Initially, the brothers found little in the big city. Fifi and Fink had a deeper vision for rock ’n roll that was a world apart from the prevailing UK82-anarcho punk ethos of the earlier Tokyo punk bands like The Stalin, Gauze and Assfort. With rare exceptions, the hardcore punk tribes in Japan have never readily mixed with garage punks and neither would be seen dead at a crossover metal act like Boris. But, the author digresses.
Despite many outward trappings of Western modernity, Japan remains a fundamentally feudalist society for newly-formed bands trying to break out on the scene. One example is the pernicious form of “pay to play” rock ’n roll serfdom known as the quota system. A band must buy their show tickets off the club in advance and if they don’t sell, pay the club back the difference. To this day, ticket buyers are asked at the door which band on the bill they have come to see.
In 1987, after initially struggling, Fifi and Fink lucked onto a sympathetic rhythm section and formed the American Soul Spiders (named after the Roy Loney-era Flamin Groovies tune). Through record collector supply lines the band managed to score a deal stateside with Sympathy for the Record Industry and simultaneously persuaded the Shelter night club in Hachioji to forgo the quota system. When the lead singer of the American Soul Spiders was ditched whilst on tour in New York, Teengenerate was born from the ashes. The rest is crucial J-punk history.
For a period in the ‘90s, Teengenerate were an unrivalled rock ’n roll force and not just for a band from Japan. Influenced as much by Australia’s The Saints, Radio Birdman, and Fun Things as by the Real Kids and early Rolling Stones, their music was unapologetically frantic and raw, or “seikou” (crude and unpolished in Japanese). To kick-start this article’s accompanying J-punk playlist, we cue up Teengenerate’s “Lets Get Hurt.”
"The recording [Teengenerate] sent me was incredible. Raw and high energy and was indicative of what was to come."
Melbourne soul brother Dave Laing who issued the No Time EP on his Dog Meat label in 1994 had this to say of Fifi and Fink’s sophomore effort:
“I heard Teengenerate when they released their first single which included a version of one of my all-time favourites, “Just Head” by the Nervous Eaters. I already knew of Fifi and Fink’s previous band the American Soul Spiders, who were going to do a split single with Melbourne band Bored!. They recorded a version of Bored!’s “Girl” but it never came out. When I heard the Nervous Eater’s cover I knew they were my kind of band as they obviously loved the Boston punk stuff that I loved too.
“I asked them if they wanted to do an EP and when they said they wanted to do the Victim’s “Television Addict” and the Survivor’s cover of the Pretty Things “Midnight to Six Man” – a cover they got from a live Survivors record I put out in ’86 or so on Grown Up Wrong! – I was thrilled. The recording they sent me was incredible. Raw and high energy and was indicative of what was to come.
“Teengenerate had some great originals, but to me they were at their best doing covers. They made brilliant choices and owned whatever song they chose. They had a unique mania and chewed up great songs and spat them out in their own unmistakeable style. In that way they reminded me of what Tav Falco’s Panther Burns were like when they appeared, although of course Panther Burns played Memphis rockabilly and Mississippi Blues.”
During their lifespan, Teengenerate released numerous records on various labels overseas. But, domestically, product remained thin. Most local record stores would not stock releases by Japanese punk bands and with the exception of some disparate underground stores – and the dedicated J-punk floors of certain Disc Unions – not much has changed since. Similarily, when compiling the Spotify playlist for this article, it was found that little is available. As such, the playlist is neither truly representative of the various J-punk scenes, nor is it necessarily reflective of the best releases by those acts. It also creates a false impression that most of these bands sing only in English.
Take Assfort, for example. Part of the initial wave of Japanese hardcore punk bands and for whom the influential punk fanzine Maximum RocknRoll coined the term “Japcore” [sic]. The band’s essential ‘80s and ‘90s output are absent on Spotify. Instead, we settle for the salaryman hardcore of “Realistic Katharsis” from the 2001 album Free Punk Customize Kit. Fortunately, records like the No Reason EP (1987) and the Five Knuckle Shuffle LP (1991) are freely available on YouTube. (The original vinyl releases now command large sums as Japcore has become very desirable with collectors).
Almost none of the seminal early-wave releases by Gauze, L.S.D., Bastard, Gai and Kuro (whose members were rumoured low-level Yakuza) are available either. With a more traditional snot-nosed ‘77 sound, OG socialist-activist punks The Stalin do get a work out on the playlist with arguably their most famous single, “Romantist” from 1982. Lead singer Michiro Endo effectively served as the G.G. Allin of the scene, leaving a trail of destruction, assaulted audience members, shit and other eviscera on stage, and a predictable list of banned venues in the band’s wake. G.I.S.M., whose classic metalcore track “Endless Blockades for the Pussyfooter,” was covered by Poison Idea and was included on the global punk document International P.E.A.C.E Benefit Compilation, does make it however.
Compelling contemporary bands such as Nagoya’s anarcho-punks Reality Crisis and MC5-styled Detroit punkers, The Thunderroads – both of whom you should seek out – are also M.I.A. on Spotify. In place of The Thunderroads, we bring you Guitar Wolf, one of the first J-punk bands to tour extensively outside of Japan.
