Three years ago, I made a mix-CD for a friend of mine who works on Chinese history, with the best songs I could find at the time (my search wasn’t exhaustive) of interesting Chinese music. The result was only intermittently spectacular: I started with “There is a City” by Hang on the Box, whose 2004 CD “Foxy Lady” still remains a favorite, and “Game Song” by Dragon Tongue Squad, also from 2004, the only amazing Chinese hip hop recording I’ve yet uncovered. The rest was largely filler, including some Japanese filler (to add insult to injury—see: Rape of Nanking). My friend wasn’t overly impressed; he envied my friend who worked on the history of New York, who got a CD of songs about New York. At least I included a consolation prize: “Chinese Rocks,” by Johnny Thunders, which of course is really about New York.
Last night I revisited one of the bands on that mix-CD, PK 14, who haven’t improved a great deal since then. But the iTunes universe supplied a few Chinese additions to my equally non-exhaustive search that ensued, and the results are promising indeed—although, I should hasten to add, all the “new” songs I discovered are at least three years old. Perhaps this has something to do with the International Date Line.
Musicians are a lot like historians in many ways. If, say, someone thinks up a new way to write the history of the English working classes in the 1960s, someone else might apply the same idea with splendid results to Japan, twenty years later (see E.P. Thompson and William Kirby, respectively). And if a garage band in Germany gets the languid mixture of fuzz, longing, and half-perfect English just right in 1985 (I’m specifically thinking of The Multicolored Shades), it makes perfect sense that a band in China will do exactly the same thing in 2008. See below, re: Car-Sick Car.
Much the same could be said for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Brooklyn, with an Polish-Korean singer) vis-à-vis 大棒 (The Bigger Bang), which works the same magic eight years later, in a way that’s more than original enough for the purposes of rock and roll. Or the band Hedgehog, whose amazing song “24 Hours Rock Party” is to the Happy Mondays what, forty years before, “Hey Joe” by the Japanese band The Golden Cups was to Jimi Hendrix two years prior to that (even in the 1960s, access was a bit more direct in Japan than in China). Like “24 Hour Party People” by the Happy Mondays (Manchester, 1995) it doesn’t go on forever, but it goes on longer than you think it needs to, until you realize that it builds at all the right moments and ends at exactly the right time. At this point I could make a fatuous reference to cheap Chinese imitations of Anglo-American products. But I won’t, because that would be really bad economic history (see Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts) and it would completely miss the point of rock and roll.
The pick of the litter (not to say that I’m comparing Chinese indie rock bands to puppies—that would not only be bad economic history, it wouldn’t make any sense at all) is the Beijing band Car-Sick Cars, and their spin-off band Snapline. To return to the theme of “something borrowed, something new,” Snapline added the tagline “Martin Atkins Version” to their debut CD “Party is Over, Pornostar.” Martin Atkins was, among other things, the drummer for Public Image Ltd, John Lydon’s loudly-wingeing post-Sex Pistols band. I’m not all that fond of PiL, but I can both see the connection and still be very fond of Snapline. Some things do age well, against all odds. Snapline has since released a CD that I’ve yet to track down, “Future Eyes,” in 2010. Their song “Jenny” (from the first CD) also appears on the compilation “God Save the Chairman,” the artwork of which does a Sex-Pistols number on Mr. Mao.
The band that spawned Snapline was Car-sick Car, which managed to write six-plus minute songs on each of their first two albums that held my attention all the way through, which is saying a lot. I can count the number of bands that have done that on the hands that God gave me: this list would include the Velvet Underground, Built to Spill, Beat Happening, and the Wipers. Their first album is mostly in Chinese, so I can’t tell you with any certainty at all what “中南海,” which clocks in at 6:45, is about; Google tells me that the title refers to “the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China,” so I assume politics are involved. But mostly, feedback is involved, interrupted at just the right moment by the best drony guitar riff in the world, and punctuated by a driving drumbeat, which (since I hadn’t mentioned it before) are three of the few ways a song can retain my attention for more than six minutes. The songs on the second Car-Sick Car album are mostly in English, and are mostly about girls, which is mostly as it should be—including “She Will Wait,” the song that took me back to Germany ca 1986. A “political” exception is the title track, “You Can Listen, You Can Talk,” which dares to be as assertive about the limits of free of speech, Chinese-style, as The Gang of Four (the band, not Mesdames et Messieurs Jiang, Zhang, Yao, and Wang) ever dared to be about Thatcher in the 1980s.
Which gets me back to Hang on the Box, also from Beijing. “There is a City” is what one might call a post-utopian song; or, to be more optimistic, a pre-utopian song. Emboldened by post-Maoist reforms, their singer Wang Yue grabbed the bull by both horns and rode it for all it was worth: which, in the currency of Chinese freedom, ca 2004, had its limits. The main thrust of the song, so to speak, is that in the new China you can get away with: (a) wearing makeup and (b) not wearing a bra. Freedom, of a narrowly-defined and anatomically specific sort, apparently follows from these two premises, and it’s absolutely glorious.
The best place I've found to find out more about independent music in China is the Rock in China Wiki, which (among other things) connects you to band websites where you can, usually, download music that isn't available through the normal channels.
The best Car-Sick Car video I could find was “You Can Listen, You Can Talk,” from a show they did in Brooklyn in 2009:
And another great video I turned up is the “Women Make Noise” video from sexybeijing.tv, which features interviews with the girl drummers from Car-sick Car and Hedgehog. They are, very much, pre-riot grrl, and all the more wonderful for that: Li Qing’s heroine, e.g., is Kim Gordon, not Kathleen Hanna:
Next post, Chinese Rocks, part 2: Shanghai!