A Yaogun Cover

It’s not often that yaogun tunes get covered. Back a few years, we had yaogunners take on Cui Jianwith mostly not-great results. Don’t get me started on rap-metal act CMCB’s butchery of “Nothing to My Name,” but let’s just say I might well be more partial to Michael Learns To Rock’s version. But I stumbled into a cover worth sharing…

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Post-Punks: Of shoes, of sunglasses, milk and more

We have heard, and seen, yaogun on China Central Television. We have seen yaogun’s only real anthem reinvented in protest. We’ve even seen that anthem of anthems (“Nothing to My Name”) reinvented for the Idol set (2009’s Super Girl, the massively popular Chinese televised singing competition):

But we have gone from an age where yaogun, occasionally, is broadcast on television to an era in which brands now scamper after yaogun. And, in the spirit of the previous post, I give you, again, Anarchy Jerks.

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Yaogun v Rock

It wasn’t too far into writing Red Rock when I realized that yaogun was something more than just a Chinese translation of rock and roll. On that tip, I offer a piece that I wrote for the Chinese magazine Outlook‘s March issue.

Yaogun’s Long March
What writing about yaogun taught me about rock and roll

With scenes like this, says Kang Mao, who needs rock? (jWc)

There’s a moment in the documentary Rock Heart Beijing, in which Kang Mao, frontwoman for Subs, the band at the heart of the film, is faced with a gorgeous Nordic scene: A flowing river running alongside a magically green field and a tree-lined hillside; in the distance, mountains and clear blue skies that make you want to dive into the water and head toward the horizon; that special kind of silence you only get from being far from civilization. She asks, with an obviously genuine curiousity, how someone living in such a beautiful place could possibly play rock and roll. Her life may revolve around it, but it didn’t make sense that somewhere so beautiful could produce it. “If I lived here,” she says, “I wouldn’t need [rock ‘n roll].” It didn’t occur to me until some time later just how much that says about the tradition, and place, from which she comes, and what it says about the music that she and her peers perform.

What it says is something I learned over the course of writing Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, and it put my years in the Beijing rock scene in a new light. It was only after I wrote a book about yaogun that I realized how much I’d learned about rock and roll.

Rock and roll and yaogun are not the same. I thought that the latter was simply a version of the former. I was wrong. Yaogun picked up where rock and roll left off, creating a new form far beyond, yet deeply influenced by, its progenitor. What makes yaogun so special, I’ve come to see, is how it can reinvigorate, and inspire, rock and roll.

The first generation played rock because they knew of its power, that it was the only thing that could help them through the Nothing-ness about which Cui Jian first sang, and in which his nation lived. Of course, when I first heard “Nothing to my Name” and read about its importance, I couldn’t see it because I couldn’t appreciate the context from whence it came. Once I realized the backdrop, though, I – and Red Rock along with me – was transformed. Suddenly, I had a Mission: To help shed light on the context that birthed yaogun. Yaogun’s story, alongside its best music, is inspiring in a way that rock and roll is supposed to be.

For Yan Jun; experimental ambient music is the new rock (jWc)

Great Music is supposed to transcend context, but it’s hard to see through the haze that surrounds an outsider’s understanding of China. I wanted to help people cut through that fog and share the story of the foundations upon which yaogun was built. These foundations weren’t erected because some dudes thought it’d be cool to play rock music: They were built because it was the only way to avoid sinking into the swamp. Yan Jun introduced me to the idiom about a drowning man that holds on to a blade of grass for dear life. For the first yaogunners, rock was that blade of grass. Grabbing on to the blades, they not only started to climb out of the mire, they strung a bunch together to create a rope called yaogun, and sent it back into the swamp to rescue others who realized they were sinking.

The problem is that average folks were literally unable to process the existence of anything outside of the mainstream, so if you didn’t want to swim along, you had to leave the water and learn to breathe. Often kids were alone in this monumental journey, which created a population that dove into rock music with the energy matched only by the hunger that drove them to it. That hunger developed over the course of a period of time defined by the Nothing about which Cui sang, and it is a hunger impossible for a resident of the present day to imagine.

