THE HEARTBEAT OF BEIJING’S ROCK SCENE USED TO THUMP MOST LOUDLY IN A VENUE CALLED D22, IN THE CITY’S NORTHERN WUDAOYING AREA. IT WAS A STICKY-FLOORED SPAWNING GROUND FOR BANDS SUCH AS QUEEN SEA BIG SHARK, HEDGEHOG AND JOYSIDE.
All brilliant bands and all important in the first wave of Beijing’s alternative indie rock in the early 2000s. D22 was a music mecca – students who couldn’t afford to take taxis bussed across the capital to crowd-surf at shows, then huddled for warmth in the 24-hour McDonald’s next door until the pre-dawn metro trains began operating. Then in 2010 the venue abruptly closed, becoming another victim of the ever-shifting Beijing real-estate landscape. Now, the building houses an inexpensive pizza restaurant.
With D22 gone, the rock energy of Beijing needed to be poured into a new home. It soon trickled a few miles south, to School Live Bar. The venue, opening in spring 2010, was originally a dance-music dive club tucked in Dongcheng district’s Wudaoying Hutong, a touristy lane near Beijing’s famous Lama Temple. After D22’s demise, School’s owners Liu Fei and Liu Hao – the latter the bass player in Joyside, the former a Libertines obsessive who sings in a hardcore rock band – realised that they could incarnate its spirit at their own place.
DJ decks made way for amps in the venue’s small, sweatbox music room. Liu Fei erected a neon sign stating “Gang of Gin”, the name of the Babyshambles song after which the hardcore friendship group called itself. By 2012 the walls were plastered with gig posters, and local rock bands such as The Diders and The Twenties were packing the place out. Shots flowed, a second bar room opened, and foreign rockers such as Marky Ramone and The Libertines’ Carl Barât began turning up at the bar when passing through the city on tour. Beijing’s rock heart had been successfully transplanted.
Now, School is established as the most vital rock-music venue in Beijing. The authorities’ city-wide “clean-up” operation has seen many nearby venues close, but it still stands proud, with new bands unfolding masterplans on its battered sofas while others let rip on the tiny stage. Most nights here you’ll see Liu Fei and Liu Hao propping up the bar or, in Liu Hao’s case, playing live with his current band, Casino Demon. These guys shoved a defibrillator against the chest of Beijing’s rock scene when it could have died with D22, but now its heart is beating louder than ever.