The Rolling Stones played Shanghai on Saturday night, their first performance in mainland China. The show was a professional rock masterpiece. Jagger and Richards are characters who helped define the rock hero in the 1960s, and while most of their contemporaries have faded, died, or shifted into total retread golden oldie mode, the Stones that Shanghai saw was a vital and relevant demonstration of how to do a rock show today.
I grew up with this music, I remember when Paint It Black was first issued. I am not a hard-core Stones fan, but the opening notes of Gimme Shelter or Satisfaction make my blood surge with both the memories they generate and the power they still possess as masterful demonstrations of how to do pop music hooks, with all the tension and release mechanisms that have made rock such a long-lived musical form.
It made me proud, being there, to be a part of the generation of English males that created this artform, and puzzled that it has yet to be superceded by something else in the same way as big bands and be-bop and other earlier pop music forms were tossed aside. You look at the rock bands on MTV today and you see the same line-up as the Stones in the mid-1960s, the same drum / bass / chord approach to the songs, the lead singer projecting the same attitude that Jagger created 40 years ago.
So here he was in communist China, Mick Jagger singing Sympathy for the Devil. I was waiting for the line: "I rode a tank / Held a general’s rank / When the blitzkrieg raged / And the bodies stank", wondering if he would do it straight, and he did. But I think I can guess what Mick was thinking as he delivered this line in Shanghai.
There was one special element to the concert, and that was for the ballad Wild Horses. Jagger welcomed onto stage Cui Jian, the Godfather of Chinese Rock, to sing and play with him.
Now there’s some history here to relate. The first time Cui Jian ever played with a rock band, it was at a rehearsal of my band, the Peking All-Stars, in Beijing in 1983. He wanted to join the band. He was a young trumpet player with a state variety troupe, but he just didn’t have the rock feel, so I turned him down. Plus at the time, I felt it was unwise to allow a Chinese kid to play in a foreign rock band as there was a government campaign in progress against "Bourgeouis Liberalism".
Cui Jian went on to figure out a way of getting into rock on his own. But my boast that "I rejected Cui Jian for my band" is true, and it means there was a tenuous connection between me, him and Mick on that stage in Shanghai.
But I was disappointed with the way Cui Jian handled the opportunity. He appeared really nervous, and when given the chance to sing a few lines of Wild Horses, as I am sure had been arranged at least a couple of hours earlier, he sang English, when I think he should have sung anything he wanted in Chinese.
At the end of the song, he said a few words: "I hope that the Stones will come back before too long and play in Beijing." Or words to that effect. By taking that approach, he turned his back on the title of Godfather of Chinese rock and limited himself just to the Chinese capital. He should instead of have said something which addressed China as a whole rather than just Beijing.
But I understand. For anyone who has grown up in with rock as a part of their lives, the Stones and Jagger are daunting in the extreme. Cui Jian is still unique and also a great guy. I just hope that when he gets to be on stage with the Stones in Beijing, he says something about Shanghai.