The deja-vu encountered by looking through the Modern Sky Festival’s early-October 2013 lineup inspired the penultimate post by the now-done-with-Tumblr Slink Rat. It’s a deja-vu this blog has also had, and one that all fans of yaogun and observers of China’s growing festival scene should, too. In short, Slink Rat questioned why, with as genuine a curiosity as one might intuit from a blog post, it is the case that the same bands play the festival every year. To that we might add the concern that this is happening across the festival landscape in a way, Slink Rat points out, that wouldn’t fly elsewhere.
The China Rock Midi Awards are set to be handed out this weekend, stepping up the proceedings by having the event at M-Space, the club attached to Beijing’s MasterCard Center, the arena formerly known as Wukesong and kitted out post-Olympics by international massive sports and entertainment presenters AEG. Big ups to Rock in China for their breakdown of the details, and history of the event and its producer. In Red Rock and here on this blog, I’ve moaned about the Awards in the past, but I’m optimistic, as I mentioned in my first post in this two-part series.
Alas, let’s turn to the nominees, which, you’ll note, line up almost exactly nothing like my picks. Almost. So I’m re-picking the folks I’d like to see win…
As a former foreign resident of the Middle Kingdom, it was both shocking and unsurprising to hear the number 594,000 bandied about, in this post on the China Beat (yes, that is the site you know from its posting of an excerpt-plus from Red Rock as well as a range of great and insightful readings on China), about how many non-Chinese, in 2010, called China home.
The number is both higher than I thought and lower than it ought to be, and the article points out several reasons this is so. The visa situation for many non-Chinese residents, which is perhaps best explained by evoking the colour grey, means that many foreigners are not exactly counted in official stats. Compounding that situation are the periods of regulatory, erm, adjustments that tend to follow periods of Special Events — say, the Olympic or World Expo periods. But on the other hand, anyone that’s lived in China for an extended period of time knows that foreigners can’t truly live under the radar.
Alas. There are foreigners, a whole bunch of them. And, to turn things, as we often do, back to Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, as long as there have been foreigners, they have used their devilsh ways to spread gospels of many kind, rock and roll being only one of many recent such gospels. There have been many unsung heroes, bringing their collections to the hungry ears of local audiences and several important figures who brought not just the sounds, but the actual artists into the country desperate to experience for themselves the music. And, of course, there have been players.
And so, a brief look, at some of the laowai (“lao [rhymes with ‘how’] why“, literally, ‘old outside’) inside yaogun:
If Cui Jian is yaogun’s Adam, Eddie Luc
Lalasoa Randriamampionina isn’t Eve, and he’s probably not the snake, but he’s definitely one of the other residents of the Garden. Since the earliest days and right through to today — unlike any other musician — Eddie has been alongside Cui, making him the most famous foreigner in yaogun, and one of the most famous foreigners in China. He also played for legendary blues crew Rhythm Dogs as well as the amazing Nogabe, in addition to early band Ado (which became Cui’s band from early one).
One of the first alt bands to come out of Beijing was Xue Wei, a band about which little is known, other than they had a big fan in Cui Jian who told a reporter that he wished they’d play more. Scotsman Colin Chinnery, maven in the contemporary Chinese art scene as both artist and curator, led the band (and is pictured at right). Check out their tune, “Trivial” (微不足道), streaming here.
Thin Man has established itself even into the mainstream, but in the band’s earliest incarnations, Chandler Klose played an essential role; he and still-frontman Dai Qin formed the band, and it was Klose that brought Dai, who had only just discovered the Beatles (and was playing in one of the early-nineties party scene’s favourite bands, which became known as the Mongolian Beatles) under the spell of the alternative music only recently dominating the American rock scene. Klose also played alongside Zang Tianshuo (soon to become a pop star) in the band 1989, but left it for Thin Man. Here, the band’s contribution to 1994’s Original Chinese Rock compilation, “Passed this Place”
P.K. 14 remains atop the yaogun heap, even nearly 15 years after their formation. Soon after Yang Haisong and his now-wife Sun Xia moved the band to Beijing to break into the then-nascent but bubling scene, he met Swede Jonathan Leijonhuvfud, who had brought punk bands on tour through the mainland from his base in Hong Kong. Like Yang, Leijonhuvfud discovered that Beijing was where it was at, and moved there in 1999, joining the band soon thereafter.
