Thursday, 4 January 2018

More about Shin Joong-hyun, the #1 K-Pop Musician of All Time

Blogger Ask A Korean! has finally reached the much-awaited pinnacle of his "Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" list.

I've engaged with this list a few times, recently disputing his definition of K-Pop for (glances around shyly) nearly my only blog post last year. But contrarian as I may be, I love what he's doing with that list, and it's helped me discover a handful of favorite Korean artists.

He has reached #1, and the ultimate Korean musician is a favorite of mine: Shin Joong-hyun (or Shin Jung-hyeon, both transliterations of 신중현). Go read his write-up. Tell him I sent you.

So for readers who are interested in knowing more about the amazing Shin Joong-hyeon, here are some links!

First, to learn more about Shin Joong-hyun's career, particularly the way being blacklisted derailed it, and a bit about his ongoing influence despite that, go read Mark Russell's interview with him.

For an audio documentary about how Shin's reputation was rehabilitated in the 1990s, leading to international recognition in the 2000s (and a bit about the sheer scope of his influence as a musician and producer), listen to this documentary I helped write for TBS Radio.

Speaking of international recognition, here is a playlist compiled by NPR, including songs Shin wrote and produced for a few different artists (an underrated part of his legacy: he sprung a huge number of Korea's major pop stars of the 70s) The playlist includes the Pearl Sisters, the first group he launched to stardom, his live version of "In A Kadda Da Vida" which is simply stunning, and also his version of "Beautiful Rivers and Mountains" -- my favorite song of his.

For readers who would like to listen to more of his music, indie archivist label "Light in the Attic Records" compiled and remastered a great one disc compilation of some of Shin's best music. It includes the best versions of several of his defining songs, though it's short on songs performed by Kim Chuja, one of Shin's most notable collaborators.

Light In The Attic also released perhaps the single best album Shin wrote and produced: "Now" by Kim Jungmi. The story goes that due to being blacklisted, he couldn't find a venue to perform at or musicians to work with him, except Kim Jungmi, and together they cut an album that is fantastic, top to bottom. The opening track, "Haenim" or "The Sun" is one of my favorite recordings, full stop (see below).

For more Shin Joong-hyun goodness, here are a couple of blog posts I wrote about him.

This one is about my favorite song of his: Beautiful Rivers and Mountains.

This one includes a video of Shin performing one of his songs at a more recent concert: even as a senior citizen, the man still rocks.

Favorite blog Gusts of Popular Feeling has also written about Shin Joong-hyun, here on the early parts of his career, when he performed as Hicky Shin.

Here, he talks about the Kim Jungmi connection.

And here he mentions the kind of music Park Chung-hee would have asked Shin to record, in order to show his loyalty to the regime (the incident which led to his being blacklisted)

The Korean's entire list is here, and it's full of great things and worthy luminaries. Of course there are a few singers I think are too high, or too low, and fans could make their cases energetically (though eyes will be rolled at anyone placing a group that debuted since 2010 in the top ten). The list started before Kangnam Style, so Psy doesn't figure. Some might argue to rearrange some of the #4-10 places, and many might switch #1 and #2, but I think The Korean made the right call here in the end.



Finally, if you've read this far, you deserve goodies:

When I was writing that documentary linked above for TBS Radio, I listened to as much Shin Joong-hyun as I could get my hands on (which was quite a bit: he has a couple of anthologies, and scads of stuff on Youtube if you are willing to wade through a few four hour long collection-all-in-one-place videos.

Basically, the Light In The Attic compilation is great, but left me wanting more. A legend of Shin's stature deserves more than one disk! So I combed through all that music I was listening to, and cobbled together a double CD that stretches its legs a bit.

As for goals, I wanted my two disc set to accomplish a few things:

1. Find a good version of each of the songs that comprise the Shin Joong-hyun canon (that is: the tracks that keep showing up on anthology after anthology, many of which have become standards, covered by tons of artists. These are his greatest hits and most recognizable).

