In a First, the Stones Rock China, but Hold the Brown Sugar

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: April 9, 2006
SHANGHAI, April 8 ó After nearly 30 years of trying, the world’s most famous rock band finally made it to the world’s largest country, as the Rolling Stones brought their show to a small stage in China’s biggest city.
Mick Jagger sang in China on Saturday. In the Rolling Stones’ first performance in China, some songs were censored.
The concert on Saturday, a late addition to the band’s Biggest Bang world tour, was the product of long negotiations and numerous compromises: from the venue, a diminutive 8,000-seat indoor arena, to the songs allowed by Chinese censors.
The five songs reported to have been banned were “Brown Sugar,” “Beast of Burden,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Rough Justice,” a song from the Stones’ new album. The first four were also left off the Chinese version of the band’s greatest hits album when it was released here in 2003.
The band had scheduled a show here and in Beijing to support that album in 2003, but that part of the tour was called off because of worry over the rapid spread of the SARS illness.
The sold-out performance on Saturday brought together cosmopolitan Shanghai at its richest, in more senses than one. With the cheapest seats going for about $40 ó and most priced at 5 to 10 times more, well above monthly salaries for most people here ó the cost ensured that well-heeled foreigners dominated the crowd.
Mick Jagger, the group’s lead singer, acknowledged as much in a news conference the day before with a comment meant to address two of the most delicate issues surrounding the event, the heavily foreign audience and the restricted song list.
“I am pleased the Ministry of Culture is protecting the morals of expatriate bankers and their girlfriends,” Mr. Jagger said, adding that he had 400 other songs to choose from, so “it doesn’t really matter.”
Many people were displeased with the ticket prices, and the effect on the audience mix, nonetheless.
“It’s actually tragic if you think about it: a foreign performance borrowing Chinese land, but Chinese people cannot come because of price or other issues,” said Chu Meng, 23, who attended the concert. “It is ironic, I should say. I saw some foreigners cover themselves with the Chinese flag, and I don’t feel comfortable about it.”
Even if the Stones can’t always sing what they want, they still bring high energy to the stage. This show was no exception, and they launched into it with brio, with the choice of songs like “Bitch,” played early in the act, seemingly to make the point that censorship was pointless.
For one of their signature hits, “Wild Horses,” the Stones shared the stage with Cui Jian, 45, a pioneer of Chinese rock who, unlike many of the fans, both knew the lyrics and did not miss a beat in his rhythm guitar accompaniment. “This is the 20th-year anniversary of Chinese rock ‘n’ roll,” the Chinese star said after the song. “We have an appointment. In the near future, they will be back, and we’ll rock again in Beijing.”
“This is their cultural revolution,” said a California businessman and longtime resident who gave his name as Dan, and who rocked in the aisles with his Chinese wife, Bo. “This kind of thing has to spread beyond Shanghai and a few other places still, but that’s what we’re seeing, a real transformation of this country.”
The rock ‘n’ roll era all but bypassed China, which was in the throes of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution during the music’s heyday. Although Whitney Houston and Elton John and a variety of other pop music stars and acts have performed here in recent years, the Stones are by far the biggest rock act to appear in China, and their concert will be the first to be broadcast in the country after censors screen it.
Truth be told, the group may have arrived here both far too soon and far too late. The Chinese government protects few things so zealously as culture, with one result being that few here knew anything about the group. And for many of those who are more familiar, an increasingly hard-to-impress niche of the population that is savvy in an up-to-the-minute way about Western culture in all its variety, the Rolling Stones are old hat.
“I’ve never listened to their songs,” said Shen Yichen, a 16-year-old girl who was accompanied by her parents. “Maybe listening like this for the first time is more authentic.”
Before the show, her father, equally unfamiliar with the music, downloaded a song. “I don’t know what song it was,” said the father, Shen Shiji, 46. “Maybe it was a song paying tribute to Dylan.
“I don’t know if it’s their lyrics that make people like them,” he added, “but listening to the melody, it wasn’t so beautiful.”
A popular blogger here, Wang Xiaofeng, is typical of the group for whom the Stones are a relic of another era. “For most Chinese rock ‘n’ roll fans, the Rolling Stones are not even as attractive as a domestic pop singer, or the Super Girl contestants,” he said, referring to a television show that resembled American Idol. “In the eyes of fans, the Rolling Stones have more meaning as a rock ‘n’ roll symbol than as a kind of music. They are as unfamiliar as they are familiar.”

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