While inching my way into the bottleneck that always forms on the platform of Kaihin Makuhari Station Saturday morning as Summer Sonic ticketholders make for the exit, I heard two Japanese guys in back of me trading voiceless labiodental fricatives. Since the “f” consonant doesn’t properly exist in Japanese, practice was, apparently, in order, and they cracked each other up with the attempt. Preparing their “fuck” cheers for the festival?
“Fuck” was practically the only word I understood during the first performance I saw on Saturday, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the famous teen hip-hop collective from Southern California. Summer Sonic is consistent about these sorts of booking coups. I remember a few years ago they snagged one of those next-big-thing bands in England before the group had even released a record–and after Fuji Rock had turned them down because of the band’s demand for $80,000. The thing is, I forget the name of the band because after their appearance they quickly vanished.
That’s not likely to happen to Odd Future, mainly because there are too many talents in the collective, if “talent” is the right word. On stage they demonstrated exactly what it is that made them instant stars: a capacity for unhinged adolescent clowning. As on their various records, the music was more difficult to appreciate, much less penetrate, and not just because the beats are harsh and atonal. With up to five rappers trading lines willy-nilly while dashing about shirtless and reckless, crashing into each other, mooning the audience, and making private jokes they knew would go over the heads of everyone (“How many of you niggas like chips?”), the 30-minute showcase bordered on performance art; which is to say, it was entertaining in its own, wholly peculiar way. These are boys who have no intention of ever growing up, and probably haven’t even contemplated the possibility. Tyler, the Creator, the most talked-about member of the group, was actually the most subdued and least concerned with projecting the sort of menacing vibe the collective owns as a style constant. The smile plastered to his kisser the entire show was a kid grin: irrepressible and, as a result, irresistible. The other rappers, Hodgy Beats and Mike G, in particular, stalked the stage as if marking out territory, and Tyler let them take it, happy to fade into the background when he wasn’t rhyming. “Konnichi fuckin’ wa” was his personalized greeting, followed, as if an afterthought, with, “You guys are awesome.” He wasn’t talking to his mates, but to the audience, who were game if uncomprehending. Hodgy offered totally pointless mock provocation, prodding the crowd into an acknowledgement of his skills and then came back with, “You lie. You can cheat on me but don’t lie.” One wonders what the folks in the audience thought of Mike G’s T-shirt, whose large Chinese characters said, “Nihonjin Kanojo Boshuchu,” which could be translated as “Now Soliticing Japanese Girlfriends.” Some might be alarmed, considering how violent the sexual component of Odd Future’s raps are, but one thing that came through clearly is that it’s all an act. And a pretty good one. Of the Odd Future albums I’ve listened to, the only one I get is Frank Ocean’s, probably because he’s an R&B singer and not a rapper (he didn’t seem to be in the group that came to Japan). I should try harder, I know, but I’m sure Odd Future wouldn’t give a flying fuck if I did. In fact, I think they said that.
Performance art of a completely different species was on display at the Perfume show Saturday afternoon at the newly repositioned Mountain Stage. I think I preferred that venue, the largest after the main Marine Stage in the baseball stadium, when it was at the other end of the convention center. Crowd control there didn’t seem as Draconian, but maybe it’s just that before they never had an act that drew this sort of response. (Daft Punk in 2006? The Mountain Stage was in a smaller space then) Perfume was packed, thus justifying the organizers’ gradual introduction of more J-pop and other manufactured entertainment entities into its mix of rock and dance music. I remember when Summer Sonic was mainly two things: Western punk bands and the first (maybe only) chance to see cutting-edge indie acts in Japan. When Simple Plan cancelled at the last minute on Saturday, it meant that there were no Western purely punk acts on the bill this year.
