Chinese Punks and The Ramones Tribute Concert @ Mao Livehouse in Beijing

Are the Ramones really a “punk” band?  Personally I don’t associate them with the punk movement of the 1970s, but people here in Beijing seem to think they are the quintessential punks.  At least judging from the tribute concert held last night at Mao Livehouse near the drum tower.

This was my first visit to Mao Livehouse for a concert.  I’d heard good things about the place.  Apparently it is Japanese-financed, and the sound system is unparalleled among live music houses in Beijing.  After seeing several bands in action, I can corroborate this statement.  The sound engineering equipment in the back of the music hall was truly up to Tokyo tech standards, and far more sophisticated than any other system I’ve seen in Beijing.  The music was crisper and clearer and less cloudy and noisy than most concerts I’ve seen in China.  This can be dangerous if the band is not very good, but fortunately the event last night attracted some of the hottest musical talent in the Beijing punk scene.

I can’t offer a complete account of the concert, since I arrived late--for some reason I thought it started at 10 pm, when the starting hour was in fact 8.  Will have to make sure I get the times right from now on.  Heading to Mao Livehouse from the east side, where I’ve been hanging out lately, is a treat.  One passes down Dongzhimennei dajie 东直门内大街 , otherwise known as guijie 鬼街 or “ghost street”--I recall once having been told why the street earned this appellation but have since forgotten.  In any case, guijie is a long stream of gaudily lit restaurants, which stay open all night.  

Arriving at Mao Livehouse at 111 gulou dongdajie 鼓楼东大街, I was greeted by the sight of dozens of punk rockers and their fans hanging out outside the door of the un-ostentatious club, smoking, drinking beers, trying their best to look cool.  The club itself is painted black with a small white sign, in total contrast to the gaudiness of the surrounding bars and restaurants.  Once inside, you make  your way past a small bar area into a hallway with a pool table, leading to the entrance of the music hall.  There is a very narrow hallway and a single door leading into the hall, which makes for tight traffic on a big concert night, and for a potential hazard should anything unexpected happen inside the hall.  I would guess that the hall holds 300 people comfortably, but a lot more were squeezed into the club last night (forgot to ask them how many tickets they sold--they were asking 40 RMB entrance fee at the club entrance).

The first band I saw was Guai Li 怪力, whose female singer Wen Jun 文隽 definitely has the punk look down--she has an amazingly colorful set of tattoos and long orangish hair that hangs down over her face.  She is much more reserved and low-key than other female punk singers I’ve met here, e.g. Kang Mao.  I’m holding off on an estimate of this band until I see them again, hopefully tonight at D22.

The next band to hit the stage was SKO.  The lead singer is a puggish young man, who belts out his tunes with a solidity that matches his sturdy frame.  The band had a fast-paced style and got people rocking.  Like most other punk bands, the lyrics were English, but in this case I could actually hear what he was singing.  One sign that the band was a hit was that a lot of crazy moshing was going on in the middle of the hall near the stage, as drunken young men, both Chinese and foreign, got caught up in a whirlpool of energy that had collected there.

After that I stepped out with a couple of mates, Evan and Z, for some chuanr and missed the next act, Demerit, which I regret since I’ve heard good things about this band.  But in Beijing, it’s not hard to catch most of these bands, so I’m sure I’ll eventually get a chance to see them.

We returned in time to see Joyside.  I’d have to say honestly that they were the least exciting set I saw that night.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen them so many times now and am familiar with their line-up of songs, but they lacked the energy and commitment of the younger, fresher bands.  The lead singer Bian Yuan couldn’t have been trying harder not to look and act committed.  I think they were all pretty drunk.  They threw some energy into their finale, and I appreciated the bassist, a bearish guy who occasionally sings--he was putting a lot of heart into it, but it didn’t make up for the band as a whole.  I think the crowd must have agreed because there was little in the way of dancing, let alone moshing.

The final act of the night was the New Pants or in Chinese, xin kuzi 新裤子.  Having been on the scene for ten years now, this is by far the most well-known and well liked independent band in China and it showed.  The audience had gathered strength suggesting that a lot of people showed up just for this band.  During their act, which is an odd but workable combination of techno, disco, and punk, many members of the audience sang along to their songs.  Their songs are all in Chinese which helps, and they are uplifting tunes about “our era” and so on, tapping into the powerful elixir of Chinese nationalism, or another way to interpret it, of youth culture and the innate need to rebel.  The keyboardist did not take his pants off this time, but he did take his shirt off and at one point he leaped out into the audience from the elevated stage.  There was a lot of singing and quasi-fascist arm waving in the audience but no moshing--everyone was completely caught up in a musical dialogue with the band onstage.  I did most of my filming from on stage, looking at the interaction between band and audience which aside from SUBS and Cui Jian was the strongest connection I’ve seen in the indie music scene here in China, and worth exploring further.  I definitely need to get my hands on their albums and get to know the lyrics that have such a powerful influence on their fans.

Since it was a Ramones tribute concert, many of the performances last night had a Ramones-like quality to them, although I don’t recall recognizing any particular Ramones hits.  In the middle of the New Pants performance, Brain Failure’s lead singer and guitarist Xiao Rong 肖容, a tall thin guy in leather jacket and sunglasses sporting a close-cropped hairdo, came onstage and did some numbers with them that were much more punkish than their usual set.  That really got the crowd going.

All in all I was very impressed with both the venue and the bands, though I have to say that the entrance into the music hall really ought to be widened and perhaps another exit set up (there may be an emergency exit but it isn’t normally used) to avoid the bottlenecks and the potential disaster looming ahead.