#15 - "Chebal (제발, Please)". Deulgukhwa (들국화)

A Story of the Song...The story behind the Song by Andrew David Jackson (Monash University)

제발 그만 해 둬
나는 너의 인형은 아니잖니
너도 알잖니

다시 생각해 봐
눈을 들어 내 얼굴을 다시 봐
나는 외로워

난 네가 바라듯
완전하진 못해
한낱 외로운 사람일 뿐이야

제발 숨 막혀
인형이 되긴
제발 목 말라
마음 열어 사랑을 해 줘

제발 그만 해 둬
새장 속의 새는 너무 지쳤어
너도 알잖니

다시 생각해 봐
처음 만난 그 거리를 걸어 봐
나는 외로워

난 네가 바라듯
완전하진 못해
한낱 외로운 사람일 뿐이야

제발 숨 막혀
인형이 되긴
제발 목 말라
마음 열어 사랑을 해 줘

Please stop.
I’m not your puppet.
You should know that.

Think about it again.
Raise your eyes and look at my face again
I’m lonely.

I am not the perfect person who you want me to be.
I’m just a lonely person.

Please, I'm suffocating.
I’m just your puppet.
Please, I’m thirsty.
Open your heart and love me

Please stop.
This caged bird is so tired of this.
You know that.

Think about it again.
Walk down the street we met for the first time.
I’m lonely.

I am not the perfect person who you want me to be.
I’m just a lonely person.

Please, I’m suffocating.
I’m just your puppet.
Please, I’m thirsty.
Open your heart and love me

Deulgukhwa (들국화, a.k.a: Dulgukhwa, Tŭlgukhwa, Teulgukhwa; literally, “wild chrysanthemum”) were by no means the first Korean rock band, but there is no doubt that they left a lasting mark on Korean popular culture. They have been called the “Korean Beatles,” and they were playing sold-out concerts as late as 2013 (see figure 1), almost 40 years after their first success. Their 1985 eponymously titled first album, “Deulgukhwa 1” (들국화, sometimes also referred to as “Haengjin” [행진, Marching]) was voted number 1 in the 100 greatest Korean music albums in 2007 (Bae 2013). At the time of its release, it was the most popular debut album in South Korean musical history selling 600,000 copies – without any TV coverage, just radio play and word-of-mouth sales (Chang and Sŏ 2015, 324). Their lead singer Cheon Inkwon (Chŏn Ingwŏn) was one of the acts whose songs opened the 2018 Pyeongchang (P’yŏngch’ang) Winter Olympic Games, and the group’s songs have recently appeared in the Reply1988 series.

Deulgukhwa consisted of bass player Ch’oe Sŏngwŏn, guitarist Cho Tŏkhwan, drummer Chu Ch’an’gwŏn and lead singer Cheon, but they were better known as a three-piece consisting of Ch’oe, Chu and Cheon (Bae 2013). South Korean musical commentators have generally credited Deulgukhwa as the first “underground” group in South Korean music (Chang and Sŏ 2015, 323). Being underground in musical terms has usually meant being opposed to mainstream popular music culture, favouring freedom of expression over concerns with formulaic genres and commerciality. Looking back from a period when the internet means the increased connection between musical producers and consumers without the media gatekeepers like the record company executives, TV/radio producers and DJs, and journalists who regulated the music industry, it might be difficult to completely comprehend the barriers groups once faced to get their recorded music to audiences’ turntables (Raymond 2008). During 1980s’ South Korea, the only way to get national exposure was by getting a coveted slot on state-controlled television. The media was strictly censored by the military dictatorship of the time, and TV producers were thus subject to both political and commercial demands. Cosying up to TV producers would have involved many musical compromises. However, Deulgukhwa refused to sacrifice their musical and political outlook. Bassist Ch’oe Sŏngwŏn says of the time: “we would rather have died than sell out like that.” (Chang and Sŏ 2015, 323). While selling out in 1970s-1980s Britain meant signing for a major record label instead of staying independent (the famous example was The Clash signing to CBS in 1977), in 1980s South Korea, the stakes were much higher. This, after all, was the era of military dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s re-education camps– when the authorities purified society of “impure elements” – arbitrarily arresting the accused for supposed social or political infractions and holding them without charge (Yonhap 2006). Police torture was routine for suspected anti-dictatorship campaigners. Student activists, marijuana smokers, long-haired hippy types or other undesirables caught by the authorities could also be press-ganged into the riot police to face their (former) comrades in student protests or, worse, be given early conscription into the army where some were ‘disappeared.’

