Jonathan Campbell, Spreading Yaogun, Recalling Rock's Quest

This weekend Jonathan Campbell starts his tour in China with Red Rock The Long, Strange March Of Chinese Rock & Roll. Red Rock tells the story of yaogun from its very first moments with “Tiger” Lin Liguo, from there  Campbell takes us through Cui Jian’s journey to become the father of yaogun, along the stories of tens of persons who have been main players in the evolution, and revolution of course, of rock in China.

Jonathan Campbell lived in Beijing since 2000, there he became active participant in the rock scene as promoter, musician, and listener. He became a supporter of people supporting rock around China too, thus it was Brad Ferguson, for example. Campbell left China last year, and few months later his book was published.

I was curious to know what was Red Rock about, I first thought it was going to be about Jon’s experience in China. I think I’m not wrong believing we could build a big house with walls of books that tell the trips of foreigners in China, it’s a good theme of course, and it could be very interesting and fun, specially if it’s the trip of someone who got into the Chinese music scene. But I was wrong, Red Rock is first a solid materialization of rock’s relevance for people. It reflects on the condition of rock as a tool for changes, showing the effects it has produced in the most important country of the world right now, and the story is told through the experience of persons who were common citizens and became history makers once they connected with rock in China.

My private time with this book took me to my roots with rock, with music in general too, and with my times of protests and fights for a better world. I won’t go into that, but I mean to say as clear as possible that true romantic music lovers will feel emotional when reading Red Rock because it jams about rock’s heart. To me Red Rock is medicine, clean doubts, motivates self confidence, and assertively names the character of rock in China.

Jonathan Campbell will start his tour in China this Saturday at the Shanghai Literary Festival there he will be talking about the story behind the book and about yaogun. I’m very happy to bring to you now this interview as a preview of what will happen this Saturday.

Layabozi: How do you feel now your book is been out for some months already, and that you are starting your own tour around China? What’s motivating you now, and what are your objectives now?

Jon Campbell: It feels good having a book out, I have to say. But it’s the same feeling I had when my bands put out albums (Black Cat Bone’s Drinkin Alone and RandomK(e)’s Waiting): Not enough people know about it, and people need to. That was the general motivation for writing in the first place: To build a foundation upon which intelligent writing and reading about yaogun could be done. I really feel like the world is missing out on the full story, and I want this book to be the starting point. My goal, which is the same as anyone who’s spent time inside and outside of China and who cares about what’s happening in the world, is to introduce an element of the country so that people can realize that it might be a foreign culture, but it’s not as completely foreign as we might assume.

Alongside all that: I want to show the world what yaogun has taught me. Yaogun has taught me about what makes rock so important. The idea that rock and roll can change the world has become cheesy in the “rock” world because we forgot that that was the point of rock in the first place. The best yaogun remembers that — and the best yaogunners LIVE that, and lived it, when rock music, and, for the later generations, yaogun, changed their world, literally.

LYBZ:  Of this whole story, what makes you feel most proud of?

JC: That’s a tough question. Obviously I’m proud of the fact that there’s a book, period. But to have gotten some great compliments from yaogun and rock people I respect, that’s been really amazing. I know it’s a bit of an ego thing to have the critics’ praises around the book, but for me, having a guy like Jim DeRogatis approve of the book made me feel like I’m on to something. But more importantly, was the reaction from the yaogun side. Hao Fang, a critic and former editor of Rolling Stone China, who played such an important role in yaogun’s story, told me that he really liked the book, and that made me feel like I did something important. That alone let me know that it was all worthwhile and that this book has a chance among a Chinese readership too, and I hope that we can get a translation out there.

LYBZ: Probably is a silly question because the whole book is about this, but I need to ask it. You mentioned in Red Rock that yaogun is of course linked to its geographical condition, but do you feel there’s a musical definition for it, musical characteristics that can define the heart of yaogun?

JC: There’s no musical characteristics that define yaogun really. It’s more about the embodiment of the path that makes yaogun, I think. I hear it in bands across the spectrum and it’s one of those things that’s really hard to define, but really easy to spot: Lonely China Day, Wang Wen, Zhaoze, Omnipotent Youth Society, Subs, PK14, Cold Blooded Animal/Xie Tianxiao, Wild Children, three-quarters of the Wuliao Contingent, Cui Jian of course, Zhou Ren, and so many more. It’s hearing Kang Mao, of Subs, talk, in the documentary Rock Heart Beijing, about how, if she lived in Norway, she wouldn’t need rock. That rock is something that one could need is what makes me have such respect for yaogun.

