BOOK TWO: Chapter 6


Determined Am I Now to Live All in Flame

Bare-butt riding across the front sleeve of their 1970 debut LP ANYWHERE, the biker gang known as Flower Travellin' Band enslaved the collective mind of Japan's rock'n'roll audience without a single warning power chord having to be fired. But then, who needs to hear a note when you're in the presence of five such audacious refuseniks? And in the world of rock'n'roll, where symbolism means everything, Flower Travellin' Band has come to be regarded as Japan's ultimate '70s hard-rock band, a quintet whose main sequence of albums managed to distil all the best moves of their Western counterparts - Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, the Who - without once sounding like copyists. Instead, like peak period Amon Düül 2, Flower Travellin' Band successfully relocated all the New-Boss-Same-as-the-Old-Boss disappointments of those aforementioned bands on to an obliterated post-war landscape wherein even a Failed Democracy was infinitely preferable to the petulant diktats of their so-called divine former leaders. Moreover, each album delivered by Flower's dervishes was wrapped up in a highly contrived art-statement sleeve every bit as Hipgnosistically packaged as Townshend & Co - fake newspaper covers, expensively tooled'n'stamped leatherette outer coveralls: you name it, they tried it. Unite all of this with Flower Travellin' Band's wilfully Jap-o-centric post-war worldview, axe hero Hideki Ishima's singularly Far Eastern guitar explorations, and their manager Yuya Utchida's painstakingly thorough attitude to the concept of each new record, and from behind the mountains of evidence emerges Japan's brightest rock'n'roll sun.

Flower Travellin' Band were lean, they were loose, and they were forward-thinking enough to pick an Afro-headed punk like Joe as their singer. Skinny-hipped and howling like a banshee, Akira 'Joe' Yamanaka was both an Iggy Stooge and Percy Plant of epic proportions, confident enough to do his vocal bit and then sod off for ten or more minutes at a time: 'This is my stage so fuck you: Riffs would build and build, then build some more even now without vocal interruption; song rhythms could change with the deft organic touch of a Zeppelin song or with Sabbath's first-ciggie-of-the-morning abruptness, but still Joe would only sing when absolutely necessary. Yup, Flower Travellin' Band was a true otherworldly force, an amazingly concentrated ensemble with the kind of vast cosmic sense of musical space that made them into the Can of heavy rock.

And yet all of this was achieved not by a single visionary within their ranks, but by the collective hard work of the four musicians involved, all of whom were urged on by their mentor, their instigator, their manager and Gurdjieff-in-residence Yuya Utchida. For Utchida it was who pulled Flower Travellin' Band together in the first place, yet Utchida whom we should applaud for having had the confidence to allow his charges artistic space in which to breathe. Like Uwe Nettelbeck's role within Faust, and like Terry Knight's role within Grand Funk Railroad, Yuya Utchida was Flower Travellin' Band's field marshal, map maker, chief cook and bottle washer, providing his troops with the uniforms, ground support and wherewithal to achieve their greater aims. That Flower Travellin' Band were far less successful than the Japanese music business at first predicted should in no way reflect badly on Yuya Utchida. Indeed, he kept them supplied with enough ideas and projects to fill ten albums. Unfortunately, however, Flower Travellin' Band suffered because of the Japanese rock audience's capricious decision to abandon so-called New Rock in favour of the earnest MOR-styled sub-Carole King soft ballad rock currently being served up by the likes of Happy End, Garo and other singer-songwriter-led outfits of the time. Flower Travellin' Band's lack of recognition would eventually compromise their place at home to such an extent that they felt forced to travel abroad to seek their fortune. Worse still, their continued lack of success would ultimately compromise their place at Atlantic Records to such an extent that, by 1974, singer Joe would be singled out for the solo star treatment. But at least by that time, Flower Travellin' Band had been given ample opportunity to show what they could deliver - and deliver they most certainly did. The first three of their four albums - ANYWHERE, SATORI and MADE IN JAPAN - are undisputed hard-rock classics, while even their posthumous double live LP MAKE UP contains many extraordinary highs of its own. Before we enquire as to how the band's best music was created, however, let us first return to the pre-Flower Travellin' Band days in order to discover what moved them all to make their incredible hard-rock statements.

The Tale of Yuya Utchida

Note: Those of you who are feeling light-headed from the sheer weight of uncommon Japanese names flying out from within the pages of this Japrocksampler may not yet have noticed that the name Yuya Utchida has appeared again and again over the past chapters. Indeed, Utchida first appeared in the latter stages of Book One, Chapter One as a young rock'n'roller then enthralled by Elvis Presley. And so it is to this point that we return briefly to shore up Utchida's place in the Japanese Rock Pantheon.

Like a large proportion of rock'n'rollers, Yuya Utchida's formative years were spent in earnest industry preparing for an entirely straight adult life. Born in 1939, in the port city of Kobe, Utchida was the sixteen-year-old Deputy Head Boy of his local high school when his worldview was torn to pieces one Saturday afternoon, after visiting his local cinema to see two youth exploitation movies, Seasons of the Sun and Violent Classroom. By his own admission, Utchida thereafter went off the rails and spent his entire time 'posing with a broom in the mirror, miming to Elvis [Presley] records'. [1] Falling behind in his studies, Utchida was forced to go to a local Yakan Koko (evening high school), where he found himself surrounded by similar refusenik types, all far more interested in cultivating their sneers than their careers. In 1957, Utchida left education behind to begin work as a 'band boy', and formed the Blue Caps with his friend Mitsuo Sagawa. Determined to make a success of rock'n'roll, Utchida spent the next few years hopscotching from one humorous-sounding band to the next before settling in as vocalist for George Tagawa & the Double Beats in 1960. In spite of the early '60s pop boom, Utchida remained faithful to the pre-army Elvis and sung nothing but rock'n'roll, considerably limiting his career possibilities. However, Utchida's fundamentalist stance eventually paid off when, in mid-1962, he was invited to join the hugely successful Takeshi Terauchi & the Bluejeans, who allowed him to record several Japanese-language versions of Elvis songs. After two highly successful TV appearances on The Hit Parade and Pant Pop Show, Yuya made his movie debut in Subarashiki Akujo (Femme Fatale), thereafter continuing to ply his trade as a singer of rock'n'roll.

