To foreign listeners, Thai music could easily be described as “psychedelic,” reminiscent of 60’s and 70’s era bands like Santana or Peter, Paul and Mary. But this might be too simple of a description. Modern Thai music also contains mixtures of surf music and cha-cha-cha, aside from local styles of music.
What is the Thailand’s Psychedelic Music: is it an Occidental vision of the Asian music, or is there an universal, objective definition of psychedelic music?
Thai music has never been popular in the West. To many people, Asian music sounds like an unusual scale on a xylophone or even some commercial K-Pop song. To Western listeners interested in Eastern music, I assume that the use of the term “psychedelic” nowadays comes with the awareness of many alternatives to these. However, the use of the term “psychedelic” is not arbitrary and there are some cases of strong musical similarities between Western psychedelic songs and Thai songs. But, outside of the community of diggers I am following—which is quite new—I never found any evidence of people from the Thai music industry speaking about “psychedelic music,” neither in the past or present time. You may hear people talking about psychedelism in Indonesia or India, but it is very unlikely in Thailand.
Then what about the striking similarities?
At first, there were record companies in Thailand publishing Western popular bands from the 60’s and 70’s like The Ventures, The Shadows, Peter Paul and Mary, Santana and even Led Zeppelin. At the time, during the Vietnam War, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, the Shadows and the Ventures were very famous rock icons in Bangkok. After Chachacha, surf music was very popular in Asia. Known as Eleki in Japan, you could find surf music in Cambodia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta or Hong Kong. During that time many Thai bands followed the model of a four-piece band in the manner of the Shadows. These bands covered Western songs and performed in nightclubs and competitions known as “String combo contests.” These took place in the heart of big cities, mainly Bangkok. “String combo” refers to bands with two guitars, one bass, one drum set, and a brass section. First known as Shadow bands, using the band name as a generic term, this musical stream later gave birth to a broader genre known as “String.” Nowadays, music with an obvious Western inspiration is still referred as “string.” The Impossible, the V.I.P., the Son of PM are charismatic names of that stream.
“‘String combo’ refers to bands with two guitars, one bass, one drum set, and a brass section.”
Outside of this musical stream, which is obviously close to rock music, the diffusion of Western influence is quite blurred. Shadow bands and String music were limited to the few urban middle class youngsters, to whom Western entertainment was accessible. Nothing compared with the popularity of the Luk krung music of their parents or the Luk thung music of the working class of Bangkok, two kinds of music rather influenced by Chachacha than rock music. However, in all of these you can find covers, most of the time within the very first seconds of the song, which are used as an ear-catching gimmick to arouse interest in the listener. Outside of Bangkok, something special happened during the 60’s and 70’s in Isan. The Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat let the US troops create military bases in the area. Clubs for US soldiers opened, in which Isan musicians were hired to perform Western songs. Some musicians from string bands like Lam Morrison from the V.I.P. spent time in Isan cities such as Udonthani to perform in these venues. In the mean time, local bands—led by producers which used to be involved in the Bangkok music industry—initiated significant innovations in the local music. Some of these innovations like lute electrifiying were made as references to Santana and Elvis Presley.
All these turned out to be astonishing productions. You can draw some connections between current marching bands such as Khun Narin and famous troupes from the same era like Petch Phin Thong. But this is far from psychedelic music and Western references, even though their music might sound familiar to Western listeners. Psychedelic music never really became universal. However, you can nowadays notice a few emerging Thai bands claiming an explicit reference to psychedelic music, although within a very limited scale. Just have a look at the Yaan Spirit sessions at Studio Lam or the band Solitude is Bliss from Chiang Mai.
“Some innovations like lute electrifiying were made as references to Santana and Elvis Presley.”
What are the main groups of Thai Psychedelic Music? When did it start? Is there a main Occidental influence (The Doors)? Is it true that the “psychedelic sound” was popularized in S.E. Asia during the Vietnam War?
As I said, artists such as Elvis Presley, The Shadows, Santana, and Peter Paul and Mary were broadcasted in the 60-70’s in cities among middle class youngsters. In Bangkok, bands emerged by performing in nightclubs and band competitions known as String combo contests. One might point to The Impossible, the V.I.P., the Son of PM, or the Galaxy (popular in Japan) as famous bands of that era. You probably think about the Doors, assuming that the name of the lead guitarist of V.I.P., Lam Morrison, is borrowed from Jim Morrison. But actually, I had barely heard of the Doors in Thailand, except for that name. Lam Morrison is a very special musician, since he was performing in Bangkok and Udonthani nighclubs, for the US troops. So, he must have met young Americans from the 60-70’s decades, which certainly influenced his vision of music. But Lam Morrison is the King of Thai heavy metal, not Thai psychedelic music.