China Gets Punk’d

"You can only be safe when you have nothing to expose!" A skinny Chinese guy screams. In English. The words may not mean much but the pose is everything.

In his black v-neck sweater and hip red glasses, Chen Xi is the lead singer for the band Snapline and he is a guy on the on the outer border of rock's frontiers in Beijing. Gyrating like a zombie on a dimly lit stage in front of about 30 people – an even divide of foreigners and locals – Chen is in his element. Empty beer bottles, half-finished bottles of wine, a framed picture of Kurt Cobain behind the bar and one girl who falls to her knees and repeats his lyrics. Three red Mohawks nod in unison from the balcony above. Cigarette smoke dances in the air to the music. Some audience members simply hop up and down.

This is Friday night at D-22, a "bar music club, and performance space" dedicated to supporting young musicians and artists, according to its website. Located in the western Beijing neighborhood of Wudaokou, D22 is a dive that attracts the hipper edge of Chinese looking for experimental music, punk and hard core and foreigners wanting something more than love songs and pop.

But Chinese punk rock? The anguished cries of angst and despair beaten out in three-chord hooks at top volume don’t really seem the stuff of modern China’s incessant rise to economic superstardom. Originally the music of working-class England in the late 1970s, punk has its origins in urban decay, sung by young Brits who despaired of Maggie Thatcher's Britain and the decline of everything. Kept alive by waves of angry young kids, the music has continued, being reborn every few years and always, it seems, right at home in dirty smoky little clubs. Clubs not unlike D22.

So is this music of rebellion catching on in authoritarian, get-rich and stay in line China? Probably not just yet.

"This kind of music doesn't enjoy much popularity in China," admitted Li Qing, Snapline's lead guitarist. "In my view, it's firstly because China doesn't have a solid foundation for the broad sense of rock music."

But Li and his bandmates are trying and in this slice of the urban subculture, they have become believers. "The punk, in our opinion, is music of destroying the old and establishing the new," said Li, 24. "It is not confined to any present form or timbre. Among other things it breaks through. It is marvelous and touching."

Spiral Cow, a band from Dalian on the east coast, is another edge-of-the-scene band, dubbed by fans as a "progressive-Chinese-country-post-meth-punk-rock-band." For the uninitiated, think loud. They also perform at D22, when they can get it together to make the haul from Dalian to Beijing This Friday they didn't make it. That's a band thing that transcends genres and nationalities.

"With all kinds of music there are certain ideas attached," wrote Spiral Cow drummer Derrick Fore via e-mail. "Punk was originally born in the 1970s, and was a sort of response to the mainstream of that time. Punk was a kind of rejection of the status quo. Today, in 2007, in the west, punk is just a word, a label, to a degree it's become part of what it originally rejected, mainstream. Here in China, the initial spirit of punk still has some life in it yet."

But why must Spiral Cow travel 475 kilometers to perform a gig? "There really isn't a scene here [Dalian] yet," Fore continued. "You could say there is a scene here, but it's confined to a very small circle of people. There are a handful of bands, and even fewer playing original music. Almost all of the bands here are happy playing cover songs, and there are virtually no places to play."

So Spiral Cow anticipates dates in Beijing and Shanghai. Just like an earlier generation sought out CBGB's and the Mudd Club in New York.

"I come from the countryside where there is no knowledge of punk music, and if there is, it is rejected," said Magang, 21, one of the fans at D22. "There is just something that I like about it," he said, struggling to explain the appeal of the noise and heat. "It just wakes me up."

Mu Yao, a music writer for, was more specific. "Punk music gets in kid's heads sometime because it's so cool," he wrote, "If you listen to the punk you are different from other kids. On the other hand, some kids like punk because they hate their parents, their teacher, or they hate the system. Punk becomes the entrance. But sometimes they suffer a reverse and they just want to run away. Punk is their exit. Chinese punk is always limited, though, to a certain range and many people think punk in China is hopeless."

"I think many Chinese punk fans like the idea of rebelling," said Frank Carlson, an American expatriate and casual punk fan. "But I don't think they're actually rebelling against anything. I think they just like the idea of punk music. And maybe that's enough."

So if punk music is more than a mohawk haircut and ripped denim, can the spirit of punk exist in a country where it’s taboo to openly criticize the government? The seminal punk band the Clash famously sang of London burning and working class riots. Spiral Cow skips the lyrics. "Censorship has never been a concern with us since we have no vocals," says Fore.

Snapline, which sings primarily in English, keeps it basic. There are no manifestoes from this band. "There are only some simple or primitive thoughts about the world in our music," said guitarist Li.

Probed on the problem of government censorship, Snapline is suddenly back in the realm of the obedient comrade. "We are good citizens who obey the law and love our country," said Li. "We neither drink nor take drugs. We are in full support of the construction of our harmonious society."

Harmonious society? Punk is about as far from harmony as one could get. What would Sid Vicious make of Good Citizen Snapline?

Hard to say but one band that does address more controversial topics in their music, is China's most commercially successful punk band, Brain Failure. Formed in 1995 by lead singer Xiao Rong and some schoolmates, they have gone on to become something of an international success, playing with an intense punch that has as much in common with Social Distortion or Green Day as it does with anything quintessentially Chinese. According to their Web site,, the music is “loud, melodic songs about politics, parties and ‘Anarchy in the PRC.’”

But while the sound is western punk, the inspiration is pure modern China. On the band’s MySpace page, Xiao explains a song called “City Junk” from a new album called Beijing to Boston (Bad Boy Records, 2007): “And you working day to night in the city/Running between no more than three locations./Coke and coffee keep you awake. /Yeah, you are a city junk, /You hate it and you love it./You’ve got a big dream /‘Cos you want get out from this hell.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols was the quintessential punk album of the 1970s and Brain Failure is paying homage with a vengeance. The guitar riffs churned out by the quartet are reminiscent of the early Clash, with an urgency and drive that have made them heroes in the small punk scene in China. They are also not afraid to piss somebody off. Take the lyrics to the song, The Party's Down from the band's first album, Turn on the Distortion (2002, Bad News):

"Hey you! I just wanna tell you what I think about you!/You were a leader you were an emperor!/You've murdered many, many people!/But many people still believe you!/Hey! Look at this, it's not your big time/Look at this! /Don't you know the party's down!"

Brian Failure has toured extensively in Asia and America, released a handful of albums and played with the popular American punk band, The Dropkick Murphys, who have helped the band gain a toehold in the west.

Brain Failure's success may contribute to its flexibility in lyrics, a luxury unsigned bands like Spiral Cow and Snapline from the local music scene are not afforded. But even the term "local music" is hard to define these days. Brain Failure, Spiral Cow and Snapline all have MySpace accounts, so they market themselves worldwide. A recent comment posted on Snapline's MySpace page - - read, "Your music is good! Greetings from Italy.”

" enables us to get to know many new friends," said the guitarist Li of Snapline.

"It's not long ago that rock music, a kind of expression, was first introduced to China through all sorts of channels," added Li. "It is a step-by-step process. It needs time. But I believe, in the course of globalization, more and more people will make this type of music popular."

Until such time as punk in China conquers the world or fades away interface of the next fad, the fun of rock and roll is really the point and for that the lyrics of Brain Failure are as cool as need be:

"Sexy punk rock girl/ She's walking down the street/ She is going to a punk rock show tonight/ She is ready to meet some cool punk rock boys/ But in her life she wants to stay free/ Stay free/ Stay free/ I don't know her but I saw her in the show/ she's drinking beer and smoking cigarettes/ She's cool/ She's rock/ She's nice/ She's rad/ In her way she wants to stay free/ Stay free/ Stay free."