Rebel yell

Updated: 2012-09-21 07:37

By Sun Yuanqing (China Daily)

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 Rebel yell

David O'Dell was one of the first foreigners to be involved in the early punk scene in Beijing. Provided to China Daily

David O'Dell may not have given birth to the Beijing punk-rock scene, but he was there for much of its rambunctious youth

As David O'Dell admits, Chinese punk rock would have developed with or without him. However, its story would not be complete without his contribution.

O'Dell, one of the few foreigners who got involved in the early punk rock scene in Beijing in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, tells his story in his book Inseparable: The Memoirs of an American and The Story of Chinese Punk Rock.

The book revisits the world of punk rock at a time when the country was just opening up and seeing more clashes between East and West.

"This is a story book," O'Dell says while promoting his book in Beijing. "It is a true story, but it's a very personal story. If you get a chance to glance through it, it's kind of like every foreigner's story. It has a lot of those first experiences of landing in Beijing, taking that first breath. It's something that you tell your friend back home, something still in my lungs today."

Now a high-school science teacher in his home state of Texas, O'Dell was back in Beijing in August on a tour to promote his book, as well as to host a charity punk-rock show and auction in association with Half the Sky, a Chinese charitable organization dedicated to poor rural children.

The auction raised about 10,000 yuan ($1,600) with the punk-rock demos and CDs O'Dell collected during his time in China.

When he came to Beijing in 1995 as an exchange student at Peking University, O'Dell had no idea what he was getting into. What started out as a chance meeting between him and Gao Wei, the lead singer of Underbaby, one of the earliest punk bands in China, led to O'Dell's involvement in the local scene.

He later formed a punk band called Foundation with Gao and played as the bassist for Brain Failure, now one of the most toured rock bands in Chinese history.

In his book, O'Dell takes his readers on a journey "from the very beginning of Chinese punk rock to the contemporary versions of punk rock", from the influence of the Ramones to some of the hardcore political themes, revisiting venues that were crucial to the development of early Chinese punk rock.

While Beijing now has several exclusive venues for punk rock, it was extremely difficult to find a place to play in the 1990s as the movement was not as well accepted.

It was a time when stadium stars such as Xie Tianxiao would play for a mere 100 yuan, O'Dell recalled.

"It was so hard to find a place to play that everybody played together. You could go to Angel's Bar (an important venue for punk rock from 1996 to 1998) and see literally anything happen. You could see the most famous singers like Zhang Chu, Cui Jian and Dou Wei. And then a punk band would play. And then a heavy-metal cover band would play. And then somebody with a traditional Chinese twist would play.

"So at that time, the music scene hadn't fragmented. There was no money to be made. There usually were no tickets. If there was a ticket fee, then it was usually around five to 10 kuai (yuan)."

As recently as 1999 there was no distinct Chinese word for punk. Versions vary from pengke to panke, the former finally becoming widely accepted. In Chinese, peng means friends and ke means overcome, which somehow echoed the spirit of the punks who were in a way voicing togetherness through the sound of their music.

"In Chinese there is more context. There is a story in each character. We always enjoyed that version of punk. It's interesting that the English word 'punk' has no other meaning and the Chinese word is a lot deeper."

O'Dell also helped organize the first punk festivals called "Punks Not Dead" in 1996, whose audience became the second generation of punks.

"The original lead singer and the guitarist of Brain Failure were in the crowd that day. They were inspired to start their own band. There was a trend that the audience became the next generation. And that happens in almost every music community, in England and New York, too."

O'Dell was only meant to be in Beijing for a semester, but he ended up staying for eight years, until 2003, when he had to return home to care for his sick mother. He later decided to stay on with his family after his mother died.

The torch was passed on, and Beijing was holding its ninth punk festival when O'Dell visited.

"It's certainly easier to do punk rock here now. It's much more accepted. There is a young generation that has a little bit of money to go to a punk-rock show. It's kind of fashionable now."

The music has also grown more varied due to influences from all kinds of digital music available on the Internet.

"I think the sound just changed a little bit. There is more electronic influence now. The music is a lot more varied. I don't think it's possible that you can pick anything that is unique punk anymore. It's all alternative."

While the punk-rock scene is more established, it is also more difficult for young and inexperienced musicians to try their hands at punk.

"Back then there weren't any big music festivals. You could go to shows, play open mic and get noticed. Nowadays, it might be slightly different. Certainly it was easier for new bands to kick off and meet and get influence from other famous bands."

It took seven years for O'Dell to finish the book. It was published last year and he wants to bring out a Chinese version next year.

"I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I don't make any claim that I started the punk rock scene."

"I don't make that claim at all. What I do claim is that I am the biggest fan of Chinese punk rock that you'd ever meet."

(China Daily 09/21/2012 page20)