The Strollers, tireless torchbearers of Malaysian pop bands

The most popular Strollers line up. (L-R) Nand Kumar, Hussein Idris, Hassan Idris, Billy Chang and Michael Magness.

When Cliff Richard and The Shadows played at Merdeka Stadium as part of a campaign to raise funds for the construction of the National Monument (Tugu Negara) on Nov 16, 1961, they inspired many pop yeh-yeh bands.

Teenage boys, influenced by the pop yeh-yeh genre – driven by Western guitar combos – began bands in their schools, playing by ear.

St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur had The Teenage Hunters. The band’s lead guitarist was Terry Thaddeus while another guitarist cum singer was James D’Oliverio from St Michael’s Institution, Ipoh.

Cochrane Road School, also in Kuala Lumpur, had The Strangers whose lead singer Agus Salim had a penchant for Cliff Richard songs.

Caught up by the mania, Kampung Baru boy Hassan Idris, started a band, Sputnik, named after the Soviet satellite.

In Klang, The Blue Dominoes were rocking with the mainstays, guitarists Michael Magness and Peter Ghouse.

The Ghosts, made up of school friends in Petaling Jaya included an Indonesian migrant Amrin Abdul Madjid, and were popular at house parties and social functions. A curious kid, Billy Chang Chee Lam, whose brother Danny was with the band tagged along.

The drummer of another Kuala Lumpur pop yeh yeh band, Sinaran, was Ramli Yaakob while Petaling Jaya’s, The Typhoons, had Hussein Idris as their drummer.

As fate would have it, Amrin, Billy, Hassan and Ramli came together and formed an instrumental band called The Strollers in 1965. Hussein, Terry, James, Michael, and James were to join the band later.

Their first manager was 19-year-old Tan Soon Loke, who was better known as Jap Tan. Because of his short stature, his friends nicknamed him “yat pun chai” which in Cantonese means “Japanese boy”.

Author Omar Ariff spent years researching his idols, The Strollers.

The story of the schoolboy tearaways, the making of The Strollers and how they embraced the stirring bell-bottomed music scene of the 70s comes alive in an informative book, “The Strollers: Malaysian Pop Legends” by Omar Ariff.

In probably the first book on a local pop band, Omar details the most memorable times of the band, telling us how they became the voice of their generation.

The memoir takes readers through a life-long friendship of the early band members and a collaboration that eventually earned them legendary status.

Omar, 56, who describes himself as an accidental human resource consultant said he decided to write the book in November 2018, eight years after he embarked on researching the band.

He said he got hooked on The Strollers at the age of nine when he first heard his brother Hakim sing the band’s classic “Just As I Am”.

The book is a great place to start for young music fans who might want to find out more about The Strollers, or who might want to know about the period when “kugiran (kumpulan gitar rancak)”, meaning fast guitar bands, ruled in Malaysia and Singapore.

There are some interesting revelations in the book.

Did you know that each member of the original line-up worked out their own chords and drumbeats and played each number from memory?

Hussein Idris, speaking to FMT, said: “It is unbelievable how we played by ear. I still don’t read notes and have had to reject offers to teach music.”

He related how the multi-talented Nand Kumar composed the big 1973 hit, “Silly Joke” in the toilet.

“He came out of the toilet excitedly, took his guitar and began humming the tune. Michael Magness sang the song which until today is a popular request at our gigs,” he said.

Hussein Idris is still going strong with The Strollers at age 70.

Hussein, 70, who is still the drummer of the band with a different line-up, also sings the band’s soul-tinged songs that are some of the most resounding tunes in Malaysian music history.

Did you know the original “The Strollers” turned down an offer by Radio Television Malaysia to do a series of shows at the height of their popularity?

Hussein said they had to cut their long hair if they wanted television exposure, so he told the producer, “keep your programme, we keep our hair.”

The government’s clampdown on entertainers sporting long hair came after the three-day “Woodstock” music festival at Camp Semangat, Cheras, in July 1972.

The uproar over the concert that featured acts like The Falcons, Ash Wednesday, Mushroom Alice and Illusion Revival also led to a ban on hippies, unkempt looking foreigners and anyone sporting long hair and shabby clothes from entering the country.

The author also brings back memories of the halcyon days of entertainment venues with specific mention of Jacky’s Bowl on Jalan Ampang, where as an emerging band, The Strollers did not have their own instruments.

Omar relates that Agus Salim got $2,500 from his uncle and then cabinet minister, Ghazali Shafie, to buy used equipment for the band.

He bought Fender guitars, a Rogers drum set and amplifiers from a Melaka band, The Vipers – and soon they were on a roll.

The author spices up his storytelling with humour such as in the Jimmy Webb composition “Do What You Gotta Do”, a smash hit for the band.

The group mistakenly sing, “Pay that no mind, and climb that devil tree of yours” when the right words are “find that dappled dream of yours”.

“Perhaps, ‘dappled dream’ sounded like ‘devil tree’ in an age when one had to listen very carefully to a song without the benefit of a lyrics sheet,” Omar chuckles.

The legacy of The Strollers is until today uttered with reverence.

They were the first and only Malaysian band to sign with an international recording label to release English songs.

They released nine singles, one EP, one album and 33 songs, of which 17 were original compositions.

The Strollers were also the opening act for concerts here by chartbusters like the Hollies, Tremeloes and Christie.

In 2016, The Strollers got official and woefully long overdue recognition by Malaysia.

They were accorded the honour of being the “First Malaysian Pop Band” by the Malaysia Book of Records at the “Return of Legends” concert at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur.

“Their legacy endures to this day albeit largely forgotten by Malaysia, save in the collective memories, hearts and minds of their diehard fans,” writes Omar.

*Contact Omar Ariff at [email protected] for a copy of the RM35 book.