Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers – “Chinese Rocks” ?????????
Text by Sean Hockings
The top echelons of the Chinese government have no compunction in ensuring Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winners are kept incarcerated and seem to care even less who knows it – a fact that makes it all the more surprising that the art of the personal and political statement is alive and well in the small pocket that is the alternative Chinese music underground.
As with the rest of the world the core of music in the China “market” is sugary sweet pop. Canto or Mando, take your pick. Sung, inevitably, by androgynous boys and wannabe actresses.
Along with the rest of the planet, the middle kingdom isn’t immune to the virus of Pop Idol culture. Although we must congratulate Chinese judges on voting a rather perverse winner of their China’s Got Talent competition this year.
Armless but not harmless 23-year-old Liu Wei won the contest after literally stunning a live audience at the Shanghai Stadium with his rendition of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.” Dressed in an all-white tuxedo with a bow tie, Liu sang the lyrics in English while accompanying himself on piano – with his toes. What more can you ask for in the post-modern 21stcentury
Away from the television screens as with all areas of society in China there is a quiet revolution going on. But observers will have to look a little harder to find those young musicians who are making both personal and political statements via their art.
Metal Postcard Record’s first stop when it comes to finding out what’s happening at street level in the mainland’s alternative music scene is Shanghai-based UK expat Andy Best who pens the wonderful blog KungFuology.
We posed a number of questions to Andy to try and get a better idea of the current thinking by the latest crop of artists and bands in China. Here’s our interview in its entirety:
When writing your blog – would you highlight the political desires and aspirations of musicians if they aired them to you?
No. I’m very interested in current affairs myself but the blog is intended only to introduce others to the scene. I’m not looking for any particular angle or style within the bands. I don’t really do interviews, just links and show reviews and some news. I’m not a pop fan but I cover a lot of bands whose style is pop. I’m not looking to interpret the scene to anyone or set myself up as an expert either. I think there’s only been two situations in which issues or political views have been directly brought up by bands at shows and it’s stood out enough for me to mention it on the blog. The band The Subs are my favorite and their live shows are legendary. They sing about issues and the environment and they are vegans. It’s so much part of their identity that it will come up naturally when writing about them. The other situation is the whole nationalism/anti-Japan thing. It was big on the scene back before I started the blog; I’ve been here since 2001 but only wrote about it all from 2008. Once or twice it’s raised its head again at gigs in an ugly fashion. I made an exception to write about it specifically as it stood out so much. Bands goading the audience to support China and always remember WW2 and that Japan is the enemy and all that.
Do you think that there’s any chance of a climate in the PRC over the next 5 years for musicians to take an openly political stance if they so desired?
Well, they do. Just in small spaces. And everyone’s welcome to take right-wing stances or pro-government stances. What we are talking about is dissent and we are associating being a musician with being a humanistic progressive type. I wish that were true, but it’s a false premise. Did you see that Mo, the drummer from the Velvet Underground is a Tea Party supporter?
What for you as a music writer in China defines a musician or band who mean more than consumer pop to their audience? Do any such acts exist in China and do you think they can grow a national audience?
I think it’s no different to other countries. Commercial pop acts are associated with spectacle or style, or some kind of company-calculated mass appeal. Other acts have more personal thought or content inside that a certain group of listeners will identify with on a deeper level. PK14 are a good example of a local band – they’re from Nanjing – whose music strikes people deeply. Yang Haisong’s Mandarin lyrics are poetic and evocative and deeply personal. There’s two things to consider about a national audience. Firstly, there’s no national industry here. The mechanics of a national music industry do not exist in the legal or business sense. Secondly, even if there were … look at developed scenes in other countries. TV networks prefer mass appeal as do marketers, and some people just choose pop. Pop is the majority usually, hence the term pop I suppose.
Do you think rock/indie music can push any new boundaries in China or electronic music for that matter or is it all just product?
Well, as with festivals this year, the emerging popularity of music culture could spur the setting up of an industry purely because of the money-making opportunities. In the event of that happening, the money people and the ideology people would have to thrash it out. There were suddenly 100 music festivals this year as city governments woke up to the tourism opportunities. I’m glad you mention the word “product.” This year, the creative side of the scene waned a bit, largely due to interference of big-talking ad people trying to get bands involved in branding. They talked about bringing money into the scene and supporting it, but they largely subverted it. I wish they’d all just fuck off and exploit someone else.
China does have its fair share of “experimental” noise bands. Shanghai’s Torturing Nurse come to mind. In your opinion is their experimentation in itself a political act in today’s China? Or is it just an avant garde ghetto for those artists of all stripes who wish to disengage from today’s mainstream society and consumerism in China?
