Top 10: Japanese Punk / Hardcore Bands

The author of Punk Rock / Hardcore Disc Guide 1975-2003, Punk Rock / Hardcore History and numerous liner notes, Kazuhiko Namekawa is a leading punk, hardcore and extreme music critic in Japan. Here, he navigates you through the ten most influential bands in Japanese punk/ hardcore history (in random order).

S.S. - Live!

They were the first punk band based in the ancient city of Kyoto, disbanding after just over a year. But along the way they became one of the world’s earliest hardcore punk bands. Although the band’s name has obvious negative connotations, they of course had no connection to the Nazis. Their mischievous nature, though, is condensed on this document of 36 live recordings taken from two shows performed in 1979. The Ramones influence is largely obvious, from the count of “one, two, three, four!” and the fashion in which they moved from one song to the next, to their songs crafted around rock & roll indebted with a love of popular music that came before. All songs, including the Ramones cover “Blitzkreig Bop,” are raced through at an incredible pace but remain full of pop bursts. Covers of such songs as the massive 1973 hit “Koino daiaru6700 (love dial 6700)” by Japanese Kayou-kyoku pop group Finger 5, was unheard of in the Japanese punk scene at the time. The unruly mentality of Kansai-punk bands came from distinctly different roots to that of the “cool” Tokyo-bred bands.

Gaseneta - Sooner or Later

Fronted by the genius Harumi Yamazaki, founder of early ’80s outfit Taco, Gasneta didn’t release any music during their two year existence. Comprised of alternate takes of songs recorded in both studio and live environments in 1978, Sooner or Later became their first dedicated release in 1993. Laying down the 8-beat drive of the Ramones – who Yamazaki was a huge fan of – they incorporated both the repellent tone of Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and the destructive nature of LA’s Germs. As a self-described “hard rock band,” their dynamism was intense, and while they resonated with their contemporaries of the early hardcore punk era, such as Black Flag, you can’t help but recognize their unbelievable speed of acceleration. As the inclusion of Yasushi Ozawa – the bassist previously part of Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha between the ’80’s to the ’00s – suggests, there was also a tinge of improvisation in their arsenal as well. (Side note: The artwork is a copy of a newspaper article about famous baseball player Yutaka Enatsu getting caught with cocaine.)

The STALIN - Stop Jap

This band hailing from Tokyo, active in the early ’80s, not only changed the face of not only Japanese rock, but the punk scene as well. The band, named after the world-hated figure, signed to a major label despite their scandalous performances that involved throwing guts into the crowd, making girls in the crowd perform oral sex, and other reprehensible antics. This record was the first on a major label and second in their catalogue. These 15 tracks demonstrate their accomplished songwriting, full of hooks and rich in variety, filled with quick hits and five-and-a-half minute slow burners. A clear line can be drawn between them and bands who fly the flag of “let’s all come together and better the world,” but starting with its song titles and artwork – which places the rising sun on a black surface – it’s also a political album on varying layers.

Aburadako - ADK

This collection of early recordings from the Tokyo-based band was made between 1982 and 1985, and is comprised of tracks selected from flexi discs, 12-inches, and EPs, as well as 13 tracks selected from six live shows. The songs and lyrics are steeped in Japanese wabi-sabi and wit, while titles such as “Humiliation of Jerusalem,” “Atomic Bomb,” “------nist,” and “Kristallnacht” indicate they’re also full of political cynicism. The band was made up of fiercely individualistic members: A singer whose stammering voice took influence from Johnny Rotten and enka. A guitarist shaped by free jazz musician Masayuki Takayanagi. A bassist full of punk vigor. And a drummer who weaved together irregular and two-part rhythms. Many songs here are full of pop vitality, but it’s hard to ignore the SPK-esque brutual noise tune “Aburadako” and a lyrical portrayal of the Japanese psyche “OUT OF THE BODY.” (Please note: Although the subtitle is “1983-“, looking at the credits the earliest recording dates back to 1982.)

Kikeiji - 1982 - 1994

This recording is comprised of 15 tracks taken from a selection of four EPs and flexi discs releases up to 1985 as well as their inaugural release on ADK, a label founded in Tokyo by the guitarist from The Stalin. It is a documentation of their early era, from quick-paced songs to a quiet waltz. The stoic lyrics, directed more harshly towards themselves than to anyone else, were incomparable to any other band of the period – an undeniable eruption of raw agony. They were a band of contrasts: Along with Buddhist phrases such as “nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” lurid words such as manko (vagina) and kintama (testicles), also featured. This wasn’t for shock value. Indeed, you can hear in their sincere approach that there are no lies hidden in the husky vocals. They are uniquely able to contain both subtlety and aggression in equal measure.

