1970s - The Decade It All Started

Everyone has a different idea of the genres, artists, and times in history that had a far reaching impact on the development of music, as each of us has our own perspective on everything. As for me, I consider the 1970s a singularly important period, and 1970 the watershed year around which a cultural revolution took place.

What came about

Some fifty years ago from today (whew, how time flies!), several important trends and developments in music and pop culture came together in a groundswell, changing the face of Korean music forever. The late sixties was the time Korean rock came into its own, led by the genius songwriter-musician Shin Joong-hyun (신중현); even more remarkably, it was also when the folk music really took off and produced a new breed of artists, including Twin Folio (트윈폴리오), Han Dae-soo (한대수) , Kim Min-gi (김민기) , Yang Hee-eun (양희은) , Park In-hee (박인희) among many others.

Looking back, what happened in the four or five year span around 1970 was nothing short of a revolution, not just in terms of the types and quality of music but as a driving force of the new youth culture as well. Before these pivotal years, most of the traits that define modern pop music didn't exist in Korea. For instance, singer-songwriters not only didn't exist but the very concept of it was foreign. There wasn't much of a youth culture to speak of either, let alone popular youth bands like in the Western world. All of this changed seemingly overnight - so that the seventies Korea now had a new generation of artists appearing in droves out of nowhere, writing and singing their own songs like no one had ever done before in Korea. They also sang about the times for the first time, challenging the undemocratic regime of the day and adopting the spirit of freedom that much of the world had already embraced. It was quite a time. The youth culture came to the forefront for the first time, and it was taking the society by storm. It was exciting to be young, as you heard totally new kind of music, often far superior to what came before it, and which even seemed to have the power to help change the society.

The lead-up to the revolution

Choe Hui-jun
Choe Hui-jun

The music scene in Korea was a little behind the world trends. Korea wasn't even an independent nation until 1945 (although it had been until 1910 when it lost sovereignty), and as if all the political and social turmoil following its sudden independence from Japan was not enough, there broke out a bloody war between the North and South in 1950. It was a large scale war that lasted for three years. After the armistice reached in 1953, the country was in shambles, with the great majority of Koreans suffering from extreme poverty. People weren't very optimistic or proud in the fifties, and the popular music reflected this. What is commonly called Trot (트로트), which existed since the 1920s or so, either originating from or at least strongly influenced by Japanese Enka , was the dominant genre of pop music. It was a rather peculiar type of music that flourished in both countries with little connection to the rest of the world. Its salient features are sad lyrics with themes of love, parting, or missing a loved one, a characteristic scale and melody style that help express such sentiments rather explicitly.

Outside of schools, where high-brow art songs (called 가곡) of both Korean and foreign origin were taught, people sang these trot songs to emote their sad and bitter feelings for catharsis in those challenging times. At the same time, foreign musical trends were flowing in too, especially those of the American music by way of the US troops stationed in South Korea as part of the Korean-American Defense Pact.

Patti Kim
Patti Kim in the sixties

Going into the sixties, these elements of pop music and mass culture were evolving. The trot hit the high note with such popular new crop of singers as Lee Mi-ja (이미자), Bae Ho (배호), and later Na Hoon-ah (나훈아) and Nam Jin (남진), among many others; the art songs also kept coming, many new composers writing new music to existing and new Korean poetry; and the English, French, Italian, and other foreign music was getting more popular too, becoming a trend as the sixties progressed. Overall, it was a diverse mixture of music culture that constantly advanced. Many new pop composers and singers also embraced Jazz and other new genres from the outside world. They grafted them onto the traditional elements of Korean music, producing such new crop of singers as Patti Kim (패티 김) and the late Choe Hui-jun (최희준). It still didn't quite amount to a ground-shifting revolution, though, until what was to come in the late sixties. It probably was because there wasn't much in the way of rock or folk music, two major new genres that had taken over many parts of the world, and singer-songwriters didn't yet exist, with the possible exception of Shin Joong-hyun (신중현) who was still too obscure to most people. This all changed around 1968, spearheaded by Shin Joong-hyun in rock, and a slew of new gigs in folk led by a young duo called Twin Folio (트윈폴리오).

Shin Joong-hyun (신중현), the Godfather of Rock

Shin Joong-hyun
Shin Joong-hyun in his heyday

Born in 1938, Shin Joong-hyun (신중현) started his music career in 1955 as a guitar player at the US 8th Army clubs in Seoul. A significant milestone came in 1963 when he created his own band Add Four (에드 포) and released the song Woman in the Rain (빗 속의 여인). It was probably the first of Korean pop-rock songs, although it didn't receive much notice until much later.

Around the beginning of 1968, he had a new batch of self-written songs which he gave to The Pearl Sisters (펄 시스터즈), which included Hey Darling (님아) and A Cup of Coffee (커피 한잔). This time the songs really took off, thanks to their new style which was clearly a departure from the usual Korean songs of the time. They had fresh sounding modern rhythm and melody, as well as a new style that seemed to break the mold. They hooked the listeners, and Shin was now firmly on a path to a mega-success, single-handedly creating dozens of songs and debuting more than ten different new singers on the pop scene in the years to come.

Kim Choo-ja
Kim Chooja-ja in the seventies

His next major songs were introspective numbers like The Petals (꽃잎) and Spring Rain (봄비), sung by another new find Lee Jeong-hwa (이정화). They continued Shin's streak of hits, albeit at a smaller scale, with their refined melodies combined with a bluesy back beats or psychedelic guitar sounds that were popular at the time. A jack-of-all-trades, Shin did everything from conception to writing the music and lyrics, to finding the singer and producing the whole thing. He really oozed with creativity in this eight to ten year stretch, showing uncanny instincts to come up with a catchy groove as well as the lyrics to go with it. It would not be an exaggeration to say more than half of popular rock songs in this period came from this one man.

