It's only rock 'n' roll
- but in China, call it yaogu
That's the opinion of writer and musician
Jonathan Campbell, who spent over a decade covering, playing and becoming
thoroughly immersed in music, and the scene in China. His "Red Rock" is the
first comprehensive look at the Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll.
By Ron Gluckman/Beijing, China
WHAT IS ROCK 'N' ROLL
AROUND THE WORLD,
roars in China like a different musical beast,
according to musician and writer Jonathan Campbell, who tracks its evolution
from conception in the mid-late 1980s to its modern form today. A quarter
century might not seem a lengthy musical lifespan, but Mr. Campbell expertly
covers all its twists, shouts and stumbles in
"Red Rock: The Long,
Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll."
Few people are better positioned to compile the first comprehensive study of
China's rock scene than this Canadian who moved to Beijing in 2000, and was
instantly immersed in music. For a decade, he wrote for magazines, played in
bands and helped organize shows, festivals and tours. Critic Hao Fang, former
editor of Rolling Stone in China, sings his praises, saying it's almost shameful
that such a book was penned by a foreigner.
Campbell could hardly seem more local. He first caught the China bug during a
summer of language study in 1997 in the eastern city of Xiamen. After finishing
university, he took up residence in Beijing and quickly landed a job writing for
a bilingual city events guide. And he began playing with a series of local
Soon, he was providing rhythmic grooves for Wude (Wood), a seminal Beijing
funk-fusion band. Later came roles in Chou Doufu (Stinky Tofu) and blues-rockers
Black Cat Bones. Along the way, he leapfrogged from local magazines to
organizing shows at the clubs he covered.
By the mid-2000s, Mr. Campbell was an important music middleman in the nascent
scene. He not only helped bring international stars like Bela Fleck to China,
but took some of the country's top acts on pioneering overseas tours. These were
no rock get-rich schemes, rather labors of love for a major music fan.
He returned to his native Toronto in 2010, already hard at work on the book. But
as he dug deeper, the outline changed radically, along with his perspective. "I
had been in China for 10 years, and sort of figured that would be one chapter
per year, with a chapter on how we got to 2000," he explains. "But I had no idea
about the journey that came before, the intensity of the musicians and the
ordeal. That became the real story, how Chinese rock developed."
"It's about the context, how this amazing music really came out of a complete
vacuum. It's so inspiring," he says. "It's not like rock anywhere else." Hence,
he calls it yaogun, which is also the general Chinese term for rock.
But not all Chinese rock qualifies in Mr. Campbell's view. Yaogun is rock of a
higher order, composed in dingy clubs by dedicated souls, isolated from the
musical influences commonplace around the globe. Such conditions nurtured a new,
battle-hardened rock. "Yaogun couldn't have developed anywhere else in the
world," he tells a packed house at the Bookworm in Beijing.
even pinpoints the exact birth of yaogun—May 9, 1986. That was when a swarm of
Chinese musicians gathered for a concert inspired by the "We Are The World"
movement. Musicians everywhere were involved in mass concerts and recordings to
benefit charity causes like African aid, and China jumped on the bandwagon. Mr.
Campbell references archival footage showing more than 100 musicians from
various approved cultural organizations.
One stood out. After singing his lines in cheesy costume with the entire musical
community, Cui Jian returned in rolled up jeans, belting out "Nothing to My
Name." Widely considered the grandfather of Chinese rock—Mr. Campbell dubs him
Yaogunner Number One—Mr. Cui created an anthem for China.
"That song moved practically everyone," says Hao Fang. "It wasn't just young
people, or music fans. You heard it everywhere you went." He agrees it sparked
an awakening. "There was this yearning for something beyond the material in
China, and it wasn't just Cui Jian. Artists, writers, musicians were all feeling
Mr. Campbell finds inspiration across a generation of pioneer Chinese rockers.
His compassion is compelling, but decidedly China-centric. With a broader view,
one finds similar rock odysseys are underway in places like Myanmar as curtains,
whether bamboo or iron, part on totalitarian regimes. The musical awakening is
inevitably raucous and full of adolescent angst.
The beginning of "Red Rock" reads a bit like a party conference, as Mr. Campbell
preaches his case for the uniqueness of yaogun. Readers are advised to
persevere. The book becomes a page-turner as Mr. Campbell details China's rapid
rock evolution in intimate conversations with musicians.
For example, Five-Point Star, a cover band from Inner Mongolia, was obsessed by
The Beatles. Then they realized Paul McCartney was left-handed, and actually
discussed whether bassist Dai Qin would have to relearn as a lefty. "We studied
The Beatles: their voices, the visuals, everything," Dai Qin tells the author.
"We were like soldiers."
Populated by rich personalities and filled with comical turns, the book has wide
appeal beyond the musically attuned. "It isn't really a book about rock in
China," Mr. Campbell says. "It's really a story about China, how it developed."
Yaogun or rock? In the end, it hardly matters, since this is a rare China book
that isn't focused on politics or profits, simply people yearning for change and
a stage. Mr. Campbell, then and now, helps provide one.
Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll
By Jonathan Campbell
Earnshaw Books, 304 pages, US$19.99
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter
has been living in and covering Asia since 199. Before
relocating to Asia, he spent a decade and a half as a music writer and rock
critic in the USA. This piece was published in the Wall Street
Journal in April 2012.
Words and Picture, copyright Ron Gluckman; Drawing from
the Wall Street Journal
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