by Gregory C. Eaves
1974: two bright lights of culture in the darkness
Look out over Seoul today. The metropolis is vast. The neon is bright. Glass and steel abound. The urban sprawl stretches as far as the eye can see, with all of humanity’s guts and glory out there for the taking. Turn the clock back forty years, however, and the city was a cement-ridden, dark and different world.
The year 1974 was in the heart of Korea’s dictatorial Fourth Republic and the heart of President Park Chung-hee’s aptly-named “Revitalizing Era,” or “Yushin Era” (1971-1979). Business, culture and urbanization were slowly being revitalized. Indeed, if you were connected, business was booming. On the other hand, politics, free speech, and individual choice were being crushed. There were only small inklings of change. The students were demonstrating, the middle-class was growing and civic pride was being revitalized. Rock ’n’ roll was just beginning, and Korean culture saw two pivotal songs released in 1974.
In 1974, Seoul had not even 7 million people. Like today, that was still some 40% of the country’s urban population. Seoul wouldn’t hit just under 8 million people until mid-1977. That’s fast. The city couldn’t cope. With rapid urbanization, the city had housing shortages, congestion, pollution and strains on public services. The government had to do something, so it used part of the existing train infrastructure and built a subway.
Subway line No. 1 opened on August 15, 1974, running 8.4 kilometers from Seoul Station to Cheongyangni Station, roughly from Namdaemun Gate to just beyond Dongdaemun Gate, through the heart of traditional Seoul. The temperature was 22 or 27 degrees Celsius that day, with no rain. The new subway eased some of the urban pressure and allowed people to move around a bit more, albeit only during daylight hours. There was still a national curfew. You had to be home by 12 a.m. midnight. Citizens weren’t allowed on the streets until 4 a.m. the next morning. The curfew had been in force since the end of Japanese rule at the close of World War II, some 29 years prior.
Subway line No. 2 didn’t open until October 31, 1980, and the curfew wasn’t lifted until January 6, 1982, largely on the advice of the now-named Ministry of Strategy & Finance: the economy had to grow and people spend a lot of money at night. In 1974, however, the curfew was strictly enforced. You were stopped on the street if you were out after dark. You were stopped on the street if your hair was too long. You were stopped on the street if your miniskirt was too short. Your music was banned if it was deemed too political.
By 1974, Park Chung-hee had been in office for 13 years. The country had been under a particularly strict shutdown since October 17, 1972, when Park suspended the constitution, declared martial law, dissolved the National Assembly, banned all political parties, prohibited any sort of political activity and made himself “president for life.” Restrictions were put on free speech and other civil liberties. As mentioned above, restrictions were also put on one’s hair length and skirt length.
Ties with the U.S. were under strain. By 1974, U.S. President Nixon had already withdrawn 20,000 troops from the peninsula three years earlier. Nixon had also just met with Mao Zedong in Beijing two years earlier, the Communist archenemy.
Textiles were Korea’s biggest export item. The U.S. was Korea’s biggest market. U.S. protectionists were beginning to limit the amount of textiles allowed in from Korea.
In the business world, there were only dim flickerings of the glorious future wealth to come. No glass and steel yet, just cement.
The business world was transforming. The top ten conglomerates were growing at 27 percent a year, three and a half times the GDP growth rate. Hyundai, the eldest sibling of Korea’s family of conglomerates, only founded its shipbuilding and heavy industries division in 1973. The Daewoo group, the youngest sibling, wouldn’t even be founded until 1975.
The Gyeongbu Expressway wasn’t completed until July 1970, linking Seoul and Busan. In 1974, you were able to buy a first-generation Hyundai Pony Coupe that had a four-speed manual transmission, 79 horsepower and a claimed top speed of 150 kilometers per hour. The Cheonggyecheon raised expressway in downtown Seoul was completed in 1975.
The countryside was transforming. The New Village movement (SaeMaEul Movement) started in the winter of 1971-1972, bringing us more-educated farmers, chemical inputs into agriculture, organized financing for small-plot farmers and the ubiquitous plastic blue and orange roof tiles.
Overall in 1974, Korea only had some 34 or 35 million people. The average citizen made about USD $569 per year. They didn’t know it at the time, but this was set to grow. By 2013, there were about 50 or 51 million souls with an average income of around $24,000 per year.
In August 1974, as well as the subway opening and business growing, there was a much darker shock to the nation, a shock which sent President Park into grief and Korean politics into a more oppressive era for the final five years of Park’s reign.
On Thursday, August 15, 1974—celebrating liberation from the oppressive Japanese and Korea’s glorious independence—President Park was giving a speech in honor of the festive day at the National Theater in central Seoul, on the northeastern slopes of Namsan Mountain and near what is now the Silla Hotel. During the speech, a 23-year-old ethnic Korean Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer, Moon Saegwang, ran down the aisle shooting. He was aiming for the president. The footage is on YouTube. He continued to shoot at the president from the front row, below the stage. The president survived, using the podium as cover. Security tackled the assassin. A high-school student was killed. A stray bullet hit Park’s wife, Yook Yeongsu, sitting to his side, then 49 years old. She died later that day.
