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

[6 October 2011]

By Jonathan Campbell

“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?

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Thing is, I’m not convinced that the Chinese music I have – or will have – should be filed in and amongst the other piles. It would get eaten up in there, never to see the light of day again. But I’m also convinced that only if yaogun artists were distributed amongst the proverbial piles in the rock world’s library, would recognition be possible that many – not all, but some – yaogunners are playing international quality rock and roll music. Because there is nothing more patronizing to yaogun, which is still today finding its bearings, than being completely uncritical. That attitude, coupled with hype, is downright disingenuous and produces nothing but mediocrity and inflated egos.

And that’s one thing this book is for: To show the world that yaogun is special enough and can command the respect to earn its own section, while also being good enough and worthy of sharing space with the rest.

I’ve come to learn that yaogun is as much about the highs as it is about lows that descend to depths unimaginable. Just underneath the façade of the Midi Festival – which has weathered storms metaphoric and meteorological – are layers of breakdowns threatening an implosion from within. One doesn’t say this merely to burst a bubble, because the bubble reinflates; yaogun soldiers on and always has. One says this to point out the simple fact that yaogun is hardly ever just what it seems.

Much of this book delves into the steps with which yaogun’s thousand-mile journey began, and how it was that the first generation was coaxed into making them. Its roots lie in the late seventies, when the existence of people, culture, phenomena outside China was barely recognized by the Chinese, except inasmuch as it exemplified China’s superiority. In order to fully explain how yaogun became yaogun in its current form, we need to uncover the foundations upon which the first generation of musicians, venues, audience and scene were built – whether or not current rockers choose to acknowledge it, or overcome the short-term memory that tends to define a large swath of the population both inside and outside of the scene. Those foundations were carved out of a political and social situation that seemed to preclude the possibility of anything different, let alone something imported.

Rock and Roll to Yaogun in the New China

In the Beginning, goes the general story, a twenty-four year old named Cui Jian sang a song. It was 1986 when he got up onstage dressed something like a normal person – not like the pop stars with whom he shared the stage – and sang that he, like so many of those watching, had nothing to his name. I was about to say that his now-legendary song, “Nothing to My Name” wasn’t created in a vacuum, but the truth is it pretty much was. “Real rock ’n’ roll should come from the underground, but China didn’t have one,” Cui told a reporter twenty years after he first performed the song. “ ‘Nothing to My Name’ just appeared out of nowhere.”

There was, at the time, a large cultural void preventing rock from taking off, as the pop singer turned producer Wang Di observed: “From the first time I heard rock, I knew that it had nothing to do with our culture.” Thus, to many people it did, in fact, come out of nowhere, and for many people it still doesn’t resonate. Which is why, to get the real story, we need to take a couple of steps even further back – back before “Nothing,” when there was, well, Nothing.

The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and ended ten years later upon the death of Mao Zedong. It was a decade marked by destruction and chaos when the nation, under Mao’s direction and the auspices of “class struggle,” became hell-bent on destroying any vestiges of the past to make way for a Revolutionary future. In its wake, there were two kinds of “Nothing.” There was the plain-old literal Nothing, in terms of musical options to hear and play, but, even more significantly, there was the Nothing about which Cui sang: the disillusionment and disorientation that so many Chinese felt as their society emerged from Maoism.

The years following the death of Chairman Mao – who was once known as the “Sun in the Hearts” of the Chinese people and who I have heard called, with convincing argument, China’s first punk – were defined by a particular and intense confusion. Everything that the Chinese had been raised to believe about their country and their society was being re-examined in the frenzy that was the new policy of ‘Reform and Opening’. Society, according to the Party Line, was supposed to be the combination of the efforts of the collective, but some people now saw an out-of-control rush to a me-first mentality. It was these citizens who would be the first to hear and process all that rock music had to offer and, eventually, create a Thing – a kind of music, yes, but also more – called yaogun.

If Western rock blew the minds of young Chinese in the early eighties, Cui’s song twisted heads clear off bodies and drop-kicked them across time and space. Western music was one thing, but with “Nothing to My Name” the lyrics were decipherable, not to mention completely sympathetic to so much of the nation’s state of mind. Cui’s voice was different, too: Instead of either shouting out the slogans of the day like a good comrade or whispering sweet nothings like the pop singers at the time, Cui’s groan carried the aches, tensions and restlessness of a lost generation.

