Raja the riffmaster

I wrote this really long post on Raja’s music here. In it, I mentioned that his music wasn’t just meant to be melodic or soothing (while there is surely nothing wrong with that) but also exciting. Or, to use a very rock term, kickass.

Years back, I was in Chennai over at my cousin’s place and a Raja song was playing on the TV and my chitappa (uncle) said Raja is all about guitar. A younger and more impetuous version of me then bristled at the suggestion that Raja was about one instrument. I mean, he was a sakalakalavallavan of every conceivable instrument, so why guitar.

BUT, reflecting upon it today, I see the truth in my chitappa’s observation in a roundabout way. Again, I am NOT saying he does not handle the violin, the flute, the saxophone or the nadhaswaram, you name it, well. But to go back to the earlier observation, the reason Raja’s music has fizz and doesn’t only appeal to old fashioned elegance is indeed because of how well he handles guitar. Not just using it in unexpected ways, which I covered here, but just doing the bread and butter stuff of writing amazing riffs amazingly well. To the point where there is a circular relationship between my liking for rock and my liking for Raja’s music. I can’t tell if it was my fondness for Raja’s guitar parts that hooked me onto rock later or whether my exposure to rock has since made me see a different dimension of Raja’s music (it’s probably both the things).

As such, Raja didn’t just think of guitar as a ‘strumming’ instrument which was its chief function previously in our film music but he used it as the consummate rockstar that it really is. This isn’t to suggest nobody ever tried writing riffs before. I don’t know if it was S D Burman or R D Burman who wrote that riff (hehe!) but Meri Sapno Ki Rani antara is a good example of a catchy riff. Nice call-response with the vocals too. The building blocks are there. They were there for Raja to use them and take them to hitherto unimagined heights.

So, with that, here is a little list of Raja songs with rocking riffs. Neither is the list ordered nor is it comprehensive, just the first ten off the top of my head. And there is an addendum in the end in case the list leaves you wondering where’s the rock in all this:

  1. Ithu Oru Nila – Tik Tik Tik:

The riff at 0:25 is catchy as hell, working in tandem with keyboards and bass, though the one coming in at 0:43 is what may sound more stereotypically rock:

And while not a riff but a combination of guitar and keyboard leads with a brilliant bass groove, the part coming in at 3:34 is also amazing.

2. Poomalai Oru Paavai – Thanga Mahan:

I hear you, Poomalai, nice song, but is it really one of Raja’s masterpieces? No, it’s not, but just the way Roger Federer often hits incredible shots even in his worst losses, Raja does amazing things even in less stone-cold selections. Poomalai Oru Paavai is a pretty standard disco-Raja song but the riff at 0:10, man!

Notice here too (as also in Ithu Oru Nila) that the guitar playing isn’t loud. Raja understands perfectly well that it’s the vigour of the rhythmic pattern that makes a guitar part, not the volume. Which is also the reason why I find the riff itself more fascinating than the lead parts playing alongside on electric guitar.

3. Vaazhavaikkum Kadhalukku – Aboorva Sagotharargal:

Now this one is a more predictable/agreeable selection, I guess. The intro itself rocks your socks off.

But he isn’t done yet, hardly. At 1:10, the guitar part that’s been playing second fiddle to the trumpet now moves into an insistent rock pattern and the part that follows at 1:15 is also brilliant. By the way, note, three different guitar parts coming along in the space of 15 seconds. And yet, not a note too many, everything in its right place, commanded by Raja the master orchestrator.

4. Neethane Enthan Ponvasantham – Ninaivellam Nithya:

Another legendary selection that needs no introduction.

I am not going to break it down and choose specific guitar parts. I will only draw your attention to the thunderous bass riff building up at 3:05. Seriously, that has to be one of the heaviest riffs in Indian film music. And he was doing this in 1982? No way, are you kidding me!

5. Rojapoo Adivanthathu – Agni Natchathiram:

The main riff (that accompanies the Rojapoo adivanthathu refrain) is super-stylish to begin with. But my favourite is the part at 1:34:

This marks the early stages of a phase where he would start writing layered parts with both guitar and keyboard in tandem to produce a different tone. Stuff that was going on in the mainstream rock/pop music of the decade. You can hear how much more 80s this song sounds compared to Neethane which is like a lost 70s child with its pure tones, slap guitar and syncopated grooves. And yet, Raja found a way to appropriate the 80s in a way that doesn’t sound as dated as, um, idk, Def Leppard or Spandau Ballet? This is more like Prefab Sprout but even better. Devoid of the slight self-consciousness of that band or its dated keyboard tones.

6. Paatu Thalaivan Paadinal – Ithaya Kovil

The part at 1:04, both brilliant and unexpected. Up to that point, you have had a tabla beat with slap guitar call-response. So this awesome riff catches you by surprise, a not too unsurprising happenstance when you listen to Raja:

7. Salaioram Solai Ondru – Payanangal Mudivathilai:

At 1:09, no, not the sweet electric guitar lead which is wonderful too (but more typical). It’s the underlying riff, again.

8. Rojavai Thalatum Thendral – Ninaivellam Nithya

I would have liked to keep it to one song per film. But this was about catchiest riffs and there is a voice screaming in my head to include this beauty, so here I go:

Like the other selection from this film, this song is just chockfull of stunning guitar writing. But the part that most captivates me is the one at 2:42.

