Reading positive reviews of one’s own work is, to be sure, a great feeling. But reading Han Huilong’s recent article was feeling beyond anything that a good, objective reivew might bring. From my recent travels through China and speaking to a few Chinese audiences — not to mention the period I was researching the book, or those living in China prior to that — it is clear to me, like so many elders from so many places, that, in short, “kids today…”
The Best So Far: The Aughts
In these, the first few hours of the Year of the Dragon, we continue on from our last look back over the course of yaogun, part II of one man’s view of the best records to come out of China’s rock scene takes us into the new millennium. Chronologically we go…
Cold-Blooded Animal by Cold-Blooded Animal, 2000
Less inspired by Kurt Cobain than his embodiment, Xie Tianxiao, the band’s singer/guitarist who now goes by the name XTX, was a force of nature live, and though he still retains some of that energy, in the early aughts he was at his peak. Here, “Who Was it That Brought Me Here”, live at CD Cafe in Beijing in 2003.
Second-Hand Rose by Second-Hand Rose, 2003
Yeah, singer Liang Long dresses like a girl. But when you listen to the album, it doesn’t matter, and that’s the true test. “Gathering Flowers” showcases the bridge bewixt traditional China and modern rock.
Ma Music featuring Glamourous Pharmacy, Ruins and Wooden Pushmelon, 2001
This posse of bands led the early-aught alt scene, often infusing art into their performances, which signaled a commitment to more than just music. Xiao He, who walks both sides of the fine line separating idiot from genius in his current solo work, led GP; Ruins singer Zhou Yunshan first added his name to the band’s and now just goes by his name; WPM’s Song Yuzhe makes great folk music. Listen to the whole record via this link, which may be in Chinese but is easy enough to navigate.
“How Steel Wasn’t Tempered” – Wooden Pushmelon by jWc
The World is a Noise Garden by Sound Fragment, 2002
Spacey and dreamy, the record showcases the empty spots even more than the titular noise. One of yaogun’s rare headphone records. Here, the lead track, “Deceive One’s Self” (ziqi).
Xin by Wang Lei, 2004
Wang’s first decade-plus in the arts saw him move from breakdancing to pop-rock to freak-folk. In the new millennium, he took to industrial music briefly, then discovered dub and fell in love. This record is the peak of that fascination, mixing traditional and contemporary sounds from a range of different traditions to create a minimal, groovy and bounce-along-able record.
“Again” – Wang Lei by jWc
P.K. 14 White Paper, 2005
Post-punk quartet P.K. 14’s third album sees the band in top form, just in time for the mid-decade “indie” boom. The video for “Them,” below, is one of several greats the band produced.
Omnipotent Youth Society by Omnipotent Youth Society, 2010
Singer Dong Yaqian may not look like he’s having a good time while performing “The Not-So-Omnipotent Comedy,” below, but the song, as evidenced by the singalong, is fun in a way that is rare (even if you wouldn’t know it by watching frontman Dong Yaqian); ditto, the album.
This Readily Assimilative People, 2010
by Lonely China Day
Two records made for headphones, and two records more representative of Twenty-First century China than any other yaogun album.
“One” from Sorrow
“Rise Up” from This Readily Assimilative People
L & R by Wang Wen, 2010
This Dalian-based post-rock group has a sizable following cross-country, and is helping fertilize the local scene by example and involvement through record label (Fox Tail) and venues (several short-lived spots).
Cang Lang Xing by Zhaoze, 2011.
Like their brilliant fellow (now former) Guangzhou resident Wang Lei, they seemed to have suffered somewhat from being outside of Beijing, not receiving anything remotely like the appreciation they ought to. But, like the two post-rockers mentioned above, they have a seriously intense fanbase. Below, “Cang Lang Shui Yu You” live in Hong Kong, May 2011.
Model ‘Gunner: Guo Chuanlin
The pages of Red Rock, the book chronicling Chinese rock and roll’s path, were limited; the stories of the characters introduced therein were very much unlimited. Guo Chuanlin is one of the book’s characters that deserves more attention.
Guo Chuanlin looks nothing like he ought to. Or maybe he just doesn’t look like I wanted him to. He struck me as middle-management, the kind of dime-a-dozen guy that carries a man-purse made of some synthetic leather-ish material and barks demands at waitresses from across the room in a drunken slur.
Regardless of one’s feelings about the cheese-laden hair-rock band that Guo brought into the limelight, Black Panther is certainly an important band in the yaogun context, and its rise to fame, like Guo’s own career, is a study in the roller-coaster-ride of yaogun, and of the music’s – and its practioners’ – potential to confound expectations. It just takes a while to see it.