Today, her daughter is president.
The year 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of many things. It marks the 40th anniversary of urban transportation. It marks the 40th anniversary of the current president’s mother’s assassination. More importantly, however, for Korea and its culture, 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of two seminal rock albums.
In 1974, radio air time for rock’n’roll or for folk music was limited. Vinyl records were expensive. However, people were able to buy black market “copy” vinyl records, made from large reel tape recorders. Enterprising merchants would buy one original vinyl music album, record it onto large reel-to-reel tapes, and thence make more, cheaper vinyl records to sell onward to the music-loving public. They were cheap and apparently they broke easily. Most everyone was able to afford these knock-off vinyl records, giving people access to the newest and best music.
Portable record players were harder to come by. These were high-tech items in the day, and only a few people had one. There were enough of them, however, for music to spread through friends and through university campuses. There were no noraebangs, or singing rooms. Those didn’t arrive until the 1980s. There were plenty of bars and music cafes, however. Bar owners were able to get inexpensive vinyl records to play for their patrons. The bars had to close at about 11:30 p.m., however, since curfew was at 12:00 a.m. midnight.
The two most popular songs in 1974 were “The Beautiful One” (“Mee-In” or “미인”), released in August 1974, and “Pass The Water, Will Ya” (“Mool Jom Joo-so” or “물 좀 주소”), released earlier in the year. They were new. They were fresh. They were fun. They weren’t overtly political, but they became so as their fans used the songs. The songs were adopted as student anthems.
The first song, “The Beautiful One,” by the elder of the two artists, was rock, funk and psychedelia. The second, “Pass The Water, Will Ya,” by the younger of the two artists, was folk, was “unplugged” and set the way for both the Korean folk scene and the Korean garage band scene. Both songs, by completely different artists, were at once liberating and controversial, violently modern and yet still quite traditional. The songs went viral, though no one would have used that term at the time. Both artists were threatened by the paranoid dictatorship, and both artists’ songs were banned from the airwaves. Together, they were two spots of lightness in a dark year.
“The Beautiful One” by Shin Joonghyeon is part rock and part funk, mixed with traditional Korean music vocal styles. The artist uses his array of prior musical experiences and exposure to bring rock to his people. The opening bass line is something from Parliament or the later funk movement. Think: Bootsy Collins meets Korea. The vocals rip in with the first verse, modeling the Beatles’ vocal style on “Helter Skelter.” After four verses, Shin cascades into the chorus, with the bass going up and down the scale to his overriding guitar riffs. Pause for a bass solo during the bridge and then back into the second verse.
In 1974, Shin Joonghyeon was 34 years old. He had been in the music industry since the Korean War (1950-1953). He had about 20 albums or singles to his name. Shin’s biography covers poverty, being cheated, having commercial commitments to write for other singers with no pay or credit and he was even able to launch a few bands and numerous other singers’ careers.
Born in 1938, Shin was our first rock’n’roller. In 1955 at the age of 17 and with the war barely over, he started playing music. In 1959 he had his first guitar solo on his debut album “HiKhi-Shin: Guitar Melodies.”
In 1962, he founded Korea’s first rock band, Add 4. In 1969, he wrote and composed the complete soundtrack for the musical movie “Green Apple”, “PuReun SaGwa.”
He finally hit his stride in 1974.
August 1974 saw Shin Joonghyeon & the Coins, the newest iteration of his backup band, release their self-titled debut album “Shin Joonghyeon & the Coins” (JLS-120891). It’s a psychedelic masterpiece, taking the best of ‘70s funk and tie-dyed 1968 riffs and pouring it into Korean rock, burning through the darkness of 1974.
Only about 500 copies were made in the first pressing, with a paper sleeve and a gate-like folding cover. Shin Joonghyeon played lead guitar and vocals. The Coins were Lee Namyi on bass and Kim Hosik on drums. Jimi Hendrix had a similar lineup: only one lead guitar and then a bass and drums. If you’re a good enough guitarist, you don’t need a rhythm guitar; you play both parts yourself. The first pressing was only given to radio stations. If you find one today, it’s probably the most expensive Korean vinyl out there. A CD was issued in 1994.
The second pressing (JLS-120984) had a new drummer, Kwan YoungNam and, in music style, is a little harder than the first pressing. Jigu Records wanted a slightly harder style, apparently, so had Shin re-make the album.
Track No. 1, “The Beautiful One,” became an instant hit amongst students and youth. In the latter half of 1974 and most of 1975, it was still being played on the radio, but was mostly enjoyed via back alley vinyl records.
At the end of 1975, however, Shin was invited to the presidential mansion, the Blue House (CheongWaDae) by President Park himself. He was asked to write a song praising President Park and his political party. Shin flat out refused to meet the president.
Instead, he wrote the song “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains” (“Areum Dawoon Gang San” or “아름다운 강산”) praising the beauty of the land, the beauty of nature and, of course, peace on earth.
Shin was placed under surveillance. Police officers harassed him. He was questioned about what kind of music he was writing and playing. He wasn’t allowed to hold live concerts. He was forced to have his long hair cut short. He was trailed by plain-clothes policemen.
