Punk Mohawk - 2001
Xiao Zhong meets David O’Dell, one of the earliest supporters of the Beijing punk rock scene of the mid-90s. Inseparable is a history of his very personal involvement with the scene and ‘the near suicides, the drugs, the sex and the great rock and roll’ that went with it. If all this has you inspired to stick a safety pin through your nose, crack out the Doc Martens and start pogoing, the Shanghai Punk Festival is just around the corner.
Firstly, the book fucking rules. A real ground zero account of the Beijing punk scene. How long did it take to put together?
After I came back home to Austin in 2003, I realized that my experience was extremely unique. I decided to write the book, so I sat at a pool hall every night for several months and came up with the table of contents. What was critical to me was telling the story, not the history. History can be written in bullet points and dates, the story of Chinese punk rock tells of the actual meetings, the near suicides, the drugs, the sex and of course, the great rock and roll. After I knew what to write, I spent 7 years writing it. The original manuscript was rejected once by a publisher who was very cool and very honest, who explained that the book was too much of a memoir and too personal. I was actually even more proud of what I had written because it was so personal. Since I couldn’t find a publisher, and still don't have one, I went through Lulu.com, a print on demand company. Unfortunately that means shipping to China is extremely expensive, so Nevin from Genjing Records and I are looking into ways of getting this printed here in China hopefully within the year.
You say that if you weren’t involved, someone else would’ve been there to help create and grow the punk scene. If that were the case, what do you think would have gone differently? What do you think you personally brought to the early Beijing punk scene?
I was really into the classic Western punk bands, as well as the new East Bay, DC and Chicago scenes. I physically brought a lot of that music over. There was no internet, so the influences in the punk scene had a lot to do with tapes that I, Anna Sophie and Rusty brought over. The influence was obvious; Reflector did covers of Operation Ivy, Brain Failure did covers of Misfits, the Clash and even the Pogues! Catcher in the Rye did Cure covers, 69 did covers of Sex Pistols. This music was not available at all in China, it was hand carried to the early Chinese punk band members by foreigners like me. I was a catalyst, not a cause. I feel strongly that the scene would've developed without me, it may have been more of an East Bay sound perhaps because in the mid-90's Green Day was just blowing up. Someone else with a narrow background in punk might have limited the Chinese punks’ trajectories. I feel that I gave the scene a more well-rounded pool of musical influences.
Dave and Underbaby's Gao Wei in 1998
What has been the reaction to it thus far? Has Gao Wei (of Underbaby) read it yet? If so, what were his thoughts?
The reaction to the book has been amazing and humbling. Gao Wei loves the book, but him and I would have to sit down and debate thoughts on certain things that happened. My opinion rules supreme in the book since it’s first person, the next edition I'm hoping will include even more depth as I add in some missing parts that I'm sure to find when I'm in Beijing this August.
In one chapter the cops burst in to a show at Angel’s, close the door and say that the only way out is to pass a drug test. Yourself, Gao Wei and a few others are smart enough to start speaking English so you can leave, but did you hear what happened to any punters left behind?
This practice was standard in Beijing up to the point I left, so I imagine sudden drug tests are still standard operating procedure when there is a drug problem. Most people pass because most of the foreigners are told to leave (at least, that's what used to happen, I haven't been in a drug raid lately), and it's usually the foreigners taking the hard drugs. There are rare moments where we've had musicians taken away, but they return within a few months with really no change, they were destined to be in rehab.
The concert you put on for your Mom at The Storm Bar sounds like it was incredible, and a real stand out moment for the Beijing scene. It had West (later PK 14)’s first show with Xiao Sun as a singer, Brain Failure’s first show, Underbaby as well as having Cui Jian come out. Was that show a real highlight for you? Do you often find yourself thinking about that night?
That night was a confluence of great bands at their most basic lineup. No one really considered it a breakout moment simply because at that time everyone just got together for a show due to boredom and desire to play on a real stage with nice amps. Much of the story that I tell has to do with simple meetings of people at the right place and the right time. Brain Failure's first show night was a nightmare, the bass strap kept breaking, the microphone wouldn't stay up, Xiao Rong was nervous and young. But they kept it together and didn't stop, know one knew they would become the most toured rock band outside of China. No one would ever imagine that PK-14 would emerge from a three piece that had a petite female lead singer. At that time we never considered bands as "going somewhere", good bands were good bands, crap bands still got a chance to play. The scene was so desperate for bands and venues that no one was excluded, the punks played with everyone and anyone, it didn't matter as long as the stage was available.
