On a visit to Hong Kong earlier in the year to speak at the Asia Society, the Wall Street Journal sat me down to talk about a few tunes that represent yaogun’s evolution. Here’s me trying to sum up yaogun in three songs.
Yaogun is rock from China. Yaogun sounds like China. Traditional Chinese instruments sound like China too. Yaogun does not necessarily refer to rock music with traditional instruments — in fact, I would argue that some of the most “Chinese“-sounding yaogun has no traditional elements at all. But in a few cases, the strategic use of traditional instruments do wonders for a yaogun tune.
A mixtape, then, of some of the best use of traditional elements thus far.
As is often the case, we look to Cui Jian to start things off. While his best-known song, “Nothing to My Name”(see this post for more on that) employs the suona, a horn that seems a mixture of a clarinet (body) and trumpet (bell), we turn, here, to a later track. “Let Me Run Wild in the Snow” is off of his 1990 album Solutions. The featured instrument here is the guzheng (“goo-dzh-ung”), a zither that is most commonly-employed traditional instrument in yaogun. The guzhenger on this tune, Wang Yong, comes from guzheng royalty – his father was one of the most celebrated guzhengers in the country – and made a name for himself in the traditional music world before finding rock music. In the early nineties he began to experiment with MIDI technology when it was still brand new, taking his electronic music to Germany on the 1993 Chinese Avant Garde tour, and staying at China’s electronic music forefront ever since.
Fifteen years after Cui, the man soon-to-be-known as XTX, then known as Xie Tianxiao and Cold-Blooded Animal and formerly known as the frontman for Cold-Blooded Animal, put out the tune “Who Was it That Brought Me Here.” Soon thereafter, he added the guzheng in the song’s live version, and I can’t help but hear more than just a bit of Cui’s song, above, in this version. X is currently known far and wide for his mix of guzheng and grunge – new genre alert: grunzheng, anyone? – and a healthy helping of reggae on top of that.
The current kings of Chinese reggae, L0ng Shen Dao (also known by the psychedelic acronym), share a guzheng player with XTX (who also plays guitar and guzheng in folk-rockers Buyi), and are led by bassist Guo Jian, who played with XTX (and is in the video above). “Wrap You Up” was recorded live for Mogo, a site with a warehouse of yaogun videos, live performances and interviews.
In 2004, Wang Lei had already chucked his alt past in favour of delving deeper into the dub he’d just discovered. His 2003 album, Belleville, was the result of an extended stay in the eponymous and multicultural Parisian neighbourhood, and the following year, he, along with a handful of other musicians, headed to France for a multi-band touring showcase called China Music Lab. Wang had a five-day residency at an Orleans club with live dub act Hightone. With yours truly by his side to help with translations (learning, along the way, that neither his Chinese nor his French was what it used to be) wherein they created a forty-five-minute set that they performed in Orleans as well as to a huge crowd at the massive Eurokeenes festival. “Kouai” is one of the songs off of their 2005 Wangtone album.
Rather than the guzheng of most yaogun bands, the Guangzhou-based post-rock outfit Zhaoze (click here for their Chinese site where there’s more to listen to) goes back further for its traditional inspiration. The guqin (“goo-cheen”), one of the most ancient of China’s traditional instruments, is a seven-stringed harp/zither type of instrument that is said to be one of the hardest to master. Not only has Zhaoze mastered it, but they’ve made it seem like it was built for post-rock. “Cang lang shui yu you” is off of their late-2010 record, Cang Lang Xing. (New Year’s Eve 2011, they released 1911, which, from a quick first listen, takes their post-rock even further and deeper into outer space – in a good way)
Experimental duo FM3 are best-known for their Buddha Machine, an anti-iPod analogue device reminiscent of the hand-held radios of a bygone era, loaded with short samples of religious loops. In 2011, they asked a range of artists to create tunes using the machine’s loops and released the tracks on the album HeXieFu. Here, “Ben Sheng” by Zi Yue sees the band best known for their mixture of prog rock and traditional elements go furhter into the future than ever before:
Finally, in the not-quite-yaogun-but-worth-a-mention category is the collaboration between American singer, banjo player and songwriter Abigail Washburn (for and with whom yours truly has arranged and promoted many a China tour and concert) and the also American electronic music project Shanghai Restoration Project. The two united in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes for the album Afterquake, which featured field recordings of children in ‘relocation schools’ singing traditional folk songs. Here, “Chinese Recess” features the innovative use of, among other things, a ping-pong game.
In these, the first few hours of the Year of the Dragon, we continue on from our last look back over the course of yaogun, part II of one man’s view of the best records to come out of China’s rock scene takes us into the new millennium. Chronologically we go…
Cold-Blooded Animal by Cold-Blooded Animal, 2000
Less inspired by Kurt Cobain than his embodiment, Xie Tianxiao, the band’s singer/guitarist who now goes by the name XTX, was a force of nature live, and though he still retains some of that energy, in the early aughts he was at his peak. Here, “Who Was it That Brought Me Here”, live at CD Cafe in Beijing in 2003.