Mao's Red Book: Liner notes to the Revolution (via chineseposters.net)

The first generation of yaogunners found themselves simultaneously imprisoned and enlightened: On the one hand, a bunch of new and exciting music; on the other, a soundtrack with no liner notes. Somehow, liner notes were pieced together and rock and roll’s essence was discovered: “Rock is a door,” a young writer told me. “After you open it, you look at things differently.” Many of the first rockers were highly-trained musicians, raised in a society that, thanks to the legacy of the Maoist belief in the power of art, valued its artists. Thus a great irony, pointed out by producer and musician Brian Eno, referring to the former Soviet sphere, but equally applicable to China: Unlike those of us in the West, he said, “they believed in the power of art . . . They believed, that it could make a difference.” In the West, I was told, common people listen to rock; in China, rock was for the intellectuals. Our intellectuals used to have faith in rock.

Yaogun changed you and me
China changed

I was there, in the summer of 2006 (read my blog from the tour documented in the film here), as Kang Mao told the camera about how Norway was too nice for rock. At that point, we’d been on the road together for almost two months, having covered much of the 8000 kilometres that the band’s three-month tour of Nordic Europe would clock. We’d been through Finland, Sweden, and much of Norway, up, even, to the Arctic Circle. We’d been to Norway the previous year together, on a much smaller-scale tour that was the band’s first out-of-country experience. So Kang Mao knew more about Norway than what it looked like, and it was more than just the landscape that caused her to think that life there was too good for rock and roll.

She knew something of the nation’s socialist system, its wealth and its ability to spread it around: She knew about the money the country put into its rock scene because she’d personally received a portion of it: It was, after all, the source of our ability to tour the region. But more importantly, she knew about the communities that exist around Norway providing a support system to a wide range of folks just like her, and that blew her mind.

Kang Mao, Blitz, 2006

Kang Mao, like so many yaogunners of her generation, and others that preceded her, grew up in a country that wasn’t just undergoing wholesale societal reinvention, but was doing so at the speed of light, and leaving kids like her in the dark. One day, she’s a flower in the garden, flourishing under the nation’s sun; suddenly, the garden’s been sold off to the highest bidder, leaving the flowers in the dark. When kids like Kang Mao found rock and roll music, it saved them. It opened their eyes to what was out there, and what was possible. But most had made the discovery alone. So when Subs first set their eyes on Blitz, the house in the middle of downtown Oslo that the local punk community – literally – took over in 1981 and in which sat a stage, café, radio station, community centre, residence and more, the band was in awe. Kids from across Norway came to Blitz to find and unite with others just like them. The piece of graffiti that all of the band gravitated toward read “My mom told me to fuck off so I came to Blitz.”

There was no Blitz for kids like Kang Mao. But she, and others, found the music, and then, each other. When they created yaogun, it was with a major responsibility in mind: They knew there were others like them, and they knew that this music could help others like it had helped them.

Over the course of my decade living in Beijing – and particularly over the course of writing Red Rock – I met many folks like Kang Mao, who saw in rock and roll not just a kind of music. It was something that could literally lift them out of the dark. They will tell you, without an iota of irony or disingenuousness, that rock and roll saved their lives.

So when Kang Mao, standing along the banks of a Nordic river, asked how Norwegians could possibly need rock music, her query came from an understanding of rock and roll that I had never known; she knew, from experience, what it could do for a lost soul.

Buddy, what the heck’re you playing yaogun for?
TrickSecond Hand Rose

As I talked to yaogunners across the spectrum, I heard similar sentiments, and it excited me. It also depressed me. I come from rock and roll’s birthplace and it never really occurred to me that rock is more than a type of music you listen to, because by the time it came to me, it had lost much of its spirit. Those of us from rock and roll’s birthplace, it seemed to me, had pretty much blown our birthright. We’d forgotten what the music was all about, and what it could do. But yaogun can help us remember. That’s why writing and researching my book was so exciting.

Yaogun taught me that rock wasn’t just something you played, or listened to. Rock was something you lived. It isn’t a cheesy sentiment to believe that rock and roll can change the world; we made it cheesy when we gave up on rock’s promise.

I don’t know who’ll pay the bills of my youth
Too many people also have nothing to their names
If you’re drunk, don’t apologize
Just don’t waste this music
“Youth is the party” Subs

It was discomfiting as a Westerner to be re-introduced to my own music by yaogun, but it was also inspiring. We in the West may have wasted this music, but yaogun can help us pay back the debts we owe.

