala-hala, a cha-cha-descended style that had its heyday in the early 1960s. The songs on this collection are better placed in the Chinese Pop genre, a style that sounds more like Chinese-inflected surf or, in some cases, bubblegum, that mostly dates to the early 1970s. All 22 cuts are drawn from small Chinese-language labels, representing 11 singers and five bands in the mix-and-match format common at the time. With the exception of four instrumental pieces by Charlie Electric Guitar Band’s Sound of Japan (“Carnation,” “Tough Time Missing You,” “Diamond,” “Mountain Lady”), every song has lyrics in Chinese, either Hokkienese or Singaporean Mandarin (Putonghua). The liner notes include reproductions of the cover art, much of which is seriously groovy, and an essay by Gibson that should not be taken as authoritative on the subject of Chinese pop music, but no lyrics or even much in the way of discussion of the music itself. Listeners are thus on their own to make sense of the titles and sounds. The first cut, for example, “Each and Every Flower” by Grace Lee and the Stylers, is basic surf-style pop that could have come from Cambodia, Thailand, or Japan—drum kit, surf guitars, warbly Farfisa—without much imagination. Some of the singing is quite pleasant, particularly the songs by Lena Lim (“Luna, Luna”) and . Some of it verges on the unlistenable, as well, particularly songs featuring a childish singer possibly modeled after postwar Japan’s child sensation Misora Hibari. In this vein, “Mimi Cat” by Chew Yan and the Stylers is the worst offender, with “Why Are You Not Smiling” by Grace Lee and the Stylers and “Where is the Lady” by Lim Ling and the Silvertones competing for a close second.

Vocal quality aside, the instrumentals on this disc are worth a listen, both the Charlie Electric Guitar Band’s Sound of Japan tracks mentioned above, as well as the performances by the Stylers, the Silvertones, the Golden Melody Band, and the Polar Bear Five that back the vocal tracks. Notable are several songs that include traditional Chinese instruments, “Good Luck in the New Year” and “Where is the Lady,” both by the Silvertones backing, respectively, Linda Yong and Lim Ling. It is a shame that the liner notes are largely useless, because information on Singapore pop music is difficult to find, and a better sense of how to receive these songs would help listeners appreciate this rather unusual offering.

By Richard Miller

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