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-outto 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.
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.
As Beijing punk band Demerit embarks on the final leg of their US tour, which included many stops on the Vans Warped Tour, a look back at their Peking punk predecessors is worthy.
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.
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 (likethese), 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.
Lots of talk, lately, about the high-speed train collision on July 23 near the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou, particularly about the general anger over the Official response. A report on Public Radio International’s The World relates this to yaogun: The song that was the first expression of China’s own homegrown rock and roll, Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name”, has been used to express that anger.
Cui’s song (lyrics here), first performed in 1986 and spread quickly and widely thereafter, expressed the feelings that his fellow citizens either didn’t realize they had or couldn’t figure out how to make known. Its power was in its subtelty; Cui was expending a huge effort with his moans, yes, but he wasn’t screaming, because he, and his generation, weren’t exactly angry – not yet, anyway. The song, and the way people took to it, was a product of the era’s angst and confusion: Unlike the pop music of the day, Cui Jian sang about the sudden confrontation with a new world, both inside and outside of China, and with the possibility that their own world as they knew it was coming to an end.
The “Nothing to My Name” that has emerged the wake of the train crash is a very different beast, as is the generation that produced it. This version, particularly with the accompanying video footage, isn’t just angry, it’s a call to arms. Many have pointed to the song’s role in the events of 1989, but Cui has never been the type to demand people to rise up – not directly, since the immediate reaction doesn’t take the long view. It was a revolutionary tune, to be sure, but it was not incendiary in the way that the tweaked version now making the rounds is.
“Oh… You seem to be making a show” struck me in particular. The idea that much of the news coverage in the Middle Kingdom was less than actual news is not new: It’s been a long time since intelligent people believe they’re getting the full story on just about anything from the newspapers and newscasts of the Official Media (an argument which can be made of many nations, one is quick to add, though it’s not always easy to spot the “official” outside of China). What’s new is the eagerness to call it when it’s seen, not to mention the media’s own desire to editorialize on the issue – there’s the rage of the anchor at the top of the video, and the CCTV anchor mentioned in the PRI report who implored the nation to slow down, lest it leave behind the souls of its citizens. This type of expression, at least among the general populace, also happened in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake of May, 2008 (and the image of the candle-lit “7.23” in the video is the link to that episode) and it’s happening moreso now, inasmuch as its being allowed by Officialdom.
Alas. Back to Cui Jian.
I’d always been dismissive of Cui Jian’s own campaign, in the first years of the aughts, againstlip-synching (which, recall, led to actual legislation banning the practice without telling people you were doing it), but in revisiting that campaign, particularly in light of a situation such as the one around the train crash, one understands what he might’ve been trying to do – and it’s been something he’s obviously been trying to do through his music, and general example. To get people to think. If people are telling you they’re singing and they’re not, what else out there is fake?
Whether this new “Nothing” merely riles folks up in the short term or leads them to reflect on the long is the difference between yaogun’s ability to shock and its ability to awe; its power and its potential.
Many point to the proliferation of music festivals across the country as a sign that things are looking good for yaogun. An important half truth at the very least: Music festivals – or, more accurately, events with the word ‘festival’ in their name – are, indeed, an increasing occurrence around the country, especially as local governments have come to see value in backing such events.
Festivals make both a good and bad model upon which to base a judgement on the rock scene, because, like the scene itself, looks are deceiving. Just as it takes more than a proliferation of bands to make a vibrant and internationally-ready rock scene, there’s more to a Festival Scene than an increasing number of stages under the banner of ‘festival’. And an increasing number there certainly is: Check here, at the encyclopaedic Rock In China, for a list of many recent festivals.
Some recent highlights include: The short-lived Beijing Pop Festival, which brought an increasingly significant lineup of international acts, culminating with Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and others in its final, 2007, event. Record label – and, many would add, PR agency – Modern Sky has an eponymous festival as well as the Strawberry Festival and a folk festival in various locations across the country. The Zebra Festival emerged in 2009 in Chengdu and has plans for expansion (in 2010, the fest went to Hangzhou; 2011 saw a Shanghai version). The Midi Music Festival, most often referred to as the leading festival light of the country, has long outgrown the campus of the eponymous music school where it began in 2000, with events outside of Beijing beginning in 2009 and expanding rapidly thereafter.
