Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll

By Jonathan Campbell

An excerpt and then some from Campell’s new book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (Earnshaw Books). Learn more about Campbell and his work on Chinese rock and roll at his website.

Yaogun, or rock and roll, started in May, 1986, when Cui Jian, then a twenty-four year-old trumpet player and pop singer, sang “Nothing to My Name” at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, and on the television sets of the nation watching at home. But not much is known about the context of that performance.

It is important to recognize that though Cui Jian’s hit song emerged, basically, from a vacuum, the deep mark upon the nation that “Nothing to My Name” left was the result of Cui first being let into the tongsu [popular music] house he proceeded to set alight. For reasons obvious to those familiar with Cui’s yaogun output, he is not eager to delve deeply into his early days in the pop world. “Back then,” he said, referring to the days when he sang other people’s pop, “was my introduction to music in general. Late 1985 was my introduction to rock.” But he was enjoying himself. “From when I was small, I only thought about doing music. At the time, I liked it.” He wasn’t too particular, back in the early days, about what type of music he was playing or hearing, just as long as he was making music. In addition to songs penned by the official pop world, he sang a number of Western hits, all the while blowing a trumpet in the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble (now called the Beijing Symphony Orchestra). “Whatever kind of music was okay by me. But what we could hear was limited.”

His earliest recordings are rarely mentioned and seem to have been erased from his canon; 1989’s Rock and Roll on the New Long March is considered his real debut. Other recordings – with his band, Seven-Ply Board; with the pop-singer collective the Hundred Stars; as a solo artist doing Chinese versions of Western pop; or albums like Vagabond’s Return – are not what people have in mind when they invoke the Great One’s name, but they are an essential part of not only Cui’s story, but of yaogun in general, showing the state of affairs for rockers and rockers-to-be in the mid-eighties. Cui’s pre-Long March output featured songs written by Cui with lyrics provided by others and combined, in an extremely fractious manner, with a kitchen sink’s worth of musical tools, from straight-up acoustic guitar picking through to the then-brand-new musical technologies. The soft-pop strains bring to mind less rock legend than tongsu singer and of the influence of Teresa Teng, the Carpenters and Kenny Rogers. Certainly Cui’s signature singing style was present early on, with strained vocals that might be hinting as much at philosophical trouble as they point to trouble in his mid-section, and is noteworthy in the lack of the sugary-sweetness of his tongsu counterparts. The material may be far from what one expects of a rock legend, but it contributed to Cui garnering, if you’ll forgive the pun, a Name. “By 1986 I could tell that I was famous,” he said. In May of 1986, he became infamous too.

The show on which Cui’s breakthrough would occur was going to be Big with or without Cui’s Big Moment. It was China’s entry into the worldwide effort to make huge pop songs for a cause and, particularly when examined in the scope of the past three decades of China’s various toe-dips into the wider world, it was a major stop en route to membership in the international community. Already, Band-Aid brought 45 Brits together to sing “Do They Know It’s Christmas”; USA For Africa’s “We Are the World” gathered 43 superstars; Canada’s Northern Lights brought 49 of its finest for “Tears are Not Enough.” Producers decided that China’s entry had to be bigger, better, stronger and just plain more than the others, and so they unveiled “Let the World Be Full of Love” by the Hundred Stars, broadcast from Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium to the nations’ television sets. Like the bidding for and hosting of the World Expo, the Olympics and the Asian Games, or gaining entry into the World Trade Organization, all of which was to come, “Let the World” was China’s chance to show the world that it was operating on an international scale – and that their scale was bigger than everyone else’s. Various sources that list the globe’s post-Band-Aid efforts tend not to mention China’s tune, so obviously the world wasn’t paying much attention. The important thing, though, is that China assumed that the world was watching.

Simply seeing footage of Cui and his band’s first performance of “Nothing to My Name” – online there is a two minute clip, half of which is overdubbed with an introduction to the importance of Cui Jian to Chinese rock – it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Because with all the talk of how important that one performance was to the development of rock music in China, you expect something much more controversial. But that’s only if you see the performance of “Nothing” without comparing it to the footage of that which preceded it, and forgetting the context of the nation around it. Cui was part of the Hundred Stars (the official count was actually 107), wearing the yellow and pink windbreakers that were the show’s uniform, dancing in the chorus line, lip synching a couple of lines in the everyone-gets-a-couple-lines-but-everyone-doesn’t-always-make-it-to-the-mic-on-time title song. “Let the World” is the kind of piece that has a variety of movements: The “Do They know It’s Christmas” knock-off is in the opening movement, featuring sparse (synthesized) strings and a solo piano, building with the requisite bom-ba-pa-pa-bom drum fill while the Stars bring a church-choir feel. In the third and final movement of the song, Cui finally takes centre stage, singing his lines to a tune part disco and doo-wop, the former invoked with the very out-in-front bass guitar and latter the rhythm that you can imagine folks snapping along to at the finale of a Broadway musical – all of which was introduced by a bizarro mariachi motif that disappeared as quickly as it came. Then Cui is at the microphone “singing” words that were never truer: “This world is changing / It only longs to never change.” What a wonderful alignment of the stars to see Cui, in this time and place, utter a mere handful of words, “change” being two of them. As he “sings,” there is no hint of what change is to come from what seems to be just another member of the windbreakered group. The pop star orgy winds down with a not unexpected return to the song’s earlier movements as the stars finally seem to acknowledge the audience with almost frantic waving fits.

