The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat

22
 
The girls are pretty, distinctively Tibetan and like to braid their hair. Halama is a suitably Tibetan choice of name. Lights and synthesizers. It’s one of the latest surges of Tibet fashionability in mainland China. Three bands are doing the rounds of Chinese cities, singing in restaurants and Tibet-themed bars to mostly Han Chinese.
Some sing in Mandarin too.

Tibetan bands have been coming to Chinese cities for years but last year’s opening of the Beijing-Lhasa railroad has revived the interest in all things Tibetan among Han Chinese. Tibetan barley wine, traditional medicine and even Tibetan beer, "from the roof of the world." Songs about love and loss in the highlands, sung in the blue-yellow-red colours of Tibetan costumes. There’s also a few Tibetan rock bands on the road. Most have been kindly received though not admired by critics.

 

 


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16
The hair was fastidiously shaggy, the neck ties opened at just at the right notch. And every lead singer wear a hat Pete Doherty style. Even if the singing and guitars aren’t always spot on, China’s rockers can be relied on to turn on the style. So it was at Mao Live, Beijing's first purpose built mid-sized live venue, on Saturday night. Each playing ridiculously short sets – a couple of songs – bands like Houhai Sharks gave way to headliner Joyside, who came on stage about 11.30. The band Singer, whose every album title seems to be a salute to boozing, looks a bit more rakish than others, but lead singer Bian Yuan patently spends an age on that Gilby Clarke-like hairdo. Bass player Liu Hao also nourishes that happy-go-lucky, average guy shtick, recently adding a trademark polka dot shirt and toothy grin. There was T-Rex all over their sound on the night - the band normally worships the Stooges.

Joyside's set was the best of a night of dodgy Britpop. What the evening did show is that there’s a thriving market for rock music in China. The house was capacity-full, the bar was half-dry (no draught beer and the RMB15 (EUR1.50) cans of Yangjing and Tsingdao beer weren’t flying out so faster than the bar staff had time to chill them) and, unlike a lot of recent concerts in Beijing, the vast majority of the crowd was made up of locals. Perhaps it’s the location in no-nonsense centre of town, in the old city, where gentrification hasn’t yet set in and a wholesome dinner costs RMB15 (EUR1.50). Other clubs, like Star Live, sometimes struggle in more salubrious surrounds, or way north up in the nether land of the university district, like D22.

And judging by the number of Union Jacks in sight - on a giant pull down screen over the stage and on specially produced t-shirts on sale at the door - there's a big audience for old-school Britpop in China. Lets see if Whitehall or British Council cash were in the house...


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13

 

The line-up of the Beijing Pop Festival (September 8 and 9) is finally out. And topping the bill is Nine Inch Nails, who play with Public Enemy and punks the Ramones and the New York Dolls. Brit rock will be represented by Brett Anderson, who, we're told, will play a mostly Suede set. The local acts are usual suspects: Brain Failure, Muma and Thin Man all made the cut.

The festival will happen over two days in a corner of sprawling Chaoyang Park in downtown Beijing. It's now into its third edition, and last year drew an eclectic mix - Placebo and Supergrass were outplayed by a raucous Sebastian Bach, fresh off a tour with Axl Rose. Organiser, rock fan and youthful real estate magnate Jason Magnus deserves credit for bringing international acts - and lining up the sponsors and endless raft of government permits needed needed to run such a big show in Beijing.

Authorities here are still nervous about anything that involves large outdoor crowds, and most Party cadres still don't get rock n roll. Given that ticket prices are kept low, Magnus needs to bring in corporations like Mastercard and Hennessy VSOP to pay the bills. Each festival makes a "modest profit," says Magnus in thisinterview with me after last year's event.


