Saturday, March 31, 2012

Another Top Five Basslines - 'Chuggers'

A few months back I did my first 'Top Five' on favourite basslines and it proved to be one of my more popular posts. I said at the time that this idea would probably evolve into its own sub-series, because in the process of compiling the first selection I'd thought of probably a couple of dozen more songs that I really ought to have at least given a mention to.

I also started groping towards a classification of great basslines into three main types: hooks (quite simple bass figures that are one of the most prominent features of the song and somehow just have that 'earworm' quality - hear it once and never forget it), chuggers (even simpler and more repetitive bass figures that drive the song forward powerfully and drill their way into your brain more by sheer relentlessness than any particular 'hooky' quality), and, er, well a third category which I'm still struggling to come up with a good name for: I called it hoopy at first (the kind of bass that's often not so front-and-centre of the mix but buried in the heart of the music... weaving sinuously through it with a restless energy and inventiveness; a lot of Paul McCartney's work with The Beatles and Colin Moulding's with XTC is like this).

Anyway, that first selection was all classic hooks; so, this time out, I thought I'd go for some chuggers.

Play LOUD, and enjoy.

5)  I Won't Back Down
Ha! That might well be my theme song! Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was one of those albums that just about everyone bought at the end of the '80s. I don't think I'd heard of him before that, but kept an eye out for other stuff of his thereafter: I particularly liked the soundtrack he did a few years later for Edward Burns's second film, She's The One. This song comes up quite a lot on the playlist down at my local bar, and it suddenly struck me what a perfectly simple exemplar of the chugger this is: it isn't loud, it isn't fast, it isn't angry; it doesn't do anything very much; it hardly varies at all; but it carries the song along, just chug-chug-chugging like an outboard motor on medium revs. I hadn't known until just now that Jeff Lynne (of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame) was playing bass on this. (And Ringo Starr appears to be playing drums in this video, although it was Phil Jones on the album. Not sure what's going on with that!)

4)  Smells Like Teen Spirit
Nirvana rather passed me by at the time. I was flat broke, so didn't have the wherewithal to go buying new records. And I still had some hundreds of records I'd impulsively picked up in the bargain bin over the preceding decade and seldom or never played. So, new music wasn't getting much of a look-in during the early '90s. I discovered them some years on, after Kurt's death, and while I admired the musicianship, could understand why they had been hailed as the most important representatives of the 'Seattle sound', they never found a place in my heart. This album, though, and this song have a dark intensity that's impossible to dismiss... and Krist Novoselic's bass throbs so broodingly through it, conjuring exactly that kind of relentlessness I was thinking of when I was trying to define the categories above.

3)  Paranoid
Ah, the indispensable heavy rock chugger! Crikey, I hadn't realised that this was 42 years old. I only got to know Ozzy a dozen or so years later: I don't think I've ever seen footage of him this young before - spooky! Ozzy was just 21 in this video, and Terry 'Geezer' Butler, chugging away at pretty high revs on the bass, was only 20.

2)  Lust For Life
Damn, it's hard to find a good studio version of the Iggy Pop classic on Youtube. This is the new video brought out to accompany the song's prominent use in Danny Boyle's 1996 breakout film Trainspotting, but I think it's the original 1977 studio version, with Tony Sales driving along the bass (his brother Hunt plays the drums here, which gives you that extra level of tightness you don't often find in a rhythm section).

And in the top spot this time we have...

1)  White Wedding
I used to have the 12" of this (one of the very few I ever bought), but I can't now recall who was credited as the bassist. I had thought it was Phil Feit, who I remember as being the regular bass player in Billy Idol's touring band, but it's hard to verify this online: one contributor to a bassists' forum suggests that on the record it was Sal Cuevas, who's known primarily as a salsa and jazz player. One of the GREAT chuggers, whoever was playing it! Ah, the '80s - we were young then. Well, I was.

Friday, March 30, 2012

O brave new world!

I went over to Tianjin this week (for the first time in ages), and discovered - in the big mall over the road from the Olympic football stadium - this, the Swiss Club, which advertises such intriguing delights as "Swiss red wine". Who knew such wonders existed? (Odd how Switzerland seems to be following me around in recent years!)

Given the general tackiness of its appearance, and its grandiose pretensions to being a 'Club', I rather doubt if any actual Swiss people are involved in this venture. In fact, I found myself irresistibly reminded of Swiss Toni: "Running a bar in China is like making love to a beautiful woman..."

HBH 279

Pretty girls warble;
Weird instruments disappoint.
Not worth the money.

I nipped in to Jianghu last night to catch the last of a series of concerts by the Dong Chorus, a small choir of performers (three girls, three boys) from the Dong ethnic group of southern China who've been playing a number of shows around Beijing over the past couple of weeks.

I baulked slightly at the 80rmb door fee being demanded, but thought I'd bite the bullet because I'd heard good things about this group. Unfortunately, ennui set in very quickly, and I could barely survive 30 minutes of it. The girls were extremely pretty; that was probably all that made the show survivable for more than 10 minutes. The ethnic costumes were... well, very "ethnic". And the local instruments the guys occasionally played... well, I was curious to see what they'd sound like, but they weren't much used. I commented to a friend via SMS that they had a very rough-and-ready finish to them, looked in fact "like a shoddy junior school craft project"; I went on, "A balsa wood lap fiddle, how good is that going to sound?? Hm, not very!"

The problem, I think, is the commoditization of ethnic culture in China. You see this kind of thing all the time: on TV shows, in advertisements, in 'local colour' performances staged every hour, on the hour, for tourists passing through one of the ethnic enclaves, in 'variety' extravaganzas at your local theatre several times a year (I've been to a fair few, the obligatory hospitality that 'foreign experts' here are subjected to by state employers), and at dinner shows in slightly upmarket regional restaurants. The government sponsors a lot of this for propaganda purposes, to demonstrate how well integrated China's diverse ethnic communities are, and what an adornment to the national culture their quaint folk customs are. So, much of the time the costumes and the instruments are cheap, tacky, mass-produced copies. The songs and dances may be inauthentic too, syrupy arrangements with modern instruments pandering to the 'elevator music' taste of the mass market here and bawdy lyrics bowdlerised. Quite often, you don't even have genuine members of the minority group in question, but regular Han Chinese performers impersonating them.

The Dong Chorus may be the real deal. But I couldn't help thinking that I'd seen it all before, that I probably could have seen the same kind of thing at the Guizhou Provincial Restaurant and - for 80 kuai! - got a nice supper along with it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Last night's experimental appearance by the wildly popular tribute band The Beijing Beatles in the cosy environs of 12 Square Metres (the cramped space and bare brick walls nicely evocative of Liverpool's famous Cavern Club where The Beatles first made their name) was a slow-building success. At first, we'd feared that the band might decide to cancel it, since almost nobody had turned up to watch them by the originally advertised start time, and even when they finally made a start nearly an hour-and-a-half later, the audience was rather thin. However, boisterous frontman Don Lemon made a sterling effort to entice passers-by in from street, frequently wandering off mid-song to perform at the top of the stairs outside. Ultimately, it was the music spilling out into the street through the open door and window more than these spirited busking forays that started attracting more and more interest (although for a long time it looked as though people might be satisfied with listening to a song or two from outside, before continuing on their way); within an hour, we had decent numbers in the bar, and the musicians were really starting to have fun, and trying out a bunch of stuff they don't usually include in their regular sets. They ended up playing for more than an hour-and-a-half without a break... and then coming back to do Hey Jude and a couple more as encores.... and then getting sucked into a raucous jam session with a couple of the punters.

The band made a late decision that they would bring amps for their electric guitar and bass rather rely just on acoustic instruments as they'd originally planned. Percussion, though, was restricted to tambourine and hand drum, which made an interesting change. They didn't have microphones, so Don struggled occasionally to impose his voice over the electric guitar, but in general the sound balance was pretty good. 12 SqM actually has a really nice acoustic (bizarrely, there's a real sweet spot in the far corner of the room, through the other side of the bar - god knows how that works!), and makes a great venue for intimate shows like this (The Randy Abel Stable did a great show there a few months ago as well). I think our Fake Four will be back to do this again.

Odd that the early turnout was so weak, though. MB and LJ at the bar had got the word out early, and had prominent notices in the listings sections of all the expat magazines for this month. And the band themselves usually advertise to their fanbase and bring along their own entourage of friends and regulars. Perhaps people were discouraged by the would-be early start (8pm is a bit early for most people to get out of work, cross town, and have dinner) or the threatened door charge (a very modest 25rmb cover was originally proposed, soon abandoned; but some people just HATE door fees on principle [I'm one of them, actually!]). Perhaps there was too much else going on ('Hump Day' is always pretty busy; although last night was in fact relatively uncrowded in the gig schedule). Or perhaps it was just the vicious drop in temperature; after a blissfully warm - forget about spring, this almost feels like summer! - kind of day, it plunged to near freezing yesterday evening; foot traffic on Nanluoguxiang was accordingly rather light.

Who knows?! That's Beijing for you - it's tough to run a bar here because the behaviour patterns of the clientele are so goddamned variable.

I'm relieved it all turned out OK in the end. Better than OK: it was a really magical little show - an early contender for the year's best.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Band Naming landmark approaches

My silly Invent a band name challenge thread (originally BIG in 2008; I revived it just a couple of weeks ago), is now closing in on its 200th comment.

Can you claim the glory of being the 200th commenter?

If you can (and come up with a decent band name suggestion in the process), I may produce a prize of some sort for you. No promises, but I'll do my best.

Head over there now and get naming!!

[Oh dear, this has been a bit of a fizzle; the thread seems to have run out of steam this week. I fear part of the problem is that my blogs - and that post, in particular - have become just about the most heavily blocked thing in China... thanks to my pal Brendan suggesting Bo Xilai's Political Future as a possible band name. And I then couldn't resist querying whether this was a re-branding of the self-destructively named band Cancelled Due To Lack Of Interest, which someone had proposed earlier in the thread. A few days later, band-naming stalwart Gary chipped in with the dangerously plausible (as a band name, I mean!) Bring Back Bo & The Chongqing Counterstrike. I now really have NO CHANCE of getting another visa this year!

However, we are now - 2.30pm my time on Thursday 29th, that is - ONLY TWO COMMENTS away from the bicentennial.]

Monday, March 26, 2012

Hmmm, chilli!

Hutong beer haven Great Leap Brewing launched its spring season on Saturday afternoon with a Chilli Cook-Off competition.

I love me a good chilli, so this was an irresistible temptation for me. (Also, having got up at 7am to finish a mammoth article on marketing theory for a "Friday deadline" that I'd only been told about on Thursday evening, I felt in need of a little treat.)

The various chillis in competition were all very different, quite easy to distinguish; and all were pretty tasty. I had thought at first that the tiny plastic 'tasting cups' we were using were a bit niggardly, likely to be unsatisfyingly small, but in fact they accommodated a surprisingly decent four or five mouthfuls... and after sampling the 9 or 10 different mixtures on offer, I was starting to feel reasonably full (although the cornbread and dumplings being offered by the guys down at the far end of the tasting line certainly helped with that).

The official results - chosen by a panel of well-known Beijing chefs - don't seem to have been posted yet. (Aha - they have now.) The clear winner for me was the one that styled itself Long March Mete (??!! I can't find any reference to that as a Spanish cooking term. Maybe its creator just meant Meat? Or Mate??): this had benefitted from a really long slow cooking process, emerging rich in both taste and texture, much darker and sludgier (a good thing, for me!) than any of the others. Second place was a tough call between Kevin's Chorizo & Chinese Hot Sausage recipe and the memorably (subconscious-manipulatingly) named 'You'll eat it, and you'll like it!', which, with plenty of tomatoes and red kidney beans and a very nicely balanced flavour, was the closest to what you typically get - or hope to get - in a bar or restaurant chilli. Kevin (one of the winners, we were told, in a major Chilli Cook-Off in Brooklyn last year) explained that his chilli had no actual peppers in it, but was flavoured purely with the spices that had leached out of the sausages he'd sliced into it. I find that hard to believe, but, if true, it had worked astonishingly well, producing a fine slow-build heat that didn't overwhelm but eventually proved to be, surprisingly, the fieriest of the lot. However, I also found a slight hint of sweetness in this one that didn't appeal to me so much, which, along with its austere abstinence from any vegetable content, relegated it to a very close third place.

Honourable mentions should also go to Chile (not just a country!) and the Santorum. Chile was made by a young Irish couple, who generously loaded their spicy stew with vegetables, including some big chunks of potato - which may offend purists, but I like the variety and the fillingness of it. Santorum had a really interesting blend of flavours, and was probably the second hottest, but it was a bit runny for my taste; and the roasted peppers in it may perhaps have been over-roasted a little, producing an aftertaste that was a bit more ashy than smoky.

There was also a guy with an inventive duck-based recipe - although that may perhaps have been taking the "Chinese characteristics" idea a little too far. He was using Hainan yellow peppers, which I'd never heard of, but did seem to have an excellent flavour. Unfortunately, duck evidently breaks down into long fibres when you stew it, which doesn't make for a particularly appealing appearance or texture.

Apologies to the other three or four competitors whose names I've forgotten. I enjoyed all the chillis, but I'm afraid I didn't keep tasting notes (and I did get very drunk later that evening...).

I hope we'll see a few more events like this here over the summer. But perhaps not quite so expensive next time... (Asking a 120 rmb door fee for an event with basically no overheads is really a bit of a cheek!)

And don't pussyfoot around with the HEAT next time. Bring on the Guatemalan Insanity Peppers! (Ooh, a possible band name, that?)

Bon mot for the week

"If you greatly desire something, have the guts to stake everything on obtaining it."

Brendan Behan  (1923-1964)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Emerging from hibernation

Everybody's favourite hutong cocktail bar MaoMaoChong is finally set to open its doors again this evening, after a long closedown over the winter. It has been much missed for the past four months.

Also waking up for the spring is Great Leap Brewing, which is greeting the new season by holding a Chilli Cook-Off event from 4pm on Saturday. [A "source close to the owners" suggests to me that they're not yet ready to re-open fully, and will just be doing one-off events like this. I don't know if this is because they can't be bothered to run the place as a regular bar, or because they're getting enough private bookings that they don't need to, or if they're still having licensing difficulties. I must investigate further tomorrow.]

So, that's the next two evenings taken care of. And I'm sure there's something on Sunday too...

HBH 278

Ten years' merriment!
Energy dies, people leave...
All parties end.

It is really starting to look as if I am nearing the end of my time in China (as if we all are!). An odd sense of dislocation, and a mounting terror of the unknown are setting in...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How not to do it - opening a bar

A couple of weeks ago, I was tipped off about a new bar opening in my neighbourhood - so, I thought I'd go and give it a try.

There are many, many bad and pointless Chinese bars opening up all over the place - particularly in my neighbourhood! - all the time; most of them I never get around to checking out; and most of them don't endure for very long. Therefore, I am somewhat perversely glad that, for once, I went to the trouble of scoping this place out... because it superbly epitomises so much of what is STUPID about most Chinese bar owners in Beijing, it is a text book on how not to.

Things that are probably better to avoid:

Setting up off the strip
Sure, some places - good places (like MaoMaoChong or Amilal or El Nido) - can establish themselves as 'destination bars', somewhere that's worth a small excursion off the more regularly beaten track. And more true 'neighbourbood bars', 'locals' serving the population who live in the immediate vicinity (like The Brick) rather than the general after-work drinking crowd, would be a welcome addition to the Beijing scene. But, in general, there's a reason why bars and restaurants cluster together around Sanlitun and Gongti and Nanluoguxiang and Houhai and Wudaoying and Wudaokou. Most 'lone wolves' die of starvation. Hence, the bar that inspired me to write this is immediately setting itself a bit of a challenge by opening up on Gulou Dongdajie (a street of shops and restaurants, not bars), mid-way between the Houhai and Nanluoguxiang bar enclaves (nearby, but perhaps not quite near enough).

Impossible to find/No name outside
The 'speakeasy' craze has tried to make a virtue of obscurity, elevating being unadvertised, unlabelled, hard-to-find into a quirky marketing gimmick. I don't like the idea much myself, but I can see that it might sometimes work - with a very special kind of bar (a trendy, upmarket cocktail bar). With most bars, it is simply commercial suicide: if you don't put a sign out front, you are never going to have any business. Guess what my new bar forgot to do?

Being upstairs, in a mall
Of course, I long ago identified this as one of the defining characteristics of a bad bar. If there is one thing that's arguably even worse, it's being upstairs in a mini industrial estate. Oh, and set back off the main street. At least this place is in quite a bustling area, a very central location in the city. And it's upstairs from a highly visible motorcycle-and-sidecar dealership, which makes it fairly easy to find once you know the secret.

Unclear or naff or multiple names
The bar in question is ostensibly called Zhou in Chinese. Apparently, that's the zhou that means 'axle', not the one that means 'porridge' (nor any of the other 100-odd zhou words; it's a troublesomely multifarious syllable - although I think this is the only one, or the only common one, with a rising second tone). However, the posters that flank the door proclaim instead iBeer - very hip and modern; and I'm sure Apple won't mind. Ah, but the business cards announce that the 'English name' is Eje Beer Club. The owner tells me that 'eje' is the Spanish for zhou, i.e., for 'axle'; so, at least there's some consistency there. Unfortunately, his Spanish is about as good as my Chinese, so I am unable to reach an understanding of why he has chosen to call his bar this... in Chinese and Spanish, but not in English. [One is reminded of the worst bar on Nanluoguxiang, which has long suffered the handicap of having not one but two of the most ridiculous names to be found in this city: LogIn Pub and Wiggly Jiggly's. And also of the little Moroccan restaurant opposite the April Gourmet supermarket on Xingfu Ercun, which has signs outside identifying it as Argana and Escobar and Casablanca; not naff names, but too many of them - this confusion of identity no doubt explains why it has never developed the kind of following that its prime location and tasty food deserve.]

Inconsistent theme or lack of branding
It was also unclear to me why such a very Asian bar (think Japanese or Korean: bright, garish, would-be space-agey, with lots of chrome and shiny plastic and mirrors) would give itself a Spanish name. And then specialise in Belgian beer. While playing (at least while I was there) exclusively reggae music. This is a bit too much of a cultural mélange: customers don't understand what you're trying to give them here.

Horrible decor
I already mentioned the gleaming plastic and the overuse of mirrors, didn't I? There are also some 'homemade' booth seats along the wall with the windows, which are too cramped for anyone - other than, perhaps, very diminutive Asian girls - to actually sit in, and are absolutely rock hard. The centre of the room is filled with small, high, round, gleamingly plasticky tables - most of which have but a single stool placed next to them. So, this is a "beer club" for the solitary drinker?? You'll probably need to wear ski goggles as well, since the lighting sears the eyeballs.

An unwelcoming attitude
It's good to get your mates in to support you in your early days, and to give the impression - however slight and unconvincing - that the place is attracting customers. It's not such a good idea to have these few guys always completely hog what little counter space you have at the bar.  And chain smoke, in a small, poorly ventilated room. (I suppose I should be grateful at least that they weren't playing dice. Although it seemed likely that dice, or cards, or some kind of drinking game would break out shortly.)

Lack of facilities
These days, your own loo - preferably a Western-style sit-upon - is pretty much de rigueur for a bar, or at any rate for one that aspires to be even slightly upmarket. As is a wi-fi beacon (despite half-hearted attempts by the authorites to outlaw wi-fi last summer). And at least one member of staff who can muster a couple of dozen words of English. Zhou may address these deficits in time - but I wouldn't bet on it.

Too near to rivals
Zhou may be just a bit too far away from Houhai or Nanluoguxiang to pick up much random foot traffic (er, if anyone knew it was there anyway...), but it is right next door to two other recent-ish bar openings, Temple and Jam. Temple is a large, divey bar, with Chinese/European ownership, focused on beer and simple cocktails, and putting on a lot of live music; Jam is cleaner, brighter, more upmarket, more Asian in flavour, with a "Japanese/Italian" theme (I kid you not!) and an emphasis on food and fancy cocktails. As it happens, I don't particularly like either of these places; but at least they have a fairly clear idea of what they want to do, and they do it way better than Zhou. I cannot conceive of anyone choosing to go to Zhou rather than to one of these two neighbours.

Falling between two stools
It's particularly unfortunate that Zhou is in many ways so reminiscent of its local rivals. Its emphasis on imported beers, and its attempt to keep prices reasonable (about the one good thing I have to say for it; I think it's probably got the cheapest bottle of Duvel in town at the moment - I just don't like Duvel, unfortunately) would seem to pitch it more in the 'dive bar' category, where it can't hold a candle to Temple (or El Nido). However, its decor and ambience (insofar as it has one) seem to be aspiring more to something Asian-friendly and slightly swish.... like Jam. It is not so much falling between two stools as taking careful aim and diving between them...

Perhaps it can attract enough Chinese - and Japanese and Korean - beer enthusiasts to keep it afloat. But, without some radical changes, it is never going to build any Western custom.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A new distraction

Don't ask me how, but... a couple of days ago I serendipitously discovered the Spirits Notebook, kept by Bill Dowd, an American writer on wine, beer, and travel, and author of a history of whisk(e)y called Barrels & Drams.

I can imagine myself spending quite a lot of time on his New York Beer Trails or Drinking New York blogs, but it is the Spirits Notebook that is sure to consume most of my time - with its intriguing news of Bushmills bringing out a new 'honey' blend, or of French cognac producers branching out into whisky-making, or these unusual  "Chinese"-themed cocktail suggestions.

Oh yes, more hours of my life just disappeared down the drain of the Internet!

Monday, March 19, 2012

A bad deal

I asked The Chairman if he would come out for a drink with me on St Patrick's Day, since he is, like me, a person of Irish ancestry - a generation or two back, at any rate.

He regretfully declined, on the grounds that he had committed himself to travelling out of town for the weekend to do some IELTS examining. (He's supposed to have been giving up - or radically scaling back - that line of work; but his resolve on this point has faltered after just a few months.)

As he put it:  "I've sold my birthright for 40,000 mao."

I replied:  "You could call it 400,000 fen*, and it still wouldn't sound like a good deal."

I then added:  "I hope you've at least got some Jameson's in the hotel mini-bar."

No, not much of a St Pat's this year. All my playmates were otherwise engaged (bloody rugby!!). And mobility was inhibited by foul weather: the day-long damp cold had long looked as if it wouldn't produce anything worse than the persistent mizzle we'd suffered on Thursday, but in the early evening it suddenly developed into a proper rain; within an hour or two, the rain became quite heavy; then it transitioned into sleet; and by 10.30 or so it was snowing like the clappers. So, the city's increasingly ropey taxi service - and much of the rest of its public transportation system - ceased to operate, and everyone was STUCK wherever they happened to be. I couldn't even make it a mile up the road to catch Des & co. playing their Irish songs at Modernista. No, I was trapped in 12 Square Metres all night. Still, there are worse places to get trapped...

[* A mao is slang for the one-tenth of a yuan currency unit. A fen is in theory one-hundredth of a yuan, although it has ceased to exist as a practical unit of currency.]

Bon mot for the week

"Maybe crazy is what they call anybody who's still got magic in them after they're no longer a child."

Robert R. McGammon  (1952-  )

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Great Drinking Songs (31)

Crikey, we haven't had a Great Drinking Song in nearly 7 months! So, obviously, we've got to have one today - St Patrick's Day. (It's also the 100th post under my 'Great Songs' tag, so I'd better pick something extra GOOD...)

How have I not nominated this before? Well, better late than never - here's Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy doing their classic version of the traditional Irish song Whiskey In the Jar.

And here's Gary Moore and a number of other former Thin Lizzy members performing it at a 2005 tribute to Lynott (on 20th August, which would have been his 56th birthday).

And here's a more traditional version from The Dubliners. (I have just learned that they also sang this with The Pogues; the Youtube post of this has good sound quality, but, unfortunately, a still photo only).

I also just turned up some intriguing oddities: versions by The Grateful Dead (a folksy rendition, with particularly bright mandolin), Smokie (of whom I'd never heard before: a moderately successful Yorkshire rock band of the '60s and '70s, their take on the song is quite similar to Thin Lizzy's), Metallica (a 'tribute' to Thin Lizzy that it might have been more respectful to omit), and.... Elvis (well, not really, no; it's an Irish Elvis impersonator called Jim Brown).

I've also posted some versions of The Wild Rover over on Froogville today. Double happiness!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Too much happening, all at the same time

Last night I went to a Premature Paddies event (at Danger Doyle's of all places, god help me!) organised by a cabal of alumni groups.

We have the real thing tomorrow...
... with a raft of events competing for my attention (Blackwater at Modernista? The Beijing Beatles at Temple? Steerage somewhere?? Enticing specials at 12 Square Metres and Salud!).

But first, I'm supposed to be going to the opening game of Beijing Guo'an's season - against the reviled Shanghai Shenhua - tonight at the Workers' Stadium.

And then... our favourite blues-rockers Black Cat Bone are doing a reunion/farewell gig at 2 Kolegas, since their long-time drummer Jon Campbell is back in town to promote his book Red Rock at the Bookworm International Literary Festival. I also have a ticket to see him speak at the Worm tomorrow afternoon. It is a toss-up as to which of us will be in worse shape for that. (I'll be impressed if he shows up! The Bone always play long and late at 2K. It could be particularly extreme this time, since the show's been put together at short notice, and tacked on to the end of an existing bill... of three [or four, or five??] bands; so, they probably won't be taking the stage till 1am or 2am, and will be going on till god knows when. It could get UGLY. And then Mr Welton will inevitably insist on breakfast at The Den...)

And then.... on Sunday afternoon, MaoMaoChong is finally (maybe??) supposed to be reopening... if anyone is still ALIVE. I fear it might look a bit like the Zombie Apocalypse...  [Ah, well, in fact... NO. The weekend relaunch plan was perhaps always a bit over-optimistic, and new paint and varnish just hasn't been drying in this damp weather we've had in Beijing for the past few days.  S + S are pushing things back a bit, till the middle of the week, probably.]

HBH 277

Waiting forever;
No menus and no service;
Worst bar in the world.

I was enticed back to Danger Doyle's last night - for the first time in well over a year. I was willing to give it another chance, hoping it might have improved somewhat from its abysmal earlier impressions.

It had not. I stayed for all of about 15 minutes - as long as it took to convince me that I was NEVER going to get served.

To be fair, the staff were working quite well under difficult conditions. But there appeared to be NO DRINKS LISTS anywhere (a problem continuing from their early days three years ago!!). There were no lists of the specials being offered for this event. And there were apparently no extra staff laid on (for a quite heavily attended alumni group party). When you're busy, it's really important to let people know what's available and how much it costs without having to ASK every time.

Some table service would have been in order, too. And some attentiveness from the bar staff - rather than all crowding together in the middle of the bar, and pretty much demanding that punters come up to them and grab them by the throat in order to place an order. It was a vision of hell on earth.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Identity parade

My pal Ruby posted a fun challenge yesterday - a poster with cartoon depictions of famous guitarists.

The resolution, alas, isn't that great. And nor are some of the likenesses. Yngwie Malmsteen?! I have a couple of his albums (although I haven't listened to them in at least 25 years), but I quite literally cannot pick him out of a line-up now. There is something of a generic look to '80s metal types... and to early '70s prog rockers.

I nailed about half of them - but more from recognising the guitars than the costumes or the hairstyles.

Give it a whirl.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How not to do it - promotions

Red House (II), the disastrously uncharismatic new dive bar near Dongzhimen (the one thing a dive bar should have is 'character'!) that I visited briefly last week (for five minutes too long), is compounding the folly of its so-cheap-you-don't-trust-it 5-kuai beer promotion with an INSANE 'happy hour' offer.

It's all-you-can drink for 20 kuai (which leads you into the so-cheap-it's-effectively-FREE territory that I castigated here). But it's only for two hours, those hours being 10pm-12am. And it's only one day a week, that day being Friday. And it's only on that we-virtually-GIVE-IT-AWAY-anyway draught lager that's too skanky to drink. So, really, what is the goddamned POINT?

I am sure it will draw some interest from the city's most determined budget drinkers. I am equally sure that they will only visit during the period of that offer, and will not be sufficiently favourably impressed with the place to think of becoming regular customers. Thus, it is a complete waste of time.

My own beloved 12 Square Metres isn't entirely blameless in this regard, though. I have often carped that their 'happy hour' - featuring a modest reduction on only two items, house wine and draught beer - is not really very happy at all. We can blame the original laoban JK for that: he didn't really approve of the 'happy hour' concept (although he did like indulging his creativity by coming up with bizarre combination offers that no-one [except me] was ever likely to order) and, I think, only introduced one under sufferance - in order not to lose my custom. But the newbies MK and LJ haven't yet seen the wisdom of trying to make the 'hour' a little happier

Moreover, while they have shown commendable innovation in coming up with new ideas for events and drinks deals, they haven't always been very effective in advertising them (the website is great, but nobody except me looks at it; you really need to start using Twitter and Weibo, my friends), or consistent about the details. The Australia Day promotion on the Coopers Ales, an established all-day tradition under Aussie JK, was touted as following the same formula this year - but we found ourselves ambushed with a (bizarre, pointless, and scarcely advertised) "only after 8pm" proviso (by which time most people were getting ready to leave anyway, having been on the lash all afternoon). The recent every-fourth-drink-FREE deal on Leap Day was again purportedly restricted (according to an inconspicuous note on the website that nobody but me saw) to after 8pm; but, thank heavens, they saw the error of their ways and in fact offered it all day.

It is NOT a good idea to restrict special offers to a very limited number of hours (or other narrow limitations). And, if you do, you really have to advertise those restrictions prominently and consistently.

Terra's new rum bar, I have just remembered, is offering 'happy hour' prices (or two-for-one, or something) all evening on Thursday for teachers. Well, that's nice. I mean, I resent being reminded of my lowly status and puny income, but I'll take whatever compensatory 'privileges' may be going. But how are we supposed to claim this bounty? Students have a student ID card (at least, if they're enrolled in a university programme). There is no equivalent for teachers. If you teach in a university or a state school, you might have a 'Foreign Expert' card. Are we supposed to bring that with us? Tough luck for many folks working for the smaller private schools, who are left to sort themselves out with a 'business visa' and don't enjoy the benefit of 'expert' status. I suppose it's going to have to work on trust. "Do I not look like a teacher? Let me teach you something..."

I think the all-time winner in this category of ineptitude, though, might well be Tun. The last time I looked in there (it must have been two or more years ago, since Dr Manhattan was with me), a blackboard outside was advertising a selection of daily specials that were: a) mind-buggeringly complex; b) unclearly explained; c) off-puttingly expensive; and d) of rather dubious 'value'.

Alas, I can't remember any of the details now. I wish I'd taken notes. Or a photograph.

Tun eventually went out of business. That is why.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Theatre of the Weird

The other night, I went to see a young Brit called David Thomas Broughton - 'experimental folk singer', crossing over into performance art territory - appearing as part of the Bookworm International Literary Festival (and a joint event, I believe, with the concurrent Jue Festival of art and music organised by Splitworks).

Alas, Mr B doesn't seem to be well enough known - or, what is known of him is not sufficiently appealing - to have attracted a paying audience: a large proportion of the few dozen people in attendance on Sunday night were Bookworm staff or, like me, the recipients of giveaway tickets.

BeijingDaze's Badr was there, and I'll be interested to read what he made of the show. I rather feared it would only serve to further prejudice him against Xiao He - Beijing's nearest equivalent, and an artist whose style Badr has been largely resistant to in the past. However, in fact he was grinning good-naturedly throughout, giving every appearance of enjoying the show.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard not to keep looking at the nearby laptop on which the Bookworm staff were recording the performance, and making a note of the elapsed time it was displaying. "Is he really going to keep this up for a whole hour? Has it it only been 20 minutes so far??"

For one thing, Broughton was straying too much into the wanky 'performance art' sphere for my taste (it was an ominous sign to me when he began his show by ritualistically taking off his shoes). He's got quite a good falsetto-ey voice, and he's adept at looping diverse samples together in elaborate and often quite effective ways (there was a kind of '50s doo-wop sequence at one point that actually sounded quite pleasant). The prowling distractedly around the room, and challenging his listeners' personal space by loping up to them and rearranging items on their tables in would-be significant ways, was much less winning.

His improvised (?) 'lyrics' were the worst element to cope with, though; just excruciating. I was soon reminded of Vogon Poetry*; in fact, I was reminded of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings (who was, according to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, the worst poet in the entire history of the universe, whereas the dreadful Vogons were only responsible for the third worst poetry).

Xiao He mostly sings in a deliberately indistinct style, or uses a made-up gibberish language. Hence, his vocals just become part of the music, and you're not distracted by whether his lyrics are actually any good, or have any worthwhile meaning. I think Mr Broughton would be well advised to cultivate a similar technique.

The other big advantage Xiao He has is masterful musicianship: music just drips from almost everything he does; and he can play the ass off his guitar, when he chooses to. Broughton didn't make that much use of his guitar, and although he had quite a nice sound when he did play it, he didn't exhibit much of a technique with the instrument.

I hope Badr, and other experimental music sceptics, will not be put off trying other gigs of this kind. Mr Broughton, I fear, is really not one of the best examples of this type of performer - certainly not in the same class as people like Xiao He and Li Tieqiao.

*  I see the BBC's HHGTTG page has a 'Vogon Poetry Generator' - quite a fun way to waste 5 minutes!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Every saint has a past and every sinner a future."

Oscar Wilde  (1854-1900)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Return of the Band Names game!!

While enjoying the sanba show at Temple with a couple of girlie chums the other night, we achieved the collective realisation that Beijing bluegrass favourites The Randy Abel Stable are now 'big' enough to warrant their own tribute band (Peter immediately asked if he could join; I don't think you can be in your own tribute band...). We have decided to call it The Unstable Table (perhaps, like Brick Tamland, we were just being inspired by random items in our immediate environment....).

Later, challenged to come up with a name for a friend's new band, I suggested Bye Bye Kitty. This is not exactly a new idea, since haters of the noxiously cute Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty arguably outnumber the idolaters, but I don't think it's yet been done as a band name. And such opposition seems particularly needful in China, since attachment to the emetic pussycat is almost universal among young women here. I envisage a logo with the loathsome kitten tied to railway tracks...

But this might also do...

Anyway, this sudden splurge of band-naming frivolity reminded me of The Band Names Game - my 'most popular' post ever on this blog, but lapsed into silence for the past two years. Now seems like an opportune time to try to revive it - follow that link, and get naming!


A remarkable thing has happened. Beijing bar owners have finally discovered the concept of improving their venues, making changes that are actually useful (rather than perverse, pointless, and retrograde) and executed with some taste and and attention to quality.

Luga's has long been struggling with a variety of problems and challenges: its on-again-off-again expansion into the neighbouring basement space, its ambiguous relationship with its sister Vietnamese restaurant upstairs, the threatened loss of its outside pavement café and restricted access/visibility due to the mysterious erection of blue construction fencing right in front of it for several months last year.  But it's starting the new 'season' strongly, with our diminutive entrepreneur having taken advantage of the slow period over Spring Festival to get the builders in. There's now an impressive new glass frontage (replacing that perpetually wonky sliding patio door), which encloses the staircase up to Pho Pho - uniting the two spaces to allow easy sharing of the food between them (their menus are now combined, so that you can order Vietnamese or Tex-Mex dishes in either part of the venue). Not much else has changed inside, but the place feels significantly more classy.

Even more surprisingly, grungy music bar Dos Kolegas also had a long close-down over Chunjie to allow for some remodelling.  They've been able to expand into the unit to the rear of them, creating a small seating area behind the sound desk and allowing for the installation of three new loos (which, for the time being at least, are unbelievably clean) with an improbably swanky washroom area outside (including a huge mirror to help you adjust your make-up or groom your Mohawk). The green room has been slightly expanded, and an extension to the bar added (though not in use last night, since Gao Feng was on his own behind the bar) - taking over the space formerly occupied by the notoriously grotty gents loo (somehow, I'll miss that cracked floor sill that always felt as if it was about to collapse underneath you). It's not all good news: the curtain at the side of the stage - which used to allow a great close-up view of the bands - has been boarded up; and the super-tall speaker stacks have returned (although much skinnier than those awful ones they had for a while a couple of years back; and pushed right over to the sides of the stage, so they don't completely obstruct the view this time).

The best feature of the new improved Kolegas, though, is the expanded bar, with a collection of enormous beer fridges (this is just one of three). They're still going to run out of cold ones once in a while on a busy night, but it'll take a lot more than one hour now. (I wish other venues would take note: MAO Livehouse and Home Plate BBQ, in particular!)

[Some musical 'renovations' going on as well last night, with the splendid Amazing Insurance Salesmen emerging from a 7- or 8-month hiatus that had threatened to be permanent. They seem to be enjoying being back together, playing with tremendous energy and exuberance - and, to my mind, sounding rather rockier than before. I like to think that I may have witnessed an historic turning point in Beijing musical history a couple of months back when I ran into their frontman Jean-Seb paying a rare visit to VA Bar's Wednesday night jam session. He had brought along his acoustic guitar, thinking to try out some of the 'experimental folk' he's been devoting himself to recently; but he was persuaded instead to pick up someone's Telecaster for a couple of songs, and he really got into it. The usually rather glum Frenchman was beaming from ear to ear when he came off stage, and confessed to me that he hadn't played electric in six months and had forgotten how much fun it could be. I really think that might have been the moment when he decided to get the band back together.]

Friday, March 09, 2012

HBH 276

Four or five bars in one night,
A strange adventure.

A funny thing, that, about the bar crawl. Even if none of the individual stops are all that inspiring, the juxtaposition of different bars somehow creates a little thrill all its own. Or perhaps it's just the sense of challenge in seeing how many venues you can shoehorn into one night...

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Drinks can be too cheap

I already expounded about 18 months ago on why I think 'Free drinks' events are a BAD IDEA.

I believe very cheap booze promotions can be counter-productive too. I just came upon an excellent illustration of the point with the newly opened Red House on Xingfu Zhongjie (it would be rather more helpful to call it Red House II, to avoid confusion with its parent bar of the same name, a moderately successful student dive up in Wudaokou next to BLCU). It's selling local draught beer for 5 kuai a pint.

Now, I can think of a few places in the past that did this too - the sadly demised Pizze e' Core, for example, a favourite neighbourhood hangout of mine on Andelu 6 or 7 years ago.  Last time I checked, I think the Russian duo of Traktirr and Traktirr Pushkin (and their nearly indistinguishable neighbour/competitor White Knights) were asking just 7 or 8 kuai for a slightly-less-than-a-pint glass of draught. I've even known a few restaurants that gave the stuff away completely FREE, as part of an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet deal - most of those ersatz 'Brazilian Barbecue' places and the Origus pizza chain. But you see what these ultra-budget options have in common? Yep, they're all restaurants - so the beer giveaway is subsidised by all the food you're going to be ordering.

5 kuai for a full pint of draught is perhaps not quite below cost, but it must be getting quite close, I would think. That should start alarm bells ringing in the back of your head.

But, more importantly, whatever the profit margin, or lack of one, for the owner, it's just too close to being completely FREE, and so it invokes all of those negative consequences I mentioned in that earlier post: penny-pinching by owners (watering down, giving short measures, buying fake or out-of-date stock to trim costs), bad behaviour by customers (drinking too quickly and indiscriminately, getting arsey with the staff), and a breakdown in respect - on both sides - between customers and bar staff.

10 kuai a pint might work. That is beguilingly cheap, it's going to tempt people into a substantial detour to give your joint a try once or twice, but... it doesn't immediately start conjuring doubts about the economics of the offer and the likely - almost inevitably - shitty quality of the product being pushed.

If you offer your beer at 5 kuai a pint, I am expecting the worst.

And the new Red House fully lived down to my negative expectations: the cheap draught beer was absolute skank, and all four of my companions and I left our glasses almost untouched on the table, and walked off within 5 minutes without bothering to risk any other sort of drink there.

I'm afraid it doesn't have anything else going for it, either: the solitary barman looks bored and surly, and hasn't got much of a clue what he's doing; there's absolutely zero ambience; and it doesn't even look like a bar from the outside (the brightly illuminated white sign with oddly inconspicuous red lettering - and no other design at all - being more evocative of a noodle joint or a hairdressing salon, to my mind). There had been two Russian lads in there, but they left within seconds of our arrival (I think they'd been drinking something other than the skanky draught, but hadn't stayed for more than one or two).  This Red House, I would say, is looking DOOMED.

Getting a decent barman and raising the price of the draught beer would be a big help, though.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

For always roving with a hungry heart

A special event at 12 Square Metres tonight: Steven Schwankert, founder of SinoScuba, will be coming along to talk about some of his most interesting dives, and also about the Explorers Club, of which he is a member - a distinction shared with such famous figures as the polar adventurer Roald Amundsen, the astronaut Neil Armstrong, and legendary Kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary (above).

I have a particular fondness for Hillary's famous explanation of his reason for taking on Mt Everest - "because it was there."

That restless spirit of curiosity has been a key motivator in my own life - why did I stop into this bar, order that drink, chat up this girl?

[Unfortunately, I am pledged to another event earlier tonight - the old Beijing curse of too much happening, all at the same time - so I will be struggling to get there in time; I hope to at least catch the second half. It promises to be a fascinating little soiréé.]

Monday, March 05, 2012

Blogger is vexing me

My blog platform, it seems, is conspiring to kill off what little comment thread activity I have left - first by infiltrating a gremlin into the word-recognition security feature, such that it won't approve any comments (at least, if you're trying to use the 'Preview' feature; I was told that, originally, it was still OK if you dispensed with trying to 'preview' your comment), then by introducing a pointless and offputtingly ugly 'new look' for the comment window, and then by inexplicably choosing to remove the 'notify me of new comments by e-mail' facility.  All rather galling.  And unfathomably stupid.

I have been deluged with complaints about all of this (well, five people have e-mailed me; that counts as a lot on this blog!) over the past week or so.  Therefore, I have - reluctantly - decided to disable the word-verification feature for a while.

Doubtless, the perversely resourceful techies at Blogger will find some new way to frustrate attempts to comment. And I'll soon be inundated in spam.

But commenting has been so QUIET on here lately, even spam might be quite diverting for a while.