Blast Of The International Gameboys
By Stuart Maconie
It’s not all Calpis Water, Pocari Sweat and smoking Keiths while on a rock ‘n’ roll jaunt in Japan, y’know. Sometimes you rediscover BLUR, completely flummoxing the music community with their impression of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd as cruiser-class rock destroyer.
Stuart Maconie switches off his Game Boy long enough to report from his perch by the whiskey vending machine. He’s going to die up there, I’m thinking to myself. Or rather, not up there. Down here, on the parquet floor of the Club Citta in Kawasaki, amongst the portly, safari-suited security men and the sobbing schoolgirls who are repeating his name over and over again in a tearful mantra, part fear and part excitement: “Da-Mon,Da-Mon…”
Damon Albarn, lead singer with Blur, is a tiny, spidery figure negotiating, with agonising slowness and deliberation, the struts, gantries and piping of the club walls. He’s 80 feet up, I’d say, and long past the point where common sense should have curbed the natural exhibitionism of ‘the frontman’. Each step, each stretch of the arm, each tentative foothold on an air-conditiong duct, is bringing his messy demise a little closer. It’ll make for a good story, I muse, but it’ll certainly put a damper on what’s shaping up to be an excellent trip. And besides, he seems like a good sort. Slowly, impssibly, he begins to return, backwards, swinging from girder and curtains, until he manages to establish a footing atop a giant speaker stack. There’s a flurry of road crew and security and eventually he drops from view into some offstage arms.
Guitarist Graham who, all this time, has been slashing his way through a coruscating ‘Never Clever’, shakes his head in a rueful, affectionate despair, like the TV ad mums when confronted with their sodden, filthy offspring (“It’ll take some Persil to shift that!”). Damon ambles back onstage. Noticing me in the photographers’ pit, he gives a laughing shrug as if to say, “Well, you’ve got to, haven’t you?” He turns and throws two pint glasses of water over the estatic audience. The violent, lurid racket goes on. Beside me, a security guard puts down his megaphone, folds his arms and turns to his colleague. With his neat, slicked hair and his jam-jar glasses, he looks like an overgrown, bemused schoolboy. I can’t speak the language but I know what he’s saying. He’s saying, “How the hell did these people win the war?”
JAPAN IS worried, and its naive, serene unsettling weirdness stays with you from your first glimpse of Mount Fuji’s snow-capped cone, through any amount of surreal cameos, right ’til the moment your airport bus crawls through the viscious smog and drops you back at the human jungle of Narita airport. The English pop groups and attendant journalists come here and, after being showered with presents, deferred to, worshipped, ignored, misunderstood and scrutinized, they come to the conclusion that Japan is weird. Blur are weird too. And, in a similar way. Like Japan, they are outwardly smiling but inwardly unfathomable. They are both sinister and childlike and blandly demonic. In England, no-one has quite known what to do with Blur. ‘Are they pop kids or weirdos or shoe-gazers or what?’ is the sub-text of such discussion about them. Two years ago, I saw them play a tiny club beneath the pavements of Stoke on Trent and was, frankly, baffled by their delirious, high-octane mixture of raging punk anarchy and cerebral psychedelia, by the way that bug-eyed dementia co-existed with blissed out karmic singalongs. It was confusing and also thoroughly exciting. I went home with my ears ringing and the certain knowledge that Blur were amongst the most ornery, awkward and gifted of all their peers.
In Japan, I will get to see them play one splendid and one absolutely lunatic, desperate, gonzoid freak-out of a gig. My advice for you if you’re planning to see the Rollercoaster thingy is get there early. If there is any logic left in the world, this show is Blur’s for the stealing. And Blur will hate me for saying that, since they are still reeling with delight from merely being invited aboard this year’s trundling rock carnival. They’re right to be pleased and, yes, it does confer upon them a mark of approval from some of the big boys of the rock biz. But in reality, Blur know that it’s nothing more than they deserve. There may be those who still find Blur a little too Smash Hits or a tad too ‘jessified’ for these grungy times, but the large-scale exposure of Rollercoaster and Blur’s upcoming new material will change that. They are a carthartic, funny, shrewd, unhinged, puzzling young rock band in love with the vacant sexiness of pop. And soon you’ll agree.
