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Artist: Koes Bersaudara

Album: Koes Bersaudara 1967

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Jun. 2, 2010


Koes Bersaudara - "Poor Clown" (Koes Bersaudara 1967)


The global influence of the Beatles throughout the 1960s cannot be understated. Teens all over the world were tuning in to radio broadcasts like the military-owned Voice of America to hear Western artists like Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and of course John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The mid ‘60s were a turbulent time for rampant Beatlemania. A summer tour in 1966 brought them to the Philippines, where they inadvertently missed a meeting with Imelda Marcos (wife of the country’s dictator). That led to a massive about-face by the country’s citizens. Their trip back to the plane was met with hundreds of angry Filipinos, spitting, punching and kicking at them with security nowhere to be found. Not long after, the Beatles caused worldwide ire again with the infamous “Bigger than Jesus” quote by John Lennon, fueling conservative America’s dislike of the fab four.

But for all the troubles the Beatles were having, things could have been much, much worse. In 1965, a popular Indonesian group by the name of Koes Bersadaura (trans. Koes Brothers) found themselves at the center of a political imbroglio that ended with them being jailed for three months, all due to playing a cover of “I Saw Her Standing There.”

The early days of Koes Bersadaura found the two actual brothers in the group trying to fit themselves into the prevailing success of vocalists, like the Everly Brothers, and as such tried marketing themselves as a singing duo. But as Beatlemania hit, the boys started to grow out their hair and incorporate the British Invasion sound into their sets. Indonesian President Sukarno, a longtime critic of foreign influence in his country’s arts, was waging a personal culture war against the Beatles and other types of music that he felt were poisoning the country’s heritage with its ngak ngik Ngok sound. So, despite their popularity in the local club scene, Koes Bersadaura were finding it increasingly difficult to get their music played on the radio, and were frequently harassed by the government. The fateful concert in which they incited a riot would later turn out to be a huge change for the band. The day following the show, all four of the band members were called in for questioning by government, and although they were never charged, they were immediately sent to prison where they remained for three months.

Miraculously, the band was released from prison just days before a bloody coup, when President Sukarno was overthrown. With a new government in place, the assault on Western pop music was no longer a threat, but was still on the mind of its people. The band found their former record label reticent to work with them, and fate brought them to Dick Tamimi of Mesra Records, who would end up working with them for a number of years to come. Their first record on Mesra, Djadikan Aku Domba Mu (whose tracks are included on this compilation) is interesting, but serves mostly to foreshadow what would come later. The record that really put Koes Bersaudara on the map would be their 1967 release To the So-Called ‘The Guilties’ (also included), their garage rock masterpiece.

Everything about the record was completely outrageous for its time. Starting from its title, we see a band obviously angry at their unwarranted incarceration. The stark black album cover with the enlarged text for The Guilties is a direct attack to their nation’s government. Where their previous album had gently hinted at their prison stay, The Guilties included the snarling send up of President Sukarno entitle “Poor Clown.” Replete with twangy garage, singer Tonny Koewswoyo’s lyrics are delivered with confrontational aplomb culminating in an unhinged primal scream that precedes a gigantic power chord finale. This all-too-short beauty is one of only four tracks included on this compilation that are sung in English. The album’s title track, also in English, belies a bit of optimism in their bitterness when Tonny sings, “While you don’t know what happened behind / To the so-called the guilties / they try to differ / from good to bad / the court may sentence you / prison or even death / then beat a-fast / that you feel what’s in your heart.”

As time marched on, Nomo Koeswoyo got married and quit the band, prompting them to change their name to Koes Plus (and adding a non Bersadaura on drums). Koes Plus would go to become the most popular Indonesian band of the 1970s, evidenced by the 60-plus Koes Plus tribute bands on the island of Java alone.

Much of the rich history behind this monumental piece of Indonesian musical history would not have been possible without the research of Steven Farram and his 21-page document entitled “Wage War Against Beatle Music.” Nor would we be hearing it now without the tireless efforts of Alan Bishop of Sublime Frequencies, who tracked down the Koes members for this long overdue chronicle.

By Dustin Drase

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