‘Studio 84′: Digging into the History of Disco in India

by geeta on August 29, 2010

I’ve been spending a lot of time digging up disco and electro records from India in the early 1980s. I was inspired by Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat– which I wrote about here and here — and figured that there must be a whole hidden cache of these records, a treasure trove of proto-techno sounds. The Charanjit Singh record, I argued, wasn’t a total anomaly; it was part of a zeitgeist. Disco was still a raging concern in India in the ’80s, long after it had peaked in popularity in the US and UK, and the idea of an acid house record coming out of India in ’83 didn’t seem so far out of the question. So I set off trying to find that zeitgeist — a time in India when disco reigned supreme.

I found plenty of examples of rich, symphonic disco tunes from Bollywood in the early ’80s. Here’s one of my favorites in that vein, from a movie I’ve written about before — Disco Dancer (1982), a film that was campy to the extreme, with a plot that was utterly ridiculous even by Bollywood standards. The soundtrack included some sublime slabs of peak-time disco, including the hit song “Yaad Aa Raha Hai,” produced by Bollywood disco/funk legend Bappi Lahiri. A disco anthem for the ages, and one of the best songs Lahiri ever did. Check out how Mithun, the disco dancer, is rocking a blazin’ guitar solo with an electric guitar that isn’t even plugged in!

But I was more interested in finding more examples of minimalist disco, the sort of thing that, like Charanjit, was more on a techno wavelength. While nothing quite approached the techno tempo of Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat –- the tracks on that record clock in somewhere between 120 and 130 bpm — there were plenty of tunes from Bollywood in the early ‘80s that had a very futuristic electro feel to them. Here’s “Dil Lena Khel Hai Dildar Ka” by R.D. Burman, from the movie Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981):

Here’s another song, “Poocho Na Yaar Kya Hua,” from the same movie. This is more of a conventional disco tune (complete with a light-up dancefloor and a Saturday Night Fever-inspired dance number), but there are a lot of interesting close-up shots of people jamming on synthesizers, including a shot of a woman making electronic sounds with a strange-looking synth, with a stack of vinyl and a turntable next to her:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWDx4GzxfBs

Because of Bollywood’s surreal collision of influences, and preponderance of vocals, songs were rarely as ‘techno’ as they could potentially have been, even if they were pointing in a techno direction. The psychedelic grab-bag mentality of Bollywood film music reminds me of an article I wrote some years ago for the German magazine Groove on Yellow Magic Orchestra. When I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto, he told me that YMO was like a “bento box,” with a little bit of everything, while Kraftwerk was “conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused”:

“Even in the beginning of that time when we were doing YMO, of course we knew Kraftwerk, and we thought their music was so German,” says Sakamoto. “It was conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused, simple and minimal and strong. And even the timbre, the sound of their sense of sound, is German to us. It’s very strong and kind of heavy and solid. We wanted to make something very Japanese, in contrast. It’s a very good contrast, Kraftwerk and YMO. YMO had a mixture of everything–American music influence, European music influence, classical influence, pop–so many. It’s like a bento box. And we thought that was very Japanese.”



In 1981, Kraftwerk played two back-to-back concerts in one night in Bombay as part of the Computer World tour. The concept of Kraftwerk playing in India fascinated me. What was it like to be at that show? How easy was it to get a Kraftwerk record in India in 1981? In the memoir I Was A Robot, Kraftwerk’s erstwhile percussionist Wolfgang Flür recalls finding Kraftwerk bootleg cassettes in a market in Bombay in ‘81:

We found another shop that sold cassettes, and we even found some by Kraftwerk there. We couldn’t believe it. This was totally illegal, because our record company had no representation in India. There were no official imports at that time, either, so these were either bootlegged recordings or contraband, and apart from that the sound quality was miserable…

Even though it wasn’t so easy to come by Kraftwerk records in India, the two concerts in Bombay were well-attended. The shows took place at Shanmukhananda Hall, a venue best known for hosting marathon Indian classical music performances (Florian Schneider apparently stopped by one of these, and was mesmerized.) Flür remembered that the “audience was exclusively comprised of men…[at] the end of the performance, we walked off to thunderous applause. I hadn’t expected so much energy…” Kraftwerk didn’t play an encore in Bombay–they hopped on a plane back to Europe immediately following the concert–but Ralf Hütter apparently set the sequencer to run continuously during the last song of the set, “It’s More Fun to Compute,” and left it playing as they left the stage, to raucous applause.

1981 was also the year that the chart-topping album Disco Deewane, a collaboration between the late Pakistani pop singer Nazia Hassan and the Indian disco producer Biddu, was released. My favorite Nazia tune, though, which I linked to earlier, is “Boom Boom” (1982), with its sublime rip of the Moroder “I Feel Love” bassline and haunting vocals. Here it is again to refresh your memory:

There was a whole string of disco movies in Bollywood in the 1980s; several of them were directed by Babbar Subhash, the director of Disco Dancer. Here’s another disco movie, also starring Mithun Chakraborty, from 1984 — Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki. The movie includes a heated disco dancing scene that takes place in a joint called “Studio 84.” Here’s the sign from the club in the movie, in case you don’t believe me. “Studio 84″ encapsulates the whole idea of disco in India in the ’80s, to me:

This is what it’s like inside of Studio 84:

Here’s the title track from the movie, another Bappi Lahiri production. Another disco anthem, but this one gets bogged down with too many flourishes. At 4:22 there’s a very techno-sounding interlude:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiwcSxCkKtI

The movie also includes this out-and-out rip — er, homage — to Michael Jackson (for more on Michael Jackson and Bollywood, check out my essay in the book The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piN64sqbM8U

The blog Beat Electric points to a few more Indian disco tunes from the early ’80s worth listening to here. And here’s a Todd Terje re-edit of “Jimmy Jimmy Aja,” another song from 1982′s Disco Dancer which got a recent popularity boost from M.I.A., who did a pretty straight-up cover of the song a few years back.

