Red Rock

The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll

by Jonathan Campbell

6 October 2011

From pivotal concerts by local legends to controversial visits from international rock superstars, clashes with state censors and government-sponsored rock festivals, this work encapsulates the thrills and frustrations experienced by Chinese rockers.
cover art

Red Rock: The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll

Jonathan Campbell

US: Sep 2011

“Excerpted from Chapter 1: The Rocker’s Paradise, from Red Rock: The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll by Jonathan Campbell. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Earnshaw Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Do not say that we have nothing.
We’ll be the masters of the world.
—“The Internationale”

A Scene from the Scene: May 2010

“Arise, slaves afflicted by hunger and cold,” they sang in the dark, rain-soaked, mud-covered park in Beijing’s university district. “Arise, suffering people all over the world.”

They were the last Chinese rock fans remaining in the park. They had come from around the country for the eleventh installment of the Midi Music Festival; punks, longhairs, hippies and office workers, singing to a deserted stage and emptying park. The rain that had come and gone over the course of the day came down so hard the festival’s plug had to be pulled. Almost twenty thousand people had left the park in the storm’s wake. These few thousand stayed, and had taken to singing. Perhaps it was an effort to conquer the storm; perhaps, it was because there was nothing else to do.

“The blood which fills my chest has boiled over,” they sang with an intensity that brought to mind their Revolutionary predecessors who, ninety-one years prior – to the day – stood up in the face of international embarrassment and in aid of strengthening their nation. “We must struggle for truth!”

“The Internationale,” the song they were covering is the soundtrack of the Chinese Communist Party, which was formed in the wake of the youth-led May Fourth Movement of 1919. In 1919, on the day that became known as Youth Day, the kids were up in arms over China’s place in the world. On Youth Day 2010, the kids were living in a world overshadowed by their nation, and had different concerns.

“The old world shall be destroyed,” sang the rockers, reveling equally in the song and the muck around them. “Arise, slaves, arise!” They would be dubbed “Titos” (tietou) – the Chinese word for the former Yugoslavian leader that means, literally, “iron henchmen”. It was the word used to describe the festival’s first fans, a small and fiercely loyal community.

The word “Woodstock” has for many years been bandied about with reckless abandon to describe Chinese rock and the Midi Festival. But in that moment, even though the gathered masses weren’t quite singing about peace, love and understanding, the comparison might just have been reasonable, so long as we recognize that “Woodstock” barely refers to the actual Summer of Love event, but rather some idealized version of a Perfect Festival that embodies the Rock and Roll Life.

“Do not say that we have nothing,” they continued, invoking intentionally or not, the words that started China’s rock and roll journey two dozen years prior. For a while, a few days before, they did have nothing: Mao Livehouse, Beijing’s premier rock venue, was shut down by authorities on grounds of what was called a breach of fire code. “We’ll be the masters of the world!” Instead of dwelling in the dark, the club took their entire operation to the festival site, setting up a small stage and bar in the middle of the action, and it was one of the best-run stages in the country’s musical history.

As its stage lay bare in the downpour and Titos tried to sing it back to life, the festival was rebounding from its toughest years yet. In Beijing’s Olympic year, contrary to popular belief outside of the country, events such as Midi were discouraged; 2008’s festival was miniscule. Midi’s tenth anniversary was in 2009, the year the People’s Republic of China turned sixty. Outside of the scope of official celebrations, the festival had no choice but to pack up for its tenth installment and head south to Zhenjiang, a small unremarkable city on the country’s east coast with no connection whatsoever to rock music other than a local government eager to attract tourism and no idea what bringing a rock festival might do for them. The next year, during 2010’s May Day holiday period – traditionally the time when the festival was held or cancelled – Midi returned to Beijing. It was a triumphant return to the festival’s hometown, and a symbol of how far the festival, which began as a showcase for the bands of the eponymous rock and roll school, had come.

As the rain poured down, a muddy mosh-pit ensued and the Titos kept going. “The Internationale” no longer felt so out of place. “This is the final struggle,” they sang through the downpour, no longer, perhaps, envisioning the Worker’s Paradise of their forefathers. “Unite together towards tomorrow. The Internationale, shall certainly be realized.”

