As I moved from the picturesque centre of Tokushima towards the port, the landscape became greyer and more industrial, with even the perky anime girl mascots on the side of the ferry seeming somehow faded and drab under the grey skies, pregnant with the threat of rain.
This journey to Wakayama was to be the last stretch of my trip carried out by sea, and once underway, the ferry began drunkenly lurching about, daring me to vomit and doing its best to ensure that I don’t miss these aquatic interludes in my cycling. Wrong, ferry! I will miss them: even the pukey bits.
Being in Wakayama is a lot like being in the 1970s, with the whole town radiating a sort of ramshackle, unfinished disarray. The Nankai Line’s imposing Wakayamashi Station towers over a neighbourhood full of basically nothing at all, while Japan Railways’ Wakayama Station sits at the heart of the town’s tiny enclave of modern-ish buildings. The town itself spreads in a languid agglomeration of hostess bars, tin roofed shacks and run-down shopping arcades between the two stations. The sole record store in town, Cross Road, has a surprisingly large indie section stocked at what feels like random over a period of many years, with some fading, unsold CDs by lost loves like Spectrum Synthesize and Squimaoto, and an early CD/R by my Tokyo-based friends Praha Depart among the many surprises. Looking at the music the staff at Cross Road have put on display (Jun Togawa, Velvet Underground, Bryan Eno), I get the distinct sense of a staff aware of a world of music they know they will struggle to sell on to their customers, but still determined to chip away at the edges.
In any case, with Wakayama as my gate into the Kansai area, I did what any self-respecting music nerd would do and instantly got on a train to Kobe.
Now this may seem like cheating, and yeah, well, it is if those are the rules you’ve decided to apply. However, rather like the way northern Kyushu is all really one place, the same can be said for Kansai. Wakayama may be pushing it a bit, being situated way down in the south and separated by some mild mountains, but once across the water in Kansai, it made more sense to me to treat the whole area as one place. More importantly, Kobe is where the live venue Helluva Lounge is, and this night was the only chance it looked like I was going to get to see a cool show there.
After I’d got over the unfortunate bungle that had resulted in Nankai Lines naming their rapid trains “rapi:t”, and a quick dash through the lively, rain-soaked streets of Kobe’s lively Motomachi district, I entered the venue to the sound of Janglepop tunemongers The City and instantly run into Canan from Tokyo new wave band Compact Club and Sugihara from Neons – urban Kansai is deeply connected to the musical merry-go-round and spend enough time at one stop on the loop and you’ll start to recognise people at any other place you get off as well. They were swiftly followed by bass-driven squeakcore punkas o’summer vacation, who had played at my show in Kumamoto a month previously. I’ve probably seen o’summer vacation more than almost any band over the past few months, although seeing them on something like their home turf (the members are spread through Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe) gave a sense of completion to my introduction to the band.
Another local Kobe act (although now living in Osaka) was Trespass, a guitar-and-drum-based postpunk/new wave duo with a neat line in angular hooks, while headliners were French postpunk revivalists Frustration.
Frustration were interesting just in how much and how unashamedly they were ripping off a certain classic Manchester band – even down to the spazzy Ian Curtis dancing. I remarked at the time, and have continuously done since, that they should rename themselves Joie de Vision, but still no one laughs – I only repeat it here in the desperate hope that somewhere, sometime, someone finds it and thinks, “That’s a clever pun. Well done.”
Anyway, there are two sides to this issue. One is, as one friend pointed out, “There are loads of kids who’ve never heard of Joy Division and will never get a chance to see them live, so what’s wrong with these guys providing that to them?” The other side is that making art isn’t about providing a service to the audience, it’s about how honest you’re being with yourself as you engage in the creative process.
Between these two positions, there’s a lot of room for debate and manoeuvering based on just how much you can crib from others, and clearly different people have different threshholds in what they’ll tolerate. The debate over Led Zeppelin’s appropriation of a guitar line from Spirit’s instrumental track Taurus partly illustrates how the public standards for originality have changed over time.
In the past, bands would begin by playing covers and develop their own styles from those, but nowadays, we expect musicians to deliver an album full of original material right from the get-go. Can we really be surprised that a lot of that “original” material is derivative of other works when those artists are often still at the “covers” stage of their artistic development? That said, Frustration are by no means a young band, so why are they still in that place? Shouldn’t they just be a covers band and be done with it? Or is there an argument that as deep, dedicated fans of bands like Joy Division and Magazine, it’s a legitimate path for them to channel their own artistic expression through the narrow conduit of the forms codified by those older bands? If so, how much of what remains can really be called theirs?
(It’s customary here to add “…and does it really matter?” but this is a cop-out. Yes, of course it matters, otherwise why am I even having this discussion and why are you reading it?)
The following night back in Wakayama (and therefore back in the 1970s) these questions don’t seem so relevant. The music scene in Wakayama is dominated by live venues and music bars run by classic rock, folk and blues fans, that trade primarily on Beatles and Dylan covers. There is one regular rock club called Gate and a lemonade shop that seems to be obsessed with visual-kei, but the place I find myself is Oldtime, run since 1987 by an old guy called Bobby (from Dylan).
“Recently I’ve been really into whisky,” he declares apropos of nothing, swaying a little.
There’s a small group of people in the venue, and it’s pretty open who goes up and plays. Bobby does a version of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, switching between Japanese and English lyrics in different sections, which itself highlights the different forms of delivery necessitated by stress-timed English and the more syllabic Japanese languages.
The cover, then, is not necessarily unoriginal, just as a song you’ve written yourself isn’t necessarily original. The way that arranging or reinterpreting a song can produce a subtly or radically different work is a theme I’ve returned to over and over again in projects I’ve organised (getting 21 different bands to cover Paranoid by Black Sabbath remains one of the achievements of which I’m most proud).
Mostly, these are just dudes who are very sincerely into their folk and rock, enjoying themselves by playing the classics, and in the process taking some small measure of ownership over them. In the sense that it’s different from what Frustration were doing in Kobe the previous night, that difference lies in the expectations the different audiences lay on them and the role of the notion of originality has in the different social environments within which the music gestates.
After Oldtime, I drop by the nearby Bar Gimmes, whose owner Okamoto is a garage and punk rock dude (we’re still in the ‘70s here, so The New York Dolls and The Damned stare down at me from every wall) and has been running the bar in this location since 2013 and before that in another spot nearby. The only customer in there is Isao, who used to play in a garage-punk band. When I ask about the local music scene, they both get that look I by now recognise instantly.
“Hmm… not really.”
They won’t even recommend their own bands, which could be more out of modesty than anything else. Actually, the very popular Kegawa no Maries hailed from Wakayama originally, starting out as a wonderful sort of crossdressing glam Bowie type thing, before settling into the more chugging, Stonesey form they became famous in. Okamoto eventually remembers a band called Ann, who used to be hot stuff in Wakayama ten years ago, and after some careful digging, I can confirm only that they appear to have existed.
Kegawa no Maries
Now my worry at this point is that I’m making Wakayama sound like a dead-end culture vacuum, which isn’t true, or at least isn’t an accurate reflection of my experience of the town. Wakayama feels like a blue collar town, still dominated by businesses owned and run locally (And gee, ain’t it quaint, honey!) It’s quiet for sure, but everything that’s there feels like it grew naturally out of the fabric of the town. This goes for the music too, and even where it is sparse, the little discoveries and connections feel all the more meaningful because of that.
We start talking about Bowie and Okamoto puts on “Heroes”. I look at my phone, and an enormous earthquake has just flattened parts of Kumamoto.