Each festival has had, and continues to have, its own challenges to overcome both from outside – the unpredictability with which the authorities limit the events, for one – and inside – organizational chaos leads to festivalian chaos – though anyone beyond industry insiders would be excused for seeing nothing but good news: The festivals look right and get great coverage in the local and international media. But artists, staff, volunteers and observant attendees (and I have been in all of those categories) run into elementary problems of the type that shouldn’t exist at this level. It’s not that the glass is half-empty, it’s that it’s hard to know what kind of cup we’re talking about, and what kind of liquid (if a liquid at all) is being poured (unless it’s being drained). And the more pouring that gets done, the tougher it is to get the stuff to go into the glass.
“In China, if someone does something successfully, then all of the sudden, there’s a million people doing it,” influential radio DJ Zhang Youdai told me. “It ends up ruining things for everyone. Recent festivals have turned people off.” He said this in 2009, and while things then seemed to be getting out of hand, it was nothing compared to what was to come (one is also quick to add that Youdai himself headed up a festival in 2011, Kama Love, which received goodreviews)
Over the course of the millennium’s first decade, a number of festival attempts were made, to varying degrees of success. There were the non-festivals, like 2003’s First Annual Lattetown Music Festival, named for the condominium complex (one of a million ridiculous real estate development names in the country) in the southern outskirts of Beijing. Metal bands Suffocate and Spring and Autumn joined pop-punks Reflector and grunge guy Xie Tianxiao and others celebrate the condo’s opening. “We’re trying to show that Lattetown is a fashionable and modern place,” said one saleslady charged with handing out pamphlets that day to the mix of rock fans confused over the setting and nouveau riche confused as to why their search for a new house had to be so loud.
There was 2005’s cryptically dubbed “Carnivalesque Party of 1 vs. 120,000”, part of the International Beach Tourism Culture Festival, in the small city of Beihai, in southeastern Guangxi province that combined rock performances with a bikini competition. Soon thereafter was the Gegentala Grasslands Music Festival, which seemed to be a decent enough festival with good potential for a future, but was revealed to be an attempted cash grab by a Sichuanese strawberry magnate. The trip out to the Inner Mongolian grasslands looked like it would be worth the ride until the supposed seven-hour ride became, for many, a twenty-hour nightmare; word was unpaid bills nearly stopped the music on several occasions. Gegentala, Part II was not forthcoming; meanwhile lodging and food prices had been inflated to the point of comedy.
What’s interesting about the current situation – in which one estimate claims that 2010 saw as many as one hundred festivals; all indications point to an increase in 2011 – is how suddenly it all seems to have happened. Which isn’t exactly the whole story: The festival era didn’t begin with the Midi Festival, and what’s more, despite appearances, things haven’t come all that far.
In 1990, then-new-Beijing resident Udo Hoffmann put together what he says is the country’s first festival. News of the event got to a city official who said that ‘hell had opened its gates’, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that his Hoffmann’s second attempt – for which, he says, five thousand tickets were sold – was cancelled two days before the event. He learned from those first events, though. In 1993, he started the Beijing Jazz Festival; the event lasted through until 2001. Hoffmann was also behind the Heineken Beat festival, held in Beijing in 1999, 2000 and 2001, it was the first large-scale international festival in the country (the lineups for the Jazz Festivals and Heineken Beat are here).
1990’s 90 Modern Music Festival was a two-day event featuring Tang Dynasty, Ado, The Breathing, 1989, Cobra and Baby Brother (Baobeir Xiongdi) at Beijing’s Capital Gymnasium that was said to have drawn eighteen thousand spectators. In a similar vein was the New Music China Xinxiang Concert, for which Huang Liaoyuan brought nine bands – via a “rock and roll train” full of musicians and fans – to a stadium in the small city in 1998. Six years later, he put together the Helanshan Music Festival alongside a motorcycle festival in the desert of western Ningxia. Other than the hard-to-reach venue, the reviews were positive.
