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Jonathan Campbell Talks Yaogun

The author of 'Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll' explains what the world can learn from China's yaogunners

07·18·2012

Jonathan Campbell spent 10 years immersed in the Chinese music scene, working with rock, metal, folk and classical acts, organizing gigs and managing overseas tours. Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll” is his first book, and takes a fascinating look into the emergence and development of Chinese rock and roll, or yaogun (摇滚, yáogǔn) from its birth at the hands of the now legendary musician Cui Jian, through to the dawn of the modern music festival. For more information about the man himself, have a look at his website. You can find our review of “Red Rock” in the Hard Seat section of our Music Issue, out next week. 

What was it that drove you to write Red Rock?

At first, the inspiration came from reading too much “not-fully-informed” writing and knowing that someone had to lay the foundation. In the lead-up to the Olympics, yaogun was a somewhat popular topic, and in recent years, has gotten even more so. There’s more and more writing about it in the international media, but there’s less and less of an appreciation for where it came from and how it came to be. It’s the story of China, and the way China reported on yaogun is part of that story too. Context is not something that’s generally included in such coverage, but context is so important. So the desire to give yaogun that context was driving me. Then, once I started speaking to “yaogunners,” it was seeing and hearing what the music meant to and did for them that inspired me.

You’ve been deeply involved in many aspects of yaogun, practically since you arrived in Beijing in 2000. What is it about the Chinese rock scene that kept you captivated for so long?

The first thing is that I found myself not just watching, but very quickly found myself involved. That was captivating, and it took a long time for that to wear off. I was like a lot of expats in any country anywhere: I was doing things I never did back home, and that was exciting. I could feel the newness of the rock scene and the excitement of both participants and observers. It made me feel really great to be on the inside. But really, what kept me captivated was the music and the people, because the whole thrill of “Holy crap, China has rock bands” wears off really quickly. So there has to be more than just its existence, because being an insider in a scene full of mediocrity is only fun for a short time. Once I started writing the book, though, the stories I was hearing and the stuff I was learning about re-energized my feelings about yaogun.

Photo by Henry Campbell II

How do you feel about yaogun today? Is it still the same animal, or has it lost its edge?

Yaogun, at its best, is still an edgy, interesting genre. In a lot of ways, Chinese alternative culture (visual art, theater, music, etc.) has lost its edge because China has lost its edge. But the best yaogun of today still embodies that Long, Strange March of the past 30-odd years.

Do you think that yaogun has been as relevant to the overall development of rock music as its Western counterpart has been?

The reality is that rock and roll doesn’t know that yaogun exists. That’s another mission of the book: First, to show the world that yaogun ought to have a voice in the rock and roll conversation. Second, to break the news to rock and roll that yaogun took the torch from rock and roll a long time ago. We in the West started thinking that the idea of rock changing the world was a joke not long before rock – and then yaogun – actually did change China. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned over the course of writing: Rock is more than just something to listen to. For so many yaogunners, particularly of the first generation, but also throughout the past several decades, rock is a way of life, an outlook on the world. Yaogunners have told me over and over that once you decide on rock, nothing looks the same again: It changed the world. It’s a lesson that rock and roll needs to learn from yaogun. In their song “Youth is the Party,” [the band] SUBS touches on this idea when they say “Just don’t waste this music.” I realized that I’d wasted it. Yaogun remembers and embodies the promise, potential and ideal of rock, and we in the West have a lot to learn from yaogun as a result.

Many younger yaogunners tend to overlook early rockers like Cui Jian. Are they wrong to do so, or is it better that they look forward?

By all means, look forward. Fight the power, down with the Man, all that stuff. But unless folks recognize the people that carved a path out of what wasn’t even jungle – it was more like a vacuum – they will never be a part of the creation of yaogun. Yaogun is the journey to today, more so than its Western counterpart, because of the different socio-political situation from which it emerged. I get why they overlook the early rockers – a lot of the music was a product of the times, but until you really look into how they conceived of making the music of that time, you’ll never understand what’s possible today. And you won’t appreciate it. And that’s just sad.

Do you think yaogun will ever compete with Western rock in terms of worldwide popularity? 

If China is taking over the world, as the newspapers seem to say every day, then yaogun will be more appealing to the future world than rock. It’s not that 1.2 billion people listen to yaogun – only a fraction of a percentage of Chinese do – it’s that we know how the nation tends to react to products or people from outside the Middle Kingdom. And by then, if yaogunners do their jobs, yaogun will dominate that dominant nation.

In Red Rock, you talk of several key figures who pioneered to make a place for rock music in China. Did one of them stand out for you as particularly heroic?

I think that anyone who chose to become a yaogunner in the pre-Internet age is amazingly heroic. We have no concept, today, of what it was like for anyone in China with even the slightest desire to be different and to find a way to live that didn’t cause them deep existential-level grief. For a guy like Cui Jian to quit the Symphony Orchestra, leaving behind a steady living, that was like choosing life in a vacuum. For Guo Chuanlin to decide to devote himself to managing Black Panther, when he still needed to explain to people what a “band” was, is heroic. For Hao Fang to opt for writing about rock music at a time when you couldn’t play it on the radio is heroic. For Zhang Youdai to suggest that maybe it wasn’t so bad if he put a rock song on the radio, or, later, to put on yaogun songs as well… there was no precedent for guys like them, and it still blows my mind that they went out and did it anyway, as did many of their fellow ‘gunners.

What are your hopes for the future of Chinese rock?

If you’re asking whether it has a chance to become a type of music that sells millions of records, I’m not sure that’s its future. The question of going mainstream isn’t just a matter of whether or not the mainstream accepts it, but whether or not going mainstream is the goal. That’s partly what’s holding it back: The reluctance of its practitioners to aim for the mainstream. It’s linked to the rarity of Cui Jian’s status: Celebrity in China is ugly and vapid and ridiculous, and true celebrities couldn’t possibly be yaogunners – except Cui.

Like its past, yaogun’s future is tied deeply to China’s future and the way in which China navigates the coming years. Young Chinese kids, like so many all over the world, don’t have a ton of time or patience for art of any kind, or for thinking too much about anything. But there is a lot of thinking that needs to be done in today’s China, and what the Long, Strange March has shown me – and a significant population of young people over the years – is that yaogun can inspire thinking. So for me, yaogun’s potential is in the ability for ’gunners to embody that journey into the future.

My hope is that the world starts to not just be impressed with the idea of yaogun (though first they have to be made aware of it), but that the world is informed about the Long, Strange March, and starts to have the ability to appreciate it. On the one hand, I want yaogun to be kept in a separate space, held up as a shining example; on the other hand, I wish that yaogun bands could get on the radio, in music mags, do tours, etc., just like every other rock band from Stockholm to San Francisco.

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