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10

The inaugural Ch+Indie (“pronounced ‘Chindie’) festival passed off successfully over the weekend in the garden of alternative favourite hang out 2 Kollegas, a dive bar tucked into a park originally designed for a drive-in theatre, which shares the space with several restaurants and KTV parlours. Unfortunately Beijing’s weather has settled into a pattern of ferociously hot days and wet nights. The rain lashed down heavy on Saturday evening about 6.30, driving bands and about 400 fans indoors. Sunday they didn’t bother to put the stage back up. Rather, local favourites like Joyside, Lonely China Day and Subs played their sets indoors. The event was organized by local label Tag Team Records, whose Lonely China Day closed out the festival Sunday night. For an RMB45 ticket per day fans got a taste of China’s most happening indie music – punk too from Subs – as well as cheap beer and vegetarian food. There were stalls too, selling t-shirts and band memorabilia.

Given the stalls and the muck and the beer, there was a real festival feeling about. A pity then that more of the locals didn’t show up. Aside from the rockers the turn-out of locals on Sunday was small. Most were girlfriends of foreign fans. Odd indeed to play your hometown to a mostly foreign crowd. Can you compare it to a bunch of Irish bands playing Chinese pop songs, or traditional tunes on the erhu and guqin, in Dublin's Phoenix Park and the crowd is made up mostly of the local Chinese community? Not really, since China has had a lot of famous rock stars like Cui Jian, but it does again prove how much a niche taste rock music is in China.

 


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03

One of the joys of traveling in China is that you can pick up CDs and DVDs you won’t get in the capital. Like yesterday evening, on Kunming’s Wen Lin Jie shopping/café area I found a treasure trove of recent releases, including the Kaiser Chief’s latest for RMB10, about a euro. The packaging varies between provinces too. This place had some of the neatest packaging, CD cases in paper casing with nice rounded corners. There’s the mystery of the yellow sticker on CDs. Does that mean they’re the real deal, licensed imports? Technically yes.

So why the different packaging? 

A pleasant high-altitude city in the country’s southwest, not far from the Burmese border, Kunming has a thriving backpacker culture and plenty of cafes for travelers who’ve just buses or flown up from southeast Asia. Fakes CDs abound in Vietnam but tend to be poorly packaged by comparison, using paper photo copies of the original sleeves.

There are certifiably real CDs in the shop. Not as nicely packaged as the other albums, there’s Guns N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction and Coldplay’s Rush Of Blood to the head. Many other, mostly pop and lite classics (Cliff Richard is in that section) come with a “Special For China” label applied.

The choice of real albums in Chinese book store chain, Xinhua, is always curious: a lot of Sting, some Tori Amos, Roxette, and always some U2 – curiously prevalent is the lackluster seller Pop.

 


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02

The things you have to do to get a name in China. Like playing a half hour set to Communist Party cadres in a cinema in Wangjing, an industrial zone on Beijing’s northeast outskirts. "We were cultural envoys," explains Owen Hopkin, drummer of British band The Crimea, who caught up with Beijing Beat in a Beijing tea house recently. "The inititiave was taken by the British Council and our local label, Jingwen. The translator didn’t translate very well and the band got shunted around between bemused officials for photos, handshakes and “how’s your plectrum” before they boarded and bus for the hour long ride back up to a hotel miles away in Haidian district.

London-based The Crimea picked up the invitation after Hopkin came out to Beijing in September 2006 with the British-based Association of Independent Music and the Department of Trade & Industry. A wiry and wily drummer, Hopkin isn’t short of good ideas, or a knack for doing things the Chinese way. He had the Crimea draw up a Communist-style five year plan to world domination. It didn’t involve a big record deal or conquering America: Rather, free downloads of the group’s second album, and going to China. “If we can be big in China it can be Beatlemania on a scale not even the Beatles experienced!”

So far the 5 year plan seems to be running politburo-smooth. The band’s second album Secrets of the Witching Hour scored 11,000 downloads in two days when posted on the band’s website. “You don’t make much money selling physical CDs any more,” explains Hopkin. “The cash comes from merchandising and publishing and live concerts. We have to get it out to those who wouldn’t normally buy the Crimea.”
 
