From China, With Rock
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From China, With Rock

Toronto author Jonathan Campbell spent a decade immersed in the Chinese rock scene. Now he's written a book about it.

Scene at a 2010 music festival in China. Photo by Jonathan Campbell

When Jonathan Campbell landed in Beijing in 2000, he had no idea that the postgrad scholarship that had brought him there would lead to his decade-long immersion in the country’s rock scene as a drummer, writer, and promoter. Now based in Toronto, Campbell has a new book out—Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll—that (stage)dives into the surprisingly short history of that country’s involvement with the soundtrack of rebellion, and the deeper implications of the development of rock in a post-Mao society. We spoke with Campbell to find out more.

Torontoist: Your book mentions a “golden period” of Chinese rock music. Would you say there was one, and that it’s now over?

Jonathan Campbell: When Chinese people talk about that time—and they use the word “platinum,” like a platinum era—they generally mean this 1992 to 1996 period, where a Taiwanese record label called Rock Records came into China and they saw the potential to sell rock and roll. They produced albums from the biggest names in Chinese rock and roll for the general public—bands like Tang Dynasty, which was a metal band that had a very Chinese flavour, and this other band called Black Panther that was sort of Bon Jovi—esque. Though they really liked Wham! as well.

For me, and for a lot of people that I talk to in the book, a golden period would be when there was a lot of cool stuff happening, when there were a lot of bands playing and places to play and more and more people watching. But, definitely over the course of the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion. When you talk about Chinese rock beginning in 1986, compressing our 60 years (of rock and roll) into barely 30—

Wait, sorry to interrupt, but Chinese rock began in 1986?

There’s a birthday. May 9, 1986, is the day that Cui Jian sings a song on national television called “Nothing to My Name,” and that’s the moment where Yaogun—the word I use to talk about Chinese rock and roll—is born.

Obviously, [Cui Jian] played before then. He practiced enough to be on TV, and there were a few gigs in the years previous. But there was nothing real, beyond a few gigs [for a mostly foreign population], until 1986, when he sings this song and sort of changes the way popular music sounds.

So, there was this compression of our 60 years [of rock and roll], but in the last 10 years—because that’s when the Internet took off—it’s been just exponential.

Explain Yaogun. How is it different from Western rock and roll?

Yaogun, to me, is only partly what it sounds like. It’s also what it represents, and what it became. Yaogun sort of embodies that journey—the long, strange march, if you will—a journey of both the music itself, but also the country. So it’s this 40-year period of insane change in every aspect of every single person’s life in that country. And because it’s a product of that journey, it’s something different.

The easy answer is that it’s on a five-note scale instead of eight, and it’s got traditional Chinese instruments. But the bands that sound the most like China, or like Yaogun, to me, don’t use Chinese scales or even sometimes Chinese language.

So, you think Yaogun’s more about attitude, or a presentation of historical narrative, than musical style?

Yeah, definitely. And it’s more. It’s a philosophy. There’s a clip that I play of a woman who leads a band called Subs, which is a band that I took to Europe a few times. They play this sort of garage punk—they love Fugazi and they love the Stooges, that kind of thing—and we were walking through this beautiful fjord landscape in Norway and she looks around and she says, “If you live here, how could you possibly feel angry? If I lived here, I wouldn’t need rock and roll.” For me, a statement like that says a lot about her view of rock and roll, and about what her music represents to her in her life.

For me, the two big takeaways of Yaogun: one is that it teaches us about China, and you learn about China’s last 40 years, which are insane. From the day Chairman Mao died [in 1976] until today, you couldn’t find two countries that are more different from each other. So it teaches us about that journey, because you can see it through the story of this music. But the other thing that it does—what it did for me—is it woke me up to what rock and roll is, what it can be, and what it’s not anymore for us on this side of the planet.

There’s a quote that I use in the book from Brian Eno, the producer [and musician]. He was talking about the Czech resistance movement in the late ’60s, and he said, “The difference between the Communists and us is that they believe in the power of art, and we don’t anymore.” When you say “rock and roll can change the world,” people laugh. And I get it—it does sound cheesy to me. But at the same time, I know what it did for people like the woman in Subs, and particularly for people older than her who grew up through that post-Mao period where suddenly everything they knew about their country was completely not happening in real life. Rock and roll was a way for people to navigate [their world] and it gave them hope, and it asked questions. Suddenly the music isn’t just something you listen to anymore.