In the politically charged post-Kwangju Uprising atmosphere of South Korea, as Michael Robinson argued: the extreme politicization of society left little room ‘not to be political.’ (Robinson 2005, 24-5). Many committed youths in this late-dictatorship period saw the universe in strictly Manichean terms. You were either on one side or the other – part of the chedogwŏn or the establishment (pro-US military authorities, media, chaebol [family-owned manufacturing conglomerates]) or part of the undongkwŏn or minjung (repressed people’s) movement sphere (consisting of students, intellectuals and workers) (Lee 2006). Despite their extraordinary success, many (including the group themselves) believe that Deulgukhwa were clearly at the forefront of the anti-dictatorship movement. Cheon claims that “our roots were in the anti-government resistance of the 1980s” (Chang and Sŏ 2015, 323). Bae Ji-sook (2013) also recalls that several of their recordings were banned because of their “politically rebellious content.” There is no doubt that the group’s songs provided the soundtrack to the tumultuous events of 1985-1987, which saw an intensification in the anti-government resistance and the collapse of military rule in the summer of 1987 when Chun’s regime gave into widespread demands for democratization.

Figure 1: Screenshot of reformed Deulgukhwa performing in a 2012 MBC special: Source

One track in particular, “Chebal,” encapsulates the spirit of the times. Taken from the second album, “Deulgukhwa 2”; it was released in 1986, meaning the song had to undergo the dictatorship’s strict censorship. Any seditious content had to be smuggled under the nose of Chun’s bureaucrats. With music and lyrics penned by bassist Ch’oe, “Chebal” could be understood as a straightforward love song. It is a tale of unrequited feelings: a youthful lover who refuses to return the songwriter’s affections. They treat them like their personal plaything. Ch’oe is said to have intended the song not to be about love at all but to recount his experiences as an army conscript. However, the lyrics also imply a different interpretation, which helped seal the song’s place in the hearts of the activist generation. Many have read the lyrics as a meditation on the pressure exerted on the country’s youth by the stultifying atmosphere enforced by the military government of Chun Doo-hwan. The suffocation in the lyrics invokes the cultural and politically constricting atmosphere of the late dictatorship period. By 1986, the South Koreans had undergone almost thirty years of dictatorship. The authorities limited artistic as well as political freedom of expression. The military junta imposed a virtual cultural blockade on the youth with restrictions on travel and the importation of music and movies. The cultural blockade effectively enforced government control over the population – by preventing knowledge and understanding of the outside world. Is the author thirsty for these freedoms? 1986 was also a year Chun Doo-hwan consistently rejected pleas to open up the dictatorship to a more representative government. Is the song then appealing to the authorities for respect and love for the “caged birds”? The answer to this question is unclear since the song ends with an invitation for the listener to return to the place where they first met; a verse that indicates the lyrics are about a youthful romance rather than carrying any specific political intent.

It is perhaps because of the ambiguity of the meanings implied within the song that explains its longevity: it speaks to different audiences and attracts different generations. The song is durable enough to traverse a country’s political and cultural transformation. This durability can be seen by the sheer number of covers by well-known singers available on the internet. It is also a song that captures that 1980s-1990s moment of transformation. Chŏn’s hoarse and soaring lyrics remind you of Seoul’s smoky bars and drunken nights. The lyrics talk of fatigue and Cheon sounds truly weary. Kim Kyŏngjin (2018, 294) claims that the characteristic world-worn hue of the group’s music lies in the age at which they achieved their success. Cheon was thirty-two when “Chebal” was released. If you see him perform the song today, he still delivers it with a passion that arouses and speaks to audiences decades after its release.

Listen to “Chebal” with the original Korean lyrics and English translation here.

References here