The PR value of the stunt may be convincing those punters. Britain’s music press and trend-setting radio shows played the songs for the novelty - it helped that the Crimea is also talented. The Crimea began life as The Crocketts, signing to a UK major label, V2, in 1998 with which the group recorded two albums.  In 2001 Hopkin and singer Davey MacManus formed The Crimea, which they compare to their former band in an early press release: "if the Crocketts were four cavemen banging stones together, [then] this is the sound of four Tchaikovskys banging Kylie Minogue".
   
Chinese music impresarios liked the sound when Hopkin came over last September with a satchel of CDs and tramped all over Beijing handing them out. “I met as many industry people as he could get around to. “I handed over a lot of CDs and met with MIDI and the Beijing Pop Festival and with ring tones people.”
 
The organizers of the MIDI Festival, Beijing’s annual left-field rock festival put them on the main stage. “We were sandwiched between two heavy metal bands. It was really chilled out.” Always sensitive to the PR value of a trip to the world’s most populous nation, Hopkin, himself a sometimes contributor to Britain’s Kerrang! magazine, convinced a rock writer from British daily The Independent to come along to document a Crimean MIDI set and a week gigging Beijing during the annual socialist-style May holiday in the Chinese capital.
 
 “There were no toilets backstage and only four toilets on the whole site! You had to find different ways of peeing before you go on stage.” The crowd made up for the lousy sanitation: they were “going apeshit” during the band’s set. Though the band didn’t pick up a fee, they commend the hospitality and stage hands supplied by the organizers, a European-funded modern music school of the same name, which runs the festival on a shoestring budget. Denmark’s Ministry of Culture helped with the stage. “There were good stage and sound managers. There were a lot of Danes helping out.”
 
Just as well money wasn’t a priority for the Crimea’s China tour. Aside from the Midi main stage, the Crimea played five other shows, during six days in China. The EUR15 they got from the New Get Lucky Bar was enough to pay for the taxis home after the show. Mao Live was more generous: EUR80 – split between the five of them. A typical bar gig in UK yields the group GBP500 while a recent club show for Carling beer was worth GBP5,000 to the band. “After a week here you realize quickly that it’s not the country for making a quick buck in as a rock band.”
 
Venues in China are very small by UK standards, says Hopkins. Whereas the band fits nicely into the Barfly’s chain – capacity 150 – China has cramped bars and karaoke parlours. Recently opened Mao Live was about right: it fits 150. The Stone Boat gig was to “expats” and not what the band flew out for. The coziest venue in the city, 2 Kollegas, worked best. “You get the impression it’s the wild west, but not really.”
 
And what of the local talent? There’s “pockets,” says Hopkins. "[Joy Division-like] Retros are very good. Tongue is very good, so was PK14. You come out as a western artist thinking you know the score. But come out here and there’s good local musicans playing conventional western style. We wouldn’t have the first idea how to play Chinese musical styles. Right now they’re not creating so much as copying, but that will develop." As for The Crimea singing in Chinese. “Well, singing in Welsh might be a problem!”
 
Seven shows in six days was a lot, even for this group, which, in five years together has toured with the likes of Stereophonics and Snow Patrol. “We came out prepared for the worst and expecting the best and went home exhausted.” Aside from cramped venues and lousy pay, language was a barrier.  “The whole equipment thing was very stressful, having to lug cases around town in taxis with hardly a word of Chinese between us.”

The Crimea hopes to be back for the Beijing Pop Festival 2007. “It’s important to come out here because at the moment they don’t distinguish between the Crimea and the White Stripes. Rock is a niche.” It’s not like the band is unknown in China. The band’s first album has already been bootlegged here whileSecrets of the Witching Hour came out in June through a subsidiary of state-run record distributor/label Jingwen.  Big as the Beatles, in China? “It’s definitely a punt.”

 


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27

"When we started out we wanted to be the Clash, we wanted to be an international band, not a Chinese band or a UK band." Joe Strummer is an icon to Xiao Rong, lead singer and guitarist with Brain Failure. His trademark leopard-spot haircut features in the artwork of the band's latest album, Coming Down to Beijing. The CD "may be our London Calling," says Xiao Rong. 

