There's no business like old business
ABIDDING war is being waged among Hong Kong's mainstream promoters eager to cash in on a sure-fire money spinner: the Eagles. Big in the 70s, the band has reformed and is set to do it all again with a world tour called Hell Freezes Over.
Born again is always big news for Hong Kong entertainment. Better the devil you know could also be the ethos for local promoters of music or theatre, just look at the ''safe'' line-up which has been presented over the past 12 months - a 10-year-old CATS, ''living legend'' Bob Dylan, karaoke kings Air Supply, dream time for baby-boomers Santana, bring back the good ol' days Gerry and the Pacemakers to name a few.
Next up we have South Pacific - at 46 years old, a decidedly middle-aged musical. Following a sell-out tour of Australia, it's making its debut in the territory on June 9 for a 20-show run. A New York production of the old favourite My Fair Lady is also hitting the Cultural Centre stage on June 22.
The executive producer, director and musical director of South Pacific were in town this week auditioning local youngsters for starring roles, as well as looking for some extras.
They promise Hong Kong will be getting something it has never seen before, saying that modern technology has allowed them to create a stage spectacle which would not have been possible 40 years ago.
But there's no getting away from the fact that South Pacific was penned in a different era and that songs such as Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Ha'i, Younger Than Springtime and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair now fall into the ''classics'' category.
But it is not just mums and dads and their mums and dads who have been lining up for tickets to what is now the hottest show in Australia. Executive producer Walter Van Nieuwkuyk, director David Lynch and musical director Dobbs Franks said they have been taken aback by the number of young people flocking to the show and the reception they have given the wartime musical.
''It's amazing the way they have accepted it - parents have been surprised at the reaction of their teenagers. It's wildly exciting to think we are developing an audience,'' said Lynch.
Franks has a theory as to why the revival of South Pacific has gone down so well. ''We are in a neo-romantic era. We are beginning to write melodies again.'' ''We went through a modern era, through avant garde. We have taken what we want from it and discarded most of it. We've come back to realising it is much more fun to love and laugh.
''It's a natural development, it's what makes sense, it's what works,'' said Franks.
Safe, easy-listening bets are obviously not restricted to Hong Kong.
There's now nothing challenging or revolutionary about the sounds of Pink Floyd, but they've topped anything grunge or rap or dance could come up with. The new Pink Floyd album went straight to the top of US and British charts.
It would seem that in these recession-tarnished times, anything which has an air of nostalgia - anything which can be sold as a golden, mouldy - is warmly bear hugged by a global public.
Familiarity breeding contempt? Right now it's putting bottoms on stadium seats and millions of dollars into record company bank accounts. But it's all so . . . sentimental.
While America's youth mourns the passing of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who ended it all in an oh-so-terribly rock and roll way by leaving a young corpse and the beginnings of a musical revolution, and record stores everywhere count the profits of increased sales, it would seem that here in Hong Kong, grunge is little more than a hiccough in the Canto pop-dominated realm of things.
Or is Hong Kong's youth being dismissed and underestimated as merely a generation of shoppers? The founder of Radio Free Hong Kong, Richard Cooper, who breathed Asian life into indie and is launching a new record label, Fat Records, certainly thinks so.
''People have a need to be stimulated and if they can't find it, they make it themselves, and that's happening in Hong Kong. Not many people see it, but it is there,'' Cooper said.
It is only recently, admits Cooper, that he has become aware of Hong Kong Chinese people in the 16 to 18 year-old age bracket getting influenced by grunge and creating their own sounds.
''There is stuff out there that people don't know about - young bands who have never even played a gig and they are writing about their experiences in Hong Kong. And it's not about going down the shops and what they bought, they are writing emotionally about how they feel about growing up in Hong Kong.
''Big cities around the world have a habit of producing amazing talent because they are not easy places to grow up in.'' Hong Kong, believes Cooper, will not prove the exception.
But that, arguably, is the future. And while it is a ray of hope to know someone out there believes a Hong Kong new wave will happen, that leaves us with a pretty predictable present.
OR is that being a little cynical? After all, the public is getting what it wants. Nirvana, even with Kurt Cobain, couldn't have played four sell-out nights at the Coliseum, neither can their contemporaries Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins. But Elton John can. Tour promoter Anders Nelsson has a broad criteria when it comes to considering who will fill Hong Kong's limited number of theatres. To play the 10,000-seater Coliseum, an act needs to have been around for at least two generations or at least appeal to that demographic spread - someone like Kenny G, Nelsson says.
''Someone who has just become popular or who just appeals to one age group is risky and always a gamble,'' Nelsson said.
