Friday, March 19: There’s an explosion of noise and color in the heart of the Ten-jin district in Fukuoka City and the locals don’t know what has hit them.
Models dance down a runway through a clothes-shop complex called Oshareyoko-cho and straight into the street outside as groovy ’60s psychedelic and Group Sounds music blares behind them; a chanteuse sings some Showa ballads. But three girls steal the show, gliding down the runway in vivid orange, red and yellow kimono.
This trinity of exploding stars — Tomo, Honey and Kei — are the reason I’ve traveled halfway across Japan to be here. The street outside was empty when the show started, but by the end it is packed. Passersby snap away with their camera keitai. Motorists honk their horns in a bid to get by.
Why all the fuss? Because, as far as fashion goes, Fukuoka appears to have about as much going for it as a mountain village inhabited by a farmer, his wife and a bunch of goats. On the surface, that is. If you’ve got inside knowledge, it’s another story. And thanks to Thee 50’s High Teens (that’s Tomo, Honey and Kei), this is that other story.
The High Teens are the best-dressed band in Japan, they deliver thrilling live shows, and they blast that retro garage sound into the future through bassist Tomo’s hoarse punk-rock vocal blitz, Kei’s demented keyboard antics (she dances so crazily she often collapses during sets), and the cool demeanor of mysterious and beautiful guitarist Honey. The girls have promised me a five-day rock ‘n’ roll guided tour of a city that has spawned such indie-rock notables as Number Girl and Mo’Some Tonebender. And who could turn that offer down?
The High Teens swear by the Keith Flack livehouse, where they often play, but tonight we hit the aptly named Oyafuko-dori (“Make Parents Unhappy Street”), home of many of the city’s live venues, and end up wasted at a garage night at Butterfly, watching a cool local band called Lovebites.
Saturday, March 20: Tomo screeches to a halt in her cute white Mira Daihatsu and I climb inside. “If you write down I’ve got this car everyone will know how poor I am,” she says in her incredibly husky voice. “You know, I even collect cream from coffee shops and put it in homemade potage to make it tastier. But we need cars to get to our rehearsal space.”
“Tonight, we’re taking you to the only place in town that does genuine ’60s-style haircuts,” says Kei, excitedly.
Do they wish they had lived in the ’60s?
“Nah!” says Tomo. She’s wearing a black-and-white woolen coat with orange trim and matching retro orange-lensed glasses and is hunched over the wheel like a hip but nearsighted grandma. “I’m sure it would’ve been fun to live in the ’60s, but now we get to do keitai and e-mails as well as do the stuff they did in the ’60s — so it’s cooler now.”
At the door of Beehive Deluxe, which is tucked away in a otherwise dour Akasaka back street, I’m greeted by Hiroko Ueno. She runs the place with husband Tatsuya, who looks up from cutting a customer’s hair and waves. Fifties and ’60s style books are stacked on a table, and in a far corner are the retro crown jewels — a 2-meter-high fridge and a enormous cooker with cute red knobs.
“We shot part of our video down here,” says Tomo.
“It’s pure ’50s California,” says Kei. “And upstairs it’s pure ’30s Chicago.”
“Kei changed her hairstyle seven times last year,” says Tomo. (Tonight, Kei will go home, check her photo albums, and report that it was 10 times.)
After ramen at one of the packed-out yatai stalls that line the riverbank in the Nakasu area, we buzz off to Fuzz. It has the best record collection I’ve seen in a bar — Television and The Velvets sit next to Murahachibu and obscure ’60s garage discs. While Juichiro Tanaka mixes cocktails his wife, Mami, emerges from the kitchen bearing trays of exotic desserts, which is what this cozy joint is famous for.
We were gonna do an interview here, but Kei is scoffing her Snow Dome Pie, and then stealing mouthfuls of Honey’s Rare Cream Cheese Parfait. Tomo wants to do the interview, but, errr, we get drunk and end up at a karaoke parlor until dawn.
Sunday, March 21: We plan to do the interview today, but first there’s the shopping. After sprinting around Nite Klub (kitschy ’80s gear), Alley Cat (mod and rocker stuff) and Border Line Records (the best in Japanese garage) we end up at Act Mary, one of the High Teens’ favorite stores. I soon find out why. Within minutes I’ve unearthed some gems: a ’60s yellow summer dress with net sleeves embroidered with flowers; a silky pink nightdress and a pair of ’70s pleated scarlet lounging pants. As they’re mega-bargains at 3,000 yen each, I snap them up for a future wife.