In 1964, however, Utchida's mind was blown when a friend played him the Beatles. According to Utchida's autobiography, the singer realised after hearing a single Beatles song that the entire rock'n'roll genre had now been rendered obsolete. With Utchida continuing to act in movies, his current band the Bluejeans supported international stars such as the Spotnicks and the Astronauts on their Japanese tours. But, in early '66, the news of the Beatles' forthcoming Japanese tour inspired Utchida to write the cheesy 'Welcome Beatles' in the hope of having a hit. In the Japanese Beatlemania that followed their tour, Utchida discovered a young Kyoto group called the Funnies, whom he felt could be his backing band once their singer had been sacked. However, when the singer, Kenji 'Julie' Sawada, refused to be ousted, it was Utchida who was given his marching orders, while the Funnies went on to immediate fame and fortune as the Tigers.

'Fretting, agonised and full of disgust, I went to Europe: says Utchida in his autobiography. Throughout 1967, the singer lived 'like a hippie', first in London then Paris, witnessing shows by Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Misunderstood, and countless other underground bands, whose vocal sound convinced Utchida that the only way forward in rock'n'roll continued to be through the use of English. Determined to replicate these wild happenings back in Japan, Utchida left Paris in early '68 and headed for home, his new psychedelic project already alive in his head and named Yuya Utchida & the Flowers.

Yuya Utchida & His Naked Septet

Almost from the moment that Yuya set foot on the tarmac at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, this gruff iconoclast knew that he had his work cut out. The Group Sounds scene that had begun so auspiciously two years previously was already drifting rudderless, as the artists, musicians and singers involved had long before chosen to kowtow to management consultants, stylists, hairdressers and the like, in an all-out offensive to earn mucho dollar. By mid-1968, Group Sounds had become so narrowly defined that few charted their songs without a Eurasian pretty boy in the spotlight, a hefty sweetener of string-section overload and a lame saccharine lyrical allusion of the kind that the Floral churned out on their embarrassingly twee late GS single 'Tears Are Flower Petals'. Indeed, the staff writers inside the Tokyo hit factories turned out this stuff so routinely that any outfit whose line-up strayed outside the 'official' GS mould was deemed unsaleable.

Much to Utchida's chagrin, the chief culprit in all of this was his own arch-nemesis, that fey MOR clown Julie Sawada, whose career had risen higher with every cynical step he'd taken away from his rock'n'roll roots. Utopian as ever, and with plenty of heavyweight friends in the business, Utchida decided to bust the bloated guts of the GS scene wide open with as spirited and arty a broadside as he could muster. The Flowers would be, he declared to anyone who'd listen, a transcendental one-time affair, whose 'multi-media actions would make [their] statements across many different fronts'.  [2] To his long-time record-producer buddy and chief of Polydor Records, Ikuzo Orita, Utchida explained his determination to reconcile high art with disposable pop, experimental composition with film scores, and all contained within record sleeves of the kind yet to be encountered in Japan. To Orita, then knee-deep in the problems of returning some credibility to the ailing career of Julie Sawada's dreadful Tigers, Utchida's words were pure poetry. Indeed, he personally knew of many disenchanted GS musicians just waiting to bailout of their obsolete pop groups, and immediately suggested a few names to this ornery visionary who, every day, drank Orita's coffee machine dry and dictated incessant notes to the label boss's perplexed secretary.

And so it was that the Flowers came into being with alarming speed and alacrity. Indeed, even before the band's personnel had been confirmed, Yuya had secured a deal with the producers of the forthcoming yakuza movie Ah Himeyuri-no-Tou to run one of Utchida's own instrumentals 'Sohshiju' over the opening sequence, with full credits going to the Flowers, whomsoever they should turn out to be. Next, auditions for this visionary outfit began in earnest. Disgusted by the manner in which women had so cynically been erased from any group purporting to be part of the patriarchal GS scene, and awed by the tough new breed of rock ladies like Big Brother's Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane's Signe Anderson and Grace Slick, Utchida immediately contacted the beautiful Remi Aso to sing alongside him in the new ensemble. Having been sidelined by the male-orientated Group Sounds scene, Remi had actually given up singing and was on the point of getting married when she received Yuya's phone call. [3] But the indomitable Utchida was having none of it ('Just gimme nine months!') and eventually Remi agreed.

Having successfully injected a bit of Grace'n'Marty Airplane's yin'n'yang into the proceedings, Utchida - with Ikuzo Orita's help - next set about cherry-picking the best instrumentalists from the drifting GS scene. First, he lured away the Beavers' disillusioned star guitarist Hideki Ishima with promises that the Flowers would play instrumentals of the kind that no Japanese audience had yet witnessed. With Ishima on board, Yuya was then able to command the services of musicologist and pedal steel guitarist Katsuhiko Kobayashi, whom Yuya had heard playing in an Osaka jazz kissa (coffee shop). While Kobayashi's masterful control of his instrument enabled him to capture the stratospheric tone of Glenn Ross Campbell - the seventeen-year-old boy wonder from John Peel's Californian protégés the Misunderstood, whom Utchida had seen perform several times at London's UFO club - Yuya himself restricted his own contributions to what he termed 'lead tambourine'. Uh, look out!

