'Unleashed' In The East - The Leaf Hound Japanese Tour Diary - Summer 2012 Print E-mail
Written by Jim Rowland   
Saturday, 03 November 2012 04:30

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For me, the two greatest films about being in a band are 'This Is Spinal Tap' and 'Anvil! The Story Of Anvil'. One of the many things that these films both have in common is the happy ending. Despite the trials and tribulations each band endures during the course of their films, they both end up making it to Japan to play in front of an adoring throng of Japanese rock fans. This really has to be the ultimate fantasy for anybody that plays in a band (unless perhaps if you're Japanese, of course). Indeed it was a fantasy of mine too, something I never really imagined would ever happen. I remember as a kid gazing at the cover to the classic Scorpions live album 'Tokyo Tapes' and thinking just how exotic Japan looks as Klaus, Rudi and Uli tuck into some weird looking Japanese food and walk across a Japanese Zebra crossing in their stylish seventies satin flared trousers. Wouldn't it be amazing to actually do that..? And just like Anvil I guess, if you keep plugging away, sometimes dreams do come true. And so it was that completely out of the blue, Leaf Hound, the band I've played drums in for the past eight years, were asked a while back to go to Japan to play two gigs in Tokyo to be recorded and filmed for a live album and DVD.

 

Is this for real? Something's bound to go wrong?

 

But no, after an eternity of waiting I'm finally off to Heathrow airport for a very long flight across the other side of the world for some 'Tokyo Nights' all of my own...

 

Day 1

 

We take off from Heathrow at lunchtime on a Tuesday and arrive at almost the same time in Japan, except it's Wednesday, how did that happen? They're eight hours ahead, that's how. The flight is eleven hours, and pretty boring, although British Airways do give you a good selection of films and music to try to keep you entertained. I'm amused at the fact that in 2012, the Sex Pistols 'Never Mind the Bollocks', pretty much my all-time favourite album, is now available for your listening pleasure under the 'classic albums' section of a British Airways long haul flight. If such technology had existed in 1977, I'm pretty sure that wouldn't have been the case. So a fair few albums were listened to, a couple of films were watched, some adequate at best airline food was eaten, and some sleep was attempted and before I knew it, here I was about to land at Narita airport, Tokyo, Japan. This in itself is exciting for me because, as all self-respecting rock anoraks like me would know, 'Narita' is the title of New York rockers Riot's excellent second album, so not only do I eventually find out what the word 'Narita' actually means after all those years, but I'm actually there too! I figure it's time to get into Japanese mode to prepare for this momentous landing on Japanese soil by doing the most Japanese related thing I can think of on an aeroplane - I listen to 'Mothra' by Anvil, their paean to the fabled Japanese monster moth. At least until the stewardess tells me to take my headphones off as we're about to land.

 

Leafhound_2So my first sight of the exotic promised land of Japan is.... an airport. Just like any other airport of course, but as 'Hound bassist Pete Herbert points out, "I at least expected to see robots or something". After retina scans and fingerprint files, we're out of the airport and greeted by one of our hosts, the lovely Kyoko. The band is whisked away in a people carrier to our hotel, catching the sights of industrial Tokyo and its traffic on the way. Now when we learned which Tokyo hotel we were to be staying in, we of course looked it up on trip advisor beforehand just to see what it'll be like. It was quite amusing to see a previous visitor's comment that it was "a great hotel perfectly situated on the edge of Tokyo's gay district!" As it turned out it was a fine hotel as we were greeted outside by our main man, record label boss and general legend Ken. Bags are dumped, lunch and beers are consumed, much needed snoozes are had and then we're taken out to dinner in a proper Japanese restaurant later that evening for a bit of a welcoming party. Now is the chance the sample some of that weird Japanese food the Scorpions had and I wasn't disappointed as sea urchin and slimy salmon eggs were just two of delights we sampled, all washed down with some warm sake, possibly my favourite drink of all. We're introduced to a few people we'd be seeing more of during the course of the trip, one of whom I instantly hit it off with - a heavy metal maniac by the name of Yoshiaki Negishi, known as Negi.

