When the West Coast Sound Came East

In the shower this morning, I hear snatches of a solemn news report on someone, “born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said in London … saw her first Sex Pistols concert … wore braces on her teeth onstage…” It’s slightly jarring to be learning of the death of Poly Styrene, lead singer of punk band X-Ray Spex, on the radio amid the stories about the S&P 500 reaching its highest point since 2008 and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad following in his father’s footsteps and slaughtering his own people. Thirty years ago the media would have mentioned her as a disturbing influence on youth, if at all; now she is an icon.

The two eras seemed an eternity apart at the time, but mid-70s punk came just 10 years after a similar explosion in inventive and rebellious pop music centred in particular in California. While punk never seemed to be much more than a fashion trend in Hong Kong, the West Coast sound actually made it here, albeit at its least adventurous, late and with some suitable modification.

The Beau Brummels were a San Francisco band signed up in 1964 by a record company looking for a home-grown response to the invasion of British groups like the Beatles. Like several others that came hot on their heels, they sported Fab Four hairstyles as well as a deliberately transatlantic name and set out to emulate the folk-country-beat style of the boys from Liverpool. The problem was, by the time they started to put out records, nice, clean-cut pop was giving way to freakier drug-influenced sounds (compare the Beatles’ cute All My Loving (1963) with the experimental Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)). The poor Beau Brummels were leapfrogged by slightly later, hairier, rougher and innovative bands like the Dead, the Great Society, etc, etc and never caught up, though among the gems they left was a brilliant 1965 Byrds impersonation, Don’t Talk to Strangers.

Their big hit, from earlier ‘65, was Just a Little – a catchy song still heard and recognized today, even if most people can’t recall the name of the band. It’s the kind of thing you might even hear as muzak in the supermarket…

Still, if the Beau Brummels were derivative and behind the curve as the scene turned psychedelic, where did that leave Hong Kong groups at that time? They would have been – if the following example is anything to go by – outdated fakes by comparison, though presumably neither the bands nor the fans would have thought so. Talk to older middle-class Hongkongers who grew up in the 60s, and they will fondly recall how they learned English from local bands’ covers of the cuter, more sugary output of British and American artists – material that was raunchier than the Taiwanese Mandarin ballads also popular then. Cantonese popular music was considered low-class; the arrival of Cantopop, to hear them tell it, single-handedly wrecked Hong Kong’s linguistic abilities.

To many listeners Cantopop, when it burst onto the scene in the 70s, also single-handedly drenched Hong Kong in cloying, syrupy, formulaic wholesomeness. However, if we compare the Beau Brummels’ original Just a Little with a Hong Kong cover released in 1967 by The Lotus (lead singer Sam Hui), we can get a hint of Cantopop slush to come…

To the extent it isn’t an exact replica of the original – itself hardly raw or edgy by the more avant-garde standards of some its creators’ peers – the local production is distinctly slower, softer and more insipid, presumably in line with what the market wanted. In short, don’t confuse cause and effect and blame Cantopop for that putrid, drippy soppiness; it’s the other way round. And to put it all in perspective (this is great to brush your teeth to)…

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4 Responses to When the West Coast Sound Came East

  1. Mary Ma says:

    I’d never heard of Poly Styrene. I just played the youtube-clip and now I understand why.

    By the way, the Beatles were so over-rated.

  2. Lady Marmalad says:

    Mary honey. Tell me one Hong Kong author, artist, singer anyone wants to see or has vaguely heard of west of Macau.

  3. L Boogie says:

    Mary, you have no idea what you’re talking about.
    Marmalad, neither do you.
    A plague on both your houses.

  4. pcrghlll says:

    RIP Poly Styrene. Mind you, The Seeds, Red Crayola, Magic Mushrooms, etc. were called ‘Punk Rock’ ten years before that CBGBs/Max’s scene. Some deserved the epithet. And then there was Sweetheart of the Rodeo…

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