Mess Me Up
By Steven Strange
I never thought I’d have to write an obituary. However, as is often the case, it looks like fate has other plans for me. You see, as Terminal Boredom’s resident Japanese record nerd it falls on my shoulders to inform the masses of the passing of a band that made some of the best records of the past twenty years and supplied this very zine with its namesake. This past December the Registrators decided to call it a day. From all accounts they went out in the proverbial blaze of glory, one worthy of the lofty stature of their earlier recorded output. It’s no secret that over the last few years the Registrators had been but a mere shadow of their former self, favoring merely adequate to good power pop over the genius they displayed on their two 90’s masterpieces, “Terminal Boredom” and “16 Wires from the New Provocate,” not mention their litany of killer singles. Right before the end they hit a new low with four songs on a split CD with Water Closet that sounded more like meandering indie rock than anything Raw Records ever put out. It was truly depressing to see such a great band sink so low and drag their legacy through the mud like that. Luckily, it seems like the driving force behind the Registrators, Hiroshi Otsuki, realized this too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like any eulogy, bear with me if I take a little time to talk about what the Registrators meant to me.
This is where I wish I could make some kind of grand proclamation like the “the first time I heard ‘Terminal Boredom’ it changed my life” or some such hogwash, but it’s simply not the truth. Sure I was really impressed by it, and it did contribute mightily to my then-growing obsession with Japanese punk, but to me "Terminal Boredom" was just another great record; no better or worse than, say, Loli & the Chones or something. After all, there were a lot of great records coming out back then.
That wasn’t the case a few years later however. Those of you who were around at the time know what I’m talking about. From roughly mid 98 to late 2001 there wasn’t much doing in the world of underground rock n roll. The well that had produced bands such as the Rips Offs, Teengenerate, Spaceshits, and Oblivians had seemingly gone drier than Poison Ivy’s 50 year old cooch. Rip Off Records, a label that was considered the gold standard in the mid-nineties, was as hapless as everyone else, shitting out half-assed releases like the Exploders and the first Zodiac Killers LP instead of modern classics like the Brides and Infections. Discerning rock n rollers looked high and low, but they were met with nary a trace of rock and or action. As is usually the case when rock goes through a dry spell, smarty-pants mainstream critics were all scrambling to write rock’s obituary and sing the praises of the New Youth Music of the Future. This time around it was electronica. We all know how well that took off, now don’t we?
Against such a backdrop, the Registrators sophomore LP, “16 Wires From the New Provocate” redeemed my faith in the future of rock n roll. That might sound like an asshole rock critic thing to say, and maybe it is, but it’s also the truth. Whereas many of the more tolerable bands from that era were successfully aping the superficial elements of classic bands from the mid-nineties, but missing completely the subtle nuances that made, say, the Problematics great, the Registrators expanded their sonic palate to include both elements of power pop and experimental flourishes, in addition to the jugular-gouging punk rock assault they were best known for. The result was an album that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before. While all of the disparate parts making up the sound of “Sixteen Wires” (punk, pop, arty shit) had all been mixed and mashed together countless times before, the Registrators managed to seamlessly synthesize them all in order to forge a sound that was completely their own. This originality was certainly a breath of fresh air amid the putrid musical landscape of 2000, but despite what Scott Soriano might tell you, originality alone isn’t enough to make a record worth listening to, let alone a classic. What made “Sixteen Wires” the record that reaffirmed my love for rock n roll was the fact that, not only did it posses a sound all its own, but the songs were all eminently catchy, memorable, and, most importantly, addictive. For around a year after I first bought it, it was the only new record I really cared enough about to listen to on a regular basis.
From then on it was only a matter of course that the Registrators became my favorite band. The Japanese-only “90’s Complete Sessions” comp soon followed along with the “Singles” collection on Rip Off, both of which strengthened my conviction that the Registrators were one of the greatest bands of all time. Hyperbole? Could be, but what really matters is that during the dawn of the 00’s there wasn’t a band currently functioning that was keeping the flame of rock n roll lit in my heart the way the Registrators were. Maybe that’s a pretty gay thing to say, but it’s also the truth.
