Change is the order of the day in China, but the country's transformation from closed society to consumerist hub has one unexpected byproduct: rock'n'roll. Welcome to Beijing, where a long-simmering underground scene is finally coming to a boil.
Author SIMON LEWIS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW NIEDERHAUSER/INSTITUTE
AGAINST A WALL OF NOISE — all rumbling drums and grinding guitars — a skinny singer contorts himself around a microphone stand, his feet planted wide apart. It’s not just a pose: it helps him keep his footing on a tiny stage made treacherous by pedals, cables and other band members. The venue, a place called D22, is full of cigarette smoke and smells like stale beer. Enraptured kids raise their sweaty faces to the stage; they’re packed in so tight they can’t dance, only bounce up and down. It’s a standard rock tableau, save for one thing: It’s happening in the heart of Beijing. And the band onstage, Carsick Cars, are the masters of a rebellious idiom that might have seemed unimaginable not long ago: Chinese rock ‘n’ roll.
Carsick Cars’ post-punk sound is lo-fi, with strident lyrics in English and Chinese barked over choppy guitar riffs. When they launch into their closing number, the anthemic “Zhongnanhai,” fans hurl cigarettes at the stage. The song takes its title from a cigarette brand, but it’s also the name of the Communist Party compound in Beijing, making the song’s meaning teasingly ambiguous. Lead singer Zhang Xiao Wang yells, “I only smoke Zhongnanhai!” and coaxes a final squall of feedback from his guitar, and with that, the band steps offstage while the young crowd screams for more.
Much has been made of the new cultural crossovers that have been happening in China, as it gradually opens to the world and transforms into an economic powerhouse, but few of these are more striking than the Beijing rock scene. To a Western visitor, it’s familiar but strange, international yet distinctly Chinese. After years underground, Chinese rock ‘n’ roll is exploding, and like so much coming out of China, the music is ready for, and worthy of, far wider attention.
After the Carsick Cars gig, hundreds of kids spill into the dark street. They’re hip, urban, confident. They may be in the shadows now, but their time is coming.
CARSICK CARS’ RECORD LABEL, Maybe Mars, is run out of a suburban high-rise apartment done in the middle-class Chinese style, with faux-classical detailing and overstuffed floral-print furniture. In other words, it doesn’t exactly scream rock ‘n’ roll. Neither does Carsick Cars frontman Xiao Wang. In person, he comes across as polite and collegiate, neatly dressed in jeans, shirt and Converse sneakers. He apologizes for being late for our interview, explaining he was up most of the night singing karaoke.
Xiao Wang first heard Western rock and punk from so-called dakou, or “cut,” CDs: waste music discs exported from the West to China to be recycled, with each nicked at the edge. This was supposed to make them unplayable, but in most cases only the last track was lost. These cut discs, with their alien but alluring sounds, were eagerly collected, with “dakou” coming to mean all forms of Westernized, underground youth culture.
In 2005, there was little precedent for a rock band in China, says Xiao Wang — just a few heavy-metal groups and, of course, the lone pioneer now seen as the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, whose 1986 song “Nothing to My Name” became the anthem of post-Tiananmen urban angst (and prompted a party official to wonder, “How can you say you have nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party, haven’t you?”).
“When we started, there was no possibility of success,” says Xiao Wang, whose band has now toured with Sonic Youth and played South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. There was no infrastructure for Carsick Cars’ uncompromising music, no chance of money and not much of an audience. Their first song was a cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which they’d heard on a dakou disc. It went down badly, as did everything else they attempted: “We’d play gigs to three people, and two of them would go home annoyed,” he says.
Xiao Wang describes touring the country in a van and experiencing more profound culture shock in rural China — dour venues, noisy chickens keeping him up all night — than he would on later trips to the West. Still, Carsick Cars persisted, their following snowballed and now those hundreds of hours of gigging are paying off. As with the dozen or so top Beijing bands, Carsick Cars are notable for tight musicianship and explosive performances. Onstage they’re confident, creating a sea of distortion and pulling a catchy tune out of it, drawing apt comparisons to their heroes Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground.
Most important, though, they’re making a measurable cultural impact. Xiao Wang tells me about last night’s karaoke session, a birthday party for the drummer. When browsing through the machine, they found one of their own songs. “It is good,” he says with a bashful smile, “to feel that we are getting out there.”
Of course, there are some unique problems that come with being a band here — chiefly, censorship. All bands have to submit their lyrics for approval to the Ministry of Culture, which can mete out punishments for speaking on sensitive subjects like drug use, sex and politics. Still, apart from the unexplained last-minute cancellation of the Midi music festival in 2008, the rock scene hasn’t experienced much government interference.
