188.8.131.52's LEAD JAPANESE INVASION OF AUSTRALIA
Upstairs at the Lansdowne Hotel in Sydney, Japanese all-girl psychobilly
band the 5-8-7-8's are geeing up in anticipation of a performance. They
change into matching leopard-skin bikinis. "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
5-8-7-8's all went out and got tattoos precisely because they're still
taboo in their homeland, a mark of the Yakuza crime-ring.
lt 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 5-8-7-8'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
Following in the footsteps of the 5-6-7-8’s, Supersnazz, who themselves tour
Australia in July, are yet another female Japanese band unafraid to break the
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 5-6-7-8’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 5-6-7-8’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! lt kinda
reminded me of the Cramps, where you take old music and turn it inside out
and it becomes fresh and new again. l 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 longtitude
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 5-6-7-8’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 5-6-7-8’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,
5-6-7-8’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 5-6-7-8’s and Supersnazz are not quite prepared to make at
the moment. And why should they? They're both working bands. The
5-6-7-8’s, in fact, will appear at the famed Garage Shack festival in
Bellingham, near Seattle, in May - and Supersnazz visit Australia soon. 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 5-6-7-8’s drummer, Salad, in translation. "We
wart 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."