Swiftly, the Flowers' line-up fell into place as Utchida's propensity for talking up projects set the collapsing Group Sounds scene alight. As his Flowers project had, from the very beginning, so openly declared itself capable of presumptuously straddling the rock scene, experimental music scene and art world simultaneously, so Utchida himself became a lightning rod for all of Tokyo's most extraordinary visionaries, seers, hustlers and chancers. And in the Tokyo scene of late '68, where there were furry freaks by the Freudian couch-load, Utchida soon found himself introduced to the newly psychedelicised Tashi Ichiyanagi, whose own visionary multi-media OPERA INSPIRED BY THE WORKS OF TADANORI YOKO'O was itself progressing at an extraordinary pace. Formerly of sober demeanour and an even more sober appearance, Toshi Ichiyanagi was, by the time of his meeting with Yuya, so outwardly changed that even Yoko Ono had had a problem recognising her ex-husband when she encountered him by chance early in the year. But Toshi Ichiyanagi was so electrified by Yuya's maverick confidence and determination that the composer's carefully laid plans of recording a loud electric rock band with a symphony orchestra were soon cast aside in favour of letting the Flowers lay down precisely what they fancied. Indeed, Ichiyanagi's only stipulation was that the Flowers' track should be entitled 'I'm Dead' after one of Tadanori Yoko'o's most famous paintings, and must be no less than twenty minutes in duration.

'I'm Dead' & the 10,000 Years of Freak-out with T. Ichiyanagi

Late October '68, with Yuya Utchida and Toshi Ichiyanagi sitting at the mixing console of Tokyo's enormous NHK Radio studio, the Flowers' five instrumentalists summoned up their courage with black coffee and Santori whisky. Ahead of them lay a full half hour of emptiness, the time which NHK's studio engineer had made available to them by setting the great Toshiba sixteen-track tape machine to half speed. With the machine running at 15-inches-per-second rather than at the regular 30ips, the Flowers could now immerse themselves in the past 10,000 years of freak-out, as composer Ichiyanagi had termed it. [4] And so they began, cagily at first, each awaiting the others' moves. A few rudimentary riffs had been surreptitiously worked upon in secrecy, for neither Utchida nor Ichiyanagi could be allowed to find out, everything supposedly having to well up directly from the Ur-spring of the Right Now. Bang, splash, crash, a few oozing bluesy bottleneck riffs from rhythm guitarist Susumu Oku, a suppressed and distant buzzing from Ishima's overloaded Les Paul... then the track began in earnest, the five crouched over their instruments determined to summon up all of the spirit and experience that had scored them the gig in the first place. Inevitably, the pedal steel guitar of Katsuhiko Kobayashi dominated the proceedings, his stratospheric tones hanging over the rest of the ensemble like a restless ghost observing its own funeral.

In truth, the twenty-seven minutes of 'I'm Dead' is neither the earth-rending violation of sound that the Flowers promised, nor the schizophrenic stalemate that so many sidelong pieces from the same psychedelic period tend to fall into. Instead, 'I'm Dead' was a uniquely Japanese ritual piece that sat righteously alongside the gagaku percussion of its time, and Japan's experimental musique concrète of the previous eighteen years; a stop/start ever-breathing workout that reached into obliteration without ever achieving oblivion, a searching, stumbling struggle for the single candle lighting the musicians' way out of their torture chamber. But for the Flowers, for Yuya Utchida, for Toshi Ichiyanagi, and for the entire Japanese rock'n'roll underground scene, 'I'm Dead' was nothing short of R E V E L A T I O N!

At the end of the session, the five relieved musicians laid into bass player Ken Hashimoto's bubbling elliptical bass line, and out of the ether they grabbed a hold of a cosmic Hawaiian-styled instrumental, later to be titled 'Hidariashi No Otako'. Again propelled along by the furious and masterful lap steel of Katsuhiko Kobayashi, this churning and insensible masterpiece bustled along like some Joe Meek-produced psychedelic space flight from San Francisco to Tahiti, a greased rotund behemoth whose groove would not be out of place on any West Coast psychedelic classic album from Country Joe's ELECTRIC MUSIC FOR MIND & BODY to the Kaleidescope's SIDE TRIPS. Mercifully, the delighted and grateful Ichiyanagi handed Utchida the master tape of this final jam for his own use, and Yuya knew he had the makings of an excellent Flowers debut LP. Using the results of his band's sessions with Ichiyanagi, Yuya next scored a record deal with the big independent Synton label, allowing the. Flowers to commence recording of the band's first album.

Ironically, the Flowers one week later began their first series of club dates in the basement of a Tokyo jazz café, hitting the stage at precisely the same time as Julie and Sally's Tigers were schmaltzing the floor above them. But the news of the Flowers' arrival had hit the disenchanted GS scene head-on, reminding many of just how sidelined their art had become on the mainline to pop success. For the Tigers especially, the previous year had been a nightmare from which they were still waiting to emerge, as TV commercials for chocolate bars and increasingly vapid singles releases had led to a total media hammering for their most recent 'mature' LP HUMAN RENASCENCE [sic]. Other GS bands travelling a similarly commercial route to the top now realised that they too risked media wrath should they follow the hapless Tigers into the world of deodorant and candy endorsements.

