Rocky Road: Tracing China's Musical Revolution
Be prepared to see China’s contemporary history in a more bad-ass light when you pick up Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll. But until you've had a chance to read the book, here's our exclusive interview with author Jonathan Campbell.
Someone picks up your book and wonders, "What makes Chinese Rock & Roll Chinese?" What do you tell them?
Yaogun is a product of China. It’s an obvious statement, but there’s meaning to it beyond the geographical. It doesn't mean that it has erhu or guzheng (though some does), or that it is necessarily sung in Chinese (some is). It's the product of a very particular set of circumstances, the circumstances that make China China – the massive transformation that’s occurred since the seventies (not to mention since the IOC passed Beijing the Olympic torch), the social transformation, the recent emergence from isolation, the population’s struggle to deal with all of that (or their refusal to do so).
How do you think this differs from what makes Chinese art Chinese, or Chinese film Chinese, etc.?
There’s a lot of similarities across the contemporary arts, but what makes yaogun so different is the lack of international acceptance. Chinese contemporary art is being auctioned for millions at Sotheby’s, and Chinese directors are feted at international film fests. But yaogun is not part of the international rock and roll landscape the way that Chinese contemporary art is.
You still get the sense that yaogun is generally a "Hey check this out!" phenomenon. I’ve been with Chinese bands overseas, and it’s not to say that people don’t like it, but just that it’s curiosity rather than appreciation that’s getting them out. Critic/experimental musician Yan Jun talked about how the time yaogun’s had is only enough for ‘shock’, and he’s got a point: The key is to get beyond the curiosity. Other art forms have the same issues, but there has been a dearth of serious international writing about yaogun. This book should help change that.
What inspired you to write a historical account of yaogun? What about this story made you feel it needed to be told?
Possibly it was having read too many articles that only scratched the surface, or maybe it was just that I realized it was high time that the story was told in English. It wasn’t something that I’d been thinking about over the years – turns out I’d been researching it, unknowingly, over the years, but it wasn’t, until around two years ago when I started writing the book, a conscious decision to do so.
What’s interesting about this endeavour was that the early history, which became the most important part of the book, wasn’t the initial focus of what I envisioned. I thought the history would be a quick chapter and then I’d get to the ‘good stuff’; the here and now. But I quickly realized that the here and now can’t be told properly without the context of the three decades before. And that, in turn, kept me inspired to get the story out. Because it’s an amazing story.
Who do you hope will read it?
I hope that the international music community reads it. Serious consideration has to start with serious critics. I’ve been lucky to get the book in front of some serious people, and have gotten some great response thus far.
It has to get outside of the China/yaogun community. Of course I want the China/yaogun community to read it: I am, after all, a part of that community. But it needs to get further out there, because yaogun ought to get further out there.
Who I’d really like to read it most of all is the folks that have heard about it and said “there’s rock music in China?” There are too many of those people, and I want to personally change that.
To keep reading, scroll down past the photo, where Campbell talks about the rock 'n roll hunger of the early days, teens listening to Teresa Teng, and life-changing gigs.
I love the way you describe the hunger of the pre-yaogunners as China opened up, how they were sucking in every bit of music they could get their hands on. Did that fervor still exist when you arrived in Beijing in 2000?
I think I had that fervor when I arrived in Beijing, and I think it existed to some extent, but it was nothing compared to the early days. By then, there were dakou CDs, tapes and VCDs everywhere in 2000, so access, if unorganized, was available. Plus the large number of overseas visitors bringing extra stuff and knowledge. And the internet was getting going, as was downloading of music. The hunger of the late seventies and eighties was a completely different beast: There was Nothing.
Do you have more stories to share about those early days?
There are lots of stories about that hunger; more than could fit in the book, and it’s been really inspiring to me personally – and, I hope, readers. Zhang Fan (Midi) talked about ‘lights out’ parties, where kids would gather, turn out the lights and put on pop cassettes as if they were doing something forbidden (which they pretty much were). There were people like Li Chi who spent a night in front of his family’s speakers listening to Deng Lijun, and later treated his rock CDs like girlfriends. Dudes listening to tapes of random collections of western pop/rock and taped radio shows until the spools literally gave out.