Second-Hand Rose by Second-Hand Rose, 2003
Yeah, singer Liang Long dresses like a girl. But when you listen to the album, it doesn’t matter, and that’s the true test. “Gathering Flowers” showcases the bridge bewixt traditional China and modern rock.
Ma Music featuring Glamourous Pharmacy, Ruins and Wooden Pushmelon, 2001
This posse of bands led the early-aught alt scene, often infusing art into their performances, which signaled a commitment to more than just music. Xiao He, who walks both sides of the fine line separating idiot from genius in his current solo work, led GP; Ruins singer Zhou Yunshan first added his name to the band’s and now just goes by his name; WPM’s Song Yuzhe makes great folk music. Listen to the whole record via this link, which may be in Chinese but is easy enough to navigate.
“How Steel Wasn’t Tempered” – Wooden Pushmelon by jWc
The World is a Noise Garden by Sound Fragment, 2002
Spacey and dreamy, the record showcases the empty spots even more than the titular noise. One of yaogun’s rare headphone records. Here, the lead track, “Deceive One’s Self” (ziqi).
Xin by Wang Lei, 2004
Wang’s first decade-plus in the arts saw him move from breakdancing to pop-rock to freak-folk. In the new millennium, he took to industrial music briefly, then discovered dub and fell in love. This record is the peak of that fascination, mixing traditional and contemporary sounds from a range of different traditions to create a minimal, groovy and bounce-along-able record.
“Again” – Wang Lei by jWc
P.K. 14 White Paper, 2005
Post-punk quartet P.K. 14’s third album sees the band in top form, just in time for the mid-decade “indie” boom. The video for “Them,” below, is one of several greats the band produced.
Omnipotent Youth Society by Omnipotent Youth Society, 2010
Singer Dong Yaqian may not look like he’s having a good time while performing “The Not-So-Omnipotent Comedy,” below, but the song, as evidenced by the singalong, is fun in a way that is rare (even if you wouldn’t know it by watching frontman Dong Yaqian); ditto, the album.
Sorrow, 2006 This Readily Assimilative People, 2010 by Lonely China Day
Two records made for headphones, and two records more representative of Twenty-First century China than any other yaogun album.
“One” from Sorrow
“Rise Up” from This Readily Assimilative People
L & R by Wang Wen, 2010
This Dalian-based post-rock group has a sizable following cross-country, and is helping fertilize the local scene by example and involvement through record label (Fox Tail) and venues (several short-lived spots).
Cang Lang Xing by Zhaoze, 2011.
Like their brilliant fellow (now former) Guangzhou resident Wang Lei, they seemed to have suffered somewhat from being outside of Beijing, not receiving anything remotely like the appreciation they ought to. But, like the two post-rockers mentioned above, they have a seriously intense fanbase. Below, “Cang Lang Shui Yu You” live in Hong Kong, May 2011.
The end of the year beginning of the year means the inevitable looking back at the year that was. But this past year, we reach end of an era, Yaogunnily-speaking. Taking Cui Jian’s performance of “Nothing to My Name” on national television in 1986 as our birthdate for yaogun, Chinese rock & roll turned twenty-five in 2011.
In celebration, I’m looking back through the best yaogun records not just of 2011, but the best yaogun records thus far. We begin with yaogun’s early years, heading chronologically through the nineties.
But first, a quick digression, allowing a moment to ruminate on the difference between Important albums and Good albums – in our minds, in silence – and know that only sometimes are records both. For my list, I have but one guiding principle, and it resides squarely in the territory of the Good: Would I put this record on and listen to it?
I’ve skipped the eighties, by the way, because Cui Jian’s debut album, Rock and Roll on the New Long March, which kicked everything off in the first place, is automatically on just about any yaogun list there is – think Rare, Important and Good.
Dark Dream by Dou Wei, 1993. A year after leaving the very Bon Jovi-y Black Panther and cutting his hair, Dou Wei let loose a record that was a bit further out there than anything for which yaogun was prepared at that point. Taking on new wave and goth, the rebranded Dou Wei headed further toward the fringes as the years went on. “Higher Being”
Balls Under the Red Flag by Cui Jian, 1994. Cui’s third yaogun record expanded the influences further afield, incorporating electronic and hip hop sounds, rhythms and samples. Below, “Flying”.
Various artists, China Fire Vol. II, 1996. The second of what would be three compilations came at a time when China Fire was no longer the only game in town. The first compilation, released four years previous, introduced the nation to yaogun, but it was yaogun of a limited range: The metal and hair-rock to which the first generations took. The second volume expanded the range. “All the Same” by Underbaby represents the Cobain influence that began to spread in the mid-nineties.
