Makoto Kubota is still amazed by the continuing appeal of his old band, Les Rallizes Dénudés.
An accomplished producer and bandleader in Japan, Kubota spent just a few years in the early 1970s playing with the Rallizes, which by the usual measures of rock success barely made a blip. Led by the enigmatic Takashi Mizutani, the band emerged in the late-’60s haze of psychedelia and radical student politics with a scorchingly loud sound, though it ceased performing in 1996 and the handful of raw recordings the group released went out of print long ago. Yet decades later, younger musicians now press Kubota for any information about the band, and fans around the world who likely cannot understand Mizutani’s cryptic Japanese lyrics declare on social media that his music has changed their lives.
“I never thought this could touch foreigners’ hearts so deeply,” Kubota said in a recent interview from his home in Tokyo.
Les Rallizes Dénudés — known to insiders and acolytes as the Rallizes (pronounced “rallies”) for short — have long held a peculiar place in the annals of underground music as a group more heard about than actually heard, its reputation resting more on legend than fact. Through bootleg live recordings with rumbling rhythms and ear-shredding sheets of guitar feedback, which have been pored over and cataloged by fans, the Rallizes have come to symbolize both the sonic extremes of rock and the ways that online communities can nurture and amplify even the most obscure corners of global culture.
David Novak, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation,” describes the band’s influence by referring to an oft-misquoted remark by Brian Eno that relatively few people bought the Velvet Underground’s albums at the time, but each of them (seemingly) formed a band.
“The Rallizes are like that, except there was no record to buy,” Novak said. “There was just this fantasy of some incredibly abrasive, mysterious group that created this wall of impenetrable noise. The power of that story drove a huge renaissance.”
Now, after decades of intrigue — and almost three years since Mizutani’s death — Les Rallizes Dénudés are getting the archival treatment. Earlier this year, “The Oz Tapes,” a set of recordings from 1973 that were part of a compilation celebrating Oz, a short-lived venue in Tokyo, were remastered by Kubota and reissued by the American label Temporal Drift. “Oz Days Live: ’72-’73 Kichijoji,” an expanded version of the original compilation, with tracks by the Rallizes, Masato Minami, Acid Seven and others from the same scene, is coming out this month.
Later this fall will come long-sought reissues of three CDs from 1991, the only albums the Rallizes released during their existence. And Kubota, working on behalf of Mizutani’s estate, has spent months combing through what he called “a suitcase full of master tapes” from Mizutani’s personal archive.
The wave of new releases, and related curatorial work by Temporal Drift — “Oz Days Live” comes with a 112-page book with an oral history of Oz, a CBGB for Tokyo’s early psychedelic scene — offer a chance to contextualize the Rallizes for new listeners. They can also fill in the gaps for longtime followers who have subsisted on scantily labeled bootlegs and digital bread crumbs from fan sites.
BUT GETTING A full picture of the Rallizes and its reclusive leader may be impossible. Mizutani, usually pictured in a uniform of black shades and black leather, almost never spoke to the media, and some former bandmates still adhere to an unspoken omertà. Maki Miura, a guitarist, declined an interview request about Mizutani and his former band with a statement that said: “During his lifetime there was a silent understanding that no one would ever talk publicly about him. Honestly, it makes me wonder if Mizutani is pissed off.”
Still, interviews with former Rallizes members and other associates of Mizutani paint a picture of a man singularly devoted to his art, and perhaps just as obsessed with cultivating an aura of inscrutability. Even the meaning of the band’s name is obscure. It may be an inside joke about suitcases, or perhaps a reference to William S. Burroughs. Kubota said he never asked about it, but that the name was understood to mean something like the Naked and Stoned. “It’s too embarrassing to say,” he said, and laughed.
The band was founded in 1967 at Doshisha University, an elite institution in Kyoto, by Mizutani and other students who were members of the school’s Light Music Club. At the time, Japanese rock was evolving beyond its Beatles-inspired “group sounds” era, and Kubota said that Mizutani’s influences in those early years included the Velvet Underground, Blue Cheer, the Grateful Dead and the avant-garde rock and jazz of the New York label ESP.
Mizutani was also heavily involved in the student protest movement of the time. By 1970, the Rallizes gained notoriety that would last for decades when its original bassist, Moriaki Wakabayashi, was part of a Marxist group that hijacked a Japanese passenger plane and flew it to North Korea. After that point, any political dimension to the Rallizes’ music, or Mizutani’s public persona, largely disappeared.
“The Oz Tapes” — with Kubota on bass, Takeshi Nakamura on guitar and Shunichiro Shoda on drums — is a rough blueprint for the Rallizes’ sound, which would develop over years of shifting lineups, with Mizutani as the only constant. Songs like “Wilderness of False Flowers” and the 11-minute “Vertigo Otherwise My Conviction” are built over jagged, repetitive grooves that swell and recede as Mizutani plays long solos that resemble Neil Young crossed with Sonny Sharrock. Like the Velvet Underground, the Rallizes can toggle between modes of paint-peeling noise and surreal quiet, as in “Memory Is Far Away,” a mournful ballad with ambiguous lines about a lost love (“The flames of betrayal burn eternally/The shadow of redemption keeps chasing me”).
