As I start to approach a new incredible life project which I will make public in a few months, I feel the need to start re-tuning Monkeyrockworld on the “rock” side of things… Asian style. I am republishing – and for the first time in English, and integral – a great interview I had with David O’Dell aka Texas Dave, one of the laowai forefathers of the first seminal Beijing punk scene, back in the early 90s. The piece was originally published in Italian by China Files. You can read more by purchasing Dave’s incredible written history of early Beijing’s punk, “Inseparable, the memoirs of an American and the story of Chinese punk rock “, click here to order a copy.
How did you start making punk shows in Beijing? Was it your interest and need, or was there a thriving scene back then in the mid 90s already?
There was no punk scene when I arrived in 1995, it was just grunge and alt-rock. It was definitely my interest, I was very much a young punk looking for other punks to talk to and do music with. There was only one truly punk band at time and it was Underbaby, started by Gao Wei and his brother Gao Yang in 1994. I met Gao Wei in 1996 and we connected instantly. We became roommates soon after we met and then I joined his band in 1997. When we started doing the earliest punk rock shows, our mission was to play for the chinese high school and college youth. Gao Wei and I had no desire to play for foreigners or journalists. 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. We also negotiated with the owners to make the ticket prices cheap if not free. If they had to charge tickets, they were at most 10RMB so that our target audience could actually afford the show. if it was any more than 10RMB we demanded the owner provide 1 drink with the ticket price. we stuck to this for several years and it was an important part of our planning shows, we were building a framework that would hopefully support itself after we were gone and it did. The entire 2nd generation of punk bands (Anarchy Jerks, Brain Failure and Reflector) were in our audiences at the first shows we put on, so I’d have to say we got some success out of our plan.
There was no ‘punk’ venue at the beginning that we could rely on so that’s why we tried so hard to negotiate with various bars. I think the most expensive show we ever did we charged 50RMB for it at the old Sunflower, at that time it was a lot of money, but all the money was shared directly with the bands. Some of our larger shows were the most lucrative because the band made 300 RMB instead of just 50 because we didn’t keep any money for overhead, we were doing this because we wanted to improve the landscape of punk rock. Most bands, rock or punk or whatever, never made any money, I remember playing some nights I’d walk out with 10 RMB, enough to buy a beer and share some noodles. most often the members of the band didn’t have their own individual cab fair home after the show, so carpooling or spending the night at a friend’s house was a necessity.
In the eyes of an American with a passion for punk rock, how was the Chinese scene, and how did you see it develop?
The Chinese scene, when it first started, was what I felt like true punk rock was. A do-it-yourself scene, making the best of a shitty environment and playing your heart out in the face of oppression. It started inside a cauldron of intense political pressure, literally the lyrics were censored and permits to play music were never given to punk bands. So even playing live was illegal no matter where you were. The entire beginning punk scene was totally illegal but we were able to evade the cops by being smart and flexible. If the owner told us not to play because the cops were heavy in the area, we would go somewhere else to an area that wasn’t being pressured that weekend. This is something that would’ve never happened in the states, sure you had basic censorship and a few frowning communities that didn’t agree with punk rock – but the Western bands had human rights. The Chinese had none, so in the mid to late 90′s doing punk music there could easily land you in jail if you weren’t careful.
You wrote a dissertation on politics and arts in China. How politics were influenced in the early Chinese punk scene? How these feelings develop during your stay in China?
The basic political directives that influenced the punk scene were human rights and freedom of speech. Chinese punks are very proud to be Chinese, very very proud, they love their Chinese heritage, but they don’t like the government. They want democracy like most other countries. They want a choice, but they also understand that 2 billion people is hard to control and feed and keep working in a job. So, the basic thing the punks wanted was freedom of speech and freedom of thought. This was a huge theme in the music. They wanted to be accepted by the older people, who hated the new styles of music and fashion. The song “All the Same” by Underbaby was the first punk anthem, this is a song about people being all the same and not thinking on their own.
(TO BE CONTINUED)