Peking Punks

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.

South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine, 1999

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music, with its urgency, tends to work best under this kind of guiding principle, though making the record out to be a historical document tends to rule out a too-critical look at it.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.

More on Scream:


Red Rooms: The What? Bar

As good a reason as any to kick off “Red Rooms”, in which the venues of the Middle Kingdom past and present are introduced, is the heads-up, via BJ Daze, about Beijing English-language twice-monthly City Weekend‘s piece on the What? Bar: The Old What Bar Schools Other Venues in Manners. The “Old What Bar”, as the magazine refers to the place (it’s the newest What?, so why the ‘old’?), is the fifth location that boss-lady Qin Xuan has been holding, Samson-like, virtually on her own, for over a decade, in an improbable location a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City, the palace which was inhabited by two dynasties’ worth of emperors.

In addition to running the What? Bar, Qin Xuan has been in several local bands, including Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐 chou doufu, whose drummer may be familiar to readers of this blog), pictured here, on the stage of the bar’s second location, which was in the northeastern part of the city.

The What? Bar, circa 2002: Stinky Tofu, with bar-boss-lady Qin Xuan on vox

The What? Bar is certainly one of Beijing’s, and yaogun’s, classic venues. But it’s classic in that particular way that only a filthy, slimy, dank and dark joint can be; it’s lovable, but more from a distance: The concept and memory are far superior to the experience therein. Which is not to say good times weren’t had, and will be had. It is to say that it’s a hole, and you can romanticize it all you want, but when the toilet overflows out of the crapper and onto the floor in front of the stage, and the furniture is coated with the spillings, dirt, spew and grime of nearly a decade and a half, it’s not easy to wax poetic about it. But aside from that (or, perhaps, because of it), it’s a classic. And I mean all that in the nicest way. Because much of my yaogun days were spent in What?’s various locales, and I loved every minute of it.

The bar began as Jungle (the sign followed the bar around the city), one of the few highlights of the walk of shame that eventually became central-Beijing’s Sanlitun South Bar Street. Sanlitun South Bar Street was, initially, the more down-to-earth cousin of the early and quickly Disneyfied (not to mention sleazified) North Bar Street, where a seemingly never-ending gauntlet of touts barked the wares that awaited one inside the cookie-cutter spots along the drag: Cold beer and pop tunes cranked out by the invariable qipa-sporting vixens alongside a synthesizer-cum-backing band.

In contrast, South Street, in its best days – before, that is, bargain-priced shooters were sold from closet-sized rooms and the street became a sea of drunken humanity – featured more chilled-out spots, like No. 17 Bar, River, and the Jam House (all prime candidates for future Red Rooms).

Sanlitun South Bar Street; the fuzz of this shot, as anyone who's been there can attest, is apropos (via

And Jungle. Jungle’s stage was wide open, and jam sessions that followed gigs featuring up-and-coming rockers would go long into the night. Its demolition came earlier than the rest of the strip (which disappeared in 2004); oddly, Jungle itself was razed to make way for a small parkette-type grassy area, which soon came to be gobbled up by the neighbourhood’s still-ongoing high-rise construction.

When South Street met the wrecking ball, Jungle moved north, down a long, dark and sketchy street from what was then Beijing’s premier live music spot, Get Lucky (about which there is not enough ink to cover properly, but mark my words, I’ll try, eventually). There it sat, as the What? Bar, for several amazing years, where an eponymous band grew up and out of it, producing some of the most intriguing yaogun of the new millennium: There was prog rock a-la Zappa and Floyd, and there was traditional Chinese music too, not to mention horror-flick theatrics, and a bit of kiddie music to round it out. Here’s a taste of What?’s 2003 demo, (it was released as one twenty-nine-minute track):

What?, the band; Qin Xuan on the hanky and pointy finger.

