At Torontoist, Kelli Korducki has an interesting interview with a Toronto writer, Jonathan Campbell, whose new book Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll takes a look at the history and import of rock music in modern China.
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.
[. . .]
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.
Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” is a great song. It’s a song that famously works on multiple levels, both as an address by a man in love to his beloved and a response to the uncertainties of post-Mao China. Good music.