The jam session that changed mainland music history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 December, 2003, 12:00am

The scene could have been from a movie, but for Kaiser Kuo, what happened on a cool autumn day in October 1988 would change his life.

The young Chinese-American and a friend from Arkansas were checking out Beijing's first and only guitar music store when a salesman invited them to jam.

Not shy, the two young heavy metal enthusiasts put on a show: 30 minutes of noisy, unadulterated Black Sabbath. The pair drew a crowd of more than 40 people - mostly dressed in Mao Zedong suits - who watched the long-haired hippies from the US.

Expecting to be kicked out of the store, the two were instead ushered into the back by the manager, who offered bai jiu or white liquor, cigarettes and the chance to play gigs the following week.

'Tell him 'hell yeah, we're interested',' said Kuo's friend, Shawn Andrews. 'So I translated to the manager,' Kuo recalled.

That night, the pair met Ding Wu, the lead singer of Beijing rock band Black Panthers.

'We were drunk as hell,' says Kuo, 37, as he recalls that meeting. 'But we jammed together from 11 at night to 4 in the morning.'

Such was the birth of Tang Dynasty, China's first heavy metal band.

The son of a Kuomintang air force officer from Taiwan, Kuo grew up in America and was on his third trip to China in 1988 when he, Ding and Andrews founded a band that would create musical history.

Tang Dynasty's first album, released in 1991, sold eight million copies and became synonymous with mainland rock.

Though Tang Dynasty has faded, it still commands a cult following, with pirated tapes and CDs circulating by the millions.

'I'm not a great guitar player,' said Kuo, who today is a Beijing-based freelance writer and the leader of another heavy metal band, Spring & Autumn.

'If I sat in a music store in America, I would come across a dozen guys who would just smoke me. But I understand that I was at the right place at the right time. It's not because of my unique talents. I lucked into it.'

Kuo, Ding, Andrews, another American, Andrew Szabo, and lead singer Zhang Ju put on more than a dozen performances from October 1988 to June 1989, but the three Americans were forced to leave China after the June 4 crackdown.

Ding helped Tang Dynasty sign a three-album contract with Taiwan's Rock Record label.

At the University of Arizona, Kuo was writing a dissertation when Ding called asking him to return and save the band from a major crisis.

Financially, it did well. All the band members were so rich from their first album, two of them - including Ding - allegedly developed expensive drug habits.

'It was such a wreck,' said Kuo, who reluctantly returned to Beijing to help salvage the band, which was languishing because guitarist Zhang had died after a motorbike accident.

'Ding Wu was a full-blown heroin addict [the band's drug problems were well publicised back then]. We all tried to help him. He sought professional help and in the end, he became a hero and kicked the habit.'

By 1996, fans assumed the band was finished, but Kuo and Ding picked up the pieces - although it wasn't easy. They fell out with Rock Records, which wanted the band to complete two albums as a part of their contract.

Despite backing out of the contract, the band signed with a new Beijing-based company, Jingwen Records, in 1998. Their second album - Yanyi, or Epic - was released primarily on the mainland and was a financial disaster.

By its release in January 1999, millions of pirated copies were being sold. 'The final product was very disappointing to us,' said Kuo, who became disillusioned and had a falling out with the other band members.

In 1999, about the same time the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and anti-Americanism reached fever pitch, Kuo decided to leave the band.

He founded Spring & Autumn, performing in Beijing bars, but now makes a living writing for Time and Beijing entertainment magazines.

'I have to be realistic,' he said with a twist of sadness. 'I'm not going to make money in music here.' An idealist and hardcore heavy-rock enthusiast, Kuo said he was not willing to compromise on his values and write syrupy lyrics.

Tang Dynasty is still around, but it is a shadow of its former self. Hard rock found mass appeal in 1990s China because many youths were in a rebellious mood. The genre no longer attracts large audiences because most young people prefer Canto or Mandarin pop songs.

'The style of music that we play isn't what the market wants, but I'm proud of what we've done,' he said.

Kuo has earned no more than US$4,000 in the past four years. 'The most important lesson I learned from Tang Dynasty is to never let the joy go out of your music. If it goes out, don't do it anymore.'