The 220.127.116.11’s are coming to Britain and are drawing sell-out crowds. Tim Cooper meets the idiosyncratic Japanese all-girl rock trio with the Kill Bill connection.
IT’S A FAR CRY from The House of Blue Leaves. The cramped bedroom of a redbrick B&B in a residential corner of north London just about accommodates its two unmade beds, three Japanese girls and a vast pile of luggage tagged from Tokyo to Heathrow. But only just.
An ashtray overflowing with white-tipped duty-free cigarette butts testifies to a long night of jet lag. Slouched on a nasty nylon bedspread in their spangly silver stage costumes, The 18.104.22.168’s look more bored than bewildered as a French fashion photographer tries to coax them into life.
Insouciance seems to be the girl group’s default setting. The trio looked similarly nonchalant when we first saw them strutting their stuff on a nightclub stage in Kill Bill Vol 1, moments before Uma Thurman unleashed her slice-and-dice holocaust on Lucy Liu’s goons, the Crazy 88 Fighters. Barefoot and beehived, shuffling awkwardly in ’50s sheath dresses, like the Ronettes doing karaoke Cramps, they had an incongruous retro-chic style and gonzo-garage sound that left a lasting impression. That, and the fact that one of the songs, whooped out by the drummer over a primitive rockabilly rhythm, had a lyric that went (in its entirety): “Woo hoo, woo-hoo-hoo.” It was a song that was would instantly lodge in your head and then drive you mad when you couldn’t get it out again, after it was featured on a TV lager ad.
The 22.214.171.124’s clearly had the same effect on Quentin Tarantino when he first stumbled across their music on a shopping spree in Tokyo. “He was in a vintage clothes store when the shop assistant, who is a friend of ours, was playing one of our songs, called ‘Bomb the Twist’,” says Yoshiko Fujiyama, the singer-guitarist with a nickname of Ronnie and a tattoo that reads “DELINQUENT” on her arm. “He loved the song but didn’t have time to buy a copy, so he asked the assistant to sell him hers.”
Before long, Tarantino had contacted the group’s label, Time Bomb Records, in Osaka, and arranged for a crew to film one of their club shows for him. Next stop was Beijing, for a fortnight on the set of a Hollywood movie, rubbing shoulders with Tarantino (“very nice!”), Thurman (“very nice!”), and Liu (“very nice – she speaks very good Japanese!”). Not bad for a band who still have day jobs after nearly 20 years of failing to hit the big time: the punk-garage-rockabilly-surf-’60s-girl-group scene is evidently as much of an underground movement in Tokyo as everywhere else.
The 126.96.36.199’s started out some time in the mid-’80s: Ronnie’s memory is worse than her rudimentary English and, despite the presence of an interpreter, she likes to answer questions in her own limited vocabulary. Hence an enquiry about when she formed the band is met with a smile and the cheerful declaration: “I have no idea!”
Whenever it was (and the liner notes for their recently released singles compilation Bomb the Rocks suggest it was 1986), Yoshiko recruited her big sister Sachiko on drums, adding a female guitarist and a bass-player called Rico and Kikako. They wore motorcycle jackets and ripped jeans (“lip my jeans!”) like the Ramones, and their set mixed songs by the Heartbreakers and the Stooges with covers of girl groups such as the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las.
“I grew up listening to ’70s punk and as soon as I heard the Sex Pistols I knew I wanted to be in a rock’n’roll band,” Yoshiko/Ronnie recalls. “At first I just sang because I couldn’t play the guitar. But I started to learn because I always wanted to be like Johnny Thunders!” Their first single was ‘Mondo Girl a Go Go’, setting the B-movie template for what was to come: for example, ‘Motor Cycle Go-Go-Go’ (whose lyrics include a memorable reference to a “gasoline-marinaded burning red heart”), ‘My Boyfriend from Outer Space’ and ‘She Was a Mau Mau’. Plus an ironic cover of a song called ‘Ah So’.
When Rico and Kikako left to form Sleaze Sisters, the Fujiyama sisters briefly allowed a man (Eddie) to pass through the group. Then they ditched the bloke and slimmed down to a trio, introducing a Ranieri-like rotation policy for bass-players: ‘Woo Hoo’ features Omo on record but Yama on screen in Kill Bill. And, if you see the group on their current UK tour, the bass will be played by the 21-year-old newcomer Saki. Until she goes back to university.
Ronnie’s not sure how many members have been through the band. “I have no idea!” she repeats. “Six? Or maybe seven.” Including, according to my web research, a drummer called Salad.
Their latest performance in Britain, at the start of the summer, was a sell-out show at the Boston Arms, a north-London pub where an unsigned White Stripes played their breakthrough show. It’s hard to imagine the 188.8.131.52’s going mainstream in the same way. But they are more than one-hit wonders, as they hope to prove with their next single, ‘I’m Blue’ (the other song they sang in Kill Bill) and a new album rejoicing in the title Teenage Mojo Workout.
They are also going to reach the biggest audience of their career when they play on the main stage at the Reading and Leeds festivals later this month. Yoshiko is not sure if she’s more excited about the size of the crowd or the chance to see one of her favourite bands, the MC5. And, for that matter, the White Stripes, with whom they have history, having been briefly signed to the same US label (Sympathy for the Record Industry) and having supported them in their own country. “Ah, yes,” Yoshiko recalls. “We played with White Stripes in Japan. Maybe six or seven years ago… There were only 10 people in the audience!”
© Tim Cooper, The Independent, 11 August 2004