In truth, however, even the visionary Yuya Utchida had chosen a dreadful time to launch his spectacular commodity, as other equally disenchanted rock musicians failed about on the lookout for an entirely new sound. By the time he had put every plan into place, even Utchida was at least a year behind his contemporaries in the West, with the result that the Flowers' debut LP CHALLENGE was another schizophrenic stalemate of the kind released by similarly heavy-styled bands such as Apryl Fool, the Helpful Soul, Shinki Chen's Powerhouse and Kuni Kawachi's organ-dominated Happenings Four+1. Yet again, despite the exhilarating performances of both band and singers, this excellent concept had been marred by its eclecticism and lack of truly great new songs. Forced once again to rely on well-known cover versions, the Flowers' inclusion of such other average post-Group Sounds stock covers as Cream's 'White Room' and 'I'm So Glad', Jimi Hendrix's 'Hey Joe' and 'Stone Free', and Big Brother's 'Piece of My Heart' made the brilliant Japanese-styled psychedelic instrumentals sound anachronistic and merely token gestures, ultimately dragging the CHALLENGE LP out of any Real Contender territory. [5] Perhaps, in the same way that Alex Harvey's Soul Band of the mid-'60s made up for in nihilistic spirit what it lacked in Detroit professionalism, so the Flowers, conversely, made up for in soul review professionalism what it lacked in sheer Western Will-to-Power individualistic change-the-worldness. But even Utchida's astute decision to release the album in a controversial cover that featured all seven members naked in a cornfield, Ms Aso included, was not enough to make the record a success, and Utchida began to lose interest.

Forced to bide his time with money-making gigs that would earn enough to pay seven musicians, Utchida was aghast to find the Flowers sharing festival bills with precisely those acts he'd returned to Japan to destroy: the Mops, the Tigers, the Golden Cups in their umpteenth incarnation. On stage, however, the Flowers were able to deploy their full arsenal to devastating effect, as the three guitarists regularly overpowered all comers with their wailing Far Eastern-styled instrumental psyche-outs 'I'm Dead' and 'Hidariashi No Otoko', whilst their sitar'n'tabla version of Moondog's classic 'All Is Loneliness' proto-drone meditation revealed just how out-on-a-limb this ensemble really was. After such bombast, the band would unleash extraordinarily dynamic arrangements of 'River Deep, Mountain High', Jefferson Airplane's 'Greasy Heart' and such Janis Joplin songs as 'Summertime', 'Kosmic Blues ' , 'Combination of the Two' and 'Piece of My Heart', not forgetting Remi's undy-wetting prostrate-pummelling-the-dust take on Led Zeppelin's 'How Many More Times?' whose freight-train ramalama served to remind listeners of that song's roots in the Count Five's 'Psychotic Reaction'. [6]

Joe's Afro

Over the coming months, Utchida's renewed friendships with old music-business mates saw him regularly hanging out at Tokyo's Toyoko Gekijo Theatre, in the Shibuya theatre district, where rehearsals for the forthcoming Japanese-language version of Hair had made it a focal point for all the renegades and forward-thinkers in Tokyo. Now thirty years old and increasingly agitated at his own lack of commercial success, Utchida surveyed the young hippie cast as he sat drinking with his old friend and Polydor Records boss Ikuzo Orita. The two shared a mutual hatred of the GS scene and Orita declared his wish to overthrow its commercial-mindedness with a series of uniquely Japanese heavy-rock statements. [7] Plotting together in the fertile and symbolically revolutionary atmosphere of the Hair scene, the two promised to work together to realise these ambitions as soon as possible. Utchida was particularly taken with the young cast member Joe Yamanaka, who'd become so intoxicated by Hair that he had grown out his own tight curls into the same magnificent wild Afro as that depicted on the show's original poster. Although Yamanaka had formerly been lead singer with the GS band Four Nine Ace, his frizzy hair had been something of a GS liability in those days of mop tops and bowl cuts. But now, Joe was a super-skinny hippie with an Afro to rival Sly Stone and a gaggle of giggling futen girls in tow as evidence of his transformation.

Utchida invited Joe to sing guest lead vocals for the Flowers at their next show, ironically a vile old-timer affair entitled 'Rock'n'roll Jam '70', to be recorded for a Toshiba Express Records double-LP, in which the Flowers had been invited to compete in a 'Battle of the Bands'-style competition with former GS glory boys the Mops, Happenings Four and the Golden Cups. The Mops opened the show with a hoary set of Animals covers ('I'm Crying', 'Don't Bring Me Down') that sent everyone straight back to 1965. Next up, the latest beleaguered incarnation of the Golden Cups worked out their current obsessions with a ridiculously eclectic set that included songs by Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, Blood Sweat & Tears and the especially ill-chosen Dionne Warwick classic 'I Say a Little Prayer', during which singer Dave Hirao happily sang 'the moment I wake up - before I put on my make-up'. After a brief set of keyboard-dominated chintz from Kuni Kawachi's Happenings Four, the Flowers took to the stage and pummelled their audience into submission with their regular show of Big Brother standards and tumultuous guitar workouts. However, when Joe Yamanaka walked out on stage to perform Led Zeppelin's arrangement of Willie Dixon's 'You Shook Me', Utchida was so thrilled at the audience's delighted response that he sensed right away that a vital new career discovery had been made. Ironically, the Flowers concluded their set that night with the greatest performance of their short career, Remi's distraught vocals on Zeppelin's 'How Many More Times' caught for ever as the final track of that double live album. Truly, it remains one of the greatest moments of late '60s rock music - East or West - easily transcending Zeppelin's own version by several leagues, and encapsulating in its seven minutes all of the weeping proto-metal blue-eyed soul-driven garage frenzy that Grand Funk, the MC5 and Blue Cheer would come to symbolise down the decades. For the Flowers, however, it was all over. Yuya Utchida had glimpsed nirvana and the naked septet was history. From here on in, power trios fronted by golden Rock Gods were to be his preferred mode of expression. And, in an act of righteous self-pruning, Yuya dismissed his entire band (himself included), retaining only drummer Joji Wada and axe hero Hideki Ishima. Steel guitarist Katsuhiko Kobayashi and singer Remi Aso sailed to America, while Yuya adopted the producer/manager role à la Grand Funk's Terry Knight. The '70s were here and, having missed the boat in the '50s and '60s, Yuya was not going to get left behind this time.