Brain Failure started with the Eagles. “I was 15, both my parents were working so my father sent me to guitar class. We learnt Eagles and folk songs. Then I started listening to [Chinese rock pioneers] Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty and Hei Bao.” Away from guitar class Xiao Rong was developing a preference for punk. “It’s easy and straightforward to play, at that time you are no one and you probably don’t have a lot. You can feel very full personally. If you go towards heavy metal it’s very serious and macho. I wanted a bit of humour.”

He found it in Green Day, Nirvana, The Clash and the Sex Pistols. “When I Come Around” by Green Day was the first punk song he learned to play on guitar. But when Xiao Rong started a high school band the group played Sonic Youth covers. Out of school and into Brain Failure, Xiao started writing in English after the band’s first album. In the mid 1990s punk in China was a real novelty pounced and Brain Failure found themselves in Time magazine.  “Foreign journalists were coming to us and asking us ‘oh you have punk rock in China?’”

Seeing talent perhaps, a German journalist advised the band they could take their music beyond China if they performed in English. “The idea is to make music international." And the writing process? “We won’t go really deep, we just want something that is cool. If people enjoy it that’s enough. We didn’t grow up in California so we won’t use smart English."

After two years playing around China a friend working at Jingwen, a large state-owned distribution company, landed the band a deal. “But they were lazy on promoting the album.” Three years later, in 2002, he wanted to do another album but I said ‘hey you can’t give us sales figures or give us money regularly and you have no plan to promote the album.’ He wanted to make a deal that would give him control of copyright.”

By lucky coincidence the A&R manager of Japan-based punk label Bad News happened to be in town when Xiao Rong was having his row with Jingwen. On seeing the band play he offered a deal. ‘Wow you guys are as good as when I saw Bob Marley play’ Xiao Rong remembers and cherishes the rather bizarre comparison. A USA tour and a recording session in Tokyo ensued. “Even though I had no money in the hand from them I agreed for the chance to go outside of China with the band.”

Bad News landed Brain Failure a 2003 date at legendary industry showcase South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, flying the group out with a couple of Japanese bands. The band played US rock showcase CMJ in 2004. But Xiao Rong was disappointed that many of the fans were coming expecting a Peking opera. "...They were coming to show expecting Chinese traditional, I wanted real punk fans." So he contacted the Dropkick Murphys. A New York show was followed by a next-morning run to California to play with the Pogues-sounding Celtic rockers.

Brain Failure spent the summer of 2006 opening for Dropkick Murphys' 20 show US tour. Dropkick frontman Casey liked the band's sound so much he offered to produce their next album. It was after September 11 and the new album, coming out in the US before it hit China, was titled American Dream. “It meant we are Chinese and we look at USA and we still want them to have an American dream, not just the car and house. If we are Chinese and go to USA we want to see the Elvis generation, the real steak hash burger and Coca Cola bottles."

Touring in the USA is not like touring in China. "In America you will take a van and trailer, in China we take our guitars and get on a train. You have to be a car owner in the USA. We spent US$100 a day on gas when touring. To pay the bills the band supplemented their pay by selling as many t-shirts as possible at shows. The crowds loved them. And Brain Failure learnt a lot. “We learned to keep our performance tight, you have to live like a musician. Biggest point is there to play music, not to hang out. If you party too hard you can’t play well."

The band played in front of 20,000 at the Palm Spring punk festival in Japan. Back in Beijing their regular haunt Mao Live is 400 capacity - they have also played Star Live, which fits 800. Graphic designer and band friend Li Chi opened Mao Live in Beijing's old quarter after a trip to Japan courtesy of Bad News to see how venues there are managed. “A live house rather than another Get Lucky or 13 Club.” The club rents the venue at a set price rather than negotiating door deals. The theory being that bands will improve their music and stage show to guarantee a crowd.