Sure, withdrawing from society is a powerful statement, in any country. I think anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the global myth of endless development irks those who do. Economic mantras are nasty and untrue. You take something, it comes from someone or somewhere. The current devastation of forests and biodiversity, and the pollution of the oceans and rivers, will settle all that sooner or later. In the music scene here it’s funny. You have all these people running around talking about “youth markets,” “branding,” “industry,” “creatives” and all that – while simultaneously asking about consumerism in society and what Chinese bands think of it. They are not even aware they are part of that problem.
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In the end it’s the same old story. The enemy of young musicians is capital and not politicians. An irony not lost on the following Chinese artists:
It’s imperative we start with Hong Kong’s My Little Airport (now relocated to Beijing) who are by far and away the most overtly political band in China which is probably why their musical missives are few and far between.
Like everything else about the country they’ve inverted perfectly what we would imagine a political band should sound like.
No anthems à la Clash or Chumbawumba tub thumping, instead the listener is treated to gentle almost light Belle and Sebastian melodies laced with truly acerbic and pointed lyrics that question the way China’s politicians and the party operate. In the song “Party” (see You Tube link) they sing “I love the country but not the party” which encapsulates how they and many others of their generation feel about the world they live in. As for what they think of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang we’ll let you search and find out for yourself
But neither do they let their own generation off lightly. Songs highlight how China’s youth have been seduced by the romance and consumerism of the West and especially the soft power of 20th century French intellectual thought. Although many of their songs are sung only in Cantonese there’s enough of the English language in there to make any serious listener search out their releases.
From the other end of the noise spectrum come Shanghai-based experimental hardcore band Torturing Nurse. Inspired by the avant-noise sounds of New York and Berlin of twenty years ago. Their approach is fiercely personal and grounded in experimentation. In a society that prides itself on working for the greater cause of the nation we’d suggest that a band such as Torturing Nurse are every bit as political as, say, Rage Against The Machine or New York 60’s experimentalists The Fugs.
Our favourite new Beijing band GLGB and the current toast of the city’s underground live scene have a sound part late era Blur part Beefheart Doc at the Radar and aren’t backward in coming forward on their thoughts about authority. Their song T might have a short title but it has a big message for their audience.
He’s memorized every regulation
for an easier life
whenever there is an argument
he refers to the proper one
Bored little man in a dead end job
Just a book for consolation
Not much glory for the man
in charge of the entire nation
(He’s the one we all look up to) Mr Regulation
He’s memorized every regulation
for an easier life
You can ask him anything
he’s the lord of all creation
He would give you a hand if he could
but that got its complications
So long as there is no confliction
with his regulation
(He’s the one we all look up to) Mr Regulation
1,000 rules and 1,000 excuses,
both add up to zero resolutions
Don’t blame him, it’s not his fault
He’s the man of the regulations
this is the rule No. one
you can regard it as a joke too
Let’s just count to three
We’ll find out what we’re looking for
We can’t go without mentioning Shanghai’s latest underground sensation Pairs, an Australian/Chinese two-piece part White Stripes, part Lightning Bolt who make an unholy noise that remind us of Jesus and Marychain in their first incarnation. Again there’s no overt political message and as one half of the band Rhys says: I am a foreigner in China so the same kind of restrictions and fear that would stop a Mainland local from speaking out, don’t necessarily apply.
I don’t feel that I know enough about the way the political party works or their ideals to get up on stage, strum a D minor and sing about it.
I had never really felt the presence of the man until recently when one of our shows was held up by the Cultural Commission something or other Department for no particular reason, and when we had to submit all our lyrics with translations to a festival we were asked to play.
Remembering that the simple act of making music that doesn’t sound like anything else is a political act in itself in China we suggest to those of you who want to investigate further to take a look at the following individuals and outfits who are at the vanguard in 2010:
Chou hails from the musical backwater of Changsa City in Hunan province and has just released his debut album 2 Sides. What he has achieved is nothing less than remarkable considering we know of no other producers in the city, never mind ones that can successfully combine late 90’s style downbeat with D&B, lush electronic interludes and even some original dubstep splashes.
China’s electro evangelist produces plays live and travels China with his Dirty Party. If you are a fan of Justice and crunchy electro techno it won’t be long before you fall in love with Liman.
Lanzhou band Low Wormwood who have been snapped up by Maybe Mars, one of the two large independent labels based out of Beijing, combine their local folk traditions with a rock band approach. But instead of being another band smoothed by the desires of a major recording label they’ve retained an identity which makes us think of a band that has the lightness of touch and depth of a Tindersticks or Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. If ever there was a China band operating on their own terms who deserve a major breakthrough it’s Low Wormwood.