Outliers: Shin Joong-Hyun, Korea’s Psychedelic Pop Svengali

Naz Malik

Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’ was coming to an end. And I’d enjoyed it. Very good indeed. 

The final scene resolved. I readied myself to jump out my seat and flick on the kettle - but something caught me unawares. As the credits kicked in, so did a soft acoustic riff, one quite unlike anything I’d previously heard. I gravitated back to the chair. An otherworldly voice in an unknown language floated over the guitars. Violin’s lingered, burst through the mix, soared, then tumbled down. A lump formed in my throat. What was that film about again?

The man responsible for these unexpected emotions was Shin Joong-Hyun - Korea’s Godfather of Rock and all round badass.

From humble beginnings, teenage Shin taught himself guitar and built his own radio. Through the static, his ears made first contact with psychedelic sounds coming from the US, via American Forces radio. This early exposure to psychadelia set Shin on a path few Koreans had had the opportunity to tread.

On the precipice of the 1960s Shin landed himself a gig performing at US army bases in Korea, performing British invasion covers for American GIs. As the decade progressed and Western rock music became more innovative, Shin’s guitar playing evolved. He later pointed to these early concerts for GIs as the birth of Korean rock.

Sometime in the 60s he came into contact with a gaggle of local hippies - anti-war protestors – who had been impressed by his wild guitar playing. They spoke with him and exchanged music – a notable point in the development of Shin’s psychedelic sensitivities, “I became friends with them, and they taught me what psychedelic music really was”, he recalls, “They also gave me LSD.”

For the best part of a decade Shin played the part of Korea’s Svengali, using a natural ear for melody to mold his protégés into stars. Most notably duo ‘Pearl Sisters’ and folky chanteuse Kim Jung Mi. Between 1968 and 1973 he was ever-present on Korean radio waves, working on 14 albums. Later he referred to the period as "the most beautiful time of my life."

Choice Shin-masterminded tracks include Kim Choo Ja’s Jefferson Airplane inspired ‘What Am I Going To Do?’, Pearl Sisters mega-hit ‘Coffee Han-Jan’ and ‘I Don’t Like’ with Lee Jung Hwa: the former a surf-rock smash with some dirty, dirty guitar, the latter a breezy soul jam.

Whilst clearly imitating the music of Shin’s beloved American radio stations, the Korean counterparts all have a dreaminess alongside the rocky instrumentation – something common to so much classic Asian pop. It adds a charming dimension to tracks that would otherwise be straightforward to the ear.

Tragically, Shin’s days of success were numbered. In 1972, at the height of his powers, he was ordered to write a patriotic song in honour of President and Dictator Park Chung Hee. A man of his morals, Shin refused. In rebellion, he penned his own vision of a patriotic song: the brooding epic ‘Beautiful Rivers and Mountains’, a homage to the beauty of Korea itself. 

The Dictator was not amused. Shin was immediately blacklisted and placed under close surveillance. Targeted police harassment and nationwide banning of his music prematurely snuffed out his career. Despite having stripped Shin of his right to perform in public, the government were not content. In August 1975 Park Chung Hee’s regime found him in possession of marijuana and Shin was imprisoned. Off the air and out of sight he was tortured and subsequently incarcerated in a psychiatric ward. Once released he found himself in an unfamiliar musical world. Shin would never regain his early success. 

Only recently, with the release of the excellent "Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea's Shin Joong Hyun" can his music be treasured once more.

I’ll leave you with the track that left me in a stupor after ‘The Double’, melancholic masterpiece ‘The Sun’.

Further Listening

  • For more from Shin Joong Hyun, check out our Spotify playlist.
  • "Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea's Shin Joong Hyun" arrived in 2011 thanks to Light in the Attic Records
  • For more east Asian gems, delve into the soundtrack from Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’ and check out buzzfeed’s list of melancholy Chinese pop songs.

Follow Naz on Twitter: @groovehoover

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