Gang of Four in China / JUE | Music + Art reflections

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A post by Archie Hamilton (Split Works and China Music Radar laoban) on the occasion of Gang of Four performing in China, March 2013. Cross-posted from Tumblr.

JUE | Music + Art 2013 encompassed nearly 100 events across Beijing and Shanghai over the course of 17 days. It is both the most exhausting event and the most exhilarating event that Split Works puts on every year. It is also the reason why things have been quieter over at the Radar for the past few months. For the rest of the summer, we will be returning to our regularly scheduled programme of updates here on the blog. In the meantime, click through to read some of Archie’s thoughts on the performance of the legendary Leeds post-punk band Gang of Four during JUE 2013.

Now that it’s over, I thought it might be good to download the various thoughts that have been bubbling over in my head.  Outside of extreme tiredness, that night ran the gamut of emotions, from extreme discomfort to outrageous euphoria. I’ll try and outline the reasons why.

When we were booking JUE back in August – November 2012, we were trying to elevate the actual stories that live within the festival. Every year since the first JUE in 2009, we’;ve had little side-stories outside of the main events, the first of these (in 2009) being the first ever Maybe Mars showcase in China, a gig that saw 600 Chinese kids packed into the (now defunct) Dream Factory to see a bill that included AV Okubo, Snapline and Carsick Cars. It was an evening that brought together a whole host of things that had been percolating for 3 or 4 years and it signalled the emergence of Maybe Mars as a real zeitgeist defining entity. Nevin and Michael from the label waxed lyrical at the venue post show in this short synopsis of the festival.

Since then, we’ve had lots of great stories, from Devil Music Ensemble (a quartet of Boston punks playing a live and self composed soundtrack to a 1929 silent Chinese film) to the wonderful Marshall Allen from Sun Ra Arkestra playing Cinema Soloriens shows and doing free jazz workshops to Chinese kids at the age of 88 to Qu Wanting playing her first mainland China shows at the festival in 2012.

So when Michael and Nevin phoned me in October and told me that Andy Gill from Gang of Four was going to be in Beijing in December 2012 to record AV Okubo’s second album and could we organize a couple of shows around it, naturally I was intrigued. The shows didn’t work out for December, but then it turned out they were going to be in Japan end of March, so it suddenly made sense to do something at JUE.

In the process of making the booking, it was never mentioned that Jon King (who had been touring with the band in 2011) was no longer a part of the set up. It was only when we asked outright that we were told there was a new singer and that he was only 23. It made us think twice and then three and four times about the booking, but the power of the AVO story won the day – we would get the masters for the new AVO album the week before and have a special listening party with core fans (which never actually happened – delays on the UK end), then AV would play, followed by Gang of Four. It felt like something really important was happening, and hey, original songwriter, guitarist and nominal co-front man of one of the most important bands in history (and particularly of interest to China’s nascent independent scene) playing original songs but in a new context with a fresh, very Chinese slant sounded like something worth doing.

Fast forward to last night. We didn’t perhaps sell as many tickets as I expected for such a seminal band, but I think the Gang of One scenario, the fact that the programme for JUE 2013 was especially heavy and that Public Image, Ltd. were scheduled to play the following week all impacted on turnout. However, the people that were there were mostly Chinese and mostly hardcore music fans.

Duck Fight Goose opened and were solid in an unfortunately truncated set. It was just a single 20 minute song actually, and I loved it. They had a new drummer – first show – but some great visuals and a nice rolling swelling track set the scene nicely.

AV Okubo hit the stage and it was a very different incarnation of the band that I used to know. It took a while to get used to the more subdued stage presence and the glossier, most polished sound. There was a point half way through the set that I really started to get it, but then it softened as electro-ballads were introduced. Overall it was a good reintroduction to the band and introduction to the new material.

It was pretty late for a Thursday and a perhaps less than empathetic 25 minute changeover didn’t do much for a flagging crowd. However, at just past 11pm, Gang of Four took to the stage, and I experienced my first emotion – discomfort. Although the guitar playing was spiky and aggressive as always, there was something about the band dynamic that didn’t sit right. Andy Gill was all over the stage, singing in different mics, wrapping his guitar cable around his bandmates legs and at one point crowding the bassist out so he didn’t actually know where he was meant to go, (he ended up kinda half crouched behind Andy, stuck between the riser and the guitarist). It made for uncomfortable viewing. The new singer was struggling to find his rhythm and pitch (it must be super hard for a guy younger than the songs he’s singing saying at the end of said songs “we are Gang of Four,” but that’s going to be well documented elsewhere, I’m sure). The first few songs continued in that vein and my heart sank a little.

But suddenly, things started to click. The singer found his stride, Andy stopped trying to do everything and the crowd started to warm to the show. Then, two very special things happened.

Firstly, Lu Di from AV Okubo and Hua Dong from Re-Tros (two of China’s best frontmen) took to the stage to sing on a track that they wrote with Andy back in December: Broken Talk was an amazing example of what can happen when China meets the rest of the world and it was an important recognition of where Chinese music has got to in recent years. Even better was to come though. Lu Di departed and the band launched into their first ever single: Damaged Goods with Hua Dong from Re-Tros on vocals. One of the greatest songs in history, the band’s first ever single (back in 1979), refitted for 2013 with the singer of one of China’s best contemporary bands on vocals. It really gave the song a new lease of life – the intensity with which Hua Dong spat the lyrics and the way those lyrics sat over the guitar riffs was spine-chilling.

Damaged goods
Send them back
I can’t work
I can’t achieve
Send me back
Open the till
Give me the change

This was the story here. Not that Gang of Four were playing in China – although that was important for some people – but rather that the founder of a seminal and historically vital Western band and a record producer of some repute has taken the time to spend a significant amount of time in China, to produce an album for one of the vanguard of Chinese contemporary music and then to share the stage with these artists in a live setting. It is a nod to the increasing recognition that Chinese music is getting from a global audience and for me, a super important indication of how soft power continues to draw China and the West closer together. Forget government to government, media to media, where individuals and groups butt heads and spray populist and provocative invective around the airwaves: this is where real conversations and understanding are taking place, this is where empathy grows. This is where things will change.

Video of the show to come soon. Thanks as always for supporting Chinese music.

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