Hong Kong's Clockenflap Is Taking Off

Hong Kong's Clockenflap Is Taking Off
Credit: Clockenflap / Chris Lusher

What you need to know

Hong Kong's rock festival scene is catching up with Japan but is becoming predictably commercialized.

The short review of Clockenflap is: Asia needs another great music festival besides Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic in Japan, and this is well on the way to becoming that festival.

Total costs of visiting from Taiwan are about NT$20,000 (US$667) for the weekend — visiting those Japanese summer festivals would cost at least two to three times as much. Held Nov. 16-18 in the spectacular location of Hong Kong's Central Harbourfront, the weather was mostly good, headliners in Massive Attack and Prodigy delivered crowd-pleasing sets, smaller stages offered further diversity and attendance was solid — up to 30,000 a day.

There is however a bit of cognitive dissonance involved in watching artists perform on Clockenflap's main stages, which literally stand beneath the logos of J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, HSBC and other financial giants, whose skyscrapers overlook the venue. Who couldn't forgive the organizers for having Asia's most iconic skyline as their festival's backdrop? It is a bit weird, though.

With the rise of Asian wealth and Western pop culture as a status symbol, this kind of urban, commercial music festival will continue to be a trend and possible new model in Asia. It's already happening in Singapore, where concerts and festivals are held against the backdrop of the city-state's Central Business District, and to various degrees in China, Malaysia, Taiwan and elsewhere in the region. Governments have finally gotten over being suspicious of rock 'n roll and now welcome it — as long as it's a wealth-producing creative industry. This means it needs mass market scale in order to flourish, a lack of political content, and there's usually a VIP section.

A quick caveat — this not purely an Asian phenomenon. Music festivals are becoming more commercial in the U.S. and Europe as well, but it's mainly in Asia that they're so photogenic, with giant bank buildings behind the stages. There's also a broader, global shift in musical genres, namely a long, gradual decline in rock and roll, and its replacement in "rock festivals" by electronic music and hip-hop, genres which since the 1990s have openly embraced commercialism and equated dollars (rather than world-changing ideals) with success. Underground music of course continues to exist, but in the music industry the middle has long been hollowed out, and that's why festival rosters always seem to be made up of a few big names and another hundred bands you've never heard of and who probably won't be back next year.

None of this is to diminish Clockenflap. The lineup was very good — not Fuji Rock or Coachella or Primavera Sound good — but really solidly fun, with the right mix of big names, diversity and cool festival experiences. Headliners Massive Attack, Prodigy and Kaiser Chiefs, all from the U.K., were a great draw for Hong Kong's British expats and those around the region. Plenty of festival pilgrims from China, Japan and Taiwan flew in for the weekend.

The main stage sounds systems worked best for big, bombastic acts performing electronic music or hip hop: Prodigy, Stormzy, and the Chinese hip-hop crew Higher Brothers all sounded great. But for some folksier rock acts, the mix was badly off. Canadian indie singer Feist was at low volume and underwhelming, and for the Portland indie rock band Dandy Warhols, which live and die on their catchy vocal melodies, the vocals were so muddied into the mix it sounded like one long, opaque stoner jam (excepting a brief moment when the crowd sang along on their hit "Bohemian Like You"). British guitar band Kaiser Chiefs, however, were spot on and anthemic — for them, the sound man got it right.

My personal best of the weekend was a punk duo from Kent, England — The Slaves. Dressed in business slacks and with minimal instrumentation, they put on the best punk show I've seen since… possibly Bad Brains at Fuji Rock in 2009. Yes, they were that good. The band consists of just two guys, Isaac Holman playing two drums and singing, and the heavily tattooed Laurie Vincent switching between guitar and bass. It's just raw power, simple scream-able lyrics, deep sarcasm, and an updated from-the-streets working class ethos that been a part of much of the greatest punk rock. Their main anthem, "Cheer Up London", consists of the chant, "Put another hole in your paycheck, are you done digging your grave yet?" followed by the chorus, "Cheer up London, it's not that bad… Because you're dead! Already! Dead! Dead! Already! … You're already dead!" Those are indeed all the lyrics in the song, and by the band's standards, it may well be the War and Peace of their lyrical output. Other tunes are yet more terse, like "Fuck the high hat!", which consists of just those four words, and was shouted in unison with the whole crowd. Great band. Definitely go see them if you want to mosh, pogo or slam dance, but they're listenable on many other levels as well.

Also very, very good at Clockenflap 2017 were U.K. hip-hop act Young Fathers (who also showed up on stage with Massive Attack), the Saharan desert nomad rockers Tinariwen, Danish pop diva Mo, Massive Attack and a bunch of the DJs at the Robot Acorn Stage.

In all, Clockenflap was very well done and fabulously smooth. The only mild negatives are that it ends early, finishing by 10:30 p.m. due to noise restrictions, and that it's so close to central Hong Kong you are likely to spend the first half of the day at brunch with friends on Hollywood Road. So there is not quite the communal, stuck-in-the-mud-together experience of a Glastonbury or a Fuji Rock, and you do not get to party till dawn. It's a city festival, and a fun one, and certainly unique to Hong Kong. And perhaps the most pertinent appraisal is this: Yes, I'd definitely go back.

Editor: Morley J Weston


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