The special flavour of rock’n’roll Beijing

  • Published
Metaphor playing at the Mao Livehouse in 2013Image source, Getty Images
Presentational white space

The indie bands of the Chinese capital, Beijing, have their own raw, distinctive sound, says the BBC's Stephen McDonell - partly because they are so isolated from the rest of the rock'n'roll world.

High-top black Feiyue sneakers hit the effects pedal, drums and guitars kick in and a surge of bodies moves to the sound. Cheap beer, smoky air, raucous noise; cluttered, ramshackle and bohemian… this is Beijing's underground music scene.

Local bands are cult heroes in the dive bars of the old city: young people from all round China drift to the capital because this is where alternative music is taken seriously. People will tell you that Beijing is a rock'n'roll city.

Image source, Stephen McDonell
Image caption,
PK14 - "a nerdy, cool, shaking, high-energy, poetic explosion of music"

Of course you can hear outstanding symphonies or jazz here. There are plays, there's dance and traditional Chinese music like Peking opera. But the country's indie bands are engaging with the China of today.

They have to be careful what they sing and how they sing it. A few years ago, you could actually get away with more than you can now.

One winter's night, just a stone's throw from the compound where China's top leaders reside, in a venue which has since closed down, a punk band came on. At one point, in between the high-octane tracks, the lead singer declared in English: "The Chinese Communist Party is the mafia!"

An audible wooooooo could be heard around the room as people laughed at the audacity of such a statement in public.

Just a few hundred metres south of the bar, a generation earlier, the People's Liberation Army had rolled in tanks to crush the 1989 student protest movement. Politics here is serious and can get you into trouble.

Yet Beijing's music-bar owners seem pretty blase about the prospect of being closed down or arrested because of subversive lyrics. Most musicians seem to know the limits of what can be said. They grew up with it.

They push against the edge - and when they cross the line, they usually do so in a clever, cryptic fashion. To draw attention to certain songs and expressions here could also draw the attention of the authorities. That's how things are in China.

But actually most artists here are singing about young love, heartbreak, hangovers, the streets where they live, the people they miss.

Image source, Getty Images
  • From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
  • Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service, or on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30

Some will wonder what's so special about Beijing and bands. It's not as if the city invented rock'n'roll.

Well, what created what we might describe as a "Beijing sound" has been isolation. It's not that the young rockers of China have never heard of David Bowie or the Foo Fighters, it's that few international bands play here. So, if you're into live music, you are going to see Chinese bands play.

Like, say, Sydney's music scene in the 1980s, Beijing's creativity has been accentuated by being further away and less visited.

The sound itself is raw, less polished, with mountains of enthusiasm and commitment to nothing more than the love of music for its own sake.

They know they're never going to be on television in China, never going to be played on the radio here. Their fans hear their music by coming to the gigs. Popularity spreads by word of mouth, and these days, naturally, via social media.

Image caption,
The Mao Livehouse in 2013 - the venue has since closed

There's a sense that everyone is equal. The most famous band will not necessarily be the headline act. The line-up is often drawn out of a hat and the set lists can be completely random.

One bar owner told me that a government official had visited his venue and his main concern was that patrons had nowhere to sit. He just couldn't understand why people would want to stand during a performance. Probably best that he didn't come along to witness a heaving mosh pit first hand.

Image source, Stephen McDonell
Image caption,
Ricky Sixx has switched from heavy metal to funk - his goal is to be China's Prince

Still, planning permission and licensing laws have been whittling away at the scene, with venue after venue closing its doors.

Once, all you needed to set up a performance space was a room, an amplifier and beer. Not any more. Now you need a proper licence, at a time when the city government has decided to clear many businesses out of the old alleyway, or hutong, neighbourhoods.

Image source, Stephen McDonell
Image caption,
Silent Speech playing at School Bar

However, the biggest threat to the Beijing blast is probably rent. The music circuit is mostly in the old heart of the city, where once-rundown spaces have now become sought-after, trendy locations to be gobbled up by high-profit business.

In the face of this are those still running venues as a labour of love. They are still standing: Yue Space, School Bar, Dusk to Dawn… with live bands playing most nights.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hell City at the Beijing Punk Festival in 2014

I remember the first time I saw PK 14 play. They'd turn heads at any international music festival. Who did they remind me of? Was it early Talking Heads or Joy Division?

In fact, this nerdy, cool, shaking, high-energy, poetic explosion of music was their own, with Chinese lyrics pelting out over syncopated drum rhythms and thrashing guitars.

You can't get this anywhere else: you have to come to Beijing.

I hope it lasts.

You may also be interested in:

It's becoming normal for grown-up children to spend years at home even after starting work, because of the mismatch between salaries and rents. Sue Elliott-Nicholls and her son, Morgan Elliott, agree that it can be a nightmare.

Join the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.