Cliff’s notes: Oh, for the good old daysIn October 1969, a British pop star rocked conservative Korean society. “Sensation” doesn’t begin to describe the impact of his three concerts in Seoul.
Elders were appalled, the media mortified. Some girls’ high schools deliberately scheduled examinations during the concert period to stop their students from going. But thousands of girls showed up anyway, humming every lyric, crying over every twitch made by the 29-year-old rock ’n’ roll singer Cliff Richard.
The media criticized the girls, with some of the more horrified newspapers even accusing them of throwing their underwear onto the stage, which later proved to be untrue. The confusion came when, reportedly, Richard tossed a handkerchief to howling Koreans.
Despite efforts by groups to de-emphasize the concerts, Richard’s shows were in fact the first full-scale, live performances of a foreign pop star in Korea. The three sold-out concerts remain in the hearts of many Koreans now in their 40s and 50s, myself included, as unforgettable moments of youth.
Now 62, Cliff Richard returned to Seoul on Friday for a performance at Jamsil Gymnasium. Nearly 34 years have not dimmed his dynamism at all. His voice was as soft as ever, his dance steps still impressive.
Many in the audience of 5,000 had already begun their trip into the past before the concert began. As soon as they took their seats, these middle-aged men and women started to talk about what had happened to them more than three decades before, sharing the recollections with strangers around them.
A middle-aged man sitting in front of me confessed that he had been suspended from school for attending Richard’s concert. A woman who was sitting to the front of him spoke of the history of the Cliff Fan Club in Korea, which apparently is still active (www.cliffrichard.co.kr).
Leaders of the fan club, which supposedly was the first of its kind in Korea, soon found themselves under the media spotlight again, as camera flashes from press photographers continually bathed the group.
When their idol finally appeared on stage, his fans started to yell, albeit not as loud as 1969. Back then I was a 14-year-old ninth grader and I remember not being able to hear anything at the show I attended, held at Ewha University’s auditorium, except the screeching of girls around me.
On Friday, when Richard sang his up-tempo songs, some women stood up and danced.
The biggest reactions, naturally, came when Richard sang his old numbers. As he began “When the Girl in Your Arms,” I saw the man sitting next to me singing along in a low voice, his eyes moist. Listening to Richard’s songs, I was thrilled by my memories of those days, memories I believed I had long forgotten, and was all too happy to discover I had not.
Some people now say that today’s oppa budae (the Korean word for those ultra-hard core fans of male pop stars) originated from the fans of Cliff Richard, whose enthusiasm was certainly no less than today’s teenagers who follow, say, the group g.o.d.
In 1969 Korea, few cassette players were around, and buying foreign albums was prohibited. All you could get were baekpan, rough, plastic copies of original LPs, usually from U.S. soldiers, which provided extremely poor sound quality. In spite of such difficulties, many young girls and boys of the day knew most of the words to every Cliff Richard song.
Richard’s performance that year was made possible in part through his fan club, which had formed after the local release of Richard’s film “The Young Ones,” in 1964. The fans’ lobbying reportedly was responsible for the Hankook Ilbo newspaper bringing Richard to Seoul.
Sadly, Richard did not appear to fully understand his audience’s sentiments Friday. The concert mostly promoted his latest album, “Wanted on Tour,” and several of the songs featured were quite new to his old fans, upsetting many in the audience. I heard sighs from some women in between their frantic shouts for their favorite tunes.
Richard may not like to hear this, but the truth is that most of his fans were there not to appreciate the singer’s new releases, but to re-live the old ones.
One positive outcome of the concert, however: Richard showed middle-aged Korean men at Jamsil that, with a little effort, they can remain fit and dynamic even into their 60s. Richard sang 29 songs during the two-part concert Friday, and about half were rock songs. He didn’t use a backup singer or share the stage with anyone.
by Kim Hyeh-won