Rock and Roll Confessions: From Stone to Shenzhen
In 1985 the UK pop group, ‘Wham’ played in front of over 10,000 people at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, one of the first Western pop/rock acts ever to do so. Nearly thirty years later, China has its own rock circuit, festivals and a growing stable of homegrown talent, a music industry in transition but still hungry for international artists. This is my story of what that means.
By 2003, I had tired of travelling the M1 arterial route from Manchester to London, passenger-trashed in a beaten-up old Ford Transit, small talking my way to gigs. Gigging was out. Five years later, performing again seemed like a good idea. What made me change my mind? China. I moved location to Xiamen in the Fujian Province, a small tropical island. Problem, no job. Performing again seemed like a good way of staying where the sand and sea were, a way of making a living. China would be my musical oyster. My experience in the UK would see me through, well that was the plan. Performing reality was often far from my vision, very far from my vision,
Requests: Saturday night at the local Gonzo Bar:
From blue cathode shadows, a young woman makes her way to the stage, waving a piece of paper as she approaches. We exchange ‘mirrors on the ceiling’ glances, ‘pink champagne on ice’ smiles. She hands me the paper. I already know what she wants. This is rock and roll after all. However, despite her cajoling, I still flatly refuse to play ‘Hotel California,’ the classic Eagles allegoric ode to hedonism, self-destruction, and greed: the most requested song in China. Life is not without irony sometimes. “Will Psycho Killer, do instead?’ I ask. She nods. I strum a G minor. “This one is for the guy at the back in the pink checkered Pringle sweater.”
The running order: “It’s you, then the singing dog.”
There is an unwritten, unspoken code between musicians. We listen at the sound-check, pretending not to. No one likes to be blown-offstage. When the brown shaggy dog got up to the microphone at the Xiamen Beach Rock Festival, I was intrigued. What sort of rider was in his contract? I mused, chewy thing and ham-bone? The dog wailed like a banshee, encouraged by his two- legged accompanist. I raised an eyebrow. The sound crew smiled. No problem with the running order today, I decided. Everything was going well until a hyperventilating stage manager declared officiously, ‘it’s you, then the singing dog.’ I shot him a defiant look. This was not in the plan: upstaged by a howling crossbreed mutt. The dog went down a storm, got a three-album deal, and now lives a showbiz lifestyle in LA. Music can be an exciting freeway sometimes, but also the parking lot of ambition.
Payment: “The publicity will be good for your career.”
During the heady days of 2009, I played flamenco influenced Xinjian music, with two talented Uyghur musicians. Friday and Saturday nights, we covered five or six venues each evening—20 minute, three song spots, revolving-door-performers, jumping out of taxis into bars and then back out again. After two months’ I was beaten into submission. The M1 corridor seemed bliss in comparison. I went solo. Offers of ‘good publicity’ work poured in, (no payment but good for your career). Career? I politely declined the, ‘opportunities’. The bills remained unpaid. I moved to Shenzhen, the ‘opportunities’ moved with me.
Audiences: “Good evening everyone we are…”
Audiences in China range from attentive dream-crowds, through to dice banging, whooping party-animals. In the UK, people are quite forthright if they do not like what you do. In China they simply ignore you, go to sleep or open their laptops to chat with their friends online. Microphones and stages tend to act as magnets for the terminally intoxicated in China. Flushed with confidence, the inebriated ones sometimes decide they have an important announcement to make, normally half-way through a second set. Worse still, they sometimes want to demonstrate their singing prowess.
Dealing with hecklers and wannabes, calls for tact and understanding. When this fails, and it will, then abandonment, swapping insults or fisticuffs are the classic responses. But a little angst fuelled frisson, can turn a mediocre performance into a memorable one, something to discuss at the bar afterwards. In China, this is not the way. Sure, audiences like to enjoy themselves, but they choose a different path and as soon as the show is over, they vanish. Post performance ligging, as an after-show activity, is in its infancy.
Paradoxically being a performer there is both harder and easier. Harder to know what people really think of what you do, but easier to go unmolested if you cannot do it.
Career: A happy ending
By 2015 the local bars had been abandoned for the stages at the Midi Festival and big events, a life that felt closer to rock and roll. Despite its challenges and frustrations, performing in China was, for me anyway, a great experience. After seven years
I finally got to shuck the oyster.