Banned in the P.R.C., Part II: “Enemies” from the Outside

Back to the recent Blacklist of the songs that the Chinese government deemed unacceptable for online music sites to stock. Though most were, in fact, Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop, the story in English was of the Western names upon the list. And it’s a reasonable story to investigate. But the Backstreet Boys and Lady Gaga are only the most recent groups to find themselves out of favour with officialdom, and, in fact, are some of the least interesting.

China’s relationship with non-Chinese has been, over the centuries, a fascinating story, and its a story that can be, crudely, perhaps, distilled in that feeling anyone from elsewhere who has spent any time in China with enough Chinese language skills to understand when they’re being called “foreigner” will likely have experienced. As a closed society with a history of negative, xenophobic, scared, patronising and just plain mean reactions to peoples from the outside – not to mention the experiences with them to justify some of those reactions – there is certainly evidence to back the feeling.

In the yaogun world, that outsider status applied, from the get-go, to the pop music that slowly found its way to folks who decided to rock. Informed by the Soviets, who were still convinced that pop music generally, and rock music in particular, was an imperialist weapon in the battle for hearts and minds, the Chinese authorities did all they could to control the flow. But as the music, slowly, got through, so too did the idea that the musicians behind it might also make landfall in the Middle Kingdom. It was inevitable that those that did, those who tried, and many who didn’t, would end up on the wrong side of Official graces. How some of them got there is worth looking into.


“Enemies” from Without

The Rolling Stones
In 1979, the Stones decided that gigs in China was more realistic a goal than more gigs behind the Iron Curtain – word was their 1967 Warsaw concert had scared the Soviets enough to keep them out. They got as far as a meeting between Mick Jagger and the Chinese Ambasssador to the US, and there their efforts stalled. ” The opinion within the Stones camp,” wrote  On the Road With the Rolling Stones author Chet Flippo, “was that Mick blew it.”

Mick Jagger + Cui Jian, 2006

It wasn’t until mid-2003 that the band was scheduled for China, but it wasn’t long before the gigs were cancelled. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was SARS, but the show seemed to be staged upon wobbly legs from the get-go (and somehow involving a charity auction [Chinese]). Pessimists will have noted that the Hong Kong shows cancelled for SARS were rescheduled in November; China had to wait another three years. Meanwhile, four proverbial licks were slashed from the official China release of the band’s greatest-hits double-album, Forty Licks, and, in advance of their 2006 concerts, were told to not perform a handful. By the time they’d made it to the Middle Kingdom, it was hard to imagine they’d ever been banned from anywhere.

Six years after Mick met the Chinese ambassador, Wham! was taking the title for first international pop group to perform in the Middle Kingdom. But in Wham!’s wake was Queen, snubbed by the sneak attack of Simon Napier-Bell, Wham!’s manager and mastermind behind the China concerts. Upon hearing that Queen wanted in, Napier-Bell produced pamphlets for both acts: Wham!’s portrayed the duo as straight-laced nice guys’ Queen’s emphasized the homosexual implications of the band’s name. Wham!: 1; Queen: 0. We’re still figuring out the score for Chinese rock.

Another victim of Wham!’s China tour: Men at Work. Then the most famous lads from the “Land Down Under” were all geared up for a China tour, but in the wake of Wham! getting the youth “overstimulated”, plans were called off, despite some high-level Australian government wrangling to get it all going in the first place.

Jan and Dean
The surf-pop duo’s gigs in what Dean (Torrence) told one reporter was “one of the strangest places” they’d played caused something of a riot. First off, though, some lighter controversy: After gig number one, officials approached the band, insisting that the Americans had no idea what the Chinese kids wanted to hear and had some suggestions: “Country Roads”, “We Are the World”, a Stevie Wonder song and a Lionel Richie number. Oh, and the theme from Love Story that was, in fact, an instrumental. (On a related note, this is a practice that didn’t end in the eighties: I couldn’t count the number of ‘suggestions’ my bands were given upon being hired to play at various events over the years. “You’re a jazz band? Great! Can you play ‘Country Roads’?” “Blues band, eh? Great! You can play ‘Country Roads’!”) The controversy got heavier with another suggestion: That Jan should be removed from the gig. Said Dean, years later: “I was told that seeing a handicapped person reminded most of the older people about the Cultural Revolution, when many people were maimed and killed. I figured,” he added, “that was their call.” Heavier yet: Dancing in the aisles, inspired by the music that officialdom knew the kids didn’t want to hear, lead to a security crackdown: First, claims of violence against dancers;eventually, protests across the city; three years later, Tiananmen Square.

