Red Rock

The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll

by Jonathan Campbell

6 October 2011


A Journey from Mao to Mohawks

Because of this familiarity, international media reports on China’s contemporary urban cultures – skateboarding, punk music, experimental theatre – abound, but rarely delve beneath the “hey-check-this-out-they’re-doing-stuff-we-did!” quickie. Yes, there was a journey from Mao to mohawks, but as much as the alliteration may work, there’s far more to the story than what’s at the surface.

Rock music is a culture that represents a sliver of the nation, but it is a sliver that has emerged despite enormous odds and one of many sites of the current ancient-meets-modern, recent-past-meets-present, and communist-meets-capitalist battles being waged in every aspect of Chinese society. It is still up against a mainstream so overwhelming that to most of the population an alternative is literally impossible to envision.

We are constantly told that China is the world’s factory; that the era of China is slowly dawning across the globe. Created, like anything else the country has produced, with raw materials and plans brought in from outside, yaogun has blossomed into a very particular form, linked to, but also separate from, its progenitor. Which is why yaogun has so much to teach us about rock and roll.

Yaogun is a many-splendored thing. A mix of people, styles and trends are united under the yaogun banner: a million schools of punks, metalheads, folkies, hippies, hipsters, skinheads, laptoppers and rastamen. And many more. Their voices and noises rise up in opposition to the all-pervasive pop music of the West and of Mainland China, as well as of Hong Kong and Taiwan, the territories that lie somewhere – geographically, conceptually, generally – between the two. Every permutation and combination of chords, notes, bleeps, beats, feedback, mouse clicks, reverb, melodies and screams combine into a rock scene more varied than it perhaps ought to be. Somehow, barely three decades into its history, yaogun has already passed through every trend, scene and genre that slowly grew around rock in the West over five decades – while an unprecedented social, political and economic growth period literally swept the ground beneath the nation’s feet and continues to do so. Here, in the second decade of the new millennium, there isn’t a kind of music you can’t find in shops, on stages or coming out of speakers across the country.

But in the early eighties, while the practitioners of rock music in the West were well into their third decade of rocking and rolling, the creators of yaogun were only just beginning to hear the whispers of something completely new. Their mixtapes collected the voices of Teresa Teng; of Karen Carpenter and John Denver; of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and George Michael; of John, Paul, George and Ringo; of Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi, Axl Rose, Ozzie Osbourne, and more. They put together their own canon because in the early days, ‘picky’ wasn’t something you could be.

Cassette tapes came at first only to the lucky. In the wake of the country’s “Reform and Opening” in the late seventies and early eighties, a few Chinese people suddenly found themselves able to do business outside of the Mainland, and they often returned home with the first tastes of the pop music with which much of the world was already familiar. Tapes also came across China’s borders in the hands of the few Westerners now able to come in to the country. In the nineties, dakou – ‘saw-gashed’ or ‘cut-out’ – tapes and, later, CDs made their way in. These were the surplus that record manufacturers marked, with a gash or a hole, as garbage, and sent on via a network of various distributors, ostensibly to the dumps of southern China. Those tapes like, indeed, the yaogun it would inspire, somehow found their way to eager ears. One person’s trash, indeed.

Slowly in those early years, a population emerged, eager to find out as much as possible about the music they’d stumbled upon. Slowly, they cobbled together something of an education, and they were eager to share and learn from one another about what they’d found. But it was impossible to control the flow of the new music. It came both too fast and too slow, with no sense of temporal, evolutionary or stylistic context to keep it in check. Without an educational infrastructure, the earliest listeners of rock and roll music in China were simultaneously prisoners of a sort of mixtape nightmare and the recipients of a rock and roll dream come true. On the one hand, it was a ton of new and exciting music; on the other, it was a soundtrack with no liner notes. It was hard – often impossible – to figure out what it was, how it came to be, where it fit, and what it might possibly mean. Even when the source material was available, its context was stripped clean, like so many elements of the New China. What you had was the vacuum about which Cui Jian spoke: It sounded cool, but what it was wasn’t clear.

The educated class was a strange bunch. Early pirates put together collections of randomly compiled songs, like The Best Rock 1955-1988, which advertised “a half century of musical revolution,” “systemic appreciation” and “value and enjoyment.” There’s a mixture of pleasure and confusion over the names checked on compilations such as this one, and the glimpse into the canon-building-in-progress: Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd (“Another Brick in the Wall”!), The Police, Van Halen, The Boss, U2, Tina Turner, UB40, Michael Bolton, New Kids on the Block, Jon Secada. This tradition continues today in shops like Rockland, down a windy road just off the banks of central Beijing’s lake district, where proprietor Xiao Zhan celebrated his shop’s fifth anniversary with hand-picked compilations – like his predecessors, he is passionate about what others ought to hear.