In December 1975 he was sentenced to prison under suspicion of having used illegal drugs, in this case marijuana. He was sent to prison on December 5, 1975, tortured and then incarcerated in a mental hospital for two years. When he was released in late 1977, the controlled Yushin Era world had moved on from rock’n’roll, his songs were still banned, and he had returned to a world where people listened to tepid love ballads and polkas.
His music was banned in Korea until 1987.
The second song released in the dark year of 1974 was “Pass The Water, Will Ya” (“Mool Jom Joo-so” or “물 좀 주소”), by a 26-year-old journalist working at the Korea Herald, Hahn Dae-Soo. It was track No. 1 off his first album, “The Long, Long Road” (“MeolGo Meon Gil” or “멀고 먼 길”).
If Shin’s 1974 song was more like Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, Hahn’s 1974 song was more like Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” album.
Hahn Dae-Soo was born in Busan and raised there and in New York City. By the time he was 26, he had just finished his military service. Before being conscripted, he had played at Korean universities in 1968 and 1969. Finishing his navy duty, however, he got a job as a journalist and came out with his first solo album, “The Long, Long Road.”
His songs were about seeking freedom, the wish to be happy and the poor life of the common man. He played the acoustic guitar himself. His songs were instantly popular.
Track No. 1 was “Pass The Water, Will Ya,” a man crying in the dehydrated pain of a hangover for a glass of water. Desperation, seeking something revitalizing, was the message: a populace gasping for air, clutching at water in the desert.
Hahn’s growly voice rips open the song to a Sonny & Cher or to a Mama & The Papas guitar rhythm. The bass slides up and down as he continues to howl about how desperate life is and what we need to survive: pass the water, please. The drums are merely Ringo, but that’s enough to carry the song. It’s an instant anthem. Hahn’s howls are almost Lennon & Ono scream therapy during the bridges. Even the album cover has him singing in beautiful pain: he’s grabbing his face in despair and disgust.
“The Long, Long Road” album and his subsequent “Rubber Shoes” (1975) (“GoMoo Shin” or “고무신”) album were enough, in President Park’s eyes, to get the music banned. Hahn moved more or less permanently to New York City, formed a band, and, to this author’s knowledge is the only Korean rock star to ever have performed at CBGB’s.
Music deemed to be “inappropriate” was banned by the government. In fact, the dictator’s sole fear was the students, and the students loved Hahn Dae-Soo.
Student demonstrators, marching for democracy, marching for civil liberties and marching for freedom of speech, would sing Hahn Dae-Soo songs at their rallies. Hahn’s songs drew patriotic support. They were sung like anthems. College students wanted democracy and they wanted it now. Students would gather together in a mass rally, sing the songs, and tie themselves together at the shoulder so that they wouldn’t break when charged at by the riot police; riot police with shields, batons and helmets. They wanted justice and democracy.
“Pass The Water, Will Ya” (“Mool Jom Joo-so” or “물 좀 주소”) was ostensibly just about a poor guy suffering from a hangover. However, it was sung as a cry for freedom, for release from this prison, by the people in the streets. Also, it was tauntingly sung by students in reference to the government’s policy of using water torture on student and democracy activists.
Student dissidents would sing his songs at their rallies and demonstrations. The government banned his songs. The songs weren’t overtly political, but were abstract enough to draw the ire of a police state.
Hahn’s most beautiful song, “To A Happy Land” (“Haengbok-eh Nara-ro” or 행복의 나라로”), a guitarry folk song, wishes for a world and a country where there are no black curtains and where no darkness exists.
Today, forty years later, Hahn Dae-Soo’s official homepage is called the “Land of Happiness.”
Today’s Korea is eons away from 1974. Politically, socially and culturally, we are in a different world. Korean culture and music, too, has developed in leaps and bounds. Nowadays, Korea takes global pop culture, makes it its own and re-exports it. Like an oil refiner, it adds value to cultural products.
According to a recent study (Yoon, 2005), U.S. cultural products accounts for 75% of Korea’s audiovisual imports. On the opposite side, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China account for 82.3% of Korea’s audiovisual exports. Korea takes in from the West, “Asia-fies” it and re-exports it to the East. Such vibrancy is only possible in a free democracy, where culture can bloom.
Walking through the underground shopping arcade between Myeongdong and the Shinsaegye Department Store, there’s one—and only one—vinyl record store. It’s the size of a closet, run by a very quiet man, perhaps mute, with a long ponytail. He has Shin Joonghyeon and Hahn Dae-Soo vinyl records, amongst many, many other artists.
You can buy a vinyl record of Hahn Dae-Soo’s “Long, Long Road,” carefully wrapped in preservative plastic and with no or very few scratches, for KRW 110’000. You can listen to it anytime you want.
(Note: Much information for this piece was taken from direct interviews. Many of the statistics were taken from government or corporate homepages. When possible, specific details were included, but memories fade after 40 years and the internet is very limited. For economic figures, I use constant dollars for better comparison. Any errors in it are mine and mine alone. If there is a correction, or a detail that needs amending, please email me at gceaves@gmailcom.)