2002’s Snow Mountain Music Festival, held in the southwestern corner of the country, nearby the once-mythical and recently-official Shangri-La, was supposed to be the Chinese Woodstock that everyone had been waiting for. With Cui Jian as the festival’s artistic director, the international media certainly played it that way, but the rainy season and the far-flung locale kept the audience numbers low. Episode two wasn’t until five years later; subsequent installments went further away from rock.
In the first years of the nineties, filmmaker Sheng Zhimin (whose 2009 Night of an Era [再 见乌托邦] is a fantastic look at the nineties’ rock scene), like many current festival organisers, was approached by a local government official who was told that adding a rock component to an otherwise unsuitable-for-rock event would be great for local business. His ‘festival’, which took place inside a (working) roller coaster in a Beijing suburban celebration of Chinese New Year, was put together with not much more than his personal connections to local bands and the dreams that he and his crew had from watching Woodstock videos. The situation would be laughable if one didn’t appreciate Sheng’s deep sense of mission. What is laughable, though, is when one is confronted with the possibility that not much since has been learned.
The governmental support that abounds these days – it is a shocking thing to behold – is one of the reasons that it’s easier for festivals to flourish. “As long as the musicians are healthy and not opposed to the Communist Party, why not let everyone enjoy the rock and roll?” Li Xuerong, secretary the local Communist Party Committee for Zhangbei, the site of the InMusic Festival, told the Global Times. Li’s comments represent the feelings of many a local government official eager to put their own towns on the map, and, for now, are convinced that music festivals help them do that. Multiple-year deals between local governments and festival organisers have been signed, a trend that looks to continue as long as it appears that the festivals are adding to the image of the locales in which they are held.
On the other hand, festivals are still battling the cultural obstacles of a nation new to the idea of massive outdoor events. “People go to restaurants – they don’t even really go to bars,” Liu Chang, a Midi School graduate who has worked on the Midi Festival since 2007, says. “Most people who go to the festivals probably have no knowledge of the music or any band. To them it’s a simple gathering.” Liu Chang’s boss, Zhang Fan, knows this to be true: “Fifty percent of (the audience) aren’t necessarily coming for the music,” he was quoted, in 2006, as saying. “They’re just coming to have fun.” While there are certainly a few fan favourites, the overall idea was that you could go to the park, hang out, and maybe possibly see some music you’d like. “For the festival-goers, half of the time is spent wandering around,” he told a China Daily reporter in 2007. “The festival is not only performances but rather, a relaxed lifestyle.” Add to that the far-flung locales festival organisers are now exporting to, and you have an audience comprised of a large number of locals just trying to figure out what the heck is going on in their hometown. If people are attracted to a music festival for any reason other than music, we are not talking about an event that gets filed in the same category as Boneroo, no matter how many people are in attendance – and that number is impressive – or how many stages may dot the grass fields of any given park in the Kingdom.
And one ought to look critically at who is standing upon these stages. I knew I’d been seeing the same names year after year, but it came home after a quick survey of Midi Festival lineups from the past dozen years. Miserable Faith and Yaksa have appeared at twelve Midi Festivals; AK47 and Brain Failure at eleven; Twisted Machine and Sand, ten; Subs seven; Ruins and the Verse (six). Here is not the venue for debating these bands’ worthiness for the stage. But it is the venue for questioning the variety in the lineups of the country’s leading festival – and, by association, the country’s other festivals, who are all picking from the same limited pool. When festivals go looking for the local Big Guns, they don’t stray far from that list. There is Cui Jian, the biggest star in the country; Xie Tianxiao, who is being tagged as Cui’s successor. There are a few others, who straddle that line betwixt yaogun and pop: Wang Feng, He Yong, Zhang Chu, Xu Wei, Tang Dynasty, Zero Point, Heaven.
What one hopes is that festivals live up to their potential, and bring yaogun with them. What one fears is the triumph of the status quo: The same bands headlining the same events plagued with the same problems.