Shin Joong-hyun — Godfather of Korean Rock
An excerpt from POP GOES KOREA, about one of the most important figures in Korean rock music, Shin Joong-hyun:
In the cluttered basement of his home, in the quiet countryside an hour south of Seoul, practices a white-haired man who just happens to South Korea’s greatest rock star. Or, at least, he used to be.
In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Shin Joong-hyun was pivotal in introducing his countrymen to rock’n’roll, writing many of the nation’s most popular songs for the most popular stars—but after he ran afoul of Park Chung Hee and Korea’s military government of the 1970s, by the 1980s, music trends had passed him by.
Shin has the quiet confidence of a man with nothing to prove to anyone. The cocky, almost Johnny Cash-like swagger he once carried in his heyday has mellowed with age, his long, dark hair now white and crew-cut short. His style is casual. The studio behind his house is handmade (“My band members are good builders,” he jokes). After I became horribly lost and rather late trying to find his out-of-the-way home, hidden among rice fields and tiny roads in the middle of nowhere, Shin just laughed into his cell phone and said: “Whenever you can get here is fine.”
Shin was born in 1938 in Korea. His mother died when he was quite young, and his father, a barber, soon remarried, to a Japanese beautician. When Shin refers to her as “that woman,” he sounds neither affectionate nor bitter: it’s just the way things were. The family spent several years in Japan and Manchuria before returning to Korea, to the Chungcheong Province countryside after World War II was over. The family was not a musical one, although Shin fondly remembers their old, hand-cranked, German-made phonograph.
His father died in 1952, and “that woman” soon after in 1953. Orphaned, Shin sent his brother to live with relatives, then moved to Seoul. The post-War years in Seoul were tough. Shin woke up at four o’clock each morning to work in a pharmacy, then went to night school in the evenings. At night, in between, and any chance he got, he taught himself guitar.
Soon Shin was good enough at the guitar to find work teaching at a music institute in Jongno, the center of old Seoul. He reputation grew quickly, and someone suggested he audition to play for the U.S. Eighth Army.
In 1957, he started playing rock music for U.S. Army bases (under the name “Jackie Shin”), where he would continue for ten years. The American Army circuit was a godsend for musicians then, with plenty of clubs (jazz standards for the officers clubs, more country music for the NCOs, and rock for the enlisted men) and decent pay.
“The American bases are where Korean rock developed,” Shin says. “At the time, Korean clubs only played ‘trot,’ tango, music like that.” Shin still remembers the music he most liked to play then: “Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle,’ Duane Eddy’s ‘40 Miles of Bad Road.’” He was a big fan of Elvis, and after seeing the movie Love Me Tender, Shin bought a denim jacket and practiced shaking his legs and playing like the King. “But I could never get it right,” he says. “I was very disappointed in myself.”
Gradually, rock music spread from the army bases to the rest of Korea. In 1961, Shin formed Korea’s first rock band, Add 4, but Korea still was not ready to embrace the rock sound.
Mainstream success eluded him until 1968 when he produced an album for two high school girls who called themselves The Pearl Sisters. That album, Nima, was a huge hit, and soon made Shin a star, too. Over the next seven years, Shin and the singers he produced released many hit records, usually with his signature “fuzzy” guitar style, spacey organ sounds, and a healthy dose of the psychedelic.
In 1972, near the peak of his fame, however, he received “the phone call”—it was the president’s office on the line. Asked to write a song glorifying then-president Park Chung Hee, Shin refused. “I was young and I didn’t like the president,” Shin explains. “I was upset he never returned the power to the people, like he said he would when he came to power. I think I did a good thing, not writing that song. If I did, I could never have been here now.”
The president’s office did not ask again, and when Shin then wrote the song “Areumdaum Gangsan” (Beautiful Mountains and Rivers), officials considered it blatantly disobedient and impudent. Soon after, police officers and government agents began following and harassing him. First they said he could not wear his hair long, then they began to censor and ban his songs. “Mi-in” (Beautiful Woman) got the censor’s axe for being “too noisy” and “vulgar.”
Finally, in August 1975, Shin was arrested for, in Shin’s words, “being involved with marijuana” (part of the same busts that took out Lee Soo-man’s old music partners in the band April & May). “Yeah, I experimented with marijuana in the 1960s, but just for the music,” he insists. “After getting high, I could see, ‘Oh, that’s where this music came from.’ I could see how it looked bad on the outside, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to learn about the music. But I could see how a lot of reporters and critics might say I’m the reason for the fall of Korea.”
Following his arrest, Shin was banned from performing in Korea for years. Sympathetic fans on the military bases helped ensure he always had a place to play, even if it was just a small, solo show, but still, it was tough for Shin to make a living.
Only with Park Chung Hee’s passing, in 1979, was the ban on Shin finally lifted, but he discovered a greater obstacle in his path—time. The rock trend passed by in the late 1970s to be replaced by a curious blend of disco, modern synthesizers, and a return to the old trot tunes that Park Chung Hee had enjoyed—it was the start of the bubblegum pop and syrupy ballads that have ruled Korea ever since. “It was all ‘Let’s work hard,’ and ‘Let’s be happy’ kind of stuff,” Shin says, with a soft, matter-of-fact bitterness. “It was completely physical, with no spirit, no mentality, no humanity. That trend has carried over all the way to today, so people are deaf to real music. They don’t know because they are never exposed to it.”
Shin tried to update himself, making disco versions of his old hits, but his era was gone. In the 1980s, he opened a live music club that did well in the foreigners’ enclave of Itaewon, but he was forced out by his partner. In 1986, he opened another bar, Woodstock, in the southeast edge of Seoul, and based there for twenty years. Shin’s son met Seo Taiji at Woodstock, Shin thereby helping to usher in Korea’s second great age of music. He released a few albums that sold modestly, toured from time to time, and taught at a local university, but Shin has, for the most past, spent recent years quietly.
“I will never leave music behind. But I want to find my own direction. Something new.”
(c) Mark Russell, 2008