Japan, as I think I said, is weird. Until Ilan Bator, The Falkland Islands, the central Siberian plain, Franz Josef Land or the lost city of Angkor Watt become as much as a part of the gig circuit as Digbeth Barrel Organ and Northampton Roadmenders, Japan will continue to be the weirdest place a rock group and their entourage can hike their Lycra and dirty T-shirts to. A tiny, crowded and disproportionately powerful group of islands (remind you of anywhere?) madly in love with pop music. In fact, their love of pop is merely one facet of their ridiculous, touching and faintly sad romance with all things Western. Japanese people are small and yellow. The mannequins in every trendy store window are tall and willowy, like plastic Jerry Halls. Don’t you think that’s just a little sad? Weird facts about Japan tend to form the bulk of most rock reports from the Land Of The Rising Sun; it’s inevitable. So let’s get most of them out of the way now, shall we?
1) In Japan, there are vending machines selling alcohol on every street corner. These also sell hot, sour soup, iced coffee and both Japan’s top selling soft drinks. These are called Pocari Sweat and Calpis Water and are every bit as pleasant and tasty as their names.
2) Japan is a very safe place. Tokyo is the only world capital where the crime rate is falling. I lost my hotel key as soon as I checked in and left my room open for four days with benign confidence. The Japanese tell a tale of a Westerner who spent weeks trying to get rid of a broken umbrella. Everywhere he went, Japanese people tried to give it back to him thinking he’d dropped it. 3) Tokyo looks like Blade Runner and people eat noodles under polythene awnings on the pavement. Salarymen relax after a hard day’s bond speculation on the Nikkei Dow by lining up in their hundreds in special gaming arcades to fire ball bearings into little cups. This gambling game is called Pachinko and its nearest equivalent in popularity here would be, say, television. Or food. 4) Leading japanese cigarette brands include Peace, Hope, Tenderness… and Keith.
5) Blowing your nose in public is a heinous breach of etiquette here roughly akin to vomiting in the street. They don’t think much of vomiting in the street either, so avoid the Calpis Water.
6) The Japanese equivalent of Chewitts are called Bonkers and a comic book packed with anal rape and child sex will set you back about as much as Woman’s Realm.
And so it goes on. Plus it takes you a long time to get there. I’d been there an hour when a phone call told me it was time to go to the soundcheck. I met Blur in the lobby where a gaggle of girls kept mute, smiling vigil at a discreet distance. Sad-eyed, they wave us to the van which will take us to Kawasaki, partly a suburb of Tokyo but partly a town in itself. The journey is a fetid, tiring crawl of some hour’s duration through a thin mist of fumes and Tokyo’s ubiquitous traffic (this is one of the few places in the world where you can end up in a five-mile tailback at quarter to four in the morning) . En route, there is some painful reminiscence about the sake hell of the night before and much repetition of the words ‘never’ and ‘again’. Game Boys screech and warble incessantly. As we turn into the club car park, I get my first taste of the flavour of the next few days. A crowd of teenage girls has gathered and they go into paroxysms of glee at the sight of the van. They make camp outside the dressing room window, shrieking each time a member of band or entourage pops their head through the curtains to chat in the rosy dusk. Presents are passed through the window with happy regularity; bottles of beer, Pocky Giants choc snacks, CDS and beautifully -written little notes that all begin ‘Dear Alex, Damon, Dave and Graham. Hello! My name is…’ and ache with politeness and suppressed love. They throw cameras through the window which we pass around, snapping stupidly and then hand back to their grateful owners. Even as I write, a young girl in Kawasaki is wondering tearfully why she has got 18 pictures of a bloke from the NME eating Pocky Giants and pulling on a Keith whilst her friends have got dead ace sex pics of Damon. All I can say is it wasn’t my fault.
The club is encouragingly barnlike and, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ soundcheck over, we price Game Gears and CDs in downtown Kawasaki’s busy arcades, where grown men in beige macs and carrying leather briefcases unwind by playing coin-op Tetris as if their lives depended on it. Showtime rolls around with startling alacrity – gigs here begin at 7. 3Opm. The hall is full and there is a palpable sense of electric expectation. A large machine in the corner of the room fires my imagination by offering Sake, Beer, Cocktails, Whiskey and Pizza. Imagine my disappointment when it turns out that it doesn’t actually vend these things but merely provides a ticket which you take elsewhere for the goodies. And after I’d put the down payment on one for my front room. Nevertheless, by the time the night is through I’ve worn a groove in the floor between the machine and the bar. The Japanese love to get drunk but I never caught a single one of them drinking. Spooky. Blur’s intro tape of crazy French science fiction muzak cranks the tension up a little higher. Clutching a cold Sapporo and enjoying a Keith, I stroll around the auditorium. I move about with ease. Everywhere I go, my view is excellent. Suddenly it dawns on me; I’m the tallest person in the room! At all of five feet eight and a half! I also stand out because of my skin colour and features, an ironic reversal of the norm Except here, I’m automatically the centre of giggling attention because I’m Western and, therefore, something to do with the band and the whole crazy, untouchably glamorous world of rock from a long way away. I’d like to report that it was a strange sensation and perhaps a little uncomfortable to a sensitive soul like myself. But I can’t. It was great fun and I never got sick of it.
