Among a recent flurry of books and documentaries, ranging from the academic to the Sinosplitative, bent on capturing the emergence of Chinese rock, has emerged a memoir that puts a face to a movement: “Inseparable: The Memoirs Of An American And The Story Of Chinese Punk Rock.” The author, a Texas native named David O’Dell, was instrumental in helping to form China’s first punk scene in the ’90s, setting up shows, promoting events and even playing in such influential early bands as Underbaby and Brain Failure. Though O’Dell left Beijing a decade ago, he’s back this summer to promote his new book and celebrate the old scene with a charity show on August 11 that will include bands from the old scene, including Underbaby vocalist Gao Wei, Catcher in the Rye, Anarchy Boys and more. The event will also include an auction of old punk rock memorabilia, with all proceeds going to a charity for orphans called “Half the Sky.” I interviewed O’Dell via email about the early days of Beijing’s punk scene, his experience writing the book and the craziest show he’s ever been to.
There’ve been a lot of books about the Chinese rock scene that have come out in the past couple years. Why did you want to write this book, and what did you want to contribute to the conversation that others couldn’t?
There’s been some really great books that came out the past few years; the main difference between those books and mine are the personal “ground-zero” (to quote someone’s opinion of the book) accounts of the earliest people that made those pivotal shows and albums possible. I claim that my book is not a history book—history books are just bullet points with dates and names. My book explains the story of Chinese punk rock, way more than what a history book could accomplish for this particular music genre. I sought to get all the memories in my head out, to perform a deep dive into the Chinese punk scene and invite the reader to really see, hear and taste the dirty underbelly of Beijing from where the scene started. I was a very early supporter of the Chinese punk scene; I certainly wasn’t the only foreigner, but I was definitely the most spirited and influential. Together with some local punks and other foreigners we put together the earliest shows, which formed the bands you might hear of today, like Underbaby, Catcher in the Rye, Brain Failure, Anarchy Jerks, Reflector, P.K. 14 etc.
You trace the birth of punk in China back to a show you and a friend threw in Wudaokou, where Underbaby first played. What was that show like, and what was it about Underbaby’s sound that was such a revelation for you and for the crowd?
It was a very early show for Underbaby. They had played some small venues and had even recorded some songs, but that was the first night I had met them. When we threw the party for the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, Underbaby played after Xie Tian Xiao. That’s when I heard what I consider the first Western-style punk rock played by a Chinese band, and it wasn’t cover songs—this was all original and all soul. The crowd was truly not expecting to hear anything like that. It was tight, fast, lyrically irreverant but still in the style of Western punk. I and a lot of others were hooked. The show was fairly crowded; it was one of the early rock shows in Haidian, early enough that the owner was constantly telling the bands to stop playing due to the noise.
You write about how a lot of the early shows were played at improvised venues, like KTV’s, the art bar and even a whorehouse. What is the craziest or strangest show that you remember from those days?
Definitely the early Kai Xin Le Yuan [a brothel]—punks and hookers and a wild old mamasan who loved foreign men. It was actually very tame; very rarely was there a fight, it was just a strange mix of people. Scream Club was purposely built in a hutong for hardcore and punk, but it was also next door to a well-known KTV hooker bar called Global Cafe in Wudaokou. Scream was definitely the smallest of all the clubs. Most of the time you would show up and never get in, just hang out in the hutong with friends.
Why do you think punk caught on at that moment? What was going on in Beijing during the mid-1990s that made the conditions ripe for it?
I think China had seen some amazing bands grow up and move on. By the mid-1990s, most of the earlier heavy metal bands were at their peak, and alternative bands like Zhang Chu and Dou Wei were also beginning to peak. The younger Chinese kids started to see new types of music on the black market and hear different styles of music on Zhang Youdai’s rock and roll radio show. There was no Internet, but there were cassette black markets and foreigners bringing music in. Punk rock in China was destined to happen, it was just a matter of time. In China, it just happened to occur while I was there. There was also a lot of fatigue from the late ’80s; kids were tired of dealing with the cultural baggage of the past. They wanted something completely fresh and easy to get into, not just musically, but easy to understand. Punk rock chords and lyrics are, for the most part, fairly pedestrian. One doesn’t need to write flowery poetic lyrics or play long guitar solos to enjoy punk rock; it’s very simple and, like I said, easy to engage. I think this was a huge factor in the punk rock movement—a new generation wanted their own sound.
