North Adelaide, Australia, January 2004
Looking back, I was an easy target. I was living and working in China as an English teacher and had been starved of good new music for a full twelve months. The northern Chinese city where I lived was largely cut off from the world. The travel ban on foreigners was only lifted less than a decade earlier; I was one of just five foreign residents in a city of 500,000. At the time Internet access was painfully slow, to the point where emails were difficult to send and receive. YouTube wasn’t an option, and this was long before Pandora or Spotify. To make matters worse, my Chinese college students liked the Backstreet Boys and Westlife and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t sing along to their songs. All I had was my Discman and a small collection of CDs which I played on repeat. I was gagging for something new.
A brief return visit to Australia to attend a friend’s wedding gave me the opportunity. I was out enjoying the familiar taste of Coopers Pale Ale with old school mates at a pub in North Adelaide. There was plenty to catch up on – the guys had new jobs, new girlfriends, new lives. I was enjoying being able to understand what everyone was saying, given my patchy Mandarin back in China. And the pub played music that I knew, liked and could sing along to.
While I revelled in this familiarity I was distracted by flashes of white, red and black on the corner television screen. A music video showed a long-haired male guitarist and a woman beating a bass drum disguised as a boiled sweet. I saw white T-shirts, red guitars, black hair. There were white skeletons, red drums, black shadows. A strobe flashed on repeat. Inverted Vs, like two-dimensional teepees, accelerated at intervals towards the screen. It was mesmerising, hypnotic.
Then I heard the guitar riff. It seized hold of me. In an instant it set a new standard for all modern music. The sound was raw and enormous. I was astonished. Moreover, I was hooked.
A mate of mine was saying something, but I heard none of it. My eyes were fixed on the screen; my ears taking in every drum beat, every distortion, every melodic ebb and flow. Then, after the first verse, the guitar roared into life. The effect was immediate – I felt I’d simultaneously been slapped in the face, a finger prodded in my ear and icy water poured over my head.
I’m going to fight ‘em off
A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.
I heard screechy vocals, which suited the raw guitar perfectly. I heard the unadulterated echo of the instruments: their sounds just as their construction intended, untouched by effects. The verses were pulled back, unrushed and something to savour. The chorus was propelled forward, with overlapping guitars making a delightful clamour. There were crashes and bangs and the song soon reached a feverish intensity, before it retreated into the shell of the next verse.
I’m going to Wichita!
Far from this opera for evermore.
I’d never been to Wichita, and I still haven’t, but the song made me feel that Wichita could be substituted for whichever place I wanted. It could mean an escape to freedom, or aimless wander, or a return home to see loved ones. I thought of my impending return to China – only this time I would be armed with this wonderful new sound.
I knew immediately I’d just heard something special. I rushed out the next day to buy a copy of Elephant, which soon accompanied me back to northern China.
© Nathan Johnson