“It’s almost like the people there were brainwashed by his vibrations,” recalled Minoru Tezuka, the proprietor of Oz, who went on to become the group’s manager.
In time the group’s style grew more extreme, with peals of feedback, lasting 20 minutes or longer, that can be hypnotic or painful, though sometimes with intriguing reference points. In “Night of the Assassins,” those screaming guitars are juxtaposed with a bass line that closely resembles “I Will Follow Him,” Little Peggy March’s bubble-gum hit from 1963; whether Mizutani meant that as a joke, we may never know.
EVEN TO HIS bandmates, Mizutani was a cipher. “Mysterious but lovable,” Kubota said.
Acid Seven, a bandleader and prankster who was a regular at Oz, recalled Mizutani interrupting his stoic silence at jam sessions only to utter existentialist riddles. He described Mizutani once taking a drag from his ever-present cigarette and proclaiming, “The smoke coming out of my mouth is extinguishing my ego,” with no further explanation offered.
By being totally uncompromising about the band’s sound, Mizutani effectively exiled himself from the Japanese music industry. Shime Takahashi, who played drums with the Rallizes in the mid-70s, recalled the band once working in a professional studio, only to find that the engineer never pressed record because he thought it was still rehearsing. Mizutani had been playing with the Rallizes for more than 20 years before releasing its three albums in 1991 — two sets of early recordings, and another double-CD live set of the band at its noisiest.
“It’s that determination not to be commercial, to remain underground, which is the one constant the group had throughout its history,” said Alan Cummings, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a longtime chronicler of Japan’s underground music.
Yet that stance bolstered the Rallizes’ legend, making the band a sort of early inspiration for the so-called Japanoise scene of the 1980s and ’90s — a catchall for a range of aggressive and noisy rock and electronic music that flowered in Tokyo, Osaka and elsewhere — and a symbol for the perseverance of music that was anti-commercial at its core.
“You might assume this is just Orientalist reverie on the part of American fans,” said Novak, of U.C. Santa Barbara. “But it’s not, because that sense of mystery is shared by so many in Japan. Rallizes came to symbolize the unknowability of the underground music scene in Japan, for Japanese fans too.”
Still, the lovable side of Mizutani comes through in some of his colleagues’ recollections. Kubota remembers him cooking Nagoya-style noodles when they got the munchies in their student days. The dour eminence of noise rock could even break character at times. Kubota sounded stunned when he relayed the story of his friend inviting the Orange County Brothers, a Tex-Mex-style Japanese rock band that Kubota worked with, to spend the night at his parents’ house while on tour.
“This is like the Velvet Underground having a party with Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show,” Kubota said, referring to the goofy 1970s country-rock group that sang “The Cover of Rolling Stone.”
THE LEGEND OF Les Rallizes Dénudés was arguably kept alive through bootlegs — unauthorized recordings, mostly of live concerts, that circulated among fans online and sparked new interest in the band in the 2000s. The source of these tapes has long been a curiosity, with some insiders speculating that Mizutani, or at least someone very close to him, may have been involved, given the high audio quality of some of them.
To Temporal Drift, founded by two former employees of the reissue label Light in the Attic who worked on its Japan Archival Series, the popularity of those tapes proves the existence of a broad international fan base, and a potential market for new releases.
“The obsession that Rallizes fans have for the band is pretty incredible,” said Patrick McCarthy, one of the label’s founders. “They’re people that are extremely dedicated, in ways you see with the Grateful Dead, where they have to have every article, every version of every bootleg.”
The road to the new releases began in 2019, when Kubota traveled to New York to help with a documentary about an old friend, the Japanese folk singer Sachiko Kanenobu, who was playing in Central Park. “Everybody who was there — musicians, radio people — they asked me about the Rallizes. So I said, ‘OK, something is happening. I’ve got to contact Mizutani.’”
After leaving the Rallizes in 1973, Kubota went on to a successful career with his bands Sunset Gang and the Sunsetz, and as a producer. But he had not spoken with Mizutani in almost 30 years before that summer. To his surprise, his old bandmate said he wanted to do a “last tour.” Kubota said that Mizutani also denied any involvement in the bootlegs, and expressed a desire to finally release the Rallizes’ music officially. The two had frequent conversations for a month or two, Kubota said, before their text chain went cold that fall. Later, he learned that Mizutani had died in December 2019, at age 71.
Kubota then began working with Mizutani’s estate to sort through Mizutani’s archive of recordings; he declined to identify who controls the estate, saying only that it is someone who had been close to Mizutani for many years.
Around the same time, he began working with Temporal Drift; Yosuke Kitazawa, the label’s other principal, said that when they began work on the project, they had no idea that Mizutani had died. In October 2021, an official Rallizes site appeared on the internet, announcing that Mizutani had died almost two years before and that a new entity, The Last One Musique — named after a Rallizes epic — had been formed to represent the Rallizes’ music rights, and would begin releasing Mizutani’s work “with far more alive and striking sound than the bootlegs that have been circulating over 20 years.”
In a series of interviews this summer, Kubota said he had been working for months to sort through Mizutani’s collection, including numerous studio and live recordings.
“Now I have received the material for four full concerts and started working on it,” Kubota said. “It will be monstrous.”
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