It was tiny, but it was also the kind of place where one could quickly become a regular (many did). It kept up Jungle’s tradition of the late-night jam, but it also proved to be an important spot for music of all kinds: The early-aughts punks often put on shows at the spot, and a long line of bands just starting out, without the chops or connections to get gigs at the bigger joints across town, graced, and outgrew, its stage. The sound system sucked; the stage was tight; the gear in various states of disrepair (which could describe most of the city’s other venues as well), the place was a sty, but there was something about the What? Bar. It was clear just how much the folks behind the bar loved music and providing a space for it.

It was big news when the bar moved into new digs in the shadow of the China Central Television towers that were then still under construction and yet to be perpetually nearly-completed and covered in the ash of a nearby fire.

If you look closely, you can see the resting place of the second new What? Bar, on the starbord side of the tower (photo via

They were in a small but hip ‘creative compound’ of the sort that popped up (and still does) all over the city, and it felt like a boost up the ladder to legitimacy for the club to be neighbours with art studios, youthful agencies and other assorted “creative” types. The club was certainly a scaled-up version of the old dive, with smooth concrete and lots of light. But it wasn’t the ‘creative’ neighbours that were most significant: The club’s heavy doors, installed at great expense and with much thought – doors that closed tight with a comforting and inspiring ttthhhhhhhppppppttttttt that told you, if you weren’t sure, you were in – couldn’t, alas, keep the racket from spilling across the street, where sleepless residents of apartment buildings called the cops, not hip to the noise coming from across the street (the incessant twenty-four-hour construction on the so-called pair of pants that were to sheath the HQ of their national broadcaster, though, didn’t seem to upset these same residents in any way). And so, between the complaints from across the way and the expansion around the base of the CCTV tower – despite the initial optimism that the Towers brought to all in the area, figuring that they were close enough to hallowed ground that they might last in their current locations – spelled the end of that What?.

Meanwhile, the What? peeps opened up a spot in the it’d-be-hysterical-if-it-weren’t-true Yuan Dynasty Wall Bar Street. The bar itself, for all reports, was fine. But most What?heads skipped entirely the trip to this feeble attempt at a neighbourhood. If Sanlitun North Bar Street was Disneyland, it’s hard to know how to file YDWBS, with its attempt at, erm, recreating? a Yuan Dynasty architectural experience and stuffing therein as many bars as could fit. On top of that, the two simultaneous What?s were draining the resources, and the double-duty didn’t last long.

When the little bar that could found a spot along the western wall of the Forbidden City, it was hard to know how to react. Certainly it was hard to resist the imagery: Down-and-dirty rock and roll a stone’s throw from the emperor’s throne. Sure, it was a dank and filthy hovel of a bar. But now that the spot has passed almost eight years there – this in a city known for creating, destroying and recreating several times over in a span of days – it’s actually more an institution that just a little dive where you can see music.

Handsome Black @ What? Bar, circa 2004 (just out of frame is the toilet water slowly seeping its way toward the stage). (pic by jWc)

Qin Xuan is doing noble work: D22 gets buckets of international ink; Mao Livehouse and Yu gong yi shan have huge stages and rooms that fit hundreds, but the What? Bar, and other little spots like it are doing the grunt work, providing the training ground necessary for any scene to exist, let alone thrive.

Yappin’ Yaogun

The July issue of monthly Beijing English-language magazine the Beijinger featured a cover feature on yaogun, or, more specifically, the talking thereof (the article is downloadable here).

Under the banner of “The Great Music Debate”, the magazine gathered a dozen and a half members of the music community in a room, threw out some questions and took notes. There were folks from all corners in on the talk: Reps from record labels, festivals and venues; promoters, performers, observers and writers.

One thing in particular that struck me (other than a nice mention of yours truly) was the couple of occasions on which the general lack of recognition for that which came before was raised. It’s is something that I’ve fought hard to counter in recent years; it was, truth be told, in direct response to the realization that I hadn’t been giving the early years and those rocking therein the respect they deserve.