 

Negi is the former singer of Japanese Doom merchants Church Of Misery, and he's got a new band together now called Nepenthes who I can't wait to hear. He's to be the DJ at the first of the two gigs we are to play here, and he can match me every step of the way when it comes to reeling off great obscure metal bands. I didn't expect to be having a heated debate on how great the first Whiplash album is whilst in Tokyo.

 

Day 2

 

We're left alone by our hosts for the second day, to catch up on any jetlag induced sleep and do whatever takes our fancy, as we acclimatise before our shows on the following two days.

 

It's absolutely boiling in Tokyo this time of year, and we're told it's even hotter than usual. I'm sweating buckets as we pound the streets taking in the sights. Luckily, all shops, bars and cafes are fully air-conditioned and provide welcome respite from the searing heat. We're pretty much tourists for the day, so it's shopping and sightseeing. We go to the top of a government building with a stunning panoramic view of this huge city. After the traditional Japanese food delights of the previous evening, we return to being Englishmen abroad by shamefully taking in lunch at MacDonald's and Starbucks. As with everywhere else around the world, these places are taking over, which is a shame. One thing that strikes me during the course of this visit is that Japanese people look so young and healthy, and I'm constantly surprised that everyone I meet is considerably older than they actually look. This can only be down to the traditional Japanese diet, and it is a shame to see the younger Japanese generation "lovin' it" at places like MacDonald's now. Perhaps the next generation won't be looking so youthful?

 

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I'd got a tip off from Ken as to where the best record shops were in the area, and I was certainly not disappointed. The record shops here are amazing. There's one great chain called Disc Union, with each shop being on about seven or eight separate floors, each one catering for a different type of music. There's also one that just specialises in Prog - the whole shop! Prog heaven! I pick up a tasty vinyl copy of Khan's 'Space Shanty', an obscure prog nugget I've been after for years! And yes, both Leaf Hound albums are in the racks too.

 

A lot of walking today, so after a chill out and freshen up at the hotel, we attempt the Tokyo tube for a night out in the party district of Tokyo. Navigating the tube network for four English novices is not easy to say the least. It's a real headache, but something that's got to be experienced. We just about made it there and back, but it was tough. You've got to be quiet on the tube here and mobile phones are not allowed. There's also a strict queuing system for the trains, all very polite and very Japanese. Still, we made it back in one piece, which is just as well, as tomorrow is showtime.

 

Day 3

 

We can chill out till mid-afternoon when we're picked up to travel to the venue we're playing at known as Fever. As I mentioned, it's particularly hot at the moment even by Japanese standards, so it's slightly worrying that the venue has probably the worst air conditioning system out of all the buildings we will be in on this trip, and with two hour and a half sets to play over the next two nights, it's going to be hot work, especially for the more physical roles in the band of drummer and vocalist - sorry to any guitarists or bassists out there, but you get off lightly. And you can forget keyboard players.

 

Leafhound_6It's quite a leisurely soundcheck. Gigs seem to be a bit different in Japan. There's no support band, the doors are to open at 7, and after an hour's DJing from DJ Negi, we're on at 8.00 for an hour and a half. It's all over by 9.30. We can soundcheck for as long as we like, while the film crew fiddle with their cameras too. Obviously on a trip like this, most of the equipment is hired in and is of a decent standard. We've brought guitars and I was advised to bring cymbals, which initially caused my suitcase to zoom straight past excess baggage weight and into cargo territory. They're heavy buggers, so I had to resort to taking them as (very heavy) hand luggage, as there's no weight restriction for hand luggage, which I never knew.

 

After soundcheck, we're looked after superbly, as we are for the whole time, and food and drink is plentiful. Now it's just a case of watching the minutes tick away, which seems like forever.

 

Now over the years, we've played a fair few shows abroad, Sweden a few times, Holland, Belgium, places like that, but with this being the fabled Japan, on the other side of the world, the nerves, or anxiety, are kicking in a little more than usual. Okay, I'm shitting bricks. Fever is only a club that holds about three hundred (we're not at the Budokhan yet), but at the equivalent of forty quid a ticket, we'd better be good. Ken's on stage giving us a big intro, and then wham! We're on to an amazing and very welcoming reception. As soon as the first song kicks in the nerves start to go as we battle through the heat to deliver our brand of rock 'n' roll for the next hour and a half. I won't go into any more detail about the show, as those interested will be able to see it at first hand when the DVD comes out. I don't want to spoil it for you. One observation though was that Japanese audiences these days are clearly not as quiet and polite as they've been made out to be. Perhaps things have moved on a bit since Deep Purple did 'Made In Japan', as they're noisy and do make some noise during the songs too, which is great. We even get to do an unscheduled second encore to cap it all off. It goes great, and we're buzzing.