It was around this time that I started to become interested in going to Japan. I was in my early twenties then, and was pretty down on myself. Long story short, I felt like I had never accomplished anything noteworthy in my entire life. In retrospect it seems a bit simple minded, but at the time I thought living in Japan would somehow open up the doors of possibility that until then had been locked shut by poverty, living in a nowhere town in the center of the Midwest, stupid choices I made in high school, my inability to find friends that were into “real” rock n roll, going to a community college, and enough inertia to keep even the most powerful of rockets planted in the ground like a redwood.
The Registrators were part of this promise of something different for me. While there were a lot of bands that I wanted to see in Japan, none held the allure of a total life-affirming experience for me the way the Registrators did. I’m well aware how silly it sounds, but I was firmly convinced that seeing them play the songs from “Sixteen Wires” live, in addition to seeing bands like Firestarter and Radio Shanghai, would somehow help make up for a life spent pissing my days down the drain as though the opportunity each and every day is pregnant with was but so much refuse. Of course there were other things I wanted to experience in Japan, but with the exception of finding a Japanese girl gullible enough to sleep with me, there was nothing I wanted to do more than seeing Firestarter and the Registrators.
That’s why when I eventually did make it to Japan as an exchange student, I was totally dismayed to find out it wasn’t as easy as I thought to get from my campus in the northern countryside to Japan’s pop-cultural epicenter in Tokyo. Here I was trading in one stifling environment for another. Japan's not like America, in that there isn’t a network in place for bands to tour remote areas like there is here, so there was absolutely zero chance of any decent Tokyo bands making the trek up north to Akita where I was living. With that in mind, what I had to do was clear. While on Christmas vacation in Tokyo, I made up my mind that instead of returning to school in the spring I would take my scholarship and loan money and use it to live in Tokyo until I either went broke or got deported. After all, the Registrators were playing with the Young Ones and Zymotics a week after spring semester was scheduled to start.
There wasn’t a choice at all.
I remember laying on the futon in my Crackerjack-box apartment in Tokyo and listening to my newly purchased copy of “No Fantasy.” A lot of people bag on “No Fantasy” as a shitty record, but as I lay there in the darkness, staring up at my ceiling with the Buzzcocks-like lead guitar of “Angry Days" dancing in my ears, I had an emotion wash over me that I had never felt prior to that moment, and haven’t felt with that intensity since. It was the sublime harmony that comes with feeling completely satisfied and at peace with the world and one’s place in it. Just as I fantasized about the year before, all of the disappointment and frustration that was my lot in life had been washed away like a coal miner emerging from a shower free of soot and grime. I had made it. After a seemingly endless string of wasted years and dashed hopes, the world had opened up for me as though I were a convict at the end of a twenty year sentence. At last I was able to experience the world as it truly is: a place full of beauty and possibility. I broke into a smile as broad and heartfelt as any I’ve ever had.
I had made it.
Not only had I made it, but I was also going to see the band that meant more to me than almost any other: the Registrators. As the fateful day drew ever closer my excitement was palpable. When the day arrived, I felt like a seventeen year old virgin whose girlfriend finally tells him, “Tonight will be the night.” By the time I met up with my friend Taka Rock, who was going to take me to Shelter with him, I was more geeked than the collected populations of both a Star Trek convention and the Garagepunk.com message board.
The great thing about Japanese shows is that you can bring in as many outside drinks as you can possibly conceal, so after a quick stop at the convenience store to take full advantage of this, Taka and I made our way down to Shelter just in time to catch the Young Ones blasting into one of the most ferocious and mesmerizing sets I’ve ever seen. Each song was more powerful and catchy than the last, and the gradually swelling crowd was whipped into a fever pitch that later rose to an all out furor. Finally, when it was all said and done, people were wandering around in a stupor like they’d just emerged from an air raid. I had heard the Young Ones demo tape before, but nothing prepared me for what an untamed beast they were live. I remember using my horrible Japanese to gush to their singer that they NEEDED to put out an album, and that any label worth their salt would be more than happy to release it if they could record with even half of the energy they put out live. This idea didn’t really seem to thrill him too much, as most Japanese bands could care less about recording for foreign labels.