That recognition isn’t just a major theme running through Red Rock – my aim was to focus on the journey and the people that had paved the way – but it was the inspiration for it. It didn’t start out that way, but digging into yaogun’s history showed me the importance of the contributions of the early ‘gunners. (Which is not to say that Red Rock is only about the past; it is about, inasmuch is possible for any book, the current state of affairs in the context of how it came to be. Context, turns out, is everything).

So, with my ‘history is everywhere’ goggles on, when I saw the rock-talking panel in July’s Beijinger, I couldn’t help but think back to 2005, when, along with several members of the staff of the magazine then called that’s Beijing (now called the Beijinger), we gathered seven rock-scenesters to sit down over beers and talk rock.

In 2005, times seemed simpler. It felt like yaogun was still finding its footing; its glory days were far enough behind it that they seemed ancient history, and it wasn’t clear how it might regain any semblance of that time. The conversation had an overall pessimistic tone; there was a lot of talk about the obstacles up in yaogun’s way. It was a time, as Lv Zhiqiang (also known as Gouzi [‘go-dze‘), or ‘Dog’), put it, of challenges. “I think the music scene is in a bad way because nobody thinks of what’s wrong with it and how to solve the problems.” Lv ran then, and runs now, live venue Yu Gong Yi Shan (which was demolished and relocated to much fancier and larger digs in 2007). “We should figure out what’s wrong, and fix it.”

There was little international interest in yaogun then, in a way that seems inconceivable these days. Though one of the panelists, Leo de Boisgisson (as well as myself, though officially an observer rather than a participant), was in the business of exporting Chinese music along with bringing in international acts, it didn’t seem like yaogun was ready to take on the world just yet, as international touring for local bands was extremely rare (de Boisgisson had taken three amazing acts on a French tour the previous year; I was about to head to Scandinavia with Subs; a literal handful of others had made international trips).

China Music Lab, France, 2004; Subs, Nordic Europe, 2005

Back then, there seemed to be no sign of the internet life as we know it today. Case in point: In 2005, we thought it important that a record store owner was in on the conversation. In 2011, Tian Jianhua, of skate-punk band Reflector, put it best when he said: “Times have changed, brother – nobody listens to CDs anymore.”

Changed, indeed. In 2005, “Stanley” Chen Yi, who was, then, PR Manager at Beijing label Scream Records, could still genuinely describe the kids buying his label’s records as folks that “regard rock music as their spiritual pillar…if they don’t have rock music, they may lose the meaning of life…(Nothing will change) their love of and attitude toward rock. It’s a part of their life.” This is the type of rocker I continually encountered during my yaogun research, and though it sounds pretty cheesy to hear it in this age of gigabytes of music swirling through the air, in one’s headphones on demand, one can’t emphasize enough how deeply these feelings were felt.

But not so much anymore. Tian Jianhua, himself having been deeply affected by rock and roll – and who, in turn, affected deeply through his own music, multitudes – put it succinctly during the 2011 panel: “The younger generation grew up eating McDonald’s. They’ve never had time to think deeply about anything.”

It’s the difference, broadly, between the pre- and post- Eight-Ohs, the general generational divide slapped through China’s young adult population (which, like any generalization, works only to an extent). Those born after 1980 (‘eight oh’) are painted with the broad strokes that describe that “Little Emperor” phenomenon, that unintended consequence of China’s one-child policy. When families of multiple generations share a home in a world defined by that definitely-post-1980 mission to make mounds of money, it’s bound to happen. There’s more money to spend on kids, and a desire on the part of parents and grandparents to overindulge  their only progeny. Add to that the technology with which these young’uns are surrounded and from which they seem to draw their very life blood, and what you get is not just a belief that all ought to be available all the time, but that this is how it always was and always will be.

So the idea of rock star has become different. Less something to strive for, or, gasp!, earn, than yet another thing on a list of desires that invariably get gotten for them. Again: these brush strokes are broad, but useful still.

