Winston Tong is a San Francisco-based performance artist and singer, celebrated both for his solo work and his collaborations with the cult group Tuxedomoon.
Polymath performance artist Winston Tong was born in San Francisco in 1951, the son of Chinese parents exiled by the Communist revolution. He graduated in theatre from the California Institute of Arts in 1973, and quickly established a reputation in the Bay Area with a string of charismatic performance pieces such as Wild Boys, Eliminations, Frankie and Johnnie and Bound Feet, the latter loosely based on traditional oriental puppet theatre, and an Obie award winner.
In late 1977 Tong met an early incarnation of Tuxedomoon, then comprising Steven Brown, Blaine Reininger and Victoria Lowe, after Lowe invited Tong to perform at a self-organized salon, Chez Dada. Afterwards Tong agreed to perform with the band as and when time allowed, a flexible arrangement which would remain in place until he finally ceased working with the band in 1985. At about the same time Tong met Bruce Geduldig, who would take on responsibility for visuals and staging with both Tong and Tuxedomoon.
Tong’s first record appeared in the spring of 1979 and is a Tuxedomoon release in all but name. Featuring TM members Brown, Reininger, Peter Principle and Paul Zahl, The Stranger paid homage to the existential classic by Albert Camus, while the flipside Love/No Hope offered spiky angst-rock at one with the first two Tuxedomoon eps, No Tears and Scream With a View.
Tong was absent from the first Tuxedomoon album, Half Mute, but returned for Desire, released to great acclaim in 1981, as well as their first European tour. Soon afterwards the band relocated to Europe on a permanent basis, settling first in Rotterdam and then Brussels. Several albums emerged on which Tong featured heavily, including Divine, Suite en Sous-Sol and The Ghost Sonata, the latter an ambitious ‘opera without words’ staged in Italy in the summer of 1982. This tally also includes the classic single Time to Lose.
A second Tong solo release appeared in early 1983 through Les Disques du Crepuscule. In its original form Like the Others was a handsome cassette and book package, featuring several oblique monologues with sympathetic backing by Tuxedomoon. The title track appeared as a single in France, while an expanded CD edition later added an improvised live track, Last Words at the Scaffold, on which Tong is backed by members of Tuxedomoon and Cabaret Voltaire. At the same time Tong continued to reprise solo theatre performances such as Frankie and Johnnie.
At the beginning of 1983 Blaine Reininger quit Tuxedomoon for a solo career, and athough he would return in 1987, this setback left the band inactive for much of the next two years. Tong sang lead on an interim single, Soma, but elected to devote more time and energy to a musical collaboration with Belgian singer Niki Mono: ‘two voices of opposite sex from opposite ends of the earth.’ The pair made their live debut at the Plan K venue in Brussels in November 1983, and in January 1984 recorded a nine-song studio demo, which impressed Crepuscule sufficiently to sign the project for an album.
Crepuscule was then being funded by Island Records in the UK and clearly had big ambitions, for in April Tong and Mono were dispatched to London to record the first single. Produced by Alan Rankine (ex Associates) and Dave Formula (ex Magazine), Theoretical China featured a stellar cast of guest musicians including Jah Wobble, Simon Topping (A Certain Ratio) and Steven Morris (New Order), although despite the exceptional pedigree of the supporting players the track doesn’t quite gel as a funk-dance cut.
At the end of April Tong and Mono traveled to Tokyo for a string of live dates with The Durutti Column and Mikado. During this trip the pair recorded The Hunger, a haunting sixteen minute track on which several Japanese musicians guest, including Atsuo Suzuki and Satoshi Kadakura. The Hunger is unquestionably one of Tong’s best musical recordings.
Theoretical China appeared on Crepuscule in November 1984, backed by The Hunger on 12” format, yet the single was credited to Tong alone. For whatever reason, Mono found herself frozen out of the project, and recording of the album continued with Persian born singer Sussan Deyhim on backing vocals and Alan Rankine handling all production, arrangements, instruments and sequencing. It’s worth noting that a number of early Tong/Mono songs were dropped for the album, including To You, Incubo, Zimbabwe and Dream Assassins, although the latter did get as far as a formal recording.
At the same time Tong undertook an altogether different musical project, being the soundtrack to Miserere (Mercy), a modern ballet based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Commissioned by choreographer Pierre Droulers, the remarkable soundtrack by Tong and Sussan Deyhim was recorded exclusively acappella and. Feared lost for many years, the masters were eventually rediscovered and released by LTM in 2003.
The Winston Tong ‘pop’ album eventually appeared as Theoretically Chinese in October 1985. It’s an album of peerless electronic dance pop, the sound expansive and expensive, and a million miles from the angst, night and fog for which Tuxedomoon were renowned. Lush ballad Reports From the Heart was the deserved second single, while Big Brother and a cover of Broken English by Marianne Faithfull proved on the money as sophisticated disco (and were remixed on single in Italy). The album sold well enough in Europe, although Crepuscule must have been galled that there were no live dates in support, and that Tong had already donated his best solo composition, In A Manner of Speaking, to Tuxedomoon.
This song proved an undisputed highlight of their first post-Reininger album, Holy Wars, released in April 1985, and would later be covered by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode and the band Nouvelle Vague, among others. Tong assisted TM with the launch of the album, but was gone by the summer, devoting his time to the completion of his solo album, and performances of Miserere in Paris and elsewhere. Since Tong was unavailable by the time Theoretically Chinese hit the stores, the media had to make do with a special Interview 12”, highly collectable today.
Tong afterwards returned to the States, hoping to land a role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film The Last Emperor, and David Hwang’s M. Butterfly on Broadway. Sadly there have been no more solo records. However Tong has continued to perform new shows such as Winston Tong Sings Duke Ellington and Rasputin, Isadora and Mao. He is alive and well and working on new projects in San Francisco, and appeared with Tuxedomoon for their 25th year reunion concerts in the city in March 2005.
Copied from a piece for LTR by James Nice July 2005.
Edited by darewon on 4 Jun 2007, 23:47
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