And it wasn’t as if there were a lot of J-pop acts this year, but neither Perfume nor Kaela Kimura need the dispensation of the rock audience. The thing is, both attracted huge crowds, which means either that the Summer Sonic faithful are more ecumenical in their tastes than I previously thought, or that those artists’ dedicated fans actually came to the festival because they were playing it. I didn’t see the two K-pop acts, BoA (who, for all intents and purposes is a J-pop singer) and Girls’ Generation, but reports say they were crowded, too. Maybe it’s familiarity: BoA has been a star in Japan longer than either Perfume or Kimura, and Girls’ Generation is covered in the media constantly, and not necessarily because of their music. What’s really interesting about Girls’ Generation is that the organizer, Creativeman, chose them to close the festival with a half-hour, completely choreographed show; which means it was as far from the typical rock festival set as you could imagine.
Perfume was the same, only different. The question that would seem to matter is whether or not the three idols are actually singing or just lip-syncing; though, in the end, it doesn’t matter. The voices are so severely processed that it sounds like a waste to demand they actually sing on stage, which leaves the dance steps their sole means of proving they deserve to be called performers. For sure, the group’s brand of electro-pop is fresher and more imaginative that generic J-pop, and the choreography plays on idol cliches in a humorous way–at times I almost thought I was watching Irish step dancing. But just as Perfume’s management are confident they can sell the group to a wider global audience, their reputation as a smarter version of J-pop places too much emphasis on the appeal of a parochial music style. My guess is that if people like Perfume, it has more to do with the feeling that their music is not like J-pop. After watching the robotic moves and listening to the robot music (no band, of course; again, why bother?) I decided it wasn’t enough for me, a dyed-in-the-wool J-pop disparager, to make that leap.
I’m a sucker for bands who open their set with their biggest hit, just to get it out of the way. From “Great DJ” it was all downhill for the Ting Tings, and I mean that as a compliment. There wasn’t much of a crowd at first, which is understandable: it was the middle of a sweltering afternoon in the stadium, no shade anywhere. But after that song, the people hiding behind towels in the stands made the considerable decision to go down on the field, which isn’t easy. You have to basically leave the stadium and return through a remote entrance and then through a kind of maze to actually get to the front of the stage. But people did it, and it’s because, for all their musical limitations, the Ting Tings understand what people want and they have a talent for reproducing it again and again. It may sound academic to compare them to other male-female rock duos, but the show I saw on Saturday beat the hell out of the Kills set at Fuji last month–and I enjoyed that. For one thing, Katie White, who can’t play guitar worth shit, communicates with the audience, and I don’t just mean she tries to speak Japanese. Rather than constantly exhorting the crowd to dance or show their hands or sing along–reliable signs of a performer with self-confidence issues–she pays attention to them and calibrates her performance to make the most of the reaction.
It was the only time this weekend I ventured into the stadium, which I pretty much hate. The fact that it’s ostensibly “outside” does nothing to alleviate Summer Sonic’s oppresively urban aspect. Most of the acts literally play underground in a dark, air conditioned, concrete space. Summer’s got nothing to do with it unless your idea of escaping the heat and humidity is to pile into a crowded but cooled Yamanote Line car. But the Marine Stage is not an antidote. Increasingly, I watch Marine Stage acts from the comfort of the convention center food court, where they have a jumbo screen set up. Better sight lines, better sound. Screw immediacy–and the heat.
The Village People played twice over the weekend. If the success of J-pop and K-pop prove you can never underestimate the power of manufactured stars, then the Village People should enjoy a kind of godlike reverence in the East. The main difference is that, while Asian pop artists really are made not born, the Village People were never about the People themselves. The whole point of the costumes was to make the members anonymous, secondary to the music and to their image as silly gay stereotypes. The commercial advantage to this plan is irreproachable, since the group can go on forever without anybody caring who they are. What I found puzzling about the show I saw at the Beach Stage Saturday afternoon is that some of the members seemed a bit long in the tooth; meaning they could have been original members, a notion that, frankly, appalled me. Imagine spending your whole life as an anonymous Village Person?