Blur walk on and the mixture of colour, loud animal pop and the voracious appetites of the young Japanese is such a potent cocktail that even a let-lagged man gets a sudden family sized adrenalin rush. ‘Popscene’ is their new single and it is the Blur single per excellence; a twitching riot of protean riffs and arcane sentiments. It stops and starts, drips languor and ennui, yet radiates ebullience and self-deprecating charm. It’s short, direct, irascible and sure to flummox the rock community. Damon speaks the only Japanese word he knows – ‘Konbanwa’ or ‘Good evening’ and several tiny Oriental girls – still in the uniform they came straight from school in – expire on the spot from the significance of it all. The Japanese will run the world soon with an empire of dazzlingly brilliant machines. Everyone listens to their music on a Japanese machine. But the one thing these hard-working people cannot do is make the pointless, silly, abstract, life-affirming noise that fires these industries. They have no pop in their blood and for this reason, they must look to these little islands. Well, there are worse things to be than the light entertainers of the world. Blur make a joyous, unholy speedball of sound for three-quarters of an hour and then are gone. They have reckoned without the oddly workaday Japanese rules that dictate you must play for an hour or not get paid. Back they amble for a further 20 minutes of ramshackle fun, extended instrumental breaks, outrage and punk rock hi-jinx, all performed with one smiling eye on the clock. Blur leave again and the crowd are dispersed by bellowing men with megaphones wearing black armbands. It is just gone 8.30.
Backstage, I am the only one raving about the gig. Blur felt that it was lacklustre and seem to have been knocked off their stride by the early hour and the minimum length requirements. They take my compliments with good grace but mutter “Wait ’til tomorrow” meaningfully. There is some perfunctory boozing, gripping and grinning and a bijou photo opportunity with the delirious fans at the stage door. But soon we are en route to Tokyo and a meal with the promoter which turns out to be your actual shoes-off, lotus-position, women-in-kimonos-with-knitting-needles-in-their-hair- bringing-heart-breakingly-delicious-food affairs. But Blur are clearly paying for the exploits of last night and, through unfailingly civil to their hosts, are nodding off over the tempura. They retire but, against wiser council, I stay for a little sake in the hotel bar with the road crew. For several hours I swap Bobby Gillespie impersonations the lighting man but, when he completely straight-faced asked me whether I was “calling his pint a puff”, I knew it was time to call it a night. Sayanora.
I SLEEP, ’til it’s pratically time for the soundcheck, by which time Blur, irritatingly fresh-faced and perky, have bought most of the cheap toys in Japan and had their photos taken a million times. The arrival of some spanking new equipment from God knows where makes the soundcheck a dream and the mood is bouyant. This seems the best chance I will get to stick the four of them in front of a tape recorder and so we retire, twixt soundcheck and (ahem) showtime for a few cold Malts, a leisurely Keith and a little chat.
So give me your random impressions of Japan, then…
Graham: “Crazy, sprawling, crowded.”
Damon: “You have to like a place where you can get described as ‘handsome and atmospheric’. They’re so well-informed but I don’t know if they actually like us. Well, on one level, they do to a ridiculous degree. They like the West so much they’re willing to change their physical appearance for us but…
Alex: “They seem very insular, very self-contained. Like the way they mob us at the hotel. It’s in your face but they don’t say anything. It’s very serene.
Do you think they understand you?
A: “No, but then again who does? A few people in England and France maybe. Even at home they miss the point and see us as part of something that we’re not. I don’t think we’re understood in terms of… the concept. The lifestyle.”
D: “Oh. this early? Well, in Germany, we’re in the Jesus Jones bag. Which is obviously ridiculous. I think there’s more to us than people realise. There’s more to us than we realised. And that’s great, because most people find there’s less to it all than they imagined. But as for what we’re about…well, we do reflect something of a generation. This generation that can’t distinguish one thing from another or discern anything positive in life. We reflect a kind of southern emptiness. A blankness.”
A: “Peace and plenty breed cowards.”
