It is probably best to start out by saying that I am not Thai, so what I am offering here is something of an outsider’s take from the inside. I must stress that this is in no way definitive and based entirely on my own assumptions and observations.
I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, a little more than two years ago on April Fool’s Day 2001, bringing with me a massive case of CDs. I was simultaneously pessimistic about what I would find here in terms of rock and optimistic that I might discover a few curious people with whom I might share my musical tastes, hence the disproportionately large amount of space I allotted to music when packing my bags.
My first several months passed without incident of the musical kind as I got used to living in a new culture. The daily struggle to find food, an apartment and gainful employment overshadowed the relative absence of musical stimulation in a kind of lonely winter of confusion and embarrassment. As all of the necessary steps towards building a life here started falling into place, however, the old habits and tastes started coming back to life.
One night out on the town, I found myself accosting a skinny little guy with tattoos and a mohawk. He looked about as punk rock as one can get, though his reaction to my enthusiastic backslapping was absolutely Thai in its shyness. When I asked him about the music scene, he told me to check out the recently re-opened Immortal Bar on Khao San Road, the world-famous backpacker street made famous in the book “The Beach”, that featured punk rock, hardcore and metal every single night.
In all the times I had been to Khao San for drinking and people watching I had never noticed anything even remotely rock n roll there. The distinct lack of imagination and good taste that prevails among the international backpacking community guarantees that the musical tastes of Khao San Road never deviate too far from the dubious preferences of frat parties and hippy communes.
Thankfully I ran into my mohawked friend and he agreed to lead the way to Immortal. The bar is located at about the midpoint of Khao San, hidden in the back of the Bayon building. Inside I was surprised to discover a DJ spinning a refreshing, though limited, mix of Minor Threat, Epitaph punk and various crappy “nu metal” bands. I drank off several bottles of whisky with the regulars and exchanged email addresses with the owner, a chubby, dreadlocked guy who is also the lead singer of a metal band called Phlan (they are now on Warner Thailand. Fha, the singer, describes his band’s music as “extreme” and, though he is a devoted metal fan, is quick to dismiss the old days of Satanism in favor of the tribal, third world politics of Soulfly. His motto is “back to the primitive” and his band’s album is called “Third World Not Slave”).
About a week later it occurred to me that I might put my massive CD collection to good use by offering my services as a DJ at the bar. The owner enthusiastically agreed and invited me in for a test spin. That night he and his gang of regulars judged me on my purposefully metal-heavy set and then invited me to get drunk with them. I was asked to play on Sunday through Thursday.
The subsequent nights at Immortal Bar introduced me to all of the main players in Thailand’s budding underground rock scene. Among the regulars were members of the awesome hardcore band License to Kill, the fun-time ska punk band Adulterer (with their brilliant motto “lock up your gals when adulterer comes to town”) and eventually my future friend and room- and label-mate S Downer of the Eastbound Downers. There were very few shows to be seen at that time, so I learned to enjoy friendships with these bands before I ever saw them in action. It eventually became clear to me that there was absolutely no sense of DIY among the few bands kicking around. None of these bands would refuse a show if it were offered, but they also had no interest in setting up their own.
There were several reasons for this. The main one, I think, was economic. Thailand is the one country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European power, so, though it experienced several violent uprisings and dictatorships, the country has always had kind a unique give and take relationship with Western culture. Wealthy Thais are usually educated abroad and so Western pop culture was initially probably kind of a high-class affair (there are famous pictures of the Thai king sitting with Elvis and jamming with Benny Goodman).
During the Vietnam War, most of the foreign press and officer corps were stationed here and GIs typically took leave here. I haven’t done any research, but I assume that Western pop culture, particularly rock n roll, started becoming more popular with Thai people around that time.
Soon after, in the early 1970s the Thai student movement clashed with the then dictatorship, and several musical protest acts came into existence (not unlike the 1960s in the West, though the soldiers and right-wing thugs were armed with machine guns here and authorized to shoot), among them Ad Carabao, who now hawks his own Red Bull-like energy drink in heavily nationalist TV commercials. The dictatorship was overthrown in 1973. Numerous other clashes followed.
The most recent was in 1992, when there were more shootings in the streets. Sometime soon thereafter a new democratic constitution was written and the Asian economic tiger came into existence.
As people here became wealthy, they had the luxury of being able to become interested in a much broader array of music. Sonic Youth, Weezer, the Beastie Boys and Green Day all played here between 1994 and 1996. Around that time, local acts like Modern Dog (now considered the Thai Radio Head) got started under the auspices of the new indie record labels like Bakery. It was a good time for everyone and a great time for music.
Then the Asian economic crisis happened in 1997, and everybody suddenly found themselves very poor. There was no interest in music as it was enough of a hassle finding work. Things have slowly recovered since them, and with the relative recent prosperity, things have improved significantly for music.
Which brings us back to Immortal Bar.
To be continued…