Like Perfume, they didn’t bother with a band, but they definitely sang their own parts. To the classic lineup they’ve now added a soldier in desert camouflage gear, probably as a sop to patriotism after Desert Storm or Enduring Freedom or Eternal Cockup or whatever. The audience, which wasn’t full capacity but nevertheless densely distributed, was fully prepared for music they knew very well (“YMCA,” after all, was made a huge hit here in the 70s by idol Hideki Saijo), and I found myself slightly perturbed by the constant musical detours: “Listen to the Music,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” a medley of disco hits by other artists. You had to wait for the ridiculously catchy, dunderheaded hits, like “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” “Go West”…and then it occurred to me. As big as the Village People were at one point, they only had five Top Ten hits, which, taken together, maybe adds up to fifteen minutes, tops. I wondered what they would do for filler the next night, when they were actually headlining the Beach Stage and would therefore have to play more than an hour.
Also, I was disappointed that the show wasn’t as campy as the VP image would lead you to believe it is. When one of the members came forward to talk about their medley of “trash disco hits,” he didn’t sound particularly trashy himself. He sounded old, and not stereotypically gay; more like a hardware salesman. And I suppose that shouldn’t be unexpected, but we’re talking about the Village People here. If I’m being sold on irresponsible gay stereotypes, I want the full treatment: Trash talk with my trash disco–and penis jokes. If I’d have paid for that show, I would have demanded my money back.
The Village People don’t count as a revived group because they never went away. Having never seen Death From Above 1979 during their heyday, their reunion show at the Sonic Stage didn’t feel like old times, but it did seem dated, probably because they hadn’t been retired all that long. I mean, that whole bass-and-drums-only cacophony deal was so 2005, and besides, Lightning Bolt had already perfected it almost a decade earlier.
But proportional to the size of their venue, DFA attracted a larger crowd than two other reunions of groups that were much more popular in their respective eras. Public Image Ltd had to contend with the frightening popularity of the Chili Peppers, but still they only filled half the Mountain Stage hall, whereas Avril Lavigne the night before in the same place and time slot packed them in. Hell, a few years ago when the Sex Pistols headlined the same stage, it was much fuller, and Lydon was saltier. Of course, the saltier stage shtick is basically Lydon giving the people what they want, and I suppose he gave PiL fans what they wanted, which was intense, though never having been much a fan my appreciation was shallower. Suede, whose show started on the adjacent Sonic Stage about ten minutes before PiL’s ended, was more to my taste in terms of English “it” bands, and even they had trouble attracting a full house. Brett Anderson, understanding his role as well as Lydon understood his, was all over the stage, slinking this way and that as his voice, which is even higher-pitched than it was on record back in the day, maneuvered through the band’s greatest hits with startling facility and almost no discernible interest. Some reunions, I guess, just take on lives of their own. Bow Wow Wow, in constant recurring reunion mode, knows the drill well. Annabella Lwin still has to dress in that exotic bikini getup even though her figure ain’t what it used to be. Talk about dated. During their show, most of the crowd seemed more curious than entertained.
But I was completely unprepared for The Pop Group, a reunion that meant nothing to me since I’m American and their postpunk music never made it across the ocean during their brief two-album run in the late 70s. Too bad. They were amazing: fierce, uncompromisingly funky, and totally committed to both their craft and their world view, which remains as dark and pessimistic as it was when they were ranting against “Forces of Oppression” and exhorting their fans to “Rob a Bank.” Mark Stewart and his band, all in their mid-fifties at least, look their age and acted more engaged in what they’re doing that either PiL or Suede did, which isn’t meant as a put-down of either of those bands but merely suggests the value of belief in something larger than a commercial gambit. Maybe I was fooled and maybe The Pop Group are now in it for the filthy lucre, but I sort of doubt it. There wasn’t a big crowd for their mid-afternoon Sunday show at the Sonic Stage, either, but once they started people passing through stopped and stayed, and by the end of their hour-long set they had converted a good many of these people, who surely never even heard of them an hour earlier. That’s something you could feel, without having to analyze or second guess the situation. It was just obvious from the vibe in the room.
