Friday 30 August 2013

The Quests: Together again on a quest

Popular 1960s local band The Quests are reunited for a series of concerts where they aim to transport fans back to the era of their wholesome brand of music
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2013

With the many platforms these days for local bands, such as the successful indie music festival Baybeats which draws tens of thousands of fans every year, musicians in Singapore could be said to be enjoying their time in the sun.

Still, none of them are candidates to receive the kind of fanatical, hysterical aduation that seems to be reserved for South Korean pop acts these days. The very idea that a Singapore band could be mobbed by fans seems far-fetched.

But it has happened before.

In the 1960s, five Singapore boys received mail, chocolates and flowers from fans every day. When they toured the region for shows, they also had their shirts and underwear stolen from their hotel rooms by souvenir-hunting devotees.

Jap Chong, the founding member of The Quests, recalls: "We felt like the Beatles. Our cars were surrounded by swarms of teenagers and it was hard to leave our shows."

The Beatles comparison is no hyperbole - in this region, The Quests were as big as the British Fab Four. In fact, in the 1960s, they knocked the Beatles off Singapore and Malaysia's Hit Parade charts with their original song, Shanty.

Almost half a century on, the band will be reuniting for one more bash, with three shows on Sept 13 and 15 as part of My Queenstown's 60th anniversary celebrations as Singapore's first satellite estate. About 40 per cent of tickets have been sold.

It all started for them in Queenstown Secondary Technical School, where rhythm guitarist Chong and singerguitarist Raymond Leong studied. They were taking part in a local talent competition and derived the band's name from the school's acronym.

Eventually, drummer Lim Wee Guan, bassist Henry Chua and singer Vernon Cornelius joined the band.

The self-taught quintet, inspired by Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard And The Shadows, started out with makeshift instruments in the early 1960s.

A drum set, for instance, was fashioned out of biscuit tins filled with bottle caps for a snare, long pencils with rubber bands at their ends served as drumsticks and an empty leather school bag functioned as a kick drum.

Gradually upgrading their musical equipment and writing their own songs, they enrolled in several talent competitions as well as played at house parties and tea dances. Word of mouth grew their popularity.

Their music - a mix of vocals and instrumental pieces - received frequent airplay on local radio channels such as Rediffusion and on music programmes Dendang Ria and Pop Inn on television.

Chong says: "We played straight from the soul and for the love of music. That gave us a unique sound and quality. With the right timing and with a hit such as Shanty, we managed to knock the Beatles off the chart."

The 70-year-old retiree, who has a daughter living in Los Angeles and a two- year-old grandson, glows when chatting about music.

He and his bandmates are hip, friendly with ready smiles and still have style, gamely getting into natural poses for photographs - they clearly know how to work the stage.

Indeed, their popularity in the 1960s was bolstered by their showmanship, say fans such as Mrs Jennifer Foo, 63.

"The Quests, especially Jap and Vernon, really knew how to rock hard and interact with the audience. They managed to build a fan base because of their engaging star quality and that really caught our attention," says the retiree who used to collect newspaper clippings and magazine cuttings of the band.

Apart from staying at the top of the local English-language music charts for 12 weeks - a feat that has never been beaten by another local band - The Quests were also the first English singing group in Singapore to cut a full-length album in 1966.

The record, Questing, with 14 songs, sold about 20,000 copies. Sales for their singles were equally impressive - with 20,000 to 30,000 units sold for songs such as Silly Girl, Mustapha, Don't Play That Song (You Lied) and Mr Rainbow.

Drummer Lim, 68, says: "The local music scene really flourished in the 1960s as few owned television sets and most depended on the radio for entertainment. There were fewer distractions without the Internet."

Bands could be found in almost every corner of Singapore, members of The Quests recall. Live musical shows featuring local bands were held every week and most of them were sold out. Tea dances featuring only local bands were held all over the island as well as in Orchard Road and at Raffles Hotel.

Some of the other popular groups during that time included Crescendos, Naomi And The Boys, The Trailers, The Checkmates, The Stylers and The Thunderbirds.

The Quests were the biggest of them all.

Cornelius, who declines to reveal his age, says: "There has never been another group in Singapore like The Quests, who in my opinion were pacesetters and trailblazers of many firsts in Singapore, including recording songs in English, Malay and Mandarin."

He adds that he has been getting calls for the past 20 years requesting that the band reunite for a performance and he is still recognised on the street as their frontman.

Cornelius, who is currently a history writer and researcher, has an adopted son.

After a couple of line-up changes - Leong and Chua left the band to pursue engineering careers and were replaced by Reggie Verghese and Sam Toh - the band toured Malaysia, Brunei, Hong Kong and other parts of South-east Asia.

Mr Rainbow, their cover of Hallucinations by English psychedelic rock band Tomorrow, became the No.1 hit in 1968 and they were often mobbed by screaming fans as they tried to leave various concert venues.

Fan mail, flowers and chocolate would also pour in daily. At the height of their popularity, fans broke into their hotel rooms, taking with them shirts and underwear as souvenirs.

"That was a step-up from the fans who would throw candy and undergarments at us during the shows," says Toh, 66, with a chuckle. He is retired and has two daughters and two grandchildren.

Female fans were particularly infatuated with Chong, says Leong, who has two children in their 20s. "Their boyfriends, who had brought them to our concerts, would complain that they felt neglected."

Verghese even got married to a fan - a Portuguese girl from Hong Kong - in the late 1960s.

Broadcasting pioneer, Mr Robert Chua, 67, then the creator and producer of Hong Kong's longest-running live family show on TVB, Enjoy Yourself Tonight, on which The Quests were frequent guests, remembers them for their "good music and good work ethic".

"They were never late, always showing up for rehearsals on time, rehearsing as required. They never had a divo attitude and were very down to earth."

Citing changing music tastes, The Quests split up in 1971, about 11 years since their first informal jam sessions at the homes of Chong and Leong in Tiong Bahru.

Chong and Cornelius remained in the music industry, Leong is the owner of an engineering firm, Toh set up a photography studio and Lim became a drum instructor.

Lim's son, Nick, a 31-year-old marketing executive, says his father, who continued playing music on a smaller scale in the 1980s, never shared his fame in detail.

"I grew up wondering why random people on the street would approach him. My classmates' parents would also recognise my dad when he picked me up from school. Later, I realised that they were his fans."

And by the time Nick hit his teens, he realised how popular his father's band had been. Now, he has a collection of their music and is on the hunt for vinyl records for which he is willing to fork out about $1,500 a pop.

He says: "I am very impressed that a local band which started from nothing as self-taught musicians could produce such high-quality music. I am very proud of my dad and the band."

The band say age and arthritis will not stop them from putting on a good show next month.

Lead singer Cornelius is expected to work the stage and have the crowds on their feet. He says: "I'm known as a livewire but we are also going to be sharing our band's history by playing 90 per cent of our records. We are working very hard to put on a good show."

Chong says: "We will be updating some of the beats of our pieces to reflect how we feel now. But don't expect us to rap.

"A lot of today's music revolves around expressing negative energy such as anger and frustration, but 1960s music was all about love, how to be a good guy and how to treat someone nice - not about killing or hating. So we're staying true to the spirit of the 1960s."

According to the band, some ardent fans, including a husband and wife pair, are flying in from Kuching for the concert.

Airline operations manager Vernon Cheong, 63, who will be attending two of the three shows, says The Quests' music "clicks" well with him.

"I grew up with their music since I was in secondary school, so every song will bring me back to a certain stage in my life. Don't Play That Song (You Lied), for instance, will take me back to my school days when I saved $2 to buy their music."

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