Squeeze by Zhou Ren, 1996. Zhou’s underrated album was influential across the spectrum, channeling and championing the growing alt-ification happening in yaogun at the time. What made the album stand out was the metal of Zhou’s early years mixed with a heavy dose of Seattle sound and a little dab of funk. But because record label Magic Stone was in the last years of its mainland operations, it didn’t give the record the push that its earlier releases received. “Fg” is the lead-off track:
Fg by Zhou Ren by jWc
Yaogun Beijing III (1997) is a great example of the compilation — and band, and genre — boom of the mid/late nineties. There is the classic hair-rock of the early yaogun days, but there is also grunge, alt, dark metal and more signalling the rise of alt. All-stars on the album include the man now known as XTX in an early guise and Zi Yue, who combines traditional opera, comedy and prog-rock in a mixture that’s still successful today. Hades is still going strong today; “The Nightmare Continues” was, it should go without saying, the only track of its kind here:
Boredom Brigade (aka Wuliao Contingent), 1999. Only Reflector and Brain Failure remain these days, but the quartet of bands here (69 and Anarchy Jerks were the other two, the former much more interesting than the latter) were atop the punk pyramid of the late-nineties. More on the album at this previous post. Here, Reflector brings the posse’s theme song:
Incantation by Wild Children, 1999. Their haunting acoustic folk may seem out of place among the fin-de-siecle harder-edged sounds coming out of yaogun’s first expansion, but the Wild Children packed all of the emotional punch of the punks, without cranking the volume.
In the punk section of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, I look at a few tunes that exemplify one of the rockinest tools in the kit, the count-off. The one-two-three-four has been employed in the service of great music from the get-go. A good one sets the stage, a Great one does that and more. Yaogun’s count-offs are no exception, so here’s a countdown of count-downs. One of the slowly but surely growing number of mixtapes at jWc.com features the following mix, but herewith, an extended look at the tunes.
One, two, three, four!
“Rock and Roll on the New Long March” by Cui Jian, from 1989’s album of the same name. The first song on yaogun’s first record, the second major stop on yaogun’s Long March (the first being the one that Cui took three years prior when he introduced rock and roll to the masses with “Nothing to My Name”). The March is laid out musically after a brief, not-quite-marchy intro: With the snare drum guiding the way, Cui counts off not just the lyrical introduction, but his nation’s introduction to the long march ahead of it. Chorus-wise, a second count-off, and one that goes to what seems like the odd choice of seven. But it’s a number that works in the context not only of this song (“one-two-three-four fiiiiiiive, six, seven”), but in the echoes of drilling squads and exercising citizens across China, whose knee-bends and toe-touches happen to the count of seven, which rhythmically, in Chinese, makes not only great sense, but great rhythm. It’s one of those songs that creates a complete picture: He’s not just singing about a march; he’s singing a march. This live version is from 1992:
“Down”, Subs, from 2006’s Down. Wherein Kang Mao takes the verbal abuse of her father and turns it into a creedo for rock and roll survival. “My father,” she says when introducing the song live, “told me that I have ‘three No’s’.” Choosing rock, she was told, meant no money, no family, no job, no future. Instead of seeing that as a problem, Subs celebrates it, and the rock and roll life in general. When she asks the crowd to join in, the choice is celebrated as communal and adds another layer to the whole thing.
“Down”, live in Shanghai in 2009:
“I Want Beer”, by Joyside, from 2004’s Drunk is Beautiful. A count-off – and, one is quick to add, band – of a very different kind. As quickly as it takes to get from the “one” to the first millisecond of the word “three,” singer Bian Yuan’s digestive system takes revenge and his opening call sinks like a blimp with a fast leak: “ONE! TWO! sr—(gulp-belch)” is what comes out, and you feel the discomfort of what sounds like it might be day-old beer, but we’d know better than to expect there was any alcohol that old in the vicinity of this band. Joyside does for booze what a band like Anarchy Jerks did (and Misandaodoes) for Oi!, namely, abuse the hell out of it.
“Bastards of the Nation”, by Demerit, from 2008’s Bastards of the Nation. A mood-setting count-off if there ever was one. Singer Li Yang lets forth a growl from the depths not only of his soul but of places one oughtn’t ever reach. Like Bian Yuan, Li forgoes a number, but unlike Bian, it’s on purpose – and with purpose: ‘Four’ becomes a ‘fuck you’ whose ‘you’ is a long drawn-out scream that lets us know that whoever ‘you’ is is either lying, heart beating its last, blood pouring forth, dead on the floor in front of Li, or will be in the very near future. Demerit is the kind of band that means business in a way that inspires not just fear, but respect.