We knew that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary show. The band was from Shanghai, for goodness’ sake, and everyone in Beijing knows that good rock bands come from anywhere but Shanghai.
Then again, anyone from Beijing will tell you that nothing good can ever come from Shanghai. The Beijing-Shanghai grudge is one of the only things linking the northern (political, cultural) capital with its southern well, more in the middle, but since when should geography get in the way of a good inter-city battle? (business) capital. Beijingers, as the slogan posted around town says, are “friends to all the world”. Shanghainese have a reputation of, well, not so much being friends to any of the world, and certainly not to their northern counterparts. Beijingers, to Shanghainese, are all peasants; after all, the money is in Shanghai. But in terms of music, it’s clear that, Beijing v. Shanghai grudge notwithstanding, the “Pearl of the Orient” not only has nothing on Beijing, but nothing, period. Ok, it’s got a healthy jazz scene, a decent DJ scene, and a few of the country’s Great Experimental Hopes, but nothing rock-worthy has come from the place.
Well, almost nothing: Shanghai has Top Floor Circus.
In the weeks before The Show, in a move that demonstrates its hometown’s business savvy or, to put it another way, the ability to think in larger terms than one’s own circle of friends, which is a perennial and perpetual Peking Performer’s Problem Top Floor Circus leafleted the capital like it was a superpower bringing a new ideology to a soon-to-be-liberated land. While it wasn’t dropped from low-flying bombers, the band’s pamphleteering showed that it was embarking on more than just a fly-by show; it was preparing something . . . more. The complexly folded brochure heralded the band’s arrival with a chaotic layout featuring pictures, biography, and the promise of good times.
Top Floor Circus is a rarity not just for Shanghai, but for a rock scene mired in mediocrity and uninspired derivativeness. Top Floor Circus’ Tom Waits-inspired off-kilter take on folk music brought a level of critical acclaim and street cred that enabled it to win over a Beijing audience not usually interested in anything from Shanghai. What’s more, they seem to revel in their Shanghaineseness, which should, in theory, push Beijingers further away. But local musos were aflutter in the weeks leading up to the show, mainly because of Top Floor Circus’ recent decision to veer away from quirky folk music: Three albums into its successful run, Top Floor Circus decided to go punk. And not just regular punk, but a punk influenced by notorious bad-boy GG Allin. So now alt-folk was to meet gutter punk.
In its first wacky move of the evening, the band had prepared lyric sheets which were distributed at the door of the club; they also served as programs for the evening, and upon looking through them, we learned that in addition to a break halfway through, the band had scheduled an encore. Each of the four double-sided pages was headed with the caption: “The best, best, best punk from Shanghai.” This wasn’t your ordinary Chinglish, I realized, upon reading through: There was more to this than just poor linguistics. The lyrics had a bigger effect than that of simply mashed-up English. Or so I liked to think. And, in fact, with a few exceptions, their English wasn’t bad. But it was beside the point at any rate. Looking through the handout, I noticed that the last song of the set (pre-encore), “We Are Very Angry” (“We are very angry / We are very angry / We have a bad temper / We are flying into a rage / Timmy!”) was a nice bookend to the second set’s opener, a cover of the GG classic, “Bite It You Scum”. Yes, this was going to be something something beyond language entirely.
The night began with a movie. A bold move, to say the least, but one that introduced the level of wackiness that was about to unfold onstage. The movie showed the members of the band undergoing military training to become punks. Interspersed with images of band members dying off one by one from the harsh regiment were punked-up political slogans that had the entire room chuckling. And on walked the band. Clad in the bright robes of Tibetan Buddhism (which, over the course of the evening, peeled away from the monk-punks), the members took to the stage in the form of a procession of pilgrims, transforming the hands-clapped-together-in-prayer stance into a punk salute: Middle fingers, instead of whole hands, were clapped together.