More later!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Sherv August 30, 2010 at 12:45 am

I’m a huge fan of the Telugu version of “Thriller,” as MJ rip-offs go:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zL6xgki326E

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Gaurav August 30, 2010 at 5:26 am

Too good!

loved Nazia Hassan – now am trying to buy her CD………..thanks for this.

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sunnylicious August 30, 2010 at 8:33 am

Excellent read…

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Filmi Girl August 30, 2010 at 10:31 am

This was a great read! I want to move into Studio 84!

And you might be interested in an interview I did with the guy who is writing the book on Disco Dancer: http://filmigirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/i-am-disco-dancer-filmi-girl-talks-with.html

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rory August 30, 2010 at 1:04 pm

fantastic.

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Baby Oliver August 30, 2010 at 10:02 pm

A friend sent this link, cool post.

I feel like the sound quality of the recordings (especially the distortion and noise floor) often made music that would have sounded quite pedestrian sound otherworldly. “Golimar” sounds like a Ron Hardy edit. It is a great example – if it was made with a workstation and/or computer the way today’s filmi soundtracks are made, it might have lost that aggressive/chaotic aspect. Luckily, for a long time it seemed like India was about 10 years behind on the technology – meaning you could buy a 90s record and it would sound like a gnarly 80s recording, or an 80s record and it would sound like it was from the 70s.

It’s funny how well-known a lot of this music is even though it’s completely exotic/”rare” to people outside the culture. I remember walking into a music shop ages ago and asking for electronic disco and the person helping me immediately grabbed the “Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai” soundtrack and gave it to me. “Electronic disco” usually flummoxes even hip used record shop owners. This was a little shop attached to a dosa place in New Jersey.

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Teamy August 31, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Nice article.
I agree with the above post: there’s something about that ‘wrong’ production style that makes 70s and 80s bollywood records stand out. The HEAVILY saturated vocals in particular really strikes a chord with me. So strikingly individual because no-one in the west would make record like this.
I spend too much time (and probably too much money if I’m honest) hunting these records down. There’s nothing quite like them though especially when you put one of Bappi Lahiri’s heavily ‘influenced’ tracks on and people know it but don’t at the same time…makes for some very interesting dancefloors.

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AnotherGreen September 1, 2010 at 3:19 am

there’s a pair of interesting technoid disco tracks in the first bombayconnection release too…

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Clarence September 1, 2010 at 4:57 am

lol I grew up watching these… as a kid I wanted to grow up to be Mithun. Great read.

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thedjalexk September 1, 2010 at 6:18 am

brilliant stuff! thank you : )

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Nick Storring September 7, 2010 at 11:45 am

After squandering an opportunity to meet Bappi Lahiri who was judging a singing contest near me in Brampton, Ontario, I posted a similar thing on my blog (http://endofworldmusic.blogspot.com) a couple years ago touting the virtues of Bollywood Disco! Then the post got removed though… I suppose I WAS linking to those sketchy Bollywood Download sites! :-)

In any event, nice post! And glad that you’re arguing that that “Ten Ragas…” record was not an anomaly. I actually was a bit disappointed by it.

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Nick Storring September 7, 2010 at 12:13 pm

^^^ Ended up re-posting my old post as well as pointing readers to your blog. There’s some overlap for sure! But I thought it was worth sharing.

Take care!

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Coleen Sosa December 23, 2010 at 2:13 pm

brilliant stuff! thank you : )

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FRANCIS AKAKPO June 5, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Hello this is from Francis Akakpo,from Africa,in cotonou Benin,
am in love wet india muxic, i want sing like india singar, i record a song ,
like india song but i want to be good in that, can you tel me what to do
thank you,God bless you all

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Nikhil June 4, 2012 at 12:43 pm

I should have mentioned this to you when you were digging up old hinditalo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLT0_M-WDIo

hilarious and steals the bassline from “The Model” … I’d bet the producers behind this saw Kraftwerk in Mumbai.

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Nikhil June 4, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Also, I came across this survey of global non-European/North American disco and was reminded of your Charanjit Singh posts. You may find this of interest too, which also makes comments on Bollywood disco

http://www.yrheartout.blogspot.com/2012/05/yho24-disco-no-disco-yes.html

(link to the .pdf of the essay given via the above link)

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girish May 4, 2013 at 7:43 am

good stuff. looks like u know ur old disco music. can u tell me who sang the song “roko nahi, mujhe roko maat, mujhe jane do jane do jane do’. i cant seem to find it anywhere on the net. ……………….

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