A look at the bands that rocked Kozhikode in the 1980s and 90s
Kozhikode’s musical identity may today be enmeshed with ghazals. But the city was once home to a clutch of young rock and heavy metal bands. For those who grew up post the 1990s, the city’s rock identity may be a puzzle. So specially for those, the men who made the city sway to soft rock and head bang with gusto, go back to their heydays — the 1980s and 1990s. Television had not yet begun to choreograph lives and avenues for western music were few. So whenever Zeus, Third Eye or Axe Wagon played - at weddings, clubs and halls - they were egged on by an engaging audience. While most bands stuck to soft rock, Halley’s Disciples and Dreadlocks struck a different note. They brought heavy metal to the city and left many dazed. The bands withered away as the young men moved out seeking work. Western music as a profession was an incorrigible idea then. Here’s a look at the bands that made Kozhikode rock once. They were fluid groups; hence one sees the same bunch of people being part of different bands at different times. These rock musicians are now scattered across the world, in the U.S., the Middle East and a few in Indian metros. Some have stuck to music, finding future in film music and solo careers. For others, music is still a passion they have increasingly little time for.
Kozhikode for long had its music clubs - Hutton’s orchestra and Brothers Music Club. A semblance of a rock band, the city's first, was Canbras. There were no frills — three guitarists and a drummer; no keyboard. Guitarists were crooners too. Ralph Merandez, guitarist, crooner and a teacher to many rock enthusiasts in the city, is the sole survivor of Canbras. “I came into the scene sometime in 1963, taking part in the YMCA Club activities. The Brothers Club pitched in a lot for the band,” says Ralph. “When we began, apart from me, there was guitarist Mario Pinto from Kannur, J.P. Reghunath on bass guitar and Kumar Das on drums. They are all dead,” Merandez recollects. Canbras came alive in the late 1960s and Beatles was the rage. “I used to wear my hair long, of course dad didn’t approve,” says Ralph. The band sourced singers and players from Mangalore and Chennai for shows in the later years. “Bass guitarist Sunil Gopal would come from Madras and we also got Don Unger, a crooner, who typically ran around the stage singing. Mind you, it was not yet the time of cordless mikes. So his act was popular. The band’s name comes from Cannanore-Brothers-Madras,” explains Ralph.
In Canbras’ repertoire, apart from Beatles, was a few numbers of Rolling Stones and the soft numbers of Eagles. “I also remember singing numbers like Los Bravos’ ‘Black is Black’,” he says. Being a novel sight in Kozhikode, Canbras was fairly successful. “We did ticketed shows and sang mostly Beatles. Often we had shows once in two weeks. Shows were at Town Hall, colleges, clubs, wedding receptions. We learnt songs from LP records. Each of us would take a copy home, listen and learn. For a show we did about 22 songs,” says Ralph. Canbras went on for a few years, but died naturally in the early 1970s when members went their different ways in search of work. Ralph remained rooted in Kozhikode, working in Gwalior Rayons for 35 years and coaching college students. He later sang for other bands too — Zeus, Third Eye and Crysalis.
Named after the Greek sun god – Zeus was born in the 1980s. It had Mohammad Nissar as the crooner, bassist Devdas, Premraj on drums, Latheef as lead guitarist, Soman on rhythm and Sunil Bhaskar on keyboard. “Our strength was Santana. But we also sang Deep Purple, some Eric Clapton. We always had a good, young audience,” remembers Devdas, who now works at the Passport office in Malappuram. “We did the popular rock stuff. Led Zeppelin too,” says Ralph who played with Zeus often.
A high-point in the life of Zeus was doing two programmes for Doordarshan. “We got B-grade once and the show was aired on DD Metro,” says Devdas. For someone like Ralph, the difference between Canbras and Zeus was stark. In a matter of few years, the gadgets that made rock music had moved from minimalist to imported profusion.
Vinod Hutton who became the lead guitarist for Zeus in the mid-1980s says, “We sang quite a bit of Air Supply, Dire Straits and numbers of the Little River Band.” Vinod, who now works in the Mumbai music industry, remembers, “Nissar had a powerful voice and he used to sing Santana well. People had not seen a proper rock band till then.” After going strong through the 1980s, the group split by the end of the decade.
Splitting from Zeus, Hutton, Devdas and Premraj along with Joe Varghese formed Crysalis in 1988-89. With Joe on vocals, Crysalis attempted a whole range of country music. “Joe’s voice suited country music well. But we sang a variety of songs, even that of Indian bands. We moved a bit towards heavier stuff too. For instance, we at times sang Scorpions. We sang at weddings and other small functions,” recollects Vinod. Crysalis mostly remained a tight-knit three-piece and crooner band. Sunil Bhaskar would join in with the keyboard at times. Joe, says Vinod, was enterprising and even won for the band a short contract to sing at a well-known hotel in the city. Vinod and Joe also opened a guitar shop — Cless and gave guitar lessons for a while. Vinod says the band played at the inaugural and closing ceremony of a satellite tennis tournament held in the city. By 1991, Crysalis ceased to be as Joe left for the Middle East and Vinod left for Mumbai.
