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The Kindness of Strange Punks

Jon Campbell
Photo by Jon Campbell

In a foreign land twice-removed, Campbell discovers that punks, even mohawked ones, aren't all devils.

I'll admit it: I used to be afraid of rock 'n roll. Rock 'n roll types, really: musicians, fans, security. I liked rock music, but live shows during, for example, the years that grunge reigned, when I was musically interested in going to see shows, were no place for a tall skinny kid like me. The mosh pit was as scary as a run-down motel on a dark stormy highway; the moshers and body-surfers were axe murderers looking to kill me.

And punks, well, forget about it. Angry dudes with leather and studs, screaming and wailing on mics and guitars. Big, intimidating guys are the ones in my imagination. I think it might've been because I never took to punk music, though that's a chicken-and-egg thing, since the scary people turned me off and also continued to repel me as I caught pieces of the music over time. Not even my freshman-year roommate and his friends — straightedge skateboarding Ian MacKaye fans, all (the kind of people you wouldn't worry about meeting in a dark alley) — with their near-obsessive admiration for the genre, could convert me.

A NOFX show I saw (she was cute, the girl who suggested going) only made me want to retreat further from the world of oi-oi-oi, safely back to my 'alternative' and classic rock roots. I hadn't yet done the math to discover that the harder one was tread upon, the more angry the music one might potentially listen to, ergo, people that listened to punk were probably less likely to be Nazi skinhead pricks than they were to be, well, nerds. Looking back, I'd like to think I didn't write off punk as bad music -- I'd like to think that it was just music I didn't like.

In China, my fear of punk rockers transformed into a distaste for them. Mohawked, leather-and-stud clad young Chinese kids weren't scary to me. I just didn't buy it, it was that simple. It looked to me like they'd simply studied the poses, outfits, and hairstyles of the punks of '70s England. Because of that, these kids — this is how I thought of them, as kids — seemed harmless. They simply aped that which they thought they ought to be. They ought to be angry, I reasoned they thought, and so, punk was the music that they thought they ought to be playing. It's worked, to an extent, since the foreign media love shots of Chinese kids with mohawks and all that it represents, vis-à-vis the impression of China as a communist totalitarian police state.

Such focus used to be on Japan. I will always remember the scene from a movie we watched in a modern Japanese history class in my third year of university. I believe Jane 'Dr Quinn' Seymour was the program's hostess, and her sotto voce told us of how Japan is integrating much of Western culture, as it has done throughout its modern history. As she spoke, the video showed a group of Japanese punks hanging out on the street. But the combination of the narration and the video made the punks look cute, not scary (insert Orientalist digression here). Maybe it was that clip that shaped my early impressions of Chinese punks, but it surely was also the fact that the early punk music I'd heard in Beijing was derivative, crap. And without the ability to produce music of quality, the intimidation factor disappeared. That plus the fact that in Beijing punks, I didn't see scary motherfuckers, I saw jackasses. Of course, it could be me getting old, but seeing these guys play eight-band showcases at a club that was nice enough to give them the evening and leaving a trail of broken glass and onstage equipment in their wake seemed not to be scary behaviour, but idiocy, pure and simple.

This is not to say that I wouldn't find an equally high jackass factor in the Western world of punk, had I looked. Having just returned from the Occident, though, I'd have to say that I found a lower jackass-punk percentage than I've seen in Beijing. But all of this is the long way of saying that I am a lot less afraid of punks around the world than I used to be. In fact, I'm looking forward to getting to know more of them. And here is why: If it weren't for a host of them - and a few non-punks as well - the 20-day, 10-show, seven-city tour through Norway and Finland, upon which I brought a great band from Beijing, would never have happened.

The Subs don't look like the punks that one expects to see when someone says "Chinese punk band". For one, there's a girl in the band (she's the singer). For another, there are no mohawks among them. There is an afro (not a naturally occurring one, but an afro nonetheless), but that's not important. They are also not of the old-school 'oi-oi-oi!' variety, which is from whence the bulk of Chinese punk acts come. Subs play high-energy garage rock/punk in the vein of some of their favourite bands such as the Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fugazi, At the Drive-In and more. They are often paired up with post-punk acts, with which they share an interest in Joy Division and Gang of Four.

Subs were invited by Oslo's Øya Festival to perform at the festival that would see thousands of fans take in three days of shows featuring headliners Sonic Youth, Franz Ferdinand, Dinosaur, Jr. and many, many more. Their invitation to Øya was the result of having been recommended to accompany a Norwegian rock act, Bonk, when they came to Beijing and Shanghai; Bonk's manager also books acts for Øya. A grant from Norway's Music Information Centre enabled the band to buy plane tickets. Singer Kang Mao put it best: "In China, we're lucky if the government doesn't tell us to go to hell. The Norwegian government, though, they gave us thousands of dollars to tour!"

I came into the picture because the festival had also invited me as a part of the four-person team from China's music industry. When I learned that Subs was to come all the way to Oslo and had no other gigs lined up, I volunteered my services to help get them some shows. My first email, a mere six weeks before the festival, was to a punk: Kjell Moberg a Norwegian whose former band, Punishment Park (that sounds scary, no?), had seen a large level of success in Germany, and who had helped blaze a trail outside of Norway for other bands from the long-introverted nation (save for those kings of the '80s, A-Ha).

