Jonathan Campbell Talks Yaogun

Jonathan Campbell spent 10 years immersed in the Chinese music scene, working with rock, metal, folk and classical acts, organizing gigs and managing overseas tours. Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll” is his first book, and takes a fascinating look into the emergence and development of Chinese rock and roll, or yaogun(摇滚, yáogǔn) from its birth at the hands of the now legendary musician Cui Jian, through to the dawn of the modern music festival. For more information about the man himself, have a look at his website. You can find our review of “Red Rock” in the Hard Seat section of our Music Issue, out next week. 

What was it that drove you to write Red Rock?

At first, the inspiration came from reading too much “not-fully-informed” writing and knowing that someone had to lay the foundation. In the lead-up to the Olympics, yaogunwas a somewhat popular topic, and in recent years, has gotten even more so. There’s more and more writing about it in the international media, but there’s less and less of an appreciation for where it came from and how it came to be. It’s the story of China, and the way China reported on yaogun is part of that story too. Context is not something that’s generally included in such coverage, but context is so important. So the desire to giveyaogun that context was driving me. Then, once I started speaking to “yaogunners,” it was seeing and hearing what the music meant to and did for them that inspired me.

You’ve been deeply involved in many aspects of yaogun, practically since you arrived in Beijing in 2000. What is it about the Chinese rock scene that kept you captivated for so long?

The first thing is that I found myself not just watching, but very quickly found myself involved. That was captivating, and it took a long time for that to wear off. I was like a lot of expats in any country anywhere: I was doing things I never did back home, and that was exciting. I could feel the newness of the rock scene and the excitement of both participants and observers. It made me feel really great to be on the inside. But really, what kept me captivated was the music and the people, because the whole thrill of “Holy crap, China has rock bands” wears off really quickly. So there has to be more than just its existence, because being an insider in a scene full of mediocrity is only fun for a short time. Once I started writing the book, though, the stories I was hearing and the stuff I was learning about re-energized my feelings about yaogun.

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Seeing China, and Rock, Through Yaogun

I was I was recently asked to join Down: Indie Rock in the PRC director Andrew Field for a post-screening Q&A session at the North by Northeast (NXNE) Festival in Toronto. The film follows Field’s explorations through the music scene in 2007. The host of the afternoon, the festival’s film programmer, used the word “revelatory” on several occasions to describe the impact Field’s film had on him and could have on potential audiences. That’s definitely something I was ready for: The number one reaction I get when I tell people that I’ve written a book on Chinese rock music is confusion. That there might be such a thing is not something that crosses your average mind. And let me be clear: I’m not surprised that this is the case.


China Rock TV shares a tune by Brain Failure called 永远的乌托邦 (Eternal Utopia)


Back in the (punk) day…

Having written about yaogun’s long, strange march through today, I have been blessed to be writing in an age where Youtube offers glimpses – fleeting, yes, context-less, often, but glimpses, still – of the past. A few brave souls lugged what was heavy and user-not-so-friendly gear to shows, filmed away, and, eventually, some of them even uploaded the footage to the internet. Guys like David O’Dell, whose Youtube channel is filled with great pieces from the late-nineties and turn-of-the-millennium punk scene (and who wrote a memoir of that very period); when folks like Liang Heping and Vic Huey, who have been filming from day one, have their collections sorted and available, well, things will change.