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Music Review: Martin Atkins & Various Performers - Made In China and Look Directly Into The Sun

December 16, 2007

Written by Richard Marcus, OH
December 15, 2007

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.
Carsick Cars.jpg
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

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".

You can find out a lot more about these bands and the music if you go to
Martin Atkin's website and Invisible Records.
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