I habitually don’t trust the attendance figures that the promoters of festivals in Japan release right after the event. I don’t have the figures for this year’s SS yet, but I assume they’ll be as high as usual if for no other reason than that they announced two-day tickets sold out prior to the weekend. Nevertheless, I thought the crowds were a bit thinner on the ground this year, and an associated bit of evidence to back up this theory is that I was able to a secure an affordable hotel room for Saturday night a full month after tickets went on sale. Usually, they’re all booked up immediately and I have to reserve a room at a hotel near an adjacent train station. So either Summer Sonic isn’t pulling in as many over-nighters or the Disneyland contingent for obon is also bailing because those folks book rooms as far away as Chiba City proper.
Having a room nearby (with the refrigerator turned off! Goddamn setsuden!) meant I could enjoy the midnight portion of SS without worrying about spending a couple thosand yen for cab fare, and there were two stages this year for late night revelers, though, for sure, most people weren’t reveling. They were doing what they usually do at this time of night, which is sleeping. On the hard concrete. I wandered back-and-forth between the Sonic Stage and the Rainbow Stage, tiptoeing gingerly over prone bodies in the process. The dance acts were playing at the Rainbow Stage but not a whole lot of people were dancing. Or maybe they were. I’d call it more like milling around.
These New Puritans were the first act on the Sonic Stage. Basically, a bassist-vocalist and four people all of whom double on percussion and keyboards, as well as a two-man trombone section (not to mention the busiest roadie I’ve ever seen as a rock concert), the group is rather low-key despite all the banging that goes on. The fact that a lot of people in the hall knew their songs better than I did kept my critical faculties in check, but I can’t say TNP is the kind of band you enjoy. They’re more the sort of group you appreciate for taking a novel approach, like the Sea and Cake only without disecernible melodies. The Horrors were more to the point, but I could not stand to look at lead singer Faran Badwin as long as he wore that jacket. The air conditioning wasn’t that high. “It’s great to have a full room at this time of night,” he said at one point, having obviously heard that it wasn’t going to be guaranteed in a country where the trains, as efficient as they are, stop at midnight. Still, he was stretching the point. The room was full but only two-thirds of the inhabitants were awake; and only two-thirds of that two-thirds were actually standing. Did I mention the music? Actually, I can’t remember any of it, not because it was necessarily bad, but because I was fading pretty fast, too. I had to make an effort to stay awake long enough for Tinie Tempah, and then when it did start the DJ did ten minutes for an opener. By the time the English rapper came out I needed swift reassurance that the show was going to be something worth staying up for. I was out of there by the second song, which was a shame. I was hoping to stay awake long enough for Sebastian at the other stage, but he wasn’t coming on til 3:30. With the floor claiming more bodies by the minute a conundrum occurred to me: If a DJ plays music and no one is there to dance, does he make a sound?
Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas. Just that unfortunately positioned comma tells you it’s a Japanese band (or maybe it’s there for copyright purposes), and this one was one of the newcomer groups who opened the stages before the main roster started, meaning at 10 a.m. They were at the Mountain Stage and garnered a good crowd on a Sunday morning. A lot of people there seemed already familiar with them, in fact. Their music is manic metal and their lead singer is a fey, golden-haired young man with a frenetic, high-pitched delivery. They’re a screamer band who’s going places, and when it was over everybody moved laterally to the Sonic Stage, where an all-female alternative rock quartet called Negoto was playing. Immediately a bottleneck formed with yellow T-shirted security staff vainly trying to direct people around the Sonic Stage. Negoto wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t help thinking that the band probably didn’t realize how fortunate it was for them that they were scheduled to start 15 minutes after FALILV started. If they’d started at the same time, the situation would have been a lot different.
