Yaogun: 3D!

There has been talk for a while now about the possibility of a 3D film based on Yaogunner Number One’s 2010/2011 New Years’ Eve and Day concerts. For those two shows, Cui Jian turned the tables on his former employers, the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. Cui had blown the trumpet for the group through most of the 80s, until the Orchestra told him that his extra-curricular pop and rock activities had to stop. Luckily for us all, he chose yaogun, and left the Orchestra before the decade was up.

Continue reading “Yaogun: 3D!”

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.


The Best So Far: The Nineties

The end of the year beginning of the year means the inevitable looking back at the year that was. But this past year, we reach end of an era, Yaogunnily-speaking. Taking Cui Jian’s performance of “Nothing to My Name” on national television in 1986 as our birthdate for yaogun, Chinese rock & roll turned twenty-five in 2011.

In celebration, I’m looking back through the best yaogun records not just of 2011, but the best yaogun records thus far. We begin with yaogun’s early years, heading chronologically through the nineties.

But first, a quick digression, allowing a moment to ruminate on the difference between Important albums and Good albums – in our minds, in silence – and know that only sometimes are records both. For my list, I have but one guiding principle, and it resides squarely in the territory of the Good: Would I put this record on and listen to it?

I’ve skipped the eighties, by the way, because Cui Jian’s debut album, Rock and Roll on the New Long March, which kicked everything off in the first place, is automatically on just about any yaogun list there is – think Rare, Important and Good.

Dark Dream by Dou Wei, 1993. A year after leaving the very Bon Jovi-y Black Panther and cutting his hair, Dou Wei let loose a record that was a bit further out there than anything for which yaogun was prepared at that point. Taking on new wave and goth, the rebranded Dou Wei headed further toward the fringes as the years went on. “Higher Being”


Balls Under the Red Flag by Cui Jian, 1994. Cui’s third yaogun record expanded the influences further afield, incorporating electronic and hip hop sounds, rhythms and samples. Below, “Flying”.

Various artists, China Fire Vol. II, 1996. The second of what would be three compilations came at a time when China Fire was no longer the only game in town. The first compilation, released four years previous, introduced the nation to yaogun, but it was yaogun of a limited range: The metal and hair-rock to which the first generations took. The second volume expanded the range. “All the Same” by Underbaby represents the Cobain influence that began to spread in the mid-nineties.


Squeeze by Zhou Ren, 1996. Zhou’s underrated album was influential across the spectrum, channeling and championing the growing alt-ification happening in yaogun at the time. What made the album stand out was the metal of Zhou’s early years mixed with a heavy dose of Seattle sound and a little dab of funk. But because record label Magic Stone was in the last years of its mainland operations, it didn’t give the record the push that its earlier releases received. “Fg” is the lead-off track:
Fg by Zhou Ren by jWc


Yaogun Beijing III (1997) is a great example of the compilation — and band, and genre — boom of the mid/late nineties. There is the classic hair-rock of the early yaogun days, but there is also grunge, alt, dark metal and more signalling the rise of alt. All-stars on the album include the man now known as XTX in an early guise and Zi Yue, who combines traditional opera, comedy and prog-rock in a mixture that’s still successful today. Hades is still going strong today; “The Nightmare Continues” was, it should go without saying, the only track of its kind here:


Boredom Brigade (aka Wuliao Contingent), 1999. Only Reflector and Brain Failure remain these days, but the quartet of bands here (69 and Anarchy Jerks were the other two, the former much more interesting than the latter) were atop the punk pyramid of the late-nineties. More on the album at this previous post. Here, Reflector brings the posse’s theme song:


Incantation by Wild Children, 1999. Their haunting acoustic folk may seem out of place among the fin-de-siecle harder-edged sounds coming out of yaogun’s first expansion, but the Wild Children packed all of the emotional punch of the punks, without cranking the volume.

….coming soon: Into the new millennium, and more…

The Square, twenty-two years later

I had mentioned, in a previous post, and wrote, in Red Rock, of a four-song set that Cui Jian performed at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. Cui was not the only one to perform in the Square during the weeks and months leading up to June 4, but his is, as far as I know, the only performance caught on tape. There is a video clip, in the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, of Cui Jian emerging from the bus carrying hunger strikers and being surrounded by fans, but the documentary doesn’t have footage of the performance.

A recording of the performance made the rounds a few years back, but was, soon after appearing, removed. I only just came across this Youtube clip that sets the audio from a portion of the gig to a montage of images. The song featured here is “Start Again” – which the band proceeds to do, taking a mulligan after a technical difficulty. Note that the subtitles here are not translations of the lyrics or what Cui is saying. Elsewhere on the recording, Cui says he came with only a slight chance of actually performing, just wanting to show support. Here, he references the chorus of “Start Again” in his pre-song chat to the gathered crowd:
“I don’t want to leave/I don’t want to exist/I don’t want to live so much in reality
I want to leave/I want to exist/I want to die and then do it all over again.”


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.