Biddu Is Fit, Still Has Rhythm, And Shows No Signs Of Drying Up
He is tall, lean, fit and good looking. His shoulder length hair seems like a throwback to the 1960s when he was the darling among teenagers as Mumbai’s most popular rock and roll singer—only that in those days the look was more dishevelled. The clean look these days is more in keeping with his status as a rich music producer. He is warm, friendly and oozes charm like jam from a doughnut. Up close, one can’t help but notice that the sideburns are more salt than pepper. So how old could he be? Does he colour his hair black? Biddu himself is not about to help. With a disarming sense of humour he sidesteps all questions that concern his age. But those who have followed his career know that he and his music have lived through much of the music revolutions that have swept the western world since the late 1960s. Having produced music for singers ranging from Carl Douglas and Tina Charles to Nazia Hassan, Alisha Chinai, Shaan and Sagarika, Biddu’s colourful oeuvre makes him easily the most successful among Indian music producers.
Biddu Appaiah, fifty-something, Coorg-born, London-based musician, producer, marketing guru, father, husband, dutiful son… visits India five times a year as much for family as for his work. This time he’s back to launch Nikita, a London-based 17-year-old Indian, who he will introduce to the Indian audience in the coming weeks. Biddu of course is being ambitious. He’s setting the score for the young singer’s new album at a time when there isn’t much to talk about in the Indipop circuit, not in terms of talent and certainly not in terms of sales. That doesn’t seem to bother him though… Does he think Nikita stands a chance? “I demand that people buy the album,” he grins, theatrically thumping his fist on the wooden desk. He has put together an album called Ikraar for her, now available to the audiences for judgement.
Nikita’s parents approached Biddu two years ago when Nikita was only fourteen. He suggested they meet two years later when her voice would have matured a little more. Last year, they got back together. “Nikita’s a cross between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey,” he insists to my utter disbelief. Aren’t we getting carried away here? But that’s Biddu for you. Really excited at having found an artiste worth his time and effort. So he demands attention for his new find. Ikraar, he says, is an album with “Bollywood type of songs because she has that kind of a voice. But I’ve also done a couple of contemporary type pop songs with a Latin touch.” He assures you Nikita’s no one-album artiste. He has consciously never tried to replicate the Nazia magic with any of his artistes, he insists, although that was how the launch of Shaan and Sagarika was perceived. “That was because they were a brother-sister duo, that’s all,” he explains. “It’s hard to replicate excellence. And when you hope to recreate anything, it never really happens.”
Biddu of course, was responsible for much of the Indipop hype in the 1990s as the man behind the success of singers like Shweta Shetty, Alisha Chinai, Models, Sansara, Sonu Nigam, Shail, Anu Malik (“He’s an extremely talented artiste”) and Sophiya Choudhury. Some of them he discovered, others he helped along. In 1988, for example he launched Shweta Shetty’s singing career (prior to which she was known as a theatre actress and sang ad jingles) by producing her successful debut album Johnny Joker. It was the first Indipop music video to be aired on MTV. The album turned Shweta into a Hindi film playback singer of some repute with hits like Mangta Hai Kya from Rangeela and Roja’s Rukmini Rukmini.
Alisha Chinai’s Made in India which followed soon after was an even bigger success for Biddu. Alisha states she was already a successful artiste when she teamed up with Biddu, but she would never have imagined a sale of 5 million copies that Made in India achieved, which is a record in the Indipop circuit.
“Made in India was made for Alisha,” she says. Biddu, according to her, had initially experimented with the same song using Nazia’s voice but it didn’t work. “It came to me by default. It was the lethal combination of my style and the lyrics… That’s the inside story. Biddu has a distinctive, definitive sound and I worked with him only on the Made in India album. He was the ultimate in pop at that time. The fact that he has had international hits just proved it. In fact, every decade he has had one big hit… first Kung Fu Fighting and Tina Charles in the seventies, then Nazia and Zoheb in the eighties and then Made in India in the nineties. He was the perfect choice as producer and that one single catapulted me into another league. It made history. It has this vibe to it. The bhangra reggae groove stood out,” she observes. Made In India also inspired a successful rip-off titled Made in Pakistan across the border.
Alisha empathises with the fact that Biddu hasn’t had a big album since 1994 when Made in India was launched. She attributes it to the lack of talented new singers. “Only a combination of a good song and a good singer will work,” she says. Biddu himself is candid about the fact that some of his artistes could barely croak. “But that’s at the beginning. After that one has to train and get better, but that unfortunately didn’t happen,” he rues. The Models were India’s first girl band and made for a great concept, but only one of the beautiful trio could actually belt out a tune. More than their talent it was Biddu’s legendary marketing ability that helped sell their album. As if to prove that marketing acumen can sell virtually anything he advised Sony Music, when they were planning on starting operations in India, to sign on Sachin Tendulkar as one of their first artistes! “I told them that they should sign Sachin Tendulkar, even if he can only croak and Rahman. They couldn’t get Sachin but with Rahman they released Vande Mataram,” he informs.
To prove that talent is not everything to start with Biddu talks about his own early days in the 1960s with a Bangalore band called The Trojans. “We weren’t talented although we were successful. But we had long hair, the right clothes and the boots… All we had to do was shake our heads when we were singing and the girls would go ‘wow’. No talent but the right attitude. It went on to prove that image is very important.” The Trojans once walked into a bar in Calcutta and found themselves gaping into a cheering crowd. They had never been in a “big city” and were practically penniless, but complete in all the rock-and-roll gear. It was obvious that the crowd wanted to hear them perform. So they performed and the manager offered them a job for seven hundred and fifty rupees a month. “Later the group split up; one guy found religion, another found a woman and I was left alone. So I was called the Lone Trojan,” Biddu says.
