Hungry once more
1984, covering everywhere from Machang in Kelantan to Teluk Intan in Perak.
But it was a concert in Arau, Perlis, just before Konsert Raksasa, that earned the band earned serious street cred and some notoriety, too, courtesy of its fans.
“We saw no one at our soundcheck, but after the gates at the expo (expo shows were commonplace in the 1980s, where music and funfair entertainment was all rolled into one) opened, 100,000 people rushed in. The place was so packed that we couldn’t drive in to the stage, so we had to walk nearly two kilometers,” Madasamy recalled.
“That show was reported about in the news and the papers the next day because about 20 people were injured in the stampede. I remember seeing people’s faces and shirts with footprints on them,” said Mokhtar, casting his mind back.
At the height of the band’s popularity in the early-to-mid-1980s, Blues Gang opened for a slew of international acts like the Ian Gillan Band (1982) and the Climax Blues Band (1983) at Stadium Merdeka, and Uriah Heep (1984) at Stadium Negara. The shows were all great successes for the band, although the Uriah Heep one didn’t go without incident.
“Heavy rain had drenched our equipment, so we needed to dry it all out. When the audience got edgy because of the delay, Uriah Heep’s roadies demanded we go on immediately. The situation reached a head and I remember picking up a mike stand and swinging it at one of the guys. Fortunately, someone pulled me away in the nick of time, so it missed,” Ito said with a hearty laugh. The mike stand might have missed its target, but his cussing and spitting hit the spot.
The quintet maintained its prolific album output through the 1980s, but piracy was never far off, forcing the band to rely on the live circuit and concert tours to make ends meet.
Blues Gang’s wheels started to come off sometime in 1986. Ito left first, and was soon followed by Ghani. The band then signed off the 1980s with 1988’s cryptically-titled Mencari Penyelesaian.
In an attempt to stay afloat as a band, Karim’s younger brother Shaik Abdullah was roped in on drums while the older sibling stepped into the frontman’s role. The band even added a second guitar player with Azizi Ithnin joining the ranks for a while, but by then, the band had lost its mojo, although it carried on into the early 1990s before Mokhtar left in 1993.
Ito had two solo albums out by then, the aptly titled Aku and Perempuan, but joined Madasamy and Karim’s club band Purple Haze later on for a while. “I think my joining them allowed for the continuity of our relationship, which is why we are here now,” Ito admitted.
After leaving WEA, the band signed on to Universal Music and released Ribut Pendamai in 1998, with Englishman Ian Anderson on guitar. It gave the band a second wind of sorts at the turn of the century, but fans and band members harboured for a return to the glory days, which is why Blues Gang has kept up with numerous reunion shows over the years with its classic line-up.
The recent fund-raiser by the National Press Club at Istana Hotel in Kuala Lumpur was a case in point. Although it was the hits that the audience was there for, the biggest news for the night was the band’s plan to release an album next year.
“We are thinking of re-recording a couple of our old tunes, and writing a few more new ones. Between, Karim, Ito and I, we should be able to put a bunch of songs together. We’re really looking forward to this,” Madasamy said.
It’s evident that the dynamic within the band is still firmly intact, even with the inclusion of Azizi once again.
“Blues Gang is the best band I’ve been in. Everyone is on the ball and in fact, it’s more fun doing this today ... maybe because we’re hungry again,” Ito enthused.
He laments at how times have changed, with the ban on cigarette companies – who were responsible for the growth of the rock scene in the 1980s – sponsoring concerts. He still has one wish, though, which is to get the endorsement of RTM again.
“We owe a great debt to RTM for spreading our music back then, likewise the media and our fans,” Ito said.
Blues Gang has survived the times, from piracy to ill-advised business ventures like the band’s blues club, K Blues Music House, and from changing fads to Karim’s debilitating diabetes, which saw him lose two toes on his left foot. But through it all, the blues has kept the band on the straight and narrow.
“I never imagined a 40th anniversary. The blues has always been about the attitude to succeed, independent of personal hardship. If the Rolling Stones can do this even now, we are going to try, too,” Ito concluded.
This all seems a far cry from the days when Madasamy and Karim sat atop the hills at Bukit Timbalan in Johor Baru and dreamed of the big time. Who would’ve thought that 40 years on, the Blues Gang would still be singing the blues?