Fifteen words started the debacle. “You guys could be the first American Rock band in history to ever play China!” This ambitious statement was born from the lips of Eddie Wenrick, the manager of a failing Hair Metal band called SouthGang, comprised of four native Georgians, Jesse Harte, Butch Walker, Jayce Fincher, and Mitch “Slug” McLee. The band (originally named Byte The Bullet) had gained notoriety on the Sunset Strip in the late 1980’s and were soon picked up by Charisma Records. SouthGang had their fifteen minutes of fame with a single title “Tainted Angel,” but had since lost popularity. By the early 1990’s, SouthGang’s management was tired of the twenty-one year old has-beens hanging around their office and was looking for any way to get them on the road. What Wenrick didn’t consider was that dropping four hot-headed kids from rural Georgia into an extremely politically unstable Chinese democracy may not be such a great idea.
When SouthGang agreed to tour China and Mongolia, it was not solely for the opportunity to experience a culture different from their own. Guitarist Butch Walker explains the decision in his autobiography Drinking With Strangers (2011), “In truth, there was no practical or promotional reason for us to do this. There was no such thing as intellectual property or copyright law there, so it wasn’t like our album was in Chinese stores. We weren’t going to sell anything, and it wasn’t like there were any radio stations there that played SouthGang; hell, there weren’t any radio stations playing us in America.” So what motivated this rowdy group of musicians to take the deal? Money, of course. SouthGang’s management company promised them a sizable amount of money if they completed the tour. Walker reports that it was something like $10,000, which, in today’s terms, wouldn’t even pay for one set from a band with a hit. When all was said and done, SouthGang wouldn’t even get to see that check.
So, SouthGang headed to China for six weeks. At one point on the tour, they were asked to attend a party in Mongolia thrown by the local government, where they were served delicacies like grasshopper and live fish. “That freaked us out,” Walker admits, “for four young guys who ate McDonald’s for every meal: it was weird…” The members of SouthGang didn’t know a word of Chinese, but, as Walker puts it, “We were all knocking back this 180-proof firewater called Old Cellar, and everyone got so wasted because us Southern boys were drinking everyone blind; the officials were so bombed they were falling off their chairs onto the ground. None of us could understand a damn thing the other was saying, but we all spoke the universal language of liquor.” (Walker, 81)
Food and language were not the only cultural obstacles Harte, Walker, Fincher and McLee faced on their tour. Walker claims that the Australian friends they made saved them in China, simply because they taught them the Chinese concept of dog sledding. The Australians and SouthGang rented rickety, rusty ski equipment to use on the border near North Korea and Russia. “Once we reached the top,” Walker recounts “We saw what looked like mangled dog carcasses pressed down into the snow: you could see their tails and the tops of their heads sticking out of the powder. We were like ‘look at all those poor dead dogs over there – that’s messed up…’ Right then, one of the locals runs by, picks up a dog carcass by the tails, jumps on its back, and slides down the hill on it; basically they were using frozen dog skins as sleds.” (Walker, 82)
The biggest culture shock for the four Southern boys came was when they played their second-to-last show in a small Chinese village. “We were playing this one arena in one of the smaller towns, and it was very packed – so much so, they had to seat people on the floor as well.” At a previous show, they had been asked by officials to play the Chinese National Anthem or a song by any Chinese pop artist. Being the temperamental Americans that they were, they opened with a metal version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” So when the boys started to feel the crowd’s excitement in this tiny arena, they took the opportunity to raise hell once again. They urged the audience to stand up – something they had been told by officials not to do. “They were like caged rats that, having been suppressed their whole lives, found this unexpected opportunity to go nuts and just went for it…the crowd started running up on the stage, trying to pull our hair …By the end people had gotten completely out of hand and were going crazy…” (Walker, 84) The officials stepped in and rushed the boys into a van.
“We were completely oblivious to the fact that many of the people in the crowd that night were probably getting beaten, whipped, and sent to prison for rocking out a little too hard to a failing American cock-rock band,” Walker reflects. After that, the band was driven straight to the nearest airport and flown home. They lost the pay promised to them because they did not finish the whole tour and their families had to take out loans to ship their gear home after it was recovered by their loyal roadies.
So why wasn’t SouthGang successful in China? The answer is simple; the environment of China back then was very repressed and hostile, hair metal music was known for being open and energetic, two things that just were not acceptable in China at the time. When one thinks of Chinese music, one does not think about shredding guitars and screaming vocals, and there’s a reason for that. Looking at why certain genres of music evolved in one place compared to another, you have to look at the way people of that area lived, what they believed in. Rap became popular in more urban areas because the lyrics reflected the situations and emotions surround the artist’s particular area and meant something to the audience. N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” was reflective of the town of Compton, California. It became an anthem of sorts to people who lived in Compton and in similar environments.
The themes in Hair Metal did not carry that same kind of weight with a Chinese audience. Even had they understood English, it is doubtful that the Chinese citizens would have understood songs like “Tainted Angel” (Southgang) or “Paradise City” (Guns N’ Roses) because the things represented in those songs had little relevance to their lives. Yet even though the Chinese had no idea what Jesse Harte was even singing about (or even if the band was “good” according to American standards), it is clear that both audiences and authorities alike understood and responded to its powerful energy. In that way the band did succeed in bringing hair metal to China, although it may not have caught on in the way their management had hoped it would.
by Austyn Castelli
- Drinking With Strangers copyright 2011 by Butch Walker, published by HarperCollins