Leijonhuvfud also makes an appearance in the short-lived Cocktail 78, which united he and future FM3 co-founder and Buddha Machine co-creator Christiaan Virant with two members of Brain Failure, Xiao Rong and David O’Dell (author of the recent memoir Inseperable, about the punk scene in Beijing) and Jerry Chan, who recently posted a link to not just video of the group performing (sans Chan) at the Great Wall, but also a sample of a track the band recorded in-studio in 2000
Beginning in the early aughts, bands with members from outside of China were less rare: There were more spaces to rehearse and perform and there were exponentially more of us. And we got around. Which doesn’t mean that your humble narrators two most recent bands are unworthy of mention here…
Black Cat Bone, still going despite my departure (as well they should be), formed in 2005ish, is a blooze band of the party-with-us variety.
Finally, RandomK(e), a dark space-post-indie rock band formed in 2005 and disbanded in 2010 with, alas, my departure.
Beijing’s punk scene caught the international limelight in 1998 and 1999, at the tail end of Ye Olde Scene. International journos abounded, rushing to the front lines of the tiny Scream Club to catch a glimpse of Commies with Mohawks. The club spawned the record label of the same name, an essential documenter of the yaogun underground.
The four bands at the punk scene’s centre – not, by far, the only punk bands in the scene – were the Boredom Brigade: Anarchy Jerks, 69, Brain Failure and Reflector. They’ve been called the Wuliao Contingent in the past, but Boredom Brigade is a far better translation of 无聊军队 (Wuliao: boring; Jundui: army). The legacy of that scene, and the Scream Bar, which opened in 1998, where it was mainly based, comes in the form of a two-disc compilation put out in 1999.
Well-respected BBC DJ and extremely kind blurber of Red Rock Steve Barker described the Sex Pistols to me thusly: “Like all punk bands, they had that one good song.” In the case of the Boredom Brigade, we have nearly a double album’s worth of good punk songs, but I’m going to go one step further: There is nearly a double album’s worth of good songs. The compilation was the second release from the brand new label, Scream Records; it came hot on the heels of rap-metal progenitors Thin Man’s debut, which one of its most successful releases.
Lü Bo, head of Scream Records and founder of the club that came before was very clear on what his label was all about. “My job is to document the times,” he said in 2004, “and the times are changing constantly.” His mission then was – and is now – to send regular time capsules out to the masses. And punk music, with its urgency, tends to work best under this kind of guiding principle, though making the record out to be a historical document tends to rule out a too-critical look at it. But not here.
It would be as easy to dismiss the compilation as a low-quality attempt at replicating the Scream Club days as it would be to simply write off all punk music as un-put-on-record-able. And we have to allow that punk music can be recorded, and that all that comes with the music can also wind up on the recordings – because, after all, if you can’t bottle punk, what chance does music of any kind have?
It’s worth taking a deeper look into the compilation as a window into the punk scene of which it, for all intents and purposes, represents the end. In fact, it is surprising – to me at least, as one who is often and has occasionally been, respectively, disappointed/uninterested in and surprised by, punk music – that the record came out as good as it did, that the bands are as good as they sound, given both the story of the label and the bands. Two of the four bands, 69 and Anarchy Boys, dissolved within years of the release, while the other two, Reflector and Brain Failure, have gone on to accumulate huge followings across China, both bands having substantially polished their sounds in the vein of Green Day and Rancid, respectively, arguably a long way from their more hardcore roots.
Which is not to imply that the album is only good as a marker by which to judge two bands’ progress and two bands’ inability to continue long-term. Nor is it to say ‘it’s a mess, just like punk on record should be!’ But it is a great venue through which to learn about the bands in the scene and on the record. It also is to say, in their lead-off role, 69 is far more… – What’s a nice way to say this? Listenable? Decent? Better? – than any band described as ‘hardcore’ should be. Their “Rock and Roll with Chinese Characteristics” is not only an almost-singalongally-fun number, inasmuch as something this hardcore can be, but is also a more intelligent take on things than one might expect: It’s straightforward, sure, but not just in the middle-finger way. That the song is not just a clever title is something of a relief, because let’s be honest: There’s a danger that they might’ve blown their load on the title. They didn’t.
