Eat Kosher Salami

Romanes

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.

W. David MARX
October 2, 2007

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

13 Responses

  1. Adamu Says:

    In my concert-going experience in the States, classic bands ALWAYS have terrible opening acts. Is that not the case in Japan too? It’s as if the bands choose to play with groups that people will hate to make the headliner look better. What was the crowd reaction?

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t think the issue is that they are “terrible.”

    The crowd like the Romanes, because hey, they like the Ramones.

  3. alin Says:

    a polytonal, poly-rythmic hey ho let’s go (might they be the unconscious, vernacular bela bartoks and anton weberns of our new dull century ? probably not but i think there is nevertheless a point here somewhere)

    >The crowd like the Romanes, because hey, they like the Ramones.

    are you sure? i don’t know their particular case but this is not the 90s anymore. the classic references are far enough to be forgotten, ignorable or just not known. i could think of 100s of examples of this but basically while the references are often still valid to the (more aged, knowing, sometimes cynical) producers (and of course to ageing true ‘fans’ but that’s a different story) they are simply lost to or not cared about by the public for whom it’s all refreshingly wysiwyg. (take tokyo fun party’s julianna event – while the reference might have been a key conceptual device for the organizers in conceiving the thing the public is happily oblivious to it; in the 90s you’d have Kruder and Dorfmeister posing as Simon and Garfunkel for their cover and the irony itself would be the point – nowadays you get a couple of guys who more or less ‘happen to be’ looking (or even sounding) like Simon and Garfunkel.

    my point is , i don’t think 90s style critique carries that well into the 21st. we need new tools

    //

    >The crowd like the Romanes, because hey, they like the Ramones.

    i’m not sure who ‘they’ is in your statement but generally speaking i’m inclined to think it’s band, rather than public.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    I think in the case of Juliana, there is absolutely nothing besides the name linking the two entities. TFP’s Juliana at Soft doesn’t have bodicon dancers and bad Hi-NRG/Eurobeat music. Businessmen aren’t gathering to look up girl’s skirts.

    I will take the point that “kids” may not know who the Ramones are (I do think the Ramones are more “classic” and essential than Television or Can or something and there is a high possibility that many do), but when you look at the “mediator” class – live house managers, magazine people, older tastemakers – they absolutely know the Ramones and are responding positively to the Romanes based on that. Crowds are a end-result reaction – they don’t put you on stage to start.

    I don’t think the Romanes have any 90s-esque ironical intention. I think you are overdismissing my critique as somehow stuck in the past. If anything, rock is even more dead now, and I am just pointing out how much we are going through the motions without even the cover of “innovation.” There is still pleasure in the ceremony, but it’s a fixed schedule.

    i’m not sure who ‘they’ is in your statement but generally speaking i’m inclined to think it’s band, rather than public.

    Interesting turn of my phrase, and maybe you’re right: the crowd respects the intensity of the Romanes’ infatuation more than anything. This gets us back to that very Japanese calculus that “Intensity of Creator Fandom –> Greater Value to Consumers.”

  5. alin Says:

    >there is absolutely nothing besides the name linking the two entities

    i thought ‘absolutely nothing’ is the ‘something’ and i don’t think i’m over-reading but yes the example was a bit convoluted S&G was closer to my point.

    > “innovation.”
    that’s a hairy one these days i think (and it seems you and momus(sometimes) are very much saying the same thing here). i personally can’t quite imagine any radical innovation (in the good old sense of the word) happening anytime too soon – be it culture and the arts or technology so for the time being the ‘innovations’ i can take delight in are micro or accidental – like hearing “guitarist and bassists unintentionally end a song in different keys” or indeed reading your fresh juxtaposition of punk-rock and mondrian. (probably more than seing shonen knife who are too much of an institution)

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    i personally can’t quite imagine any radical innovation (in the good old sense of the word) happening anytime too soon – be it culture and the arts or technology

    Yes, and this is a frightful thing to realize since our history has been written so far in macro-trends. Obviously postmodernism is going to advocate dismantling larger historical narratives in order to give equal attention to micro-movements, but I can’t help but feel that we are in this terrible transition period where society is forcing micro-trends into macro-molds and we just get really depressed when they don’t hold up. People still dream of being rock stars, right? There’s an example right there.

  7. alin Says:

    yes i do share your basic concern.
    stoping using the term post-modernism would be a good start.

    >People still dream of being rock stars, right? There’s an example right there.

    i’m not sure. i think compared to not so long ago what looks like that is often the dream of getting a job.

    (dj kabe http://akabe.livejournal.com/60757.html on the other hand,if that’s what you’re refering to, is all about subjectivity, and sharing that with a couple of mates, against the fascism of cool, popularity, skill etc. it’s sub-amateurism, hobbyism. he doesn’t get depressed if people don’t like his grooves. admittedly though, he is avoiding the big issues)

  8. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    I think in the case of Juliana, there is absolutely nothing besides the name linking the two entities. TFP’s Juliana at Soft doesn’t have bodicon dancers and bad Hi-NRG/Eurobeat music.

    You should have seen how dissapointed this 38 year old German guy was when I explained this to him outside party #2.

  9. Captain Says:

    I saw them late last year along with MAD3 and the Abnormals in Shibuya. They weren’t a Ramones cover band then. Yes, primarily a cover band, but they played all sorts of covers. I saw a recent single of theirs where they were dressed in the jeans and jackets as mentioned, but that night it wasn’t the case. Did they change their shtick soon after?

  10. eko ramone Says:

    hello,
    i’m eko ramone from bali indonesia.
    im a fan of ramones. i saw your band on internet. i’m corious about your music. can i have your myspace address. i want to hear your song. thank you.ER

  11. Ian LYNAM Says:

    You’re doing it wrong,

  12. Kevin Says:

    By odd coincidence, I happened to find myself having dinner with the Romanes, among others, the other day. I have never seen them play, since most of the live houses I go to have a “no covers bands” policy. They seem like nice enough people, but it is not so difficult to imagine how they would sound. It is easy to criticize any and all tribute bands in any country, but on the other hand you sometimes feel a bit of admiration for someone so obsessive to go through the effort of replicating something so far removed from themselves.

    Unlike Riff Randal in Rock’n’Roll High School, the leader of the Romanes is not crazy over Joey, but rather obsessed with Joey, claiming he was the best Ramone because he was the scariest. Since there are only 3 members in the Romanes, the role of Joey is kind of lost in the shuffle. I guess it takes some amount of effort and time to maintain the correct level of greasiness to duplicate the Joey mushroom cut, although leave-in condition from the Body Shop probably makes the grease monkey look easy without actually being dirty.

    I think the oddest thing about band is they nearly share a name with a variety of lettuce.

  13. Kevin Says:

    oops, I meant “rather obsessed with Johnny” and the “Johnny mushroom cut”…