UPSTAIRS AT the Lansdowne Hotel in Sydney, Japanese all-girl psychobilly band the 22.214.171.124’s are geeing up in anticipation of a performance. They change into matching leopard-skin bikinis, revealing fresh ink. “But in Japan — tattoo — is bad?” tour promoter Bruce Milne begs the question, in stacatto terms, so that the band, whose English is almost non-existent, understand him.
“Hai,” they reply gleefully. On tour in Australia late in 1992, the 126.96.36.199’s all went out and got tattoos precisely because they’re still taboo in their homeland, a mark of the Yakuza crime-ring.
It takes a significant leap of faith to wanna be a rock’n’roll star in Japan. Japan is a conservative society, where the company you work for for life is like family, and women especially are expected to know their place. Remarkably though, a band like the 188.8.131.52’s (who visited Australia on their annual fortnight’s leave) are but one of a few female Japanese bands making an impression in the West. The most successful is the London-based Shonen Knife. But as the Sub-Pop Records’ press-release for the Supersnazz album Superstupid declares as an opener: “Shonen Knife are housewives!”
Following in the footsteps of the 184.108.40.206’s, Supersnazz, who themselves tour Australia in July, are yet another female Japanese band unafraid to break the mold.
And it could cost them everything — their jobs, social position, family relations, everything. After all, nice girls, to paraphrase Rose Tattoo, don’t play rock’n’roll. But the members of Supersnazz, like the 220.127.116.11’s, lead almost dual lives, by day holding down decent jobs, by night, transforming into wailing banshee garage band queens. For the time being at least…
The 18.104.22.168’s show at the Lansdowne attracted fans like the Hoodoo Gurus and Ratcat. “I’d heard about them via Redd Kross,” said Guru Dave Faulkner, “so I went down, and they were just inspirational! It kinda reminded me of the Cramps, where you take old music and turn it inside out and it becomes fresh and new again. I thought, if they can do it, I can too… so I went home and wrote a song, recycling the ‘Louie, Louie’ riff, just changed the melody, and that’s ‘Hypocrite Blues’, on our new album.”
It’s surprising that Australia and Japan haven’t had stronger musical ties. In the Eighties, Rick Tanaka and Roger Grierson, new head of Polygram Music Publishing, formed 135 Music, named after the longitude Australia and Japan share, in order to forge an alliance. Yet while Tanaka has bought a number of Japanese acts to Australia, it’s Melbourne-based independent svengali Bruce Milne who is behind this current push.
Milne, who heads Au-Go-Go Records, went to Japan for the first time when he toured there with Mudhoney in 1990. His partner Greta Moon had suggested Japan was happening, and Milne was immediately convinced. The Japanese music scene is a lot like anywhere else’s, its charts dominated by homegrown middle-of-the-road popsters known as ‘idol singers’. At the same time, Japan boasts an alternative scene which makes up for its curious lack of magnitude in fanaticism. Record shops exist that sell nothing but Rolling Stones paraphernalia, or Blue Note jazz albums. The heyday of the ‘Live At Budokan’ album created the illusion that the market in Japan was huge across the board. But this is not the case. With the alternative scene as generically splintered as it is around the world, Japanese audiences can be quite small. Certainly, venues are few and far between, and often tiny, and media coverage of music is limited.
Bruce Milne, who is not unaccustomed to working small markets,, found that he shared a similar sort of trash aesthetic with bands like the 22.214.171.124’s, Supersnazz, the Ginny Vamps, Magnitude 3, Jackie and the Cedrics and Mad III, the latter both all-male instrumental combos. Milne was impressed by the hands’ commitment and enthusiasm. When he formed a new label called Giant Claw specifically to release vinyl singles, a large proportion of its output was Japanese. Au-Go-Go itself released a full-length 126.96.36.199’s CD, Can’t Help It, off the back of the band’s Australian tour, and now Milne plans to take the connection even further. Au-Go-Go will shortly release a compilation album of alternative Japanese music called Tokyo Trashville, and will follow with releases by individual acts and more tours.
“A lot of people are patronizing towards these bands,” said Milne, “like they’re like the Del Rubio Triplets or something. I think that’s way off the mark. These people are very aware of what they’re doing. For instance, 188.8.131.52’s did a cover of ‘Long Tall Sally’, and it sounded even weirder than usual, because the thing is, it was a cover of a cover of the song by a Japanese band called the Outcasts, it was quite deliberate.”
The transient success enjoyed by Shonen Knife was because they were prepared to leave Japanese life behind, among other reasons. This is a sacrifice the 184.108.40.206’s and Supersnazz are not quite prepared to make at the moment. And why should they? They’re both working bands. The 220.127.116.11’s, in fact, will appear at the famed Garage Shack festival in Bellingham, near Seattle, in May — and Supersnazz visit Australia. By balancing music as a hobby with everday life, it retains its purity.
“We are serious but we have never thought about becoming a professional band,” says 18.104.22.168’s drummer, Salad, in translation. “We want to leave some space where we can escape from our hard and bitter real life. But once we commit to a professional band, that paradise will no longer exist. We would start worrying and making compromises, like in normal life. l want to enjoy it and be happy when I do my favourite thing.”
© Clinton Walker, Juice, June 1994