[This story first appeared in Koktail Magazine Issue 4.]
Hero image featuring Dreams of Mad Children at Speakerbox courtesy of dugmoore.
Thailand, for the most part, missed the birth era in 1950s America, with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley & The Comets hot-rodding country and gospel into rock and roll. At the time, Thais were having too much fun mashing up Latin rhythms—especially saam chaa (cha-cha-cha)—with Thai melodies to create what was later known as luuk thung, still a much-loved genre in the country today.
Later, however, rock backbeats arrived in force during the Vietnam War, when hundreds of bars and juke joints opened up around US air force bases in Korat, Nakhon Phanom, Nam Phong, Takhli, Ubon, Udon, and U-Tapao, entertaining up to 50,000 American military personnel from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s when the air bases closed. Most had their own house bands made up of Thai musicians covering tunes by the ascendant bands of the time, notably Credence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Animals, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. American and Thai DJs spun rock vinyl at Armed Forces radio stations scattered among the bases, and Thais as far away as Bangkok tuned in.
The most famous club group to emerge during the GI era was The VIPs, who started out as the house band for the TipTop Club in Udon in the 1960s and later went on to record in Bangkok and tour Europe. They were led by dedicated singer/guitarist Lam Morrison, who borrowed his stage name from charismatic singer Jim Morrison of The Doors. After the US bases in Thailand closed in the mid-1970s, Lam put his own band together at Marine Bar (later Marine Disco) in Pattaya, cultivated a wicked long hair-and-leather look, developed his guitar-playing to shredder level, and grew into a Thai legend spreading the rock gospel among a legion of followers.
Almost every Thai rocker generation since can trace a path back to Lam and The VIPs. At 72, and despite health problems along the way, Lam is still performing in Pattaya and Bangkok. Avant-garde filmmaker Phutthipong Aroonpheng, whose film Manta Ray took the Orizzonti Prize at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, recently completed a film entitled Morrison, starring Thai-British rockstar Hugo Chakrabongse, that is partially inspired by Lam Morrison’s life and due to be released in 2023.
Contemporary band Hard Boy is influenced by the hair, glam, and metal bands of the ’80s (Photo courtesy of Hard Boy)
The Thai rock scene blew up in the 1980s, as original bands such as The Olarn Project, Neua Gub Nang, Rockestra, Asanee-Wasan, Kaleidoscope, and Micro thundered across Bangkok and provincial stages. “Phleng phuea chiwit” (“Songs for Life”), a politically-charged fusion of rock and local Thai folk, also came to the fore, popularised by Carabao and their internationally successful 1982 album Made in Thailand.
By the 1990s, Bangkok was producing its own heavy metal bands, including Hin Lek Fai, Donpheebin, Uranium, Big Gun, and Hi-Rock. Alternative and indie rock followed by mid-decade, inspired by American grunge bands Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, as well as Brit-pop bands such as Oasis and Blur. Successful alt-rock bands in Thailand in this era included Modern Dog, who toured Japan and the United States, along with Pru, Silly Fools, Labanoon, Smile Buffalo, Loso, and Blackhead. Thai alt rock continued to flourish into the 2000s, joined by Clash, Bodyslam, and a legion of less famous but equally passionate indie bands that popped up at virtually every university in Bangkok and beyond.
A proliferation of indie pubs and live houses responded to the surge of DIY bands in the capital, and today Bangkok supports a network of over a hundred small- and medium-sized stages. Although the closing of entertainment venues during Covid restrictions forced several out of business, most survived, and a pent-up demand for live music in 2022 has seen packed houses on weekends. Bar owners Koktail spoke with said they haven’t seen such capacity crowds for live music since well before coronavirus came along.
When it comes to eclectic rock programming, one of the most dynamic venues in the city at the moment is Speakerbox, tucked away in the Liberty Plaza building at the north end of Soi Thonglor (Sukhumvit 55). It’s the brainchild of 32-year-old Eddie Mellor, who grew up in the UK but moved to Bangkok when he was 14. In his teen years, Mellor hung out at Club Culture, Cosmic Cafe, Bangkok Rocks, and Immortal Bar, and attended regular pop-up events hosted by Dudesweet and Club Soma. Inspired to promote his own shows, Mellor opened the original Speakerbox in 2016 in a simple stall at the now-defunct Railway Market in Huay Khwang. When the stall’s annual rental contract didn’t come for renewal, Mellor returned to England to work at the Great Escape Music Festival, which showcases roughly 300 newer bands across 30 venues throughout Brighton. Returning in 2018, Mellor found a bigger, better home for Speakerbox in Thonglor, together with American partner Jerry Kelley.
“In terms of the size and the sound, vis-à-vis the location, it’s a perfect live house,” says Mellor. “No one lives anywhere near us. Bangkok is so densely populated that it's really important to have a lack of neighbours who might complain about loud music.”
Since opening in 2019, Speakerbox has hosted well over a hundred Thai bands. In a peak programming week, more than 20 bands will perform, with as many as four or five per night. Genre-wise, Mellor says, “The biggest trends in Bangkok rock these days are post-rock, shoegaze, and psychedelic, which Speakerbox caters to regularly.” Speakerbox occasionally hosts international touring bands as well, including Nothing (American shoegaze), The Wedding Present (English indie rock), and The Cherry Coke$ (Celtic punk from Tokyo), all just prior to coronavirus restrictions in Bangkok.
