A young Korean guitarist discovers the power of American rock ‘n’ roll hunched over a homemade wireless radio in mid-fifties Seoul. He cuts his teeth at U.S. Army bases, performing rock songs and standards for American GIs and soloing frantically between verses. He singlehandedly brings psychedelic rock into the Korean musical landscape, catapulting various bands and performing artists to super-stardom while using the B-sides of their singles to experiment with his own brand of borrowed, re-channelled fuzzy guitar playing.
He experiments with LSD, refuses to pen a tune in honour of Korean president Park Chung-Hee, and is arrested for “involvement with marijuana,” imprisoned for years. His music is banned and declared too noisy and anti-patriotic by the Korean government. Half a century later, the West is finally being properly introduced to his music.
Shin Joong Hyun’s story has all the dramatic flourishes of a great rock ‘n’ roll tale, and his music stands up just fine on its own. Orphaned at a young age, he worked his way through night school and taught himself to play the guitar. He borrowed liberally from his influences, which early on included Elvis Presley and Charlie Parker, but later incorporated the psychedelic sounds of artists like Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Iron Butterfly (a cover of whose In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida proved an early hit for Shin).
The folks at Light In The Attic (who released a fantastic MoWest compilation earlier this year) have collected the highlights from Shin Joong Hyun’s most productive years (1958-1974), and released Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun, available as a double LP, CD, and digital download. This release represents the first time most of Shin’s music is available outside of Korea.
The sounds here range from ’50s surf-inspired pop (Moon Watching) to loose, frenetic jamming (the fifteen-minute instrumental, “J” Blues 72), to expertly crafted pop (Please Don’t Bother Me Anymore, The Sun). The collaborations here include songs with Kim Jung Mi (the lovely ballad, The Sun), Kim Sun (the organ-driven The Man Who Must Leave), Golden Grapes (the pop tune Please Don’t Bother Me Anymore), and Bunny Girls (the frantic, melodic Why That Person?), among others.
The scope of Shin’s evolution as an artist and producer and the peaks and valleys of his personal, spiritual journey follow the same trajectory as any top-billed, highly revered American or English rock hero. His rebellion against his government and his unfair imprisonment cast a long shadow over his life and work, making him more than a guitarist, more than a producer. Shin Joong Hyun has long been a cornerstone figure in South Korea’s rock ‘n’ roll history, and Light In The Attic have done a commendable job in helping cement his place in the wider scope of rock ‘n’ roll the world over.