Between 1993 and 1997, Niu Jiawei, who participated in our 2005 rock talk, worked at the Beijing office of Magic Stone Records, the label opened on the mainland by Taiwanese outfit Rock Records to cover yaogun. This was Magic Stone’s – and yaogun’s – heyday, when records sold widely and rock rang out from the stadium stages, radio stations and cassette players of the nation. Magic Stone and a few others created rock stars out of dudes previously slugging it out in the venues of the country’s underground. “It’s a problem if things develop too fast,” Niu said, in 2005, citing the record time in which rock stars were made, and the swiftness with which they were dethroned. “There was a crash. I don’t think rock musicians are suited to live like stars.”

Stars of yore: Black Panther

Which is not what folks seem to be thinking in 2011. This year’s panel wrapped up with talk of the value and usefulness of handing out rock awards. Already, two such events occur: Mao Livehouse, the premier live rock venues of Beijing and Shanghai, has been hosting awards from their earliest (2007) days with a nice mix of folks nominated and awarded. Midi Productions, those behind the Festival of the same name, decided, in 2009, to give out awards as well; reviews of Midi’s Awards have been mixed (I have been on the Midi jury, and am more often than not disappointed with how things turn out; more on that, I’m sure, eventually).

“Awards help to establish standards and attract more attention from the fans,” Liu Huan, deputy general manager of the Midi Festival and Midi Productions told the panel. “We need to make the stars stars.”

That statement is what differentiates the two rock panels: In 2005, we weren’t talking about stars, we were talking about survival. And it’s tough to know where I’d rather be.


Radiohead meets Yaogun, Possibly

Seems that this blog will alternate through time. We started at the beginning; we now continue to the recent present. We will thusly hop around for the foreseeable future.

Radiohead opened an account on the Chinese microblogging site, Weibo.


If it’s actually Radiohead (an enormous “if”), nine days after posting “testing the weibo”, they have 67,500 reasons to post something more. If it’s not Radiohead, which is a distinct possibility (nothing more has been posted as of now, other than just about 4600 comments from fellow weibo-ers), they might want to consider joining the fray.

The Guardian asked what I thought, in this article, which ran on July 6, five days into Reibohead.

If any band can attract a loyal, hip, intelligent and savvy group of netizens to help their cause, I told the paper (the ’cause’ being accruing interest in a China tour, or of record distribution, rather than, say, freeing political prisoners), it’s definitely Radiohead. They could, I continued, employing the kind of subtlety and reasonableness much-needed in our over-hyped world, be kings of the virtual world.

Of course, it’s unclear if they opened the account at all. And if they did, whether it was done with an eye to performing, or just, you know, to “test”.

Their politics are what everyone’s talking about vis. China, which is reasonable, especially if the idea is to post on weibo the kinds of things they’ve been posting in other forums — which they won’t be able to do.

It’ll be a long time before the group gets permission to play in China (and before that, it’s arguable that the country isn’t ready, technically, for what that would entail). Certainly playing for/supporting/encouraging support for, say, an ethno-religious group headed by an elderly monk in a small Indian mountain town isn’t the kind of thing that looks good, in China, on a resume. Forget the permit-issuing authorities; it’s not likely an application would even be submitted (even if presenters could afford the fee or get specs up to snuff). Sinologist Perry Link talks about censorship in China as the “anaconda in the chandelier”: The snake will generally leave you alone, so long as you don’t poke at him. Radiohead, in this scenario, is the big, long stick.


Like most bands, whether or not they know, tried or cared, Radiohead does, in fact, have something of a presence in China already, via, first, dakou, or ‘saw-gash’ tapes and CDs:


…and later, thanks to file-swapping, p2p-ing, and the fact that in the post-OK Computer world few rockers or fans would not be aware of or attentive to Radiohead, whether in Beijing or Brighton. And, of course, there’s “indie”  label Modern Sky, who snagged the rights to Kid A a million years ago (2001) and (officially) distributed it in China. (one is hesitant to add that they did so well with it that they never distributed another Radiohead record again, though their catalogue does still include the occasional overseas record.)

