Mojo

Toyko, Rock ‘N’ Roll Capital Of The World!

MOJO's Mark Paytress goes off in search of the spirit of Japanese Rock, 2009-style, and gets more than he bargained for.

In 1996, a strange-looking 2-CD collection entitled Tokyo Invasion Volume One: Cosmic Kurushi Monsters landed on my desk. Britpop was still hot, though its reheated Carnaby Street melodies and Quo rockaboogie left me decidedly cold. But these 22 tracks, combed from the Japanese underground, seemed to derive from a sonic otherworld where the Beatles and the Clash were invisible and Captain Beefheart, Big Black, even This Heat were the key sources of inspiration. I wanted to pack my Guild guitar, get over there and join in the fun. Instead, at 37, I felt I was already too old and stayed. It was, I now believe, a terrible mistake.

Since then, I've had my ears torn off regularly by the blistering psychedelia of the visiting Acid Mothers Temple and manic Melt-Banana, the awesome virtuosity of guitar hero Keiji Haino and the avant-pop theatrics of eX-Girl. But was this the cream of Japan's maverick music culture--or merely the tip of an iceberg? Noting that Melt-Banana had lined up three mid-September shows in Tokyo, I decided it was finally time to make that much-delayed 12,000-mile round trip and undertake my own, one-man Tokyo invasion...

"MOJO?" enquires 2 Much Crew singer Nancy, as I sit around a large table in an izakaya (a typical Japanese pub'n'grub hostelry) in the buzzily bohemian Shimokitazawa district just beyond the neon metropolis of Shinjuku. "Does that mean you write for a sex magazine?" The rest of the band joins in, invoking Muddy Waters and Jim Morrison in attempts to explain the true meaning of "mojo." I just wanted to tell them their performance earlier that day, at the Tokyo Boredom festival, was the most f**ked up and thrilling thing I'd seen on a stage in years. Several days later, when I met again with 2 Much Crew for my final night in the country, I had become more effusive still. This had been the most exhilarating two weeks in my music-mad life. Aside from a four-day breakout to Kyoto, where I gave my ringing ears a rest in the old capital's many shrines and temples--and took in an extraordinary three-hour performance of Noh theatre--I had seen some 50, mostly extraordinary bands. The experience had me convinced me that Tokyo is the rock music capital of the world.

Whether it be 2 Much Crew's "scum hip-hop," Mustang Jerx' Johnny Winter-infused bottleneck rock or Miu Mau's twisted girl garage-pop, seemingly everything on the Tokyo 'Live House' scene runs on sonic attack. These are in many ways the scions of Beefheart's Magic Band and Steve Albini, with a free-thinking and playful attitude towards genre-bending that makes much else seem hideously one-dimensional.

This self-enclosed scene, which is as joy-filled as it is inventive, transposes the obsessive passion and commitment of Japan's infamous otaku (anime and manga nerds) to music. I even met two musicians who owned an impossibly obscure early '80s album by Unrest, Work & Play--a duo that had formed from the ashes of the Bournemouth-based Animal Haircuts. I was the Haircuts' bassist. One of them scanned the cover artwork just to prove it. Now that's what I call otaku.

The Tokyo Boredom weekend ripped my head off. It was as if I was back at school, during glam rock's heyday, discovering Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and The Velvet Underground again for the first time. Not only was it the overriding "beat that!" attitude, intensified by the two-stage set-up at the Tokyo University venue which meant that as the feedback finale stage left was still howling, a mad-eyed screamer would leap into action stage right and howl even louder, usually to a ferocious, expertly fragmented rhythm. No bouncers policed this or any other event. The moshing was fast, furious and overwhelmingly good-natured. Unlike back home, where rock music has arguably become humdrum and safely incorporated into the system, here it retains a secret society vibe, rather like London's jazz and R&B scene of the late '50s and early '60s. And like back then, it's the music that matters, not the pose. No one here is chasing fame, or faking it.

At The Loft, Tokyo's most famous Live House, my hosts Melt-Banana played a set that did their UK champion, the late John Peel, proud. Like everyone out here, they combine superfast musical chaos with a technical dexterity that Mahavishnu Orchestra would have been hard pushed to match. Speaking of which, one of a string of spine-tingling highlights at Tokyo Boredom were Fukuro, an instrumental five-piece whose fabulously intricate riffing made what we know as math rock sound like kindergarten kids fiddling with an abacus.

Halfway through The Loft show, Steve, a Canadian who visits Toyko six times a year to feed his insatiable appetite for Japanese underground music, whispered that we should steal away to the nearby Basement Bar. There, I ran into Mia Mau, an impossibly energetic anarcho-garage girl duo who could give The Wire magazine cover stars Afrirampo a run for their money, and Usotski Barbie, magnificently intense avant-funkers whose dashing and inventive guitarist sparked out Magic Band lead lines while the bassist stripped naked and played with a bucket on his head. This wasn't to garner a few column inches, but simply an expression of unadulterated and boundless joy at being able to defy the notoriously restrained parent culture together with his peers.

Scratch below the surface and you'll find not a hint of fatigue or boredom among the habitués of Tokyo's rock underground. Like San Francisco in 1967, or London a decade later, Tokyo 2009 is NOW. The city's citizens have been expecting the next great earthquake for years. Whisper it, but those subterranean seismic shifts are happening already...

For music without frontiers, check your passport at MOJO4music.com.

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