Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Jonathan Campbell
Kaiser Kuo from the band Tang Dynasty

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

A month before Nevermind, Black Panther, one of China's first rock bands, released its debut record in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The difference between the two records approximates the distance between the worlds that birthed the two acts. If 1991 was the year punk broke, China never got the memo. Or, more accurately, it wasn't in a position to process a memo of that nature.

Rock was still new to the Middle Kingdom in 1991 -- heck, music outside of the Eight Model Operas, some patriotic songs, and the barely-ten-years-old pop industry was still new. Cui Jian, who was already several years into his position as Chinese rock 'n' roll's Chairman of the Board, had introduced China to the new sound in 1986, when he unveiled a song called "Nothing to My Name" at a We-Are-the-World-esque variety show broadcast across the televisions of the nation. "Introduced", though, isn't quite right; "hit the nation upside the head with a sledgehammer" is more like it. With that song, a departure from the plethora of pop stars also on the bill, Chinese rock 'n' roll began. Suddenly, Cui and his newly recruited fellow rockers had something, and it had a new name: Yaogun ("yow-goon").

There are many reasons that the shock of Cui's song was so intense. There's the legacy of the previous four decades of Mao Zedong's rule, and particularly the chaos and destruction of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when, in an effort to cleanse the leadership and the nation of undesirable elements, universities were closed, culture was erased, and lives were ruined. On top of that was the nation that emerged after Mao's death, which abandoned the ideals of the Revolution upon which the individual could depend and began to be confronted by and entangled with the rest of the world. There was the message of the song, which, despite Cui's insistence that "Nothing" is just an old-fashioned love song, put to music the angst and confusion that would come to a head three years later. But the quick answer is that it was shocking as brand new rock 'n' roll has always been and always will be: Chuck Berry's duckwalk, Elvis's pelvis, Cobain's chaos.

As the shock of Tiananmen Square set in, a change came. The citizenry had discovered the lengths to which its government would go when challenged, while the authorities discovered a societal dissatisfaction on a level that was frightening. Betting that the citizenry would rather get rich than fight the power, the authorities allowed something resembling a free market. For the most part, they were right: The intellectual debate, cultural exploration, and optimism for the future that was vibrant through the mid- and late-'80s dried up as resources shifted to the earning of money. If folks like Cui Jian were confused and angst-ridden about their nation in the '80s, it would be hard to capture the extent to which they were set adrift by the capitalist mission now undertaken.

Cui, who released his real debut in early 1989 (he had released records not in the yaogun canon before then) and a follow-up in 1990, remained atop the rock heap as Black Panther's first album hit the streets, and does so to this day. But from the first days of the '90s, that heap expanded by leaps and bounds. Black Panther had first gotten together in 1987; four years later, they were scooped up by Taiwanese record label Rock Records, which would invest heavily in yaogun on the Mainland throughout the '90s. Drawing influence from both Bon Jovi and Wham! (who had performed in China in 1984 and left a strong impression among music fans of all stripes), Black Panther rocked differently from Cui Jian. While Cui incorporated folk, Afropop, and more, Black Panther and the other longhairs emerging in the early '90s played a straight-up, heavier rock, influenced by Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and more.

In 1991, bands like Black Panther, the Breathing, and Compass were regulars on the limited "scene": Parties and the rare stadium show, the former mainly confined to various Beijing venues (cafeterias, restaurants, parks, apartment building function rooms), the latter slowly spreading across the country. It would be some time before a real club-level circuit would emerge, so yaogun, for the most part, was confusingly confined to the extremes, deep underground or atop massive stadiums. In 1992, when Black Panther's album came out in China proper, it wasn't Rock Records' only release: The debut of prog-metal band Tang Dynasty and a compilation, China Fire, also came out. In contrast to Cobain and Co., those three releases, and much of the yaogun being produced at the time, presented rock for the stadium: You can see the lighters held aloft, the massive laser-light show, the forty-five-piece drum kit, the long hair blowing in the winds as a thousand fans pointed stageward. In short, China was producing, in 1991, music as far from Nirvana's stripped-down raw power as is possible. The difference between the world that grunge conquered two decades ago and the one that yaogun slowly seeped through is the difference between a world living with rock and one that had no idea what to do with it.


Guitarist Kou Zhengyu, who plays in two of today's heaviest metal bands -- Suffocated and Spring and Autumn -- told an interviewer that Chinese rock 'n' roll started with two mistakes. The first was that everyone listened to metal. The second was that everyone listened to grunge. The point here isn't whether grunge or metal put China on the wrong path; Kou is right to worry about the lack of a range of inputs. The point is that grunge was everywhere, and like their overseas counterparts, most bands that began playing in the mid-'90s started with "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

But "Smells Like Teen Spirit", like all Western rock 'n' roll, didn't come to the young rockers of the '90s so much as they found their way to it. Access to rock was extremely limited: There were the overseas visitors who brought tapes and knowledge, then a scattered few diplomats and journalists in the late '70s and a few students in the '80s. But by 1995, the demographic grew to the point where an English-language magazine emerged in Beijing to point them toward each other and the goings-on around town.

Meanwhile, tapes and CDs marked for the trash started making their way far beyond the Chinese dumps for which they had initially been destined. Dakou ("dah-koh"), or cut-out, albums were the product that major labels couldn't sell back home and had shipped off as garbage. Shops opened around China stocking the unwanted music of the Western world, and Chinese rock benefited from the collection. But there was a problem with both of these sources: They skipped context. Early rock fans in China were simultaneously prisoners of a mixtape nightmare and the recipients of a rock 'n' roll dream come true: A ton of new and exciting music, but a soundtrack with little in the way of liner notes.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.