In your book you write, “We had a vision of awakening the youth of Beijing, becoming ‘individuals’ 自己的人 as Gao Wei put it, so we sought out clubs that were close to the colleges and schools on purpose.” You also wrote that you saw punk rock “as a tool to uplift the individual within the youth and promote the concepts of self-reliance and freedom of choice.” To what extent were you guys able to achieve the goals that you had set up for yourself and for punk rock? Did the scene develop the way you hoped?
That is certainly what we set out to do, though we didn’t actually measure whether or not we accomplished it. But when you consider that we turned two bands into perhaps hundreds across the country, I think we made a good dent in our goal. Without the early influential bands, I still feel punk would have easily formed on its own, though it certainly would have taken a lot longer. We sped things up because we actively wanted to develop the scene. We felt very strongly that through this vision of releasing the individual, it would improve the way alternative music was perceived.
What do you think about the punk scene now? Do you still feel a connection with it? Is there anything that surprises you about how it’s changed since you left?
I admit I haven’t seen many bands because I haven’t been back in Beijing very often. I was last here in 2008, and then once in 2005. The bands that I have heard I like a lot. While I’m here these few weeks I plan on going to a lot of rehearsals and a lot of shows. I do feel a connection with obviously the old scene, but the new alternative scene has been really warm to me and I’m very lucky to be able to get so close to so many new bands here lately. Nothing surprises me anymore, especially not the punk scene here… everything grows and changes, people get married, have kids, start businesses. Punk rock is more than just a music style; it’s a philosophy, and for some it’s a way of life beyond the stage. Nothing has really changed in that sense.
Is there any one or two songs that really captures the spirit of the punk scene back then, or even just your own experience?
There are just too many to name. Anything by the early bands is worth mentioning. 69 had amazing political criticism, Brain Failure had a lot of jabs at individualism, A-Boys brought the fun hardcore into the mix, Catcher in the Rye brought in pop punk and Underbaby had the deeply emotional lyrics, borderline poetry.
Gao Wei of Underbaby went on to do electronic music after the band dissolved, and Shen Yue of Anarchy Boys became a DJ. Why do you think so many of the early punk musicians went on to do different types of music?
People find that working in a band with a lot of other personalities can be tough, even if one of the members is family like with Gao Wei and his little brother Gao Yang. Keeping a band together and making a living is not easy to do. Some of the band members might want explore other types of music, and the band may or may not break up. I think it was time for some in the scene to venture on be creative in other ways. For both Shen Yue and Gao Wei, this worked out quite well.
You’ve said that you spent seven years writing this book, getting drunk in bars and trying to dig up old memories. What was it like emotionally going back through that history? Did writing the book change the way you thought about that time, or your feelings about it?
It was not easy to remember all that happened in those years and just try to narrow things down to just the punk scene. I had regular professional day jobs throughout those years that ate up more of my time than the music scene ever did. So, that was probably the hardest part—focusing on what was relevant to the punk scene. Certainly as I wrote it, my feelings did change; like I would reflect back and wonder why I did certain things or why I didn’t do certain things. For better or for worse, the story covers those years and although I have some minor regrets, I tried my best to keep a clean nose and do what was best for the scene as a whole.
You share a lot of personal stuff in this book – both about you and your own relationships, as well as the flings, fights and rivalries that surrounded you. Were you worried at all about backlash from your friends whose old histories you were sharing with the world?
So far so good. Yes it does worry me, but nothing is really that bad in it. I didn’t want to place anyone in a bad light. There are some stories of people getting drunk and fighting, but I would never mention those unless it was critical to the story, like with the breakup of 69. It’s not a nice story to hear, but it’s what happened, so I wrote about it. I just tried to tell the truth of what I had experienced, heard and been a part of.