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Friday, November 21, 2008

Guns N' Roses' New Album Is Up Against a Chinese Wall

NOVEMBER 22, 2008

The Title Is a Problem for Authorities And Even for Some Shanghai Fans

SHANGHAI (WSJ) -- The heavy metal band Guns N' Roses is roiling China's music scene. But sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll aren't the issue.

The trouble is the name of the group's latest album: "Chinese Democracy."

[Axl Rose]

Axl Rose

It has taken 17 years for the band to produce a new studio record. Now, even before it goes on sale Sunday, in a release heralded by its producers as a "historic moment in rock ' n' roll," the disc is getting the thumbs down from Chinese authorities. It's also causing anxiety among GN'R's legion of loyal fans here, who aren't sure they like what lead singer W. Axl Rose is trying to say about their country.

China's government-owned music-importing monopoly has signaled that local record distributors shouldn't bother ordering the GN'R production. Anything with "democracy" in the name is "not going to work," said an official at the China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corp., part of the Ministry of Culture.

For fans, the response is more complicated. GN'R developed a major following in China in the late 1980s, when the young Mr. Rose was recording early hit songs like "Welcome to the Jungle." China was in the throes of its own rebellious era, and heavy metal was its protest music. GN'R's popularity soared in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Learning the band's 1991 ballad "Don't Cry" was a rite of passage for a generation of Chinese guitarists.

Chinese Democracy

Listen to a clip of the title track from GN'R's new album and, below, read some of the lyrics.

If they were missionaries
Real-time visionaries
Sitting in a Chinese stew
To view my disinfatuation

I know that I'm a classic case
Watch my disenchanted face
Blame it on the Falun Gong
They've seen the end and it can't hold on now.

When your great wall rocks blame yourself
While their arms reach up for your help
And you're out of time

"It was not only the music, the band's clothes also pushed the craze," says 30-year-old Chen Lei , one of Beijing's best-regarded rock guitarists, who cites GN'R as a primary influence.

GN'R nostalgia remains strong. A program on state-run China Central Television last year ranked "Qiang Hua" (literally, "Guns Flowers"), as the group is known in Chinese, at No. 8 on a list of top rock bands of all time.

Chinese fans eager for news on the Web about the new album sidestep censors by using coded language. Many deliberately scramble the name, typing "Chinese Democraxy" or "Chi Dem." They say they fear that typing the Chinese characters for the title will draw government scrutiny. Still, it's not much challenge to find news about the record on the Web, where even the site is a discussion of GN'R, not politics.

Some fans in China relish how the album discomfits the establishment. "Rock 'n' roll, as a weapon, is an invisible bomb," says one.

Leo Huang, a 25-year-old guitarist, just hopes it will retrace GN'R's roots. "I prefer rock 'n' roll," said the skinny 25-year-old guitarist after a recent gig with his band, the Wildcats, at a hard-rock bar below a Shanghai highway.

Yet, for some fans in this nation of 2.6 billion ears, the new album's title is an irritation. Democracy is a touchy subject in this country. Elections are limited to votes for selected village-level officials, and senior leaders are all chosen in secret within the Communist Party. Many Chinese wish for greater say in their government. But others -- including some rockers -- think too much democracy too quickly could lead to chaos, and they resent foreign efforts to push the issue.

Mr. Chen, the guitarist, says the "Chinese Democracy" album title suggests "they don't understand China well" and are "just trying to stir up publicity."

Some Chinese artists, loath to be branded as democracy campaigners, declined valuable offers to help illustrate the album. "I listened to their music when I was little," says Beijing visual artist Chen Zhuo . He was "very glad" when GN'R asked to buy rights to use his picture of Tiananmen Square rendered as an amusement park -- with Mao Zedong's head near a roller coaster. Then, Mr. Chen looked at lyrics of the album's title song and, after consulting with his lawyer and partner, declined the band's $18,000 offer. "We have to take political risks into account as artists in China," says the 30-year-old.

The new album's title track, already released as a single, begins with eerie, high-pitched noises that sound vaguely like chattering in Chinese. In the song's three verses, Mr. Rose sings of "missionaries," "visionaries" and "sitting in a Chinese stew."

The overall message is unclear, but his most provocative lines aren't. "Blame it on the Falun Gong. They've seen the end and you can't hold on now," Mr. Rose sings. It is a reference to the spiritual movement that Beijing has outlawed as an "illegal cult" and vowed to crush.

Mr. Rose, 46, who is the only remaining original member of GN'R, is rarely interviewed and declined to comment for this article. He picked the new album's name more than a decade ago. In a 1999 television appearance, he discussed the thinking behind it.

"Well, there's a lot of Chinese democracy movements, and it's something that there's a lot of talk about, and it's something that will be nice to see. It could also just be like an ironic statement. I don't know, I just like the sound of it," Mr. Rose said.

Mr. Rose in recent years has visited Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Xian, and he worries he won't be let back in, says his assistant, Beta Lebeis. "Everything is so controlled," she says.

Chinese authorities in recent years have started letting once-controversial artists perform in the country, but they remain uncomfortable with hard rock. The Rolling Stones played their first China concerts in 2006, but only after bowing to government demands to drop certain songs, including "Brown Sugar," that were considered controversial.

Fresh barriers went up after a Shanghai concert in March by the singer Bjork, who punctuated her song "Declare Independence" with shouts of "Tibet!" Officials thought it sounded like agitation against Beijing's rule of the restive Himalayan region. In new rules issued later, they threatened to hold promoters responsible for performers who violated its laws, "including situations that harm the sovereignty of the country."

One casualty: GN'R promoters in China dropped plans for two shows this year, says Ms. Lebeis.

The Ministry of Culture forbids imports of music that violate any of 10 criteria, including music that publicizes "evil sects" or damages social morality. In reality, many songs make it into China anyway, pirated and via the Internet.

It's unclear how much exposure the new record will get. "I have to say, 'Chinese Democracy' sounds sensitive," says a Beijing radio station's programming chief who doubts it will get much air play.

The title alone makes it "impossible" to imagine the album will be released in China, says Nicreve Lee , a student in northeastern China who runs a Web site called GN'R Online ( He says his first reaction listening to the title track was, "This is an anti-China song." But, he says, "I gradually began to understand what the song wants to say. Perhaps Axl Rose doesn't know China well, but at least he is on the right track."

—Ellen Zhu in Shanghai contributed to this article.

Write to James T. Areddy at

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