Rocker’s Paradise is more like it.

As the evening advanced and the storm let up, a cast of some of festival’s biggest names took the stage, singing through bullhorns and illuminated by flashlights. The PA system was brought back to life, but the lights remained off. Rap-metal band Miserable Faith, the Titos’ Titos, proceeded through an unplugged set and the stage soon became packed with musicians, staff and media. “Always heading toward Midi,” they sang, a slight tweak of the lyrics to “Highway Song.”

“It was a moment to remember in Chinese rock history,” said filmmaker Victor Huey, who has seen and captured more than his share of Chinese rock. “The resilience of the Chinese rock scene to make it happen when the gods made it impossible to perform… This may be the moment I have been trying to shoot for twenty-four years.”

Suddenly, you forgot how boring rap-metal can be, how bad the sound was, what a mess it all was. Just as suddenly, you started to believe that maybe rock music can change the world; that the underground might actually be a Movement; that its members don’t simply run around flipping the bird at anyone who will (or won’t) look. That they believe in Something, and are Doing Something. On that night, Chinese rock’s future was sealed, and it was a future that couldn’t have looked better.

But before we rush to check out what lies ahead for Chinese rock we have to look at where it all came from. China is developing at such a furious pace in so many directions that there is little time for the past. But each step forward is linked to the steps previous, particularly in the case of Chinese rock, where you can go back only so far before you’re staring at an empty patch of land.

Another Scene: September 2000

I have hazy memories of my first taste of yaogun (pronounced “yow-goon”), the literal Chinese translation of rock and roll. It was just over a decade before Midi’s magic moment, and I was a new arrival to Beijing, the centre of China’s rock and roll universe (though I didn’t know it at the time). The show was at the Oak Club – a dark, narrow space the size of a living room – and atop the tiny stage, cordoned off by shin-high battlements, sat the Wild Children. I remember finding it in a neighborhood of dark alleyways and low buildings, dank and grimy but full of local rock history and flavor. This was before it was razed to make way for a new subway line, condos and a massive shopping mall.

The band’s music was, quite simply, beautiful. It sounded to me, in a way difficult to put into words, like China, and I was excited in a way that only a new arrival could be. It wasn’t the loud music for which the Oak Club (formerly the Scream Club) was obviously built. It was folk music: unplugged, simple, and stripped-down, with haunting vocal melodies and harmonies that evoked the duo’s northwestern hometown and the region around it. I didn’t know this about them then, but their music transcended all that. “We’ve arrived at such a good age,” the Wild Children sang; I felt it even if I couldn’t decipher their lyrics that night.

Certainly being fresh off the boat and out of a master’s program in which I only read about stuff like this affected my perceptions, but the melodies they sang stayed with me in the weeks, and years, that followed in a way that any music rarely had. My excitement may have been somewhat naïve, colored by the fact that I felt like I’d discovered something new, but my love of yaogun is rooted in that first experience.

It’s easy to look back on “early days” and lament how far things have fallen, but that’s not what this story is about. That night was only one stop on a journey still unfolding: The Wild Children opened their own bar, River, a few months later and it was a living, breathing testament to their commitment to the scene. I’m not waving my cane around as I say that they don’t make joints like River any more, but the truth is that they don’t. Just like how back then, they didn’t make clubs like they do now. River, like any good spot, was built upon the foundations of that which preceded it, and inspired people and places around the country, of a size and scope scarcely imaginable in the early years.

Which relates to the question of “Good” vs. “Good For China.” Whether the music is good because it’s the product of a country still new to rock, or whether it is simply good in any context. That I truly believe what I saw at the Oak Club was just plain Good might well be the result of the shade of glasses I wore at the gig, but I’ve had time with it, and though hindsight might not be nostalgia-free, I am comfortable with my perception. But that it is a perception is important to recognize.

It’s related to my music-filing problem, where I want to protect and provide special treatment for yaogun. I have sections in my musical library – both physical and electronic – for rock, jazz, folk, funk, world, blues and yaogun. What does it mean that the Chinese folk, rock, punk, electro and metal music isn’t simply distributed among the other piles? Why separate it? Isn’t that enough proof that Chinese music hasn’t “made it” just yet? Or is it proof that it is so special it demands its own section?

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