Still hitting the right notes

Still hitting the right notes

Bangalore boy and Indipop pioneer Biddu Appaiah, at 75, continues to groove to the beat of his own drum.

Biddu

A guitar as a present on his 13th birthday set the wheels in motion for the youngster to chase his dream of “making it as a musician in the West”.

Now, all of 75, Bangalore boy Biddu Appaiah, one of the pioneers of disco and Indipop, with millions of records sold worldwide, continues to be counted among the top Indian music producers on the international scene. In fact, he was ranked 34 on British magazine NME’s ‘The 50 Greatest Ever Producers list’.

Today, Biddu can afford to take life easy, dividing his time between homes in London, Spain and India, but his journey to the top was no cakewalk. The pop icon formed a band, The Trojans, at 16 and played at the 3 Aces and small private parties in Bangalore. From then on, there was no looking back. After the group split, Biddu trained his sights on London, the home of rock-n-roll, Beatles and The Rolling Stones. His arduous journey in 1967 on a Haj ship to Mecca and then hitchhiking through the Middle East deserts is now legendary. In London, with just his clothes, his trusty guitar and a dream to make good music, the struggle continued, juggling odd jobs to earn his bread and butter until 1974, when his most recognisable production ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ with Carl Douglas, became a chartbuster. 

Towards the late 70s, he collaborated with Tina Charles and soul legend Jimmy James, producing hits such as ‘Dance Little Lady’, ‘I Love to Love’, ‘Now is the time’ and others. All this and the Biddu Orchestra that produced instrumental sensations won him awards, including the Ivor Novello award, the British equivalent of the Grammys.

‘Made in India’

Biddu is also credited with writing the music for two notable movies — The Stud and The Bitch. In 1979, Indian actor-director Feroz Khan got Biddu to compose a track for his movie ‘Qurbani’ and ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’ sung by Pakistani teenager Nazia Hassan happened, again a mega hit of the era. Next, Biddu produced a disco album ‘Disco Deewane’ for HMV featuring Nazia with her brother Zoheb that became the largest selling pop album in Asian history, topping the charts in 14 countries.

In 1987, he scored a top hit in Japan for ‘The Look that Kills’ produced for Japanese singer Akina Nakamori. In the 80s, Biddu pioneered a new genre of Hindi music called Indipop, producing ‘Made in India’ with the velvety-voiced singer Alisha Chinai as well as with Shweta Shetty, Shaan, Sagarika and Sonu Nigam.

As the disco boom began fading in the late 80s and 90s, Biddu donned his writer’s hat, churning out three books. The first, ‘Made in India’, his autobiography published in 2010, an eminently readable book with his characteristic humour and honesty, was a bestseller.  Next came ‘Curse of the Godman’ and ‘The Abundance of Nothing’, both set in India.

Interestingly, fans can still look forward to more music from the septuagenarian who is currently composing some new songs. Excerpts from an interview:

You’ve been there done that. Any dreams yet to be fulfilled? 

Career-wise, I am happy. I am going through my catalogue of 583 songs and picking half-a-dozen with a view to sending them to new, young singers of today. I am also working on a few new songs. I won’t produce them, but will get someone younger to do so.

Anything special for your 75th? What does this milestone mean to you? 

As I said, I am working on a few new compositions. As for the milestone, at 75 years of age, it is more like a millstone! 

What’s life for Biddu these days?

Life today is all about breathing, which is one way of staying alive and spending time with the family. 

You left India in your early 20s. Why were you so keen to leave India for the West?  

I wanted to make it in the West. India in the 60s was a poor country; we were dancing with Russia instead of rocking with the West. I needed to get out of India as my interest was Western pop music; I was never into Bollywood. I left India and walked all the way to Beirut, singing there for six months until I saved enough moolah to get to England. However, I do come to India to see my sister and relatives. I spend a couple of months in Goa in the winter.  But, to be brutally honest, I would never come back to live in India. The politics and corruption would kill me, if not the pollution and the chaotic traffic!

How do you see the music scene in India today?

Frankly, I do not know anything about the Indian music scene. I do know that making music in English has a narrow bandwidth (it always had) and from what people tell me regarding Indian film music, melody has given way to beats and rap. There’s not much noise about Indian music in the West. A R Rahman had a moment and Anoushka (Shankar) is fairly well-known, but only among world music aficionados.

Youtube, TikTok, Spotify, basically Internet has changed the game...

This is the way forward. It is the avenue from where young people get their music. We, of the older generation, may not like it or find downloading Apps too complicated, but this is modern life. You can’t stop the waves from hitting the shore.

Your message to young, budding artists who want to pursue a career in music?

Be prepared for a tough slog. The chances of you not making in the music business is considerably more than you making it. There’s so much talent around, but only a few lucky ones make it. It is a tough game.

Your stint as music director for a few Hollywood films was short. Why?

I prefer making records. Firstly, it’s on the go. It doesn’t take a year or years as the case may be. Also, in films, you are being told what to do by the script, the producer/director etc.  When you make pop music, you are directed by your own desires; you are the master of your destiny.

Music has been a big part of your life. What has it taught you?

Music has been great for me. I was inspired by the Beatles and Elvis and I had this fire in the belly to make a name for myself in the West. It is this desire that drove me. Doing something you love is irreplaceable. It has shown me how lucky I am to have followed my dream and succeeded in it. Success is not just about talent, but luck and opportunity, although I believe sometimes you make your own luck.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I was never a voracious listener of music. In fact, it is well-known amongst my friends that I don’t have a music collection. I listen to the radio when driving; that keeps me up on the current trends in music. I am a big fan of Ed Sheeran — great voice and great songs.

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