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Foreigners in Foreign Lands, Part I: Exotic Orientals

Jon Campbell

In the first in a series of examinations of foreign musicians we meet the Subs, a Chinese band who, no matter how good (or bad) their music, are first and foremost Chinese -- whether they like it or not.

Last year, in an attempt to at once appease and mock those who wanted to ensure people knew from whence they came, Beijing-based garage punk band Subs designed a European tour poster whose background was covered with traditional Chinese calligraphy. It was a striking bit of visual tension: The punk aesthetic of the foreground's band image and typeface against the quietude of the brushstroked calligraphy. The calligraphy, though, spelled out a stream of invective, cursing the viewer as well as his family and ancestry. It was a nice touch, and a great way to simultaneously agree to and punk the conditions of their first overseas jaunt. Subs know that being from China helps them get gigs in the West. But it pisses them off.

Subs is the Beijing-based garage-punk act whose overseas affairs I manage. I am currently along for an eight-week ride as we tour through Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (read the on-the-road tour diary here). Subs is a band about whom I have written in these pages, a band whose members are, much like the foreign monkey acts with whom I have performed and about whom I have also written, seeing their citizenship as a major factor in their careers away from home, and hating it.

* * *

Ilosaarirock is Finland's biggest rock festival. For 35 years, the festival has played host to a wide range of acts from around the world. This year, the Darkness, Blackalicious, the Dammed, and many more played to a once-again sold-out crowd of 20,000. And so did Subs. While the band performed on the festival's smallest stage, thousands of screaming Finns came to the far-flung corner of the festival grounds to take in the high-energy set from the visiting quartet. The people loved it: everyone from the pineapple-hoisting punk fan to the stage manager to the festival's international artist coordinator. It didn't take a crowd poll to know that people were genuinely moved by the performance: You could see it in the pumped fists, the banging heads and — what separates Subs' crowds overseas from those of other acts — the big fat smiles.

What I couldn't help wondering, though, was "what if these guys were from, well, anywhere else?" They are good, don't get me wrong. But would they drive thousands of rock fans wild on their own? Would they have attracted such a huge chunk of the festival crowd? Would they have been invited to the festival in the first place? Or, to paraphrase a writer for the festival website: Would Subs be as interesting if they were Occidental? Seeing a quote like that upsets me, but mostly because there's a sad truth to it.

This year, Subs designed a new poster that is arguably as controversial as it is light-hearted: a cartoon jab at those who see only China and not Subs. "Why must we say we are made in China?" is supposed to be a rhetorical question. But we all know the answer: You must say you're from China because if you didn't, you'd be just like everyone else. And you might not get any gigs.

* * *

It is not news that the reason some bands make it and others don't has very little to do with music. The abilities to write a press release, design a website, shoot a photo, and come up with a logo are all just as essential as musical craft. But in Subs' case, their PR package includes, all-too-prominently, their home country. Their name will never be written without their country's name in a prominent place nearby, no matter what they do. While the band hopes that the word "China" will eventually shrink into non-existence in their overseas promotions, the reality of the situation is that it will likely never fade away.

Subs have, in the last year, spent more time than most Chinese rock bands outside of the country (in fact, only two others that have spent a substantial amount of time in the West come to mind: Brain Failure, a Beijing-based old-school punk act that has cemented good links in the US; and SMZB, also an old-school punk band from Wuhan, who did an extensive European tour late last summer). This year's two-month tour of Nordic Europe is Subs' largest-scale tour of anywhere. They've spent a total of a few months over the past two years on the road throughout China. Within three months in 2005, they came to Europe twice, playing in five countries. They played 10 shows in Norway and Finland in August 2005, including gigs at Oslo's Oya Festival as well as at Finland's best rock club, Tavastia. In October, they played one of Amsterdam's top clubs (Melkweg), as well as hitting four German cities and Paris. And while their music, if I may say so myself — as an obviously biased source — is great, it is not their music that is getting them gigs across Europe.

In the days leading up to our departure, one of our European contacts reminded us that this time around, Subs' merchandise ought to have some Chinese letters on it somewhere. But the band had already designed t-shirts and CDs free of any Mandarin — indeed, their band name and their lyrics are in English. Sometimes a t-shirt is just a t-shirt, but when it comes to linguistic concerns, a t-shirt, it seems to me, isn't just a t-shirt. The band sells the same shirts and CDs in China, but Subs is screwed on both sides of the planet, anyway. Today in China, English abounds in store signage, on billboards, in names for the newest/biggest/best condominium complexes, on products ranging from snack foods to hardware. Indeed, the mere presence of English — or, as is more often the case, letters strung together resembling English (aka Chinglish) — is seen to add value to a product or service, whether or not (and it is most likely not) the product or service provider can actually speak, understand, or even recognize the language.

Many see Subs as having fallen in with this basest of all marketing ploys. They could have chosen a Chinese name, even simply a translation (most bands in Beijing have both English and Chinese names). But that would entail narrowing in on a definition for "Subs". The band still has no end of fun talking with English-speakers who want to know to which the name refers. "The sandwich?" "Yes, sure!" "The underwater vehicle?" "Why not!" "The UK Subs?" "We like them." And so on. Additionally, there is value in having only one name, in one language, so that no matter where they appear, they appear the same way.

They could have chosen to write songs with Chinese lyrics, but didn't, despite complaints that their Chinglish lyrics are ultimately more confusing to English-speaking listeners. This was not because they wanted to attract foreign attention. As vocalist Kang Mao has repeatedly told reporters and others, it is because English is today's international language, and, at any rate, music is an even more international language. Besides, their high-energy live shows should speak for themselves.

This has, to a degree, cost them: They have taken their share of flak for sucking up to the West by sticking with English. Critics point to their heavily Western fan base at home — obviously the bulk of their fans are Chinese, but the Western attendance at their China gigs is, in relative terms, staggering — and their extended European time as exhibits A and B. (As for exhibit A, well, having a girl who screams like the Devil himself at the helm of a Chinese rock band is a surefire way for a band to gain notoriety on the local scene, in both foreign and Chinese circles. Exhibit B, well...that just sounds like someone wants to go to Europe but hasn't been asked).

* * *

The manager in me knows that sales of CDs and t-shirts at their shows will increase with the appearance of Chinese letters (even if the language they convey is directly insulting to the buyer). I also recognize that it's easier to get an international festival (or a little rock club) to respond to an email if I'm writing about a band from China, just like I've gotten more phone calls from corporate gigs in China who know that I'm in a band of foreigners. There are zillions of bands wanting to play at the little clubs and major festivals to which Subs have been invited; anything that separates them from the pack is something we have to acknowledge and exploit (and, let's face it: it's worked so far).

Maybe it's because I know all too well what it's like to be a foreigner, but the bulk of me is siding with the band. They shouldn't pander; instead, they should take advantage of the opportunities without focusing on what has brought them about. Like the ridiculous television shows and condominium-openings that I've performed at, the key is to use the access you've been granted for good: Give the real estate agents a kick-ass performance just like you'd give the rock club crowd, because in the end, a show is a show. In Subs' case, they are trying to teach people that it's not about citizenship, it's about rock 'n' roll.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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