Moberg's name came me because he had helped another Chinese punk band — SMZB, an old-school punk act from Wuhan, a city on the banks of the Yangtze River — organise a European tour. He had come to organise shows for SMZB because a British friend of his in a punk act called Dogshit Sandwich knew one of the guys in SMZB. The Chinese punks convinced the Brits to play shows in China, and the Brits put an SMZB song on a compilation. Moberg heard the compilation and was drawn to the Chinese punks; he asked about the possibilities of touring in China, and his counterpart asked about European potential. Both agreed it was possible, and as of late August, SMZB is travelling the continent while Moberg's band Jef is planning an early-spring China tour. The punk world in Europe, I'm told, is a small one. The world in general, though, as I learned through booking Subs' tour, is a small one.

Within days of my first email to Moberg, he had, over the course of a dozen emails, gone from reluctance and pessimism (summer holidays are serious business in the part of the world where the winters are long, cold and dark, and six weeks isn't exactly the ideal amount of prep time) to a solid three bookings, with more potentials on the way. Fees were guaranteed, and equipment, accommodation, and food were settled. He sent his children to friends and relatives for the night we came through his town, and turned his house over to us.

Meanwhile, Moberg's friend Frank Hertzberg heard of Subs' plans and instead of merely offering logistical help, he pledged to take a week off work and drive us around Norway in his van. He also lent us the amplifiers and drum kits that Subs was in no position to bring themselves (even if the gear they owned was good enough to take to a venue in Europe - which it is not). And when the hotel booking that was supposed to happen didn't happen, Hertzberg enlisted his family's help, and at one o'clock in the morning, after a sweaty show at the local club, his parents laid out mattresses for us to crash upon and laid out a breakfast the next morning suitable for a Viking army.

In Finland, Subs were in the hands of Jani Joenniemi, who helps run Helsinki gallery Myymaala2 and organised a tour of four (amazing!) Finnish bands and DJs through five Chinese cities in September. Before I'd met Joenniemi in Beijing, he'd read an article of mine about the French Music Office in Beijing and that article led him to contact the folks I wrote about, who also manage Wang Lei, an electro-dub artist that Joenniemi remembered from the year he spent in China studying in 1998 (at that time, Wang Lei was playing rock). He hooked Wang Lei up with gigs in Finland last year, and agreed to help hook Subs up this year. And, magically, Subs had a gig at his tiny gallery in nearby Tampere, Finland's third-largest city (where, it so happens, there is a radio station that is partly sponsored by the Chinese government, a part of its efforts to publicise China in the West). Unbeknownst to us, Joenniemi was in touch with the Espoo Cine Film Festival; the festival arranged a show for Subs at Helsinki's (and, by extension, Finland's) best rock club; a few weeks later, Subs played to a packed house along with local heroes Cleaning Women (also a part of Sounds Like Suomi), a trio of musicians who create music from instruments they've built themselves: guitars, drying racks transformed into synthesizers, and a drum set that looks like its been yanked from a garbage dump.

In Turku, Finland's second-largest city, local hardcore screamer Janne Leimola (of Büfo), was surfing the web when he came across the site we'd set up for Subs. He sent an email asking if we'd have time for Turku, where he could set up a gig. And poof! Subs' tenth and last show of the tour that would have been longer and would have crossed into Sweden, thanks to several Swedish rock and punk people, but the lack of plane tickets back to Beijing meant that Sweden had to wait for next time. But knowing how the pieces can fall into place means that there will be a next time.

What happened when I was around Subs was that it became easy for me to be around punks. I was worried that the band — not to mention myself — would be eaten alive by packs of Euro-punks. Onstage, the members of Subs are as ferocious as any punk beast, but offstage, they're just so darn nice. They smile. In their very limited English, they are pretty polite. And it was obvious — in my mind, at any rate — that I don't belong among punks. But with each city we hit, I grew more and more comfortable, because I knew that as scary as those related to the venue might be, I also knew that as soon as they heard Subs play live, they would treat us differently. Ditto for the audience. The intimidation I first felt upon walking into a venue disappeared when the local crew realised that Subs is the real deal.

Turns out, I learned, punks are just like everyone else: they're impressed by good music. In awe of it, actually. Show after show saw what looked to me like heavy-duty punks reduced to fawning boy-band fans after the show, asking the band — who, in my mind, though they deserve international fame, will never be the superstar type — for autographs in nervous, quivering voices. And that was the biggest reward of the tour: to see Subs, four average Chinese folks with an above average ability on a stage, treated like any other rock people out there. While the band complained about the media coverage that focused on their Chinese-ness (punk and politics Chinese-style is too juicy a story to skip), what they saw in the crowds was an acceptance that transcended nationalities and cross-cultural differences. What they saw were other punk rockers. So with Subs, it wasn't a big deal for me to walk into a graffiti-covered Blitz, the biggest squat house in Norway, headquarters for the punk-political activists that once stormed city hall.

On my own, though, well, that's another story.

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