9. Athadi Allikodi – Thendral Sudum:

This is another of those less than stellar Raja cuts which has some very interesting stuff going on nevertheless. Listen to the guitar parts that start off the song:

10. Kallathanamagaka Kannam – Ulle Velliye

Once again, I rather dislike the beat and unfortunately Raja used this beat a lot in the early-mid 90s. But the part that accompanies the pallavi. As before, I am talking not about the very overtly rock-like part but the other, flowing and busy guitar part. The one that sounds more like 3:25 basically:

So…to address some possible questions here:

  1. I didn’t touch slap guitar/bass beauties like Paatu Inge as that would be a whole other list.
  2. I didn’t touch songs with great lead parts because…same as above. So that leaves out a classic like En Iniya Pon Nilave.
  3. Now, two categories of songs that may have been expected to be in my list but I didn’t include. The first is songs like Muthaduthe or Megam Kottattum. Which may be seen as the epitome of rock if you don’t much listen to rock. But for someone like me who has had more than a lifetime’s fill of rock already, the guitar writing on such songs actually sounds very cliche to me. Like Raja telegraphing to the listeners that this is ROCK SONG. By Indian film music standards, even those songs could be said to be innovative for their time. But it’s the busy parts that blow me away because THEY would be amazing even if used in a Western rock song without any changes.
  4. On similar lines, if I can at least tolerate parts like Megam Kottattum, Raja going METAL on Pottu Vaitha Kadhal, Pattu Poove Mettu Paadu or the Kalaignan songs is rather irritating for me. Raja trying so hard to sound brash and loud is like the antithesis of everything I love about his guitar writing. SO…the songs that you would perhaps have thought would be shoo ins in my list are exactly the ones that would never make it for me. Said another way, you would think a rock lover like me loved the soundtrack of Rock On but no! It presented a very cliched idea of rock, an idea that may be palatable for a mainstream audience not much interested in rock but which hardly fascinates those who listen to a lot of rock already.

9 Responses to “Raja the riffmaster”

  1. TambiDude Says:

    IR was phenomenal, but somehow the sound quality in IR was never as good as that of RDBurman of even 70s. the other day I was listening to “yeh jawani hai diwani” (Jawani DIwani) and the sound was so modern. Same with Lekar hum diwana dil (Yadon Kee Baraat).

    • Madan Says:

      It is a ‘puriyadha pudhir’. Has to do at least partly with Prasad Studios itself vis a vis Mumbai. Because the albums IR recorded at Mumbai, notably Anandha Kummi had a distinctly better sound quality. Or compare Sadma with Moonram Pirai.

  2. Suraj Says:

    Fabulous post as usual Madan. I seem to have come across this post after a rather tumultuous week given the quietus of a great voice, who in conjunction with Raja really defined the decade that we all have come to love and adore. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to a few of them…feeling gutted man! This combo is NEVER happening again!!

    Bringing myself back to the topic, the more I discover about Raja, the more bewildered I get. Have no clue how this man survived in an era when mediocrity was the norm and any spark of originality the exception. A song situation like ‘Vaazhavaikkum Kadhalukku Jai’ was perhaps a banality at the time and I cannot come to terms with the fact that the ideation and conceptualization happen with a freakin harmonium!! Oddly for a peppy number, the string section following the trumpet in the opening phrase clams my nerves. I hear you about the ‘earthiness aspect’ in your earlier post. The man is like a parachute anchored to the soil.

    Not sure if you have had a chance to explore but I would press you to listen to the background score of Netrikann particularly the guitar phrase prior to Rajnikanth molesting Sarita when he puts on the ‘X-Ray glasses’ LOL!! Curious to know if this resonates with your idea of subversion.

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks for the wonderful comment, Suraj. I will be writing my thoughts on the loss of SPB, still coming to terms with it. 😦

      Regarding how Raja survived the mediocrity of the 80s, I and my father were discussing about SPB’s difficulties in adjusting to Hindi. And we concluded, based on his wonderful demos of Rafi or Kishore songs in programs, that more than just the diction, it was that the Hindi composers in the 80s made him sing in a rather loud way. It was in fact the IR-SPB combo that was keeping the fine sensibilities of the golden era of Hindi music alive, while simultaneously also unleashing trailblazing innovations. It was a period without parallel in our film music.

      Let me look for the score of Netrikann. I don’t remember that scene off the cuff but since you mentioned what it’s like, I should be able to find it off the movie even if there is no separate upload of the background score anywhere. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Madan Says:

      Yes, this is brilliant (that passage as Rajni evaluates whether or not to wear those glasses). It’s actually pretty straightfoward, musically speaking, except for the keyboard line joining in the middle. It subverts expectations more by way of how different it is from the kind of BGM you would have expected for that scene in that era of super-melodramatic movies. He focuses on the mischief in Rajni’s mind instead and steadily builds up the momentum to the moment when Rajni will cross the line.

  3. Anonymous Violin Says:

    I don’t know if you already do this, but if not, please check out Aalap Raju’s bass covers of Ilayaraja songs. Especially Ninnukori Varnam and Rojapoo Adivanthathu. IR always came up with interesting bass lines.

    • Madan Says:

      Hi, thanks. Missed your comment. I subbed maybe a month back to Aalap Raju’s channel. I love his videos. They really illuminate the bass layer clearly. The variety of styles just on bass alone is mindboggling.

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