The scandal surrounding the Swedish duo’s 1995 trip to China was minor, but still noteworthy, particularly considering they were the first name act in many years to visit the Middle Kingdom: Told that the lyrics to “Sleeping in My Car” weren’t suitable for China, the band agreed to change things up. After all, if Jan and Dean can cause nationwide protests with surf rock, who knows what would have happened if the words “Sleeping in my car – I will undress you/ Sleeping in my car – I will caress you / Staying in the back seat of my car making love, oh yea!” were uttered through a Chinese sound system. Well, actually, we know what would happen, because the lyrics were not, in fact, changed live.

One wonders, though, what the Chinese made of the meeting between Roxette’s female half, Marie Fredriksson, and Mick Jagger. The Stone wanted advice on how to get to China, and Fredriksson’s advice must not have been all that great, since it took several more years before his wish was granted.

The Icelandic Pixie Queen’s spring 2008 cry heard round the Middle Kingdom, “Tibet! Tibet!” altered visibly the flow of foreign visitors to China’s stages: It wasn’t so much what she said, but rather, when she said it. Those pre-Olympic days, when the nation was marching full steam toward a Perfect Event that would show the world How It’s Done, there was tension in the air. Artists had been submitting set-lists and lyrics since the earliest days, but after Bjork, those submissions were investigated with a fine-tooth comb. I wondered how the threat of potential “trouble” would play out at the instrumental jazz concerts I was presenting: If the duo strayed from the setlist, which included a song titled, because they needed a name for the submissions process, the date of one of their concerts, Bad Things would happen. But it is useful to note that Bjork had a by-all-accounts-successful visit to China in 1996 when she even was shown on television in the lead-up to the stadium show.

Harry Connick, Jr., of all people, was caught up in those Bjorky times, when his big band had to sit out the bulk of the show: The setlist submitted on his behalf was not the one that his big band was able to perform; when officials literally walked onstage during a rehearsal to confirm the songs on the submitted setlist, Connick, Jr. had no choice but to fly mostly solo.

Same Story, New Locale UPDATED

Ok, not exactly the same, but close.

Afghanistan had their first rock festival in “more than thirty yearsover the weekend. One observant in the ways of rock in China, while impressed and excited about the idea and execution of the event, can’t help feeling a twinge of recognition, and disappointment, in the way the event was portrayed. As a result of the allure of rock music outside the West, there’s a nearly-by-the-numbers form that stories like this take.

To wit:

The story is not filed under ‘music’, but rather, under general news, and there’s a suspicious lack of coverage or sampling of the actual music being performed that could, were one a pessimist, be taken for a judgement about the quality thereof (unless it’s a sign that the reporter is not one schooled in or comfortable talking about music). When music journalists are sent to cover the story, we can figure that the interest is less than passing.

There is, always, the “weird” local twist: China has censored lyrics and a tea-sipping Party presence, while in Kabul we have pauses in the action for neighbourhood prayers, no booze and kebabs-only snacking.

There is the requisite reference to the disapproving eyes of onlooking elders: Dressed, in China, in Mao suits and hats; in Kabul, “turbans and long beards” (who were, one must grant, quoth Reuters, “not entirely disapproving”).

There is, too, an element of danger hanging not far into the background of the story, and it is more than any parental disapproval. This sets up the rock-as-freedom paradigm, which tends to (not always incorrectly) colour discussions of rock in these frontier territories. In China, there is certainly an Official disdain of expression a-la rock and roll and political consequences of being on the bad side of it, though these days, when every podunk city of ten million has their own rock festival, it is less severe than in the past, despite what some reports might imply. In Afghanistan, though, the threat is much more imminent: With the Taliban roaming, there is genuine danger in the idea of a gathering for rock fans in Afghanistan’s capital. At least, that’s how one would figure based on the news reports one hears about the country; it’s a reasonable assumption to figure that, like in the case of China, there are massive misconceptions about the country based on the news.  But we can surely trust that in Kabul, there is genuine danger in gathering to worship on the altar of rock and roll.