LYBZ: You wrote Wu’er Kaixi said “Chinese rock and roll influenced students ideas more than any of the theories of aging intellectuals on democracy”. You also added Xiao Yu’s “rock is a door, after you open it, you look at things differently” And along the book you quoted many other guys to explain that rock changed things in China. So, how do you think would have been China now without yaogun?

JC: That’s a tough one. I think it would look a lot different, and folks like you and I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time there. Which isn’t to say that 89, say, wouldn’t have happened without rock, but it would probably have looked very different. Also, because of what I learned about Cui Jian’s Asia Games tour of 1990, without his concerts, a lot of people would never have gotten the release that his music and live shows gave them. When he played those handful of cities — for 3-5 shows that sold out immediately — people went absolutely batshit crazy. I talked to one audience member who told me about being in such a bad way from mid-1989 that those concerts literally had life-saving effects. So you wonder if these folks didn’t have that release in the wake of “then” what they might have done. And you also wonder what would’ve happened if Cui had been able to do the whole planned route. So I guess the question becomes what would China be like now if yaogun had been more widespread…

LYBZ: What do you think has to happen for a Chinese rock band to become world famous?

JC: The western world would first need to figure out, and truly believe, in a way that seems really really difficult, that in a lot of ways, China is similar. So that when a Chinese band arrives on Western soil, they’re not treated like a news story, they’re treated like any other band from anywhere else. Where music writers are being sent to cover scenes in China, not bureau chiefs.

I know that there is frustration over being a China Thing rather than a rock band, but at the same time, bands know that it’s to their advantage to be from China.

The problem is also the state of the music industry. It’s so difficult for any band to break through, since every band can break through. And China might as well still be living under Mao as far as the industry is concerned — and there are good reasons for the intl industry to regard China as not ready for prime time, but they will be soon…

LYBZ: I’m personally interested in the music itself as much as in the environment of the music. And since I’m in China I wonder how the musical Chinese culture relates to the evolution of rock. China is not Brazil, and because of that I see bigger challenges when it comes to the chances of China to have rock virtuosos, it seems that all music virtuosos from China go straight to classic music, instead of rock. Do you have hope in China’s rock? How do you picture that yaogun will evolve to become big…ger? (I know you are not a fortune teller, but I believe that if you wrote this book you can project things to the future a bit, or dream of it at least)

JC: You know, the thing about early yaogun is that the virtuosos — both musical and academic — were drawn to rock. And people used to have respect for these virtuosos, whether musical, artistic, academic or whatever. Hao Fang told me that the way people used to respect artists in China is the way they now look to businesspeople. People actually used to want to be artists! Now, it’s almost a punchline — and was for Second Hand Rose (though with the art bubble still not quite popped, artists can get pretty rich). While I really love the excitement over the experimental side of things that’s happening, I worry that the idea that you’d need training is something that future yaogunners don’t believe. I’m not talking about conservatory training, or even working with a teacher. But even listening to a range of music outside of the comfort zone, and being exposed to all kinds of different things. That’s what has made the most amazing yaogun, I think. In the beginning, yaogun wasn’t a purely musical exercise. It was academic, philosophical, musical, artistic and revolutionary. My hope is that future ‘gunners embody the entire yaogun path. I wrote that there’s nothing less rock and roll than choosing to live in a vacuum, and that’s something I believe in very strongly. Rock says forget the elders, and I get that. But yaogun thrives when the whole journey is a part of the output.

LYBZ:  From your point of view, what are the characteristics, or conditions, of the yaogunners that have made them rock stars?

JC: I think, with one exception, it’s been a matter of timing, really. The internet and the opening up of the country to more and more people and inputs has made yaogun stars possible lately. But I don’t know that they are ACTUAL rock stars. It seems to me that the goal of a yaogun bands isn’t to become Van Halen and sell millions of records and play stadiums. And it would be hard for a Van Halen to emerge now in China anyway.

