Something odd happened yesterday, I found myself thinking about the The Plastic People Of The Universe. The Plastics, were a Czech rock and roll band that were born out of the ashes of the failed Prague Spring of 1968. The people of the former Czechoslovakia had tried to rid themselves of Soviet rule merely by changing their government. The Soviets didn't agree with the change and sent in the tanks and armies of the Warsaw Pact to re-establish "order".
Taking their name from a Frank Zappa song title, "The Plastic People", The Plastics performed everything from psychedelic rock to avant garde jazz. They never set out to be a political band, but the very nature of what they were doing was the antithesis of state control; creative expression, free thinking, and encouraging that in others is a totalitarian government's worst nightmare. This resulted in the band spending the seventies performing in fields and barns, with concert locations revealed at the last minute, trying to stay one step ahead of the secret police, and spending time in jail for subversion.
It was mainly because of The Plastics that the pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia survived and took shape. They became a rallying point for people like playwright Vaclav Havel, who became the country's first President after the Soviet's left, and inspired protests in favour of artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Even with members of the band in jail they continued to perform on a regular basis underground and had a quite a few albums released in the West via tapes of live shows that were smuggled out of the country.
It's a long way from Prague 1968 to Beijing 2007 in terms of distance and years, but when it comes to the spirit behind the creation of pop music, the similarities far outnumber the differences. You see, what brought The Plastics to mind was listening to two discs that former Public Image drummer Martin Atikns has just produced and released of Chinese pop music. Look Directly Into The Sun is a compilation disc of bands, and Martin Atikns' China Dub Soundsystem Made In China is a collection of music that Atikns recorded with musicians while he was touring China and then re-mastered once he was back in the West.
China is still a country where you go to jail if you disagree too publicly with the government, where people work in horrible conditions for little money, to provide us with most of the cheap consumer products that we buy at Wal-Mart. It's a country where a million people will die of a disease, the government says doesn't exist, and millions of others live in conditions of such extreme destitution that we couldn't even begin to understand what it was like. For all the Brave New Face of China that the pundits and business people like to drool over it is no different from the China that sent tanks into the street against its own people in the late 1980s.
Listening to Look Directly Into The Sun creates a weird sense of temporal displacement as it sounds like listening to punk/new wave circa 1982 when Factory Records in Manchester was churning out album after album of music from disaffected youth being ground under the boot of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. I heard everything from the punk energy of the Clash to the high introspection of Joy Division.
The thing is, I never got the impression that bands like Carsick Cars, Snapline, or Rococo were imitating anybody, There was nothing artificial about their sound or their emotions; none of the posing or pseudo cool that I'd expect from youth their age in almost any other country. They sound like they're discovering the incredible freedom and release that comes from playing with abandon and getting lost in that moment.
Like their counterparts in England in the early 1960s, late 1970s, and early 1980s, and America in the 1950s and 1960s what else do they have in their lives to give them that sense of breaking free? A term in the army oppressing their own people or occupying Tibet and other Himalayan countries? A gruelling job in a factory where industrial accidents are the norm, the hours are long and the pay sucks? Or going to school and learning all the official history and skills that will be of use to the state and eventually being sucked up into the party system to become another cog that keeps the wheels moving?
Options in the West were a hell of a lot better then that and it still gave birth to Rock and Roll in the 1950s, Acid Rock in the Sixties, and Punk in the late Seventies – so it's no wonder that young people in China are creating music that's as volatile and exciting as the stuff that's on Look Directly Into The Sun. The wonder to me is how long they will be allowed to get away with it. I'm sure the whole scene is being carefully monitored and it only exists because for now it is tolerated – but if any signs of unrest became apparent – even a whiff of dissent, you can be sure that all the clubs would be closed for health violations and the music would be banned for being in violation of noise regulations.
Made In China is a wonderful cross section of strange sounds, noises, dubs, instruments, vocals, drum machines, and record scratches that somehow or other adds up to being music. I'm not a big fan of anything "dubbed" usually. With a few exceptions all I've ever heard in the past has been a lot of bass and not much else. But on this disc what Martin Atkins has done is really quite amazing. He found pop musicians who are working with more traditional instruments to go along with some of those that were on Look Directly Into The Sun and the mixture works out beautifully.
In some sort of strange way it gives you a real feel for the dichotomy of what life must be like in a country where the old and the new exist in such close proximity. At the same time it brings to light some of the harsher realities of what it's like to record music where the possibility of repercussions far exceed a parental advisory sticker if it doesn't meet with the approval of the authorities.
Track three is called "Tibetans Vs. The Dirty Girl" and it features a traditional Tibetan group overdubbed with a Chinese girl rapping out something or other that Martin found out latter was incredibly lewd (hence Dirty Girl – they had to guarantee the young woman complete anonymity before she agreed to be recorded). On paper it sounds like it shouldn't work, but somehow or other the mixture of scratches and beats under the sound of traditional instruments isn't as incongruous or discordant as you'd think. The contrast between the haunting sound of their melodies and the rough urbanity of Dirty Girl ends up sounding allegorical to the situation of the modern industrial state of China stomping down on the traditional people of Tibet.
You might think I'm reading a little too much into it, but on the day Martin recorded this track he mentions in his liner notes that China shut down CNN's broadcast into the country because of an incident happening at the Tibetan/Chinese border. It's things like that, and Dirty Girl not wanting Martin to even know her name let alone use it in the credits, that remind you about the crucial differences in reality for the bands on Look Directly Into The Sun and Made In China and young bands in the West.
Sure they both are hoping to land recording contracts, perform for lots of people, and hope their music is popular or at least well received. But only the bands in China have to worry about whether or not they will end up in jail, or waking up one morning to find all their venues closed down and them being forbidden to perform. It was only last year that one of them was told they wouldn't be allowed to open for Sonic Youth as originally planned when the group toured China.
Almost forty years ago a group of Czechoslovakian musicians formed a band because they wanted to play rock and roll music that reflected how they felt about the world. They found out the hard way how unpopular that can make you in a totalitarian regime. Listening to the bands and the music on Look Directly Into The Sun and Made In China I can only wonder what the future holds for them and hope they can at the least live the title of Rococo's song "We Just Free".