Ronnie and the Burns were Singapore's first rock and roll band. Their story is a musical lens revealing the history of Singapore and Southeast Asia.
THEME FOR A DREAM / TIONG BAHRU ROAD / October 28, 1964
Twice a week, starting from around six in the evening, Ronnie carefully packs his records and record player in old rice sacks. He walks along the muddy tracks of the Malayan Railway, hoping the gangs aren’t around. He scrambles away from the tracks and carefully climbs upwards along the jungle paths.
Once he is past the ritzy Bobotan Mansions on the edge of Tiong Bahru, he feels he and his records are safe. At the end of Seng Poh Road, beneath the clocktower, is a coffee shop with a jukebox. Ronnie buys a tea and hopes someone plays Cliff or Elvis.
At 6:35, he picks up his gear and heads out. On one side of Seng Poh Road the SIT flats are modern, on the other side the flats are Art Deco, once white but now faded and peeling. The streets are crowded and the shops are still open. The hawker center, bustling like always, is surrounded by the pasar malam. Stalls selling food, fruits, clothes, all kinds of household goods and cheap toys. Yellow tarps and light bulbs sway in the breeze. Families, couples, pairs of friends and single people. Multinational. Ronnie’s thinking of logistics: concert posters to be printed... equipment to be upgraded. The kick drum needs a new rim. How much to charge for tickets? What will we wear? He checks his wallet, making sure he has enough to take the four guys in his band out for snacks after rehearsal. Chicken pies are 60 cents each, and a glass of fresh sugar cane juice costs a dime. Ronnie turns left on Tiong Bahru Road, by the Bird Corner, and sings his favorite song:
It won't work poor boy,
Don't you try again.
Fate took hold of your love and you can't win ...
You can sing the blues all to yourself
But while you're singing
She's with someone else, poor boy ...
The SIT Trust building, where Ivan’s family lets them rehearse and store gear. Ronnie walks up the three flights. Ivan, his classmate, smiles as he opens the door. They unpack Ronnie’s 45s, review notes and go over lyrics. The others show up. Drums are dragged out of the bedroom and guitars get plugged into the homemade amps. Ronnie plays the 45s and explains the chord changes. A set list is made.
Dozens of shoes soon surround the door. Boys and girls fill every available space. A few sit on wooden stools; most are on the floor. The room is warmhearted. Ivan flips the room lights on and off. The musicians walk through the crowd and pick up their instruments. Ronnie stands in the kitchen doorway.
Ronnie and the Burns start with Theme for a Dream, by Cliff Richard. The room is full of smiles and tapping toes. The band plays it well, but shrill feedback fades in and out, almost ruining it. Ronnie looks deeply into the eyes of everyone in the room. He slowly speaks the last line of the song. “Please make my dreams come true.”
Ronnie checks the band , then counts off the intro to Please Don't Tease. The band storms through it, then jumps into Gee Whiz It's You. A hot, innocent sexiness. Humidity. Sweat. The band is tight. Singapore rocknroll history is being made. Elvis is in the house, Cliff’s rockin’ the kampung.
Ronnie runs a towel over his face. Ivan's brother checks cables to fix a buzz. The band goes into Thinking of Our Love. The rhythm guitar amp crackles louder and louder. The song ends and Ivan gets busy again. Ronnie chats with the audience, and invites everyone to a tea dance, “way out in Tampines.” Ivan finally gives a thumbs up.
Ronnie takes a swig of water. “Now, another one by Cliff Richard. It's called Poor Boy.”
The jangly guitars begin, proud but bittersweet. The sparkling cymbals and the drums sneak in, smooth and steady against the rhythm guitar. Ronnie looks at everyone, then closes his eyes.
Bad luck can be good luck in disguise
Some day new love may come to call
Poor boy, we'll be rich men after all, poor boy...
we'll be rich men after all...
The song ends. While the clapping continues, Jeffrey Wong takes a step forward. His fingers move with a slow grace, caressing the silver strings of his solid body Hofner Galaxie. The amp works perfectly now. The arpeggio beginning of House of the Rising Sun fills the room. The song is about a man in prison. Ronnie’s voice is full of sadness. The windows are open, and the song drifts out onto Tiong Bahru Road, all the way down to the rubble that is what is left of Outram Prison.
Part 1 of this story is here.
The lyrics to Poor Boy are copyrighted by eldorado music and were written by McEntire and Vernon.
I would like to thank Joseph C. Pereira for introducing me to Ronnie See. One of Joseph's books about Singapore's Sixties music is Apache Over Singapore.
Very special thanks to Ronnie See.
The copyright to this story is jointly shared by Stephen Black and Ronnie See.