 

The merchandise, albums and t-shirts, are selling extremely well we're told, and after the show the band members pop into the foyer before our post-gig meal to meet some of the Leaf Hound fans, sign some albums and pose for some pictures. There'll be a lot more of that tomorrow. A few well-deserved beers are drunk on my part, but nothing too crazy, there's another show tomorrow. It's pretty difficult to sleep after a show like that, with all the adrenaline that's been pumping though you, and it takes a good while for me to reach the land of nod. Back in England that evening, the Olympic opening ceremony is kicking off at 5.00 am Japanese time, roughly about the time I finally get to sleep. Leaf Hound main man Pete French even stays up to watch it on TV, now there's stamina for you.

 

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Day 4

 

Saturday afternoon kicks off with Pete doing interviews for Japan's equivalent of Classic Rock and Prog magazines. We flick through the current issues of each. One has an amazing feature on Judas Priest with some unbelievable vintage pictures of Rob Halford. The gig guide in these magazines is pretty impressive and extensive, not only listing all the bands playing, but meticulously listing the names of each member of each band. I'm knocked out so see my name and the name of Andrew Prestidge, drummer in Angel Witch, who played a couple of weeks earlier, listed on the very same page. The reason I'm knocked out by this is that I've known Andy for something like 25 years now, we come from the same town - Harrow in North West London - and when we were kids, our respective bands used to play together in Harrow pubs all those years ago. Little did we know we'd be sharing a page in a Japanese rock magazine a quarter of a century later.

 

With the interviews done, it's back into the cars for the second gig. Tonight's a bit easier as all the equipment is set up from the previous night, so we breeze through the sound check, get a bit of nosh in, and wait again for showtime. As we hit the stage for the second show, there are a few familiar faces from the previous night in the audience, and we learn later that quite a few fans have shelled out a whopping 80 quid to see both shows - keen fans and a real compliment. At least they didn't ask for their money back after the first night, so we must have done something right!

 

We play the same set as the previous night, and as this is being filmed, we have to wear the same clothes as the previous night too, for continuity purposes, and as I'm a hugely sweaty person anyway, my t-shirt does whiff a bit, but hey, that's rock 'n' roll. The first night went great, but with that one under our belts, we seem to be able to give that little bit extra tonight, so it's a stormer. Once again, we're called upon for the extra, originally unscheduled second encore before we take a bow and say goodbye. There's a tear in my eye as I walk offstage as I realise our work here is done - over the two nights we've put in three hours of hard rocking graft and it's been immense fun, but we are called upon to take one last curtain call. This is one experience never to forget, so we all take cameras and phones out to capture the faces in the audience for our own archive. As I'm taking a few pictures of the happy Japanese faces in the audience, that final scene of the Spinal Tap and Anvil films comes flooding back - quite a moment.

 

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After the show we head into the foyer, where, like the previous night, but more so, we literally have people queuing up to say "hello", have their picture taken with us and get a CD, album, t-shirt or poster signed. I'm even persuaded by a generous offer to part with my 'Leaf Hound Unleashed' bass drum head that has served me well over the years. We all sign it and it goes to a very good home. With this being Japan, there's also quite a few photos of our performance that fans have taken from the first night's show, which they have got developed in time for tonight's second show which they proudly get signed - amazing. Of course with Leaf Hound, the star of the show is vocalist Pete French, the sole original member from the first incarnation of the band at the start of the seventies. There are a few really keen fans and collectors who bring the original vinyl sleeves of all of Pete's recorded history - from Brunning Sunflower Blues Band in the late sixties, through Leaf Hound old and new, Atomic Rooster, Cactus, Randy Pie, and also his late seventies solo album and singles on the Polydor label. It's quite a collection, and being a keen collector myself I can't resist taking a look through one fan's collection, and I'm even photographed whilst doing so! It's absolutely thrilling to meet all these people on the other side of the world who like our music and great that we entertained them sufficiently for them to wait around to meet us and thank us. It's us who should be thanking them, and I make sure I do. I could get used to this rock star lifestyle.