KIRIKYOGEN & the Flowering of Flower Travellin' Band

In the early spring of 1970, Yuya's new Flowers took over a large rehearsal space in a Tokyo basement where drummer Joji Wada set about the task of de-learning much of what he'd long been playing. In Utchida's desire to start with a clean slate, the new manager had seriously considered replacing Wada in the new band. But Yuya's many conversations with Polydor's Ikuzo Orita had convinced him that good drummers were particularly difficult to locate in Japan. And so it was now Joji Wada's task to empty his playing of all unnecessary jazzy fills, replacing it instead with the kind of heavy rock action employed by Westerners such as Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and Black Sabbath's Bill Ward. Still without a bass player at this point, Yuya's new Flowers were invited by Capitol Records to act as the backing group on the debut solo album by his old friend Kuni Kawachi of Happening Four+1, whose Procul Harum-styled twin-keyboard line-up and classical stylings had been given a wide berth by Japanese audiences. Kawachi had subsequently written for theatre troupes such as Tokyo Kid Brothers, but he was now determined to record a 'heavy' album with the help of Yuya's new Flowers. Yuya decided that the Kawachi recording sessions would be a perfect opportunity for the musicians to test their musical ideas out, and the keyboard player was delighted by the results. Entitled KIRIKYOGEN, Kawachi's solo album was by far the best music he'd ever released and featured both Joe Yamanaka's lead vocal and Hideki Ishima's slashing guitar throughout. It is on this record that we begin to see the sheer breadth of guitar-playing which Hideki Ishima was capable of. For his masterful acoustic performances within the grooves of KIRIKYOGEN equal any Western player, whilst his electrifying lead breaks run from mental lowbrow gut-churners to the kind of screaming bottleneck only seen in the playing of the Misunderstood's Glenn Ross Campbell. Gone too were Kawachi's previously ostentatious licks, replaced here by long empty chords and a rolling funk that sounded unlike anything before or after. Elsewhere, songs such as The Scientific Investigation' and 'Classroom' echoed the more acoustic later side of the Velvet Underground. Ironically, this album that was recorded in just a few days and treated like a recording demonstration by most of those musicians involved turned out to be a genuine classic of Japanese rock.

Yuya Utchida himself was not so convinced, however, believing instead that the organ and piano that Kawachi contributed to his own solo record had unnecessarily filled up too many spaces. On listening to KIRIKYOGEN, Yuya became even more certain that emptiness and bombast must be the key to his new ensemble. Gone were the days of supportive rhythm guitarists and organists filling every available space, the new riffing approach considerably broadening the range of heavy music's brooding dynamics. Yuya had originally poached guitarist Hideki Ishima from the Beavers because of their shared passion for Indian musical scales. But it was only in the early rehearsal days after the dissolution of the Flowers that Yuya realised how perfectly suited to power-trio playing was Ishima's guitar style, especially as Joe Yamanaka was in possession of a scream from the bowels of Hell itself. Hidden behind two vocalists and two other rhythm guitarists, Hideki Ishima could never have hoped to provide more than an extra flavour to the Flowers' music. Within the emptiness of a trio, however, Ishima's guitar would become the sole provider of chords, even able to kick the music entirely free of chords should he so wish.

While the three musicians adopted the techniques of heavy music by learning songs from the debut LPs of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, the irrepressible Yuya soon scored a one-album deal with Philips Records and delivered to rehearsals a young long-haired bass player by the name of Jun Kosuki, who'd formerly played with an obscure late GS band called Taxman. Now determined to build on the Flowers' excellent live reputation, but wishing to imbue the new outfit with some of the free-wheeling spirit of current road movies such as Zabriskie Point and Easy Rider, Yuya decided to name the new quartet Flower Travellin' Band. Flowers? Sure, we're still Flowers but now we're a travellin' band like the Creedence man sang.

Naked Proto-Metallers on the Hard-Rock Road to ANYWHERE

Fearful of losing the momentum and justifiably terrified of being gazumped by hard-rock interlopers, the ever paranoid Yuya Utchida rushed his new charges into the studio to record their debut album even before the quartet had had time to write any material. Friends and enemies alike predicted another disaster in the making, but the October 1970 release of Flower Travellin' Band's debut LP ANYWHERE was a massive change of musical style and a hugely listenable record. From the off, the driving near-sixteen minutes of 'Louisiana Blues' defined Flower Travellin' Band's direction. Coming on like the Doors' 'Roadhouse Blues' in a James Dean collision with the Chocolate Watchband's 'Expo 2000' as played by the power trio CONTINENTAL CIRCUS-period Gong, 'Louisiana Blues' was one brutally rock behemoth that explored guitar theme after guitar theme. Bucking slide guitar and fierce trucking rhythms allowed space for only brief vocal performances from Joe Yamanaka. But his singing was wild and this guitar music was h-e-a-v-y! Side two closed with a nine-minute ambient version of 'Black Sabbath' so heavy that its extraordinarily a-rhythmical take on Tony Iommi's Satanic chords sagged and creaked like the doom metal of the Melvins and Earth still almost twenty years in the future. Side two opened with another strung-out cover, this time the Animals' hoary 'House of the Rising Sun' was entirely restructured, given 'Stairway to Heaven' chords and extended to the kind of full-on eight minutes that Traffic delivered on their self-titled second album. As though such iconic rock songs were not enough for Utchida's new project to take on, Flower now concluded their LP debut with a thirteen-and-a-half minute power-trio blitz of King Crimson's venerable steed '21st Century Schizoid Man', here Black Sabbathised to the point of no return, the prissy jazz sax and stentorian snare drum of the original replaced by pure shock-rock metal mayhem. And all of this was captured for the delectation of the Japanese listening public and delivered on a gatefold sleeve that depicted Utchida and his four cohorts righteously and defiantly cruising butt-nekkid down the deserted highways of uptight Japan. Destination? Anywhere!