Mumbai music company BMG Crescendo’s Bashir Shaikh who was then the singer-drummer in a band called the Savages recalls watching The Trojans perform at the Blow Up, the discotheque at the Taj in the then-called Bombay in the late 1960s. “Biddu was a dynamic performer. He had a fantastic live sound. The crowd was made up of mostly teenagers, but sometimes even their parents would accompany them. We would sing songs like James Brown’s Sex Machine, which was hugely popular, “Bashir reminisces. Along with other local bands (they were called beat groups in those days and had names like The Jets, Atomic Forest and Velvette Fogg), he would perform at the Shanmukhananda auditorium and at smaller venues like school halls. He was a permanent fixture at a then popular restaurant called Venice near Churchgate station where he would have jam sessions with other bands and performers.
Nandu Bhende, another popular Bombay rock and roller from Velvette Fogg in the 1970s says Biddu inspired him to pursue a music career. He was in school when he first attended a Biddu performance. It was a jam session at Venice, which was around the corner from his school and Nandu was really in awe of the whole scene. “These older guys and girls in really short dresses were mingling together. Biddu was really so cool. He had the right attitude, wore a vest and jeans, with his long hair and Elvis Presley like sideburns. He had a passionate following. The girls would scream out loud when they saw him,” he demonstrates with his hands cupped on his ears and screeches.
“Biddu would strum the guitar and was accompanied by a drummer. In retrospect, I think it must have sounded like crap considering it was just a guitar and drums and the technology wasn’t great. But at that time, I was transfixed. To me, he was God. He stood on stage bang in front of me and I was watching him walk across the stage and sing, like this cool dude. He had such charisma,” he gushes. He had also attended shows at Shanmukhananda auditorium, which was packed beyond capacity (that’s 3000 odd, then the biggest auditorium in Asia). Of course, those were the days of a more “civilised” audience who were actively supportive if an artiste was talented, or booed the daylights out of bathroom singers with a chorus of the very mild “Go Home!”
Although the Lone Trojan had never met with that fate, Biddu the marketing man knew even then that Mumbai was incapable of providing him the kind of livelihood he was looking for as a musician. For that he would have to consider moving westwards. “I always wanted to go west… that was one of my many dreams,” he reveals, although that was only for a privileged few at the time. He recalls having been duped by one travel agent who migrated to Canada with all the money Biddu had earned until then. A few months later, another travel agent who had heard of the episode helped the musician on his journey across the seven seas. As Biddu relates the story: “In those days, you had a passport if you were a rich kid who wanted to study abroad or if you had a work-permit from there. The only other way to get out of the country was to do a Haj pilgrimage. So my travel agent got me on one of these boats—and I’m not even a Muslim but no one questioned it. There were 1,000 pilgrims, all in white with the cloth around their heads and here I was in jeans with long hair carrying a guitar… you couldn’t get a more diverse picture.”
Biddu finally got to Basra, which was not exactly where he meant to be, but he was getting there slow and steady. He hitchhiked from Basra to different parts of the Middle East—“Dubai had six shops, nothing else… just sand everywhere. I went to Dubai, Sharjah, Bahrain, I saw the whole of the Middle East and then I reached Beirut, which was very westernised at the time.” He performed in Beirut for six months and saved enough money to travel to France where he lived for a year before he moved to London in 1969.
His struggle did not end there. For about two years, Biddu sold hamburgers in London. The nights were spent writing and composing music. Having saved enough money he hired a studio and produced his first single, which came and went, unheralded. In 1973, he had better luck with another song of his. A band called The Tigers recorded his song titled Rain Falls On The Lonely, and the song was a topper in the Japanese music charts. His fortunes however changed in 1974 when he met singer Carl Douglas, who was already a well-known singer by then. Together they produced a series of hit singles including Kung Fu Fighting, which sold 9 million copies worldwide and spent a considerably long time at the top on the British pop charts. They also teamed up for the music of the film Summer of 42 which was among the top ten. Simultaneously, Biddu’s own album, Blue Eyed Soul also topped the charts.
Biddu was by now hot property in London… His next big act was Tina Charles for whom he produced chart-topping hits Dance Little lady Dance and I Love to Love with Tina Charles, followed by Jimmy Hayes whose hits included I’ll Go Where the Music Takes Me and Now’s the Time. Never a critic’s favourite, his music was considered to be too fluffy. But the albums sold more than 27 million copies worldwide. Accolades came in the form of awards—four Ivor Novello awards including one each for Best Single and Best Instrumental. He was also runner up as Top Producer in Britain in 1976. In 1978 he won the World Popular Song Festival title in Tokyo with a Tina Charles number Love Rocks. Between 1976 and 1978, Biddu also provided music for movies like The Bitch and The Stud, both starring Joan Collins.
Biddu came back home when fellow Bangalore boy Feroz Khan approached him for Qurbani in 1980. Out of this collaboration came the super hit Aap Jaisa Koi—it was a new sound never heard of in India till then and the precursor to everything that was inspired by rock and roll in Hindi film music since then. He followed it up with Disco Deewane with Nazia Hassan, which sold around a million copies at a time when buying an album was considered a luxury. In his characteristic style, it took another eight years or so for Biddu to resurface with his two big hits with Shweta Shetty and Alisha Chinai. His own attempt to relaunch himself as a singer with an album called Farebi in the mid-1990s was a disaster. Considering that it’s nearly been a decade since he has had a hit, the time seems right for something big from Biddu.
So what if he is not very highly regarded by critics and connoisseurs for producing songs that are musically enduring. He’s had the hits. That alone has made him India’s most successful music producer ever.
This story was first published in the February 2002 issue