Before delving into a brief history of one of the “most admired Chinese bands in the world,” it’s important to understand the subject matter of this song. Not to be confused with the central government complex of Beijing, the Zhōngnánhǎi (中南海) cigarette brand was produced by the Beijing Tobacco Corporation in the 1960s for Mao Zedong. Its low cost and high flavor led to mass appeal, and Zhongnanhai has remained best-sellers in the Chinese tobacco market ever since.
It’s also important to note that in no way, shape, or form, does SupChina or the author endorse tobacco consumption. [Ed.’s note: though we do endorse this Sinica episode on the tobacco industry with Matthew Kohrman.]
Carsick Cars is one of China’s most prominent indie bands, whose sound is heavily influenced by the heavy drones of the Velvet Underground, Suicide, and Sonic Youth. Compositionally, the group opts for a more structured approach, citing influence from composers such as Steve Reich and Glenn Branca. They’ve toured in China, Europe with Sonic Youth, and the United States with fellow Beijing post-punk-rockers P.K.14, to name a few.
One of their most beloved sing-alongs comes in the form of an ode to the band’s brand of choice. With lyrics so simple, even those hearing Mandarin for the first time can probably keep up:
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… I only smoke Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, I can’t live without Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, who f*cking smoked my Zhongnanhai?
The song itself is as simple as the lyrics, a single motif in the guitar repeated over two chords with the occasional noise break, for the first two minutes anyway. After we discover the protagonist of our story has had his cigarettes smoked, a klaxon sounds — a musical foreshadowing of the events that are about to occur. Two and a half minutes of chaotic yet beautiful feedback invoke audial imagery of the frantic hunt for the next smoke. The initial chord sequence slowly reemerges with added intensity, inviting listeners to rejoice in assuming the vocalist, Zhang Shouwang 张守望, finally has his cigarettes.
If you or anyone you know happens to be in Beijing this Saturday, Carsick Cars will be playing at the legendary punk venue, School Bar, for FREE! (Drop 180 yuan if you want all-you-can-drink.) Celebrating bar manager Jocelyn’s birthday, this promises to be a raucous affair, but whatever you do, don’t go smoking anyone’s last cigarette.
School Bar: 53 Wudaoying Hutong, Chaoyang District, 朝阳区五道营胡同53号 (map)