The Wire

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In Writing

The Wire 300: Alan Cummings on the origins of the Tokyo underground sound

February 2013

Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue.

In an 1889 essay entitled “The Decay Of Lying”, Oscar Wilde commented astutely that “the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, no such people”. Japan’s value, for the late 19th century aesthete (and just as much for his 21st century equivalent), lay in its distance and strangeness, which allowed it to exist as an endlessly malleable foil for the imagination. Western artists in particular saw in Japanese objects a way to break out of European orthodoxies, though the fruits of the Japonisme boom would have made little sense to their original creators or consumers. Think, for example, of Madame Monet in her gaudy kimono in Monet’s La Japonaise, or of Van Gogh’s painted copies of Hiroshige – the flat planes of the printed surface remodeled in thick oils, the cheap and mass-produced commodity turned into a one-off piece of art. But if the West’s engagement with Japanese culture has been dominated by fantasy and projection, Japan’s engagement with Western culture has followed an equal path of appropriation, creative (mis)usages and imagined narratives.

This trope is particularly apparent in the genesis of the Tokyo underground sound best associated with the PSF label. While groups like Fushitsusha, High Rise, Kousokuya, Ché-SHIZU and Maher Shalal Hash Baz only began reaching Western ears in the early 90s, their sonic strategies were formulated a good decade earlier. Pivotal in the development of the Tokyo underground sound was Minor, a tiny, cold live space in the Western suburb of Kichijoji, 20 minutes by train out of Shinjuku. Incongruously located on the third floor of a mixed-use building in Kichijoji’s red-light district, for two and a half years from 1978 to September 1980, Minor served as the crucible for the creation of a new Tokyo music. Minor began life as a more or less conventional jazu kissa (jazz coffee house) – a hangout for students and wannabe intellectuals, invariably equipped with an expensive stereo and a huge library of jazz records. Its proprietor was a frustrated painter and free jazz pianist called Takafumi Sato. But gradually the tablecloths and menus disappeared, to be followed by the tables and chairs as Minor transformed itself into a bare walled live space with a freewheeling booking policy. Minor situated itself in an interzone both geographically and chronologically, half between the hippy 70s underground rock scene that clung on further west, and the newly emerged punk sound of groups like Friction, Mirrors and Lizard who were associated with live spaces further east in Shinjuku and Roppongi.

Underground heads like Masashi Kitamura, editor of Fool’s Mate magazine and later founder of the heavy rock group YBO2, held record parties where he would spin European Prog rock. Saxophonist Tamio Shiraishi booked the Aiyoku Jinmin Juji Gekijo (Ten O’Clock Theatre of the Lust People) series of events, kicking off daily at 10pm. The space, cheap prices and laissez faire booking policy attracted misfits from across Tokyo, those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to the stylistic demands of the city’s multiple other scenes. The result was that it became a gathering ground for refuseniks of all stripes, a space in which anything went, no matter how amateur, inept, aggressive or just plain weird. A glance at the few surviving gig lists at Minor provides a glimpse of just how cross-genre it was - and how crucial in the creation of the Tokyo underground sound. Free jazz heads like Tamio Shiraishi, Motoharu Yoshizawa and Tori Kudo, outlaw punks like Michio Kadotani, Gaseneta and Honeymoons, and free Improv/unclassifiable types like Keiji Haino, Chie Mukai, Ken’ichi Takeda and Toshi Tanaka were all regulars. The creative ferment threw up large, ad-hoc free Improv workshop groups like The Vedda Music Workshop, Factory or Sighing-P Orchestra, as well as a stream of small, incestuous groups such as Noise, Kyoaku no Intentions, Taco or Kousokuya that tried to weld Improv, psychedelic rock, primitive electronics and No Wave into some kind of emotionally meaningful amalgam. Tori Kudo remembers the music created at Minor as coming from an absolute zero – “The sounds we created there had absolutely no musical potential. We were always starting from somewhere below the proper starting point for music. Normally that would be zero, but at Minor somehow we always seemed to be starting from minus. If playing three notes of a scale would be 0.01, no one at Minor ever got that far. But it was the only place we could play.”

Hearing the results of these experiments ten years down the line in the late 80s and early 90s was a dislocating experience for many Western listeners. The dislocation lay in hearing the familiar tropes of Western psychedelic rock, punk, free jazz and collective improvisation borrowed and turned to entirely other purposes. The Japanese take on these sounds seemed to suggest the exciting possibility of new syncretic forms, ones that admitted no contradiction in allaying the structural and performance strategies of free jazz and free improvisation with the dynamics and aesthetics of rock. And like reading any alternative history, this music raised intriguing questions. Why shouldn’t riff-based composition and improvisational structure co-exist? Why shouldn’t distortion be used as a textural tool?

If much of the Tokyo underground sound was driven by an obsessive love of rock and a strong belief in its validity as an ongoing aesthetic choice, misreadings and misapprehensions too played their part. Makoto Kawabata of Acid Mothers Temple, for one, has spoken of understanding Pete Townshend’s wind-milling right arm not as an occasional piece of grandstanding but as his normal approach to playing. The Japanese musicians’ isolation from the socio-cultural background of the music they loved also seems to have played a part. Appreciation and understanding of rock music, particularly in the generation of Japanese underground musicians who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, was a hard-won prize, based on close listening, intensive thought, and the creation of personal rock narratives. Many of these musicians display a sensitivity to purely musical nuance - rather than the trite mythmaking that Western rock journalism seems to have created. It’s the sound and effect of Syd Barrett’s rhythm guitar playing that’s important, not the retelling of yet another crazy diamond drug loon story.

Complaints from neighbours and the police finally put paid to Minor in September 1980. The musicians eventually found new spaces in which to play – Goodman, Gyati, Hakkyo no Yoru, and Takafumi Sato would go on to start the Pinakotheca label which released Keiji Haino’s first solo album and the Aiyoku Jinmin Juji Gekijo compilation LP documenting the Minor scene. But that tenacious sense of syncretic creativity unleashed at Minor has continued to drive the Tokyo underground sound.

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