Up next were the Zymotics. Now I know the world (okay Mitch Cardwell’s bedroom) has since been set on fire by their “Watch That Worm” single, but that had yet to come out at this point. I knew them from their Answer single plus the songs on the Ad Vice comp, and was really looking forward to seeing them. Taka, however, wasn’t. I think he told me they had no “rock n roll heart” or something like that. He wanted to take this opportunity to head to the 7-11 and get more booze. The siren call of more booze won out for me too, but I did get back in time to catch the tail end of their set. The guitar player looked like a Japanese version of Boy George when he was strung out on smack in the Culture Club “Behind the Music.” They were pretty good, if not a little disappointing after the visceral assault that was the Young Ones. The next band up, however, would surely be more than capable of matching the Young Ones’sonic onslaught.
Next up was the Registrators.
As the Registrators set began I was making my way back from the bathroom and trying to inch my way towards the front of the stage. It wasn’t doing. I hadn't figured there would be a sudden rush towards the stage when the Registrators played – after all they played in Tokyo all the time – but here I was trapped smack dab in the middle of a sea of disproportionately female fans, and thus only able to make out the band from about the chest up.No matter, I was there for the music; music that I was sure could overcome the obstacle presented by not being able to see the band very well. I listened intently to their first song. It was “Angry Days,” the lead off track on "No Fantasy" that helped trigger my harmonious reverie a couple weeks before. What met my ears was beyond belief. Although it was the same song that had previously matched up with both the moment and my mood as harmoniously as a chord, the way they were playing it live was devoid of even the slightest traces of energy and/or aggression. I tried to convince myself that it was a fluke; that they were just having a hard time warming up. They weren’t. Every song was the same gutless, lethargic slop as the first. Making matters worse, the only pre “Velocity” song they played was “Set Me Free,” which sounded like a lumbering dinosaur compared to the version on their first single. It was wretched. The young girls in the audience, however, were eating it up like ice cream on a sweltering July afternoon.
I was dumbstruck. What had I just seen? Could this really be the same band that put out all of those incredible records? No, it couldn’t be. Could it?
These thoughts were quickly silenced, however, thanks to Taka Rock. While I was standing there ruminating over the most disappointing live set I had ever seen, Taka came up to me and said, “Hey look over there. See that guy?"
"Yeah, what about him?"
"That’s Fifi from Firestarter.”
“No shit. Really?”
“Yeah, and you’re gonna go talk to him!”
Now, I’ve gone on and on in the preceding pages about how much I loved the Registrators, but Teengenerate and their various offshoots meant just as much to me, if not more than the Registrators did. The chance to talk to one of my rock n roll heroes was something I wasn’t about to pass up, but I was still a little hesitant.
“Can you go introduce me to him,” I implored.
“I can’t. He’s much too famous for me to talk to. But you’re an American so he’ll talk to you,” Taka shot back.
“I dunno…” I hesitated.
Taka, however, didn’t budge. Before I knew it I had introduced myself to Fifi, jabbered on with him about what great bands the Nerves and Kids were, how hard the Supersuckers blew, and got his email in order to set up an interview. From there I somehow got invited to this Japanese style inn where an after party was being held. I ended up sitting kitty-corner from Fifi and Otsuki.
I had come a long way from going to community college in Minneapolis.