D: “Ride will hate me for this, but we come from similar backgrounds and cover a lot of similar ground. Like them calling their album ‘Going Blank Again’. We got laughed at on Rapido for saying that we felt blank and numb a lot of the time.”
How have you changed since I saw you in Stoke in 1989?
G: “Things are the same except more so. It’s just a process of escalation. You watch things get bigger. Watch the flights get longer.”
D: “You read the groups in On, they’re at a certain stage and they all say the same thing. I regret we didn’t make more of an effort early on, ‘cos we came over as f—ing boring. For a long time we weren’t operating at our full potential. And then we sort of woke up and became more interesting. And you know when you’re becoming interesting when you start to interest interesting people. Like Storm (Thorgusson, film-maker long associated with psychedelic London and, in particular, the early Pink Floyd), he wants to make a film with us. Wants to make a film about England. He says he sees in us something of the attitude, in our videos and the way we talk, of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. The fact that he’s taken the time to seek us out is amazing.
“I hadn’t bought a record until a year ago. Then I started going out with my current girlfriend and she had a massive record collection and as I started to buy them slowly I began to find things out. Like the guy who produced all our early singles also produced all Julian Cope’s albums, and I thought ‘F—ng hell!’ And I began to see all these little coincidences where we were linked with bands that we worshipped. And I began to realise that, f—, we are something. We are part of a heritage of British bands, we are somebody. “And by the end of this year, we’ll be even more so because we’ll have done Rollercoaster, done a film, made an album that truly represents us. I don’t want to sound self-satisfied, but we know that we’re too good to end up stuck at the top of the second division like so many bands that get talked about. Those bands who never get any better. They just drink more and get more lines.”
Where do you fit in? There’s still this tension in the music between being a teen pop group and rock weirdos? G: “You have to have that sort of tension in the music or you just end up with stagnation and blandness…”
D: “Not that there’s anything wrong with being bland. I’m into that. The vagueness of pop, its lack of any real message. The medium is the message. Rock music has got so embellished and ornamented and cliquey. That’s why it’s f—ing brilliant for us to do Rollercoaster. People will be forced to listen to us. Forced to give us that chance.”
G: “We have flirted with the notion of being a real pop group and what that implies. Take ‘There’s No Other Way’. It’s a monumentally bland record. It’s so banal…and the video of us sitting around eating our Sunday dinner. And its banality led to it being scrutinized. When, in fact it meant absolutely nothing.”
Put like that, it sounds reasonable, but couldn’t you just be giving carte blanche to talentless bands to make records about nothing? A:”Well, you could say that about Dada or Mondrian. They gave carte blanche for people just to paint squares.
G: “It was really exciting at the time but we didn’t want to consolidate it. Making that record was like deliberately handing in this strange, crappy essay at school just to see what people would think.”
Have you still got any aspirations to be teen POP stars?
D: “I’d love ‘Popscene’ to be a big hit. It’d be great. But then again, there’s a noisy indie group on TOTP every week now. All looking very satisfied with their Number 18…”
A: “You know everything’s f—ed when the French start talking about L’Indie Pop…”
D: “And they’re all on corporate giants! You know what real independence is? It’s going to your record company saying, we’d like to make a film to use as back projection on the Rollercoaster tour. Pay for it, would you? Or going to them with ‘Popscene’ and saying, this isn’t the most commercial thing you’ve ever heard but put it out and promote it properly. That’s independence and we’ve earned it by having a first album that recouped. How many bands are in that position? How many rock bands are in that position? What do rock fans like anyway? Nirvana?”
G: “That’s sad. They should like Aerosmith.”
D: “Maybe one of our weaknesses is that we’re too clever. Fundamental, hormonal-titillating rock fills halls.. But it takes a f— of a lot more intelligence to be a pop group.
So how intelligent are you?
D: “I knew nothing about music ’til last year. Then I started to discover things. It was embarrassing how I bluffed my way through. I know a lot about other things but not music. But perhaps that bluff gave us a certain brashness. But musically I lost the plot in about 1986. ‘Isn’t Anything’ was about the last thing I was interested in: But you’re constantly on the look out for people who are doing the same things as you.
“It’s like being a primitive man in some bog in southern England and wandering along with your spear and your loin cloth and meeting someone with the same spear as you and thinking, ‘Hey, great. Let’s go and kill something.’ The trouble is with most groups, they’re still trolling along with their ridiculously primitive spears that couldn’t kill anything.”
“YOU’RE ON in five minutes,” comes a slightly desperate shout and they are gone, leaving me to mull over the ‘primitive man and his spear’ analogy of rock culture.