Then we hit The Diner, which is all a rock ‘n’ roll diner should be, except bigger. The hamburgers are so huge the faces of the High Teens are entirely hidden when they bite into them. And after showering their fries with Parmesan they pile on ketchup from liter-size bottles. All the while they’re telling me their story, which goes like this:
Tomo learned guitar after falling in love with The Pistols, but later switched to bass. “Tomo’s had the most punk-rock upbringing,” says Kei, noting that Tomo’s mum runs an izakaya and slaps around the staffers in front of customers. Kei and Honey come from “steadier” backgrounds: Kei’s classical-loving mother made her take piano lessons from age 4 while Honey’s parents were in a C&W band. Tomo started the band in 1998, Honey joined in 2000 and Kei in 2002. P-Vine Records signed them and late last year released their superb debut album.
By the time we’re kicked out of the place they’ve shown me pictures of their parents and pets and we’ve indulged in a massive mutual bonding session.
Monday, March 22: “Maybe we didn’t bond,” I think. “They’re being nice ‘cos they want a good review.” Tomo’s kept me waiting 45 minutes outside Ohashi Station. It’s freezing. Thank God I got that hot ramen inside me from Ippudo, reputedly the best ramen shop in town.
“Hey Simon!” It’s Tomo, leaning out the window of her Daihatsu. “Gomen ne!” Within minutes we’re at Studio Bamboo. Drummer Ricca recently quit, so Kei taps out a beat on the lid of her organ, and once the rhythm’s right they tear through a song. The rehearsal ends with Tomo and Kei screeching at each other for 10 minutes and discussing intricate changes in scream pitch. It’s cute.
Then garage-soulsters The Young arrive and we watch them run through a few numbers while discussing the High Teens’ drummer problem. “People say that because we’re getting more famous it’s hard for a drummer to join because we’ve got our own style and they’d have to fit into that,” says Tomo.
“And it’s hard to find a girl drummer here who likes garage,” adds Kei.
Why not hire a guy?
“Before, I had a guy and he started going out with the then-keyboardist. When I told her to play a certain way he got mad and said, ‘Hey, stop bossing my girlfriend.’ Later, in the street, he shouted at me, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ So now we hire drummers for shows, but its expensive.’ “
We end the night at Fuzz and it’s all a blur. I wake up with a crumpled note in my pocket. Apparently, I got Honey to say something. It’s titled “Honey” and reads: “I always dream. I dreamt of trying to get on to a boat rocking in the sea and I put my guitar down and later it had vanished. Stolen. I’d lost everything that mattered. My dreams are always in vivid colors.”
Tuesday, March 23: “You remember what you did last night?” ask Tomo and Kei through narrowed eyes when they pick me up at my hotel.
“Er. Not much of it”
“Well, if you want a girlfriend you should pay attention to Honey,” they say. “She doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
God, did I try and paw Tomo or Kei? I try not to think about it and instead ask Kei to take me to To-Mi’s tattoo parlor where she got a red heart with her birthdate tattoed just above her right butt cheek. I get “50’s” tattoed on my arm as a permanent reminder of a great trip with a great fun-loving band; and, of course, it’s the decade that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll.
As the needle buzzes and I start sweating they offer me puffs of their cigarettes to stop me from passing out. I guess all is forgiven. We celebrate the tattoo at another yatai and then it’s Fuzz until 5.
Wednesday, March 24: I end the adventure where it begun. At the shop the High Teens modeled for — Psychedelic, in Oshareyoko-cho. I help Shizu, who runs the place, paint a cabinet lime-green, I DJ on the shop stereo and help sell a dress to a schoolgirl. After a late curry lunch at DJ joint e.pi:cafe, Tomo arrives and drives me to the Shinkansen. I’m worn out, but elated. I’ve had the time of my life.
My goodbye is brief. Don’t want to get emotional. So I throw my bag over my shoulder and march off, without looking back. Six hours later I’m in my apartment, back where I started, sitting on the balcony, chain-smoking, chain-drinking, listening to High Teens on the stereo . . . and looking back. Wondering whether the whole trip was one of Honey’s vivid technicolor dreams. Then I feel a twitch of pain from my arm. I roll up my sleeve. The tattoo is beginning to crust over. Seems the healing process has begun.
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