In the early days, when Rock Records came in and made stars out of the first few bands (Tang Dynasty, Black Panther, Dou Wei, He Yong, etc), it was a matter of who was doing it. Not that they weren’t talented, just that, in the words of Kaiser Kuo, “It wasn’t that there were tons of bands that weren’t recording…By 1992 or 1993 . . . if you could get fifty people to show up to a gig, you could probably get a record deal.” Again: the point here is not just that they got record deals, but that people took to the music — they had an audience and they sold records and filled stadiums. They were rock stars. But now, I don’t think people would consider the guys that are still going from that period ‘rock stars’. Tang Dynasty and Black Panther are, to a lot of people, pop acts.

Cui Jian, in my mind, is really the only true rock star. He’s known across populations and spheres. He’s an actual Famous Person, but has been doing things yaogun the whole time. His timing was also good, but he got ahead of the game very quickly.

LYBZ: What do you say to Chinese rock bands that don’t want to say their music is Chinese rock (yaogun)? I recently interviewed Duck Fight Goose and we talked about this, they didn’t want to agree that their music was Chinese rock, until I told them we have Latin rock, and that I’m proud of it and love it, they didn’t consider the option. And I know many other bands have this way of seeing things too, they don’t want to be making yaogun, but just rock, so what do you think of this

JC: My goal in the book was to identify “yaogun” as something that was related to but separate from rock. In Cui Jian’s early days, Rock Records’ man in Beijing, Landy Zhang, told him that he shouldn’t call his music ‘rock’ because then it was going to be compared to the rock from elsewhere. I understand where DFG would be coming from: They just want to be considered a rock band like everyone else in the West. I get it: We’re not special, or we are, but we’re special like a great band from Brooklyn is special, not because we’re from Shanghai. But I think that DFG is one of those bands that embody yaogun — they are old enough to have expereinced a lot of what it took to get things to where we’re at now. I think there are bands who are so derivative and uninteresting that they should be called “Chinese rock” and not “yaogun”. You have to earn “yaogun”.

LYBZ: How was your process to write Red Rock ? And what was your motivation to write it? How long took you to write it? Were you first recollecting stories, and later thought of doing the book? 

JC: Like a lot of expats living anywhere, I was definitely one of those guys who figured I’d write a book someday. But unlike a lot of expat books, mine was not so much about my own experiences, and for that I’m proud. The answer to your first question tackles the motivations behind my writing. It took me two years of interviews and writing before it was published, but then, it also took me the eight years previous to deciding to write the book to do research. I talked to upwards of ninety people for no less than an hour each specifically for the book. I transcribed the interviews and then looked back at all the other reporting I’d done over my years in Beijing. It was not an easy process. But the stories of how rock and yaogun changed peoples’ lives inspired me to get through.

LYBZ: Of all the people you talked with to write this book, who is or were those that impressed you more? 

JC: That’s tough. I learned a lot about a lot of people and was blown away so many times. Guo Chuanlin, the manager of Black Panther is someone who was amazingly interesting in his drive to get Black Panther on big stages. Dai Qin, of Thin Man, is such an amazing guy; whatever you think of his music (and my opinion has been mixed), he has such a determination to help his fellow citizens through rock because his life was so transformed by it. Yan Jun came from Lanzhou where the 90s experiment with capitalism put a lot of people in really bad ways and rock was a tool of survival for so many people he ran with there, and those who listened to his radio show; what he told me about Lanzhou was absolutely devastating and amazing. Kang Mao, from Subs, is someone that I respect more and more, having been in confined spaces with that band for longer than anyone should be, and hearing her talk about rock is inspiring. There are so many more….

LYBZ: You mentioned a lot of intense scenes of yaogun’s history, and you have a bunch on videos on your site to show them. What is (are) the most relevant to you?

JC: First is, of course, Cui Jian on May 9, 1986 playing “Nothing to My Name”. That video, which I’ve been showing during my talks lately, STILL sends chills down my spine, as does talking about it. But you have to know and appreciate the context of what China was like at the time. Which is why the second clip on the page where I talk a bit about the video is essential too: it’s the Hundred Stars singing their “We Are The World” type tune “Let The World Be Full Of Love”, with Cui in the chorus.

[Editor’s note: This next video on Youtube features only some images of Cui Jian’s show done 1986, it was the best one we found there]

There is tons of video between Liang Heping (Cui Jian’s former keyboard player and management team member and more) and Victor Huey (American videographer who has been shooting since yaogun’s earliest days, literally) that I wish were more accessible, but these are literally years’ worth of tapes that have yet to be digitized. The scenes from the early days are just mind-blowing. Liang has footage of crowds going batshit crazy for Cui Jian through the 90s and it’s something that I think everyone should see.

