Rocking No More

The once thriving Pakistani pop scene seems rather saturated today. New artists seem to have no sense of purpose and no real character, like the old ones did. Something has gone wrong somewhere.

Rock In A Hard Place

In a recent interview given to an Indian music scribe, Junoon crooner, Ali Azmat suggested that rock as a scene is pretty big in Pakistan and that its ill health in India is due to the social, economic and cultural hegemony of Bollywood music.

I agree with much of Ali's reasoning, but I was pretty amused with the way he described the bigness of Pakistan's rock scene. It may be big compared to the one lingering on the far fledged fringes of India's pop scene, but my question is, how big (on quality and not just quantity), is the Pakistani scene compared to the one that was kicked off by Junoon back in the early '90s?

Homegrown rock in Pakistan may seem bigger today, but is it any better? I would say no. Because rock music in Pakistan as an aesthetic and social purpose started out as a statement against monopolistic ambitions of commercial filmi music followed by those of the post-Vital-Signs corporate pop scene. It arrived as an alternative to what it believed was nothing more than sterile conformity. It aspired to add another, more thought provoking dimension to the collective tastes of the local popular music listeners.

In this respect, the local rock vibe actually started out much before Junoon. Aamir Zaki's Scratch got the ball rolling in the mid-'80s, followed by the likes of The Barbarians and Final Cut which interestingly were an "odd" part of the pop scene hustled in by the Signs in the late '80s. Of course they did not survive the way their pop counterparts (such as VS, Jupiters, Aamir Saleem and Ali Haider) did. But their pioneering (though short-lived) existence was enough for a man like Salman Ahmed to quit a comfortably placed band like the Signs, get hold of a deluded vocalist, Ali Azmat (ex-Jupiters), and form Pakistan's first high profile rock act, Junoon.

Again, the initial idea was not only about a passion to create more guitar oriented music, because as I remember it, Junoon was created as a vehicle to address the many social, political and cultural issues affecting the youth in the aftermath of a crippling and corrupt dictatorship, and the arrival of a chaotic brand of "democracy" that soon replaced the fallen tyranny.

Of course, just as The Barbarians and Final Cut had thought that the way to survive as "meaningful" and socially relevant musicians, the music would have to compliment the heaviness and intensity of the lyrics, Junoon too plunged in by weaving "socially-conscious" words with generic hard-rock riffs and manic vocal antics.

Junoon's debut (released in early 1991), was a commercial disaster, especially when it was put on the shelves alongside carefully constructed and commercially astute releases by Vital Signs, Aamir Saleem, Live Wires, Nazia and Zoheb, and Ali Haider. Compared to these, Junoon's debut was a spontaneous mixture of rugged rock brilliance (the sort that would become a signature for future local rock aspirants), and big, bald patches of utter bull!

Junoon went on to further perfect their pioneering formula of fronting Urdu/Punjabi lyrics/vocals, backed by a barrage of catchy, off-the-wall riffs, plus staying aloof (as a political statement), from the race by numerous pop acts that had started to chase cynical corporate sponsors soon after The Signs had inked a lucrative contract with Pepsi in late 1990.

Junoon's example soon became a source of inspiration for numerous new rock acts which by 1995 had increased two-fold, enough to actually kick-off an "underground/alternative rock movement" of sorts.

In theory, bands like Collage, The Trip, The Anonymous, Hash Addiction, Dhun, Overdrive and Coven were all about singing about "real issues", playing live and playing loud. They wanted to construct a "parallel scene" that would ultimately dissolve the monolithic hegemony, "decadency" and "greed" of the corporate driven mainstream scene; a scene only interested in juxtaposing lyrical soap operas with mindless bhangra chants and obnoxious product endorsements.

For a while the loud antics of this "movement" actually did manage to scare a number of contented mainstream pop stars and their sponsors, but alas, by late 1996 it was all over. Lack of any kind of commercial recognition and the bands' own ideological and aesthatic confusion steadly led to their own demise. Though passionate and enthusiastic, they totally failed to make the required compromises Junoon had to make Urdu lyrics compatible with music inspired by the likes of U2, Van Halen and Led Zeppelin.

However, many years later, another batch of rock aspirants seem to have learned from this mistake, and many of them, such as EP, Noori, Aaroh, Call, Jal, Razam, Rungg, Mekaal Hassan Band, and a few others, have actually sounded more at home with the concept of pairing guitar-oriented music with Urdu lyrics and vocals.

