Red Rock: The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll
by Jon Campbell
One of the peculiarities of Chinese rock'n'roll is that it has an exact birthdate: May 9, 1986, was the day Cui Jian, the mainland's 'godfather of rock', performed the song Nothing to My Name as part of a concert broadcast on TV.
Cui's tune went on to become an anthem of Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, and the man himself embarked on a roller-coaster career of performance bans, stadium shows, hero status, awkward silences and singing with the Rolling Stones. But Cui's story is also a tale of what he has come to mean to generations of youth in spite of a web of censorship. It is the story of an irresistible wave of social change, and this is also the story of Chinese rock'n'roll.
Red Rock, the first book to update the history of Chinese rock in more than a decade, will be released 25 years after Cui's TV appearance and on National Day on October 1.
It is the authorial debut of Beijing-based journalist, musician and rock promoter Jon Campbell. Though the book often reads like a fanzine, attribution is loose, and the post-1997 history is swampy in its organisation, the stories are all there and some interesting arguments are advanced. One of them is that rock's development was actually helped by the 1989 crackdown, a watershed after which 'the Party decided to pull back in its vision of governing every element of every citizen's life'.
Campbell claims the Western media's coverage of rock music tends to exploit the 'rebellious elements of Chinese culture to point out China's problems'.
Rock may be a music of rebellion, but on the mainland that relationship has always been subtle, especially when it comes to 'dissent'. Cui did play in Tiananmen Square just weeks before the tanks rolled in, as did other famous musicians of the day, including He Yong and Taiwan's Hou De-jian. But neither before nor after the crackdown were these singers vocal critics of Beijing.
In fact, Cui began a major tour of China just a year later in 1990, only to have it cut short mainly due to official fears about large gatherings. Cui's career since then has been a series of starts and stops. He was not allowed to perform a stadium concert in Beijing for the next 14 years until opening for Deep Purple in 2004. He was able to tour internationally, release albums and, from time to time, play large shows in provincial mainland cities. Such is the game of cat and mouse between rockers and officials.
But where did Chinese rock come from? And what, if anything, makes it unique?
Following Mao Zedong's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping's policy of reform and opening up unlocked the door for the first Taiwanese and Cantonese pop (which was flooding in over the Hong Kong border anyway) and also for Western music. The first and most influential entry was British pop group Wham! in 1985, though the true international ice-breaker was an obscure Filipino surf-rock band called Nitaige'er a few years earlier.
By the late 80s, bands were soaking up the hard rock sounds and styles of Gunsn'Roses, Motley Crue and whatever else was filtering in, often in the form of CDs imported as scrap plastic, then resold to aspiring music hounds.
Long hair was considered the mark of a hoodlum, and one aspiring radio DJ was almost kept off the airwaves for his unseemly appearance. Yet rock stars emerged. In 1992, the long-haired band Tang Dynasty sold 700,000 official recordings and several times more in pirated copies. Black Panther lead singer Dou Wei made the news for marrying Hong Kong pop singer Faye Wong, and more recently for setting fire to a journalist's car. Drug overdoses and other familiar-sounding rock stories followed into the 1990s and beyond.
Until the mid-1990s, rock was still centred in Beijing and rockers came largely from the urban elite. The second wave was more diverse. Heavily inflected with punk and grunge, its scope expanded from Beijing to more proletariat scenes in provincial cities such as Wuhan, Guangzhou and Nanchang.
China's first wave of rock was a heroic declaration of individualism against a communal past, but the late 1990s saw idealism replaced with realism, cynicism and irony. Rockers refrained from criticising the government directly (with one notable exception: a band called Pangu fled into exile after expressing dissident views). Some went the way of pop materialism. Others rebelled through nihilism and punk-style poverty, like the residents of a Beijing community called Tree Village, which lasted from 1997 to the mid-2000s and incubated several well-known bands, like Tongue, PK14 and Muma. Still others, like critic Yan Jun, who was an early punk champion, abandoned rock for experimental noise that was so abstract it avoided any literal meaning whatsoever.
Beyond this increased diversity, the past 10 years have also seen underground communities develop into thriving scenes. Magazines such as So Rock! have gained sizeable readerships and, more remarkably, stayed in print. Rock clubs have opened without being immediately closed down. Music festivals such as Midi and Modern Sky draw thousands of fans annually. New York financier Michael Pettis continues to back a Beijing live house and record label in hopes that Chinese rock becomes an international 'next big thing'.
But impediments remain. No music festival has ever used 'rock' (yaogun) in its name for fear of being called off. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, dubbed by many the 'no-fun Olympics', saw clubs temporarily closed down and international performances cancelled - Oasis, for one. Beijing heavy metal band Ordnance had an album banned two years ago for criticising the social order.
In short, paradoxes abound. These tensions are certainly what keep Chinese rock interesting, and they've no doubt provided inspiration to Red Rock author Campbell. To his credit, he's managed to gather most of the important information of this compact yet tangled story, although for further reading I'd still recommend the website www.rockinchina.com  or China's New Voices by Nimrod Baranovitch. Chinese rock is a story with more left to tell.