A new book, Red Rock, charts the history of yaogun (rock and roll) n China. Its author, Jonathan Campbell, tells Time Out about five key moments that shaped rock music in the PRC
Yaogun’s first generation was led down the rock and roll path via some preposterous pop. George Michael’s Wham! and their 1985 China concerts (in Beijing and Guangzhou) are a surprising turning point in yaogun history. The irony is that anyone remotely yaogun or yaogun-to-be was at that concert and dying for a glimpse of anything ‘rock’, but Wham! only cared about China in as much as the trip was covered in the international press. Hearing tapes is one thing – and listening to them was something rockers did with religious zeal – but there’s no substitute for the real deal. We know that late ’80s Chinese rock progenitors Black Panther were a deliberate mix of equal parts Bon Jovi and Wham!, but we can only wonder about what might have been. Alongside Wham!, Queen were trying to get into China, while the Rolling Stones had come close to receiving permission in 1979. Neither made it.
This is the only yaogun event worthy of the word ‘seminal’ . ‘Nothing to My Name’ was China’s foray into the international pop world, whether or not anyone outside of China knew it (they didn’t). In response to the release in the West of all-star charity pop records such as ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, ‘We Are the World’ and more, China chimed in with ‘Let the World Be Full of Love’ by the Hundred Stars (Baiming exing). Its unveiling was broadcast nationwide, along with solo performances from its members. Future ‘Godfather of Chinese rock’ Cui Jian, then a well-known pop singer, was one of the Hundred. The producers of the show later said that they allowed Cui to sing because they were ‘determined to make pop music play a role on the political stage’. That his song ‘Nothing’ made the final cut of the album, which came out later, says much about Cui’s and its fame at the time.
The ’90s kicked off with a bang. Cui Jian toured in support of the Asian Games in March, but, before that, six bands took to the biggest stage anyone but Cui had laid eyes on. Yaogun had arrived, and not only was it ‘official’, but it had a following. Around 18,000 people are reported to have shown up to the Modern Music Concert held at Beijing Capital Gymnasium. Tang Dynasty, Cobra, ADO, Baby Brother, 1989 and Breathing had gone from playing gigs at underground parties to packing the country’s largest stadia without ever stopping at the levels in between – largely because these didn’t exist until much later. Of the bands that played the gig, Tang Dynasty shot to fame soon after, as did Cobra, although to a lesser extent. As for the rest, ADO was Cui Jian’s band; Baby Brother’s Chang Kuan went on to popular fame, as did 1989’s Zang Tianshuo until infamy kicked in (he was later involved in several scandals). Breathing slowly wound down, although frontwoman (and former CCTV anchor) Wei Hua had a reasonable solo career, while Gao Qi went on to have success with Overload. Black Panther was the only major act not invited , but that diss only inspired their manager, Guo Chuanlin, to put together a multi-band bill for a concert in Shenzhen that helped propel them into the spotlight.
Magic Stone, the Mainland label overseen by Taiwan’s Rock Records, invested heavily in yaogun, eventually attracting other players into the fray. In 1992, they took the movement beyond just Cui Jian thanks to the essential China Fire compilation. In 1993, Magic Stone held a party at one of Beijing’s earliest five-star establishments, The Palace Hotel, to bestow platinum records on Black Panther and Tang Dynasty. On the one hand, it was a triumph: these longhairs had been shut out of society just a few years before, but their light-speed rise to superstar status was a testament to yaogun’s power, the extent of its spread and its potential. On the other hand, as now-filmmaker and then-party organiser Sheng Zhimin put it: ‘Something had changed. It wasn’t the scene I was working for, so I quit.’ Many say that big bucks ruined yaogun, but the alternative/punk reaction to it saved it. Magic Stone would go on to make a few more rock stars, and hit their high the following year when their best and brightest blew minds at the Hong Kong Coliseum, but the label puttered out before the decade was done. In addition to leaving in the lurch the stars still owed money, and a few later signings whose music didn’t get to as many as it should have, its legacy remains in the still-present expectation of yaogun stardom among current generations of Chinese rockers.
There had been Kurt Cobain memorial gigs in Beijing since his death in 1994, but Nirvana became known nationwide thanks to the publishing of influential critic Hao Fang’s book on Cobain, Radiant Nirvana. But its readership had spread far beyond the traditional rock world, and beyond Hao’s wildest dreams – his mixed feelings about its effects are proof of that. The depth to which many readers were moved unsettles Hao to this day: ‘You were writing about me,’ they told him – going through a nasty divorce, tough times at school, and so on – ‘not Kurt.’ The news that a distraught reader had committed suicide hit the author hard. ‘When you write a book, you never think about how it might impact upon people… [they] could take you quite seriously.’ The book was informed by Hao’s ‘dissatisfaction with society,’ and its large number of readers, not to mention the alt and punk scenes that rose up across the country in the wake of its release, prove he wasn’t alone. ‘We identified with [Cobain] because we shared the same anger, irony and introspection that he had, and that was the general feeling at the time; no one captured that sense of disillusionment like he did,’ explains Hao.
Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll
by Jonathan Campbell is available from Saturday 1 October at The Bookworm