Reviews

Anarchy in the PRC! 'Beijing Punk'

Tattoos, ragged skinny jeans, and Ramones t-shirts don’t comprise a sartorial image typical of the People’s Republic of China, but any politically repressive society is bound to breed misfits, and Shaun Jefford’s documentary illuminates this previously ignored niche of contemporary life in the Chinese capital.


Beijing Punk

Running Time: 78 min (approx.)
Director: Shaun Jefford
Cast: Nevin Domer, Li Yang, Lei Jun, Xu Bo, Michael Pettis
Studio: Seminal Films
Year: 2010
Distributor: MVD
Release date: 2012-11-20

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a startling coup for the giant Asian nation flexing its geopolitical muscles on the world stage, but Lei Jun could care less. The self-proclaimed Chinese skinhead minces no words in dissing the games in conversation and song, an act of social heresy in perfect lockstep with his passionately constructed identity as a punk rock outcast. Tattoos, ragged skinny jeans, and Ramones t-shirts don’t comprise a sartorial image typical of the People’s Republic of China, but any politically repressive society is bound to breed misfits, and Shaun Jefford’s 2010 documentary Beijing Punk illuminates this previously ignored niche of contemporary life in the Chinese capital.

In the opening credits, Jeffords serves up footage of obedient Chinese soldiers marching in neat formation, along with massive political rallies, both evocative of Triumph of the Will, then immediately transports us to the frenzied chaos of D-22, Beijing’s premier punk music dive. The club is owned by Michael Pettis, not a Chinese national, but an American – along with impresario Nevin Domer -- pursuing business opportunities in China’s loosening socio-political climate. Pettis mentions his adopted country’s yawning generation gap, perhaps comparable to that of America’s “Greatest Generation” and their Frankenstein progeny, the much-discussed Boomers, but that doesn’t mean that the Sino-punks have embraced English as their means of musical expression. The bands presented in this doc are singing, no, shouting, primarily in Mandarin, which, it should be noted, is the most widely spoken dialect on the planet.

Meanwhile, Lei Jun, ringleader of the “OI” outfit Mi San Dao seems to be a sort of spiritual godfather to the burgeoning local punk scene. Sporting the requisite Doc Martens and suspenders on his chubby, shaven-head frame, he mentions that his father is a renowned optometrist. I smirked a bit at that revelation, musing, ‘here’s another rich boy desperate for masculine street cred, playing dress-up, biding his time until he takes his seat in the upper-middle class’ But Lei Jun, in his engaging, boyish manner, makes it clear that Chinese physicians are paid very meager wages, and that he’s on the cusp of outearning his prominent dad as a fledgling punk musician!

How paradoxical that this malcontent product of a society that wishes to hide his ilk in the cellar can become a successful capitalist via a subversive lifestyle, but if Lei Jun recognizes the irony of this situation, he never owns up to it. Nor do his rebellious boasts dissuade him from bragging about China’s manufacturing prominence in the global marketplace.

Mi San Dao take inspiration from a bootleg video featuring the legendary speed metal stalwarts Motorhead, and while they watch eagerly, we notice the British group’s fetish for Third Reich regalia. Lei Jun himself boldly proclaims Hitler to be a “great artist”, and professes his admiration for the Nazi flag, which of course incorporated the controversial swastika, a symbol appropriated from ancient India. When questioned about German atrocities during World War II, including the genocidal slaughter of European Jewry, Lei Jun – who tours Germany with his band -- casually utters terms like “mistakes” and “wrong”. Most would consider his comments insufficiently condemnatory, and I place myself in that camp, but he wouldn’t be the first ahistorical, self-absorbed Bright Young Thing preoccupied with his own milieu and era.

Later, when queried about what he would do as China’s president, Lei Jun advocates free, legal drug use for all and the promotion of massive punk rock concerts. Would that make China a better place? It would be “better for me,” he giggles. In a sense, his aspirations evince the same selfishness of the hundreds of millions of more conservative strivers among his countrymen, further eroding traditional Communist mores.

One quickly notices that most of the punk bands depicted in Beijing Punk are channeling decades-old working-class “Anarchy In the UK” tropes, as if 1978 Carnaby Street had been transplanted to 21st century Beijing. Spike, of the band Demerit, embraces his rough-hewn neighborhood in Tingzhou – reminiscent of the territoriality of violent street gangs – insisting he won’t move as he gives an informal tour of the grungy apartment – including a particularly aromatic bathroom -- he shares with his fellow band members.

During the look-see, director Jefford is frightened by nearby gunshots, but Spike and his buds seem to take a perverse pride in this Ghetto Baroque circus, though I’m skeptical that the unlikely prospect of stardom wouldn’t drag them away. One of Spike’s comrades, wearing flamboyantly round earrings that would go virtually unnoticed in San Francisco or Manhattan, labels himself “illegal”, but he’s crossed no borders; he was merely born in violation of his country’s one-child rule.

Of course, copious amounts of liquor are consumed, but that’s not the only libation of choice for Beijing punkers. Lei Jun and his pals are partial to Madame Pearl’s, a codeine-laced cough syrup that presumably delivers a mellowing low. Irony rears its ugly head again when it’s revealed that many club owners have become wary of Mi San Dao, as numerous fights have erupted at their gigs, though not necessarily involving the band. Couple this with the tendency of Beijing punks to avoid workaday jobs and you have a romantic cocktail of free-spirited bacchanalia and physical self-destruction. Live fast, die young, anyone?

Lest anyone imagine that Beijing’s punk scene is an exclusive boys’ club, the petite Shu Lu Atom will quickly dispel that notion. The widely respected drummer for Hedgehog is no shrinking violet, and her place in D-22’s pantheon seems secure.

Beijing Punk’s DVD ‘package’ is very spare, with no extras, and I would have appreciated more personal info about the musicians profiled, but the film itself is an informative ,mélange of stills, concert footage, and interviews, of appropriate length at 70+ minutes, and concludes with Demerit’s hummable, anthemic “TZ Generation”, the sole English-language tune in the movie. Now wouldn’t it be great if we could see this on the once-relevant MTV? In prime time?

Our friend Lei Jun refers to the Communist Party Chairman as “the Monkey King”, implying that loyal, incurious followers of the standard doctrine are no more advanced than simians. A harsh assessment, perhaps, but Lei Jun shares the scorn that younger generations so often express for their forebears. Chinese youth in this new millennium certainly don’t enjoy the freedom of speech their Western counterparts take for granted, but their society is less restrictive than in years past, and it’s inevitable that some will push the envelope. Beijing Punk suggests that no self-respecting punk would do otherwise.

Readers interested in the Chinese music scene might also enjoy China Underground, by Zachary Mexico (PopMatters/Soft Skull Press, April 2009) read excerpts here, and Jon Campbell's PopMatters column, Foreign Devil

7

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

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.

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