It does, however, require an interesting balancing act. Like most of his contemporaries, Xiao Wang sings in both English and Chinese. “English because it’s direct, and Chinese because it’s poetic,” he says. The Chinese language is ambiguous and laden with allusion, which is very useful for a lyricist, particularly one in China. (When asked what the song “Zhongnanhai” is about, he says it’s simple: “cigarettes.”) But Xiao Wang does not have an explicit outlaw agenda; his attitude is one of intelligent skepticism. He professes wariness at the consumerism spreading across China, but, unlike most critics, does not see the solution in a return to traditional values. “We just want to encourage critical thinking,” he says. It’s an attitude hinted at by the subtly provocative title of Carsick Cars’ 2009 album, You Can Listen, You Can Talk.
Despite recent success, neither these kids nor their contemporaries are getting rich. Because of rampant illegal downloading, their only opportunities to make money are gigging and selling T-shirts. Xiao Wang is almost unique in being able — just — to make a living from rock music. By contrast, bassist He Fan is studying at Beijing Agricultural College, and has to ask his tutors for time off when the band tours.
Even the owner of Carsick Cars’ record label and the club D22 has to hold down a day job. Michael Pettis, an American expat who works as an economics professor at elite Peking University, is the impresario of the Chinese rock scene, a role he relishes. Perched on the edge of one of his voluminous armchairs, he cheerfully rattles off all the ways he’s losing money. But it’s not about the money, he says — it’s about the buzz. Pettis compares the scene to the counterculture that shook up the West in the ’60s. China has changed so fast that the generation gap is huge, he says. Middle-aged folk grew up with Mao suits, the Little Red Book and austerity; their kids are subsumed in a flashy consumer culture that celebrates individuality and gratification. The Internet and rising generational expectations have created restless youth, thirsty for their own forms of self-expression to help them make their own sense of the world.
Enter rock ‘n’ roll. “The older generation and the mainstream media simply have no idea what’s going on here,” says Pettis. “These bands get no radio play, they’re never on TV and no one dares sponsor them. Yet they’re filling venues night after night.” What he likes best about the Chinese scene is its freshness: Since there’s no indigenous history for these musicians to refer to, they’re making it up as they go along. And they’re refreshingly accessible. “If you want to go backstage and talk to a band, it’s not a problem,” says Pettis, who describes buying a singer a drink and winding up hanging out with the guy all night. And, he adds, because everyone got involved for the love of music, with no prospect of fame or money, there are none of the pretensions and hangers-on that you might find in equivalent scenes in the West.
Chinese rock’s newfound popularity has brought changes. Bands suddenly have many more places to play, including new venues with decent sound, and music festivals are popping up all over the country. In the latter case, Pettis explains, the government has actually played a role in supporting the scene: It gives cultural funds to local arts bureaucrats, who can then decide to spend the money on, say, a poetry reading that attracts a dozen people or a music festival that brings 5,000. And since a bigger audience means a bigger budget for the local arts department next year, the advantage is on rock’s side.
AS THE MUSIC SPREADS, Beijing is serving as the center of the scene. Impoverished musicians in love with the rock ‘n’ roll dream are turning up in the capital at a prodigious rate. Hundreds now live in Shucun village on the city’s outskirts, most of them on almost nothing, hoping to break through, maybe tap into some of the sponsorship deals being offered by Western corporations like Converse. Xiao Wang is typical in expressing ambivalence about all this; as well as the dangers of commercialization and selling out, he’s concerned about becoming too noticeable. But the fact is, that seems inevitable. The word is out.
The following night, I catch rock ‘n’ roll Mongolian throat singers at one venue and a thrash-metal band at another. While it’s hard to speak of a “Beijing sound,” the musicians themselves have much in common: a sheer bloody-mindedness that’s required when taking an ill-understood path in a conservative country, and a richly complicated relationship with the city itself. In that regard Beijing mirrors New York and London during their own rock renaissances. As Yang Haisong of the band P.K. 14 puts it, “There is a pressure here. You feel the politics in the air. But that’s good for songwriting — it gives you something to kick against.”
Xiao Wang is more down-to-earth. “This is where you have to be,” he says. “It’s where things happen.”
SIMON LEWIS, a Welsh journalist and crime novelist whose latest book is titled Bad Traffic, is pleased to live in a part of south London that’s had a great song written about it: “The Guns of Brixton,” by the Clash.
QUEEN SEA BIG SHARK: Buzzing guitars and a hard-edged, funky sound make this fun, colorful group, fronted by the glamorous Fu Han, one of the capital’s most distinctive.
HEDGEHOG: Melodic indie popsters with bite, they boast a pint-size girl drummer, Atom, who’s the star of the show. Check out their 2011 release, Honeyed and Killed.
HANGGAI: Another stellar live band, they deliver Mongolian folk songs with rock ‘n’ roll attitude while performing in traditional dress.
P.K. 14: These spiky, post-punk intellectuals have been going since 1997, making them elder statesmen of the scene. Their best album is City Weather Sailing. Live, they’re a force of nature.