On Xmas, 1998, as they generally did on most nights, Beijing punks flocked to the Scream Club. But this time, it was different. It was Christmas. And: There would be an album.
So Maclean’s magazine just ran a story on one Canadian effort to bring its music industry into the Middle Kingdom. Yes, yours truly was quoted in the piece, but it sheds light on an important, if small, idea. We can talk (and write) about China’s musical output and of the international bands performing there, but there is something lacking in all of those discussions: China’s music industry. The industry in China is even newer than the music, and it’s currently in a strange place: Like so much of the country, the music business is playing catch-up with the rest of the world, squeezing into a few precious years the study that has taken decades in the West.
Combination music festivals and conferences are long-standing traditions in much of the world, where industry folk hobnob, make deals, talk to eachother and, often times, listen, about the issues facing the ‘biz with regularity. It’s a great way for artists to be seen by the Industry and, when done well, it leads to more opportunities for artists and businessfolk alike.
But there’s been a real lack of Chinese presence at these events. MIDEM (in 2008’s installment, China was country of honour) and Canadian Music Week, the Cannes and Toronto events, respectively, have had some luck with Chinese presence, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Not that China isn’t a subject at these conferences — it often is. There just aren’t many representatives from the country there to be involved in the discussion. And that’s a problem.
I was one of six invitees to comprise a panel at 2007’s South by Southwest Festival on the Chinese market. None of us were China-born. It was hard, organisers told me, to convince Chinese music folks that it was worth the investment of the plane ticket and hotel to show up because the potential delegates hadn’t heard of SXSW. By then, SXSW had long been the leading music industry (and music, period) event in the land, but the ignorance on the Chinese side of SXSW is totally understandable. But that’s not the only reason folks didn’t make the trip, because a little research would have shown them what they were missing out on. I believe, as I said in the Maclean’s piece, that there’s a sort of prom-queen-esque outlook where the Chinese know that everyone wants a piece of them, and they don’t need to engage to come upon opportunities (and, one might add, if they do engage, they ought to be wined and dined, and flown around to do so). At Oslo’s Oya Festival, where, in 2005, I was one of five Chinese delegates (I was the only non-Chinese of the bunch) invited, Scream Records’ founder and boss Lü Bo was swamped by all of the folks that wanted to work with him to the point that it caused him obvious discomfort. So perhaps that’s part of it too: Why make oneself available to all, when staying away can help whittle down the suitors.
Besides, the amount of music industry reps that have come through China on fact-finding missions attests to the fact that the world will come to China. Because, unlike (many of) their Chinese counterparts, a trip to China to scope out the music scene is worth the lark, even if no business is done, because of the country’s near-mystical allure. So the industry often comes to China. In forms like TransmitCHINA, the subject of the aforementioned article.
But before Transmit, it’s important to note, there were many other similar industry events. I have spoken at British and Spanish delegation meetings, and hung with a United Nations’ worth of industry folks who have come to China, with governmental help, on fact-finding missions. While observers (and participants) may question governmental involvement in junkets such as these, it’s essential to the process, because of the long-term investment required. Proof of the efficacy of this support isn’t in record sales or number of touring acts, or ticket sales: It’s impossible to measure, but it’s clear that countries like Norway, Germany, Denmark, France and Britain have made the most inroads into not just the Chinese market, but, more importantly, the Chinese consciousness.
There was the afforementioned Oya Fest’s 2005 festival that flew and hosted five of us at their festival, alongside Chinese garage-punk act Subs, in hopes of establishing relationships. France’s Year of France in China (2004) and Year of China in France (2005) had a strong musical element. The Norwegian embassy has long been one of the most active in getting artists into China, and their efforts are the reason that, when I took jazz bands into universities in far-flung cities, the students, teachers and administrators I dealt with already were familiar with the country and eager for more. Close observers will also note that Norwegian bands were the first international acts to be included in the Midi Music Festival, China’s best-known and biggest rock fest. Denmark’s SPOT Festival has invited (and flew) Chinese delegates (yes, including yours truly) to their event dating back to 2006 (and they had Wang Wen perform in 2008), and have sent a range of different folks — bands, techies and others — to festivals.
These are still baby steps. But they are key. China’s music landscape is the Wild East and more international industry events inside the country, and Chinese presence at international events, will help everyone navigate through.
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.