2. Feature the variety of singers he worked with (so other than Jang Hyun and Kim Chuja, his most important singers, who had no cap, and Kim Jungmi and Lee Junghwa, who got three, no vocalist got more than two tracks)

3. Show off his skill as a songwriter and producer: his songs are extremely well composed and arranged, tight and concise examples of pop songwriting as a form. For such a brilliantly talented musician, he shows a lot of restraint in only busting out his guitar chops when it makes the song better)

4. Work as a serviceable companion to the Light in the Attic one-disc compilation, (this meant that, for example, where a great version of one of Shin's essential songs existed (often sung by Jang Hyun or one of Shin's top collaborators) on the LITA collection, I'd find a version from a less-often-mentioned singer for my collection, which let me showcase more different artists (see #2) (Park In Soo's version of 봄비 [Spring Rain] is by far the most famous, and it's on LITA, so I got to put my personal favorite version, by 이정화, on my playlist, for example), or songs from the major artists that were a little less famous, because their big ones (이정화's 싫어, and Bunny Girls' 하필 그사람 for example) were already covered on LITA (so I got to put Lee's 꽃잎 and Bunny Girls' 우주여행 on mine)... but my playlist also had to...

5. Stand alone, too. That means where possible, I avoided crossover with the LITA disc, but where LITA had the slam-dunk definitive version of one of Shin's absolutely essential songs (this happened three times), I did double up. There are only a small handful of Shin's essential songs that Shin recorded with many artists, or are frequently anthologized, that I didn't include here. (미련 and 석양 are two that LITA had, while 늦기전에 was the only one I couldn't find space for on my two-disk either, because Kim Chuja only got one torch song, and 님은 먼것에 is more important, in my opinion.)

6. Repeat songs as little as possible (this was a problem with some of the other Shin Joong-hyun box sets and anthologies: he has a group of his best songs, and recorded them each with a number of different artists, which is interesting, but too much for a two disc set.) Only Mi-in, and Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, Shin's two most indelible songs, got more than one version.

And finally

7. Show the scope of his talent as a musician, songwriter, collaborator, producer, and inspiration. Inspiration is why I included a cover of his song by Kopchangjeongol, a tribute band formed by one of the Japanese collectors whose interest revived interest in Shin in the late 1990 (also considered: Jang Gi-ha collaborators The Mimi Sisters, covering one of Shin's strangest songs), and one track from the Shin Joong-hyun tribute album made by Korean musicians (the heavy version of Mi-in).

The first disc is more focused on his ability as a songwriter and producer: these songs are tight, concise, well-arranged and varied. A lot of them are hits, or have lived on as standards. You'll even spot a few of them covered in the soundtrack for the K-drama "Signal"

The second disc is more focused on his versatility and musicianship: some more interesting or unusual arrangements are here (listen especially to 우주여행 - "Space Journey" which sounds cosmic), some funny little songs (나팔바지 - Bell Bottom Pants) as well as some of the longer songs where he really cuts loose as a heavy guitar-rock soloist (the heavy version of In A Kadda Da Vida, Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, and the heavy version of Mi-in (The Beauty) are here).

In my opinion, the measure of a songwriter is that their songs can be covered: new artists bring something new to the song, or reveal interesting facets that hadn't been discovered yet by other performers. Think of the jazz standards, or artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, or Carol King, whose songs have done very well for other artists. The Beatles are covered a ton, because the songs are well built and have good bones. On the other hand, the measure of a musician is that there is something inimitable in their performance of a song: nobody sings "Respect" because it's impossible to live up to Aretha Franklin's version. Every version of "All Along the Watchtower" is measured against Jimi Hendrix (and comes up short). You don't come across many Guns'n'Roses covers, because who can sing like Axl? It is amazing to me that Shin Joong-hyun has delivered both types of songs in his career: as a songwriter, 봄비, 나는 너를, 미련, 님은 먼곳에, 명동 거리/검은 머리, 비속에 여인 and even 아름다운 강산 (copy/paste and look up the different versions on Youtube) are all standard repertoire songs covered by a bunch of different artists, but then, nobody even comes close to his versions of 미인, and his version of In-A-Kadda-Da-Vida is unbelievable. Even a song of his that has been covered time and time again, the version where Shin opens it with a solo is (in my opinion) the definitive version of 떠나야할 그 사람.


