Monday, May 7, 2012

A Short History of Chinese Rock

Cui Jian, flagging
Following the talk on Chinese rock music (yao gun) by Jonathan Campbell (see 17 March post), I got around to reading the book. It's good. Hard to imagine what it was like in the early 80s when, despite things opening up, there was simply no pop or rock anywhere in China, nothing, zero. Even when Wham! visited in 1985 it was a Major Event. Things like electric guitars and electronic keyboards and computerised lighting systems and big PAs and high production values were simply unknown. And they sang about regular things like you and me, and waking you up before you go-go.
The first rock band in China was apparently Wan Li Ma Wang. They did covers (nothing so unusual about that - The Stones were pretty much the same when they started out). The first influential artist was Teresa Teng, a pop singer, and she was from Taiwan. Nothing exceptional, but she struck a chord with many on the mainland. The first real bona fide mainland rock star, however, was Cui Jan who had a hit with the (fairly controversial) song 'Nothing to my Name'. Then, for some reason, Heavy Metal took over, with bands like Tang Dynasty, Black Panther etc. China loves HM.
In the 80s and even into the 90s, there were very few places to play, hardly any record labels (the main ones were in Taiwan and Hong Kong - and in any case most people heard stuff on cassette compilations), no management, no magazines... In the early 90s a young guy calling himself Youdai - which means "have cassettes"! - started a series of radio shows in Beijing which became incredibly influential. He was the only one, for example, allowed to play Cui Jian. (I've met him: nice chap). In Shanghai Sun Mengjin did a similar thing. Festivals started happening, management came in, even indie labels.
The Chinese rock scene is now pretty developed. There is alt and grunge and dance and experimental. More western bands come in, and some Chinese bands get to play abroad and generally things are fairly relaxed. But, like elsewhere in the world now, it's getting increasingly hard to sell records, so a lot of the scene is a live scene. To be honest, I barely know it. It takes a lot of perseverance (and a fair bit of language know-how) to throw yourself into it. I'm just inching into it.  

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