So, in rock and roll terms, is Afghanistan the next China? And: Will it bode good or evil for the nation’s scene? There’s still a mixed legacy of international coverage on China’s journey, a legacy that, one hopes, one’s book-length examination (ok: just plain Book) of China’s rock and roll development will help to improve. Afghanistan certainly has a China-sized obstacle to overcome before news of a cultural sort can be processed by outsiders without being overcome by headlines involving chaos, war and more.

Meantime, check out the organization behind the festival. (One could point out how the international nature of the org adds to the deja vu, what with China’s rock and roll history being peppered with folks from outside the Middle Kingdom and all. If one were looking to name names, one might bring up the French restaurant Maximes, which was the earliest regular host of rock shows in Beijing, or the German Udo Hoffmann, who was instrumental in the early-nineties party and proto-festival scene).

And also, while you’re at it, check out the travels and tales of the festival’s head.

Most importantly, though, be sure to listen to the artists that participated in the festival. And let’s hope there’s more to come.


The Update:

I was remiss for not mentioning the efforts of Luk Haas, who has been collecting and releasing music from hitherthen-uncharted rock/punk/etc territory (including, one is quick to add, China!) at Tian An Men 89 Record for years now. Here’s a guy that skips the ‘this is news’ step and goes right for the music, and there are many others like him, like Jason Flower, who wrote a history of Victoria’s underground scene but also got further afield for tracking down Mongolian fuzz-rock and Inuit metal.

Also, WNYC’s Soundcheck interviewed one of the organizers of Kabul’s festival: Sound Central: The Central Asian Modern Music Festival, as well as talked about rap’s role in the Arab Spring.



Early Visitors

It’s been a long time since news of overseas performers performing in the Middle Kingdom is big news – with maybe a few recent (Dylan, Stones) exceptions. These days, whether in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan or Nanjing, touring bands are a normal part of rock and roll, and pop, life. But even a decade ago, the descriptor “foreign” was enough to fill a room with fans equal parts curious and hungry for something from the general direction of rock and roll’s homeland.

Rewind the tape further, and you quickly enter the dark ages.

The nineties saw a literal handful of visitors, large-scale and small. There was Paul Simon (1991), Roxette (1995), Air Supply (1995), and Bjork (1996 – the same woman who, a dozen years later, would cause kerfuffle over her shout-out to Tibet that pissed off local authorities and citizens on the large side. Small-scale shows included BB King (1995, to open Beijing’s Hard Rock Cafe), Bill Laswell (with the Uzbek-Japanese-Mongolian-and-more project Flying Mijinko Band, 1994), John Zorn (1995), Pridebowl and Envy (Japanese punk bands, 1997), International Noise Conspiracy (1999).

As for the eighties, it was even slimmer pickins: Jean Michel Jarre (1981), Filipino surf-pop band Nitaige’er (1982), the Chieftains (1984), Wham! (1984), sixties surf-rock legends Jan and Dean (1986) and German pop-rock band BAP (1987).

There’s more to come, in blog and in book, on the details of a selection of those events, all of which, by virtue of just having occurred, are noteworthy. For now though, a slice of something I just came across – admittedly by accident, and, unfortunately, long after the deadline to include it in the pages of Red Rock passed.

On May 10, 1986, a year after George Michael graced the Middle Kingdom with his presence, and mere days after Cui Jian’s unveiling of a homegrown rock and roll, Billboard reported, deep in the issue, on an upcoming China tour under the headline “SheRock Will Be Rocking China; 1st U.S. Pop Act Visit”.