He says the reason Hong Kong is not getting the ''cutting edge acts'' is because there is neither the number of fans nor venues to support them. The age-old venue problem has not been improved by the much-heralded Hong Kong Stadium.
Protests over rock concert noise levels are leading to all sorts of control suggestions. The latest from Urban Council chairman Dr Ronald Leung Ding-bong is that promoters ask fans to restrain themselves from whistling or shouting during a performance. Sounds like a big night out.
What Hong Kong lacks, says, Nelsson, is ''funky little clubs which hold 1,000 people''.
''In the case of reunions, there's always an extra appeal if a band has split up - a whole generation which has heard about but never seen a band wants to see them out of curiosity while the original fans are into some nostalgia,'' Nelsson said.
That may explain why there's talk of bringing Led Zeppelin to Hong Kong and why the Rolling Stones are threatening to go back on the road.
''It is always easier to sell something that is familiar instead of something totally new. The local broadcasting media has never been particularly adventurous - middle of the road, not cutting edge - so it is what people here are familiar with. To be big you've got to be mainstream because that's what local media exposes.'' Another factor which determines who out of the long queue of artists would happily stop over in Hong Kong on their Asian tours is whether or not they are ''karaoke friendly'', as Nelsson termed it.
''Karaoke is one of the reasons Air Supply is so successful in Hong Kong - they fit the whole formula to a tee.
''If I had to give a list of 10 acts which could be as big as the Eagles, I would have trouble. There is excellent music out there, but in terms of sheer appeal, it's difficult,'' Nelsson said.
Cooper is distressed by that scenario. Frightening was the word he used.
''The crux of it is that the major [record] companies aren't interested in new talent and therefore the Pink Floyds of this world will continue and continue for many years,'' Cooper said.
He and Alex Ng, the head of Hong Kong's premiere backstage handling company Quid Pro Quo, plan to give a bit of a kick to overcome this inertia.
They are putting together a mini festival which will tour Asia in October. To be called Lollpalazia 94, it will play Hong Kong and China Beach in Vietnam and negotiations are underway to also take it to Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and India.
It is based on a long-running American event, but the concept is something new for Asia. It is expected that 10 bands will play, with Asian groups adding to the line-up of American and European performers.
''Obviously it's easier to sell the Eagles than the Cranberries, but in the long term the Eagles aren't going to be here for ever. There is always going to be a market for Phil Collins, but unless record companies invest in a would-be Phil Collins, there is going to be nothing to fill the void.'' Did you say ''who?'' when you read the name Cranberries? Don't feel too out of touch, it's hard to keep up in Hong Kong.
''There are few outlets for the new music sounds and people can't get to grips with it because they can't get to hear it. Unless you've got thousands of dollars to invest at Tower records in reading about it and then buying it in the hope you'll like it, it's hard. Besides the Quote Zone [on Commercial Radio], radio stations here do not have a policy of promoting new music,'' Cooper said.
JUDGING by the latest list of top sellers from Tower Records, Hong Kong record buyers are doing some sampling, opting for compilation albums which give them a cross-section of tracks. Film soundtracks are far and away the most popular compromise, in the top 25 of Tower Record's big sellers are soundtracks to Philadelphia, Schindler's List, In The Name of the Father, Reality Bites and The Piano. Interestingly, Nirvana's two releases are up there, as is a Hong Kong group, Mothership.
The opening up of one record shop has had a big impact on a diversity-starved music listening public - punters young and old have suddenly found an outlet for everything from jazz to grunge.
According to Tower Records' store manager, David Largent, in terms of what people are buying, ''the market is really opening up here''.
''We were told about a lot of things, like jazz and hip hop and others, that they didn't do well, but we have found that if it's available, people will buy it. We're very encouraged,'' Largent said.
For young people in Hong Kong, it is grunge which has been the ''saviour'', said Cooper. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam have made rock music fashionable again in Hong Kong.
''It's an accessible lifestyle, you don't have to put a ring through your nose, all you need is a pair of baggy Levis, a baggy T-shirt, grow your hair a bit and you're there.
''It will be delayed compared to the rest of the world, but grunge is going to be very big in Asia,'' predicted Cooper. ''People don't want to tap their foot anymore, they want to scream and shout and stage dive. People don't think that happens in Hong Kong and it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's very exciting.
''People want a change and grunge is the most exciting music to see live. Ratcat proved that, they blew people away at Wan Chai [music festival].'' Australian three piece Ratcat were probably the sensation of the October festival and the big news is they're back on May 12 for a Hong Kong first - a full-on sweaty grunge night.
They will be appearing with Danny McGill's Power Onions at Neptune II on May 12. Tickets are $150 and available from Neptune I and II, Tower Records, Midas and Sea Music.
And if that's not for you, well there's always South Pacific.