Thailand's King of Rock Guitar

I arrived in the Thai northern provincial capital of Udon Thani in the summer of 1969. The Viet Nam war was raging and in support of that effort, there were American airman on about a dozen Royal Thai Air Force bases scattered all over the country. The other branches of the U.S. military occupied other installations in Thailand, but the country was primarily a staging area for American air operations over Viet Nam. Undoubtedly there were clandestine operations present, also. Among them, Air America used to fly in and out of Udon in C-130 Hercules aircraft painted to resemble civilian airliners.

About nine miles outside of the city, near a nondescrept village called Non Soong, there was a small radio listening post. Built by the U.S. Navy, run by the U.S. Army, and with an Air Force detachment, the barracks were two-story buildings built of cinderblock and fully air-conditioned. That was luxury living when most other U.S. military personnel were living in low wooden structures with screened windows all around and big fans.

As with just about everywhere U.S. military people were deployed, there were bars and juke joints catering to American fighting men. Although there were some women in the armed forces at that time (not as many as there are now), there were not enough of them to prompt local businessmen to try to extract their paychecks. If you liked to drink, listen to music, and/or look at native girls, you were in the right place.

The U.S. military had a disease control program in effect, aimed at keeping down the rate of venereal disease infections among military personnel. Every girl who was sleeping with Americans for money had to get a check-up monthly. She carried a little booklet, called a VD card (about the size of a book of stamps), that had the results of each monthly checkup written in it. A guy was supposed to ask to see her book and make sure her checkups were up to date before taking any chances. (I would like to describe what a typical book had written in it, but I've never seen one. Smart, huh?) If there were too many infections from girls at a particular club, the club was placed off-limits, effectively closing it down, since locals seldem frequented those clubs unless they were making money from Americans.

There was a club in town known as the Tip Top Club. It went through about four name changes in the year I was there. Some club owners thought that they could get around being placed off-limits by simply changing the name of their club. That didn't work. Anyway, if you asked a taxi driver to take you to the Tip Top, they always got you to the right place.

There was a band that played there most of the time known as the VIPs. The band consisted of a couple of Thais on Bass and drums, a Burmese on keyboards and rhythm guitar, and a Thai singer and lead guitar player. (They had a big hulk of a man from Singapore singing for them on occasion. He had come to Thailand with a band from Singapore and decided to stay. He used to sing Tom Jones' "Green Green Grass of Home" in a powerful deep voice. Only problem was that whoever taught him the words told him that the line "Hair of gold and lips like cherries" was "hair of gold and lips so hairy".) Anyway, the VIPs was different from just about every band playing in town. Here's why:

Throughout Southeast Asia there were bands playing covers of American and British rock hits of the era. Most of them did a pretty good job of sounding like the songs on the radio and in the jukeboxes. The better bands were able to sound like the original recordings when even the bands that made the original recordings could not do so playing live. We referred to those bands as "mimic bands". One problem with mimic bands was that they usually didn't know what they were singing about or had no cultural reference to the feelings the songwriter was trying to convey. So the songs often lacked heart. One band I used to listen to a lot (because the place they played in served pretty good pizza) were right on as far as sounding like the original song, but were several beats-per-minute slower. The lead singer was a guy of Indian descent who did have his own take on The Impossible Dream, but it wasn't all that good. He had a very nice voice, though.

But the heart of the VIPs was the singer and lead guitarist who called himself Lam Morrison. It's because of him the band actually got into the songs and played them instead of copying them.

He seemed to have a special affinity for Doors songs and sounded a lot like Jim Morrison, which is why I believe he took the name Morrison for a last name.

They performed a wide range of music. Three Dog Night's "Celebrate", Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely", and of course Led Zeppelin songs.

Several times I shot some photos during their performances and gave them some prints which made them very happy. I have only found one of them, so far. I also performed with them on stage at the Tip Top a couple of times, playing rhythm guitar and singing "Johnny B. Goode", and doing some blues on the harmonica.

One afternoon I heard a car horn honking in front of my place in town. It turned out to be Lam in a little Honda Fair Lady sports car.

Honda had just started exporting cars to the U.S. at that time. They wouldn't be exporting the Fair Lady, however. It was chain drive like a motorcycle.

He explained to me that he wanted me to help him with a song. That's when I found out something interesting about Lam Morrison: Although he sang in English and sounded like he grew up with the language, his spoken English was barely intelligible.

He drove me over to the Tip Top where he had a portable record player set up on one of the tables. The song he was working on was the first cut from Led Zeppelin's album that had "Stairway to Heaven" on it. Remember, that album had four celtic symbols for the title.

Anyway, the song was "Good Times Bad Times" and he needed help with the words, so I wrote them out for him.

Now, Robert Plant is British and his accent is evident in his singing much of the time. The first line of the song is "In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man". The way Plant sang it, "told" could easily be mistaken for "tell", and that's what Lam insisted it was. I explained to him that it would not be said that way in English, but he was never convinced. He always sang it "In the days of my youth I was tell what it means to be a man".

Years later when I was stationed in Athens, I was showing my photo portfolio to some friends. There were a couple of photos of the band still in my book. Those friends had hired girls from Thailand to work as maids, and of them was looking through the book and looked up at me.

"You take this picture?" she asked, pointing at a shot of Lam.

I replied that I had.

"He big, big star in Thailand now." she answered.

A Google image and video search on "Lam Morrison" will turn up a lot of stuff, most of it not too good at showing what he can do. But he's worth a look and a listen. I wish he had had the opportunity to come to the U.S. and perform.

VIPs2 (53K) lam morrison (12K)

This is a shot I took of Lam Morrison around 1967 in Udon Thani.

It was taken during the intro to "When the Music's Over" by the

doors, after the little organ riff, where the guitar kicks in.

When Lam and the VIP's did it, a flashing strobe light also kicked in.

That is when I took the shot

This is Lam with his famous "guitar as a lethal weapon" ax.

I did not take this picture.