At the start of the 1970s when the folk revolution was starting , another equally significant revolution was already under way. Shin Joong Hyun, who is now considered the founder of Korean classic rock, was coming on strong with his new crop of ground breaking new songs. After a few big hits in 1968, he came to see his greatest success with Kim Choo Ja, whose appearance was nothing less than a mega-storm in Korean music. Kim Choo Ja songs written by Shin Joong Hyun shot through the roof in popularity, and My Love’s Gone Far Away (님은 먼 곳에)* and It Is All Lies (거짓말이야) are the early ones that got the juggernaut rolling.
My Love's Gone Far Away
It Is All Lies
Shin Joong Hyun (신중현, 1938-) had his musical debut in the 1950s playing at US 8th Army clubs in Seoul. He put together a band named Add Four (애드 포) and released an album in 1963, which is recognized as the first Korean rock album featuring original songs. Shin’s real first big break came from songs he wrote for the Pearl Sisters (펄시스터즈). These songs were earth shattering songs at the time, with fresh new style in many aspects but particularly in melody, rhythm and vocal delivery. While following them with more hits with other artists, Shin came to meet Kim Choo Ja (김추자, 1951-), a college student who came to him uninvited with burning ambitions to sing. After the initial lukewarm response, Shin wrote a few songs for her, some of which saw major success. Then came these two songs, which took off like no other and made Kim Choo Ja the reigning queen of Korean pop music.
Kim Choo Ja had not had any formal training in music. She however possessed a great passion and talent, showing great potential early on by winning school performing contests.
Her great assets were the rich, beautiful sounding voice as well as a canny sensibility that gave her an ability to infuse her soul into a song. These elements made her songs immensely popular even when her songs were not the best material. Most of her big hits happened to be a cross between traditional Korean ballad and Shin’s new style of rock, often heavily psychedelic as was the trend at the time. Kim’s rendering of them was artistic enough while never departing too far from the earthy ethos of everyday people, and it soon became clear that she was an historic singer the nation had not seen the likes of before. She performed actively through the first half of the 70s singing Shin’s songs, with ups and downs in personal life and a brush with the government’s crackdowns and bans. Though she left the music scene in the 80s, she is remembered as one of the greatest divas in Korean pop music.
My Love’s Gone Far Away (님은 먼 곳에) is the song that immortalized Kim’s name. The popularity of it comes from its rich emotional content carrying traditional Korean ethos, dressed up in a soulful style that was a first at the time. In addition, the appeal of Kim’s melancholy, entreating voice and featuring in a popular TV drama added to its meteoric rise in charts. Though it is rather sparing lyrically, it has a slow emotional crescendo that builds up the pent up pathos before discharging it all, much like a denouement in a novel or a movie. The deeply sinking mood and cathartic emotional ride appealed to the poetic hearts of Koreans who are far more used to such sentiments of heartbreaks than the western audience.
It Is All Lies (거짓말이야) is another song soaked with strong emotions but with a faster tempo, lamenting about an untrue partner. It is a blunt shriek repeating Lies! five times at the start and as a refrain. Structurally very simple and probably not a standout beauty musically, it may not have been such a big hit without Kim’s vocal prowess. The texture and timber of Kim’s voice with its lucid sweetness really comes through in the repeated cries of Lies!. I believe she turned what might have been an average song into a huge hit, a good demonstration of what she was capable of. The song unfortunately attracted the attention of the authoritarian regime of the time and was banned from radio and TV broadcast in 1975. This was not surprising to most people, given the cries of Lies! at a time when those in power were at an all out war to get the mass of people aligned to their politics. It could easily have been most nightmarish song to them.
Shin and Kim’s era peaked in the mid 70s, cut short in part by the government’s intervention, although they both had many lesser songs come out after 1975. In the span of more or less a decade of concentrated activities, they dominated the pop music and brought so many fun as wells as artistic songs to Korean people, significantly elevating the state of the art along the way. Kim became the reigning diva, and Shin got firmly entrenched as the Godfather of Korean Rock for founding and flourishing the whole rock genre. Looking back, it is safe to say that Korea would have been a way more boring place if not for Shin Joong Hyun and Kim Choo Ja. People thank them, the two shining stars of the 70s, and respect them for this.