The Oddfellows: Happy to be a pioneer of local indie bands

The Oddfellows' (main picture, from far left) Johnny Ong, Vincent Lee, Patrick Chng and Kelvin Tan in their younger days (above, in a 1995 picture).
The Oddfellows' (main picture, from far left) Johnny Ong, Vincent Lee, Patrick Chng and Kelvin Tan in their younger days (above, in a 1995 picture).PHOTOS: EDDIE SUNG, YEE CHANG KANG
The Oddfellows' (main picture, from far left) Johnny Ong, Vincent Lee, Patrick Chng and Kelvin Tan in their younger days (above, in a 1995 picture).
The Oddfellows' (main picture, from far left) Johnny Ong, Vincent Lee, Patrick Chng and Kelvin Tan in their younger days (above, in a 1995 picture).PHOTOS: EDDIE SUNG, YEE CHANG KANG

"I'm... so... ha-a-a-a-py... I'm... so... ha-a-a-a-py..."

Regular listeners to 98.7FM in the 1990s will recognise this lo-fi catchy tune from The Oddfellows, the first Singaporean song to reach No. 1 on the radio station's hit charts.

Whether it was the D-I-Y underground sound, the straightforward melody or lead singer's Patrick Chng's unpretentious vocals, the song was a hit.

In many ways, So Happy was an anthem for local indie music in the 1990s, a golden age for home-grown music. Local songs were starting to get some time on the airwaves and local groups were signed to record labels.

Prominent bands included Humpback Oak, Stompin' Ground, Nunsex, Silent Sorrow, The Lilac Saints and Livonia.

But one of the most iconic local bands were The Oddfellows. They embodied the D-I-Y indie spirit, self-releasing their first demo EP, Mild, in 1988, followed by Phony Accent in 1990.

On the wave of new music, The Oddfellows' founder Chng, 47, who is somewhat of a senior statesman in the local indie scene, says: "We were part of something very exciting."

Started in 1988, The Oddfellows' original line-up included two other members: drummer Soo Wai Cheong and bassist Stephen Tan, one of the founding members of rock fanzine BigO magazine.

Tan quit after getting married in 1990 and Soo left to pursue his studies in Australia in 1992.

Guitarist Kelvin Tan, 50, and bassist Vincent Lee, 49, were roped in in 1991, while drummer Johnny Ong joined in 1993. Including Chng, who is the lead singer and songwriter, the four form The Oddfellows today.

The 1990s were the decade when indie became the new mainstream, says Chng. According to him, indie bands had emerged in the 1980s, but many of them failed to take off.

Those which succeeded had some degree of originality. Instead of rehashing cover tunes, which was the mainstay of the English-language rock scene for a while, they created new songs that spoke to local audiences.

For The Oddfellows, songs from their first few EPs settled on themes such as growing up, restlessness and trying to find one's way in life. They made a breakthrough with their debut album Teenage Head, which was recorded in five days and financed entirely by themselves in 1991 for $1,000.

Featuring 11 original compositions written by Chng, then 23, it was the first full-length alternative-rock album to be recorded by a Singaporean band in almost a decade. The album, which contained single So Happy, was picked up by major record label BMG Singapore later that year.

With raw, stripped-down music stemming from jangly guitars and exuding a roots-rock feel quite unlike anything playing on the radio, Teenage Head was considered a pop culture landmark record at that time.

It set the stage for other alternative rock acts such as Humpback Oak and The Padres, which followed soon after with full-length albums of their own, containing music that similarly lacked polish.

The band say the late 1980s and the 1990s were a simpler time. They started off recording demo cassette tapes of their songs with just a boombox at a jamming studio, because they could not afford to go to a proper recording studio.

Chng would spend hours at home painstakingly duplicating the $1.80 cassettes by hand, photocopying the black-and-white covers before cutting and folding them into the cassette sleeves.

"The time to duplicate one cassette took as long as the length of the album. I could maybe make five cassettes in a day," he says.

There were only a few venues in Singapore where bands could perform, such as The Substation and the World Trade Centre (now HarbourFront Centre) amphitheatre. State-of- the-art audio equipment was hardly available to bands, let alone a basic stage monitor system.

Ong, 39, says: "Bands now have the luxury of getting the same technical rider (a document specifying live show technical requirements) to obtain a live sound identical to their recordings or touring engineers to do fine-tuning.

"Back then, if we were to play a gig, we just made use of whatever was provided on stage."

Nonetheless, the band declare the 1990s as "the most fun time of our lives". They cherished the freedom and independence that came with looking out for themselves and it felt as if "anything was possible".

Chng says: "It was really up to you and what you wanted to do. If you set your mind to it, you could do anything. We could pursue whatever we wanted."

Despite their radio hit, Teenage Head was not a commercial success, selling only 2,000 copies in Singapore. Local music fans were not yet used to the new alternative style of music being pushed out and it took a few years for The Oddfellows to garner a niche following.

Not that sales mattered to the band, who released their second and last album Carnival in 1992. They echo in unison that it is an ardent love for music that keeps them playing today.

The band last performed at The Substation in April and will be performing next at August's Sing50 concert.

All four members hold jobs outside the band. Chng is a part-time consultant at American guitar company Gibson and freelances in the music scene, while Ong is a manager at Singapore Polytechnic. Lee is an executive at BMW dealer Performance Motors and Tan is a part-time lecturer at the Puttnam School of Film at Lasalle College of the Arts.

What remains the most gratifying is seeing their loyal fans grow up with them since they started rocking in the late 1980s.

Tan recalls their days of performing in 1991 and 1992, when there were "all these angry, rebellious A-level and polytechnic kids" attending their gigs.

He says: "As the years went by, they would bring their girlfriends along, followed by their children. Now, they still go to the gigs with their children, who are a lot bigger.

"Seeing this is very moving and reminds us that what we are doing is meaningful."

paigelim@sph.com.sg