…this release in a way highlights both the triumph and the tragedy of the Monsoon story: the tragedy being that this is the only album they left us, but the triumph being that they left it to us at all. This could, and should have been a real step into the development of a wildly fertile crossover genre between Indian music and rock – until that potential is fully realised, this is an album to be savoured again and again. Exceptional.
Monsoon is a name which people of a certain vintage will most likely remember – though the great majority of them will remember the name for one specific song, which is in itself a huge injustice. Back in 1982, Ever So Lonely was a big – and unexpected – hit in the UK, with its blending of Indian music and instrumentation with a radio-friendly pop sensibility catching the ear of millions, and becoming a go-to floor filler at clubs and school discos up and down the land. However, while that song was and remains an impressively-crafted piece of music, Monsoon were capable of so much more within a genre which scarcely even existed. Much of this potential was demonstrated on their sole album, Third Eye, although when it was released in 1983 Monsoon had already sadly disbanded and we were denied the opportunity to see where they might go next. Where they actually DID go, however, is in itself eminently worthy of celebration and rediscovery.
It’s an odd fact that, while almost every musical style in existence has been fused with rock to form a flourishing sub-genre (folk-rock, country-rock, blues-rock, jazz-rock, funk-rock, and of course the crossover with the classical world which so inspired the pioneers of the prog rock scene), Indian music has somehow remained almost unexplored in that vein. George Harrison, of course, did his bit to popularise the music he so enthusiastically supported, through tracks such as Within You Without You to name one high profile example (as well as his support of Ravi Shankar, culminating in him giving Shankar the opening spot at the Concert For Bangla Desh – a gesture blunted slightly by the well-meaning yet misguided audience audibly applauding when he finished tuning up!). Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones introduced the sitar into their music in the mid-’60s with Norwegian Wood and Paint It Black. However, a full melding of Indian music and rock remained a furrow almost entirely unploughed, with the very occasional exception such as the brilliant yet oft-forgotten Quintessence. That is, until the early ’80s when singer (and ex-Grange Hill actress) Sheila Chandra – fresh out of school – teamed up with multi-instrumentalists Steve Coe and Martin Smith to form an act with the idea of realising exactly that tantalising match-up. And how well it worked!
Released the year after the chart success of that lead-off single, Third Eye possibly came a little too late to not only fully ride the wave of their popularity, but also arguably to save the existence of the band, who broke up partly owing to record company interference and demands about future direction. And that is a massive shame, as the album is absolutely bursting with boundary-pushing innovation, startlingly well-realised collaboration and brilliant musical arrangements. Yes, if you liked the single then you would pretty much like the direction of the album, but the depth of the material here is of the highest quality, and has lost absolutely none of its impact four decades on.
Album opener Wings Of The Dawn sets out the band’s stall, and effectively their manifesto, in magnificent style. Opening with a drone-like intro, and Sheila’s keening vocal, the devotional aura of the music is gradually added to and morphed by the introduction of more and more instrumentation, both eastern and western, resulting in a track which, far from being another ‘school disco favourite’, marks itself out as one which has the depth and imaginative scope to appeal to the most dedicatedly ‘cerebral’ of prog-rock listeners. And on even simpler terms, it also maintains a brilliant Asian percussive beat which carries throughout most of the album without ever coming across as ‘dance music’ for the sake of it. This is followed up by an unexpected cover of the Beatles classic Tomorrow Never Knows, which is a startling success – the hypnotic, trippy nature of the original proving a fit so natural for this ‘raga-rock’ approach that it is practically a pair of comfy slippers. It’s hard to take on the Beatles at their own game, but this does it. Of course, it can’t all be drone-like and esoteric in tone, and the following Third Eye And Tikka TV is in its turn upbeat and joyful. Eyes, up next, is more laid-back and reflective, yet beautifully melodic, while the first side of the old vinyl ends with the magnificent Shakti (The Meaning Of Within), which this time manages to mix the hypnotic and deeply Asian roots of the song with a chorus which brings the celebratory and uplifting side to such an extent that it becomes hard not to join in with the cry of ‘Shakti, yeah!’ – and even harder to keep from smiling. It’s one of the best ‘vinyl sides’ of music that the ’80s decade ever produced, and things are just as strong as the album continues.
Ever So Lonely opened the old second vinyl side (a division not missed here on CD, as the album flows seamlessly), and is the definitive version of the song, as the seven-inch single edit is increased to a running time of over six minutes, with a groove settled into which takes the song to another level. Indeed, this ability to get into a rhythmic pocket and simply jam on it places some of the material as almost a spiritual cousin of the space-rock purveyed by Hawkwind and the like. A long way from that school disco and no mistake! You Can’t Take Me With You is, to these ears, the best pure ‘pop’ song on the album, an utterly irresistible piece brilliantly sung by Chandra, and one which was inexplicably passed over for single release. And I You takes things back to a more raga-driven and weighty mood, in the vein of Eyes, before Kashmir – the only instrumental on the album, and nothing at all to do with Led Zeppelin! – takes things down a flute-inspired mellow course. The album proper concludes with the upbeat, glossy sheen and marvellous hook of Watchers Of The Night, but we are just at the beginning of a raft of excellent bonus additions at this point.
Man Who Makes Time and With Your Love were, probably rightly, left off the original album as they don’t really fit the Indian flavour so much, though the former in particular really impresses with an almost folk-rock feel to it. The four tracks which made up a 1981 EP follow next (including an early Ever So Lonely and the rather splendid Sunset Over The Ganges which also did duty as the B-side of the big hit single). Shout ‘Til You’re Heard is another strong and energetic track, but Mirror Of Your Mind veers a little too closely to the Beatles’ And Your Bird Can Sing to avoid the comparison being distracting. Closing the disc is an early 1982 Capital Radio session which is a great find. Of its four tracks, we get strong versions of Ever So Lonely and Sunset Over The Ganges, but the highlights are definitive takes of Shakti and a quite empowering and inspirational Shout ‘Til You’re Heard.
The second disc is one which is far more for the dedicated collector, as it mines the Ever So Lonely seam to its limit, with no less than eight different versions, from seven and twelve inch edits, instrumental versions, four 1990 remixes and a bizarre ‘Dub version’, which doesn’t really work. There are highlights on the disc if you dig for them, with a Hindi version of Wings Of The Dawn being remarkably effective, and the B-side of the Tomorrow Never Knows single, the rather beautiful Indian Princess. In fact, it seems very strange to sequence the latter deep in the middle of a disc full of alternative versions, where it is less likely to be regularly heard – I would have liked that one to be on the main disc. It deserves to be.
Even if the second disc is one designed for completist purposes as opposed to regular listening, the first disc alone makes this an absolute must-own for anyone with even a moderately open mind as to what can be achieved when a group of exceptionally talented musicians and songwriters – plus a voice and image as perfectly suited as Sheila Chandra brought to the table – combine to forge something as genuinely innovative and superbly crafted as this. The original album was a classic – with the addition of the round-up of the extra tracks, and the fascinating booklet thoughts of Sheila herself, it just got better. The design of the package is very nicely done, and on a personal note, having spent an inspirational couple of weeks travelling around northern India some years ago, is beautifully evocative. With Sheila now sadly unable to sing any more for health reasons, this release in a way highlights both the triumph and the tragedy of the Monsoon story: the tragedy being that this is the only album they left us, but the triumph being that they left it to us at all. This could, and should have been a real step into the development of a wildly fertile crossover genre between Indian music and rock – until that potential is fully realised, this is an album to be savoured again and again. Exceptional.