Byline: Oscar Chung
Publication Date: 04/01/2000
Taiwan Review: http://taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=498&CtNode=1373
Taiwan's alternative music scene may be getting better or worse,
bigger or smaller, depending on who you talk to. One thing's for sure,
however--it's getting louder.
"It's drizzling and the sparrows are singing, but all I
can do in the middle of the night is jack off. The teacher tells me to
study hard and the principal calls for us to revive our national spirit,
but all I can do is hide in the corner and jack off," sings lead singer
Ko Ren-chien, 30, with his band L.T.K. Commune in a small basement bar
near Taipei's National Taiwan Normal University. Despite lyrics that
trumpet the attitude of a societal outcast, the student audience slams
around in delight. Songs such as Cartoon Pistol don't cause this
crowd to flinch in disgust at all, although the Mandarin tune would
probably cause the rest of the island to drop its jaws.
But if you don't think Cartoon Pistol is shocking enough, try the group's Taiwanese-penned Black Cat Guy,
where foul language weaves a tale about organized crime and politics on
the island. "We just sing and never consider how vulgar the lyrics
might be," co-vocalist Tsai Hai-en says nonchalantly. The band's handle
L.T.K. Commune is a play on the Taiwanese name for the Choshui River in
southern Taiwan. "We chose the name just because it sounds tacky. The
tackier, the better," Tsai explains.
The band, which pens most of its songs in Taiwanese, claims to be
Taiwan's "foremost violent force" in expressing its dissatisfaction
with society. Skits that featured the smashing of various objects to
protest the social and political environment were a regular part of
L.T.K. Commune's gigs. "We've already gotten tired of doing that," says
Tsai. "We're trying to come up with something more interesting." This
may be a tough act to follow, especially after hearing Tsai talk about
getting expelled from National Taiwan University (NTU) for digging up
human bones in a graveyard. "We were never interested in attending
classes. Every day we'd try to think of something to challenge the
school's authority," laughs Tsai, who met Ko nearly ten years ago at
While L.T.K. Commune indulges the audience with lurid language
and violent gestures, it's only one of the many forms of musical
expression the island's alternative scene offers its fans. According to
Ren Chiang-ta, a sociology major at NTU and now the head of
alternative-music label Crystal Records, there are over 100 such groups
in Taiwan. Most of them are comprised of students who perform around
campuses as a hobby. Only thirty of these bands are currently capable of
earning any kind of income through concerts and albums.
Tsai's band, with two albums out in stores, is one of the lucky
few. Another successful alternative band is Chthonic, a name meaning "of
or pertaining to the spirits of the underworld." Established in 1996
and known for its heavy-metal sway and lyrics based on aboriginal
mythology, the five-person band released its first album last year.
"Actually, the alternative -music scene has been around here for a
while, but it hasn't drawn much attention until the last two years,"
says Freddy Lin, 24, Chthonic's lead singer and er-hu (double-stringed Chinese fiddle) player.
Spring Scream, an annual three-day music festival similar to
Woodstock, gave alternative music its initial commercial push. Held near
the beaches of Kenting, southern Taiwan, and organized by Western
expatriates, the April event was first staged in 1995. The first year
saw a group of around ten bands playing in a loose schedule. Last year
saw an overflow of bands come and vie for peak concert times in front of
Thanks to publicity that began with Spring Scream and similar
events, alternative music is now slowly beginning to spread outside the
island's borders. Chthonic's first album, which was partly produced in
Denmark, was released through Lin's own record company here and in a few
other Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore. The group's foreign
sales have reached a modest two-to-three-thousand copies. Lin claims
that locally, however, Chthonic's debut has sold around ten thousand
copies, better than most alternative bands.
The all-woman group Ladybug seems closer to international
success. Marked by a fun, psychedelic style reminiscent of Japan's
Shonen Knife, they're known for being the first local alternative band
to perform in the United States. The group's debut album, released on
Crystal, led to a performance at a Hong Kong exhibition. Australian
record scouts found them appealing and released their first album in
Australia and the United States. In 1998, the Australian firm sent the
four women (the group is now a trio) on a bar tour around both US
coasts. It was during the same year that one of Ladybug's singles began
receiving rotation on campus radio stations, entering the College Music Journal's Top 200.
While the more pluralistic society of millennium Taiwan
may be fertile soil for alternative music, Ren Chiang-ta of Crystal
Records says the seeds were sown when American soldiers began to be
stationed here in 1950. Live bands would often play at expatriate bars
along a section of Taipei's Chungshan North Road known as the "Combat
Zone." The counter -culture musical style that blared out of those bars
up until the 1970s would serve to inspire many future local record execu
tives and bands.
Younger musicians like Tsai, Lin, and Chthonic bassist Doris Yeh
mention Bon Jovi when talking about American influences, although they
have mixed feelings about the group. "I found Bon Jovi enlightening, but
today I think their songs are too mellow," says Yeh. Tsai says he
recognizes but wasn't moved by the group's widespread fame on the
island, some thing that can probably be traced to its radio
friendliness. "I've never thought Bon Jovi was inspiring," he says.
"Influences from the States on alternative music here are great,"
says Hsiao Pao, Ladybug's bassist. But is the popularity of American
music just another "McDonaldization" of the local culture? Ren
disagrees. "When rock 'n' roll is combined with local culture, something
unique happens," he says. "Local people hear music from abroad and
begin to think 'Is it really so difficult to sing this in Mandarin or
While the seeds of rebellion through music were planted in the
1960s and 1970s, they wouldn't begin to sprout until the island's major
transformations that started around 1987, the year martial law was
lifted. The process of change went like this: the government called for
localization in all aspects of society, an influx of information swept
over the island, and the public was given more freedom than ever before.
