On The Vital Signs Reunion Trail

After The Seven-Year-Itch

What a comeback performance it was! The Vital Signs, reunited for a nostalgic 30-minute-stint at the high-profile Nazia Hassan Tribute Concert on the 9th of March this year in Karachi. Not only were this pioneering band witnessed playing a concert after seven long years, it was their original line-up which went up on stage; a line-up that hadn't played together ever since mid-1990, but still stole the show.

Enough Beef for the Meet

The crowd response was far, far more exciting and enthusiastic than expected. The Signs realized that though a whole new generation of pop fans has grown up ever since they were kings, their brand of atmospheric FM-Pop is still well remembered. After the Nazia Tribute Concert, the pop industry was rife with speculations that the Signs were set to record their long-awaited fifth album. But these speculations have now come to a standstill.

It will be sad if the Signs let go of this opportunity. It is downright important that they record a brand new album in a scene which has grown dramatically since the Signs' first album.

Street Dancing Days

The Signs were first seen in a cheaply-made video directed by talented television director, Shoaib Mansoor, in late-1987 performing their very first song and hit, "Dil Dil Pakistan." Despite looking like a home video, it managed to get a lot of air time on PTV. There was something special about the Signs and Shoaib Mansoor was quick to notice it. They were good-looking, educated, middle-class kids, who had grown-up listening to Western pop/rock music. They had a natural feel for melody and mated filmi-disco and Alamgir's filmi-pop with introverted Floydian and Eagles-like melodicism, and packaged the brew in a refreashing "modern" image.

"Dil Dil Pakistan" was a one-off experiment. The Signs had absolutely no idea that the song would become such a big hit. But times were changing. For the first time after eleven years of Zia's police state, army men and cops stood aside, letting the youth dance on rooftops and wait for a "brighter, better era of openness". "Dil Dil Pakistan" vibrated everwhere.

This youthful euphoria and hope grew in intensity and boiled-over into 1989 when The Vital Signs signed an album deal with EMI-Pakistan; and the year "Music-'89" started the first wave of post-'88 local pop, which made VS the leading pop players of the country.

Bad Moon Rising

After the huge creative and commercial success of the Signs' debut album, the band's concerts became packed events. After every Signs' concert, hundreds of young men and girls would surround the band members for autographs. Life started to move a bit too fast for the four young musicians/pop stars/sex symbols. They were all very different individuals.

Synth-player/co-composer/producer, Rohail, was the leader, but totally introverted and always trying to stay away from the limelight. He didn't speak much and rarely smiled. Bassist Shahi, though always out there with Salman and JJ at concerts, smiled far more than Rohail, but at the same time spoke even lesser than him. Guitarist Salman was almost exactly what he is like today with Junoon: highly excitable, impulsive, up-front, always full of ideas, and a rapid talker. Vocalist Junaid Jamshed was always the most ubiquitious of them all and the biggest star in the Signs. He was also the most "romantic," getting involved and always coming out of a relationship with a broken heart.

They had become solid star material; everything Pepsi would love to get its hands on. When the cola's advertising agency approached them, the Signs, signed on knowing that album sales alone in the country's pirate-infested market would not be able to sustain them. The signing kicked-in the whole concept of corporate pop that is now the norm in the local pop scene. Suddenly, the Signs started making the kind of money none of them had even thought of making through pop music.

But almost right after, out came intra-band paranoia and ego-tussles. Victim No. 1 was Salman. He wasn't having such a great time with Rohail viz a viz the Signs' creative direction. His first major clash with Rohail was when a Salman-composed instrumental was dropped by Rohail from the band's debut album. So started a series of ego-clashes between the two; and right after the Pepsi deal, Rohail (according to Salman), made sure to "fire" Salman. But he wasn't ever informed of it upfront. However, JJ and Shahi "sided with Rohail's side of the story", and a point came when Salman started feeling totally isolated, leaving him no other option but to quit the Signs and start his own band and, of course, begin his long hatred, and mud-slinging matches against Rohail until they finally made-up in 1996. With a lucrative corporate-deal and a popularity status requiring the next VS album, the band suddenly found themselves without a guitarist until Rizwan-ul-Haq entered the picture for 1991's VS:2.