When I finally worked up the nerve to initiate a conversation with Otsuki, I did so by asking him what he thought about Americans’ critical reaction to the latest Registrators material. He cordially, if not more than a little drunkenly, proceeded to explain to me how he couldn’t care less about American audiences and that all that mattered to him was the guy from the Carpettes and Pete Shelly (!) both thought he was a good songwriter. Otsuki then went on and on about how Americans see Japanese bands as “yellow monkeys” and only care about being entertained by them. I told him that was way off base, and that a lot of Americans really look up to bands like his and Teengenerate. He wasn't convinced. Somehow that led, by way of a digression about 9/11, to us talking about Otsuki's desire to start making money off of his band, which incidentally was part of the reason they were changing their sound. He then divulged that all the young girls who had crowded the stage earlier that night were introduced to the Registrators through “Velocity” and that the vast majority of them hadn’t heard their earlier material. The way he said this gave me the impression that mass acceptance was more important to him than making quality music. When he kept saying, “I wanna be Oasis,” I couldn’t really tell if he was joking or not. Something tells me he couldn’t either.
Eventually, as is always the case when guys get together and bullshit over beers, the topic turned to girls. I was shocked when I asked Otsuki if he had a girlfriend and he replied by holding up three fingers and proudly announcing, “three of them.” Fifi then broke in and asked me how many Japanese girls I had fucked at that point. Those of you who've read my interview with Firestarter know the answer to that.
“None,” I sheepishly replied.
“WHY?!?!?!?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “You’re a fucking cute guy!” He continued, “You should have an easy time finding a girl.”
Let me tell you, even though he didn’t mean it in a homo way whatsoever, there are few things quite as bizarre as being told that by the guy who wore the dog collar in Teengenerate. That was nothing compared to what came next however.
“Next Registrators live, I give you Japanese manko*” Otsuki interjected benevolently.
*(“Manko” is the Japanese word for “pussy.”)
I tried to brush him off lightly, but he wasn’t having it.
“MANKO!!!” he cried as he lay on his back, raised his legs, and gestured towards his crotch.
That was too much. I broke out in laughter like a high school kid trying pot for the first time.
“I can get it myself,” I lied through my teeth.
Otsuki, who by this point was quite drunk, laughed and told me that whether I wanted it or not, he was going to fix me up with a girl after the next Registrators show. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t admit part of me was hoping he was serious.
After about three hours or so of chatting on like this - not to mention way too much drinking - it was finally time for the trains to start running again. We all made our way to the station with bleary eyes and inebriated steps. On the way to the station I somehow started talking with the Registrators formidable bassist, Ren. As we were saying goodbye at the ticket counter he suddenly told me something that struck me as incredibly profound.
“You should start your own band.”
Coming from a member of one of my favorite bands, those were truly inspirational words. Of course, I didn’t actually end up taking them into action or anything though.
The fabled “next Registrators live” came and went. Otsuki, let alone the girl he drunkenly promised me, was nowhere to be found after the show. That wasn't a problem though as I had other things I wanted to do that night anyway…but that’s another story for another time. What matters here is that when the Registrators played that night, they once again stunk up the joint for the majority of their set (although this time they had to follow Firestarter playing the best live set I’ve ever seen). Their encore, however, hinted at past greatness. When I heard that familiar bassline and the chant of “pogo, pogo, pogo machine” my heart skipped a beat. What followed was a song that had lost none of its power and immediacy despite the fact that the band playing it was divorced from writing and recording new material in that mold by over four years. It was incredible.
And that brings me back to the final live show I touched upon way back in my opening paragraph. Although I wasn’t there, from the looks of the set list and reports I’ve read on Japanese message boards, it appears as though the Registrators that made their last stand this past December weren’t the middle of the road power pop band of “Velocity” or the limp-wristed, faux-indie rock pretenders they were on their last release; it was the ferocious juggernaut of a band that knocked everyone dead at the Rip Off Rumble almost directly after getting off the plane from Japan. It was the hungry, creative powerhouse that released killer single after killer single and two of the best albums of all time. It was the band who inspired countless knockoffs both in their home country and abroad. It was the Registrators that made me fall in love with punk rock all over again when both my life and the scene were at their worst. Just look at this set list and try to tell me that, like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, they didn’t cast off years of confusion and doubt before finally passing on. No, there's no doubt in my mind that in the end the Registrators went out in complete realization of what kind of band they really were.
For, although it may at times become unrecognizably tarnished, greatness never dies.
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