Somebody at the logistical end should have been thinking in the same terms when formulating the Asian Calling event. Sixteen indie bands from Taiwan, Korea and China played on the Island Stage over the two days of the festival. The idea was noble–expose Japanese rock fans to some good music from the rest of Asia–but insufficiently thought out. As Daniel said in his preview article in the JT, there was a danger that putting all these bands in the same venue would have the effect of ghettoizing them, and that is exactly what happens. Although I only stopped in to see two groups, in both cases there weren’t more than a few dozen people watching. If the bands had been distributed more randomly among the other stages, I’m sure they would have benefited from the kind of overflow that made Negoto an inadvertent hit. Moreover, the Island Stage, which used to be outside in the parking lot and thus received a lot of foot traffic, has been moved indoors to a corner of one of the food courts. You had to go slightly out of your way to enter.
Young men with large, inconvenient clumps of hair in their faces was a kind of fashion leitmotif at the festival. I loved the Smith Westerns, an indie guitar band from Chicago who play fast, glammy power pop with big hooks and yearning in their hearts; but I got turned off by Cullen Omori constantly removing the hair from his mouth as he tried to sing. I mean, buy a hairnet, for Chrissake. On a similar tip, I was less bothered by Alex Trimble’s blonde lock covering his right cheek during Two Door Cinema Club’s roaring set on the Mountain Stage later the same afternoon, probably because Trimble had the foresight to use hairspray or maybe even gel. The mass of protein never quite got in the way of the singing, but in any case their show, like the one they gave last year on the Sonic Stage, was surprisingly effective; surprising because their album doesn’t prepare you for how dynamic their concert can be. With every note in its proper place and tethered to a rhythmic attack that’s infectious and relentless, the songs were the focus rather than the band, and the audience gave itself over to the performance in record time. Minute-for-minute I didn’t see another show this weekend with as huge a joy quotient. “You don’t know what a great feeling this is,” Trimble said. The feeling seemed to be mutual.
But the best hair of the weekend was Bradford Cox’s of Deerhunter. Sporting a bouffant that towered above a head that already towered above the other members of his band, Cox added an incomparable visual component to a group sound that was startling in its range of styles. The eclecticism seemed to be a function of Cox’s hyperactive personality. Even before playing a note, he asked an interpreter to come out and help him settle an argument about the movie “Rebel Without A Cause”: Was it about homoeroticism or emasculation? He voted for emasculation and then the set began, but with a song sung by the other guitarist, whose name I don’t know. Though the songs they played steered clear of the kind of avant-rock that made them famous, the performance was anything but complacent. Codas went on forever, churning hooks into mincemeat and at one point Cox launced into a syncopated version of Patti Smith’s “Land” (or, at least, the “Horses” portion) that tore the hall in half. But not that hair. Regardless of how crazy Cox got, the hair stayed whole and on his head…perfect.
Anyone who plays at dusk on the Beach Stage gets an automatic atmosphere boost, and both Arrested Development, who filled the slot Saturday, and Bootsy Collins, who did so Sunday, ended up being more fun than they had any right to be. This may sound strange for Bootsy, the former JBs bassist and mastermind-in-waiting behind George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic enterprise, but he’s getting older and some of his shows in the recent past have been autopilot affairs. With what seemed like a larger gay contingent on stage than the Village People’s and a revue-styled show that delayed the great one’s entrance eternally just to crank up the tension (“the sea will now part”), it was Vegas in miniature and exactly the sort of thing an audience not impressed with the white-people music happening elsewhere at the moment could sop up like gravy. Bootsy also had the rare good grace to be one of the only guests during the weekend to dedicate his show to “all the hurting families” in the disaster area. But it made you think: a full-on funk revue dedicated to people not there who are probably still suffering? Best not to dwell on such questions too long.
Arrested Development, the night before, is a band that slipped from my consciousness years ago, though I was always aware they’re still around because it seems their albums are only released in Japan these days. Speech has filled out handily and his New Age/We Are Family glow has dimmed a bit, but his band is such a knockout, and he orchestrates their soul effusions like a maestro. As the sky darkened the music became more buoyant and once they got “Tennessee” out of the way they could stretch. This used to be called “organic hip-hop,” I think, an unfortunate term if there ever was one, but I get it now. It doesn’t mean I’ll listen to their albums, though.