Sometime around 1980 Guo bought the first electric guitar in Beijing – for a then-ridiculous RMB80 (about US$12 today, or half of a government workers’ monthly salary then). He is credited as one of the founders of Black Panther, but his role was not, from almost the get-go, onstage. He’d been inspired by reading a magazine article (like so many kids before and since) about an American manager (like just about no kids ever) that had taken a band (which band, Guo can’t recall) from the depths of unknowndom to the heights of superstardom. So he gave up the guitar for, well, whatever one takes up to become a manager. Which is, one must recall, shocking in the context of his world, where there was hardly a space for performers, let alone for anything resembling an industry. But Guo proved that an industry, or at least, rock workers, were necessary.
Guo Chuanlin was unabashed in his retelling of how the vision for Black Panther was culled from equal parts Bon Jovi and Wham!. Even though I knew that Wham!’s gig was a big deal for a lot of people, it really hit home when Guo spoke of Black Panther’s founding (as did the irony: Wham! wanted nothing to do with China; their legacy was huge nonetheless). His vision for the band also included success on a level then known only in foreign magazine articles; the guys in Black Panther thought he was crazy with his visions of rock stardom, and told him it was impossible.
Guo soldiered on. When Guo and his crew were filmed in a rockers-in-the-capital story on Beijing TV, thanks to a buddy that worked for the news, they caught the eye of a potential sugar daddy so eager to help the kids on the news that he sought them out and offered up top-of-the-line gear. Meanwhile, Guo had found a sympathetic middle school principal who offered up rehearsal space in his school, and a music shop owner to lend them temporary gear. The sugar daddy, meanwhile, withheld the promised gear, believing he’d been sold a bill of goods: This wasn’t the song-and-dance troupe he’d thought he’d been investing in.
The type of troupe the sugar daddy likely had in mind
He told Guo that if he didn’t find himself a guarantor, they’d never get the gear. Thus did Guo make the biggest mistake and greatest move in a career of thin lines therebetween: With a persistence and sense of mission of the sort only possible in the young and insane, he walked into a company office based on what he’d seen on a sign. “The word ‘times’ in your company name,” he told the manager he demanded to see, “that, to me, represents modernity.” And the ultimate in modernity was the thing he was offering: A rock and roll band. Which took some explaining. “But this type of thing doesn’t exist,” Guo was told in response to his description of the rock band concept – one begins to see how the sugar daddy felt mislead. Guo convinced the manager that not only did it exist, but that he could get involved. Guo got his guarantor, and the band got its gear.
Black Panther’s big break did not come, like their fellow rockers of the time, at the Modern Music Concert, a two-day six-band concert held in February 1990 at Beijing’s Capital Stadium. Guo’s gear, but not his band, were featured. He took Black Panther and a handful of others to the southern city of Shenzhen, which was celebrating its tenth year as a Special Economic Zone: The former no-man’s-land in the southeastern tip of the country a stone’s throw from Hong Kong, like a select few other SEZ’s, was awarded a license to develop as an experiment.Guo recalled with relish the sight of a planeload of longhairs coming through both Beijing and Shenzhen airports, but the tone changed when recalling the lyrical malfeasance of blues/pop rock band Baby Brother, who mocked the elder leaders in his tune “Cynicism” despite pleas not to play the song. Guo, being personally responsible for anything ‘unhealthy’ that may have gone down, was on the hook, and he almost didn’t make it out of Shenzhen.
Once back in Beijing, Black Panther quickly saw their status grow. A contract with Rock Records, the Taiwanese record label that invested heavily in the Mainland’s rock scene through the nineties, followed, and album sales peaked upon the Mainland release of their debut in 1992.
It was time for a solo concert for Black Panther. Wary of the difficulties of simply booking a concert hall, Guo decided to make the show a not-for-profit event, choosing to donate the proceeds to a senior citizens’ charity. Thus did he receive help from that charity’s most intense supporter, and thus did the Long March, that epic, if possibly exaggerated but seminal 1934-1935 Communist event whereby the Party’s members hiked across the country to escape their enemy and gather the strength that would see them liberate the nation, once again factored into yaogun’s development. First, Cui Jian referenced it in his debut album (Rock and Roll on the New Long March); now, a Long Marcher would join in yaogun’s fight.
Wang Dingguo was born in 1913, and by the time she joined up with the Red Army, when they marched through her Sichuanese village in 1933, she’d already unbound her feet and shorn her hair, two things that women tended, at the time, not to do. Wang left the marriage she was forced into at age fifteen and married Xie Juezai, who held high government office from 1949 until his death in 1971. As of the spring of 2011, Wang was one of the very few surviving Long Marchers; in 1993, as Guo prepared for his band’s biggest concert to date, there may have been other Long March survivors, but there were few still up for a fight like Wang Dingguo.