Even when local bands play for a 300-baht cover charge, on weekends the 150-capacity venue tends to sell out. Bands to look out for at Speakerbox at the moment: Yourheart (post-rock), Death of Heather (shoegaze), Wicked Lights (alt folk rock with English lyrics), Varis (alt rock with English and Thai lyrics), Inspirative (post-rock), Hope the Flowers (post-rock/psychedelic), Of Victims and Prey (hardcore), Dreams of Mad Children (deathcore), ZeitGeistS (stoner rock/doom), Death of Heather (shoegaze/dream pop), and Grayray (psychedelic punk).
Equally influential on the current scene, Brownstone comprises a loose collective of recording studios, rehearsal rooms, and performance spaces that draw a wide range of rock-oriented artists and events. Found on Soi On Nut (Sukhumvit 77), Brownstone isn’t open nightly, but there’s usually something on every weekend. Rather than book one-off concerts, partners tend to organise series of one-night shows loosely connected by theme, along with multi-day events featuring as many as 20 bands. Among the more successful repeating series so far are Bkk Indie Club, ASiA Sounds Space, Bangkok Comeback, Kicks Fest, and RhuBarb & CusTard. Bands you’ll see at Brownstone, many of which also appear at like-minded Speakerbox, include Rosalyn (post-rock/ dream pop), Le Pyutin, (formerly Le Putin; psychedelic) Srirajah Rockers (ska/Thai rock), Venn (Thai alternative folk), Hard Boy (glam rock), The Greed (punk), Dogwhine (alt jazz/rock), and nearly mega-famous Slur (Thai alt rock).
Bangkok Island, an old sand barge converted into an entertainment venue hosting concerts and parties, has devoted a number of weekend events to indie rock line-ups in all sub-genres, both cover bands as well as original artists. Bangkok Island is normally docked on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phraya River, and events can take place while the vessel remains moored all evening or, on occasion, while it cruises up and down the waterway. Dirty Magic, a straight-ahead rock outfit led by a charismatic half-Welsh, half-Thai frontman, headlined one of Bangkok Island’s more successful recent shows. Dirty Magic has since signed a music distribution deal with Warner Music Thailand.
Speakerbox, Brownstone, and Bangkok Island are nothing short of heroic in their support of original rock and alternative music in Bangkok. Meanwhile, good cover bands playing rock in most of its sub-genres can be found in pubs all over the city. The Rock Pub, the crusty veteran of the scene since 1987, continues to thrive at its original location on Phayathai Road in Ratchathewi. The current rotating roster of cover bands at The Rock Pub is comprised of Munson (metal/hard rock), Jimmy Revolt (emo/pop punk), Brownstone (hair metal/hard rock), Outro (alt metal), and The Chocolate Cosmos (post- punk, Brit rock), each nailing down a different night of the week. All are worth seeing, but Munson probably best represents the old-school 1980s spirit of the club.
Grayray (above) and Hope the Flowers are two very different instrumental rock bands (Photos courtesy of Tim Russell)
It’s challenging to keep up with trends and shows, with new bands breeding like lab rats and venues opening and closing their doors regularly, but logging on to Fungjai (fungjai.com) is a good way to stay current. A music streaming service directed by globe-trotting music curator genius Piyapong “Py” Muenprasertdee, Fungjai describes itself as “a music community that connects musicians and their fans through engaging online platforms and offline activities, such as: music streaming, online magazine, concerts, and seminars.”
One of Fungjai’s most successful events has been the Maho Rasop Music Festival, which premiered in Bangkok in 2019 with Aussie headliners King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, along with a well-curated lineup of international and Thai bands. Organised with Bangkok- based promoters Have You Heard and Seen Scene Space, the next Maho Rasop (mahorasop.com) is scheduled for November 19-20, 2022 at ESC Park Rangsit, and will feature Crack Cloud from Canada and Mono from Japan, along with Thailand's own Desktop Error, Dogwhine, and superstar rap-rocker Milli.
The year 2019 also brought us Bangkok Music City (BMC), Thailand’s first international music conference and showcase festival in the spirit of the USA’s SXSW Music Festival and the UK’s Great Escape Festival. The inaugural event placed the music conference at TCDC Bangkok in the Charoen Krung Road “Creative District”, while eight stages in venues scattered around the area hosted showcased bands. Fungjai, no surprise, was one of the organisers, along with Nylon Thailand, publisher and event promoter. The two-day event was attended by over 3,000 and showcased 58 Thai and 20 international artists from nine countries, most of them from rock genres, along with 33 Thai and 62 international speakers hailing from 18 countries. Unfortunately, BMC is not putting together a 2022 event, but organisers say they’re looking towards 2023.
Meanwhile, weekend lineups around town are so competitive nowadays that it’s no longer a matter of “Is there anything going on?” The challenge is choosing where to go and who to see when so much seems to be happening at the same time, with original live music in Bangkok entering a renaissance the city hasn’t seen since the 1980s.