For those young people – including you – who live this modern agonising adolescence and who are wanting the true radical music, I sincerely wish the dialogue accompanied by piercing pain will be born and fill this recital hall.
– text from late 60s’ Les Rallizes Dénudés concert flyers
In Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s bestselling novel The Shadow of the Wind, narrator Daniel Sempere spends his adolescence trying to solve the mystery of an obscure dead novelist. Fans of the book might see Daniel’s detective story in Grayson Haver Currin’s quest to learn more about Japanese psych rock band Les Rallizes Dénudés and its elusive founder Takashi Mizutani. The band has inspired devotion and endless fascination among their small cult following. But Currin’s investigations met with one after another dead end. Les Rallizes Dénudés is, he writes, “a band that’s existed behind a veil of secrecy for so long that it’s almost impossible to tell where facts end and where fantasy begins.”
It does not help that many people’s first and last encounter with Les Rallizes Dénudés was Julian Cope’s 2007 Japrocksampler, a generous, even encyclopedic introduction to post-war Japanese rock and roll. The book played “a pivotal role in exposing American and English audiences to Les Rallizes Dénudés’ tantric guitar shrieks,” yet its meager chapter on the band is apparently riddled with inaccuracies, including the claim that the band never recorded in the studio in their entire 29-year existence. They did, in 1991, 24 years after they began playing stages in Tokyo.
So how did anyone hear about them if they didn’t make or promote albums? “Through bootlegs, bootlegs and more bootlegs,” Cope wrote. Here he does not exaggerate, but even where he does, “it’s in the service of truth,” Dangerous Minds argues, going on to summarize the “skeletal” biography Cope sketches out for the band:
Takashi Mizutani formed the group as a college student in the ‘60s, when, Cope writes, French culture still found devotees among postwar Japanese youth looking for a revolutionary alternative to Uncle Sam. That means: Cool for these guys was ice cold. Deadpan as the Velvets or Spacemen 3, Mizutani and his bandmates identified with the loudest, darkest and most destructive aspects of psych-rock.
Les Rallizes Dénudés is legendary for good reason, as you can learn in the Bandsplaining video at the top. One thing we do know about them is that a former bassist apparently hijacked an airplane for the Japanese Red Army Faction (then found asylum in North Korea), but “it’s actually not the most interesting thing about them.” Those who already know a certain kind of psychedelic rock may hear the dark, echoey drone of White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground and later bands like Brian Jonestown Massacre or Moon Duo, as well as the No Wave noise rock of Sonic Youth and hazy shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine.
The band’s echoing vocals and swirling, wailing peals of fuzzed-out guitar “foreshadowed the next five decades of underground rock,” the Bandsplaining video notes. This seems to be the case whether the musicians inspired by Les Rallizes Dénudés had ever heard their music directly. Japanese underground music “only began reaching Western ears in the early 90s,” writes Alan Cummings, a University of London professor of Japanese translation, drama, culture, and history, and a foremost Western authority on Japanese psych rock. When the music first reached listeners outside Japan, however, it wasn’t Les Rallizes Dénudés they first heard.
Cummings, who saw Les Rallizes Dénudés live in Japan, wrote “what might be the first English piece to ever mention the band” ten years later in 1999 in a Wire article on underground Japanese rock. “What is or was a rallize, and why it should be naked,” he remarked of their nonsensical French name, “remains unknown,” like most everything else about them. This was by design. As one musician living in Tokyo put it, their ubiquitous obscurity was “part of the Les Rallizes Dénudés strategy.”
You start hearing about this band, and once you know what their music sounds like, you hear their influence everywhere. Yet they’re not anywhere. They’re ether. They’re smoke.
Les Rallizes Dénudés are so obscure in Japan, they don’t receive a mention in the follow-up article Cummings wrote for the Wire in 2013, in which he surveys the underground Japanese rock scene once again. He also admits to being part of a mystification of Japanese subcultures and adopting an attitude of “fantasy and projection” that he traces back to the 19th century. In the case of Les Rallizes Dénudés, however, fantasy and projection are often all we have to work with in the story of a band whose sound is everywhere but whose former associates and members, including Mizutani himself, don’t wish to be found. As Currin writes, “People not only talk about Mizutani as a folk legend; they talk about people who simply know him as such.”
Thanks to YouTube and the prevalence of camcorders at Les Rallizes Dénudés shows, hours of footage of the band performing live can be viewed online, available to people outside the small community of cassette and VHS tapers and traders who kept their legend alive. See some of that footage above, including an hour and a half long “documentary” that consists of nothing but the band’s hypnotic jams.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness