“I can't, even for a split second, deny the fact that when fame first hit us (the Vital Signs) at a level that we couldn't possibly imagine, it felt good,” said Rohail Hyatt. “But I think I soon realised that it's not my cup of tea. And you know there is no undo button in something like that.”
Although he talked about eluding fame (referring to the moment when the VS released their debut album), it's been anything but that for Rohail Hyatt for a major part of his career in music. A founding member and one of the creative minds behind Pakistan's first boy band; as a producer and one of the judges of the popular show Battle of the Bands (2002) which introduced some of the major mainstream acts in music that we know today, to producing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's debut album Charkha as well as the soundtrack of the film Khuda Kay Liye and lately Coke Studio — if it's fame that Rohail is trying to escape then unfortunately it's something he'll have to live with for it almost trails him like a shadow.
In his studio at his home, he was sitting where he always does — in front of the entire sound recording system. The first thing I noticed was the hair. It fell in waves of light brown, framing his face like a mane; but add to that the brown beard, the sturdy built and it all screamed a bohemian lifestyle.
“We call him Babs. If you didn't know that, then you don't know anything about him at all,” a member of the Vital Signs (not named here) said to me once about him. But then again, that is the purpose of this visit to uncover what it means to be Rohail Hyatt.
Rohail's story begins as a 14-year-old and a member of the Under-19 Rawalpindi cricket team. Back then, it seemed to him that his future was in the sport until he came across Rizwan-ul-Haq (who would later become the second official guitarist of the Vital Signs) at school playing the song A Horse with no Name with a guy called Aamir Salahuddin. Rohail immediately traded his brand-new training sneakers for Rizwan's guitar. Six months later, his aunt, on a visit from the UK, bought him his first Nylon-stringed guitar and a copy of the Pink Floyd album, The Wall. The year was 1980 and Pink Floyd, coupled with certain 'influences' that Rohail had begun to indulge in, changed him completely.
“The year 1982 was when Shahi came into the picture. I met him perhaps the same day that I also met my wife (Umber) at a convent meena bazaar,” he says about Shahzad Hasan, the bassist of the VS. “Shahi was a very close friend. I hung out with him every day; we used to be either at my place or his. His older brother was a mentor for us and we used to do a lot of camping, a lot of outdoor activities such as fishing. Great memories are associated with that time.”
Prior to the Vital Signs or meeting Junaid, Rohail was a member of two underground bands — Progressions and Crude X. Nusrat Hussain, who he cites as a major influence in learning and on his outlook on music along with the global acts of that era, was a member of Progressions whereas Shahi was in Crude X.
“I met Junaid for the first time in 1983. He was not an engineering student yet and had come down from Peshawar, I think, and was performing at a girls' college in F-6, Islamabad. He was singing Careless Whisper. I managed to get into the hall towards the end,” he remembered. Both Rohail and Shahi were in need of a vocalist for their band and Junaid seemed to be the answer to their prayers. Unfortunately, it was bitterly cold, they had arrived on motorcycles, and they had to go back to Rawalpindi before dark. They did not get the opportunity to speak to Junaid that day.
“I again saw Junaid perform at Flashman's Hotel in Rawalpindi as the vocalist of a band called Nuts and Bolts, which was the engineering university's band.” Nusrat had tipped him off with a 'that kid's coming back; the guy you liked' and that 'perhaps we should go and see him'. See him they did and Junaid joined their (yet unnamed) band.
Several performances later, and after having secured a place in the underground music industry in Islamabad and Lahore, they were approached by Rana Kanwal, a student of the PTV Academy, through Rohail's brother. She was given an assignment in which she wanted to make a music video and she wanted to make one of a music band. “The song we created for her was Chehra. It was the first song we wrote as an entity and it was also a part of our first album,” said Rohail. The band then caught the attention of Shoaib Mansoor who, back then, taught at the PTV Academy as well.
“In 1987, Shoaib Mansoor took notice and decided that we should do Dil Dil Pakistan. We laughed ourselves silly at the words dil dil Pakistan, we were like 'Oh God, we're never going to be able to show our faces, this is embarrassing'. Vital Signs thora sa burger syndrome se suffer karte thaye,” he laughed. “There was a much deeper meaning to the song, and obviously it eluded us at the time.”
The song aired on PTV and later, with the help of sponsorship, spread farther than the band had initially anticipated, becoming one of the premier patriotic anthems of the country. Vital Signs was on the brink of mass popularity but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
Tragedy struck and before they could record their first album, Nusrat left the band. Rohail had heard of a medical student, Salman Ahmed, at the King Edward College in Lahore, who was rumoured to play guitar leads by The Scorpions, Led Zepplin, etc. According to Rohail, it was enough to convince him of Salman's eligibility for the VS. Salman flew down to Rawalpindi, met the boys and joined the band. His inclusion in the band would change things for them — the tempestuous guitarist had a knack for PR and marketing and with his family, managed to secure a concert for them in Karachi. They met the chief executive of EMI records, Manzoor Bukhari, at Salman's place and got their first ever record deal.