This month we passed one year since the split of Shanghai band Boys Climbing Ropes. The Last Waltz show was a two night affair on June 1st and 2nd 2012. Coincidentally, the blog was on hiatus at that time so I never wrote anything about it.
BCR were a band on the Shanghai scene that were around for six years. They started as a 'let's do a band' thing for two Canadian college buddies and ended up a significant and beloved force on the scene with equal support from local and ex-pat crowds.
Doubt it? Watch this video from the Shanghai Midi festival: BCR 'Two Dogs'
The band also took a teenage prodigy from small town Jiangxi Province and let her develop into one of the key voices of China independent music: Huang Pei A.K.A. Little Punk.
They retained the same line up the entire time: Jordan Small, Morgan Short, Devin Gallery and Huang Pei. The band put out three releases across the latter four years of their existence: A Pleasure To Be Here, Except For The Darkness and the split Summer And Winter Warfare.
Their success in reaching people was down to the style they developed. Many bands limit themselves strictly to the conventions of a genre and therefor appeal mainly to that genre's specific fans. Other bands, especially those driven by ex-pats, tend to work within a musical area they already love, from previous experiences, regardless of the sounds, feelings and scene of the city they are in - and also apply rigid preconceived notions when dealing with the city around them. Boys Climbing Ropes developed with the China scene, working with the post-punk and synth sounds favoured by the more profound China scene acts and reflecting accurately the modern urban experience. It came across so organically and completely that they were still able to write songs about Canada without breaking the spell, and without losing, for example, Jordan Small's own personal, unique voice.
And the songs were always good. Except For The Darkness saw Little Punk find herself within the band and start to impose her presence on stage too. The first time they played Yuyintang and opened with Little Person was a revelation and from then on every show was a great show and the band's pull went up exponentially. Everyone who saw a show immediately wanted to take a picture of/interview/work with Little Punk. All the band members had settled their own signature sounds and chops. The sets now always closed with Life Knife and resultant mayhem in the pit.
The final year of the band felt like a stay of execution after Jordan Small put back his plans to return to Canada, largely because of the band's sudden jump in success. Rather than go on to put out a triumphant first full album, they settled on three tracks as part of a spilt. Songs like Grow Up Stop Fucking Around were instant hits but seemed to foreshadow the band breaking up and reflect the members' resignation to the fact. The live shows started to reflect this in some weird but moving energy from the crowds. There was a sheen of pre-nostalgia and emptiness, the pits got more and more crazy, sometimes irresponsibly. Time was palpably, desperately, running out.
And then Jordan left, Morgan and Pei Pei went to Beijing and the band was no more, underlining one of the main themes of the band's work: the magnified transient nature of things and our inability to deal with it. I mentioned the band's ability to reach out further to new fans, but for those of us who lived the scene, were present and invested in it emotionally, it was a deep blow.
Going back to the first release, A Pleasure To Be Here, an early indicator of the BCR's eventual direction is Dirty Bots. The signature sounds are emerging and I loved the duet vocal lines. Ironically, they dropped the track live in favour of pushing the new material, and said similar direction. Calculate! was a big hit live and brought out Little Punk's stilted bursts of post-punk energy, so beloved of Ian Curtis fans. Little known to people who didn't get Pleasure, The Night Boy is a showcase of Little Punk's emergent vocal style and haunting qualities.
Musically, the BCR songs are a classic collaboration. The drums and bass lines had consistent styles and tones, drove the tracks, and never overstepped their boundaries. Devin Gallery started out as a rapid ska-punk drummer and in BCR learned to control space and dynamics to serve the new style: although he retained his instincts towards the frenetic at the live shows at times. Morgan's bass sound became recognisable with the distortion and hard picking. If I had to pick a triumphant moment for Jordan it would have to be Whale Song. The track is driven by his signature arpeggiated riffing and heartfelt lyrics and every time I hear him explode on the line "lost out in the ocean," it paralyses me. From Summer and Winter Warfare, Grow Up Stop Fucking Around is the best example of all the elements working together, reflecting the songwriting journey before.
BCR's struggle on a limited and underground scene is to be admired and a lot of attention has rightly fell on Shanghai's DIY ethic and can do attitude. We can look on their output, framed against the limitations of full time jobs, and marvel that it existed at all. But I cannot look back on six years of the band without wondering why we don't have one or maybe two full albums on a label like Maybe Mars or Modern Sky. The work was there, the songs were there. With Little Punk they had a genuine iconic Chinese artist in the line up, who was also known to and respected by all the people involved in the labels and greater scene. It's not easy to explain but I can't help feeling there was a criminal absence of meaningful support from those in the greater China scene with the power to do so. The idea of it being partially related to having a majority of ex-pat members keeps creeping into my mind. But also, assisted or indie, that final release should have been a big one. But perhaps ultimately that dark, sporadic final year will better serve the memory and integrity of the band as time continues to slip through our fingers and out into the uncaring ether.