What would you do? How far would you go if you were a musician and record producer who was sick and tired of all the bullshit involved in the North American music scene to find something new and exciting? Where would you be willing to travel in order to find bands and musicians whose first priority was making great music instead of becoming stars?
Well, if you're Martin Atkins and you're with a record company called Invisible Records and you'd heard that there was something exciting in China, you get on a plane and fly off to Beijing for sixteen days to check it out. Your hope is to get some bands into the recording studio, and even better sign them to contracts so you can produce a CD of their music back in the States. What a great idea!
Last year I was able to listen to the results of that trip on the two recordings that Atkins produced as a result of that visit, Look Directly Into The Sun, a compilation of the bands he recorded while over there, and China Dub Soundsystem, a series of tracks that Atkins worked up with traditional Chinese and Tibetan music he recorded in Beijing, and overdubs recorded in Chicago back at his own studio. I remember being blown away by the music on Look Directly Into The Sun as it was everything that I had loved about bands like The Clash, The Ramones, and all the really good punk from both sides of the Atlantic. I could see how Atkins, former drummer with Public Image Limited (PIL), Nine Inch Nails, and other post punk/industrial bands, would have fallen in love with the music and the bands.
So, this year when the opportunity arose to see him tell the story of that trip on DVD I jumped at the chance to check it out. We hear so much about China these days that any opportunity to get some firsthand information from someone who has been over there would be interesting enough, but a DVD about recording punk rock musicians in China sounded too good to pass up. What I hadn't counted on was what an interesting, honest, and just flat out funny man Martin Atkins is, and the combination of him, the music, and his voyage make Sixteen Days In China, produced by MVD Visual, highly entertaining, thoughtful, and bloody informative.
Right from the start you know you're going to be dealing with something a little different from your standard documentary, as it opens with Atkins doing stand-up on a city street, waxing philosophical about what it is that might attract you to a specific place. At first you think he might be in Beijing until the person shooting interrupts to point out to him that you can see the Sears Tower in the background, and you realize he's shooting in his current home town of Chicago. What I love is that he kept all those bits in, and throughout the movie we watch him trying to shoot this footage of Chicago standing in for Beijing and keep having to stop because something way too obviously American will show up in the footage.
The biggest irony, of course, when we do get to Beijing is how much there is that's familiar in among all that's different. Probably the most ubiquitous sign of Western cultural invasion is the coffee chain Starbucks. Atkins spends a little time on that phenomenon, but then moves on to what's important, the music. We find out that he had hired an assistant who came over to China ten days before him in order to smooth the way and try to set things up prior to Atkins' arrival. Although she manages a band based out of China, she turns out to be less than what Atkins had counted on as she hadn't even booked him into a hotel.
What ensues for the next sixty odd minutes of film is a record of sixteen days of somewhat controlled chaos. Atkins trying to negotiate the use of a studio; Atkins trying to figure out why anybody would deliver a drum set to the studio without any cymbals; Atkins trying to figure out how it is his assistant doesn't know what cymbals are; and finally Atkins trying to come to grips with the fact that the three traditional musicians he's booked to record with him appear to be three teenage girls, and that they show up accompanied by their manager. This is an honest enough documentary that these moments of tension aren't glossed over, and you can see Atkins is dangerously close to losing it.
Throughout the film Atkins is also supplying a running commentary that he's recorded after the fact, so we see him on film in Beijing one moment, then the next he's providing the narration/explanation of what it is were looking at and what it is that should be happening. While that may sound a little awkward, the editing job is so spot on that it works wonderfully. Of course it doesn't hurt that Atkins himself is a joy to watch and listen to, especially when he gets going on the subject matter that's most important to him — the music.
His initial base of operations is a club called D-22 and his description of walking in there and finding a scene similar to that of London in the late 1970s and New York in the early 1980s might sound a little over-exaggerated until he starts showing footage of the bands playing. These guys are as amazing as I remember them from the records. They're not imitating bands like The Clash, The Pistols or anyone else (okay, one of them does cover "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones) but are doing their own music with the same intensity, enthusiasm, and anarchic energy that had marked the punk movement. I think Atkins would have been happy just to live in that club, listening and jamming with the bands.
But the object is to record as many of these bands as possible. That means he not only has to get them into the studio but he has to get them to sign a contract that gives him permission to sell their music. Atkins never says who, but he finds out that somebody has started putting the word out to the bands that they shouldn't sign with him. So although he had a couple of wonderful days in the studio with the traditional singers, and some amazing Tibetan folk singers, he's not having any luck getting the bands to come in and record, let alone sign contracts.
The clock is ticking – he's only got sixteen days – and his budget has already been blown out of the water as everything is costing him a small fortune more then it should. Will he get the bands to sign and record? Well, of course he does because the CD was released over a year ago; yet even knowing that, you can't help sharing his frustration and anxiety. What a waste if this would have been all for nought. Atkins also said something really brilliant at one point which proved to me his integrity and that he really was doing it for the music.
It didn't piss him off so much that somebody was saying don't record with him; what pissed him off was that they weren't offering an alternative to him. It would have been one thing to say, here, come record with us instead of him, and he might not have liked that but he would have understood. However, to just tell bands not to record with him, but not offer them anything else as an alternative means it wasn't about the music, but just more of the political shit that he had to deal with in America.
Some of the best scenes in the movie, or at least the ones I enjoyed the most, were the ones where Atkins is being filmed working with the musicians. Some of the band members spoke some English, and there was a translator present, so communication wasn't a problem, and he was usually able to get across to all involved what was required to get the sound just right. What really made these scenes in the movie special though, was watching him reveling in the music and the joy he took in working with these young men and women (there are far more women involved in rock and roll in China than over here). If you needed any proof that Martin Atkins is sincere about his motivations for being in China you only have to watch his face while listening to the bands while he's recording them, or hear him make excuses so he can be in the studio with the Tibetan musicians because he can't stand the idea of being separated from them by the glass of the control room. It's in those moments that you see the true depth of his passion for the music.
Sixteen Days In China is a fascinating trip led by an extraordinary guide. Like the music he plays and loves, there is nothing cold or clinical about Martin Atkins, and this DVD reflects that passion. They've included as a special feature on the disc music videos for the band Snapline's song "Pornstar" and China Dub Soundsystem's "Yellow Cab". If you love rock and roll, watching this DVD will help you remember all over again how exciting the music can be.