Yesterday, in a thrift store in Park Slope, I stumbled upon a fascinating artifact of the roots of Korean pop culture: a compilation called Love, Peace & Poetry: Asian Psychedelic Music, which includes two Korean psychedelic rock songs from the 1970s. The CD is part of a series of psychedelic rock compilations from all over the world. On this volume, curator Stan Denski has also turned up tracks from Japan, Cambodia, Turkey, China and Singapore.
Today I showed my new CD to my colleague Young and was surprised to find that she recognized both Korean artists. Sanullim is a trio whose name means “mountain echo.” They’re well known as one of the founders of Korean rock, and this song is from their 1977 debut. When I then showed the CD to Counsellor Yoon, a music buff whose office is across the hall from mine, he immediately began humming “It Was Probably Late Summer” and told me he and his friends had seen Sanullim live back in ’77 or ’78.
Shin Jung-hyeong is even more important, and Young claims he’s one of her favorite singers. He began his career playing for American GIs in 1955, and gradually he developed his own style, becoming the Jimi Hendrix of Korea, as Yoon put it, and launching Korean rock pretty much single-handedly.
The song showcased here, “Beautiful Landscape,” is a hit from 1972 that has been widely covered. The translation of the title doesn’t quite do it justice — the word used for “beauty” is the Korean rather than the Chinese term, giving it an earthy feel, while the word for “landscape” is literally “river-mountain,” a much more poetic term. It’s essentially a paean to the Korean landscape, but the paranoid, authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee managed to find something wrong with it, and with similarly simple lyrics from other songs, and made Shin suffer for it.
As with the Brazilian Tropicalists who were similarly persecuted, Shin was eventually rehabilitated and today is recognized as one of Korea’s greatest musicians. According to Young, he receives tributes from Korean pop stars of all stripes, who see him as an inspiration.