By the beginning of 1971, as the initial rush created by ANYWHERE's release had given the band the opportunity to play at the better Japanese festivals alongside such refuseniks as Les Rallizes Denudés and Murahatchibu, many were at last beginning to appreciate the singular guitar tones of Hideki Ishima. Free from the restraints of a rhythm guitarist and utterly in synch with drummer Joji Wada, Ishima began to take the stage apart with his combination of scything dervish dance and gleaming Far Eastern take on Western hard rock. Still unused to merely standing by and watching his boys from the side of the stage, Yuya occasionally laid some of his 'lead tambourine' on the unsuspecting audience and even barked out the occasional rock'n'roll standard in his own inimitable style.

Yuya Utchida & Ikuzo Orita in Search of SATORI

By now, the general public perception of Flower was that of an entirely new band. And so, in the spring of '71, Yuya was delighted to learn that his great friend and facilitator Ikuzo Orita was about to leave Polydor Records for Atlantic, where he wished to make Flower Travellin' Band his first signing. While at Polydor, Orita's winning combination of unabashed enthusiasm for hard rock and determination to locate a singularly Japanese rock sound had helped give rise to many of the most imaginative (though occasionally failed) experiments thus far achieved; Love Live Life +1, Foodbrain, Shinki Chen & Friends, you name it and Orita had probably had a hand in it. Now in control of Atlantic Records' entire Japanese budget, no one was more aware of the company's hefty worldwide musical mythology (both past and present) than Orita himself, and he put the weight of the company behind Yuya's band. Immediately thereafter, Orita brought his Polydor protégé Shinki Chen into the Atlantic fold and formed a supergroup named Speed, Glue & Shinki around this whizzkid guitarist whom many rated as Japan's answer to Jimi Hendrix.

While Flower Travellin' Band wowed audiences across Japan, Yuya and Orita conspired in the Atlantic offices, determined to create fabulous rock artefacts to rival Atlantic's biggest progressive bands Led Zeppelin and Yes, whose albums were housed in fabulously arty and multi-levelled packages. Orita secured guaranteed releases for the band in America, Canada and the UK, while Yuya commissioned fine artist Shinoba Ishimaru to work up some ideas based on Buddhism, Hinduism and psychedelia for Flower's forthcoming second LP.

When Yuya and Orita took the band into the rehearsal studio to routine the new material, however, both were staggered at its outrageous confidence and uniqueness. The endless shows and summer festivals had given Hideki Ishima boundless opportunity to work up each riff idea into an ever unfolding Far Eastern monster, which the band unleashed upon their mentors with note-perfect precision. Even more astonishing was the freedom that Joe had given the rest of the band, often singing no more than four or so lines of verse before opting out and letting the band rip it to shreds. Through Ishima's continued fascination for Eastern enlightenment, three of the tracks had acquired the simple working titles of 'Satori I', 'Satori II' and 'Satori III'. Fantastic, said Yuya. Let's keep the entire album just as mysterious and give nothing away. And so it was that Flower Travellin' Band's second LP became known as SATORI, with each of the five long tracks becoming known only as 'Satori I-V'.

With Yuya Utchida and Ikuzo Orita sharing production, SATORI was for ever to remain Flower's most singular and demented work, coming over like some super-fit combination of Led Zeppelin's 'The Immigrant Song' and the Yardbirds' 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago' as played by a non-blues guitarist such as Michael Schenker, or perhaps Uli John Roth's power trio Electric Sun. However, even these descriptions cannot come close to doing justice to Hideki Ishima's extraordinarily inflammatory playing on SATORI, and although the past decade and a half (1990-2006) has brought so-called heavy metal to entirely new heights, the succinctness of SATORI's arrangements and its economy of playing are still somewhat depressingly unique. Clad in its sumptuous gatefold package, the front page announcing 'Flower Trip Band' [8] sitting atop a psychedelicised Eastern world contained within Shinobu Ishimaru's enormous Buddha, SATORI wowed the Japanese audience and even climbed into the Canadian Top Ten album chart. [9]

Exiles on Vancouver Island: The Story of MADE IN JAPAN

Despite the huge artistic success of SATORI, both Orita and Utchida were highly disappointed with Flower's commercial progress at home in Japan. Sure, they continued to play large concert halls, but compared to musically tame Japanese-language bands such as Garo and Happy End, Flower was nowhere at all. In hindsight, the so-called New Rock phenomenon had been nothing more than a brief afterglow of the death throes of the Group Sounds scene, and Japan's capricious hippie audience was by now more enthralled by the wishy-washy singer-songwriters thrown up in the wake of international stars such as James Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon and Neil Young. Even Julie Sawada's cynical New Rock supergroup Pyg had failed on account of their hard-rock stance and dedication to Stones, Mountain and Deep Purple covers, and no one understood their own market better than the ex-Tigers vocalist.

Yuya Utchida decided that his band should tour where its audience was most enthusiastic, and accepted an offer to support the Canadian band Lighthouse on their forthcoming home tour. Led by keyboard player Paul Hoffert, Lighthouse was a jazzy Blood Sweat & Tears-styled outfit with a brass section and a large Canadian audience. At the end of the tour, the band agreed that Paul Hoffert should produce their third LP, and they played before a Toronto audience of 30,000 as support to Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Bob Seger.