Once, at a hardcore punk show at Earthdom in Shinjuku headlined by the UK’s Extreme Noise Terror, The author accidentally stumbled into a packed-to-the-rafters backstage firetrap that was crudely serving as a green room and bar for the bands on the bill. Here amongst the smoke, spillages and lack of oxygen, I had the rare privilege of getting to hang with Sapporo hardcore’s finest, Slang. Along with a bunch of t-shirts, they gave me a copy of their classic Life Made Me Hardcore CD. The track selected for the playlist, “Black Rain,” is as perfect a slice of modern Japanese hardcore as you’ll find.
*Speaking of t-shirts and language barriers: an effective way of discovering new bands in Japan is to go through the t-shirt rack on the J-punk floor of a Disc Union and ask an obliging clerk to comment and make recommendations based on t-shirt graphics.
With a 40-year history and counting, Shonen Knife have lasting impact. From their earliest Buzzcocks and Ramones-inspired releases, Shonen Knife have made an art form out of whatever music (and food) influences them. There is a scene on YouTube where Teengenerate are playing live in the American Beat record store in Alabama in 1995. Fink spies a Shonen Knife poster on the wall and spits out “Every time I see that Shonen Knife poster it just makes me want to puke.” This is brought up as demonstrative of an enduring ‘are Shonen Knife punk?’ debate. Whether it’s the ‘60s punk stylings of The Fadeways with “That Girl” or the timeless pop-punk of Shonen Knife, what really matters is whether the group has a clear idea of what punk rock means to them. To regard Shonen Knife as just “Osaka’s female Ramones,” or for that matter, Cobain’s pet Japanese Raincoats, is simply reductive and unfair. They are as valid and worthy as anyone else on the playlist.
A distinctive aspect of J-punk is that there are as many women as men represented. Check out the (Panther) burning punkabilly of the Stompin’ Riffraffs or the wild noise-punk-pop-grindcore experiments of Melt-Banana. Fifi’s subsequent bands The Tweezers and Firestarter feature Tomoko Butane on bass who also plays in the all-girl Supersnazz (the Groovies again). Supersnazz’s essential punk-pop-classic Diode City LP was released by Sub Pop in the U.S. and the title track has a real Exene vibe to it. Mah Ogawa, who leads the Jett Sett from Yokohama, has more touch and feel in her pinky than most men have with five fingers on a six string. Ogawa is also the author of a best-selling book in Japan about growing up with a destructive single-parent mother. One who was not only a famous soap opera star, but also a member of a cult that would starve her daughter for up to five days at a time.
Then there’s Wata of Boris. A psych, prog, punk, stoner, doom, drone, noise, metal high priestess who would make a stooped Tommy Iommi stand erect.
Boris are in places as raw and high-energy as Teengenerate, as driving as any of the metallic D-beat punks like Slang, and as noisy and experimental as Melt-Banana or the Boredoms. A resistance to being pigeon holed, Boris often released the same track in different versions/forms/takes. Of note, their most recent Third Man re-issue of the Akuma track “Ibitsu,” the noticeably foregrounded drum patterns sound even more like they’re coming straight off the Stooges Fun House. Spotify also omits the psychedelic domestic Japanese version of “Pink,” a track when toned down/cleaned up for Western markets, broke out the band in the United States.
In August this year, after a period of what I would call Boris metal stagnation and abstraction, the band suddenly issued a digital album, No, on Bandcamp that they recorded during lockdown in Tokyo. Drummer Atsuo asserted on Bandcamp’s website; “extreme music can be a source of healing in tough times.” Appropriately, the album is an unexpected return to Boris’s hardcore roots. The songs are shorter, more focused and direct. It even includes a clamorous cover of “Fundamental Error” by ‘80s Hiroshima noise-punks Gudon. The Pandemic made Boris hardcore and No is a brilliant, angry, must-hear release.
No J-punk tour of Tokyo would be complete without checking-in on scene mainstays Tokyo Cramps and lead singer Elovis Sato's equally long-running '50s tribute, glam-trash clothing store Harajuku Jack's. With Poison You on guitar and Kazz Knox a spitting image of the Cramps' drummer in tow, you literally get water-pistol toting "Bikini Girls with Machine Guns" when their set climaxes with this great cover version.
Australians have a saying; “I didn’t mean to piss in your pocket.” It’s an abstract for stroking one’s ego, with no ulterior motive intended. This sentiment was furthest from the author’s mind when, while catching a Cockney Rejects show at the Shinjuku Loft a few years back, I noticed a warm liquid sensation running down my leg. Turning, I faced a smirking, tonsured, Japanese 20-something holding an empty pint glass in his hand. Taking in his 14-hole cherry-red Doc Martens, perfect half-inch turn ups on blue 501s and green bomber, it wasn’t the first time in my life I thought death by skinhead was an imminent and likely possibility.
Notwithstanding the occasional risk to life and limb, I can think of no better place in the world to experience live music than Japan. The J-punk scenes are energised, intimate and passionately devoted to their causes and histories. With post-TG bands like the Tweezers and The Raydios (individually) and Firestarter (together), Fifi and Fink are still at it most nights of the week. The two have survived to become standard bearers of the scene they helped to create four decades ago – coming full circle with Fifi running his own club, Poor Cow, in Setagaya. “Teengenerate had that great single-mindedness and exaggerated sense of their chosen genre that all the great Japanese bands have,” said Laing, adding “Fifi and Fink have immaculate taste and feel for punk rock ’n roll and are true stylists.”
Most of the bands featured in this article and the Spotify playlist below would be considered style masters, not style followers. Tastes lean more towards generic mall punk “Teachers Pet”-stylings? Go to Orange County.