Numerous challenges haven’t stopped indie musicians from performing in the Chinese capital. William Hancock scopes out the city’s exciting underground scene
It’s 10pm on a Tuesday at Beijing’s sweatbox venue School Live Bar, and a mosh pit has formed after just four songs from the first band on. Fans fling themselves around the sticky-floored backstreet bar as local three-piece Lonely Leary belch ogre-ish vocals to tight post-punk guitar lines. Dirty Fingers — a band with a male drummer wearing a granny skirt and bold, red lipstick — follow with a raucous indie-punk set.
The show is kicking off a week of gigs to mark one of the most important cultural milestones in recent Beijing history: it’s been 10 years since the formation of the city’s leading independent record label Maybe Mars. In the course of the last decade, Maybe Mars — and many of the guitar bands on it — has defined what remains one of the most exciting yet underappreciated rock scenes on the planet.
The label’s recent signings are further proof of how exciting the scene is in Beijing. At the multifunctional Yue Space, Dream Can — an all-female, three-piece pysch-rock band from Shanghai — performs a suitably dreamy set featuring their subtle, intricate guitar work, showing why they’re one of the most promising new bands regularly playing the capital. They’re also one of the most lyrically introspective, with singer Ah-Re using her music to convey emotions about dysfunctional family relationships.
Also in the week, noise punk rockers Birdstriking launch their new album Holey Brain. It’s one of the best records to come out of the capital in ages, thanks in part to deft studio production by Ricky Maymi, American band the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s guitarist who flew to Beijing to produce the record.
It’s the band’s first album to be released in China. Their 2012 self-titled debut album featured a song about media censorship called “Monkey Snake” and so, China’s Ministry of Culture blocked its official release in the country after reviewing the lyrics. In Holey Brain, the subject is on safer ground: “Up to the sky” is about the daily grind, for example, while “25” is about the post-’90s generation coming of age.
The album has rightly caused huge buzz in Beijing rock circles, but the general excitement around the music scene in the city is not limited to acts on the Maybe Mars label. The band Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, aka Re-TROS, recently released their new album Before the Storm on the Modern Sky label. Musically, it’s heavily influenced by New York experimental rock band Battles, who Re-TROS cite as their musical heroes. Lyrically, the band has managed to sneak in references to “burning tires on the square” that could allude to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests: a topic heavily censored in Chinese media. The line is sung in German, to further shroud it.
There are no such political shenanigans in the icy cool lyrics of synth-poppers Nova Heart, meanwhile, who are on the Beijing indie label Fake Music. Led by charismatic singer Helen Feng, they have been making waves with their synth-led, Pet Shop Boys- and Blondie-influenced pop.
Cracking a tough surface
The underground rock scene in Beijing is facing a lot of challenges, which makes all these developments really exciting. The Chinese government places zero value on music beyond state-approved mainstream pop, with President Xi Jinping recently declaring that Chinese artists should exist to promote socialism. In wider China, hip-hop has gotten far more mainstream exposure than rock in the past year, largely through the enormously popular TV show The Rap of China: a sort of The X Factor for Chinese rappers.
Furthermore, Beijing music festivals are routinely canceled by authorities. “Even if you find a perfect venue, police sometimes won’t give permits due to safety concerns,” says DJ Weng Weng, organizer of the country’s largest music festival, Intro. “The police are under pressure in the sense that their careers may be impacted or ruined if an accident happens. Safety is always given as the reason.”
Add to this the fact that many with old-fashioned views in the country still see rock as the pursuit of wasters, vagabonds and rebels — Cui Jian, China’s first rock star who’s known as the father of Chinese rock, made his name in the late ’80s by singing protest songs.
“Mainstream media used to demonize rock,” says Liu Fei, owner of School Live Bar, and singer in the brilliantly named hardcore act Dr Liu & The Human Centipede. “But now people are having a second look.”
A solid foundation
Beijing’s underground rock scene is still so healthy in the face of all this due to a rock explosion of sorts that took place in the capital 10 years ago.
Godfather bands of Beijing rock, P.K. 14 and Carsick Cars, plus acts such as the grungy Hedgehog, Queen Sea Big Shark, Joyside and Snapline, who were influenced by ’70s British post-punk bands such as Public Image Ltd, had seen Cui Jian become the first Chinese rock star in the late ’80s and ’90s. But it was exposure to foreign acts that got their radars twitching.
Through online file sharing and dakou CDs — imported black market albums marked for disposal, but circulated among fans — they were among the first in China to belatedly soak in the music of the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, David Bowie and more. “We were the first generation to listen to good music from the west,” says Zhang Shouwang, Carsick Cars’ frontman. “We listened and decided we wanted to do music ourselves.”
This generation found a home in D22, a rock club in the student-saturated Wudaokou area, which was opened in 2002 by American Michael Pettis. After Michael founded Maybe Mars with PK 14’s frontman Yang Haisong in 2007, D22 became as legendary to Beijing’s rockers as Manhattan rock venue CBGB was to New York’s. Queues snaked around the block and fans, who were mainly students plus a smattering of expats, traveled there from across the city, staying up all night in the nearby McDonald’s after D22 closed, before getting the first metro train home. “You can’t imagine how crowded it was inside — with the backstage just as crowded. You could find every Beijing musician there,” says Zhang.
After a decade of operation, D22 closed, but it remains a cultural touchpoint to most of the bands now making waves in Beijing, such as Chui Wan. The experimental rock band used to constantly hang out at D22, soaking in influence from their peers, and have blossomed into one of the city’s most intriguing acts. Their music, which combines traditional instruments with offbeat samples to create complex rhythms, pushes the boundaries of Chinese rock, and is further evidence that Beijing is still one of the most exciting rock cities in the world.
The beats go on
D22 may be gone, but much of its spirit has been transferred to School Live Bar, which is now the city’s main incubator for bands cutting their teeth. Go there any night of the week and you’re likely to catch brilliant new Beijing bands such as spiky guitar-led Anglophiles the Twenties, or the Oasis-influenced the Diagon Alley.
A recent “clean up” operation on bars and restaurants in traditional Beijing residential lanes, called hutongs, has seen many venues around it close, but School Live Bar stands firm: a proud and vital totem to the underground rock scene.
Yang says Beijing traditionally being a creative place has also helped forge and maintain strong musical scenes here. The capital is rightly considered China’s most artistic city, with many artists moving from elsewhere in China to Beijing’s art hubs, such as the famous 798 Art Zone in the northeast of the city.
“Beijing is special — it’s the cultural center of China and a lot of artists live here and do art as well as music,” he says. To tap into this, Yang and his Maybe Mars colleagues are in the process of setting up a new art space near Tiananmen Square that will host band performances as well as show artworks. “Beijing is not like Shanghai, where you have to make a living before thinking about the arts,” says Yang.
Although many refer to the period between 2005 and 2009 as Beijing’s “golden age” of rock music, things could get even better in the near future. Michael is adamant about that. “We truly think the world should be listening to these bands,” he says. “You listen to the music and you just know it’s good.”
This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Smile magazine.