The casual follower of yaogun will have heard of the Legend of Cui, and how one night in 1986 he changed everything. But in the internet age it is all too easy to underestimate the significance of such an event. After all, Now is happening; Then is done.

But then you discover Then, and find that Now isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The emergence of rock and roll defined the way in which yaogun developed, and continues to develop. Because there was no way that rock in China could be like rock in America or England or Russia or Japan – not, that is, until the new millennium, when societal and technological developments truly freed Chinese citizens from constraints that may not have been physically preventing contact with and absorption of foreign culture, but might as well have been.

While yaogun’s later period is about how the music, the fans, the musicians and the scene in general developed alongside that of the West, its early period was marked by music finding its way through the country against unimaginable odds. Forget the struggle, say, over which Beatles album to start with; rockers had to figure out who, or what, the Beatles were. When he was sixteen, Zhang Fan fell in love with “Norwegian Wood.” “It sounded like a fairy tale,” said the baby-faced head of the Midi Music School and Festival – so much so that it inspired him to find out more about the artist. “So I looked up the word [Beatles] in the dictionary, but it wasn’t in there.” Zhang, and others across the country like him, eventually got together to educate each other; thus did a homegrown understanding of rock emerge almost completely isolated from its source.

Yaogun in the twenty-first century is similar to many other stories of contemporary China in that it is defined as much by its links to and commonality with the rest of the world as it is by an isolation that alternates between unintentional and self-imposed. It’s exciting in a way that even the best music can’t be, because of the odds.

Iggy Pop and the Stooges, wrote rock critic Lester Bangs in 1970, were “probably the first name group to actually form before they even knew how to play.” This is the essence of rock and roll, he continues, and, one is quick to add, of yaogun. “Rock is mainly about beginnings,” he said, and:

[A]sserting yourself way before you know what the fuck you’re doing… Rock is basically an adolescent music, reflecting the rhythms, concerns and aspirations of a very specialised age group…  [E]verybody else seems either too sophisticated at the outset or hopelessly poisoned by the effects of big ideas on little minds. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

The Stooges were certainly not the last name band to form before they knew how to play. It has happened and continues to occur in the Middle Kingdom with the kind of regularity and results that are both extremely impressive and monumentally depressing.

Yaogun is especially about beginnings: The beginnings that laid the path for the rest of the story. The best yaogun acts have been blessed with Bangs’ “little knowledge.” With little more than shards of information and a lot of “concerns and aspirations” musical and social, these are some of the bands that, over the years, have kept the yaogun flame from not, to borrow a phrase, fading away. Not necessarily the most (in)famous of rock bands to emerge over the past twenty-odd years, they are bands whose stories tell us about what it is, and was, like to rock China and, just as important, about how China was, and is still, rocking.

All the clichés about this country are true: old/new, communist/capitalist, order/chaos, rural/urban, rich/poor and all the rest. Take your pick of the pastiche imagery that abounds across the country. Gleaming skyscrapers full of the new middle and upper class white-collar big spenders flanked by filthy shantytowns home to the disheveled and destitute working millions that build the New China but can’t quite seem to join it. Donkey-drawn carts hauling the bricks that are all that remains of the neighborhoods paved over to make way for the latest urban improvement battling shiny new SUVs through crowded intersections. Folding tables set up roadside, where hearty men gather to guzzle the local firewater at pennies per liter while Chivas is chugged by the several-hundred-dollar bottle just down the road in dance clubs as neon-, laser- and iniquity-filled as their Western counterparts. The thousands of years of history slowly disappearing in the nation-wide march to an uber-modernity of no particular kind. An economy kept straight by the State but yet wilder than any West ever imagined. There is more. Much more.

How phenomena of the contemporary world have entered, worked their way through and emerged from the culture of the Middle Kingdom is the story of the nation’s last three decades. These were decades which were defined by an emergence from the isolation of the meta-if-not-completely-physical Great Wall, which, save for a few not-so-minor hiccups, tended, over the centuries, to keep out the barbarians and their ideas, and their stuff. But since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the dawn of the new New China, China’s cities have become places that, in many ways, would not be completely unfamiliar to your average barbarian. What with the concept of borders becoming irrelevant and all, China’s contemporary society increasingly reveals phenomena familiar to residents of Beijing and Boise alike.

Like, say, rock and roll music.

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.

Published at: