CC Issue 16 / Music

Best Shows Ever – Part 1

NOFX in Hong Kong 2005

A decade on from the first time I put a scratched up copy of “I Heard They Suck Live” – a Secret Santa gift from a classmate – into my discman, the infamous NOFX washed up onto the shores of Hong Kong. I had a number of opportunities in the previous half a decade to watch the punk legends in Chicago, but always felt the experience would disappoint – as if the memory of listening to NOFX as a kid would always eclipse seeing them live as an adult. But when the band put Hong Kong on a surprising tour schedule that looked more like a backpackers’ improvised itinerary, I knew I could not resist.

The missus, who I had only known for a short while at that point, had tickets and her friends in the local band Shepherds the Weak were doing security – so, in the end very little deliberating went into whether or not I would go. I don’t remember much prior to the show – most likely the occasion consisted of a few beers somewhere in Lan Kwai with Mei and the Shepherds’ gang before the short but taxing walk uphill to Caritas College (a strange reenactment, I sensed, of all those hikes up that hill in Aberdeen to the Warehouse).

Now there aren’t many places to have a punk show in Hong Kong, but the Caritas College is certainly one of the most peculiar. It resembles every local school built in the 1970’s – complex and spiraling stairwells, poorly lit at night, with a cavernous asbestos-ridden assembly hall where the show would take place. Some gweilos* hung around the courtyard outside the hall, smoking and drinking beers from 7-11 (despite the laughable warnings against such behavior at a Christian campus). I wondered if these unfamiliar faces were following the group around Asia, or if they’d just come down to Hong Kong from teaching English in Mainland Nowhereville for this show, or if, in fact, they lived here and I just didn’t know any punks anymore.

King Ly Chee opened up and although I have never been too crazy about their sound, you have to respect what they’ve built – outlasting any and every short lived expat band. They were amped, as is to be expected, and so were their faithful following. As King Ly Chee finished up their set, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea that NOFX would play next – a band from the punk Mecca of California, a band on the famous Epitaph Records, the band that started Fat Wreck Chords. The evening seemed like any other strange Hong Kong underground show – little cliques scattered around, formed with strangers you’ve seen a dozen times; lots of waiting around and wishing you had drunk a little more beer or that you still smoked cigarettes.

Finally Fat Mike, El Hefe, Melvin and Smelly took to the stage. The band tore through a medley of classics mixed with a smattering of new tracks. Of course the older tracks brought smiles to the faces of the elder punters in the crowd and the youngsters got really excited when they played the newer tracks I’d never heard before. For most of the show I stood with Mei and just enjoyed proceedings from a safe distance, but when Smelly’s drum fill introducted “Reeko” I slipped away. “I’ll be back in a second.”

As Fat Mike screamed “Mister President please understand…” and I flew off the stage, giving Glen from Shepherds my most vehement middle finger salute he must have thought I had gone quite mad (my behavior not at all like the quiet, shy sort I usually project). As I levitated above the crowd I caught the sight of a few familiar faces – Ian with the biggest smile on his face and Doug and Alexi looking like they were passing time and waiting their turn for NOPDOGS to take the stage.

NOFX were exactly as you expect them to be – drunk, funny, crass, sloppy, powerful, and constantly trying to score drugs. Like the Las Vegas they love, NOFX fit their own cliché perfectly and yet still manage to affect such a strong reaction. Everyone should be so lucky as to have their favourite childhood band play a small show in their hometown – just as you reach an age when you are supposed to set aside childish memories and playthings.

* Gweilo – the appropriate term to refer to a white person you don’t recognize, therefore signifying they’ve only been in Hong Kong for, at most, a couple years and should be treated with the same contempt that the locals treat you after twenty odd years of residence in the city.