Oulu, Finland, 2006

That Subs tour showed me how yaogun can re-energize rock and roll. Rarely did the band play a gig where any number of juiced-up Vikings didn’t tell me, unprompted, that they remembered when punk rock used to have the energy, feeling and power that they saw in Subs. They had all come to the show for the same reason: They’re from China! Do they even have rock there? This I gotta’ see! If they came out of curiosity, they left energized in a way they hadn’t been for years, because Subs’ yaogun showed them punk rock’s potential.

Is there any hope?
Is there any hope?

Garbage DumpHe Yong

Twenty-five years ago, yaogun changed China, and, like the rock that inspired it, it’s come a long way since. Like rock, yaogun is in danger of forgetting, ignoring and forsaking its roots. Rock and roll may preach the overthrow of the elders, but there’s nothing less rock and roll than choosing to live in a vacuum, where nothing came before. The last time yaogunners lived in a vacuum, they did so because there was no choice, and they created something that could lift them, and their nation, out of it. The best yaogun remembers and embodies that. What I’ve learned is that what’s at risk here is not just yaogun. What’s at risk is rock and roll: The torch was passed from West to East, with yaogun.

China, like SMZB said, changed rock and roll. Yaogun changed China. Now it’s up to yaogun to save rock and roll – and change the world.


Counting Off

In the punk section of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, I look at a few tunes that exemplify one of the rockinest tools in the kit, the count-off. The one-two-three-four has been employed in the service of great music from the get-go. A good one sets the stage, a Great one does that and more. Yaogun’s count-offs are no exception, so here’s a countdown of count-downs. One of the slowly but surely growing number of mixtapes at jWc.com features the following mix, but herewith, an extended look at the tunes.

One, two, three, four!

“Rock and Roll on the New Long March” by Cui Jian, from 1989’s album of the same name. The first song on yaogun’s first record, the second major stop on yaogun’s Long March (the first being the one that Cui took three years prior when he introduced rock and roll to the masses with “Nothing to My Name”). The March is laid out musically after a brief, not-quite-marchy intro: With the snare drum guiding the way, Cui counts off not just the lyrical introduction, but his nation’s introduction to the long march ahead of it. Chorus-wise, a second count-off, and one that goes to what seems like the odd choice of seven. But it’s a number that works in the context not only of this song (“one-two-three-four fiiiiiiive, six, seven”), but in the echoes of drilling squads and exercising citizens across China, whose knee-bends and toe-touches happen to the count of seven, which rhythmically, in Chinese, makes not only great sense, but great rhythm. It’s one of those songs that creates a complete picture: He’s not just singing about a march; he’s singing a march. This live version is from 1992:

“Down”, Subs, from 2006’s Down. Wherein Kang Mao takes the verbal abuse of her father and turns it into a creedo for rock and roll survival. “My father,” she says when introducing the song live, “told me that I have ‘three No’s’.” Choosing rock, she was told, meant no money, no family, no job, no future. Instead of seeing that as a problem, Subs celebrates it, and the rock and roll life in general. When she asks the crowd to join in, the choice is celebrated as communal and adds another layer to the whole thing.
“Down”, live in Shanghai in 2009:

 “I Want Beer”, by Joyside, from 2004’s Drunk is Beautiful. A count-off – and, one is quick to add, band – of a very different kind.  As quickly as it takes to get from the “one” to the first millisecond of the word “three,” singer Bian Yuan’s digestive system takes revenge and his opening call sinks like a blimp with a fast leak: “ONE! TWO! sr—(gulp-belch)” is what comes out, and you feel the discomfort of what sounds like it might be day-old beer, but we’d know better than to expect there was any alcohol that old in the vicinity of this band. Joyside does for booze what a band like Anarchy Jerks did (and Misandaodoes) for Oi!, namely, abuse the hell out of it.

“Bastards of the Nation”, by Demerit, from 2008’s Bastards of the Nation. A mood-setting count-off if there ever was one. Singer Li Yang lets forth a growl from the depths not only of his soul but of places one oughtn’t ever reach. Like Bian Yuan, Li forgoes a number, but unlike Bian, it’s on purpose – and with purpose: ‘Four’ becomes a ‘fuck you’ whose ‘you’ is a long drawn-out scream that lets us know that whoever ‘you’ is is either lying, heart beating its last, blood pouring forth, dead on the floor in front of Li, or will be in the very near future. Demerit is the kind of band that means business in a way that inspires not just fear, but respect.


The Music Biz and China

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.