Watch video of the Hundred Stars here

And then, we see a different person completely. Gone is the uniform of the hundred stars, replaced by a simple cotton outfit, somewhere between kung-fu-flick protagonist and traditional Chinese scholar, the left pant leg rolled up just above the sock, an homage to the peasant wardrobe – a detail that the camera picks up and focuses upon for longer than might seem necessary, echoing the confusion of so many viewers. The song’s opening few seconds are mellow, just some synthesized padding less musical than thematic, but as Cui starts to sing, and visibly strains to reach the high end of the verse’s lines, there is a tension. A struggle to reach the notes, but also, were one to read deeply into things, a sign of what is to come. Cui, strumming minimally on his electric guitar, a black Kramer, belts out the first words of the song – “I have asked you endlessly” – the audio trailing the video by a large enough factor to make one wonder if words could even keep up with the image of what is happening. The crowd, trained in the art of pop song appreciation, applauds loudly upon the completion of the first line, the “Hao!”s (“Good!”) ring out above the applause and whistles, and threaten to drown out the second line – “when will you go with me?” – which, like the storm that comes in the wake of the calm (the audience, we know now, are blindly and comfortably sailing into their own musical squall, as yet unaware that they are not dealing with just another singer) can’t be stopped, even if slightly covered up. The crowd noise requires half the length of the next line – “But you always laugh at me” – to die down before silence precedes the words that a generation will come to understand they’ve been waiting their lives for – “Yi wu suoyou” (“I have nothing to my name”). The four-character idiom from which the song gets its name isn’t just saying that the narrator’s pockets – or, by extension, the listeners’ – are empty. The audience would already know the idiom not only from its usage in everyday language, but also, as it has been pointed out, from its appearance in the oft-sung “Internationale” – “Don’t say that we have nothing,” Communists of the world sing, “We’ll be the masters of the world.”

Already four lines into one of the first songs Cui Jian had ever written, and the first one of his own that he had performed for a mass audience, we are already almost a full four lines too late to note the most significant element of the song’s effect, something that Liang Heping, who played the keyboards that night, has been telling whoever he can find. Liang, who today, with wavy, slightly thinning hair tied into a ponytail, still looks the part of a circa-1986 keyboardist as much as he gives one the impression of an intense orchestral conductor, was almost immediately drawn into the Cui Jian storm. Liang’s role at that debut was, at least technically, more than just passing, as he has the honor of being the first person to introduce, musically, the new Cui Jian to the nation: He struck and held the song’s first notes. “As he sang that first line,” Liang remembers, almost reliving the experience of hearing the song for the first time in the retelling, “my hair stood straight on end. Every other member of the band said they had the same feeling.” Something – with a big S – was happening. “It was as if a person had been waiting and longing for something and finally someone sang it out.” Songs before “Nothing,” he continued, were about “us” – the People. “Before Cui Jian,” Liang said, “we had no concept of ‘me’, ‘self’ or ‘individuality’.” Liang likens Cui to Dante: Both men, he said, were responsible for bringing the concept of the individual to their respective eras. “We’re six hundred years late,” he sighed, though a sense of relief was still detectable. They had made it, after all.

* * *

The camera pan-out and light fade-in reveal that Cui is not alone on stage. He is surrounded, in fact, by a large number of musicians and unlike the random windbreaker-sporting poppers with instruments completely unrelated to the song along with which they “played,” these guys – there are seven of them at least, though it is hard to tell – seem to belong, though perhaps having five guitars on this number is a bit of overkill, like a hip-hop performance where the posse onstage consists of dudes that travel, party, work and hang with the artist regardless of whether they have a part to play in the live show. But here everyone does, at least, have an instrument and handles them with an obvious appreciation and understanding for how they are played. It’s the small details, like how Cui’s guitar has a cable plugged in, and all on stage are actually playing along, unlike the concert’s opening number, in which pop stars fondled the instruments that were obviously brought along for fashion rather than function. Reedman Liu Yuan, dancing on stage right, is swaying and jumping as much as any human possibly can, if not always in direct relation to the music. Cui doesn’t move very much, occasionally tapping his leg along with the beat, and sings with the kind of conviction familiar to the pop stars of the day (and down through the ages), but suddenly there seems to be something new afoot, a tension different from the song’s beginning, in advance of what it becomes clear will be Liu Yuan’s solo – on the suona, a reeded instrument that looks a bit like a clarinet with a trumpet’s bell on the end. The cameraman’s shoddy shooting is part of it, but there is certainly more. In the footage I’ve been watching online, the camera figures out that the several seconds of headless second guitarist he has been shooting is perhaps enough, and as the second verse comes to an end and the song reaches its second minute, the lens swoops toward Cui, who is obviously building up to something big. Cui’s relatively staid stance – save a few knee bends and a little bit of guitar-swinging – explodes, as does the mellow verse, making way for a goose-pimple-inducing, hair-raising, most dramatic of rock and roll moments. Cui doesn’t stomp on the distortion pedal here, but the idea and, most importantly, the effect is the same. Of course he needs to run in place: Something Huge has happened. Suddenly, a swooping motion brings Cui’s ax up and down as if he was in a hurry to chop whatever lay around waist-height. Over-analyzers could insert a metaphorical enemy of their choice here, which bore the brunt of that first slice of Cui’s mighty guitar: the Party, the System, The Man in general. Whatever he swiped at, it died there on the stage.

