Earlier this week, I found myself talking Red Rockin front of a couple of academic audiences — my first two since the book’s publication. First stop, St Marys College of Maryland, where a great group of folks gathered thanks to the efforts of Professor Gong Haomin, for what I learned would be the first of many visits in a series of talks on Asian popular culture. Despite its tiny size (around 2500 students, I’m told), St Marys has a popular Asian Studies program — not to mention upwards of 25 Chinese exchange students and even a visiting Chinese scholar or two, several of whom turned up for the talk. One exchange student wondered if he’d see me perform at Mao Livehouse later in the year when he went home for a visit (I told him, unfortunately, that wouldn’t likely happen).
Next, The College of New Jersey, where Professor Mi Jiayan teaches a course on Chinese rock. Professor Mi had got my whole road trip into gear by connecting with me via Facebook, a fact that I’m still more than a little surprised by, and had begun the adventure suggesting that I speak to his class. But within weeks, he’d built a symposium, and I suddenly found myself a part of a four-person panel, alongside a poet (Huang Yibing) a Chinese film scholar (Sherry Ying Xiao) and an American producer (Matthew Corbin Clark). Huang talked about the poetry, or lack thereof, in yaogun; Ying spoke of Cui Jian and Beijing Bastards, yaogun’s first flick; Clark talked about his experience with Cui Jian and recording the compilation Beijing Band 2001 — an album, he told us, that’s about to get a sequel. I spoke about the last ten-odd years. A special guest, businessman, scientist, Cui Jian fan, Yingchao Zhang, performed a couple of Cui Jian tunes (“Piece of Red Cloth” and “Greenhouse Girl”) on guitar, harmonica, bass drum, hi-hat and vox — simultaneously. Sichuan food and general merriment followed. Photos from the event, many photos of the event, care of Professor Mi, are all over Facebook. The class has just finished their Zhang Chu unit and are heading into the new millennium now, and even as I type, I can’t believe that that’s what they’re studying, but it’s fantastic.
Two folks from my past came out for the trip: My former professor, Jerome Silbergeld, who now teaches at Princeton, first introduced me to contemporary Chinese art via his film class and seminar on the extremely important exhibition Inside Out, which traveled through the US in 1998-1999. And Liangzi, shown here, in 2004-ish, with his amazing bass-fueled Primus-esque trio Ping Pong Party, who I hadn’t seen since he relocated to New York, where he now lives, upwards of five years ago. Also along, and, as usual, filming, was Victor Huey, who has been wielding a camera around yaogun since literally day one.
In other academic news, Red Rock may well be appearing on a syllabus near you. A couple of schools have expressed interest, and it goes without saying that I’m perfectly willing to slap a couple elbow pads on my blazer and hit the road to follow it all up. Stay tuned for news on that front…
I mean, Denmark gives a valiant effort with the Danish Rock Council, the government agency devoted to educating the world in the ways of Danish rock. The mere existence of that agency impressed me (and, subsequently, flattered me, when, first, they spent money on sending me to Denmark, and then, on sending Danish rock bands to me, in China like, for example, these ones).
But Joizy takes it up a notch with the yaogun seminar. Get thee to The College of New Jersey!
The casual follower of rock and roll in China will have heard that Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” (一无所有) was the song that started everything and that it was first performed, in 1986, to a stadium and a television audience that immediately took to it like it was their own (which, for all intents and purposes, it was). One of my favourite experiences writingRed Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll was doing the play-by-play on a video of that performance. I watched and re-watched the only clip of that performance I could find, a clip with a voice-over covering up the second verse, and, worst of all, an abrupt ending in the wake of the suona (a traditional combination clarinet-oboe-soprano sax) solo halfway through the song.
Though continually coming empty, I continued to search for a better, more complete version of the performance. Today, I lucked out and found, finally, a different cut of the same show, this time in all its four-minute-plus glory.
First, let’s recap what It all was: In May 1986, Cui Jian, then a trumpet player for the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble, was one of the lucky few to have heard a bit of Western pop music at a time when even hearing that there was a thing called Western pop music was rare. He was singing other peoples’ songs – Chinese songs written for him and Western pop tunes reworked in Chinese – and was tinkering with his own material on the side. He joined up with over a hundred of his fellow pop singers united, as the Hundred Stars (百名歌星) under the banner of the International Year of Peace to sing a song called “Let the World be Full of Love” (让世界充满爱), the Chinese response to “We Are the World” et. al. Cui was one of the Hundred Stars who got to perform their own tunes in addition to the big number. This is when yaogun, Chinese rock & roll, was born.
There are problems with this video: The sound quality is less than ideal and the video doesn’t synch up with the audio. And in contrast to what I assumed was the only video I’d be able to find, the actual playing of the music comes out here much more clearly as not fantastic. But, like any great rock and roll, technical skills are only a part of the story. Here, it’s a very tiny part, and the footage is too important for any of that to get in the way. What’s most important is that the video provides a better glimpse than anyone’s had in twenty-five years of what went down on the day yaogun was invented and when a trumpet-playing Cui Jian transformed from semi-famous pop singer to Infamous Yaogunner #1.
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.
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.