To hear the stories of the early yaogunners’ searching, one sees just how much of their lives were devoted to the music, digging in a way impossible to imagine from the perspective of our digital world. They had no choice; it was dig or miss out.

“We really wanted to understand everything,” said one rocker, of his mid-nineties rock listening. “The first time I heard Velvet Underground I thought it was kind of noisy and not so great. We never thought ‘this is bad, the critics are wrong’. We went to look into why these bands were chosen.”

With a giddiness that took over his entire being, the founder of rock venue Mao Livehouse recalled the “good” old days of the early nineties, a “different kind” of good. “We were all discovering a new trail… things we didn’t understand at all.”

Lü Zhiqiang, the man behind Beijing live venue Yu Gong Yi Shan (named for the proverb of the Old Man Who Wanted to Move the Mountain, one shovel-full at a time), remembers “listening with our hearts. We had so few choices, but we cared.”

The scale and effort of the first generation’s journey is inspirational in a way that contemporary yaogun, and the coverage thereof, would do well to acknowledge and study. There’s nothing less rock and roll than to demand respect for elders, and the New China isn’t generally a place that looks back ungrudgingly, but true rock and roll, like any culture, is informed, defined and led by its past. And here’s the thing: In the current scheme of things, when access is unfettered, it’s just too easy to rock. It’s still tough to break through, but it’s too easy to collect music, obtain instruments, find band members, get gigs, grow a following. Because of that, the older generations are far more yaogun than the kids today will ever be, having come up in and through
a world in which most things were impossible. Of course we shouldn’t blame young ’gunners for living in a world of easy access. But we can blame them for ignoring the lessons of their predecessors.

Hearing about the discovery of rock in the eighties and nineties, the odds stacked against it and what it meant to those that found it can be shocking. It’s easy to forget about how revolutionary rock could be; by the time Chinese kids discovered it, it had already been a long time since rock was supposed to Change the World. But it was literally a revolution when rock hit China. This is not, let us be clear, the “holy crap, rock makes me want to overthrow the government” kind of revolution. The only reason they heard rock in the first place was because China in the eighties was so open. That’s the word used by those turned onto rock in the eighties: open. At the time, new inputs made their way through segments of the population, and early rockers, like contest-winners on a time-sensitive shopping spree, grabbed everything they could. Eventually, they came up with something resembling liner notes, and paved the way for a future of unlimited mixtapes of a new kind.

Dai Qin, who fronts the band Thin Man, was one of those early rockers. At eighteen, he was singing pop tunes in a nightclub in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot, thinking about what a badass he’d been for walking away from the stable salary of a violin gig in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region’s Song and Dance Troupe. He was killing it as a singer, making an un-heard-of RMB50 (about US$9 at the time) a night, which wasn’t only five times more than any other of the club’s performers, but was a very good salary for anyone in 1992, considering that more than ten years later, your average office clerk was lucky to pull in three thousand a month. But when an Australian introduced him to the world of rock and roll, life, as he knew it, was over. It’s impossible to imagine a man who has been since the late nineties the very model of a rock and roll frontman saying “What’s rock and roll?” but that’s just what he did in 1992. To say that the Beatles changed his life only barely scratches the surface. When “Come Together” came on, he recalled, “I cried. The hair on my arms stood up. It was crazy! I didn’t know what to do with myself. This is what I’d always wanted to do… but I had no idea how to do it.” What he did was spend every waking hour pouring over the Fab Four, at the expense of not only his club gig. “It got to the point where the Beatles were the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning.” He tattooed himself with the band’s name, “so that every time I washed my face I’d see it… Their music was like a religion to me.”

Influential Chinese critic and experimental musician Yan Jun invoked a Chinese saying that speaks to Dai’s experience: A drowning man will grab for a blade of grass like it’ll save his life. “Sure, it’d be better if it was a piece of wood,” Yan said, recalling the desperation of the early- and mid-nineties for his generation, “but they’ll grab onto the grass and hold on tight.”

The point is that they were drowning. “If it wasn’t music, it’d be something else, but at the time, it was music. Life was rough then, we needed something.” For Dai Qin, rock was religion. For others, said Yan, it was more than that. “Some people really need these things, like drugs: ‘Give me something, I’m begging you, whatever you have.’ ”

Photo by Henry Campbell

Photo by Henry Campbell

Jonathan Campbell moved to Beijing in 2000 and immersed himself in China’s rock scene as a drummer, writer and promoter. He has brought international bands to China and taken Chinese bands overseas. His writing has appeared in many publications including, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Wire, and the South China Morning Post. See his work published on PopMatters here.

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