Beautiful Rivers and Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound of Shin Joong Hyun

Beautiful Rivers and Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound of Shin Joong Hyun

By Kevin “Sipreano” Howes

Shin Joong Hyun’s tale is personal, spiritual, and deep, not only reflecting the full spectrum of human emotions but also reverberating with echoes of sound, some beautiful and life-giving, others restless and ungovernable. Writer Kevin “Sipreano” Howes sheds light on the legacy of Shin Joong Hyun, the godfather of Korean rock, below in an excerpt from his liner notes accompanying Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea's Shin Joong Hyun 1958-74.

Now, Mr. Shin, as we call him, started his extensive musical career way back in the mid-1950s, performing for US troops still stationed in South Korean army bases after the Korean War armistice 1953. While his English language skills were limited at best, the budding player had no trouble communicating through his trusty electric guitar and the universal language of rock & roll. But Mr. Shin was no mere 6-string slinger for hire; he was able to channel something far beyond your average professional musician. Contorting his face like the maddest of monks, he coaxed soulful emotion and pure energy out of his instrument with good old fashioned blood, sweat, and tears. With wide-ranging force, he built a new vernacular inspired by American and UK beat, rock, surf, and jazz, in combination with traditional Korean sounds. Breaking into the local recording industry was Mr. Shin’s next move. His Add 4 group began cutting vinyl records in 1964, becoming the first of a new breed of South Korean rock pioneers.

Production work and extensive songwriting followed, not to mention a steady and consistent stream of dynamic stage show performances. Gaining momentum by the moment, Mr. Shin developed a widespread base of popular success across South Korea molding protégés, like singing duo the Pearl Sisters and folk-psych songbird Kim Jung Mi, into breakout South Korean stars. From there it was hit after hit. The late 1960s rock and pop explosion and the influx of imported music from The Beatles, San Francisco, and US R&B/soul sides all informed and inspired Mr. Shin to elevate his own craft. Nature, love, and even experimental trips via a counterculture crew of local hippies also took the music man to new heights. But local law strictly forbade such main-stream rebellion. Drug usage was illegal, strictly underground, and extremely punishable as a serious offense. Park Chung-hee, the then-current President of South Korea, who came into power through a dictatorial military coup in 1961, closely monitored such “subversive” activities. Despite being credited with expanding the South Korean economy and overall industrialization through export-led growth, a rock and roll fan he was not.

With Mr. Shin on government radar, Park Chung-hee went as far as to have one of his min-ions place a call from the presidential residence (also known as the Blue House) asking the young musician to write a politically-minded song in praise of the leader. Mr. Shin flat out refused. In response, he wrote and recorded something which he felt was far more appropriate to the spirit of the times, “Ah Reum Da Un Gang San,” translation, “Beautiful Rivers And Mountains,” a song extolling the beauty of the Korean people and landscape. Not surprisingly, the President took this as grave slight and immediately brandished Mr. Shin as unpatriotic. Like Park Chung-hee himself, who was assassinated in 1979, Mr. Shin’s stunning musical roll was instantly snuffed-out through a combination of surveillance, music bans, physical torture, and institutional confinement. While clearly cinematic in scope, this was definitely not a movie.

Returning to music after the death of Park Chung-hee, Mr. Shin found that South Korea’s music scene had somewhat changed since his enforced exile. Disco had taken over from psychedelic rock as the latest rage and though he made continued efforts to break back into the business, the then-current sonic landscape simply didn’t speak to the aging guitar rocker anymore. Of course, that’s not the end of Mr. Shin’s musical story, but for an all-too-brief moment in Korean music history, Shin Joong Hyun and his talented accomplices laid down a catalogue of recordings in their native tongue that have finally reverberated to good people the world-over, and most certainly enshrined in the holiest temple of rock and roll.

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Beautiful Rivers and Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound of Shin Joong Hyun