The set began ominously, with barely a minute of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The song was cut off by an angry Lu Chen (vocals), but with his overly large smirk not far below the angry façade, we knew that this was part of the plan. Next, a brutal death-metal track, cut off, once again, before the real Top Floor Circus gig began.
Over the top? Perhaps. But it was a perfect start to a perfect night of amazingly sub-par music. The drummer could barely keep up. The playing was sloppy; each musician was obviously trying very hard to play at a mediocre level.
But it was glorious.
Not glorious in the punk-is-supposed-to-be-sloppy way, though they were playing sloppy punk tunes that were buttressed by “onetwothreefour!!!”-based rhythms, screaming guitars, and vocals. No, these guys were not punks that anyone would ever recognize, and not just because of their Buddhist robes. They weren’t playing punk; they were playing with punk. This was the kind of music that made you smile, and not because you were bopping your head along, like you would listening to Green Day. This music wasn’t very nice to listen to. But it was an absolute pleasure to take in. They called for an end to the inter-punk battle they perceived to be at East-West proportions in “Taking Shanghai Circus World” (Circus World is an acrobatics theatre in Shanghai):
Shanghai Circus World will be the home for punks…
No matter you are punk or post-punk
No matter you are old school or new school…
There are everything we could wish for
There is nothing it can’t do
There are all kinds of guitars that you wish for
There are all kinds of women that you wish for…
Taking Shanghai Circus World, it’s our utopia
To be fair, in Beijing, an old school-new school beef did result in a few brawls one of which occurred as a band played its set some injuries, and a six-month jail sentence for a singer caught in the middle of a months-long battle that began over a broken cymbal. In reality, the beef is more in the minds of a few than in the hearts of many. And it’s these few that Top Floor Circus was no doubt targeting, though the capital’s punks were notably absent from the crowd (and it’s probably for the best, since they may not have revelled in the fun like the intelligentsia gathered for this show). But then, the band did follow the call for peace with “Punks Are All Sissy”, which wasn’t reconciliatory, to say the least. “Punks are all pighead / You are so sick,” they screamed. “Who are punker than me / Who dare to be punker than me / You are so punk.”
Ah, and the band’s ode to Chinglish, the best and worst thing about living as a native English speaker in China. The song was introduced with the explanation that when the band sings songs in English, it’s not only Chinese people that don’t understand them; native English speaker are equally in the dark. Their reaction: The song “We Don’t Want U Understand Us”. Touché, in a beautifully Chinglish kind of way.
Perhaps, as I’ve said in this space before, I’ve been here too long. But seeing Top Floor Circus mock what have been some of the worst musical experiences of my young life was an absolute pleasure. Chinese punk got a lot of attention in the late ‘90s, and into this millennium, based on as in the case of most punk the completely visceral nature of it and the implications of revolution that it signalled for anyone whose experience with China did not extend past the local takeout joint. Children of communism and Tiananmen in leather, studs, and Mohawks, screaming bloody murder . . . or something, who could tell (whether it was English or Chinese)? What foreign correspondent could resist? But they seemed to overlook one small detail: With a few exceptions, the music was crap. Top Floor Circus noticed; at least, it seemed as though it did.
And others did, too. Much like in the years following the punk explosion, post-punk is the new Beijing punk. New bands are reacting to the Mohawked masses of street punk with Joy Division and the Cure-inspired angular post-punk, and it has produced a genuine movement, with a few standouts.
Top Floor Circus reacted, too, but it didn’t react with post-punk. It reacted with post-modern punk. The one thing that was missing was the musical ability that would have put its take on punk over the top; if the players were only good enough on their instruments to come off sounding mediocre on purpose. But the smile that I wore for the course of the evening was for the fact that watching them, you just knew that they got It. They revelled in their non-punkness, completely aware not only that they weren’t punks, but how silly trying so hard to be punk is. And many of us in the audience had been waiting a long while to hear someone say so. Even if it was a musical mess.