I had my first taste of Beijing’s underground music scene. The counter-culture. A crazy, unforgettable night. The gig was at a dingy graffitti-scored venue called the Mao Livehouse in the heart of Beijing on an old street full of guitar shops. The name of the place is ironic considering everything that goes on inside it. Old Mao would spin in his grave (or in his mausoleum, I should say) if he could see the youth of today going nuts in a mosh pit thick with smoke, thrashing their long hair to the screech of stratocasters and the Axl Rose-like howls of bare-chested microphone-wielders. This was carousing and hell-raising on a par with anything to be found in the liberal West. A world away from what Mao had in mind I think.
The bands at this event modelled themselves on American and British hard rock bands from the ’70s and ’80s. Bands like Guns N Roses, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Metallica. They were all Chinese except for one Italian group. But all the songs were in English. Not that you could make out the lyrics through all the guitar distortion and screamy vocals.
These bands had stupid names like Jacky Danny (no prizes for guessing the inspiration for that one), Kick Ass, Los Crasher, Devils at the Crossroads, The Virgins. But despite their pre-adolescent branding they knew how to work up an atmosphere. They whipped the crowd into a frenzy with bluesy guitar solos and obscenity-heavy crowd banter. There were crowd surfers and stage invaders. One guy, obviously in the throes of drug-induced delirium, stripped totally naked, mounted the stage, displayed his manhood to the entire room and threw himself into the crowd, not once but multiple times. Beer was thrown at the musicians. I noticed one guy who appeared to be writhing in some kind of epileptic fit as his body was borne aloft by raised grasping hands.
I had come to the gig with a guy called Seba and a girl called Wens, both local Beijingers. Wens is something of a groupie. She knows some of the musicians personally. She even introduced me to one of the guitarists but he was too moody or too stoned to engage in conversation. Her favourite band is Jacky Danny – an up-and-coming group in Beijing’s indie music scene on the verge of releasing a debut album. All their songs are self-penned but they have abandoned their mother tongue in favour of English lyrics.
Wens is familiar with some of my favourite bands like Radiohead and the Doors. It’s refreshing to meet someone who appreciates real music in a country where radio and TV stations spew out nothing but Top 40 pop to keep the masses sedated. We agreed to go to more gigs together in future.
For anyone who is visiting Beijing and wants to get a glimpse of the chaos which goes on under the well-ordered heavily-policed surface you might want to make a trip to the Mao Livehouse where unruly and slightly masochistic Middle Class youth run riot in a basement room full of high-voltage rock n roll.
Clearly hard rock is not to everyone’s taste. It’s not even my preferred genre. And alcohol-fuelled abandon is not my preferred form of escapism. But all the same, the raw energy is something to behold. All those suppressed emotions unleashed. Boys and girls of varying ages released for a moment from the soul-destroying drudgery of the nine-to-five giving the finger to authority. If nothing else the experience should be an antidote to some of the stereotypes associated with the Chinese people.
But if screaming electric guitars don’t take your fancy the venue hosts indie bands from a range of other genres. Here is the website: http://www.maolive.com/. Tickets at the event I went to cost 60 yuan apiece (around £6). We had to reserve tickets before arriving and picked them up in a small reception area where I was surprised to hear speakers playing an old Black Keys record.
A word of warning for those sensitive about preserving their hearing: being in that room is equivalent to shoving your head into a jet engine. My ears were ringing with tinnitus some two or three hours after leaving. You might want to bring earplugs.