Flashback | Forest of Sound

An author reflects on hazy days in the Bombay rock scene

01 July 2012
An author reflects on hazy days in the Bombay rock scene...
COURTESY JEET THAYIL
An author reflects on hazy days in the Bombay rock scene...
COURTESY JEET THAYIL

"SLIP DISC WAS ABOUT THREE QUARTERS of this room,” says poet and author Jeet Thayil, with a gesture around the already small second floor of a restaurant in Delhi’s Defence Colony, conjuring up one of the Bombay dive bars that he played at as the guitarist for psychedelic rock band Atomic Forest in the 1980s. “The place was full of Arabs and hookers—Arabs at that time used to come to Bombay to see the rain and because the hookers were much cheaper. They came to get very drunk. So half an hour into the gig these guys would be walking by and actually falling against the band.” One of the handful of band members still alive, Thayil survived his share of chaotic, often chemically-influenced, Atomic Forest performances. But the band chiefly owes its legacy to bassist Keith Kanga, who founded the group in the early 1970s. The long-defunct band is mostly forgotten at home, but that could change with the release of Obsession, a compilation of their collected recordings.

Released on American reissue label Now Again Records, Obsession showcases the strange mélange of psychedelia, funk and hard rock that once made the band a fixture in Bombay’s shadier clubs and discos. Kanga led Atomic Forest through countless loose incarnations until the project dissolved in the early 1980s, shortly after Thayil’s brief stint in the band. The orphaned son of wealthy parents, Kanga lived with his grandmother in a Colaba mansion called Jony Castle. Much of Atomic Forest’s music was made inside his bedroom rehearsal space, a rotating cast of musicians and hangers-on passing through as he spent his inheritance on expensive musical equipment and illicit substances.

Kanga would eventually die in obscurity, but his playing can be heard on Atomic Forest’s sole album Obsession 77, from which the new compilation takes its title and the bulk of its material. Recorded in 1977 but not released until 1981, Obsession 77 is now a collector’s item worth thousands of dollars. Other re-released songs come from Hit Film Themes, an even rarer Kanga solo album, and a handful of live recordings. The music, mostly covers of artists ranging from the Beatles to Jethro Tull, hasn’t all aged well, but at their best the band had a fiery sound. Obsession 77’s title track, an original instrumental, showcases a pounding, funky rhythm section buffeted by acidic guitar solos and synthesizer lines.

Simon Frank  was an intern at The Caravan.

Keywords: Mumbai rock music Jeet Thayil Simon Frank
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