Bangkok rock history has been a sounding board for songs, album covers, and gigs by everyone from the Clash and the Pretenders, to the Pogues and Rush
The Last Clash
The photo on the cover of Combat Rock, the biggest-selling album released by The Clash, was shot on a railway line just outside Bangkok. The capital was the last stop on a world tour that screeched to a grinding halt in 1982.
After a show at Thammasat University, the formidable foursome from England opted for some R ‘n’ R in Bangkok that quickly turned calamitous. Drummer Topper Headon, soon to be kicked out for his heroin habit, relapsed, while bass-slayer and heartthrob Paul Simonon came down with a tropical malady; lead guitarist Mick Jones, who would only stick around for one more album, went AWOL; and the band’s leader Joe Strummer hit the go-go bars on an extended bender.
Far from behaving like the left-leaning radicals who made the triple album and rallying cry Sandanista, the group ended up emulating the GIs they scorned in songs like “Charlie Don’t Surf” (a line pilfered from the legendary 1979 film Apocalypse Now).
When photographer Pennie Smith—who also shot the cover for London Calling that shows Simonon smashing his bass—convened the Combat Rock photo session on the railway tracks, not far from the Makkasan rail station and PhayaThai BTS, she said it was like watching the end of the line for punk’s most revolutionary act.
After six years of racking up the miles and tour stops as relentless road warriors, The Clash met their Waterloo in Bangkok.
Years before Murray Head’s annoyingly catchy “One Night in Bangkok” pricked up the ears (and some nether regions) of listeners around the world, Rush, the prog-rock brontosauruses from Canada, were likely the first Western band to reference the capital in a rock song. “A Passage to Bangkok” appeared on their breakout album 2112, from 1976.
Still a staple of the group’s concerts, the track is an ode to hashish and marijuana that is half-baked in 1970s’ slang and sly references to “golden Acapulco nights”. The verses make stopovers in Bogota, Jamaica, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Kathmandu, but the chorus reeks of “Thai stick”: “We’re on the train to Bangkok/Aboard the Thailand Express/We’ll hit the stops along the way/We only stop for the best.”
Elegy in Blue
American saxophonist Art Porter became a jazz legend-in-the-making at the age of 16 when the future US president Bill Clinton, a fellow saxophonist and then governor general of Arkansas, pushed for legislation to allow underage musicians to perform in the state’s clubs. That historic law became known as the ‘Art Porter Bill’.
The musician was at the apex of his tremendous abilities during a performance at the Golden Jubilee Jazz Festival that gripped Bangkok in 1996. As the main music critic for The Nation at the time, I can testify that Porter and his band blew most of the other acts away with an upbeat set melding funk, soul and be-bop. It was rare to see a jazzman with a rock star’s sense of showmanship and stagecraft.
Two days later, on a holiday outing, he went for a boat ride on the Sai Yok Reservoir in Kanchanaburi province. After the boat sank under conditions that remain murky, the musician and several other tourists drowned. Porter was only 35 and left two young children behind in the tragedy’s wake.
For fans of The Pogues’ lead wastrel, Shane McGowan (below), it should come as no surprise that Thailand used to be a favourite stop on his Far Eastern tours of debauchery.
On the group’s last album before he departed, Hell’s Ditch (1990), produced by Joe Strummer, the Irishman wrote two songs about the country: “Summer in Siam” is a languid ballad, while the surf rock “House of the Gods” sings the praises of Pattaya Beach, Singha beer, and local lasses. The lyrics put a Thai slant on The Kinks’ “Lola” as the intoxicated protagonist picks up a woman only to flee in horror when he finds out that ‘she’ is a ladyboy.
Two of England’s most renowned music photographers from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s have used Thailand as their home base and darkroom for the last decade. Simon Larbalestier’s reputation is framed by the iconoclastic covers he shot for The Pixies’ albums Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and Bossanova. More recently, he contributed images to a 72-page booklet included with the band’s boxed set Minotaur.
Meanwhile, Martyn Goodacre, who once worked for the NME and Loaded, resides on Koh Samui. His portfolio includes images of the late INXS singer Michael Hutchence posing with his Ferrari, Shane McGowan, Beck, and one of the most reproduced images of Kurt Cobain. Shot in 1990 when Nirvana was still a subterranean phenomenon, and four years before the singer went out with a big bang, Goodacre recalled the shoot over the phone from his home in Samui: “Kurt was a tiny little guy who seemed quite miserable and hardly spoke two words. Actually, I remember taking this photo quite clearly because in all the others his eyes were a bit squinty, but then he opened them up completely.”
Elegy For a Rock Band
In April 1982, the original line-up of The Pretenders played their swansong set in Bangkok. After returning to England, the group ousted their bassist Pete Farndon for rampant drug abuse. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman Scott, 25, died of cocaine-induced heart failure. As the final riff in this requiem, Farndon drowned in his bathtub after a heroin overdose only a year later. At the time of his demise, he had been trying to put a new band together with fellow junkie Topper Headon, formerly of The Clash.
The emotional overtones of the group’s next single, “Back on the Chain Gang”, echo the grief and resilience of singer and rhythm guitarist Chrissie Hynde. “I found a picture of you what hijacked my world that night/To a place in the past we’ve been cast out of/Now we’re back in the fight.” In that wistful voice of hers, Chrissie claims in the last verse, “Those were the happiest days of my life.”
In 2004, The Pretenders played their first gig in Thailand since the original band’s curtain call. In the middle of the set, Hynde, who was backed by drummer Martin Chambers (the only other founding member and survivor), paid homage to her fallen band mates.
The following year when Neil Young officially inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she saluted them once again. “And we’re paying tribute to James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn’t be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that’s the way it works in rock ‘n’ roll.”