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.