Xiao Rong reckons the reason Chinese fans are unwilling to pay for tickets and merchandise is not so much down to saving money as being cheesed off by the paucity of local acts. "Many Chinese musicians don’t know how to communicate with the audience. Entertainment has to be attractive." Sponsorships have lately helped to bring in foreign acts - Bacardi brought over Maximo Park and the Infadels. But if they want to support quality local acts Chinese punters "have to appreciate that the show will cost more than a bowl of noodles." A new album is set for the end of 2007 and the band will be back on the road in the USA in 2008. They’ve looked at touring Europe “but we’re pretty busy now in China.” The European scene suits better than Asia. “You need to fly everywhere, whereas in Europe you just need to buy a return ticket.”

Oh, and the haircut? The Offspring's guitarist Noodle gave him the idea. "And my wife is a hairdresser knew there was a hairdressers convention that needed models so they kind of played around with it. I like the effect."

 

  
 
 
 


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23

Lonely China Day was back in action last night at 2 Kollegas, the curiously named but cosy little bar in a park better known for its drive-in cinema in Beijing's northerly Chaoyang district. The band passed up on a tour of Israel in April because the band broke up. "They were pissed," says Matt Kagler, boss of Tag Team Records which signed the band in 2005. Two band members who unexpectedly quit the band in April are being replaced. The band has a new drummer.

The band played its music to an eye catching screen backdrop featuring graphics laid over footage of Beijing. The film was shot and edited by a young filmmaker and band fan who makes documentaries at Chinese Central TV (CCTV). The whole effect was reminiscent of a Primal Scream live experience, and Lonely China Day likes to fiddle plenty of electronic content into its guitar-driven tunes. Even though the film has been stripped down to squiggly primary colours the cranes and stop-start traffic jams (and terrible driving) of mini-vans make it obvious this is Beijing.

Lonely China Day has made its name for snazzy graphic design and artwork in its shows and album releases. Last night band handlers were selling t-shirts at the door, also designed by the band. "They're arty guys,"  Kagler explained over beers at 2 Kollegas. During the band's tour of USA this spring LCD made such a big impression on New York Times critic Jon Pareles that he has since written five articles on the band and its label, says Kagler. He plans on doing a lengthy feature on the group in August for the NYT's glossy weekend magazine. Good timing, considering the band is releasing its new album in the US in July.


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22


Ten years on the seminal film about Beijing’s counter cultural scene seems dated, but its star, Cui Jian, still deserve credit for sticking with his music when times were tough. Nearly no one showed up at the Cherry Lane recently for a showing of Beijing Bastards, the film made in 1993 by Zhang Yuan and only recently legalized in mainland China.

The film centres around the lives of a group of Beijing malcontents, zeroing in on 20-something Karzi, a moody malcontent who tries to get his pregnant girlfriend to give him another chance. A half-dozen other characters include Cui Jian, who plays himself and contributes a moody score. The story line also includes his band being shuffled around like ducks between rehearsal rooms: locals don’t like, or understand, the din.

Today’s Beijing is unrecogniseable in the film: no traffic jams, no foreign business people/slackers, no Starbucks.  The Cherry Lane screening was interrupted by several of the mobile phone tones ubiquitous on today’s streets. There’s a lot more wealth in China, and some more rock n roll, but most youths have given up protest songs for the urban dream of apartment and car, more achievable than ever in go-getting modern China.

The Cherry Lane is an old Peking Opera house used as a non-profit artnouse film house on the weekends. Beijing Bastards has never been shown in a mainstream cinema in China.


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14

Heard with increasing frequency on Chinese radio, a soft-voiced female singer doing a version of the song written by Jimmy McCarthy and popularised by Christy Moore. She's kept the Ride On, see you" part, but the rest is sung in Mandarin. There's even some people on the bus humming it. Expect it to be heard accross the nation this summer on Chinese ringtones.

More details of the singer and the translation later.

 


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Nuggets from our archive

2003 - Witnness 2003, a comprehensive review by Brian Kelly of the 2 days of what transpired to be the last ever Witnness festival (in 2004 it was rebranded as Oxegen when Heineken stepped into the sponsor shoes).