 

After being wined and dined at the venue, we're really on a high as we're driven back to the hotel. On the way out, we're brought back down to earth by the sight of an ambulance attending to a fan that was run over outside the venue, which really puts things into perspective.

 

Now having completed the second of the two shows, and with adrenaline pumping though my veins like there's no tomorrow, it's a quick freshen up at the hotel and off into the Tokyo night for some well-earned party time. First off, curiosity gets the better of us and we attempt a little stroll through the previously mentioned gay district next to the hotel - big mistake! It's made clear to us in no uncertain terms that we're not welcome on those streets so we're out of there quick time! We soon hit a fun bar that's a lot more welcoming, and indeed we're immediately serenaded by the bar's inhabitants with the riff to 'Smoke On The Water' - they must have thought we were a heavy rock band or something! We have a really great time there with some mad characters before we head back before our "special day" tomorrow.

 

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In all honesty I don't get much sleep - I'm too buzzed out from the show and the hotel lobby has a vending machine for beer and other beverages, so it's bizarre Japanese TV for the early morning hours.

 

Day 5

 

The next day, we're met at the hotel by an entourage of all the great characters we've met over the past few days who are to escort us and show us the sights of Tokyo first hand. We're back on the tube trains, which are a lot easier to navigate with Japanese people with you, to an amazing area called Asakusa. This is the main tourist attraction of Tokyo, and it's easy to see why, it's visually stunning. There's the 7th century Sensoji Buddhist temple and the Kaminari Gate amongst other traditional and ancient looking Japanese buildings. Cameras are out in force and souvenirs and gifts for loved ones are bought - I get a Kamikaze headband for myself, as you do.

 

From there, we're back on the tube to a main shopping area so that 'Hound guitarist Luke can get a pair of quite outrageously flared jeans as modelled by Negi, and I can hit another record shop - a tasteful clear vinyl edition of Pentagram's 'Be Forewarned' and Riot's 'Restless Breed' are now coming home with me.

 

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From there it's back to the aforementioned prog record shop where we all sign a huge Leaf Hound poster on the wall and have our picture taken with the shop staff - not quite an Arty Fufkin organised "in-store signing", but close enough. Then it's off to a superbly swanky authentic Japanese restaurant with everyone for a truly amazing meal. This restaurant has the sunken tables, just as you'd imagine, and amongst the culinary delights served up are raw horsemeat sushi (very chewy!) and chicken's hearts on a skewer - when in Rome! Or Tokyo in this case. What an amazing way to finish an amazing trip. Except we're not finished yet as there's one more bar to go, and yet more food! These guys know how to eat. They don't have one huge meal, but lots of little ones. Seeing as this is the last night, I decide to hit the sake big time; I'm going out with a bang.

 

I stay up most of the rest of the night in the hotel, not getting much sleep, just savouring the last few hours of Japan. We're up and back to the airport early in the morning, where, as we're queuing up to check in Pete gets approached by an autograph hunter - except he thinks Pete is Ray Davies from the Kinks. A bit bizarre until we realise that the real Ray Davies is on the same plane going back to London.

 

So there you have it, a truly mind-blowing rock 'n' roll adventure comes to an end. So did that kid staring in awe at that Scorpions live album ever think he'd one day get to go to Tokyo and rock out like the Scorps did? Probably not. But amazing things really can happen sometimes, and now all those years later I can look at that album that I've now owned for about 30 years with a knowing smile, knowing that although perhaps not on a scale as grand as the Scorpions, I've come back from Japan with my very own 'Tokyo Tapes'.

 

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I must thank Ken, Kyoko, Rie, Negi, Takeshi, Yasuto and all the other great characters we met in Japan, as well as Hound colleagues Luke, Pete H, and especially Pete French - you made this kid's dream come true!

 

http://www.leafhound.net/

 

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