And suddenly, Cui is Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Pete Townshend. And, more important, he is not, anymore, a wind-breaker-wearing member of the pop-singer chorus. His ax-swipe ends with the tip of his guitar aimed at Liu – Clarence, to Cui’s Bruce, if we are to take the oft-made comparison to the next level – and here is where China’s musical and visceral experience of rock begins. Yes, Cui’s lyrics were the first whispers of yaogun, but when the suona solo arrives, the song becomes something else completely. It is with Cui’s literal leap into Liu’s suona solo where yaogun truly begins.

Let us pause here a moment to consider just how rock and roll that is. That yaogun began when Cui passed control of his song to the suona. Not, let me make abundantly clear, for its East-West fusion, because it is not fusion: It could have been a sax, or a guitar or a kazoo, it just happened to be a suona. This is a rock song we’re talking about, after all – the Rock Song. The suona doesn’t make the song “Chinese” rock; geography does that, but only confuses things by doing so. If it is possible to listen to the song with the ears of a new listener – and not simply a new listener to Cui Jian, but a new listener to anything remotely rock – the effect would be almost magical. Proof positive of that comes in the speed with which widespread mimicking of Cui’s moves spread through the streets, and in the amount of college kids in the days and weeks that followed trying to sing “like the constipated guy.”

* * *

In the final fourteen seconds we are granted in this tiny window on history, Cui bounces, doing a pseudo-running man, alternately machine-gunning his saxophonist and grinding his ax with his midsection, duck-walking and, as much as is possible for this rocker only a few years from first picking up a guitar, waving and flailing his instrument like a man digging for his life. Which, in a way, is exactly what he is doing, and then some. He is digging for his own life, but also for so much more; he is digging to get beyond the Nothing about which he sings, and for the sake of so many others. And though there is a moment where the music seems to have been a bit off – Cui looks around like a mistake has been made – there is a visible point at which one can sense the release that he’s finally achieved. And in the wake of the guitar-machine-gunning and fancy-footing, one can just imagine the stern talking-to the suits want to give this kid. And a few sources report on these not-so-positive reviews of the song and show, but they are almost too cliché to be believed, as if this is the part in the movie where the Establishment hears what the new crazy kids are playing and tells them, with no concept of being potentially proven wrong, that they are making an ungodly racket in which nobody is interested.

At least one official in the audience of that landmark performance is reported to have “left angrily,” accusing the singer of letting loose “monsters and demons.” Another high official is quoted saying: “What having nothing? Isn’t it a slander directed at our socialist homeland? Is it possible that he is saying that we have nothing now?”

Watch video of Cui Jian’s performance here

* * *

At the time, [Cui says] people just thought I was a mainstream singer, because nobody sold better than I did. That meant that [the songs I performed] were commercial songs, they couldn’t think of it as rock. It was only when I called the [1989] album Rock and Roll on Long March did people start to say [what I was doing] was rock. Before, everyone thought it was pop.

It’s debatable whether the words “rock and roll” were the most scandalous in the album’s title. Certainly they signaled Cui’s separation from the pack with whom he used to run, and yaogun is, to this day, not a word used lightly. But its combination with the last two words was definitely a poke with a sharp stick. The Long March, the near-mythological and epic retreat-cum-rally of the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War, was not only the embodiment of the Party’s persistence, but remained, and remains to this day, one of the essential elements of the story of the liberation of modern China. With his New Long March, Cui was signaling that yaogun was to be the new banner under which the nation would be liberated.

And an increasing number of troops soon joined his march.

After Red Rock went off to the presses, I finally came upon a full video of Cui’s performance that night. As I wrote here, the quality of the recording is horrible. The hiss of ancient video tape nearly swallows even the audience’s loudest cheers, and the skipping is only part of what’s making the band sound less than tight, and the video can barely keep up with the audio. But, it’s a much-needed glimpse into the song’s unveiling: You can make out, sort of, the fact that nearly a dozen dudes crowd the stage – the lighting is a mess, so it’s hard to say for sure. And even with the hiss, you can hear that the crowd is into it, loving every second of the break from the poppy monotony of the rest of the evening.

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