In the Canadian studio, however, Hideki Ishima found himself entirely compromised by the producer. As a songwriter and jazz-orientated keyboard player, Hoffert felt no particular affinity for loud rock guitar and appeared determined only to explore Joe Yamanaka's ballad side. Worse still, Hoffert commissioned Yoko Nomura - wife of Flower's road manager - to write a whole set of lyrics for the new Canadian-recorded album, to be titled (with no little irony) MADE IN JAPAN. Thousands of miles adrift from the safe lunacy of Utchida and Orita, and worried about paying the rent, the band set about reconciling their music with Hoffert's decidedly conservative vision. Then, with the album completed by early spring 1972, the four broke and pissed-off band members fled back to Tokyo where the folk revival was burning even more blandly than before they'd left.

Back in Tokyo, this new album that had sounded so abject in Vancouver was actually well received by Utchida and Orita, who recognised that Hoffert's decision to trim back Ishima's guitar chaos at least allowed the record its place in the current Japanese scene, and even agreed to release the song 'Kamikaze' as a single. The acoustic minor-chord blues of the opening song, 'Unaware', sounded like Arthur Lee's classic Love song 'Signed DC', while Ishima's clever acoustic implementation of Black Sabbath's so-called Satanic chords throughout rendered the record unlike anything they'd heard before. For 'Hiroshima', Hideki Ishima had cleverly set Yoko Nomura's beautiful death lyrics to the same music as 'Satori Part 3', here rendered both on acoustic and electric guitars, evoking the same transcendental raga effects as YETI-period Amon Düül 2. Indeed, of the eight tracks, only the facile lyrical Crosstianity of 'Heaven and Hell' stood out as being poorly translated C.S. Lewis fare; Joe's bizarre genius for running long syllables right across the metre managing to render even these dubious sentiments palatably mysterious. Utchida gathered all of the Canadian reviews and promotional material together and pasted up the MADE IN JAPAN cover to look as though it had arrived in a heavy brown reinforced cardboard case. Ikuzo Orita agreed to release the album in a heavy cardboard box, and the band set about promoting the record.

From MAKE UP to Break-up

With all the moves of a P.T. Barnum, Yuya Utchida now pulled out all the stops to hoodwink the Japanese media into believing that Flower Travellin' Band had become enormous in America. Press shots of them backstage with ELP in Toronto helped to create this façade, scoring the band the prestigious support slot on the Rolling Stones' forthcoming Japanese tour. But their joy soon evaporated when the paranoid Japanese authorities denied Mick Jagger a work permit on account of an ancient drug conviction, and Flower - still reeling from their Canadian disaster - felt their inner fire coming close to extinction. Gone now was Hideki Ishima's valiant axe-wielding militancy, his Tony Iommi-like ability to descend into the Underworld and return with Riffs from Hell, replaced instead by a sidelined soul bereft of licks adrift and unplugged from rock's third rail. In an effort to shake the band out of its stupor, Orita and Utchida decided to take the reins once more and book the band into Tokyo's Mouri Studios, where they routined any and all material the musicians could lob their way. Nothing. Not a sausage, not a riff nor a lick emanated from Ishima's direction. Instead, it was the previously acquiescent Joe Yamanaka who delivered the bulk of the new songs, and on whose shoulders the bulk of writing was to fall, co-writing material with his girlfriend Patti and drummer Joji Wada. Utchida and Orita scratched their heads and wondered what to do. There was clearly not enough material to commence the recording of Flower's fourth LP, yet the concert offers coming in were hardly sufficient to keep such a large concern afloat. Finally, the producers took Joe and Joji Wada's slight 6/8 minor-key ballad 'Shadows of Lost Days' and attempted to arrange it into a single. Although the song was a depressing retreat into the Percy Sledge of late '60s soulified Flowers, its retro charm was at least somewhat catchy, especially when Utchida summoned the aid of Nobuyuki Shinohara, Kuni Kawachi's cohort and second organist in Happening Four+1. But when 'Shadows of Lost Days' failed to chart, the band that limped on into the summer was indeed a shadow of its lost days, buoyed up only by its producers' spiky enthusiasm and endless entreaties for more songs, more songs. Nevertheless, the sidelined Hideki Ishima remained a spent force despite the efforts of the rest of the band; even bass player Jun Kosuki managing to bring forth the bizarre ballad 'Broken Strings', a homage to all of the broken guitar strings he'd so casually dumped in dressing-room waste baskets around the globe(!).

In order to pep the band up and reinstate some kind of vigour and occasion into the unit, Utchida now resorted to releasing a live LP and, with that plan in mind, booked Flower to perform at Yokosuka Bunkakaikan, a huge culture hall high up in the mountains, on the Miura Peninsula, one hour's drive south of Tokyo. But when the mobile studio arrived at the hall in a downpour on the dreary morning of 16th September 1972, radio reports of flash flooding throughout the region and landslides suggested they cut their losses and cancel the show. 'There was a typhoon ... tons of rain ... The wind was so strong we thought of cancelling: remarked Ikuzo Orita years later. 'But about a thousand people had already showed up so we decided to do it.' And thus, high up in the mountains far from anywhere, Flower Travellin' Band played their last great concert, aided and abetted by '50s rocker Yuya Utchida on occasional lead vocals and a Hammond organist from '60s stalwarts Happening Four+1. And as Utchida barked out his infamous version of Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes', no song could have seemed further from Flower's auspicious and bold beginnings just thirty-six months previously.

