Monday, June 06, 2011

K-Pop, 20 Years Ago

I had an interesting experience last week--something prompted me to pull out from storage all my old Korean music, which consists of tape cassettes I bought 20+ years ago when I was a missionary in South Korea. I had a lot more at one point; when I first arrived in the field, one experienced elder (that's what we guys called each other, as missionaries: "Elder Last-Name") told me that of the two best ways to learn the language, the easiest was to buy and listen to a bunch of popular music, and I took him at his word. (His other recommendation was to get a girlfriend, but he may have been joking about that one. I never found out, anyway.)

When I was there, from 1988 until 1990, South Korea was going through the process of shaking off the remains of the quasi-military dictatorship which had finally come to an end with the elections in 1987, and were both really feeling their freedom, as well as assessing the sort of culture and public realm that had emerged during the previous 10 years of nearly constant protest and struggle over the military's control. I didn't really know any of that at the time, but I slowly picked up some of it during my two years there, especially as I tried to figure out (because I'm obsessive that way) what the young Koreans I was teaching English to or trying to talk with at church were listening to in their spare time. Like all countries which have been, at one point or another, in the shadow of the United States, young South Koreans often listened to and liked American or just Western artists in general (I remember Wham! being particularly popular; perhaps their tour of China just a few years earlier had something to do with that), but they also had local artists they liked who had absorbed Western rock, pop, and folk, and done something original with it, and it was that stuff I was interested in. Through trying to decipher the lyrics, I got a sense of an often frustrated, often experimental, often bitter and defiant bunch of songwriters and musicians, who nonetheless also had a sentimental, even maudlin streak that would put John Denver to shame. Listening to it now, I also hear echoes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, Badfinger, and bunch of other power-pop and 60s-rock influences, which I suppose isn't unsurprisingly. A good chunk of it holds up damn well, and maybe that is.

A year or two after I left Korean popular music, or "K-Pop", apparently went through a revolution that completely re-made how the local industry worked, and now K-Pop is huge throughout East Asia, as well as frequently rather cutting edge. But I was listening to a bunch of guys banging around with guitars and 70s synthesizers in studios and garages, and so that's the stuff that stays with me. And amazingly, at least some of the stuff I bought and didn't throw away has stuck around as well.

The album above is the 1985 self-titled first album by 들국화, pronounced "Deul Gook Hwa", which is a native flower (a wild chrysanthemum). Their ripping off of the Let it Be album for their cover wasn't coincidental; I can't the number of times Koreans my age would introduce these guys to me as the "Korean Beatles", and I'm informed enough now to recognize how thoroughly they strove to imitate the Fab Four in their harmonies and range. They had one other album after this one, then the four of them split apart, but their impact was apparently huge. Their lead singer, 전인권 ("Jeon In Gwon") was a charismatic wild man, who wrote one of their anthems, "March", but the real talent in the band was probably lead guitarist 조덕환 ("Jo Deok Hwan"), who put songs like "Blessings", "Train Around the World", and, my personal favorite, "Until the Morning Breaks" on the album. (He's still making music on his own today, which might be interesting to check out if I actually had the time or money to do so.)

And then there's their overwrought and overproduced but enormous hit, "It's Only My World"--which actually don't remember liking that much, though I was able to grasp that it was capturing that put-upon, existential, I'm-sorry-but-I-also-have-no-regrets feeling so many South Koreans seemed to carry around with them in those days (I have no idea if they still do, though I'd be great to travel back there someday and find out). To continue with the Beatles comparisons, that song became a sort of "Yesterday"--overplayed but essential to the Korean pop psyche, or at least apparently so, considering how many Korean artists have recorded versions of it--see here, here), here, and here. Here's the original band doing the song themselves, from 1988; unfortunately it's a terrible performance, and it's after Deok Hwan had left the group (so no lead guitar), but it's the best I could find:

I have their second album too--a nice love song, "Please", and a whimsical Christmas song as well, but overall not as captivating as their first. On the basis of the reviews I can find online, scouring hundreds of K-Pop sites I never imagined existed before last week, it seems I'm not wrong.

Another, very different Korean group whose cassette I kept in playable condition over the years 봄여름가을겨울, "Spring Summer Autumn Winter", which really turn out, in retrospect, to be a kind of Steely Dan-type outfit; a few key guys recording in the studio, bringing in all sorts of session musicians to help them achieve whatever sound they were looking for. They're apparently still together and recording, involved in all sorts of multi-media projects around East Asia, making soundtracks and videos and more. Some of their songs off their first, self-titled album still rock: "Always Happy People", "Just Going Down the Street", or "Everyone Changes", which actually has some wonderful orchestration on it, worthy of Donald Fagen.

I suppose I could put up more, but that's a good start. Feel free to go forth and explore, if you're interested. In the meantime, I ought to see how many of these old tapes of mine I can find available somewhere in Korea on cd.

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