In 1969, he released Before It's Late (늦기 전에) and My Love's Gone Far Away (님은 먼 곳에), huge hits sung by Kim Choo-ja (김추자) who pretty much upended the whole music business. The soulful melodies and Kim's rich voice elevated Shin's genius up a notch, establishing him in the throne as far as Korean pop-rock was concerned. Kim Choo-ja on her part became one of the greatest divas in Korean music history, releasing countless songs thereafter showcasing her attractive voice and vocal prowess that no one could imitate.

Kim Jeong-mi
Kim Jeong-mi album cover

Then came Kim Jeong-me (김정미), a different kind of female artist who seemed to shatter the existing rules of rock, singing Shin's new batch of technically advanced psychedelic masterpieces. Shin's songs in this period were really ahead of the time. Many of them, such as Spring (봄), Darling Sun (햇님), and Beautiful Land (아름다운 강산), still sound great to me.

His wellspring of creativity kept going, discovering new artists like Im Ah-young (임아영), Jang Hyun (장현), and many more, until the streak of success was suddenly dampened around 1975 by the government's banning of most of his songs. The overt reason given was that his songs weren't in line with good social mores or something like that (haha, social mores!), but it was really because because Shin balked, or at least wasn't eager to make songs for the government. The dictator regime at the time could do almost anything they wanted, and sadly for Shin and many other artists, they pulled the plug on the run of these beautifully crafted songs. The ban was eventually lifted in 1980, but the five year hiatus took its toll and Shin's later efforts failed to have the kind of impact he had in the seventies. He's now fondly called The Godfather of Rock for his incredible contribution to Korean music. He was a truly respectable musician, as he never tried to lift an idea from others' work or sold out his art for money.

The seventies folk and pop artists

Twin Folio
Twin Folio promotional photo
Yun Hyeong-ju (l), Song Chang-sik

On the folk side, it seems Twin Folio (트윈폴리오) was the first outfit that ushered in entirely new sensitivities to the Korean audience. Starting out as a trio, they really came into their own in 1968 as a duo of Yun Hyeong-ju (윤형주) and Song Chang-sik (송창식). The twenty-year-old duo sang their interpretations of foreign folk pops by such singers as Nana Mouskouri and Milva, backed by their own acoustic guitars and youthful sensitivities which were free of tiresome mawkishness. They became a huge hit and helped brought in the new era of youth culture symbolized by the acoustic guitar. Twin Folio also influenced Toi et Moi (투아에 무아), a male-female duo who sang similarly poetic, guitar-backed songs aimed at high art. The female member Park In-hee went on to become a very successful solo singer with several memorable songs. Her signature style was a beautifully composed feminine voice that could give a brand new life to some old poems, be it singing (As Time Goes By (세월이 가면)) or narrating (목마와 숙녀 (The Rocking Horse and The Lady)).

Han Dae-soo
Han Dae-soo in the seventies

If Twin Folio was the harbinger of the new era, Han Dae-soo (한대수) might be called an embodiment of it. He was an eccentric artist who whipped out of his head totally new kinds of folk songs seemingly effortlessly with the help of his own guitar. His songs ranged from wacky to philosophical, most of them a far departure from anything that had come before, often with lyrics as revolutionary as the music. Possibly the first Korean singer-songwriter in folk music, and something of a cross between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits in style, his songs such as The Wind and I (바람과 나) and The Land of Happiness (행복의 나라) are the epitome of the free spirited folk music.

Kim Min-gi
Kim Min-gi circa 1970

Then there is Kim Min-gi (김민기), another singer-songwriter who wrote not only beautiful songs but songs that helped define the era in a way. Starting in 1970, Yang Hee-eun (양희은), probably the earliest popular female folk singer of Korea, gave voice to many of Kim's thoughtful songs with layered meanings. Songs like Morning Dew (아침 이슬) and Evergreen (상록수) were sung by the people at many important junctures of modern Korean history, much like an anthem of solidarity. They remained popular and often ranked at the top of the best song surveys long after the seventies.

Inclining more toward the pop genre, Lee Jang-hee (이장희) is another prodigious singer-songwriter who produced hits after hits starting in 1972. His songs touch on everything from light rock (It's You (그건 너) and A Shot of Memories (한 잔의 추억)), to sweet ballads (I'd Give You Everything (나 그대에게 모두 드리리)) and deeply poetic ballads (The Wanderer of Rain (비의 나그네)).

There were many other artists, and the explosive creative energy released in this short period carried on with later artists such as the phenomenal band Sanullim (산울림) and the one-of-a-kind folk singer Jo Dong-jin (조동진) later in the decade. All in all, the seventies was a decade that changed the pop scene altogether.

Comments and Questions

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Han Dae-soo (한대수)

Jokingly called the first hippy of Korea, Han Dae-soo is a free-spirited singer-songwriter who spearheaded the fledgling Korean modern-folk movement since the 1970s

Kim Min-gi (김민기)

Singer-songwriter famous for such seminal works of the 70s and 80s as Morning Dew (아침 이슬) and Evergreen (상록수)

Yang Hee-eun (양희은)

Folk singer with a resonant contralto voice who has been a major figure in Korean folk music since the 1970s.