The members of Xianggang Delight have a lust for imperfection. Each of their songs gets just six live performances before being dropped from the repertoire. But the band’s musical inspiration wasn’t perfect either. “To me the Who were great because of their flaws,” says front man Gene Booth. “They’ve never done a perfect record–there are always boners on their albums.” Xianggang Delight isn’t a Who cover band, but all of their songs are designed to loosely mirror those the British rockers recorded in 1965–the Who’s inaugural year and the period when it produced My Generation.
Billing itself as a “postglobal rock collective,” the trio–which takes its name from the pinyin spelling of Hong Kong–mixes rock ‘n’ roll with video, presentations on globalism, and the occasional xeroxed handout, and somehow it works. The execution is shaky: Booth and Maureen Loughnane struggle to articulate brittle, herky-jerk guitar lines while drummer Thom van der Doef thumps out beats with Mo Tucker simplicity. Sometimes the band seems to have bitten off more than it can chew–but that’s what makes it a hoot.
The project is the brainchild of Booth, a former member of oddball bands Mantis and USA, and Loughnane, a violinist who’s played with pop and experimental artists like Arnold Dreyblatt, Gastr del Sol, and Stereolab. They first got together in the summer of 2002. A rock history obsessive who organizes a large chunk of his record collection by release date, Booth had just finished writing lyrics vaguely analogous to every song the Who recorded in ’65. The idea sprang “out of a desire to do something that wasn’t just crazy, obscure lyrics that only I’ll understand,” says Booth. The result? “The new Kowloon joy is only inside / Feel real good with you but then I get / Tongue-tied,” goes “New Kowloon Joy,” a response to “I Can’t Explain.”
“Part of my wanting to break out of the indie rock miasma was to have a self-consciously glam name, like Hanoi Rocks,” says Booth, explaining the band’s name. “Plus there’s a Hong Kong Delight restaurant near my house.” The name provides a template for the group’s song titles, all of which combine a region or city in the area near Hong Kong with a loose synonym for delight, yielding such titles as “Foshan Thrills and Spills,” “Guangzhou Enjoyment,” and “Do the Canton Gratification.”
The pair met regularly to put Booth’s lyrics to music, first composing “demos”–minimal abstractions on a computer based on the various structures, instrument choices, arrangements, and rhythmic ideas of Who songs. In one instance Booth used a multisided Dungeons and Dragons die to construct a melody by chance, then manipulated a single sampled vocal tone on his computer to approximate the pitch of the passage. To Booth and Loughnane, the computer-generated fragment bears an unmistakable relationship to the Who’s cover of “I Don’t Mind.” Since hammering out the skeletons, Booth, Loughnane, and van der Doef–who joined the band last summer–have been figuring out how to translate the melodies to instruments.
Loughnane is the coordinator for the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, and she and Xianggang Delight are inspired by the ideas of U. of C. sociologist Saskia Sassen. “Her work is primarily looking at transglobal networks of all sorts–immigration, transnational corporations, activist organizations–like how the antiapartheid movement became an international phenomenon,” says Loughnane. “A big part of her work is looking at what she calls global cities, where all of those types of flows converge.” According to Booth there’s a similar convergence in Xianggang Delight between the Who, globalization theory, and video, although, he admits, “We sometimes have to force square pegs into round holes.” Each of the band’s songs is accompanied in performance by an original video by van der Doef, a Dutchman who used to play in Holland’s Furtips and who moved to the U.S. seven years ago to live with his American wife. His videos are relatively abstract, but are marked by unambiguous critiques of globalism: in one a man blows perfect smoke rings from which emanate a roll call of corporate logos.
The band gave its first performance in July 2003 at Dogmatic Gallery, performing “New Kowloon Joy,” its only song at that point, once an hour for six hours. With each subsequent performance the group added a new song, and, once the repertoire reached six pieces the oldest one was dropped to make way for a new one.
Recently Loughnane has begun each performance with a short spoken presentation. She’s been entering relevant ideas and facts into an Internet search engine and constructing her talks based on the results. The speech preceding a performance of “PleasePlease Macao” ran, in part, “In 1965 Britain still occupied Hong Kong. In 1965 Portugal still occupied Macao. In 1965 the U.S. began its first air strikes on North Vietnam. In 1965 a rock band called the Who began a cultural revolution in London.”
So far the group’s performed only at art galleries and in homes, which allows them an intimate connection with their audience. “There’s a lot of eye contact and laughter at our shows,” says Booth, “and I think people come knowing that we’re going to make mistakes….The reason I love the people [in this band] is because they aren’t perfect, it’s because of the flaws that I can connect with them. The three of us get that it’s all ridiculous and we laugh all the way through our practices.”
Xianggang Delight performs at 10 PM on Friday, June 25, as part of an all-ages bill presented by the Empty Bottle at Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton. Also on the bill are Gays in the Military and DJ Jim Dorling. There’s a $6 cover; call 773-276-3600 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patsy Desmond.