Third Eye was another re-arrangement of the members of Zeus and Crysalis. It started off with Soman as the crooner and guitarist, Premraj on drums and Dinesh, who is no more, on the keyboard. Soon they were joined by Devdas on bass, Vinay Kumar and Bhupesh, the crooners and Madan Mohan on rhythm. The staple continued to be Santana and Deep Purple. “We performed at quite a few wedding receptions too. The performance would go on till the event almost got over,” recollects Bhupesh, the crooner. The trademark of Third Eye was the range it covered — from solo acoustics to hard rock. “We would begin with the likes of Eric Clapton and reggaes and as the night got older move onto harder stuff,” he adds. The last performance of Third Eye, Bhupesh recollects, was on the New Year’s eve — 1997.
However, Third Eye regrouped after nearly 15 years in 2012, at Madan’s behest. Reneesh replaced Devdas and Rejeesh stepped in for the late Dinesh. The show, says Bhupesh, went off well. But he adds, with him and Madan now living in Kochi and Kannur respectively, re-grouping took a toll as constant travel and practice had to be managed with their jobs.
Born in the late 1980s and named after a comet, the band had its signature from the start. When the canvas was largely taken up soft rock groups, Halley’s stuck to heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Anthrax were their staple. Spearheaded by Shajith Mathew, it had Dennis Thekkan on the drums, Sasi Kris, the bassist, Tej Mervin on lead guitar, Melwin on rhythm and Rafeeq on keyboard. Unlike other bands, the road was always tough for Halley’s Disciples, says Dennis who now runs drum schools in the region. While rock bands were acceptable, heavy metal was unknown territory then. “In between, a show we would get requests for a Tamil song. Generally, we were thought to be loud,” says Dennis. He remembers the debut well; to a packed show at Tagore. The audience largely comprised students from the engineering college. Colleges would grow to be the main performance avenue for the band.
Yet, Halley’s Disciples ventured where the others never went. When others were content crooning known numbers, Halley’s cut an album of their own – EMA (Extra Marital Affair) which was released by Magna Sound. The 16-track album was sheer hard work, remembers Dennis with the members going to Mumbai for the recording. “A show would mean at least a month’s practice and the fact was that we could not survive on a band. We had to rent a place for practice and families too were not very supportive,” he says. By mid-1990s, Shajith and Denny left for the United States and that was more or less the end of Halley’s Disciples.
Axe Wagon too came about in the mid-1980s. Brought together by vocalist Laju George, it began as a two-member outfit with Laju and Azad P. “I came from Kochi where I had a band - Axe Attack. I did not know many here. It was through Azad that I got to know the others who became part of the band,” recounts Laju, now a solo performer. They were joined by Ashraf on drums, Soman as lead guitarist and Latheef on bass. “A five-piece band, we did all kinds of music — rock, pop, reggae; lot of Deep Purple, Santana, even Elton John and Bob Marley,” remembers Laju.
Small changes kept happening in the line-up and a significant inclusion was the German guitarist Gerhard Bernt. He brought with him his own sound system and lot of Blues; and the band’s quality went up a few notches. Laju recalls Axe Wagon’s line-up at its peak. “I did the lead vocals, Gerhard, the lead guitar, Ashraf on drums, Praveen Godfred on bass and Roy George on keyboard. We would get three to four small shows a month. We were particularly popular with the clubs. Those days, one had to go after shows and I did most of that,” says Laju. Axe Wagon did mange to garner attention and Laju mentions the band getting featured in the Rock Street Journal. They also managed to put together Axe Wagon’s annual rock show for a few years.
Though the band disbanded after Gerhard went back to Germany in the late 1990s, for those like Laju, Axe Wagon is always pleasant memory. “We did music for fun. There was no money in it then. We all had jobs and it helped that music was not livelihood,” says Laju. Performance avenues ranged from halls to Jolly Thomas’ compound by the beach with a stage and lawn, “We did a few shows there,” says Laju.
The youngest and among the most promising band Kozhikode had, Dreadlocks had it in them to evolve into a full-fledged professional one. Most members were in their teens when the band happened. “Our line-up was Salil Hutton, the lead singer, Bennet Roland, the lead guitarist, Ashwin Sivadas, the drummer, Praveen Godfred on bass and Ashwin Nair on rhythm,” remembers Bennet Roland, now the man helming Bennet and the Band. Except for Hutton, the rest were school mates who were active in the school music circuit. They invited Hutton, a few years their senior, to be a guest singer and he gave them the name — Dreadlocks. The heavy metal band mostly thrived on progressive rock and released an original number — ‘Dream’. Bennet recalls serious years of music-making at Dreadlocks. “We used to practise in the Barracks area even at two in the morning. Tell me, where else could a heavy metal band rehearse? Even then policemen would come from the guest house and ask us to stop,” says Bennet. Dreadlocks, says Bennet, travelled widely for shows. “Even in 1994-95, organisers used to give us plane tickers for travel,” Bennet does not hide his pride. “The Mallu band” was reckoned with in the bigger cities too, he insists. Recognition too came their way. They were featured in the Rock Street Journal and also performed at the Great Indian Rock Competition in 1997.
The band split in 1998. Bennet believes whatever happened with Dreadlocks was for good. English rock bands, anyway, did not have it easy post 2000, he points out. The band members, meanwhile, pursued music individually. Bennet, for instance, has already composed music for a few films. He traces it all back to the rigorous practice sessions at Dreadlocks. “The song list we had challenged the instrumentalists — guitarist, drummer et al. We had to play really well to get noticed. The rigour of our formative years really helped us.”