August 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of the arrival of one of the most popular seminal Pakistani pop bands, the Vital Signs.
Apart from Nazia Hassan, the only other Pakistani pop act that has retained such intense interest and popularity after its demise has been the Vital Signs.
But whereas, Nazia’s classic status and popularity were duly propelled by her working relationship with famous British disco producer, Biddu, the Signs had more of a struggle, trying to play and sell the kind of pop that was still a risky anomaly in the Pakistan of the mid and late 1980s.
Today, more than two decades after their formation in 1986 and 17 years after their last album, even the vaguest rumour about a possible Signs reformation generates widespread interest – even among a whole new generation of local pop fans, most of whom were only toddlers when the Signs were first formed.
From the urban underbelly of melody …
The Vital Signs were launched in early 1986 in Rawalpindi by two teens, Rohail Hayatt (keyboards, synthesisers), and Shahzad Hassan (bass).
They were soon joined by Nusrat Hussain (guitar, keyboards). Interestingly, they were not yet called the Vital Signs.
Not even when lead singer Junaid Jamshed, a young engineering student from Lahore, joined.
This was a time when the wily General Ziaul-Haq was reigning supreme as dictator masquerading as a “democratically elected” President with a puppet parliament sanctioning his every move reeking of a Machiavellian brand of so-called “Islamisation.”
Even though the country, at the time was covered by a thick, smoggy façade of strict conservatism and awkward moralistic pretence, its urban underbelly was clogged with raising ethnic tensions, gang violence, corruption and state-sponsored terror partaken by Zia’s various intelligence agencies to suppress dissent against the dictatorship.
Ironically, it was these political and economic tensions and pretensions, power plays and freak economic prosperity that also propelled the gradual expansion of the country’s urban middle and lower-middle-classes.
And it is the youth cultures that emerged from these classes that launched the first shots of the kind of pop culture, scene and music we now call modern Pakistani pop.
Change was in the air. Tensions were running high and something had to give. This was the underlining feeling among the time’s youth. They could not pin-point exactly what or how this change would happen, but the moment Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in mid-‘86 and led a mammoth rally in Lahore, the country’s major urban centres saw a quiet but certain outpouring of brand new pop bands who wanted to sound somewhat different from the time’s top pop scions.
Before the ‘revolution’: Nazia and Zoheb Hassan performing on the state-owned PTV in 1981. She (along with her brother Zoheb Hassan) was Pakistan’s biggest-selling pop act, even though their album sales and TV appearances were briefly banned by the Zia regime in 1981. The ban was lifted in 1983.Video:
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Alamgir was another seminal pop wonder of Pakistan and a star. This is a 1979 song of his.Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar …
Most of the new acts that began appearing after 1986, played at private parties and weddings and at college functions. The Signs by early 1987 were firm favourites in the period’s college function circuit.
The Signs performance also included ambitious and bold covers of vintage Pink Floyd, Rush and A-ha songs, apart from the usual popular Pakistani filmi-pop and Indian film tunes of the time.
The band never took itself seriously, though. Music was just a hobby. But all that changed, however, when they were discovered by ace PTV producer and director, Shoaib Mansoor, a shy, introverted bohemian and a keen music lover.
Wanting to cash-in on the charisma he found in the way the band looked and sounded, Shoaib asked them to record a national song he had written and wanted to air (as a video) on PTV. The song, of course, was “Dil, Dil Pakistan.”
By now the band had started to call themselves the Vital Signs, inspired by the title of a song on the 1981 Rush album, ‘Moving Pictures.’
It was Nusrat Hussain who took the initial shot at composing the song. Shoaib hated the first draft. He wanted it to be a lot catchier. Nusrat had another go and came up with an intro that was appreciated by the other members. Encouraged by it, the others (especially Junaid), lend in their own in-puts and ideas until the tune was completed, approved by Shoaib and recorded.
It was released in the summer of 1987 as a video (directed by Shoaib), in which the Signs are shown singing the song over what looked like the lush hills of Murree.
It was an instant hit. The new generation loved it, as it was the first time ever, since the Zia regime had restricted the wearing of western dress on TV (in 1982-83) that young men in denim, leather jackets and guitars were seen (and allowed) on PTV.
Shoaib had certainly pulled off a smart coup. For years now, ‘Dil, Dil Pakistan’ is regarded to be the ‘second Pakistani national anthem.’
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