This is a simple hoax
Or the secret to getting rich
Use long hair to cover up the emptiness
Use music to deceive the truth
Use rock and roll to sell your conscious
Turn anger into cash
Rock rock rock rock, rock and roll
Rock and roll with Chinese characteristics (repeated many, many, many, many times over)
“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Chinese Characteristics” by 69 (Wuliao Jundui, Scream Records):
Meanwhile “Revolution” could be cool solely because yaogun legend Cui Jian blows a trumpet solo, but that’s not the only reason it’s cool, and isn’t the only reason that this band should be better known. It’s cool because it’s a Whole Proper Song: Singing about a revolution – “Not a revolution like Chairman Mao – we needn’t kill anyone,” singer Liang Wei told Details magazine (though I suspect he shouldn’t have been quoted saying ‘needn’t’; he just doesn’t sing like the kind of guy that talks like that). “I should call it ‘head revolution.’” – with a military-march musical backdrop that sounds like the People’s Liberation Army marching band after injecting themselves with a speedball to keep the weeklong whoring and drinking binge going through band practice, from which they’re taking a break to try out a slightly new direction, is a move that could only have resulted from thinking about the Song as more than just some chords, a verse and a chorus – which is really all it is, when you get right down to it. Having yaogun’s, and, arguably, the nineteen-eighties’ most revolutionary dude on the not-so-revolutionary trumpet (though Cui taking the horn back from his Philharmonic/Song and Dance Troupe days and bringing it into the rock sphere to which he escaped was revolutionary-ish) is another stroke of genius that proves punk can be more than just about ‘Oi!’s and ‘Fuck You!’s.
Reflector are possibly most Wuliao of the whole Jundui – in a good way. As in, they tend to use words like ‘bored’ and ‘whatever’, and tend to be the most fun-loving, truly in the spirit of the gang that, in the end, might well be about rebellion through having more fun than everyone else. Though they are not softies, their style of punk was – and most certainly today is – the more accessible. What might be a kiss of death to punker works perfectly here, because there should never be anything wrong with backing vocals that bring to mind the Beatles. When they sing about the Scream Club (“Scream”) you want to join them at the bar; hearing them, you’d believe, truly, that “you’ll have really really have a good time” even though you know it’s a filthy place that only a young punk could really fall in love with, but the way they sing together about how we oughtta “Come here together…nobody will be alone”, you believe know they’ll look out for you, even if they do wind up veering toward the hardcore, and, you’ve heard, their share of barfights. Because any three dudes that sing that nicely together – and they are singing, moreso than any of the other Brigade members – can’t possibly want any harm to come to you.
Their songs, with upbeat ska rhythms and overdubs of laughter, hoots and hollers, are the kind of songs that might well be the most dangerous; bouncing the listener into a happy place where you imagine smiles on the faces of the band members. But their smiles – like the one often worn by their current-but-not-at-the-time-of-the-compilation singer and guitarist Li Peng while he plays – aren’t straight-up we’re having fun smiles. It’s more of a smirk, you realise when you look at it for a while, and it’s the kind of smirk that you can see the guys wearing during the recording sessions; it’s a smirk for people who know what Reflector knows: That all around there are people out to keep you down, and you’re better than that. While moms and dads are “afraid to leave the house” (“Don’t Be A Sucker”), you know that you’re in the Boredom Brigade, and you’re in good company. The Brigade’s theme song is an upbeat and fun number, and more upbeat and fun than one would expect from a group espousing ennui as its raison d’etre. But such is the reality of the Brigade, and it’s fitting that the song was done by Reflector, in what is generally their brand of skate-punk – “generally” only because their 2010 album, Explain You, includes an acoustic ballad (“Growing Up”, a song, yes, about just that) and a song in the style that is known, mysteriously, as ‘emo’. “Come join the Boredom Brigade,” they sing, and hearing it, you, too, want to sing. “You’ll be happy here”. Reflector’s sense of melody, even in their harder-edged songs, is a rarity in yaogun; that they aren’t afraid of great vocal melodies and harmonies puts them in a different category from so many of their counterparts, who tend to avoid melodies at the risk of not being rock enough.