The Strokes in Chicago 2001

In 2001 The Strokes were the hottest shit that ever existed. Their first couple of singles had the critics in raptures. They had impeccable fashion sense. The lead singer’s father ran a modeling agency – so there was no end of PR savvy and hype. A prime example of this is their genius marketing move to initially release their debut “Is This It” exclusively in the UK where NME and other press already adored their retro-sound/image – not to mention the decision to use a separate risque, possibly Spinal Tap-esque, album cover. Of course I mail ordered the UK version to have the album prior to the band’s Stateside tour. Good thing too, because after September 11 the far superior “New York City Cops” was replaced with “When It Started” on the US version. But prior to that US release date, and just days after September 11, The Strokes were scheduled to play Chicago.

Considering that The Strokes were the hottest shit on the planet at that time I did not, of course, have tickets to the show. Tickets that cost $15 at face value were going for up to $300 dollars on eBay. Being young, less pessimistic and generally less lazy, my old pal Jeremy and I decided to trek down to the city (south from Northwestern for Jeremy; east from the suburban wastelands of Wheaton for myself) and see what we could do to get tickets. (For my part I was prepared to hawk Jeremy off to any Islamic terrorist in search of a hostage in order to see The Strokes. I have no idea the extent of Jeremy’s intent.)

We got to Addison station an hour or so before the show started and proceeded to ask anyone under 40 years of age coming out of the station if they happened to have any extra tickets. Within a quarter of an hour a kind soul sold us two tickets at face value. Shocked at our good luck and the amount of time we had before the show, we scarfed down some god-awful fast food and then made our way to the Metro, where the less intelligent ticket-less fans were begging outside the venue.

A band called The Moldy Peaches opened up proceedings. They were quirky and good for a short laugh, but got boring after a couple minutes and overall were pretty abysmal. They finished playing around 10:00pm – around the time The Strokes were expected to take to the stage. As the stage hands broke down the Peaches’ gear and set up for the main act, the anticipation was palatable – that surprising kind of physical euphoria that manifests an abstract out-of-control hype surrounding a band about to peak (before the posers descend and you hear the band while shopping at Safeway or in a television advert for Ford). The Strokes knew how to pander to this phenomenon – here was possibly the most anticipated show of the year and the only people with their album had purchased it from the UK.

11:00pm rolled by and the crowd showed signs of anxiety. Towards the front a dude beside me did a couple bumps from a vial to keep up with all the vodka tonics he had consumed. Someone in the balcony didn’t do enough bumps and puked over the railing onto the unfortunates below. I was underage, and stone cold sober, but still pretty damn excited.

By midnight I was less excited and, in fact, suddenly hated The Strokes. The carb/sugar/adrenaline high from the fast food and cheap tickets had worn off and I was exhausted from standing still for hours. Amidst my intense dislike for The Strokes I had, in the back of my mind (the romantic, yet not unreasonable part) the indelible realization that this was fucking rock’n roll. The hype, the ticket chaos, the drugs, the overindulgence, the eternal wait – it was all part of the nostalgia for an earlier, romanticized era of rock’n roll (the comparisons rolled off the printing press before most had even heard The Strokes’ own songs: The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Television).

When the band finally took the stage they tore it up like the rock stars they knew they were. The drummer Fabrizio Moretti kept the rhythm tight, and along with the lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. – such fabulous names – were the only band members who looked capable of any physical movement beyond what you would expect from a morphine addict. The bassist Nikolai Fraiture and other guitarist Nick Valensi played competently but gave the impression that you, the audience, had just wandered into their private practice space and that you have no right to be in attendance as you had not, like the rest of the band, been friends since grade school. Casablancas played his role as the front man to perfection. He mumbled incoherently in between songs, he screamed his guts out or he just acted like he didn’t give a shit whatsoever. In truth the band could have done anything they wanted on stage, they could have done nothing at all and still held the audience in the palm of their hands. It was fucking rock’n roll and, in the 21st century, that is a rare commodity.

Envy, Tokyo Sex Wale, Pridebowl in Hong Kong 1997

I had already been to a handful of shows by the time the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China and the realization set in that nothing drastic or interesting was going to happen. Still, I had never seen a band from overseas perform live. So when news surfaced that Pridebowl, a Swedish band fronted by a Californian, would perform at the Warehouse I got as giddy as a fifteen year old punk is allowed to get.

