I’ve written a bit about the Japanese lo-fi psych powerhouse Les Rallizes Dénudés before, having come across vinyl copies of Blind Baby Has Its Mother’s Eyes and Heavier Than a Death in the Family over the last year or so. I find them fascinating in a train wreck sort of way, and they certainly have a very cult following. Sometimes I wonder, though, if the cultish aspect of Les Rallizes Dénudés is more important for the band’s popularity (such as it is) than the actual quality of the music. Is Les Rallizes Dénudés that classic insider band, the one people trot out when they want to seem hip or like they’re deep into music? “Seriously? You’ve never heard of Les Rallizes Dénudés?”, said with mouth agape. I know the band shows up from time to time on vinyl fan pages like the Facebook “Now Playing” page (which I love), generally to lots of likes and comments. I mean, this isn’t casual or easy listening. But sometimes having to work at something actually makes it feel more rewarding.
The vast majority of Les Rallizes Dénudés’ output is “unofficial”. That’s a bit of a loaded word in the music world, one that puts a release into a legal grey area. Does the band in any way approve of these releases, are they being paid royalties, or do they not even care? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows since band leader (and only consistent member) Takashi Mizutani doesn’t give interviews and doesn’t seem interested in fame. Or maybe he just gets off on being “that guy.”
As near as I can tell, Great White Wonder was first released as a four CD set back in 2006 and has gone through a couple of different versions. The five LP vinyl box set was created and put out in 2011, allegedly a limited edition of 1,000, though the boxes are not individually numbered (there’s a white box on the back intended for numbering with “Of 1000” written below it, but it appears they aren’t actually numbered… at least mine isn’t). I found my copy on Discogs for about $70 from a US seller, which was a pretty decent price – some international sellers were lower, but I figured I’d have to pay more in postage and likely wait a lot longer for delivery, so decided to keep it “local”.
The set is material taken from four different live shows spanning a six-year period between 1974 and 1980:
- Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo – July 13, 1974
- Shibuya Adan, Tokyo – October 1, 1975
- Maison Franco-Japonaise, Tokyo – July 22, 1977
- Kanazawa University – November 7, 1980
Julian Cope devotes an entire chapter to the band in his 2007 text about the roots of Japanese rock, Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock ‘n’ Roll. While Cope includes four Les Rallizes Dénudés releases in his personal Top 50 Japanese albums, Great White Wonder was not one of those that made the cut. Though taste being what it is, and the varieties of sounds generated by Mizutani over the years, I’m not sure anyone can easily pick an album out of the band’s unofficial catalog as a recommendation without knowing something about the listener, because while there are some similarities from album to album, there are a lot of differences as well. In that respect they remind me of Nurse With Wound (another very cultish band).
The 1974 Meiji Gakuin show is excellent. The recording quality is certainly far from sound board quality, but that’s not really the point, is it? It’s a more relaxed performance than my prior experiences with Les Rallizes Dénudés, with some badly tuned psych guitars and quite a bit of singing. “Inside Heart” is particularly good, as are the two versions of “Otherwise Fallin’ in Love with You,” especially the one that appears on side B (yes, there are two versions of the same song from the same show) which reminds me very much of the song “Jellyfishes” by the Icelandic band Skoffin, which seriously trips me out even though I may be the only person in the world that hears it. Musically this show isn’t overly loud or rambling, with the songs, while quite long, each seeming to stay within a very general structure and not dissolving into some type of free-form freakout with the possible exception of the final track, the 20 minute odyssey “The Last One,” which is super fuzzy and relentless. This show covers three sides and runs about 72 minutes.
As I was listening to the Shibuya Adan show, I found myself digging the second song. And when I looked at the track listing, lo and behold it’s our old friend “Otherwise Fallin’ in Love with You” again! I think I’ve officially found my favorite Les Rallizes Dénudés song. This set is of comparable quality to that of Meiji Gakuin, and maybe just a bit better. “Field of Artificial Flower” is able to synthesize both the relentlessness and the poppiness the band exhibits at their best, though those drums… those drums… boring a hole into my brain. “White Walking” is a nice respite, a low-key number with an early 60s slow pop sensibility, while “A Memory Is Far” has the best sounding vocals, not necessarily from a recording quality standpoint, but instead something that fits Mizutani’s vocal range like a glove.
After listening to 2 1/2 sides of this five record box set I had to take a break. Like, for a couple of days. I found myself fantasizing about quitting my job, selling everything I own, living in a van on the beach, and starting to do a lot of ketamine. Such is the power of Les Rallizes Dénudés.
Little did I know what i was in for when I started the set from Maison Franco-Japonaise. Is my turntable broken? Did someone spike my drink with acid? Because things just got trippy. Like really, really trippy. This is some true psych, not some garage rock trying to be weird. It’s atmospheric and bizarre with lots of sustain. The recording quality of this show certainly contributes to the almost liquid quality of the sound – it’s by far the muddiest of the recordings so far, like it was recorded using a pocket tape machine wrapped in gauze and put into a can of molasses. There are even a few momentary dead spots, and I don’t think it’s from the needle jumping the grooves (though that’s possible). It does rock a bit after the opening track (“Dreams”), but it keeps a bit of that dreamy quality that separates it from the first two recordings.
Which brings us to the fourth and final show at Kanazawa University in 1980. Now this is interesting. “Flames of Ice” has a heavy post-punk kind of feel, something I felt from the other Les Rallizes Dénudés I’ve listened to but hadn’t yet heard on Great White Wonder. There’s a bit of The Doors here as well – I can almost picture Mizutani on the stage like Jim Morrison. It’s a much more “rock” set than the other three, one with a more familiar sound to it – “Night of the Assassins” is very garage rock. This is perhaps as close as Les Rallizes Dénudés ever gets to sounding like a typical band.
Man, I’m spent after two listening sessions and five records. Les Rallizes Dénudés doesn’t work in small doses, but it doesn’t hold up for long doses either. About one LP side is the sweet spot to my ears, and fortunately I think there are a few good sides on Great White Wonder that will see me come back to it again.