These days if you hit a punk show in Beijing, you’re more likely than not to see a bunch of stocky guys in combat boots and suspenders barking out anthemic Beijing pride songs. But this is a far cry from the original incarnations of Chinese punk, a motley crew of ’90s bands that includes everyone from the genre’s spiritual forebear Dou Wei, to the infamous “Wuliao Contingent” (无聊军队 wúliáo jūnduì), comprising legendary bands Brain Failure, 69, Reflector and Anarchy Jerks. But before all these boys were strapping dog collars around their necks and slicking their hair into bright-green spikes, there was another band that started it all, widely recognized as China’s very first punk band: Underground Baby.
Though punk had already started by the 1970’s in the US and England, because of the Cultural Revolution it didn’t reach China until the ’90s — March of 1996, to be exact. It was on a chilly night of that month that an unknown trio of kids who called themselves Underground Baby (地下婴儿) shuffled onstage at a small Beijing show commemorating Kurt Cobain’s death, for what everyone thought would be a set of rock covers — and, instead, launched into a thunderous series of loud-fast-rules originals. The crowd was blown away, as were early rock scenesters like Dave O’Dell, an American study abroad student who had helped organize the show that night. “It was original, it was in Chinese, it was raw and full of life,” he remembers in “Inseparable,” a recent memoir chronicling the beginning of the Chinese punk scene. “The sound was incredible. Time stood still for me and the crowd. This was the first time our ears had ever heard Chinese punk rock.”
At the heart of the band was a pair of brothers, guitarist Gao Wei and drummer Gao Yang, who had spent their teenage years locked in a storage room outside their parents’ duck restaurant, thrashing their own brand of rock music into existence. After the show, a small community began to develop around the boys’ home and practice space on Baihua’r Hutong, which, according to O’Dell’s book, became instrumental in setting up many of Beijing’s first punk rock shows. In 1996, the band released their first song, “All the Same” (都一样) on the compilation China Fire II (VA) (《中国火二》), and were signed by one of China’s first rock labels, the Taiwanese Magicstone Records.
Though the song, a catchy mid-tempo ode to adolescent angst, may sound somewhat tame by today’s standards, it was a revelation in 1996, when China’s nascent rock scene was dominated by technical metal virtuosos like Tang Dynasty and Western rock cover bands. Over the next few years, Underground Baby played a slew of shows, first at anyplace that would have them, mostly bars and KTV’s, then at early clubs like Scream. The shows were small but viscerally energetic affairs that would inspire a small crew of would-be rockers, who went on to form the first generation of punk bands, like 69 and Reflector.
In 1998, the band recorded what was to be their first and only album, “Awake” (《觉醒》), though due to contract disputes between the Beijing and Taiwan branches of Magicstone, both the band and the album were thrust into limbo, until finally the band broke up, with Gao Yang going off to drum in other bands and Gao Wei pursuing solo projects.
While a number of first-generation punk bands either went on to stardom, like Reflector and Brain Failure, or reformed in recent years, like Anarchy Jerks, Underground Baby has, for the most part, been left to rest in peace, remaining enshrined in their original crude but powerful state. Gao Wei did reconstitute the band briefly in 2001 with a different lineup, and then again in 2008 to record a collection of mostly old songs with a few studio musicians, but the revivals have been more commemorations to the original band than real attempts at revival.
Though Underground Baby play only occasional reunion shows, you can catch frontman Gao Wei playing a rare solo set August 11, at 半边朋克, an old-school punk festival that is being organized in part by David O’Dell, whose book “Inseparable” provided much of the info for this blog. Look out for an interview with O’Dell next week!
Below is a video of Underground Baby playing their first hit, “All the Same,” which as one commenter noted was “真他妈经典，真他妈牛逼，真他妈难找。。。。” – F***ing classic, really f***ing awesome, really f***ing hard to find…