Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Group Sound Rock in South Korea
By the mid-1970s, a decade-long odyssey took Korean rock music from U.S. military camp shows to Korean nightclubs and TV shows. But it was in critical limbo as the professional musicians who had led this first wave of ‘group sounds’ – rock bands in Korean parlance at the time – were either forced to change their ‘decadent’ tunes or banished from their trade altogether by the authoritarian regime. Filling in the void was the next wave of rock music by clean-cut, amateur college bands known as the campus group sounds.
Although the history of campus group sounds goes as far back as the late 1960s, a decisive breakthrough did not come until 1977 – the year when the Sand Pebbles won the grand prize at the inaugural Campus Song Festival (Taehak kayoje) hosted by a major TV broadcaster MBC, and Sanwoolim (Sanulim: Mountain Echo), the three-brother trio with strong ties to the Sand Pebbles, released its monumental debut album. Sensing commercial viability of the rising college-based pop music, TV broadcasters offered various annual ‘song festival’ contests to attract talent from colleges and many campus group sounds gladly took the opportunities to stardom.
While the inroads from the song festivals to the mainstream pop continued more or less until the mid-1990s, the apex was the four-year period from 1977 to 1980 as far as the campus group sounds were concerned. Some of them represented their school as a student entity: the Sand Pebbles (College of Agriculture, Seoul National University), the Runways (Korea Aerospace University), the Black Tetra (Hongik University), the Oxen (Konkuk University), etc. After graduating from college, the veterans of the Runways and the Black Tetra formed the ‘supergroup’ Songgolmae (Peregrine Falcon), which captivated the young teenage audience of the 1980s. Beside the two giants of Sanwoolim and Songgolmae, this period saw the coming of age of such gifted musicians as Kim Such’ol, Cho Hamun, and Yi Ch’ihyon.
The mass appeal of the campus group sounds reveals an interesting social dynamic regarding the privileged status of college students at the time. It is explained in part by the fact that less than 30% of the high school graduates went to a 4-year college until the 1990s(compared to the current rate of 83%). The Confucian notion of social hierarchy granted much more tolerance to the student of ‘higher education’ than to the lowly entertainers (ttanttara) who came before them. In some cases, student musicians reinforced the self-image of Confucian traditionalism by incorporating traditional cultural elements in their music and lyrics. Another aspect of note is the school-based, seniority-ordered campus group sound organization, a very unique feature of Korean social hierarchy. In spite of all these, they made some of the most rocking sounds Koreans ever heard during the times of extreme political turmoil.
Pil Ho Kim and Hyunjoon Shin
Shin Hyunjoon is HK (Humanities Korea) professor in the Institute for East Asian studies (IEAS) at Sunkonghoe University. He received his PhD from the Department of Economics at Seoul National University with a thesis on the transformation of Korean music industry in the globalization age. His recent publications are ”The Birth of ‘Rok’: Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and Glocalization of Rock Music in South Korea, 1964-1975″(with Pil Ho Kim) and “‘Have you ever seen the Rain? And who’ll stop the Rain?: the globalizing project of Korean pop (K-pop).
Pil Ho Kim is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Development and Human Security, Ewha Womans University. As a sociologist, he has been studying East Asian political economy, social policy, and popular culture. His latest publication is “Three Periods of Korean Queer Cinema: Invisible, Camouflage, and Blockbuster” (with Colin Singer).