The Mood-Swinging Years

VS:2 (released in mid-'91), was a far cry from the band's debut. It was introverted, soft melancholy, and highlighted the enigmatic "dark" side of the band. It was a far cry from their upbeat debut, which had radiated with the feeling of hope after the dictatorship. However, post August-'90, not only had the euphoria disintegrated, the state of mind of the band members too was not even close to that which created their first album. It was the scene's most crisply produced album, but it was sad in essence.

Yes, Salman was trying to start his own revolution in the scene with his social-&-politically-conscious band of angry-young-men, Junoon, but before he could do that, on VS:2 ,the Signs had already scored their first ever (but indirect) "politically-motivated" songs. The tongue-in-cheek "Mera Dil Nahi Available" (actually about Pakistan's dependence on the U.S., even though most think this song to be a typical romantic ditty!); the sub-techno "Bazaar" (about poor villagers who come for food, shelter and a less poverty-striken-life in the country's urban jungles); and especially the powerful, thumping and angry, "Aisa Na Ho" (mourning the end of the hope and euphoria of the end of street dancing days!).

By 1993, the Signs had become the country's top-notch corporate-pop entities and the land's biggest pop act! They were now making a lot of money, playing more and more concerts within the country, also becoming the scene's most expensive players. They had gathered enough Asian fan following in England, the Middle-East and the States for tours outside the country. So, when the Signs entered the studios again to record their third album (1993's "Aitebar"), the pop scene was once again buzzing with excitement and new talent. So at the time of their third album's recording, the gloomy state of mind they had drowned in during the brilliant VS:2, had been replaced by a flamboyantly upbeat mood.

The new album was a better produced version of the upbeat, VS:1. It was all love, fun and celebration, apart from, the beautiful (JJ composed) ballad, "Aitebar," (recalling the sombreness of VS:2), and the powerful, epic "Yehe Zameen" which mated heavy techno beats and crackling guitar leads with Qawwali & Bhangra music dynamics. "Aitebar" ultimately became the Signs' biggest selling album.

Life had turned groovy, but not for long. Band leader Rohail now had enough financial resources to fulfill his other dream, that of expanding his horizons beyond being a musician. He wanted to enter the field of music-journalism by taking out the country's first ever pop magazine and also produce albums by other acts like Pepsi's brand new blue-eyed-boys, Awaz, the unreleased songs by pop/show-biz-journalist, Fifi Haroon and actress, Atiqa Odho, and also start arranging, producing, composing and recording advertising jingles other than those involving Pepsi. On the band front, he wanted to further "upgrade" the Signs' sound "so the band can penetrate Western markets as well". To achieve this end, he showed absolutely no hesitation in showing Rizwan the door and bringing in multi-talented guitar-whiz, Aamir Zaki. JJ and Shahi once again registered not an iota of protest at Rohail's decision to "fire" the band's second guitarist. By 1993-94, the Signs had already started to become a professional part of the corporate Pepsi-Interflow nexus.

Then, for reasons best known to them, the VS wasted time. Both their corporate obligations and fan-following were waiting since 1993's Aitebar, for a new album. In mid-'94, JJ, Shahi, Rohail and new guitarist, Aamir Zaki, started recording the new VS album. But the band also had to visit the U.S. for a two-week-tour. Rohail said that other matters and the recording of the new VS album were his main priorities, and suggested that the band cancel the tour. JJ refused. Angered by JJ's stand, Rohail announced his exit from the Signs on the eve of their departure.

The Division Bell

I remember JJ being totally furious at Rohail's exit. He accused him of trying to break-up a band he (JJ) had "given his sweat and blood to." But, since JJ was the main star of the band, and by now, one of the scene's most loved vocalists; and Shahi had developed into an excellent bass-player; and also the Signs now had the land's finest and most talented guitarists in Zaki, Rohail wasn't really missed. They hired a freelance synth-player, they pulled-off a successful tour of the U.S.

On their return, Rohail decided to return to the fold. They had already recorded three songs (with Zaki) for the new album, (the smug and arrogant, "Hum Jeetain Gay"; and two unplugged versions of VS:2's "Teray Liyay" and 1993's beautiful, "Aitebar"). Then off they went to Dubai and played an epic and hugely successful show in front of 40,000 people! "That show was a highly emotional moment for us all," says JJ. "We all hugged each other and forgot that Rohail had exited at all."