Pridebowl were familiar to the Hong Kong kids through the debut release from Ling Lao Records, a compilation titled Hong Kong…Punk Wonders Never Cease. The album featured bands from all over the world – the US, Australia, Sweden, and of course Hong Kong – and I listened to it religiously. In those days prior to internet shopping or mp3’s, any punk record you could get your hands on was golden. Compilations too, were much more important than today – introducing snippets from bands you might never have heard otherwise. They were musical gateway drugs and so came relatively cheap (Survival of the Fattest from Fat Wreck Chords came with the label “Pay no more than $4”).

The two tracks from Pridebowl on Punk Wonders were classic melodic, frenetically paced, new school punk. Of the two I liked Drippings From the Past best – the refrain, “Life is like a fucking candle, waiting to melt away”, somehow struck a chord in my naive fifteen year old heart. Perhaps it was just the word fuck that incited such a strong reaction. He said fuck, he must be singing about something really, really serious and important.

No one, however – no one other than Jonney from Ling Lao – had heard anything by Envy. As far as I know they hadn’t released any music at that point (the band had no merchandise at the show). I probably did not even know they were from Japan before Envy took the stage. In fact, as far as my memory serves me, I believe they played before local boys Tokyo Sex Wale, which shows just how little was expected of them. Mere seconds into their first song and everyone’s expectations were thrown out the window. Who the hell were these guys? They were the definition of mind blowing. Granted, it might not take much to blow the minds of a few expat teenagers just looking for something loud to listen to as they bumped into each other in a tiny room at an old fire station.

To the best of my knowledge Envy now play atmospheric post-rock in the vein of Mogwai. Early on in their career though they spewed out a devastating, and unique, bombardment of emotional hardcore – one moment a basic, undistorted guitar riff and then the next moment a sonic wall crashing down in every direction. The bearded singer, Tetsuya Fukugawa, looked less like he was directing the sonic explosion as much as reacting to it – like he had never heard the songs before, and their painful immediacy had only just hit him.

(Aside: Envy recently played a sold out show in San Francisco on their first US Tour. After which the Tokyo Sex Wale drummer, Pranjal Tiwari, made his way towards the band to say hello. Fourteen years on from that Warehouse show, the band immediately recognized him and excitedly exchanged greetings. Not only good music then, good lads too.)

When Tokyo Sex Wale took the stage, Warrick, the singer and guitarist, looked positively embarrassed. Asking the small crowd to give another round of applause to Envy, you could almost sense he was apologizing for trying to follow up after a performance like that. Of course, on the other hand, the band and the crowd were amped beyond belief. As a Tokyo Sex Wale fanatic I enjoyed every occasion I saw them play, but seemed a little different on this night – after Envy’s performance and in anticipation of Pridebowl.

Its hard looking back nowadays, amidst the powerful memory of Envy’s emotional onslaught and the comfortable familiarity of Tokyo Sex Wale’s set, to even remember much about Pridebowl’s performance. What does stand out is Drippings From the Past – one of the songs on Ling Lao’s Punk Wonders. The band wisely saved the familiar tune for an encore and as the song kicked into the final breakdown over half the crowd poured onstage – taking over the microphones, jumping off the drum set, going mad with energy and impulse. Later I would hear complaints about this sort of behavior, but for my money, which my bankers can tell you doesn’t amount to much, that moment encapsulated everything about being young and being punk and, of course, I wouldn’t change a single thing.

The memory of the trips back home after a Warehouse show remain as strong as any of the shows themselves. Drenched in sweat and shivering from the air-conditioner on the bus, adrenaline still raged through the body and you felt a hundred times lighter – from all that expended energy and the pure buzz from the sonic assault and adolescent freedom. With curfew long past, all you cared about was trying to make the last MTR across the habour (and whether you had enough batteries to listen to the CD you just spent your last dollars on). The minibuses had ceased running their routes long before you reached your station, but the short walk home gave you time to listen to a couple more tracks and hold onto that teenage invincibility for just a little longer.

***

So the reason I like doing these “Best Of” lists is that you can finish the article at any point you wish and tell readers Part 2 will be published whenever. Part 2 will be published whenever.

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