Sheena & The Rokkets reminisce over Fukuoka’s mentai rock scene ahead of anniversary gig

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Punk in Japan is widely taken as having begun in earnest in 1979. That was when Friction — freshly back in Japan from New York, where members of the group had played with The Contortions and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks — appeared alongside bands such as Lizard and Mr. Kite on the legendary “Tokyo Rockers” concert and compilation album. But just as British and American punk had roots in earlier pub and garage rock, Japan also had its own proto-punk traditions.

Friction itself had roots in Japan’s 1970s avant-garde scene, a scene that included the band Maru Sankaku Shikaku (which is stylized in the shapes of a circle, triangle and square). It also featured Rouge, Japan’s snotty answer to The New York Dolls, and Gedou, whose high-octane rock ‘n’ roll was the soundtrack playing inside every biker’s head throughout the decade.

It was in Fukuoka, though, that rock’s flame burned brightest in the pre-punk years, with turbo-charged guitars blasting out of the city’s stereos. Eventually, everything came together under the jokey label of “mentai rock” (“mentai” coming from mentaiko, a Fukuoka delicacy) and its most celebrated practitioners, now preparing to celebrate their 35th anniversary, were Sheena & The Rokkets.

Formed in 1978, Sheena & The Rokkets were relative latecomers to the scene, although guitarist Makoto Ayukawa had been at the center of the Fukuoka rock ‘n’ roll explosion right from the start, forming mentai rock pioneers Sonhouse in 1970.

“It was the time when the rock scene changed,” Ayukawa tells The Japan Times. “Before that, we had bands like The Spiders, the ‘group sounds’ bands. But most of them weren’t independent, they were just record company bands. The film ‘Woodstock’ had a big influence, it told us that anyone can play.”

Sonhouse had run its course by 1978 so Ayukawa recruited his wife, Etsuko, into his new band Sheena & The Rokkets. (The name “Rokkets” is a combination of “rock” and “Etsu,” while Etsuko renamed herself Sheena in tribute to the Ramones song “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and her own feisty grandmother.)

“We’ve always been a 100-percent punk band in terms of attitude,” Ayukawa says. Sheena jumps in, “Before joining the band I was what you might call a ‘kitchen singer,’ but it was Patti Smith who really taught me to sing.”

However, the group’s members are deep, hard-core aficionados of old blues and spent their youths hanging around Fukuoka record stores, eagerly awaiting the latest releases from overseas. Sheena’s family ran a boutique next to a record store and she and Ayukawa first bonded over records, so it’s with some sadness that they have witnessed the evisceration of their hometown’s record stores and the end of record store culture.

“We used to hang out with friends in record stores, listening to music, waiting for new unknown Mississippi blues records to come in,” Ayukawa recalls. “Music should have a big jacket, played on a turntable, not convenient like MP3s. A record is a living thing; you have to take care of it, you can’t go out of the room and leave it because you have to be ready to take the needle up.”

Record stores also gave the Fukuoka scene an access channel to new music that cut out music industry middlemen in Tokyo.

“We liked how in the U.K. and U.S., every town had its own scene and with Sonhouse, we wanted to do that for Fukuoka,” Ayukawa says. “People in Tokyo seemed to have this idea that selling lots equals good music, but we didn’t care about that. Music was what moved us, not good sales.”

By the time Sheena & The Rokkets started, however, they found themselves at a crossroads where if they were to continue making music, they needed to become professional. The band’s debut gig was supporting Elvis Costello, and friends in Tokyo helped them settle into the hip neighborhood of Shimokitazawa where they still live. And most importantly perhaps, they were introduced to producer Haruomi Hosono by his Yellow Magic Orchestra bandmate Yukihiro Takahashi.

Making their rock ‘n’ roll sound work with Hosono’s more new wave and synth-based style led to fights, but Ayukawa insists any friction between band and producer was creative and positive in the end result. They also ran afoul of internal label censorship where famous photographer Masayoshi Sugita’s photo of the band wrapped in plastic wrap was pulled from stores after the label president decided it was unsuitable for children.

“Sheena’s father told me when we left for Tokyo, ‘Don’t think you’re going to get all the money. First you have to make money for the company, then you’ll get your money second,’ ” Ayukawa says with a laugh. “We had to respect that we weren’t kids anymore. If someone at the company said to do a softer song or a ballad, we’d try to make that work and sometimes we’d say yes and sometimes no.”

Of course pop doesn’t have to mean selling out. After the confidence boost they gained from a successful 1993 collaboration with British rocker Wilko Johnson, the following year the group realized a long-held dream of collaborating with Yuu Aku. The kayōkyoku (classic Japanese pop) lyricist is well known for his work with 1970s/’80s pop duo Pink Lady, as well as classic hit-making singers such as Kenji Sawada and Linda Yamamoto, but his lyrics are far removed from the bland “love and friendship” and “follow your dreams” platitudes of most contemporary J-pop.

“His songs are like short stories, movies,” Sheena says with enthusiasm. “He was a genius.”

“Rock ‘n’ roll and kayōkyoku were traditionally from different worlds, almost like enemies,” Ayukawa adds. The pair never thought Aku would work with them. But they’d had such good luck with Johnson, who “was like a mentor to us and who we never thought would even notice us,” so they went ahead and asked.

“(Aku) wrote the songs in a few days and then faxed them to us all at once,” Ayukawa says. “We were out at the time and when we arrived home there was this enormous snake of paper spread across our apartment.”

While the group have certainly had to make compromises in order to maintain their career over the years, onstage they are still the same leather-clad rock ‘n’ roll reprobates, and with 20 albums behind them and sessions for a new record pencilled in for next year, Sheena & The Rokkets are well set to rock on to 40, 50 years and beyond.

Sheena & The Rokkets play SuperDeluxe in Minato-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 23 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,800 in advance; 03-5412-0515). The band will also play gigs in Nagoya, Hiroshima and Osaka in December. For more information, visit www.rokkets.com.