Unlike most bands, though, Radiohead has been a major influence to a large number of Chinese rockers: There are few yaogun bands active or formed in the last decade-plus who don’t cite Radiohead as a major influence (not unlike the situation in many parts of the planet).

Also unlike most bands, Radiohead is well-known for a vision of the music biz that is similar to their conception of rock and roll: Their strategy for releasing In Rainbows (ie: pay what you want) seemed just as off-the-charts as what their brand of rock and roll created in each album since OK Computer.

China is a place where models of any kind tend not to work, so a band that is up for anything — not to mention creative about approaching the ten-tonne behemoth known as the music industry — is a perfect match for the Wild, Wild East.

Imagine if Radiohead actually set up the weibo account, and if it signals that the band is ready to seriously consider China. They could, like Linkin Park, make a real impression (LP were fortunate to have Huang Feng on their side building serious traction in-country in the days before weibo, douban and the million o

ther platforms part of the new normal). There is much to learn from LP; as much about finding success as avoiding failure: The recent hugging/high-fiving the band didwith a certain elderly monk seems to have slowed that train’s return trip to China, but the point is, Team Linkin spent a good amount of energy building a real presence, and it paid off nicely until things went pear-shaped.

Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and Rob Bourdon at the 2011PTTOW Summit via

Which is the other point: Real investment in China requires a full-on effort and an outlook that goes far beyond scheduling. Which doesn’t mean bands that want in to China need to drop causes, shut up and play. It means they have to know what the investment in China involves.

So let’s say Radiohead is weibo-ing. Let’s say they get a few zillion more followers. They might well become invested in the country, proving their commitment not to the sales of billions of records but in the healthy development of an industry that is, to put it kindly, still finding its feet. There are two ways to look at the music business in China (like so many other industries): One: It’s a complete mess. Piracy is rampant, censorship is difficult, apathy is widespread. Two: It’s a clean slate. Everything is brand new. Nobody’s been doing anything for very long, so the potential for change is so huge.

Radiohead didn’t have a clean slate upon which to write the rules to their recent releases, but it sure seemed like they did. Imagine what they could do with an actual clean slate.

Let’s be clear: It’s not that Radiohead will be the tide that rises all ships on the storm-ridden and pirate-infested Chinese market. But a real involvement could certainly make others stop and rethink strategy, both inside and outside the country.

One yearns to bring this all back to Red Rock, that much-anticipated book now less than three months from international release. One can. Because Radiohead’s earliest imprint in China was made in the wake of Pablo Honey and the song “Anyone Can Play Guitar”. Influential radio DJ Zhang Youdai named his short-lived program (1994-1995) took the name and under its banner brought axemen into the studios of Beijing Radio to teach tunes to listeners. Many a young rocker snuck headphones into their extracurricular classes to listen in on those lessons.

Yang Haisong, the singer of post-punk outfit P.K. 14 and a major figure in yaogun, told me that among his crew, “Anyone Can Play Guitar” was more than just a song. It was their mantra and guiding philosophy. “Grow my hair,” Thom Yorke sang. “I wanna be wanna be wanna be Jim Morrison”. It sounds cheesy, and maybe he was poking fun. But when you find out that yaogunners were longing for the excitement, action and promise of America’s sixties to lift them out of the angst of China’s nineties, and that they believed they found it in rock and roll, it takes on a whole new meaning.

It was more than a rock song: It was the impetus for a life-altering decision, one that separated you from 99.9% of the world as you knew it. You couldn’t just grow your hair until the late nineties; those locks marked you as a rebel of a kind that those of us in rock and roll’s homeland couldn’t imagine.

“I wanna be in a band when I get to heaven,” went the song. When young ‘gunners heard that, they took it to heart, and you can hear it in the best of the music they made.

Let’s hope Radiohead remembers that.