10 things to know about the 90s

The Straits Times and Business Times are organising an all-star concert in August to celebrate 50 years of popular music in Singapore. In this fourth instalment of a five-part series, PAIGE LIM looks at the entertainment scene in the 1990S

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1 Zouk

Other clubs come and go. (Goodbye Sparks, Centro, Supperclub and Avalon, just to name a few.) But Zouk has stuck around for 24 years, opening a branch in Kuala Lumpur in 2004, and is still a regular on the lists of the world’s top clubs.

Whether you sipped your first drink at this Jiak Kim Street institution when you were 18, or mass-danced weekly to classics such as Square Room and Forever Young during Mambo, you need to thank Mr Lincoln Cheng, who had the idea in 1991 to turn three ramshackle warehouses along the Singapore River into an $8-million nightlife hotspot.

Currently, this club is still ahead of the pack with iconic events such as ZoukOut. This two-day ravefest in Sentosa is still one of the region’s top parties, drawing people from all over the world to party near sand, sea and setting sun.


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2 Michael Jackson Dangerous Tour

Jacko fever gripped Singapore hard when it was announced that the King of Pop would be holding his first concert here in August 1993 as part of the Asian leg of his Dangerous Tour.

Sistic and American Express ticketing phone lines were jammed, public queues snaked overnight at ticket counters, and airlines and hotels here reported heavy bookings over the concert weekend with the massive influx of fans from neighbouring countries. More than 10,000 tickets were snapped up on the first day of priority sales, and all $200 and $125 tickets were sold out within an hour when public sales opened.

On Aug 29, Jackson enthralled a capacity crowd of 45,000 fans in an exhilarating two-hour spectacle of lasers, lights and pyrotechnics at the National Stadium. Complete with his signature moonwalk, the pop star sang songs from all stages of his career, from albums Off The Wall, Thriller and Dangerous to a Jackson 5 medley.

His second concert, scheduled for Aug 30, was postponed to Sept 1 after he collapsed off-stage before the show. In 1996, he returned for one night at the same venue. Sadly, that performance proved to be his last in Singapore. He died from a cardiac arrest at age 50 in 2009.


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3 Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop
The kings of the 1990s Cantopop scene were Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau , Aaron Kwok  and Leon Lai , who all held concerts here in the early 1990s.

Before J-pop or K-pop were hot, Cantopop was booming here. Cantopop clubs and discos mushroomed all over the island, such as Pub 1997, Thunderstorm, Club Triple Seven, The Live House and Canto. Even English-speaking professionals flocked to these clubs, drawn to the unique experience of listening to home-grown singers Angie Liu and William Scorpion belt out Cantopop hits on stage in a contemporary Western pub ambience.


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4 The opening of mega record stores

Tower Records, HMV, Borders – these CD and record megastores of the 1990s were a godsend to music fans.

Before these shops opened, music lovers had to import obscure discs from abroad when they wanted speciality and independent labels not normally found at smaller CD shops.
United States-based Tower Records was the first to pop up at Pacific Plaza in December 1993, followed by HMV and Borders at The Heeren and Wheelock Place in 1997.

Occupying three levels of The Heeren, HMV was the largest music retail outlet in Singapore with stocks of more than 250,000 CDs. However, the last decade saw the fall of these music retail giants due to the rise of digital platforms for music and piracy. Tower Records was the first to go in 2006, while Borders closed its last outlet at Parkway Parade in 2011. HMV is the only survivor, with its sole outlet still in business at Marina Square.


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5 Najip Ali

This multi-talented entertainer rose to fame as the flamboyant host of 1990s regional singing contest Asia Bagus. After the show’s inaugural season in 1992, he became a household name with his madcap antics, ostentatious fashion choices and the merciless way he poked fun of contestants. While he was widely credited for Asia Bagus’ good ratings, he left the show after eight years, citing a desire to move on to other things.

The Jack of all trades – who is a dancer and choreographer – also showed off his singing chops with two albums released in the 1990s. His second Malay pop album Oonik was released in 1995 and sold 5,000 copies here and another 5,000 in Japan. This was followed by Rawjak in 1997, with six of its 13 tracks co-arranged and written by him.


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6 Rise of home-grown indie bands

The 1990s were a watershed period for local indie music, with an estimated 200-plus home-grown English bands. The now-defunct record company Pony Canyon under Mr Jimmy Wee put out records by bands such as Kick! (formed in 1991) and Concave Scream (1994, ), both of which enjoyed commercial and critical success. Other notable bands thrust into the spotlight were The Padres (formed in 1991), Force Vomit (1993) and Livonia (1993).

Songs by The Padres and Force Vomit were featured by the late legendary British deejay John Peel on his famed programme The John Peel Show on the English radio network BBC World Service. Livonia’s first EP, Self, sold almost all 300 copies upon its 1994 release, while alternative rock band Concave Scream’s first two albums were critical hits.


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7 Overseas success of home-grown Mandarin female singers

Girl power reigned supreme when home-grown singers Kit Chan and Mavis Hee made names for themselves beyond Singapore’s shores.

Chan broke into the highly competitive Taiwanese market in 1994 with the release of her second album Heartache. It bagged three platinum awards, while the title song topped the radio charts in Taipei for weeks. This achievement was followed by hit records such as Cornered (1995) and Sadness (1996), which further cemented her diva status.

Following in her footsteps was Hee with the release of her debut Taiwanese album Regret in 1996. She was also the first Singaporean singer to break into Hong Kong in 1998 with her first Cantonese album, Listen Quietly, which was on the International Federation of Phonographic Industry best-selling album chart for three weeks


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8 The grunge movement

Revolutionised by Nirvana’s iconic second album Nevermind in 1991, grunge is a subgenre of alternative rock music encompassing elements of punk rock and heavy metal. Harsh, distorted electric guitars and angst-ridden lyrics permeated the airwaves across America – and Singapore.

Accompanying its music, grunge also generated a new fashion phenomenon, a la the “Grunge Look” – think flannel shirts, sock hats, ripped jeans, Doc Martens or anything secondhand from a thrift shop. Simply put, grunge was everything anti-fashion. The trend caught on in Singapore, particularly among teenagers and indie musicians who began to sport unkempt and scruffy appearance


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9 Mohamed Raffee

With more than 35 years of experience, Indian-Singaporean composer and musician Mohamed Raffee, or M Raffee as his fans fondly call him, is a well-known face in the local Tamil entertainment scene. He began his career as a composer in the 1980s, creating original songs for Tamil TV programmes in Singapore and Malaysia.

In 1993, the singer and multi-instrumentalist shot to fame with his debut album, aptly titled Breakthru’. This was followed by the release of a second album Karupayee a year later. The title song, a Tamil folk song, became a hit in Singapore. The slow romantic duet Manthiram Vacchaiyeh with female singer Vicknesvari is his most famous single to date.


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10 Douglas Oliveiro and Energy

In his heyday, adoring female groupies flung their panties at him on stage. Veteran rocker Douglas Oliveiro  boasted smouldering stage charisma and was voted sexiest man in Singapore in a 1990 poll by The New Paper.

A fixture on the live music scene since the 1970s, Oliveiro rose to fame as the frontman of six-man band Energy in 1987. Energy played at top nightspots such as Fire, Sparks and Hard Rock Cafe all through the 1990s, and was one of the highest-paid club resident bands in Singapore at the time. Oliveiro’s raunchy and energetic performances, with stage antics such as jumping from table to table and sensual gyrations, made him a hit.

In 1992, he released a solo English album, titled Douglas O, with 10 pop rock numbers. He was also the co-host of popular nostalgic music variety show Rollin’ Good Times in 1993.