Often maligned as a graveyard for live music, Bangkok has served as a band-stand for such acts as Guns N’ Roses, Michael Jackson, Radiohead, DOA, and Sonic Youth
Cocked & Reloaded
Among all the bands who have reunited in recent years Guns N’ Roses was one of the most surprising and much anticipated. The long-standing, axe-grinding enmity between lead guitarist Slash and lead singer Axl Rose, who failed to turn up when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, had stalled any overtures that might lead to a reconciliation—until 2016 when the Not in This Lifetime tour hit the road.
The tour landed in Bangkok in February of 2017, where the fans went ballistic with applauses as the boys played a concert of two hours and thirty minutes, including a four-song encore. The set list drew heavily from Appetite for Destruction, their killer debut album—arguably the best and most important hard rock record of the last three decades—with fan favorites like “Mr. Brownstone”, “Welcome to the Jungle”, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, as well as their popular covers, like “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, bringing down the house. Meanwhile, the tour will continue until at least late this November as the band celebrates the 30th anniversary of their debut release.
Alex Chilton was one of those shooting stars in the music business who skyrocketed to the top of the charts at the age of 16 with a single called “The Letter”, by his first band The Boxtops. After that he formed the critically praised but commercially unsuccessful Big Star in the early 1970s, pioneering a power-pop and rock ‘n’ soul medley that would wield tremendous influence over young musicians like REM and the Replacements. Duly feted in the 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me as the “biggest cult band of all time”, Chilton refused to be interviewed for the documentary. He passed away while it was being shot in 2010.
Of his solo work, the 1981 song “Bangkok” stands out more as a comedic WTF curio than a real song of substance, as Chilton refers to the Thai capital as a “little town in Indonesia,” and chucks in bizarre references to Bridget Bardot and “making love the Japanese way”. I know Wikipedia didn’t exist back then, but couldn’t the guy have bothered to look at a globe?
Alive on Arrival
I first saw DOA (Dead On Arrival) around 1980 in the kind of Canadian prairie biker and redneck bar where punks like us normally got our heads kicked in. Before the Vancouver power trio took the stage there was enough tension and electricity to power the entire room. Yet they were so loud and aggressive that they even won the bikers over and had them playing air guitar. Now, after more than 35 years together as the road warriors and warhorses of Canuck punk, the band played their debut show in Bangkok last month at The Overstay—a six-story converted shophouse, former brothel, and now guesthouse that mirrors the band’s punk ethos.
Singer and guitarist Joey Keithley, once known as “Joey Shithead” when everyone had an obnoxious nom de punk à la Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, is the only original member left in the trio. As an activist who has twice run for provincial office under the Green Party of British Columbia, he led the band through politically charged, up tempo renditions of their best known songs like “The Enemy,” which deals with police brutality, as well as tracks from their latest album, Hard Rain Falling, released in 2015, that addresses old school punk’s perennial subject matter such as racism and terrorism. That DOA held their own on a bill with five young hardcore bands from Thailand is a testament to their staying power and their own mantra, which was also the title of an early compilation of their songs: Bloodied But Unbowed.
Before the economic earthquake of ‘97—which started in Thailand and soon rippled across Asia—silenced the live music scene in Bangkok, this metropolis had served as a one-night bandstand for incredible triple bills like the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, as well as stellar shows by Smashing Pumpkins, Suede, Mudhoney opening for Pearl Jam, and hoarier, more hirsute rockers like Black Sabbath (sans Ozzy Osbourne).
During those sonic boom years of double-digit growth, when the capital briefly shed its unsound image as a centre of karaoke and processed-cheese cover bands, Michael Jackson caused the loudest commotion. For that August 1993 show, some 40,000 fans were sardined into the National Stadium. During his stint in Bangkok, Jackson and his entourage took over an entire floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It was the superstar’s most high-profile segment of the Dangerous tour, and a story in the Bangkok Post summed up the melée and conflicting moods of the time: “Millions watched vicariously, if not queasily, as the king of pop ignored the growing storm of child-abuse allegations back in America, and hung around Thailand for the better part of a week. He hid under the then-famous black Fedora and behind a phalanx of bodyguards on a million-baht shopping tour, marched with handsome young graduating cadets at the military school, and of course posed with “poor children.”
For alt.rock aficionados, the Radiohead gig in the hall above the MBK mall hit the highest notes of the mid-90s. So many fans were leaping up and down to the songs off the band’s just-released debut album Pablo Honey, that the ceiling began to buckle. Escorting half the group back to their hotel, they granted me an interview in the back of a tuk-tuk. Guitarist Ed O’Brien (below) said: “That was the happiest audience we’ve ever played to. Who smiles along to a song like ‘Creep’?”
By Jim Algie