“Boredom Brigade” by Reflector (Wuliao Jundui, Scream Records)
Brain Failure’s portion of the Boredom Brigade compilation, meanwhile, comes on like a gangland gunfight with their far more serious-sounding assault. The seriousness isn’t quite yanked from underneath by several factors over the course of Brain Failure’s baker’s dozen songs, but is certainly smoothed out. There’s the squeal-squawk that comes out of singer Xiao Rong’s head approximately a millisecond into the band’s first offering; the loogie-hock featured prominently in the band’s second number and sporadically throughout; the groans that start the third song, which progresses to a two-minute-long slur with a few ‘huh’s, ‘aaaaah’s, sounds associated more with cattle drives than sweaty bars full of pogoing punks, and, again, that squeak; the honky-tonk piano tune that is sung by at least the eponymous “Three Little Dirty Punks” in that song’s intro, which gives way to an assault of hardcore-oompah that is the signature of the kind of music that Brain Failure plays, music that seems even more urgent than the others on the compilation. On the one hand, you know that hardcore punk is serious business: It’s scary music played by intimidating dudes who have Something to say. But on the other, it’s hard to take anything that goes that fast completely seriously, moreso when atop it all you have Xiao Rong squawking like a newborn chick, a move employed so frequently that it seems that he’s just picked up the skill and is trying to use it as much as possible – which, when you think about it, is exactly what the hardest of the hardcore members of the Boredom Brigade would do. So despite the angry Sex Pistol within the band as a whole – it’s occasionally eerie how much Xiao Rong seems to channel Sid Vicious – there is a humour, intentional or not, that cuts through. That Brain Failure doesn’t perform the Brigade’s theme song is ok, since they have an equally legitimate anthemic number in “Barely Smiling”, which might as well be the Brigade’s salute, and a great second anthem, all fifty-eight seconds of it. “A friend hates me/Because I have no thoughts/A friend ignores me/Because I’m really ignorant…I’m here, can you see ma? I’m barely smiling!” Xiao Rong alternates between the dumb-kid voice and his hyena-squeals, but it brings to mind his defence mechanism, and that of so many like him, whether they be ’gunners-to-be in Beijing’s 1990s or nerds who seek the consolation of a record collection in 1970s Detroit. “I used to tell people I was an idiot because then they’d all shut up,” Xiao Rong told Theme magazine. “I would hide my glory, my soul in my bones, but I’d know who was the winner.” The highlight, and the peek into Xiao Rong’s future, comes on “A Coward”, where the vocal melody might just be the record’s most catchy, especially with a well-timed ‘oh-woah-oh’ ripped from Phil Spector’s playbook, and the backing vocals even an attempt at harmony; the breakdown is another sign of a pop sensibility despite the band’s obvious disdain for that sort of thing, but it’s also clear that Xiao Rong has a while to go before singing takes the place of screaming (and yelping). “A Coward” by Brain Failure (Wuliao Jundui, Scream Records):
The final unit of the Brigade, Anarchy Jerks (aka Anarchy Boys, A-Jerks, The Jerks), seems the most out of place on the record, reliant as they are on “Oi!”s rather than much of anything else. Surely, under the rubric of the Boredom Brigade this is a perfectly legitimate proof of membership, but having come through the compilation with three bands that have impressed thus far, it’s something of a disappointment to end the experience here. A-Jerks are the band that someone not well-versed in punk would likely expect in a compilation such as this, and that’s not meant as a compliment. When they shout “We are Chinese Skins!” in English on “Chinese Oi”, you hope, if you’re reading along with the lyric sheet, that there’s been a mistake, because it would be so much better if what was written resembled what it sounded like. Because imagine if the following statement contained the word ‘kids’ instead of ‘Skins’: “We love oi just like you/we are Chinese Skins/We say oi just like you/We are Chinese skins”. They also inform us, at the top of this particular tune, that they “aren’t Nazi” (though it’s written “Nazy” and we couldn’t possibly have mistaken them for either), and they aren’t “swarp”.
Their sloppiness might be charming, or proof that the message is more important than the music, but in the context of the previous bands’ contribution, it just plain doesn’t stack up. You’d like to commend the band for saying things like they do on “Come on and ‘Oi!’”: “Don’t say you’re too young/Don’t say you’re not good enough/As long as you aren’t doing stuff to be fashionable/You can do anything you want.” They want everyone who “likes it”, who “has this bravery”, who “doesn’t care about anything” to “Say ‘Oi!’ together”. Which is a nice thought, as is the fact that “Everyone can scream out ‘Oi!’” But what’s not nice about their philOI!sophy is that there’s nothing else.
While the Wuliao compilation certainly marks the end of the punk scene that came out of the late nineties, it doesn’t represent the end of punk music in China; there are plenty of bands carrying the punk torch around the country – just the number of bands inspired by the pop-punk of bands from Blink 182 to Avril Lavigne alone is staggering, but grouping these bands under the same ‘punk’ banner doesn’t do anyone any good. But there are many bands influenced by a combination of late-nineties homegrown punk and the increasing amount of music brought into the country. So in the wake of the initial punk scene, a more varied collection of bands came to expand the definition of ‘punk’.
More on them, later.
Note: The compilation doesn’t seem to be available for purchase via internationally-familiar means. iTunes has a Scream compilation for sale with a few of the Boredom Brigaders here. Amazon has the inferior but live Christmas in Scream.