Wang was a major player in the Beijing Senior Citizens’ Committee, comprised of other former officials and dignitaries. Guo Chuanlin pledged to donate RMB30,000 to the charity in exchange for their help getting things set up. Guo seemed to be purposefully vague on the details of how a twenty-four year-old rock band manager becomes inspired to donate the proceeds of a concert to a senior citizens’ hospital, but he had picked his cause and went with it.
Moved by Guo’s idea, Wang Dingguo got involved. Initially, city officials faced with Wang were polite in their fuck-offery, but it quickly became obvious that this was not your average little old lady. When she believed the city government was dragging its heels on concert permits, instead of going home like she’d been told to do, she pledged to set up camp in their offices until permits were issued. “‘These nice young men are trying to do something positive for their elders!'” Guo remembers the old lady chiding. “‘Why is it so difficult?’” It ceased to be difficult, and permits were issued. The cultural bureau was not as easily swayed, unable to abide what they perceived as Guo’s abuse of connections aimed at circumventing their own authority. Eventually, however, the show went on. Despite the overwhelming police presence, Guo recalled, with the aid of over fifteen years of reflection, “It was a pretty successful show.”
Black Panther grew more successful over the course of the nineties, and continues to perform twenty-plus years later. The band name is known far and wide, while Guo Chuanlin, who, today, produces large-scale festivals and events, remains their best-kept secret.
“Don’t Break My Heart” remains Black Panther’s biggest hits
Touring in China: Crazy!
Sometimes, you forget that the touring situation for bands coming into China is actually quite normalized. There are clubs, presenters of some form, festivals and audiences awaiting in major cities across the length and breadth of the map. Rock, jazz, folk, metal, blues and other bands have been on what could be diplomatically referred to as trouble-free tours — speed bumps exist and appear on the proverbial road with a predictable regularity (though the size, shape and form of the bumps are never predictable), but a system, of sorts, is in place and has been, for a few years now. Just because it doesn’t look like touring the States doesn’t mean it’s not a system.
But, like I said, sometimes you forget. Because sometimes, you come across word of the recent experiences of a family band in China. And then you remember that there are crazies operating just outside the ‘system’ to which I referred, close enough to give the impression to bands of the rock ilk (those that play clubs, tour and sell CDs) that they are yet another presenter of gigs in the general rock and roll understanding of the term, but far enough from it that anyone who’s even had a glance at the touring road of the Middle Kingdom can smell an intruder from a mile off.
The trials of Joei and the Fulcos — and, I must add, these are not trials that seem to have upset the group/family much; they had their rose-coloured glasses on for their entire China visit, and it’s a good thing — are one reminder of the Other Side. The Fulco family, who describe themselves as the Partridge Family with attitude (and who were featured on ABC TV’s The Wife Swap), was drafted to perform at the Zhangjiajie International Country Music Festival. It’s a festival that has a pretty wide-ranging definition of country music, as evidenced by the festival website’s rundown of performers, such as the Wangqing dance troupe, at left, from northeastern China.
The Fulcos’ bio does not seem to appear on the festival site, but their bio wouldn’t seem to belong among the dance troupes and large numbers of nothing-to-do-with-country-music acts gathered under Zhangjiajie’s banner (see, also, this article for a look at who was on the bill). The China Daily emphasized the tourist-related benefits of such a festival — alarm bells to the ears of those familiar with China’s frenetic festival scene, where local government departments with visions of endless tourist revenues are eager to jump into the festival-production fray — and concluded with talk of the mayor cartoonified, strumming a guitar to “Country Roads” (pictured above; the video is here).
While one doesn’t want to take away from the Fulco family experience, one does want to emphasize the variety-show nature of the type of tour on which the band was put. The best thing that can happen with these wacko tours is that they create good fodder for writing and for stories told around the proverbial campfire. The worse thing that can happen, though, is that bands with genuine hopes fanned by excited and excitable presenters will wind up upset at the prospect of being little more than performing monkeys helping to sell condos in some far-flung minor city, or in front of an audience super-psyched to get photos and autographs but one that doesn’t, on the large scale, tend to be too picky. Or, remember your name beyond “band from USA”.
Is there a chance that the Fulcos, and others before and after, can win hearts and minds over to the rock and roll (or country, or anything genuine, authentic or remotely original)? Absolutely. Is that part of the draw of touring China? Certainly. Having been on stages large and small in front of just those kinds of audiences, I’ve been both excited and depressed by the prospects, experience and aftermath. And the Fulcos’ experiences underline a big reason for touring in the first place: It’s news-worthy, a peg upon which a band, even in 2011, can hang some nice press coverage back home.
But for a band making a cross-continental trip, the key is to know what one is getting into. So Future Fulcos and assorted others: The Chinese music industry is in its infancy. Don’t be afraid, but do be aware.
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.