[Book Review] Dave O’Dell’s Inseparable: the Birth of Punk Anarchy in the old P.R.C

I generally consider myself pretty lucky to be here in Beijing at this moment in time, being witness, chronicler and sometime participant to the ever growing underground Rock n Roll scene. These are amazing times and I’d never thought in a million years that i’d somehow be part of it. And While I’m pretty knowledgeable about the current scene, I love getting more information about its past and compare it to what we have now. Good friend Jon Campbell wrote his Red Rock with was nothing short of amazing: a beautifully constructed dissection of Yao Gun and its roots! It’s probably my favorite history book so far.

Now, we get another gem in the form of Dave O’dell’s Inseparable: The Memoirs Of An American And The Story Of Chinese Punk Rock . David O’Dell was one of the earliest supporters of the Chinese punk rock scene that started taking shape in 1995 in Beijing both as a friend of the scene and as a musician. He is now a Physics teacher over in Texas. The book is a rich and uniquely personal collection of stories, over one hundred previously unreleased photos and translated song lyrics from the earliest Chinese punk bands and the dizzying development of the scene

I got my paws on this baby quite a while back and i kept forgetting to write about it when i really should have… and for many reasons: The book is a beautiful, honest and slightly biased history of a specific era in Beijing that coincides with the birth of the punk scene. It might not be brilliant writing but it’s a great read, all from the perspective of the author who ended up by accident becoming an instrumental factor in getting the whole punk movement going. What I also like about the book is that it gives glimpses of a Beijing that long gone, a time when the restrictions were quite fierce, the options were limited and no one really had a clue about what was going on. Let’s see how it matters:

The People

Dave’s involvement in the scene covers an era that started in 1995 and went on, with a small interuption, until 2002 and apart from his own name, it’s interesting to see who pops up in the scene at the time, may they be Chinese or Foreigners: Cui Jian, Xie Tian Xiao, Xiao Rong, Li Peng, Yong Haisong, Dou Wei, Wang Fei, Wang Jian etc…. I mean the who’s who of Chinese rock, punk and arts royalty was involved in the scene as some point with plenty of facts and pictures to prove it. Some of the foreigners that were part of the scene have long since left it behind but would you have guessed that a prominent Editor from an expat magazine missed out narrowly on playing the first punk show on the great wall? It’s these little tales of people that make the book what it is. The random ones that somehow found themselves pulled in and part of it.

The Bands:

The book covers the beginning of many a band in Beijing, not just punks and how they got the whole thing going, with a big emphasis on Brain Failure of course. Still, bands like A-Jerks, Misandao, Reflector and more have managed to stand the test of time somehow. Others like Underbaby and Cobra have long gone! PK 14‘s beginnings are also cool to have, so is the early tale of this rebel screamer that started up cold blooded animals. The names are mostly still around… lots of these bands are now legends in the underground!

Beijing:

It’s the story of a Beijing long gone.. the places, the names, the options ( or lack-there-of) in old smoggy before the Olympic bid are interesting to me. I had a glimpse of this underground Beijing years ago when I read Beijing Doll by Chun Sue ( a good read in itself) but the perspective was different. The book talks about a time when foreigners were only allowed to live in certain parts of town, visa raids were routine and things a lot tighter in general. Come to think of it, in many respects, it’s still the same pig but with a different lipstick. An Underground scene in it’s birth phase lost in the corners of a big metropolis.

The story:

isn’t that what makes or breaks a book? This one is worth it! it’s human, it’s mostly factual and getting a glimpse of early posters, photos and other memorabilia that Dave collected throughout the years is just great! I want them all hanging on my wall, sitting on my bookshelf. But above all, I want to invite the guy for an evening of hotpot, chuanr and erguotou so i can hear about the stuff that didn’t make the book!

There is one unsettling little thing about this book that bothers me: Why did all these people that were so instrumental in helping the scene grow all of sudden leave it behind and/or don’t tough it with a 10 foot pole? Some of these folks are still in Beijing and you’d never see them anywhere near musicians except on the odd occasion.


Dave will be back in China this August to put together one hell of a Charity show at 2 Kolegas (I told you he was cool) benefiting Half the Sky foundation . You’ll have your chance to get your hands on some memorabilia from those early punk years and I highly recommend that you do. There will be more information on this show in due time and hopefully an interview with the Dave himself.
In the meantime, you can get your hands on the book here at Lulu

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3 Responses

  1. Djang San. says:

    I remember buying Underbaby’s CD at one of the shops at Wudaokou in the year 2000 when that area was a complete mess. It was a shock for me. I feel like this innocence and freshness has disappeared in Beijing with the changes that have happened in the city. I can’t find a new band these days that does things with innocence, maybe that’s what has been lost here. For whatever reason I listenned a lot to that CD that year.

    I also remember seeing a Brain failure show at the old Get lucky near Jingmao University, there was an American guy singing a song “Da Feiji”, that was pretty funny…Ahhh the good old days :-)

  2. Aurélien says:

    Thanks for that interesting article!
    Is that photographer the same person as @Oimark on Weibo?
    He seems to be a punk photographer of the scene and he’s apparently exhibiting in various places this summer.
    Or might just be a coincidence because I thought Oimark was actually Chinese.