G.I.S.M. - Detestation

Branding the slogan “anarchy and violence,” G.I.S.M. rose out of the Japanese hardcore punk scene in 1981. This was the first solo release from this Tokyo band, which, along with their artwork, spread their influence around the world. Their simple song structures felt in some way indebted to the likes of Discharge, but far from being just imitators, they managed to form a shuddering sound, cloaked in tension, from another dimension. The dramatic songwriting was filled with plenty of hooks and their ability to construct songs is reminiscent of early ’80s European heavy metal, while the noisy guitar leads sounded a bit like Crass. Distinctly gravelly, yet rich and expressive, the vocals stepped outside the established framework of punk and hardcore, revealing a link between them and the earliest forms of death metal. Although their lyrics were in English, there were certainly very few US/UK bands that shared their freedom from the shackles of rock & roll tradition, including punk and metal, to this degree.

NURSE - 1983 - 1984

It was difficult for females around the world to enter the early ’80s hardcore punk scene, which makes Tokyo’s NURSE all the more notable as the world’s first all-girl punk band. The appeal of NURSE is obvious when you listen: they have a nuanced pop charm brought on by the sarcastic yet cute lyrics sung in a hardcore punk schoolgirl fashion. That said, there are sprinkles of ethnic music influences heard on their latter songs which you can hear even more of in D.O.T., the group rhythmical vocalist Neko joined from 2011 onwards.

S.O.B - Leave Me Alone

A debut release riding on a blistering blast beat faster than that of grindcore founders Napalm Death. Although not a world-first in using a blast beat on a record, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say this is one of the first grindcore records to appear in the world, bar the medium tempo riffs that creep in on a few tracks,. Around a minute each, the tracks shine with plenty of push and pull, and like the sound itself, only the core of the Japanese lyrics, full of primitive attitude, are thrashed down. Over the top posing, often prominent in punk, is nowhere to be seen here. Unconcerned with presentation, the reckless, bordering on violent, vocals are relentless. The relaxed attitude of US hardcore, which hadn’t filtered into the Japanese scene at the time, was already evident here, with the reverse sleeves revealing the members having a good time on skateboards. As a truly unique outfit, they gained intense support from a core group of fans, but were pushed to the fringes by the hardcore punk scene at large. The release, full of punk recklessness, was perhaps too fast, too soon.

Gauze - Genkai-wa Doko-da

This was the third release from one of Japan’s hardcore originators. There are perhaps many other releases that have a clearer sound, but this next-level storm of chaos is a truly significant piece of work. From this release onwards, the song titles were solely in Japanese, English disappearing even from the chorus lyrics. Their expression further progressed with their use of titles with unmistakably Japanese connotations, such as “Shinin-ni kuchi-nashi (Dead Men Tell No Tales).” The latter half of this release contains seven recordings from the August ’89 gig in Scotland, documenting the force of a distinct Japanese hardcore spirit. In exactly the same manner as their no-gap live performances, this original CD contains all studio and live recordings as one single track, as if to telling us to “listen in one breath!”

Tetsu Arei - Tetsu Arei

Known for their slogan “TOKYO HARD CORE,” this is the debut release from the four-piece band who entered their 30th anniversary in 2014. Pushing through with their wall of sound, as if Motörhead and DISCHARGE were rolled into one and sped up and filtered through the same Japanese passion familiar in enka, they were certain to scare the wits out of the international competition, and founded the rough and ready style of “Japacore.” With one foot in the tradition of unpolished rock & roll, at the same time, Tetsu Arei’s veins are pulsating full of hot blood, bound together in “Burning Spirits,” not coincidentally a song title for the song included on the 1998 release II. With the tireless drummer mostly on the two-beat, the whole band barely has a chance to take a breath; the sound drives relentlessly straight ahead, the atmosphere filled with an undercurrent of agitation. Vocals ring out without an ounce of hesitation, baring all, the 17 tracks are open to all honest confrontation, not pretending for one minute to be a do-gooder wielding “justice.”

By Kazuhiko Namekawa on November 19, 2014

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