When Pop Ate Itself

But the question arises, why then have we not had another phenomenon like Junoon? Because as the old war horses drown deeper into all the complacent, decadent and corporate trappings of dinosaur rock (ironically the very things they had once stood against), there is now a great need (more than ever) for a few other solid rock acts to fill the void left behind by a fading Junoon.

In fact, one can now also ask that with the recent explosion in the mainstream pop scene, why haven't we had another Vital Signs or, for that matter, another Sajjad Ali? I'm not strictly asking this question in commercial terms (because after all, today's big pop stars are making far more money compared to the ones operating in the early and mid-'90s). I'm talking about the excitement and fanfare that used to accompany by every social and artistic move made by players such as Vital Signs, Junoon, Sajjad Ali, Dr. Aur Billa, et al. The last time a pop act initiated this sort of an interest was Abrar-ul-Haq when he hit a nerve with his controversial debut, "Billo De Ghar".

Ah, controversy. Perhaps here lies the answer? Junoon, VS, Abrar, Sajjad Ali, Najam Shiraz and even Ali Haider have one way or the other been part of one or more. Apart from the fact that each one of them made quality music and most of them eventually got swallowed by the alluring charms of the cynical corporate pop machine, they remained interesting in a social context.

VS leader Rohail Hayat played well the role of an enigmatic, elusive control freak and unpredictable meglomaniac followed in this way by the equally erratic and melancholic guitar whiz Aamir Zaki. VS vocalist, Junaid Jamshed, turned from being the vulnerable, sweet voiced gentle soul into a thoroughly confused one, torn in two by the glamour and decadency of being a modern pop star on one side and the persuasive pull of irrational religious cults on the other.

Until their recent boring old-hags-routine, every other move by Junoon offered exciting twists and turns. Bursting onto the scene as one of the most cutting-edge and politically vocal bands, Junoon continued in this vain, with leader Salman Ahmed bouncing between left-leaning attacks on corporate pop and feudalism, to turning right with xenophobic patriotic hogwash and ultimately settling for a middle-of-the-road route towards cynical corporate pop and conformity. Vocalist Ali Azmat on the other end, followed Salman's ideological whims until finally deciding to return to Junoon's original leftfield ways but not without plunging contradicting himself by embracing new corporate contracts and continuing with a burnt out Junoon. He, however, remains to be a crackling character.

The point is, all these old acts (intentionally or otherwise), did not shy away from taking controversial stands and make music that was truly refreshing, even if it meant getting entangled with protesting mullah lobbies, governmental bans and narrow-minded petty-bourgoise backlashes.

Today, in spite of the benefits of appearing on many pop-oriented FM channels, 24-hr-music television, and bestowed with a bigger market, more exposure and opportunities, the newer pop and rock lot don't even seem half as interesting or exciting.

They all seem to be playing a set and preconceived game. Playing it safe, extremely safe. Making all the right sounds. Sounds and words either dictated to them by their amoral sponsors or the equally amoral bosses and producers monopolizing the country's FM and pop programming.

The "selling-out" of Noori is one vivid (read nauseating) example. Day in, day out, hour after hour one is being bombarded constantly by Noori men shoving down Polo holes down our throats on a private music channel. Where's the music, I ask? Where's that edge which Noori's initial arrival promised to cut? What's the difference now between Noori and Fakhir? More than ever, Noori are transforming into a typical boy-band (ala N'Synch, Five, and Awaz). Are they pop or are they rock? They're neither. They have become what much of the country's pop/rock scene has become. Unabashedly corporate. All in the name of "survival." Always ready to sell their original dreams and vision, sound and structure to suit the cosmetic needs of the "market forces" that drives the ambitions and agendas of the amoral and cynical multinationals.

But did they really have a vision? I'm sure they did. I'm sure they did when as teens they played air guitar to Nirvana or Led Zeppelin or U2 or Iron Maiden. When they saw Junoon actually make it big while going against the grain of the sponsorship plague. But what they ended up learning was what eventually bit off the edge, the power and integrity of Junoon: Corporate cynicism, shifty media suaveness and cringing social pretentions. Pathetic!

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
June, 2004
The News International, Pakistan