Last fall, author Jonathan Campbell published his non-fiction book Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, an examination of the music scene he immersed himself in during his time in Beijing from 2000 to 2010 as a musician, journalist, and concert promoter. Campbell is now living with his wife in Toronto, and you can catch him at his book launch on March 24, from 2 p.m.–4 p.m., at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St. W.). Earlier in March, he will be returning to China to tour his book at a number of events, including appearances at The Bookworm’s International Literary Festival (which you might remember from our interview with the bookstore’s owner last year).
Bookclub-in-a-Box: First of all, can you give us the highlights of your background in music and writing?
Jonathan Campbell: Before I arrived in Beijing, in 2000, I had played with some bands, but my music career, as it were, really began in China. I was a DJ and program director at my university radio station (at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada) and had a show on what is now KEXP in Seattle. I was always interested in music and wrote reviews and features in university. Upon arrival in Beijing, I quickly joined a band and was out seeing gigs, meeting people, and figuring out what was going on. I worked at a couple of local events magazines where it was my job to know what was happening and who was involved. Then I was freelance writing for international publications, and that combination led to a lot of work putting together and promoting gigs and tours for visiting musicians. Though it took a while for me to be able to say it, I became more of a promoter than a writer, though I never stopped writing completely. In 2009 I signed on with Earnshaw Books to write the book that became Red Rock.
How did your interest in the Chinese music industry get started?
I got interested by seeing gigs and playing gigs, and being blown away by (some of) what I saw. The first gig I saw was an amazing acoustic group, the Wild Children (video here), and in addition to loving what I heard, I got to talking with the guys in the band, and we became friendly. That would happen over and over again until I realized I was part of the scene.
I guess there’s a lot of unusualness about the scene, and I think it’s a factor of being so new and having so many different inputs and sources of information. So you have a very particular take on things that we, in North America, might find totally bizarre, but are normal there. And that’s part of what makes yaogun (“yow-goon”) different from rock music.
Like a venue that’s a roller-skating rink by day, transformed into a den of punk and metal at night. Or a club that features rock bands on its stage most nights of the week and “three accompaniment girls” (talking, singing, drinking) and private rooms outfitted with karaoke machines for the accompaniments and the white-collar clientele in the back, and a break between bands where those backroom types bid on scroll paintings on auction. And the crowd and bands not thinking there was anything wrong with the situation.
I learned a lot about rock music from yaogun. Maybe what’s unusual is that I didn’t realize rock music can be an extremely powerful tool of survival. Not like angsty teens finding solace in music, but something much more. I learned, from yaogunners, about the promise, power, and potential of rock music, which were part of what was essential to the music in the ‘60s, and which faded from memory by the time the music made its way to China.
In China, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s (but still to this day), rock music, and yaogun, provided salvation for kids living in a world where the ground was being ripped out from underneath them. The transition from centralized, socialist society to something-like-free-market-free-for-all hit a lot of people, particularly those with experience in the former, very hard. Rock provided an option in a world where there were none. Choosing rock wasn’t just choosing what to listen to; It was choosing how to live your life.
How does modern rock and roll reflect the community of Chinese youth? Is there a significant divide between the young and the older; between the rock scene and traditional Chinese music?
Yaogun is a very specific microcosm of young Chinese society, but it is representative of the alternative cultures that only recently could emerge in the country. Kids are now more international than their elders, and the local scenes across China reflect that. Rock is, by definition, an import, and it took a very special kind of person to choose that back in the ‘80s — and only a special person could take those tools and then create yaogun.
These days, urban citizens young and old both have heard the word “yaogun,” which was not the case even 10 years ago. But there are very different ideas of what it means. I think that the younger rockers are more like how I was before I got too far into the research for my book, in that they see rock/yaogun as just a kind of music, while the older generations of rockers, the oldest of whom were born in the ‘60s, saw in rock much more than just a kind of music.
What are the similarities and differences between the worlds of Chinese rock ‘n’ roll and North American rock ‘n’ roll?
When I took the band Subs on tour in northern Europe, I discovered that a lot of the logistical and technical problems that I thought were particular to China were actually more international.
In my early years in Beijing, I found that musicians were a lot more approachable and genuinely interested in interacting with people than what seemed to be the situation back in Canada (allowing for the fact that, because Westerners were somewhat more rare than they are now, there was an extra amount of interest in talking to me). I think that this has changed, though, as more and more musicians either have achieved a level of fame or come to believe that they have. This is something that the digital media landscape has partly created. More and more people are covering the scene, so more and more musicians believe they’ve achieved the kind of fame that inspires that distance between themselves and their audience. Also, particularly in the period before the Olympics in Beijing, there was an increase in international media coverage of the scene generally. So a similarity is that egos get inflated the same way in China as anywhere else.
I think what makes yaogun different from rock is the short history: Things that took 50 years in Canada to slowly emerge were compressed into a not-even-30-year period in China.
Don’t forget to “like” Bookclub-in-a-Box on Facebook, and share this interview by clicking the buttons below. And come back to the blog next week, when Jonathan Campbell will share his thoughts on the music scene as it’s depicted in Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad.