I was sent to Beijing to write an article about the Chinese rock scene. Very easy – just going to gigs and talking to musicians; a record company obligingly set up interviews. For the last decade or so, whenever I’m there, I try to check out the rock scene, and I’ve always put a box in the rough guide on what bands to look out for. The bands are great, the scene intriguing, and as they sing in English a lot of the time, it’s accessible.
Bands used to play in dodgy bars with terrible sound, with names like SCREAM and WHAT?; now there are a couple of really good venues that take five or six hundred, and are rammed every weekend. So it is easy to talk it up as a Chinese-60s type moment – you have these bands kicking at the system and talking about their generation, and the kids lapping it up – and the oldsters and the mainstream media just doesn’t get it.
The musicians come across as intelligent sceptics rather than outlaws. Shouwang of Carsick Cars seemed representative, and articulate. He looked like a student, earnest and intellectual, and like all the musicians I spoke to he had excellent English. He professed weariness at the rampant money grabbing that seem to have become China‘s prevailing ideology, but, unlike most critics, does not see the solution in a return to traditional values. ‘we just want to encourage critical thinking’ he says – an attitude hinted at by the subtly provocative title of their 2009 album: ‘you can listen, you can talk.’
All bands have to submit their lyrics for approval to the Ministry of Culture. The Chinese censor is notoriously heavy handed, and it’s quite possible to end up not just silenced, but in jail, for speaking on subjects such as corruption, or appearing to encouraging drug use. Some bands get around the ministry by subtly changing what was submitted in performance; for example, one punk band, which must remain nameless, on stage changes a crucial consonant in its lyric ‘Let’s funk’.
Censorship might be strict but it’s also spotty – deliberately so, as a way of inculcating an attitude of self censure. Apart from the last minute cancellation of the 2008 Midi festival, the rock scene has not yet suffered over much from government interference. Shouwang says they‘re still too underground – but he is aware that he is treading in dangerous waters – the recent arrest of Ai Wei Wei must be pretty worrying.
In common with most of his contemporaries, Shouwang sings in both English and Chinese. ‘English because it’s direct, and Chinese because it’s poetic’. The Chinese language is notoriously ambiguous, and laden with allusion and double meanings – very useful for a lyricisist.
For example, there’s a useful bit of ambiguity in Carsick Cars anthem ‘Zhongnanhai’ which they perform at the end of a set. Zhongnanhai is the name both of the communist party compound at the heart of Beijing and his favourite cigarette brand. ‘Zhongnanhai, zhongnanhai, I only smoke Zhongnanhai’ – what’s this really about? Does it matter? Fans throw cigarettes on stage, and the song ends with a wail of feedback.
Shouwang first heard western rock and punk from so called dakou CDs – waste music CDs were exported from the west to China to be recycled, and nicked at the edge to make them, supposedly, unplayable; in fact only the last track was lost, and these discs with their alien but alluring sounds, were eagerly collected, with ‘dakou’ coming to mean all forms of westernised, underground youth culture.
‘When we started there was no possibility of success.’ There was no infrastructure for their uncompromising music, no chance of fame or money, and not much of an audience. Carsick Cars’ first song was a cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘I want to be your dog‘; it went down badly, as did everything else they did: ‘We’d play gigs to three people, and two of them would go home annoyed’.
Shouwang describes touring the country in a van, and experiencing more profound culture shock in boondock China than he would later get from his trips to the west – having to play cockroach infested venues, unable to sleep in rural hotels cause of the noisy chickens outside.
Still, they persisted, their following snowballed, and now those hundreds of hours of gigging are paying off; as with the other really good Beijing bands, Carsick Cars are notable for the tight musicianship that only comes with lots of practise.
Despite these recent success, none of these kids are getting rich. With illegal downloading now pretty much the norm for consuming music in China, the only opportunity to make money is from gigging and selling t-shirts. Shouwang is almost unique in being able – just – to make a living from rock music. He Yan, the bassist, is studying at Beijing Agriculture College, and has to ask his tutors for time off when they tour, while Bin Bin, Taiwanese drummer, freelances as a writer.
The bands are so diverse that its hard to speak of a Beijing sound. The best gig I went to was by HanggaI, who sing Mongolian folk songs and mix traditional instruments with electric guitars. They put on a great show, dressing up in full military regalia; their guitarists used to be in a thrash metal band, and it shows. They seem pretty popular with foreigners who I would guess like the fact that they’re distinctively Chinese. PK14 are old stagers, refreshingly uncompromising and post-punky. Hedgehog are great, with a pint sized girl drummer, Atom, who is clearly the star of their show. Queen Sea Big Shark do chirpy electronica and have a charismatic front girl. But you could pretty much turn up at D22 or Yugong Yishan any night of the week, and see a decent band in the company of a few hundred students. Is this the crest of a youth culture wave? The beginning of a generational consciousness rebellions or just another form of consumerism? And will it be allowed to grow any bigger? Whatever the answer, it’s one of my new must dos for the city.