To most Westerners, the term “psychedelic Bollywood” must seem redundant. The melodrama, over-the-top musical numbers, elaborate costumes, and off-kilter dialogue looping often seem hallucinogenic by their very nature.
But Bollywood – the massive Hindi film industry in India—has always looked to Hollywood for many of its cues. Thus, when the turn on, tune in, drop out wave hit the American West Coast, its washed into Bollywood, too. The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Bollywood aims to provide a musical overview of that era in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. If the original Rough Guide to Bollywood, released in 2002, was essential, The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Bollywood is an indulgence.
“Hey man, you dig this sort of music, eh? You like it?” beckons a female voice at the start of “Pyar Zindagi Hai”, the collection’s first song. What’s simultaneously intriguing and frustrating is the composers do not quite seem to have figured out just what “this sort” of psychedelic music really is. The fifteen tracks flash hints, pieces, even chunks of a variety of styles. But rarely do they mesh with much cohesion or sense of purpose. Maybe it’s the lack of the songs’ original celluloid context, but you get the sense the composers’ idea of “psychedelic” was “throw everything in the pot, add lots of effects, and swirl”.
In particular, “everything” consists of the wah-wah guitars and frantic hi-hats of classic Blaxploitation soundtracks, organ vamping, spy jazz, and heavy breathing. And that’s just the remainder of “Pyar Zindagi Hai”.
There are some real “wig out” tracks such as “Freak Out Music”, “Soul of Bobby”, and “Cabaret Dance Music”, which throws in a scream, an electronic cat call, and disembodied laughter. There is surf guitar, as on “Main Hoon Pyar Tera” and “Jaan Pehechaan Ho”. There is relentless, pounding tabla percussion, on “Moments of Passion”. Cheesy would-be exotica and syrupy strings on “Title Music”. A sitar run through a wah-wah pedal on “Yeh Mera Dil Yaar Ka Diwana”. And more heavy breathing. And panting.
There are several shorter instrumental pieces, but the majority of the tracks have vocals. Some of the preeminent Bollywood composers playback singers of the day are featured, including Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, and, of course, the ubiquitous and rather lovely Asha Bhosle, all soaked in reverb. It’s a wild ride, but in a way that is so deliberate that the intended effects are never produced. You half expect that female voice to show up again and coo, “Hey, man. This is pretty trippy now, isn’t it?”.
Some of it sticks. “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” is a more grounded folk ballad with a John Lennon ringer. “Aye Naujawan Sab Kuchh Yahan (Apradh)” and “Dance Music” feature smooth breakbeats that sound almost modern, or at least as modern as Manchester indie music in the early 1990s. “Apni To Jaise Taise” is pure, imperial disco.
There is one other issue with The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Bollywood, and it’s a tough one to get past. Bollywood, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was never known for the quality of its sound recording. And, despite whatever remastering has taken place, most everything here is almost unbearably tinny and shrill, with distortion and clipping not at all uncommon. It can’t be helped, but it stops the album in its tracks. Just imagine listening to Sgt.Pepper blared through a bullhorn while stuck in a narrow aluminum cylinder. This factor alone precludes any “everyday listening” you might wish to undertake.
As if aware of the primary compilation’s significant shortcomings, or maybe just in a generous mood, the folks at World Music Network have included as a bonus The Rough Guide to R.D. Burman. It’s a more stable, less dynamic but overall higher quality collection than The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Bollywood. Burman, one of Bollywood’s greatest, most prolific composers (and Bhosle’s eventual husband), scored more than 300 films, and his work in itself covers quite a range. Though it opens with yet more panting, The Rough Guide to R.D. Burman also visits Blaxploitation funk, children’s sing-alongs, 1950s rock’n'roll, and more. There is a preponderance of ballads, but that is a strong suit when the great Sandu is crooning them. With tracks reaching into the 1980s, the sound quality is better, too.
Unlike The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Bollywood, The Rough Guide to R.D. Burman is a trip you might want to take more than just a couple times. Bonus, indeed.--- John Bergstrom