Sexus/White Drive 7" (Sky Station SS5005)
Destroyer/Black Puppet Player 7" (Sky Station SS506)
Serious—or pathological—record collectors study the wantlists of collectors whose collections they assume to be better than theirs. Benitokage are legendary outside Japan to a very small group of people, but the name looms large with good reason: their 7"s were perennial top wants listed by a collector considered the grand-daddy of punk collecting. This “Euro,” is supposedly descended from royalty, or at least aristocracy, and he wants to own every punk record released before the arbitrary date of December 31, 1979. His wantlist was included in catalogs published by the top German punk dealer and his personal go-fer, Ingo Eitelbach. Eventually, Benitokage was crossed off the list, but the name lived on in the memories of a few collectors. At least that’s how I started seeking out the records. One problem: how the hell would anyone know the sleeveless sons of bitches upon by sight without being able to read Japanese? The answer is that no one would.
The second Benitokage 7" sat unsold for a while in the sale box of one New York City dealer. He eventually put it up on eBay and it sold for a relatively low price because he didn’t know what it was and said so in the listing. Even if someone had been searching for “Benitokage” (unlikely), the word appeared nowhere in the listing. I considered placing a bid simply due to the intrigue of an unknown Japanese record. But I didn’t bid. A year or two later, after putting 2 and 2 together several times and plumbing the depths of my notoriously unreliable memory, I figured out that the record had been Benitokage’s second 7". There’s some comfort in knowing that while the second one is perhaps the better record, at least I hadn’t missed out on the first one, which is rarer than sober salaryman in a Pachinko house.
Like many early Japanese punk records, Benitokage’s first 7", “Sexus,” was recorded live. It begins with a claustrophobic and rambling guitar intro, but the song becomes a poppish psych/glam jam. In short, it isn’t punk rock. But it’s proto-punk for sure. On first listen, the guitar leads seem improvised, but with repeated listens, the songs become more cohesive and rewarding. The one English word I can pick out in the lyrics is “violence.” The guitar playing is aggressive, but the music isn’t heavy. On “White Drive,” the repetitive and simple bassline and drums keep the song moving forward and serve as a decisive counterpoint to the meandering guitar work. The word benitokage translates to “red lizard” or “rouge lizard,” Marc Bolan and David Bowie are among their acknowledged influences, and the back-up vocals on “Sexus” strike me as glammy. I did find early band photos online in which they’re dressed in rather effeminate outfits. The band started in ’72, so the glam influence comes as no surprise, but some of the members had been playing music together even earlier. Theses two songs were recorded in October ‘76, the same month the first Damned record was released, and this record was released in ’77. Other influences were Brian Eno, Jim Morrison, Donovan, Ian Hunter, and Graham Nash.
Generally speaking, most of the influences on England’s first wave of punk rock bands were similar in scope to Benitokage’s, but it is fascinating to compare a totally organic, non-Pistols-influenced punk/proto-punk sound to what was coming out simultaneously. Perhaps Jello Biafra would today rave about Benitokage rather than Zolar X had the planets been aligned differently. Benitokage’s first record (and man would I ever love to hear more from this era) is less Hollywood also-ran than Zolar X, less confrontational (lyrics, which I cannot understand, aside) than Electric Eels, and less street-thug-meets-anarchist-entrepreneur than the Pistols. They exceed their contemporaries with their expressive guitarwork, which seems wholly Japanese. This record is also charmingly unaware that within mere weeks of having been recorded, a new dogma would enter the music world: hatred of hippies. Sure, the effects of this dogma were often denial of the similarities between punks and hippies, but it also resulted in an anxiety about music seeming too earthy or sanguine. Enter summer of hate, no wave, cold wave, etc.
Released in the same year, “Destroyer” is more punkish than the first, with almost no meandering guitar leads and a stronger song structure. “The Destroyer” seems to have a riff bastardized from “Satisfaction” by the Stones, showing that the ‘60s were never far behind Benitokage, even as they entered the next era in music. The guitar tone is powerful and clear. Any jam feeling is gone, and though this record was also recorded live, it is not noticeably so as on the first one. It is certain that by this point the band had heard UK punk rock. The singing has just a bit more snottiness to it than it did on “Sexus,” but both tunes retain a unique sound. There is no song title listed on the label for side B. Instead it says “another noise,” but the song title is “Black Puppet Player.” The band listed on the label is Lizard and M… on side A and Mr. M and Lizard on side B (the M is for Momoyo, the guitarist). They played live shows under the names Benitokage and Miracle Voice. After a line-up change, they became the relatively well-known ‘80s Japanese wave-punk band Lizard.
To digress on Lizard for a moment (or Lizard!, as they are named on the Pass Records compilation “Tokyo Rockers”), the band as far as I can tell skipped punk rock. If Benitokage is proto-punk, the earliest release of Lizard (Tokyo Rockers) is wave-punk. Unlike the other bands on the record, they use synth. They were not included on the companion compilation “Tokyo New Wave” because each LP was a document of a series of live shows. Incidentally, only one band, 8½, on “Tokyo New Wave” used keyboards. Lizard included a synthesizer because they were influenced by The Stranglers (who were punk by default, but not very), and Jean Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers produced Benitokage’s LP, which was released on City Rocker Records. Burnel had supposedly heard a live tape of the band and sought Momoyo out at the Tokyo record shop where he worked.
These reissues are perfect. Everything about them is done right (except they have zero distribution outside Japan). The sound is clear, the mastering is loud, and the labels are faithfully reproduced. Reissues at their best make available tunes that few people have ever heard, and these two records are crucial to understanding the development of the early Japanese punk scene. (See also my review of 3/3’s LP just released on Shadoks.)
Images expropriated from various websites. The band in the color photo is Benitokage.