Six months prior to the announcement, before they’d even played a show, their demo had made it into the hands of the director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, who was impressed with the band’s “healthy attitude” and set to work trying to get the band to China. By mid-May, 1986, the band was playing an invite-only show at LA venue The Roxy to garner local interest in what would be the first American pop act to scale the Great Wall. The crowd was half comprised of officials from the Shanghai Bureau of Culture – and of waitresses dressed more conservatively than usual, due to presenters “obviously concerned with maintaining a ‘wholesome image’ after the fiasco of Wham!,” as Billboard put it. The publication also noted the band’s efforts to remain “squeaky clean for the diplomats”. It paid off in at least a trip to China, where, between late July and early September, they performed sixteen shows in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou for an estimated total audience of 125,000. There was also talk of a hundred million viewers via television broadcast, as well as a trip to a studio for a Mainland-only album.

“We had to modify our dress and lyrics,” frontwoman Edie Robertson told a reporter, adding that they were happy to oblige, since they were representatives of the US.

Cover of SheRock's 1986 tour flyer. The band was known in Chinese by the transliteration "xi luo ke". The title is "Friendship Great Wall"

The band’s manager, Walter Stewart, who had worked with many artists over many years, was asked about the greatest challenges of his career. “Attempting to teach the Chinese technicians the art of multi-track recording and over-dubbing,” was his reply.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

Achtung Baby
Out of Time
Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Use Your Illusion
The Low End Theory

1991: An unbelievable musical year – a year the likes of which have yet to be seen again. And it’s been twenty years. Suddenly, a whole lot of thirtysomethings – teenagers when they we were first turned on to the bands via the breakthrough albums listed above – are wondering how the hell two decades went by. And, of course, we’ll gobble up the inevitable reissues (like these), anniversary tours (one hastens to note the ticket merchant handling said tour) and Cinematic Events.

But I digress.

When grunge hit, what was yaogun doing? Soon, a more detailed answer to that question, I promise. The short answer: In August, 1991, Black Panther released their debut album in Hong Kong and Taiwan (the Mainland release came the following year). This was the hit single there-off:



Yaogun’s early nineties was a more homogenous period, where longhairs dominated with hard rock and metal. It would be some time before yaogun would sound like American rock’s 1991 – it was a time, remember, when R.E.M. and Mr. Big, “November Rain” and “One”, plaid and leather could share chart space.

Yaogun got there, eventually, and in a big way.

Yappin’ Yaogun

The July issue of monthly Beijing English-language magazine the Beijinger featured a cover feature on yaogun, or, more specifically, the talking thereof (the article is downloadable here).

Under the banner of “The Great Music Debate”, the magazine gathered a dozen and a half members of the music community in a room, threw out some questions and took notes. There were folks from all corners in on the talk: Reps from record labels, festivals and venues; promoters, performers, observers and writers.

One thing in particular that struck me (other than a nice mention of yours truly) was the couple of occasions on which the general lack of recognition for that which came before was raised. It’s is something that I’ve fought hard to counter in recent years; it was, truth be told, in direct response to the realization that I hadn’t been giving the early years and those rocking therein the respect they deserve.

That recognition isn’t just a major theme running through Red Rock – my aim was to focus on the journey and the people that had paved the way – but it was the inspiration for it. It didn’t start out that way, but digging into yaogun’s history showed me the importance of the contributions of the early ‘gunners. (Which is not to say that Red Rock is only about the past; it is about, inasmuch is possible for any book, the current state of affairs in the context of how it came to be. Context, turns out, is everything).

So, with my ‘history is everywhere’ goggles on, when I saw the rock-talking panel in July’s Beijinger, I couldn’t help but think back to 2005, when, along with several members of the staff of the magazine then called that’s Beijing (now called the Beijinger), we gathered seven rock-scenesters to sit down over beers and talk rock.

In 2005, times seemed simpler. It felt like yaogun was still finding its footing; its glory days were far enough behind it that they seemed ancient history, and it wasn’t clear how it might regain any semblance of that time. The conversation had an overall pessimistic tone; there was a lot of talk about the obstacles up in yaogun’s way. It was a time, as Lv Zhiqiang (also known as Gouzi [‘go-dze‘), or ‘Dog’), put it, of challenges. “I think the music scene is in a bad way because nobody thinks of what’s wrong with it and how to solve the problems.” Lv ran then, and runs now, live venue Yu Gong Yi Shan (which was demolished and relocated to much fancier and larger digs in 2007). “We should figure out what’s wrong, and fix it.”