“Dear Alex, Damon, Dave and Graham. Hello! Remember me from Lecester and Ipswich and Bristol?” The table is piled with scented letters, flowers, Pocky Giants, Keiths and all the other paraphernalia that we now realise is, in a very real sense, part and parcel of the Nippon Rock Experience. Japanese fans also pride themselves on being ‘in the know about their loved ones’ little foibles and so tonight we are also inundated with fine wines and exotic cheeses, now that word of Alex’s status as a self-styled gourmand has gone out. “Hmmm,” he lifts the bottle to his narrowed eye – “Bit young for a Beaujolais, but still…” But still, we’ll be drinking it by the pint from a polystyrene cup, so what? The mood is celebratory. Japanese girls collect in ones and twos and giggle fit to burst. Record company men and promoters press the flesh and grin a lot whilst Blur engage in furious nodding bouts with all and sundry. Many a Keith is enjoyed and the Sapporo and Beaujolais flow like water. There is not a Calpis or Pocari Sweat to be seen. Someone shows me a Mickey Mouse rubber bearing the legend “Mickey Mouse. He is cheerful and sensitive.’ If last night’s show had been a little muted, tonight’s was an exploding neon ragnarok of a demented pop thing. On this paint-stripping form, they will set Rollercoaster alight from the off. As they take the stage, the human river of the crowd bursts its banks, flinging crash barriers aside in its wake and, for one horrible and thriling moment, it seems that something awful will happen. But Japanese subliminal common sense takes hold and they content themselves with sobbing, chuckling, pressing themselves against the stage and grasping the air for a handful of trouser hem as ‘Popscene’ again kicks things off with its sour, brass-driven calisthenics. This is Blur doing what they do fascinatingly well. Imagine that the Sex Pistols, psycho-babble had some grounding in the tunes of the ’60s beat boom. or that Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd had indulged themselves as a cruiser-class rock destroyer. The contradictions between the bullying bombast of rock and the shiny persuasiveness of pop bringBlur’s music to febrile life. Within two songs a kind of madness has taken hold. Elfin Orientals are pulled from the throng in a continuous chain, the air bristles with lunacy, pints of water are thrown around and the security men’s inscrutability threatens to crack. Blur dash and cakewalk and slide through ‘Mr Briggs’ and ‘Hanging Over’. ‘There’s No Other Way’ sees the first of Damon’s sorties into the gods. At one point he slips and falls in to the crowd, where he is gently devoured and spat back onto the stage. During a hyper-ventilating ‘Bang’ the crowd take up their ritual chant of “Ah Do Nee Ennee Wan” as in “Ah Do Nee Enne Wan ….. but a little love could make things better.” Someone tosses a ski balaclava cum terrorist mask on stage, which Damon promptly puts on. He cuts a genuinely psychotic figure as he prowls the stage and the music takes on a feral edge of menace. As ‘Day Upon Day’ builds to its temple-throbbing climax, Damon,Alex and Graham end up, squid-like, in a thrashing knot of arms, legs and guitar leads centre-stage. I take timeout for a Keith and to give away plectrums and discarded set-lists to zealous fans. It has been an extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll performance. It is almost ten to nine.
BEFORE WE leave Kawasaki for the lights of Tokyo, there is a little business to attend to. I sit in on a ludicrous, nightmarish radio interview, wherein a shifty ex-pat American asks the band a string of absurdly misjudged qucstions about “the new British Psychedelic Movement”, Jesus Jones, American foreign policy and modern art. His “Hey, let’s windup with a general one” closer is, and I kid you not, “Dave, finally, if you were prime minister, what steps would you take to stop the dumping of nuclear waste in the sea?” Silence. Finally Dave speaks: “Well, you’ve put me on a spot, but I suppose I’d say ‘Stop dumping nuclear waste in the sea.’” We travel to Tokyo in the van. Well, most of us did. Damon travelled standing atop the van, still resplendent in terror mask and addressing passers by through his megaphone. Two extremely accommodating Japanese girls take us to a club called the Lexington Queen, a club I can heartily recommend since all drinks were free in true Club Tropicana style. The music was ropey and the clientele suspect, but free booze is one hell of a selling point. It is morning. A note under my door tells me that Blur have gone. To Osaka, where they will get chatted up in a sauna by the chief of police, as it happens. Japan. It was weird. It was cheerful and sensitive. It was handsome and atmospheric. It was bonkers. The rest is just a Blur.