Meet Les Rallizes Dénudés, the Mysterious Japanese Psych-Rock Band Whose Influence Is Everywhere

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Ambi­ent Music of Hiroshi Yoshimu­ra, the Pio­neer­ing Japan­ese Com­pos­er

Zam­rock: An Intro­duc­tion to Zambia’s 1970s Rich & Psy­che­del­ic Rock Scene

Hear Enchant­i­ng Mix­es of Japan­ese Pop, Jazz, Funk, Dis­co, Soul, and R&B from the 70s and 80s

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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