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Rock'n'roll Pioneers Eye Second Coming

It is better to burn out than to fade away.

So sang Canadian Neil Young in his 1979 hit "My, My, Hey Hey."

In China, rock'n'roll, the voice of youth in the 1980s and early 1990s, is losing its once-dominant position to hip-hop, R&B and Korean ballads.

Diehard fans in the country are entering their 40s, and because the younger generation have little interest in the genre, the superstars of a decade ago have almost lost their glamour.

As these older fans celebrate the 20th anniversary of the public debut of rock music on the Chinese mainland, they not only enjoy looking back, but also expect a renaissance.

"If we are given another 20 years," Cui Jian, the "godfather" of Chinese rock, told China Daily, "we will work harder to create an even more brilliant history of Chinese rock, and we will never lose ourselves in decadence and wavering."

Cui and his rock comrades are organizing a series of events to celebrate the anniversary, including performances at a few clubs in Beijing such as the pioneering Get Lucky Bar in the city's emerging nightspot Nuren Jie (Lady Street).

They will also stage a three-day party starting June 16 in Shenyang, capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province. Almost all the performers who have etched their names on the development of Chinese rock will appear, and a dozen new-generation bands featuring much younger people will play their latest songs.

Some fans say they expect the party to be another "Woodstock."

The legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August 1969 drew more than 450,000 people to a muddy pasture in the northern part of New York City, providing many people with a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience.

But others doubt the potential of the Shenyang event. In their eyes, rock singers were able to make an impact a decade ago thanks to the uniqueness of the time they were in. But, the critics say, that time is long past.

Rock's emergence

It was a time with no Sanlitun, no Houhai bar area, and virtually no nightlife whatsoever. China had just opened its doors to the rest of the world, and the people were getting their first taste of outside cultural influences, finding some to be refreshing and others unacceptable.

"In the early and mid-'80s, young people who would go to nightclubs today met frequently in the open air at a few places in Beijing, preferably at the small square at Xizhimen on the western Second Ring Road," recalled Li Song, a freelance writer and diehard rock fan in his late 30s.

These youngsters could be identified by the guitars they were holding and the green army suits they were wearing. In local slang they called their meetings "cha qin," meaning "competing in guitar playing."

The songs they played were mainly the soft, sweet, polished love songs of Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng) from Taiwan. She made an enormous impact in the early '80s as one of the first singers from outside the mainland to become popular.

In the meantime, expatriates, especially an increasing number of foreign students who were studying Chinese in Beijing, made an impact on the cultural scene through their contacts with their Chinese contemporaries, who borrowed tapes of the Beatles, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel amongst others.

The foreigners also held parties at the International Club and at Maxim's de Paris, a major French restaurant in the city. Against this background, it was not surprising that the first Chinese rock bands were supposedly established around 1981 at the Beijing Language Institute, which is the Beijing Language and Culture University today. A few other rock bands had cropped up by 1985, attracting both foreigners and Chinese students.

But the event that was widely recognized as the start of Chinese rock didn't happen until May 1986, when Cui Jian walked onto the stage at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing. Wearing a green army suit and playing a guitar, Cui sang "I Have Nothing" ("Yi Wu Suo You") for the audience and TV cameras broadcasting the concert. It was one of about a dozen songs that were performed.

"I was a high school student when I saw the show on TV," said Wang Feng, one of the most important rock singers of the 1990s. "I was stunned. I had no idea a song could be sung like that! That was the turning point of my life."

Cui, a trumpet player and amateur singer at a local State-sponsored theatrical troupe, rose to fame, closely followed by such rock bands as the Black Panthers (Hei Bao), Breathing (Hu Xi), Cobra (Yan Jing She), and Tang Dynasty (Tang Chao).

Their music represented a strong, provocative image of the Chinese mainland and showed a strong Western influence. Their lyrics were socially critical, said Luo Luo, a veteran music critic and producer from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

It was not until 1987 that these rockers began to use the phrase "yao gun," a literal translation of rock and roll.

In the eyes of veteran rock fan Li Song, the golden age of Chinese rock started with the release of Cui's first album, "Rock on the Road of the New Long March" and his famous concert of the same name at the theatre of the Beijing Exhibition Hall in 1989.

"I saw the concert on tape," Li said. People were allowed to carry video recorders into the theatre at that time, and there were thousands and thousands of tapes of that concert circulating among young people in Beijing.

"The first tapes were in colour, but they had been copied so many times that the ones my friends and I got had all turned into black and white."

It was one of the only two times in his life that Li, a man with a tough look, admits that he cried while listening to music. The other time was when he heard Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

On into the '90s

Like many other rebellious young people of his time, Li identified himself as a rock fan. When he entered college to study astronomy in 1990 in Beijing, he spent a lot of time looking for tapes of Western rock music, and going to rock concerts. Many of the domestic bands were still semi-underground, and only on university campuses.

"I copied a friend's tape of U2, the album was 'Joshua Tree,'" he said. "It was just the kind of music I wanted to make."

He was one of the first young men to wear long hair - then the symbol of rebellious youth.

There were hundreds of rock bands in Beijing at the turn of the '90s, and about 50 of them produced well-written songs, Li said.

It was the prime time of rock. In the early 1990s, studios and publishers in China's big cities started to sign bands.

Music producers outside the mainland also became interested in Chinese rock bands. EMI signed Cui Jian, and the mainland Division of the Taiwan record company Rock Records, named Magic Stone Culture, signed Dou Wei, the former Black Panthers' lead singer, as well as He Yong and Zhang Chu. The three became known as "Mo Yan San Jie," or "the Three Talents of the Magic Stone."

After graduating in 1994, Li joined an information technology company in Zhongguancun in Beijing, but quickly quit the job as he was too busy writing music reviews.

But from around 1996, young people began to lose their interest in rock rapidly. China was opening more to the rest of the world, and its people were having more and more choice in the genres of music they could listen to.

"It is good that people have a variety of choices," Cui Jian said. "At any period of time, it is always one genre of music that has a dominance over others in the market, and rock is certainly not the one now.

"But who cares? A real artist will never take potential buyers into consideration when he is creating something. As rockers, we have devoted our lives to music."

Former rock stars were often reported to have difficulty in making both ends meet. Dou Wei, for instance, was detained by police last month because he allegedly tried to attack a reporter who he said wrote about his financial situation and divorce in a malicious way.

Fewer and fewer magazines are writing about rock, as well. Li said he was going through the toughest stage as a freelance writer.

Most "rebellious youths" of Li's era are more fortunate. Ding Lin, working as a senior engineer at one multinational IT company in Beijing, has recently bought a second apartment in the central business district. He and his wife, who is also a computer engineer, are planning to start a family.

But when he drives his Bora, a popular Volkswagen car, he usually plays MP3 recordings of old rock songs such as "I Have Nothing."

"The fans have got old as well as the rockers," Li said, "but they never abandoned the music."

Cui Jian said he has great expectations for the dozens of new rock bands, some members of which are no more than 20 years old.

These bands, represented by the Second-Hand Rose, perform mainly in nightclubs. They are growing away from Western rock and roll's influence and developing their own styles, Cui said.

"Believe me, rock will never die," godfather Cui said. "It will come back some day because it is the most tolerant music."

(China Daily June 8, 2006)

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