The Romanes are a three-girl, Japanese Ramones tribute band. The vowel-reversal may have been their single deployment of imagination to date. Otherwise, they just follow the Ramones blueprints to the letter: leather jackets, perfectly-worn tight 501s, white slipons, striped shirts or Mickey Mouse prints underneath. Their identical haircuts re-imagine “Dee Dee” as a girl’s name. The Romanes’ set consists entirely of songs off 1988’s greatest hits collection Ramones Mania, but the girls have changed the lyrics into Japanese where possible. Lots of 「サイコーセラピー！サイコーセラピー！」A fan favorite is 「電撃バップ」.
(Oh wait, there is another “Romanes” operating out of Portland. Okay, let’s call it a coeval linguistic innovation. We should at least give the The Romanes [JP] credit for copying the actual Ramones and not this Oregon outfit, although I am sure we’d somehow like it more if they were a tribute band to a tribute band.)
The Romanes are terrible musicians. I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense. Half of the shtick of being a female Ramones tribute band in Japan is apparently preserving the original band’s amateur spirit through a dedicated program of non-improvement. Despite the fact that the real Ramones were an incredibly tight music machine by their first record, the idea of “poor musicianship” now looms large in the legend, and thus, must be adopted into the uniform. I overheard someone tell the girls that they “shouldn’t try to get better.” They seem to be heeding the advice. The Romanes may be the first band I have ever seen in practice-makes-perfect Japan where the guitarist and bassists unintentionally end a song in different keys.
Certainly, the Romanes are not any more substantial than something like The Punkles or maybe even Takahashi Jun’s semi-legendary non-band Tokyo Sex Pistols. While Takahashi may have reached enough success with Undercover to want to destroy all memories of TSP, the Romanes are happy to be the Romanes, signed to legitimate indie label Vivid Sound and tearing up the Tokyo “live house” scene. (“They are very popular with people who like the Ramones,” a friend informs me) The Punkles may be essentially a daft joke — beaming with humor to excuse the low added-value of their endeavour — but the Romanes don’t radiate much glee. Maybe it’s the adoption of N.Y.C. Ramones toughness, but they seem pretty serious about being serious.
But what exactly is their raison d’être? Most Japanese bands start their lives as “copy bands,” learning the ropes of rock’n’roll through faithfully covering other people’s songs. Although not unknown in other countries, the ubiquity in Japan suggests parallels to traditional Japanese artistic pedagogy where students work towards perfect imitation of the teacher before branching out on their own. Any Japanese band that matters, however, eventually moves past being a copy band and into their own material. While they may retain over-analytic adherence to the idiosyncratic traits of their influences (so-called kodawari), they at least aim to create “original” songs. The Romanes have rejected this progressive step outright and are evidently happy to limit their artistic aspirations to the single act of embodiment.
I certainly liked the Ramones during my formative years, but I am not sure the Romanes’ butchering of the back catalog adds much to my appreciation of the original band. The Ramones’ key creations have become timeless anthems for shiftless teenage afternoons, nostalgic rallying cries in the formation of a certain taste culture. The Romanes are almost like a few rogue members of a fraternal order who go and form a band to play all the drinking songs most enjoy just singing with the boys. Or maybe kids still obsessed with Algebra II when everyone’s doing integrals. In my eternal Western bias, I expect bands to steal the soul of their heroes instead of their routine. I expect extrapolation. The Romanes are taking this Ramones thing way too literally.
Of course, I am tempted to use The Romanes as an illustration of a “Japanese” artistic aesthetic overemphasizing form/ritual, but I happened to see the young band open for another Japanese three-girl rock band — Shonen Knife. SK are a perfect example of the proper means of Japanese Ramones mania. They take equal influence from the Ramones as the Romanes — the melodies, the guitar patterns, the guitar/bass unity, the bubblegum, the brewing of rock down to its elemental mechanical movements. The members famously wear Mondrian dresses — an incredible visual metaphor for punk rock (three chords = three primary colors, straight lines = geometric power chord progressions). Shonen Knife, however, have added new creative elements: most obviously, they removed all of the Ramones’ political/deviant subject matters (this is symptomatic of Japanese pop) and added a bright, bubbly kawaii aesthetic. Instead of “Rocket to Russia,” they are “Riding on the Rocket” — to Pluto.
So no matter how Ramones-like Shonen Knife plays it, they intentionally or accidentally invented something that audiences regarded as “new.” They ended up even winning the support of future dead-rock-star Kurt Cobain. They were the first Japanese band to ever be on 120 Minutes and opened up the path for the American embrace of Japanese indie/alternative music. Before they even released an album in the U.S., Gasatanka Records released a tribute album called Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them featuring once-moderately-popular bands Redd Kross and L7. These foreign accolades made them heroes in Japan. And to top things off, Shonen Knife also have a Ramones tribute band called The Osaka Ramones, thus having their proverbial “cake” and eating it too (with less-proverbial knife and fork).
The Romanes won’t be Shonen Knife. I doubt they’ll even make it to a confidence level where they can play “Strength to Endure” or “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” without feeling off-script. I hesitate to see the Romanes as a symptom of subcultural decline, yet another example of how “the kids don’t get it,” but they definitely enunciate a certain depressing truth about this “rock” game. We have made our “popular music” into such a static Confucian ritual that it is now easier to just enjoy bands with no presumptions of innovation. We secretly desire a perfect recreation of previous generations’ experience, like a boozed-up trip to Club Colonial Williamsburg. The Romanes cut out the myths of progression and give us what we secretly want: archived artifacts. By unabashedly taking up historical incarnation, the Romanes are the most honest rock’n’roll band for this new century.