And all the people that heard the music and chose to rock despite what that meant for their lives in a grander social context: the isolation and difficulty related to doing, and living, something of which nobody around you can even conceive. It’s that commitment that is hard to understand if you’re from anywhere outside of China, but also for Chinese young enough to not have experienced the Nothing of the eighties and early nineties.
What's the most life-changing gig you ever went to here?
I guess that would be Wild Children [at the Oak Club]. Also, seeing Subs and Wang Wen outside of China made me feel pride in a way that surprised me. Also, shows close to my heart that I put on under the banner of YGTwo Productions: Like when Abigail Washburn jammed and performed with any of the variety of local musicians over the six years I worked with her (especially the first time, which is the gig I met my wife at).
And there have been many nearly-life-changing gigs I’ve played in my own bands.
Almost there! Read on to find out Campbell's picks for who rocks and what sucks in China's music industry, plus his big dreams for yaogun.
Here's your chance to name drop. Which are the stand-out bands producing what you call world-class rock in China?
Even though I know I’m going to leave people out (unintentionally), here goes:
Cui Jian has made good and important yaogun from day one (his pop material is important too, but in a different way). Lonely China Day’s latest record, This Readily Assimilative People, (and everything before it, for that matter) is fantastic; the band is amazing and perpetually overlooked.
Omnipotent Youth Society’s self-titled album is also an amazing record that’s like nothing else that’s been done. Subs is getting better and better, PK 14 too. Rustic is a blast, and there are other new bands looking to that traditional cock/hair rock that are finally having a good time with it. Duck Fight Goose and the Miniless Posse …
Going back in time a bit… Zhou Ren’s 1996 album Squeeze is too often overlooked, and his recent festival appearances blow a lot of the younger bands away. The Wild Children didn’t do a bad thing ever. Glamorous Pharmacy, Ruins' earlier years, Wooden Pushmelon, Ping Pong Party, Sound Fragment’s earlier albums.
Perdel makes great fun and straight-up pop rock. Second Hand Roses’ debut album was so much fun and they can be so great; Zi Yue is overlooked and in a similar vein to SHR.
I could go on, and then still forget to mention everyone I think should be mentioned. Point being, there’s a lot, but it’s not all out there and/or easily available. I’m trying, slowly, to change that by posting links/samples on my website, which I see as a companion to the book: www.jonathanWcampbell.com
And if there's anything noticeably weak across the board with the rockers here, what would that be?
Young ‘gunners not recognising their roots, not recognising that they’re the result of the past three decades of slow plodding development – and that they’re also a part of it – is a pet peeve of mine. As is not pushing things forward and not using yaogun to its potential.
Critics like Yan Jun and Hao Fang showed me that it’s also non-musicians that have to pull their weight: Good critics are so important and there’s been a real dearth in recent years. And good audiences. Audiences that don’t stand for crap, and who investigate, celebrate, and think about what’s coming at them. If I learned anything from ’gunners it’s that yaogun is a lens through which one can see the world in a new way. That really excites me, and should excite everyone doing it, watching it, or caring about it.
What band/artist would you most like to see perform in Beijing, living or dead?
I think that if the Rolling Stones had visited in the late seventies/early eighties, when they first tried to, that would have been fantastic to witness. Plus, I would’ve loved to have seen China back then and met those about to yaogun.
In your dreams, what does the Beijing yaogun scene look like ten years from now?
Ideally, cities around China (because it ain’t about just Beijing any more) are like anywhere else, where yaogun is just one other thing that kids do and support. That doesn’t mean that yaogun loses its edge, but that it exists in a world that doesn’t ignore it as a legitimate art form. And where those up in it care about it like it’s a legitimate art form. And, most importantly, rockers remember and exploit the form’s potential.
And the thing I hope for most: That yaogun spreads to the point where it joins the world as an equal – different, but equal. Normalcy would be fantastic, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll is available at The Bookworm.
Click here to see the October issue of the Beijinger in full.