By late 1995, near the Wu Dao Kou area (popular because it was located next door to the foreign language college where expats from all over the world came to study Chinese), a disco finally opened up which also had a stage area. Fa Zi knew the owner and booked us a few gigs there. It was to be in some ways our crowning achievement as a band, and yet our Waterloo as well.
This is how it all went down:
The Foreign Language College Disco looks from the outside like a big pachinko machine, but when you get inside and past the laserbeams and dry ice in the entry ramp area it is a lot like The Arena on Santa Monica boulevard in Hollywood.
College kids are there dancing to Ace of Base, “All That She Wants” and Duran Duran’s “The Reflex”. (In fact, the Djs at all those discos which were growing like mushrooms around China were often hired Brits with record crates, shipped over in order to get the right kind of hot western dance music going. It made you feel like you never left America when you heard Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, a great 12″, over the loudspeakers).
Anyway, as the disco music is playing, Fa Zi, the band, and I are setting up the big drum and the big gong and the amps for our show.
There are about two hundred kids in the place and they are all flopping about on the dance floor as we put the trap-kit into place and set up the mics.
But, the problem is, when the band gets up onstage to start our show something starts to go wrong. All the people who are out on the dance floor go back to their tables and sit down. Perhaps it’s because rock is still considered un-danceable by those who don’t know about, say, the B-52s or Little Richard, and they think they should just sit and watch.
Undaunted, the band powers up. We’ve got a set-list we’ve been working on, but for some reason our drummer looks at our guitarist and he smiles and cranks into the opening riff from Roadhouse Blues by The Doors.
Here is us doing a different Doors song. The fidelity is so bad and fuzzed out, its actually punk (we hope, if not, consider it “for historical purposes only”).
Since I’m the only one who knows the English lyrics, I have to jump on the mic. At least its an energetic opener. However, the rock and roll is somehow too crunchy for the crowd. I find myself looking out on a
totally empty floor except for the paid dancer in hotpants who is still hanging out listlessly by the DJ booth.
Well, that is not the energy level I expect for a rock and roll show. So I jump down from the stage (the band looks quizzical, but they like my spontaneity and energy) with the mic still in my hand and approach, gyrating in time with the music, Ms. Hotpants.
She responds by engaging in a little mating dance with me. We circle each other while I am singing “let it roll, baby roll” at the top of my lungs. Squeals of astonishment and delight come from the crowd as she agrees to my advances.
That somehow just unlocks something for them. It seems that rock and roll music is obviously a corrupt Western enticement to overtly sexual behavior, the type which has no precedent in China in that style, but they like it!
Soon everyone has poured back onto the floor and they start following me around in a conga line. I give them the mike and they start screaming unintelligible things into it with abandon while out of breath from laughing while the band extends into a jam.
This is the promise of American style rock and roll in China – at last, people are letting go and having a really really good time! The band is smiling and stretching out admirably. Finally, the song ends, I go back to the stage, and we continue on with our set. The crowd stays, stands stage-side, and grooves out to the rest of the songs.
Some of the kids at the show that night did not want to let me leave.
We go home thinking that the first night was a success and the second of our three night stand will be better.
When we return the next night, however, we find out that management has in fact cancelled us for the next day’s gig!
It turns out it wasn’t the sex, it was the money. Instead of buying drinks as the club-owner anticipated, the kids were dancing to the band and that’s not what they wanted. they wanted to sell some liquor! We object, that’s not our problem if someone isn’t thirsty. Their official excuse, however, is that they have suddenly discovered that it’s illegal for a band to play at a disco in Beijing without a permit.
Since permits are just about having friends in high places take bribes to look the other way it doesn’t quite shake, but there’s nothing left to do.
The country is one that has a tradition of rule-following which still governs the surface of social interactions when a person does not want to allow you guanxi or face. In the end, it’s all about who you know and in this case the only person we knew was a club-owner who was trying to sell as much alcohol as he could, not get rock and roll over in Beijing as the next big thing.