There was little international interest in yaogun then, in a way that seems inconceivable these days. Though one of the panelists, Leo de Boisgisson (as well as myself, though officially an observer rather than a participant), was in the business of exporting Chinese music along with bringing in international acts, it didn’t seem like yaogun was ready to take on the world just yet, as international touring for local bands was extremely rare (de Boisgisson had taken three amazing acts on a French tour the previous year; I was about to head to Scandinavia with Subs; a literal handful of others had made international trips).

China Music Lab, France, 2004; Subs, Nordic Europe, 2005

Back then, there seemed to be no sign of the internet life as we know it today. Case in point: In 2005, we thought it important that a record store owner was in on the conversation. In 2011, Tian Jianhua, of skate-punk band Reflector, put it best when he said: “Times have changed, brother – nobody listens to CDs anymore.”

Changed, indeed. In 2005, “Stanley” Chen Yi, who was, then, PR Manager at Beijing label Scream Records, could still genuinely describe the kids buying his label’s records as folks that “regard rock music as their spiritual pillar…if they don’t have rock music, they may lose the meaning of life…(Nothing will change) their love of and attitude toward rock. It’s a part of their life.” This is the type of rocker I continually encountered during my yaogun research, and though it sounds pretty cheesy to hear it in this age of gigabytes of music swirling through the air, in one’s headphones on demand, one can’t emphasize enough how deeply these feelings were felt.

But not so much anymore. Tian Jianhua, himself having been deeply affected by rock and roll – and who, in turn, affected deeply through his own music, multitudes – put it succinctly during the 2011 panel: “The younger generation grew up eating McDonald’s. They’ve never had time to think deeply about anything.”

It’s the difference, broadly, between the pre- and post- Eight-Ohs, the general generational divide slapped through China’s young adult population (which, like any generalization, works only to an extent). Those born after 1980 (‘eight oh’) are painted with the broad strokes that describe that “Little Emperor” phenomenon, that unintended consequence of China’s one-child policy. When families of multiple generations share a home in a world defined by that definitely-post-1980 mission to make mounds of money, it’s bound to happen. There’s more money to spend on kids, and a desire on the part of parents and grandparents to overindulge  their only progeny. Add to that the technology with which these young’uns are surrounded and from which they seem to draw their very life blood, and what you get is not just a belief that all ought to be available all the time, but that this is how it always was and always will be.

So the idea of rock star has become different. Less something to strive for, or, gasp!, earn, than yet another thing on a list of desires that invariably get gotten for them. Again: these brush strokes are broad, but useful still.

Between 1993 and 1997, Niu Jiawei, who participated in our 2005 rock talk, worked at the Beijing office of Magic Stone Records, the label opened on the mainland by Taiwanese outfit Rock Records to cover yaogun. This was Magic Stone’s – and yaogun’s – heyday, when records sold widely and rock rang out from the stadium stages, radio stations and cassette players of the nation. Magic Stone and a few others created rock stars out of dudes previously slugging it out in the venues of the country’s underground. “It’s a problem if things develop too fast,” Niu said, in 2005, citing the record time in which rock stars were made, and the swiftness with which they were dethroned. “There was a crash. I don’t think rock musicians are suited to live like stars.”

Stars of yore: Black Panther

Which is not what folks seem to be thinking in 2011. This year’s panel wrapped up with talk of the value and usefulness of handing out rock awards. Already, two such events occur: Mao Livehouse, the premier live rock venues of Beijing and Shanghai, has been hosting awards from their earliest (2007) days with a nice mix of folks nominated and awarded. Midi Productions, those behind the Festival of the same name, decided, in 2009, to give out awards as well; reviews of Midi’s Awards have been mixed (I have been on the Midi jury, and am more often than not disappointed with how things turn out; more on that, I’m sure, eventually).

“Awards help to establish standards and attract more attention from the fans,” Liu Huan, deputy general manager of the Midi Festival and Midi Productions told the panel. “We need to make the stars stars.”

That statement is what differentiates the two rock panels: In 2005, we weren’t talking about stars, we were talking about survival. And it’s tough to know where I’d rather be.