Here is my two disc compilation. I don't know how many people will download this, but if I hit my daily google drive maximum, come back and try again another day.
If this gets enough positive feedback, I might expand on why I included the songs I did. If not, well, enjoy it, whoever is inclined.

Also, seriously, readers: if you like this stuff, go find a place where you can spend some money on Shin Joong-hyun's music. Buy the Light In The Attic set, or Now, or one of his other albums. He has some box sets, too, if you have his main stuff and want deep cuts. It's good stuff, and he deserves your royalties.

****

Thinking about the things I learned about Shin Joong-hyun, who had globe-spanning talent, but never became a global star, it simply strikes me how many different things have to go right for someone to become a global star.

If US hadn't had military bases in Korea, providing income and inspiration for Shin to explore rock and soul music, he might never have developed as a musician.

According to one story I heard, Shin was actually invited to the US by an American record company interested in his talent... but his manager hid the invitation from him for a year, lest his cash-cow leave the country. That could have been his "Jimi Hendrix goes to England" moment... but it wasn't.

Also, if timing had worked out a little differently, he wouldn't have become the Korea legend he is at all: he'd signed a contract and taken the payment to travel to Vietnam and perform for American troops there, when word came to his manager that The Pearl Sisters' song "Nima" was his first real hit, and he decided to wiggle out of his contract and stay in Korea to keep trying as a producer and songwriter. A few days one way or the other and he would not have been in Korea at all to become what he became for Korean music.

Shin's singers kept leaving him as soon as they got famous. He simply never found the right muse or collaborator, the way Keith Richards found Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page found Robert Plant, or U2 got together thanks to an ad on a high school bulletin board. We could speculate on reasons why his groups never stayed together, but the fact is he never had a band lineup together for longer than a few years, and every new vocalist meant the old songs and arrangements might not fit.

Maybe if he'd been a bit better of a vocalist himself, he wouldn't have needed that, or if he'd done things a little differently whilst collaborating, or found a vocalist with the right temperament, one of his singers would have stuck around to be his Mick Jagger... who knows? But the fact is, he had to keep starting from scratch.

If he'd just recorded a song kissing President Park Chung-hee's ass that one time, the entire narrative of Korean rock music could have been completely different, and the (great though they were) Korean singers of the early 80s could have been starting from a much more interesting place than from scratch. I mean... (looks around nervously) say what you want about artistic integrity (looks around nervously again) ...given the situation at the time, he had to know what the fallout of that choice would be, right?

I mean, he got cut off just as he was peaking as a recording artist and producer, truncating his "Mega Producer, Taste-Maker" phase (imagine JYP or Lee Soo-man if they like, rocked, or ... a hard rock Quincy Jones, or Phil Spector with more guitar and without criminal charges), where he could have steered the course of Korean music for decades. We got a shadow his knack for starmaking in the '80s, boosting In Sooni and Kim WanSeon, but way less than we would have if he hadn't been banished to the doghouse for half a decade, while pop music moved on without him. He might now be doing his "Sir Paul McCartney tour" instead of being the "Hey why doesn't everybody know about this Korean guy? He's really good!" guy.

Of all the artists on my playlists, Shin Joong-hyun stands as the most tantalizing, both for the amazing stuff he created, and for the sheer scope of the woulda-coulda-shouldas of his career. Imagine if Brian Wilson were a little more mentally stable. And could rip a guitar riff like Keith Richards. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix were also a producer and starmaker on par with Berry Gordy Jr.. Imagine if Neil Young could also lay down a solo with the power of Jimmy Page, and also spring a dozen other popstars as a producer. What he did was enough to peg him as the #1 most influential K-pop musician in Korean music history. Who knows what Shin Joong-hyun could have been if things had broken right for him instead of always going sideways! 

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