In late 1985, the Japanese noise rock band Hanatarash performed what would be their last show in Japan for several years. They had earned a reputation for their extreme live shows and their experimentation with a genre they had created, “danger music.” Danger music is an extension of the avant-garde noise movement, in which musicians and composers abandon form in favor of raw sound without melody or rhythm. What makes danger music different is exactly what it sounds like: the presence of danger.
Before entering that final Hanatarash show at Tokyo’s Superloft venue, waivers clearing the band and venue of responsibility for any damage were handed out to audience members. No one was allowed in without a signed waiver. This was not unusual for a Hanatarash show, as previous performances had included bandleader Yamantaka Eye strapping a running circular saw to his back and nearly taking his leg off in the process, cutting a dead cat in half, and driving a backhoe through the venue while the concert was in progress. Other, less extreme performances of his had included other power tools and destruction equipment. The 1985 concert was ended prematurely after the venue decided it had had enough when Eye lit a Molotov cocktail and prepared to hurl it indiscriminately.
Hanatarash was just one band to come out of what noise musician and scholar C. Stephen Yeh described as the “Kansai noise scene.” Masato Matsumura argues this noise scene exploded out of the rise of punk rock in Japan in 1978. The band Hijokaidan (Emergency Staircase) arose from the ruins of a failed punk band by its founders and was outsider music at its finest. Hijokaidan performed its first concert at a Kyoto venue called “Drug Store.” When its drummer (who went only by the name “Idiot”) never showed up, the remaining members of Hijokaidan performed an improvised set of two guitarists playing as hard and loud as they possibly could without melody, rhythm, or concern for what the other guitarist was doing. As Hijokaidan’s reputation among the rebellious Japanese youth grew, their performances became more and more extreme, often including smashing raw fish and public urination. It was a hit with the kids
From this seed of punk taken to its rawest extreme, Hijokaidan blew the doors off the music scene. They were featured in a magazine run by noise musician Merzbow (Masami Akita), who would go on to become one of the most famous noise musicians in the world. Akita exemplified what the rest of the Kansai noise scene would attempt to do in cutting out as many influences as he could. Merzbow made a conscious effort to ignore as best he could the influences that were widely felt among 1980s musicians, namely of American and British punk and psychedelic bands. Mimicking this, the Kansai scene shut up into itself, in a feedback loop of harsh noise. The number of Japanese noise bands and projects exploded, with many (including Yamantaka Eye from Hanatarash) playing instruments in innumerable groups. This community grew and became more intertwined yet thanks to its harsh, unappealing and often grossly sexual content, it failed to gain much traction outside Japan’s bohemian youth. Eventually, even the harsher variations of punk from which the scene sprung began to disband and fade away in favor of loud, nonsensical recording projects.
But in the 1990s, Japanoise came to be recognized internationally. American indie rock bands like Sonic Youth and Beck began to have noise bands open for them. In a lengthy MTV interview, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth talked to Beck extensively about Japanese noise artist Keiji Haino. Keep in mind that this is MTV at the peak of its powers, and Keiji Haino made hour long wordless recordings of himself playing a heavily distorted guitar with no backup save the incredible feedback and static of the recording.
At this point the bands began to find form again: one of Yamantaka Eye’s side projects, The Boredoms, simply became Boredoms and abandoned its harsh noise origins in favor of long psychedelic jams influenced by the German progressive rock movement known as Krautrock and tribal drumming. Boredoms was signed to Sony Records and began to tour internationally. They still managed to maintain some semblance of wildness, though. In 2007, Boredoms began a series of concerts beginning with their 77 Boadrum event. Inspired by a spiritual experience had by Eye in a temple with 77 steps, the concert was held on July 7 (07/07/07) and featured Boredoms playing with an additional 76 drummers, for a total of 77. Boredoms repeated the act just over a year later with its 88 Boadrum event. This one, on August 8, 2008, featured 88 drummers in two locations (a total of 176 drummers), with the concerts happening simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles. Among other Boredoms concerts, another notable one was a concert played to a small audience on a barge in the Bering Strait during a solar eclipse, though this seems apocryphal and unsupported by evidence.
The bringing of Japanese noise music to international success shows exactly how bohemianism works. It began as something small and outside the norm, created by rebellious youth who reveled in how different and lawless it was. In time, it grew so large that others outside the scene discovered it and wanted to make it their own. Though not consciously, bands like Beck and Sonic Youth led to the softening of Japanese noise culture. Yamantaka Eye, bastardized by appearances on Beck records and signings to major record labels, changed his sound to include less of the random screaming of gibberish and gross titles (Hanatarash 4: Aids-a-delic, which was 69 minutes long included songs like How to Use my Hole and Meat-a-delic) and more meditative, tribal influenced and acceptable titles. On Boredoms’ 2000 landmark album Vision Creation Newsun, Eye replaced the song titles completely with symbols, such as spirals and circles and hearts. That is not to say that Japanoise is not still being made – Merzbow released 7 albums in 2013 and 2 in 2014, each as visceral and loud as his 1980s work – but it is certainly true that international success changed the sound of many of those few noise bands that lasted through the 1980s. As is the process with many bohemian and inaccessible forms of art, it was toned down and made more marketable so that it could sell better.