Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution, hard rockers AC/DC told the world in 1980, nearly 25 years after Chuck Berry told Beethoven to roll over.
Since then, the world has been steeped in new popular music forms from gangsta rap to house music and prefabricated pop.
But in Phnom Penh, a Taiwanese man known simply as Jun continues to offer all the joys that three chords and the occasional drum solo can offer.
Dance music and Khmer pop are staples in dozens of Phnom Penh bars. The Rolling Stones and The Doors can often be heard drifting out of late night haunts along Street 51, and last year’s indie hits can be heard all along the Boeng Kak backpacker strip.
But possibly the best music to grab a drink to can be found at Rock Zone: Zeppelin Cafe on Street 86, just west of Monivong Boulevard.
There, Jun, originally Cheng Shih-pin, spins records from what has to be one of the best vinyl record collections in Southeast Asia: around 1,150 albums spanning the rock spectrum from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Sitting tucked in his corner of the bar amidst his records, Jun’s love for music couldn’t be clearer. Each record is almost ritualistically cleaned before every play, and he said that, despite decades of collecting and playing records, almost all his vinyl is in excellent condition.
Typically quiet and reserved, he quickly springs to life when the subject turns to music. “This is my second wife,” Jun said recently, patting a shelf of records. “Maybe you can say my first wife.”
For five years now, Jun and his actual wife, Chea Eik, have been offering good tunes, cheap drinks and excellent fried dumplings. Jun said that in the coming weeks, he plans to expand his food service and keep the bar open every night until 4 am in the hopes of making it a late night destination.
The bar itself is comfortable and roomy, with rock memorabilia and images adorning the walls everywhere—from a large Lynyrd Skynyrd flag to a prized bottle of wine bearing the logo of the stadium rock group Kiss.
But Rock Zone’s main attraction is not the ambience, it’s the music.
If it has loud guitars, Jun probably has it: Be it 1980s rock like Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend;” the lo-fi hardcore of The Misfits’ “Teenagers From Mars;” or the drunken fracas of “That’s All You Need,” by the Rod Stewart-fronted Faces.
And he’ll gladly take requests, covering anything from Elton John to Iron Maiden.
Despite having an expansive taste in all rock genres, Jun’s most beloved music is the hard rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His favorite artists include staples like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix as well as lesser-known acts like Uriah Heep.
But a more recent foray into the world of compact discs—vinyl being difficult to find in Cambodia—has also opened him up to rock music from the 1990s to the present. The grunge act Mudhoney is a particular favorite.
The 48-year-old Jun said he had no experience with rock music growing up in Taiwan until he happened to hear Uriah Heep’s “July Morning” on the radio when he was 17.
“After I heard it,” Jun recalled, “I went right to the record store, and the guy there said, ‘this is rock.’”
“I fell down in a rock fantasy, and I can’t go out,” he added.
His record collection was all for his own enjoyment until a rough stretch cast him into the unexpected path of bar ownership.
First coming to Cambodia in 1992 to work for a Taiwanese hotelier, Jun moved to Phnom Penh permanently in 1999.
“I was never rich, but before, I made really big money here,” Jun said. He eventually lost his job and then nearly all his savings at the casino.
For a time, Jun was unsure how he was going to get by, until a friend suggested that he open a bar around his record collection.
Five years later, he shrugs off the troubles of the past.
Rock Zone has also introduced him to all manner of people whom, he said, he never would have gotten to know in his previous career.
“Before I opened this bar, I never had any Western friends. But now I have many,” Jun said. “The music has no nation.”
And seemingly no lack of variety: Rock Zone has to be one of the few places in Asia where you can hear a string of tunes like “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest, followed by T-Rex’s acoustic cover of “Summertime Blues,” followed by the primitive riffing of The Stooges’ “No Fun,” or The Beatles.
But is there any song that a man who enjoys both Cheap Trick and Megadeth won’t play?
“‘Hotel California,’” Jun said. “The Eagles are okay…but ‘Hotel California’ is a song I really hate.”