The unheralded world of Chinese rock & roll

A guide to guitar-based music in the Middle Kingdom

Dear all

We’ve had a great many new signups over the last few weeks, so I’d like to say welcome and thank you for subscribing. For the newbies amongst you, the pattern for my newsletters is that on Tuesdays I ask the political and economic questions of What China Wants, and on Saturdays it’s the turn of Chinese history and culture. 

Just to warn you, however, work has significantly picked up recently and so I’m sadly going to have to change the Saturday publishing schedule to every two weeks. Sorry about that.

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Today I’m taking a different tone to normal (pun intended) by looking at what most people would consider a musical niche: Chinese rock music.

Asian music today is synonymous with K-Pop, in much the same way as M-Pop/Mandopop (Mandarin Pop) was all the rage a few decades ago.

Amidst all this melodic saccharine there have been a number – granted, a small number – of Chinese rock and indie bands that have been pretty good. At least, I think so. Below are a few to check out from a wide range of styles. None of them may be about to bring about harmony and peace to all in the manner of Bill & Ted’s Wyld Stallyns, but they do show how some things really can reach across cultures.

(If you have any favourite Chinese bands I’ve not covered then add a comment below).

Hedgehog

One of the leading bands to have emerged from the 2000s underground rock scene in Beijing, Hedgehog are a bit like a Chinese Whitestripes, but with hints of REM and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Their line-up includes a small female drummer named Atom, a tall bassist called Fun, and a lead singer who wears Liam Gallagher-style shades and calls himself ZO. Here’s one of my favourite songs by them, “Blue Daydreaming”:

Brain Failure

Brain Failure are one of China’s best-known punk rock bands, but sadly that’s not really saying much. Fronted by the scion of a member of the Communist elite, they sound like what would happen if Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols had become obsessed with ska and then moved to Beijing.

Here’s maybe their best known song, “Coming Down to Beijing”, which incongruously features Dicky Barrett, the lead singer of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, on vocals.

Carsick Cars

Not many people in the West have a Chinese indie band of choice, but if I had to choose one to listen to one angst-ridden day it would be Carsick Cars.

There’s a definite influence from The Smiths in their music, but most people think they remind them of Sonic Youth; perhaps not coincidentally Carsick Cars supported the old New York rockers on a couple of shows a few years ago.

Below I’ve included the song “Zhong Nan Hai”, which is not only the name of the Communist Party’s headquarters in Beijing (right next door to the Forbidden City), but is also a type of cigarette that made the news a few years ago by sponsoring a programme that looked after school dropouts.

Chthonic

Taiwanese politics has its own thrash metal band. In perhaps the most surprising crossover between politics and entertainment since Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota, the frontman for one of Taiwan’s leading metal bands, Chthonic, has become a politician. Freddy Lim - who chose to name himself after the slasher from Nightmare on Elm Street - stands on a pro-independence platform, and is not surprisingly banned from Mainland China. Given that the band sounds like a hungover version of Slipknot, it’s hard to tell whether Beijing made their decision on political or musical grounds.

With President Xi increasingly cracking down on foreign influences within China it seems unlikely that a new generation of Western-style rock and indie will emerge from within the Middle Kingdom anytime soon. Which, in my mind, is a pity: more now than ever we need culture to bring us together, even if it does sport a bad haircut and spends far too long on the feedback pedal.

PS have a favourite Chinese band? List them on the comments.