I think that Rock Heart Beijing, a documentary made by norwegian filmmaker Karen Winther (which, ok, I happen to be in, but that’s not why), really shed an amazing light on Subs and their cohorts, and about how important rock and yaogun can be even today. I’ll hope to have a clip up at some point soon.

LYBZ: There are a bunch of foreigners documenting Chinese rock and music. A friend who specialized in Chinese history made me see there are a bunch of foreigners documenting Chinese history in general. I didn’t think of that before, he’s right. Anyway I want to ask you, what do you think is the origin of this phenomena? (I mean, in Chile there aren’t foreigners writing about Latin rock, and I’m here writing about Chinese music, it’s kind of an existential question I think)

JC: Yeah… For me it was about having all this access that seemed impossible back home. I would never approach a band after a gig here like I did in Beijing. And, at least, when I first arrived in China back in 2000, there were so few people, generally, that musicians wanted to interact with anyone interested. On top of that, there were so few foreigners that I think musicians were more apt to talk to me as someone that might help get the word out. Not that I felt used, but just that it was a rare thing to talk to a foreigner. The reality is that this is China’s time and we’re embedded. And of course, any time you get caught up in a scene of any kind, you want to tell the world how it REALLY is.

LYBZ:  What’s the story of the cover photo of Red Rock? 

JC: I took that at the 2005 Gegentala Grasslands Festival. It was a debacle of a festival in many ways; a promised 8-hour busride that took 18 for many — I drove out there with a couple friends and we were sent on a “detour” through fields of mud whose depth was related to the laughing locals with tow-trucks that stood by. There were economic problems at the festival with people not getting paid; price gouging at the site rose to record highs, and the local population in attendance mostly got in for free.

LYBZ: What’s the relevance of yaogun for China? Most of all, musically speaking, what is the relevance of yaogun in the world? 

JC: Rock, and yaogun’s, history in China was opening up peoples’ eyes to see things beyond that which was presented to them. The best yaogun, and rock, has that potential: To open doors, to wake people up, to see things in a new light. What I’m more interested in is yaogun’s relevance to the rest of the world — to rock in particular, but to more than that. The idea that art is important — the communists (in the Soviet Union, in China, and elsewhere) knew that: That’s why these regimes burn books. They know the power of art. That’s what yaogun can teach the world. Musically, it can teach the world that China can produce things that are familiar: That China isn’t that different from us, but that they do have new twists on things that are worthy of our attention.

LYBZ: What is your advice for the Chinese government on how to handle rock?

JC: The government saw that allowing a bit of leeway for things, generally, often quickly creates chaos, and there’s nothing scarier than that for them.

Right now, the whole greyness is working for everyone: It’s not illegal to rock, until it is; it’s not dangerous to the government because they don’t care enough about it. Like PK14’s Yang Haisong says: “Because the government doesn’t care about us, we aren’t forbidden from playing. Maybe we’re not dangerous. It’s sad.”

Getting involved in festivals has been both good and bad for yaogun: it gives bands good opportunities for getting their outrageous fees for large-scale concerts, and that, in a way, ensures that anyone that wants to keep playing at these festivals doesn’t poke at the authorities with the proverbial stick. It also doesn’t encourage bands to really get good at what they do, because there are more opportunities than bands, even with all the bands out there, so it encourages and rewards mediocrity.

Depending on the govt’s goals, allowing rock music to flourish makes it less of a potential weapon. Also, if they get behind bands like, say Norway, Denmark, Sweden and others do, by giving intl touring grants, support, they could show the world that they’re a with-it nation. Bands could get more overseas opportunities — if they accepted the money — and have more chances to go abraod. Of course, the Ministry of Culture isn’t going to be a good judge of who should represent yaogun (though they did sponsor Hanggai before)


Read about Red Rock’s tour in China on our article.

Read more about yaogun and Red Rock on Jonathan Campbell’s official site.


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Mache is a hippie witch that was born under Beltane's full moon. She enjoys talking to ghosts and interdimensional beings, and cooking for her friends and beasts. She has Chilean wine in her veins instead of blood,and at the moment she belongs to China.


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