You mention problems you had like a lack of local audience, ticket prices that local kids had trouble affording, promoters and venue owners who had very different ideas and having to be careful of certain watchdogs. That was more than 10 years ago and these are all problems that I and other people who are active in the scene still deal with. What positive changes have you seen in China over the last few years?
Our goal at that time was to get as many students as possible into the shows, so our ticket prices were usually 10 RMB, maybe 20 RMB. It was only very large shows like the Sunflower show that we charged more, I think around 50 RMB, because we tried to pay all the bands something. Venues needed to make money, and they didn't make money off of poor students. The bands wanted to make money, but they didn't make money because they didn't have anything to sell other than tickets. CD's, tapes, merchandise was never around in the 90's until the Wuliao Jundui albums came out. The best you could do was to make money on tickets at live shows. Piracy is still rampant, but, people are more conscious of it and less likely to do it as much since incomes have gone up. I gave a talk with Cui Jian and Steven Schwankert years ago about piracy in the Chinese music industry, nothing changed until people had more money and people starting having friends in bands. I think that high quality, concert specific venues like Mao, XP, D22, Star Live and others are a huge plus, but with the cost of quality comes a rise in price. You have to have better bands and more and larger festivals to keep up with the cost of production, which is something that is happening around the world. It's good and bad, great to see big bands all in one place, but smaller bands have very few options to experiment. I think what D22 did by hosting open mic nights was vital to the new scene, very few venues do this.
It’s great to read about the early days of Xie Tian Xiao, New Pants, Reflector and even a bit of Wang Fei in there as well, how closely have you followed their careers since you left? P.S – congratulations on hooking up with XTX’s ex girlfriend.
Yeah hooking up with a friend's ex was unplanned, and he never had a problem with it, we've always been friends since meeting in 1996. I've tried to follow the old bands but I just don't live in Beijing anymore, so everything I hear is from friends or the internet.
The photocopy of the zine you made, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle is worth buying the book for. Was it well received?
It was highly illegal at that time to give out zines like that, Anna Sophie (of Beijing Scene) also had a zine, and we were both sort of worried- not about us, but about our Chinese friends that owned a copy. Everyone liked it; it was really like nothing else that had been done before.
After being so involved and throwing yourself in the cultural deep end, how hard was it to leave?
By 2002 all the early bands had legs to stand on and there was a bit of stagnation. Most of the guys had found steady girlfriends (a large crop of Italian girls), some were having kids. It was time for the early punk scene to die, grow up or get out of the way. So it wasn't that hard to leave the scene, it was however very difficult to leave the close friends I had made.
Wuhan punks Shitdog in action at Kaixin Leyuan in 2001
You say that ‘Beijing makes men of mice, and mice of men.’ Do you think that’s still the case? What is it about Beijing, and China in general that can change people so drastically?
I figure any major city could have this effect on people, but Beijing is the home of Chinese politics, culture, immigration, technology and the nation's top educational institutions, and Beijingers are very proud to be Beijingers. I think all of this put together makes a deliciously volatile mixture of ideas that brought about all the current art and musical revolutions. I don't think it could be done in another city as robustly as Beijing does.
You’re a big advocate for Half The Sky Foundation. 25% of the proceeds of your book goes towards them. What is it about this foundation that speaks so much to you?
It's big punks helping little punks! No but really, the most unfortunate ex-suburb wannabe homeless punk rocker can't possibly compare themselves to the tragedy of being an orphan, and even more tragic, an orphan with serious medical needs. They are truly the most at risk people in any population by no fault of their own, they are completely innocent and their tragedies are mostly fixable with caring people and of course, money. HTS is well managed and has a lot of transparency. They have some very well-connected staff and volunteers throughout every level. I think the money goes farther there than at perhaps some other charities. It is a great charity that runs on all cylinders, that's why I support it.
You’re back in Beijing on August the 11th to throw a huge concert for the book and the Half the Sky Foundation. Can you give us some info on who’s playing, how it all came together and your feelings towards your return to the capital?
I couldn’t have even attempted this concert without Nevin's and Kenny's help and definitely not without the time the bands are going to spend rehearsing and getting back together for this. This is a true punk rock reunion with some of the earliest bands together on stage for the first time in perhaps a decade, bands like Catcher in the Rye and Gao Wei from Underbaby, Misandao and Anarchy Jerks. We also wanted to open up some time for more recent younger bands so Nevin brought in Rustic, Flyx and Discord. Nevin actually approached me about this, once I told him I was coming over for the book talk, he pushed to have a reunion concert and this is how the whole thing came together. We brought the book to life with the bands, the photographers and the charity.
WORDS: XIAO ZHONG / DAVID O'DELL
PICTURES: DAVID O'DELL