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Think of Asian rock and traditionally, it is Japanese bands that have had the biggest profile in the West. China, though, has been undergoing its own musical revolution in the last few years and Beijing has emerged as the centre of the country’s alternative rock scene. Now, a growing number of bands from the capital are challenging the notion that the Chinese are only interested in sugar-sweet Mandarin pop, or Mandopop, crooned by interchangeable Hong Kong and Taiwanese girl and boy bands.
Whether it is post-punk trios like Carsick Cars and PK 14, experimental noise bands like Lonely China Day, punk outfits like Reflector and SUBS or indie groups in the British tradition like the bizarrely-named Queen Sea Big Shark, the best of Beijing’s bands are slowly establishing reputations in the West. Singing in both Mandarin and English about everything from the pressures they face as products of the one-child system, to the joys of Chinese cigarettes, they are now on course to become one of China’s more unlikely export successes.
Far more than in the West, Beijing’s rock scene is a live one. While a few locally-based record labels have been set up in the last few years, including Modern Sky, Maybe Mars and Tag Team, the rampant piracy of music in China, along with no real system for collecting airplay royalties, means that most of Beijing’s bands rely on gigs to earn a living at home. For visitors to the capital, it means there is a normally a concert going on somewhere on any given night.
Venues like D-22 in the university district of Haidian are packed six days a week. Dark and dingy in the true tradition of an alternative rock club, D-22 has become the focal point of the Beijing rock scene. Opened in 2006 by an expatriate American economics professor, D-22 has gone from being a little-known addition to Beijing’s nightlife, to a place famous enough for visiting rock legends like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.
D-22’s success has spawned other venues, as well as giving existing ones a new lease of life. In the heart of the historic Dongcheng district, Mao Livehouse hosts both local and foreign bands, while close to the Forbidden City, What bar (72 Beichang Jie) is an intimate enough space for the audience to almost be on stage with the musicians. Further east in Chaoyang district, the rough and ready 2 Kolegas, with its graffiti-daubed walls, is a classic underground club that stages punk gigs and live jam sessions.
Music festivals too, have become an annual fixture in and around Beijing. Despite the government’s fear of large gatherings of people in one place, the most popular festivals, like Midi and Strawberry, draw crowds of up to 10,000 people a day. While that may not match the hordes who flock to Glastonbury, it is still remarkable in a country where western-style rock music was all but unknown until about 20 years ago.
It was only when foreigners started arriving in Beijing to study and work in the 1980s that a Chinese rock scene began to emerge. As tapes of western bands circulated, especially among the capital’s students, the first local groups like Black Panther and Tang Dynasty got together. By the mid-80’s, Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock, had penned his best-known song Nothing To My Name, which became the unofficial anthem of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.
Few of today’s bands sing directly about politics. Instead, their lyrics are more concerned with everyday life. And with most struggling to achieve true commercial success, the Beijing rock scene remains less competitive than its western counterparts. Members of different groups collaborate on side projects and share rehearsal spaces. Above all, there is no real distance between the musicians and the fans. Turn up to a gig and you are likely to find the band mingling at the bar after they have played. You do not need a backstage pass in Beijing; just a willingness to listen.