All this set the tone for the creation of alternative music. "Rock 'n'
roll is usually the first form of protest. You know, it was once used by
US auto workers to vent their dissatisfaction with management," says
The inevitable growing pains that occurred after 1987 often took
the shape of political protests. The members of L.T.K. Commune took to
the streets to join demonstrations staged by the Democratic Progressive
Party (DPP). Chthonic's Lin and Yeh also feel close to the DPP. To show
their opposition to mainland China's attempts to annex the island, the
two groups joined three other pro-Taiwan identity bands in a protest
concert at Zeitgeist, a Taipei pub, in late February. Not all bands have
the same political views, however, and Chthonic was split in two during
the last Taipei mayoral election. "Like all other circles of society,
we also have different views in terms of politics," says Yeh.
Ladybug has decided to stay out of politics and instead touches
on women's issues, although they don't want to be pigeonholed. "Some say
our lyrics suggest feminism," says Ladybug's Hsiao Pao. "I don't know
about that. We don't really move in that direction deliberately. We just
sing what we like." Feminism is a call to reflect on the impact of male
chauvin ism, and this is one respect in which Ladybug stands out from
Taiwan's cookie-cutter girl groups.
But just as alternative music in the United States crossed over
so well in the early 1990s that it is now considered mainstream, what is
considered alternative here could be threatened with familiarity. The
dyed golden locks of Ladybug's drummer Ah Li would hardly attract a
quizzical glance in downtown Taipei. Likewise, Chthonic's ghost-like
performance make-up or Ko Ren-chien of L.T.K. Commune changing from
pants to a girdle on stage have probably lost their shock appeal.
Hsiao Pao thinks music cable channels and local bands' websites
have taught the public all it needs to know about the alternative sound.
Even the vulgar lyrics are beginning to become a bit mundane. "That
doesn't bother me," says Ren Po -chang, a 22-year-old college student
and rock fan when asked about the explicit lyrics found in some bands'
songs. "I've only recently started to listen to local bands, but I've
been listening to the foreign ones for a long time, so I'm used to that
style. It's really just a performance."
Chthonic's Lin, who also hosts a radio program about local bands,
likes to refer to his music as rock instead of alternative or
non-mainstream. "I don't use the word 'underground,' either, because it
makes people think we're illegal."
Proof that alternative music is moving off the sidelines
can be seen in its first rock supergroup, Wu Bai and China Blue. Since
the group's initial album, also released by Crystal, it has grown from
obscurity to become one of the island's most recognized groups. More
evidence of the acceptance of alternative sounds can be found at
Zeitgeist. Opened at the end of 1999, the pub was the first venue
exclusively for alternative bands and their audience, according to
manager Ellis Lee, 23, himself a former guitarist. "There are about four
other bars where these bands can perform, but they're really discos
where customers start dancing after the bands finish their set." He
proudly adds that his bar's "Millennium Riot" concert, which lasted four
consecutive nights, attracted long lines of people wanting to watch the
thirty-five bands that took part in the musical relay.
Lee observes that rock concert audiences are getting younger,
indicating that alternative music in Taiwan is more popu lar than ever.
The performers themselves are also becoming more diverse. "Today,
artists dare to strut their stuff more, no matter how unpolished they
may sound," says L.T.K. Commune's Tsai. "An all-girl band was once a
special attraction, but today it's no big deal," Lee adds.
Better concert pay is one possible reason for the rise in the
number of rockers, but with a minimum show fee of NT$4,000 (US$130) an
hour, most are in it for the sound of the chords, not the cash register.
Some alternative bands are also forced to compromise their creativity
when dealing with record companies.
"That would be impossible for us to do," Tsai says of having to
make creativity changes for record companies. The group found two
companies willing to press and market its CDs. "They just ask us to
watch our foul language at interviews. Otherwise, they leave us alone
and that's acceptable," he says. Ladybug's Hsiao Pao finds it inevitable
that record companies will want some control over an act's style.
"Mainstream companies exist to make money, so it's likely that they'll
ask you to change your style to appeal better to the public," she says.
Chthonic was able to get around the record company dilemma by
founding its own label. "So they're very independent. I think we all
should move in that direction," Tsai says. "It's not necessarily a good
thing to enter the mainstream, because that doesn't leave much that can
be controlled by the band."
Another interesting phenomenon is the gap between fast-paced
Taipei and the rest of the island. Lin estimates that bands and fans in
Taipei outnumber those elsewhere ten times. Tsai Wen-chan, who joined a
band in college in Taichung, central Taiwan, gave up his dream of
forming a new group after graduation, because he couldn't find any other
interested musicians locally. "There's only a few venues that
alternative musicians can play at outside of Taipei," he says. He
travels up to Taipei to see concerts at Zeitgeist, although he calls
some of the more obscene lyrics he hears "nothing but garbage."
Taipei, a pocket of variety and acceptance on the island, is
usually the center of new musical trends. "The sounder the social
structure is, the wider the selection you have when choosing things,"
says Crystal's Ren Chiang-ta. "I see it as a good thing that Taiwan is
developing a musical market that can meet the demands of different types
The underground aurora of alternative music is now an irremovable
part of the island's musical culture. It makes a legitimate
entertainment contribution and offers a distinctive voice in an often
syrup-filled, radio-friendly world. A diversity of music is inevitable
for a pluralistic society, and the line between the island's pop and
alternative scene is swiftly blurring.