Rohail was much more excited about the band's London tour. He had already bought tickets to watch his all-time-favourite act, Pink Floyd's concert.

"There was us, Awaz's Assad Ahmed, and Junoon's Ali Azmat," Rohail told me. "And, my God, what a great time we all had. It was like having a huge sonic spliff, if you know what I mean?" All except Zaki. Being as moody (if not more) as Rohail, he claimed to have "moved-on beyond Floyd, Clapton, (et, al.)" and gotten into puritan jazz players like Pat Methany.

As producer, co-composer and arranger of the band Rohail wanted to revisit the sound he had helped generate on the sombre VS:2, but with more Floydian overtones mated with the Signs' very own brand of neo-filmi-pop. So what the hell was his guitar-player talking about moving beyond Floyd?

"Zaki, no doubt an excellent player, wanted to play a lot of jazz on the album," says Rohail. "I found him completely removed from the sort of sound I had in my mind regarding the new VS album." And out went Zaki. He says he was in it only to make enough money to record his debut album (1995's brilliantly played, but clinical, "Signature"). And according to him, "Rohail got insecure, because he wouldn't have been able to be the main producer and arranger with me around."

This time around, instead of getting another full-time-guitarist, the Signs decided to hire Assad Ahmed (of Awaz), to play on the post-Zaki numbers. "Assad always wanted to be a regular part of the Signs", says Zaki. "I guess if I'd declined the Signs, Assad surely would have been pulled out of Awaz and been taken in by Rohail." And why not! He was only with Awaz for those big Pepsi bucks. Regarding Awaz's dance-oriented neo-filmi-pop-meets-rockabilly music, Assad did more with his long locks and Kiss antics than his guitar!

But, he did an excellent job on the new VS album, 1995's "Hum Tum". JJ was in great form again capturing the deep-blue-introversion of Rohail's arrangements and Shoaib Mansoor's lyrics which, as usual, revolved mostly around isolated romantics and their painful solitude. The compositions of the songs have thick Floydian atmospherics using "found-sounds"/sound-effects which made one song ripple its way into the next; tight drum-machine arrangements; and most importantly, that famous Dave Gilmore wailing guitar tone and notes which Rohail was desperately looking for. "Hum Tum" was an excellent album. With gems like the sombre, but beautiful "Hum Tum"; "Jana"; the epic "Main Chup Raha", and many more. It sold well too.

But 1995 was also the year when a group of NCA students and a girl called Hadiqa, would plunge into the scene with a low-budgeted, mad-cap pop show called "VJ". A show, whose satirical ways and schizophrenic antics, plus the many new pop acts they started introducing (Hadiqa, Dr. Aur Billa, Abrar-ul-Haq, Sharique Roomie, Shehzad Roy, Jawad Ahmed), would not only topple the ratings of the big-budgeted Pepsi Top Of The Pops, but also become the platform for the third wave. Also by 1996, Junoon's eclectic sufi-rock cracker, "Inquilaab", finally turned them into the new mainstream favourites.

The End Game

The band started work on their fifth album much of which eventually became JJ's first solo outing in 1998. By then Rohail had joined Interflow and Shahi had begun his successful stint as producer, mixer and arranger of albums and jingles.

It was weird watching the once enigmatic Rohail run after the agency's bosses note-pad in his hand; while JJ's double-life, as pop star and member of a tableeghi cult had started taking its toll on the man's pop obligations. A time came when both Shahi and Rohail were hardly on talking terms with JJ. And even though, the Signs never "officially" announced their break-up, it was pretty clear that they would not be recording together again.

In late-'97, the Signs' supreme reign as the land's pioneering pop act came to an end. And I would say, it was a premature end. Otherwise, they would never have gotten the kind of reception they got at the Nazia Tribute Concert, and there wouldn't have been so much interest within the pop press and the fans, about that one-million-cola-bucks question: Will they or will they not record that long-awaited fifth album?

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
April, 2002
The News International, Pakistan