Sorting through the recordings back in Tokyo, Utchida discovered that much of the concert had been ruined by the mobile-studio engineer's failure to earth the truck properly, resulting in crackles throughout many of the performances. With the live album already scheduled for release as a double-LP by Atlantic, Utchida was now forced to comb through the wretched fourth-album demo tapes for filler material. The completed album was a disastrous hotchpotch, completed by Utchida's own 'Blue Suede Shoes' and a ridiculous and interminable 24-minute-long 'Hiroshima' dragged out by Joji Wada's seemingly endless sub-TNUC', sub-'The Mule', sub-'Toad' drum solo. In true Utchida fashion, however, the packaging was one of the greatest of double-albums of the entire 1970s. Titled MAKE UP, the record's gatefold sleeve came housed in an incredible 12"x12" stitched brown leatherette case, worthy of Andy Warhol himself.

The spectacular artwork deflected much of the criticism away from the useless contents within, but everyone knew Flower's days were done. Struggling on into early 1973, the band split as soon as Joe Yamanaka let it be known that he wished to embark on a solo career. Whilst in Japan the so-called New Rock had stalled almost before it had even begun, by 1973, even hugely successful international 'heavy' acts had returned to do battle with acoustic'n'Mellotron progressive-styled new albums quite at odds with their former displays of dark bombastic proto-metal overkill, as evidenced by Black Sabbath's SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH and Led Zeppelin's HOUSES OF THE HOLY. Just as in the UK, the Japanese rock scene of '73 was split between an overly serious semi-intellectual progressive rock scene full of keyboard-dominated dribble and an overly-dumb pop scene led by Vodka Collins, whose microcephalous take on rock'n'roll claimed inspiration from David Bowie but really aped the compressed Skinhead Moonstomp of Gazza Glitter, Mud, Sweet and Quatro. Ever the Kim Fowleyan chameleon, the opportunistic Yuya Utchida hopped aboard this temporary revival with the appalling album Y.U.Y.A. 1815KC ROCK'N ROLL BROADCASTING STATION, whose avant-garbage yielded such gems as 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Tutti Frutti', 'Long T all Sally' and (natch) 'Blue Suede Shoes'.

Dead Flowers in Joe Yamanaka's Yard

By 1975, Flower Travellin' Band's career had become nothing more than an appendage to Joe's burgeoning Moon-in-June croon-a-thon. Like Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart and other non-writing lead singers of heavy bands, Joe's decision to call in the professionals at least ensured a place in the charts. A Flower Travellin' Band compilation entitled THE TIMES was released in 1975, and discourteously credited to 'Joe, featuring Flower Travellin' Band'; one god-awful ballad tacked on at the end of side two to force devotees to shell out. Yuya Utchida headed underground once more and forgot to resurface until 1991, when - now aged fify-one - he ran for the governorship of Tokyo Prefecture. Ever the iconoclast, his unorthodox campaigning techniques included singing an unaccompanied version of John Lennon's 'Power to the People', concluding with the claim that he was born in 1999. In 2002, the failed MAKE UP concert was re-enacted, not in Yokosuka but in the more convenient location of Yokohama City. True to the ersatz spirit of the occasion, the only original band members involved were singer Joe Yamanaka and drummer Joji Wada. In 2004, the ever be-shaded and still-long-haired Utchida was awarded the Golden Outlaw Award for his role as a tattooist in the suicide movie Akame 48 Taki Shinju (48 Waterfalls). True to himself as ever, nothing more has been heard of guitar maestro Hideki Ishima, whose extraordinary virtuosity and unique take on Western heavy rock continues to inform the heavy-metal bands of this early twenty-first century. Indeed, in metal mags across the world, SATORI is regularly voted up there with BLACK SABBATH, PARANOID, MASTER OF REALITY, LED ZEPPELIN 2, Blue Cheer's VINCEBUS ERUPTUM and OUTSIDEINSIDE and the MC5's KICK OUT THE JAMS. Perhaps it's best that Hideki Ishima has kept away from the limelight, keeping his dignity and mythology intact while others embarrass themselves. For, as Ikuzo Orita remarked so percipiently in a recent interview about that period: 'We wanted to be underground, we itched to be that way.'

Footnotes: (go back)

  1. Yuya Utchida's online autobiography is at: www.uchidayuya.com
  2. Big Globe magazine interview with Utchida, 1997.
  3. Taken from the sleeve notes of Remi Aso's debut solo LP OWN LINES.
  4. The incredible rarity of Ichiyanagi's opera was such that most Japanese rock fans (myself included) were first introduced to this material via Apex Records' immaculately named vinyl bootleg FROM PUSSYS TO DEATH IN 10,000 YEARS OF FREAK-OUT, credited to Flower Travellin' Band.
  5. During this in-between time of late '68/early '69, every Japanese musical visionary suffered from the same GS stasis. Former Out Cast members Jun 'Kimio' Mizutam and Kenji Todoroki formed the Adams, a symphonic rock band replete with choir and orchestra. They soon discovered, however, that there was no audience for such music and their debut LP KYUYAKU SEISHO (Old Testament) was such a disaster that their record company CBS/Sony incinerated all of the unsold records.
  6. How's that for an ex-Yardbird paying back those Michigan punks for stealing Beck & Co's 'I'm A Man'?
  7. Toreno Kobayashl. 'Ikuzo Orita Interview' in Black Shapes of Doom magazine (2004).
  8. As continued evidence of the confusion that the Japanese suffer from concerning 'l' and 'r', artist Ishimaru credited the band on the inner gatefold as 'Frower Travellin' Band'.
  9. Despite rigorous research, I've located neither American nor UK versions of SATORI, suggesting that Utchida's claims of foreign success were no more than bragging. I do, however, have a British 7' Atlantic single of 'Satoti Part 2' b/w 'Satori Part 1'. As it's not a promo item, it can only be assumed that the band did enjoy some kind of release here in Britain, albeit on a highly limited level.

Album Discography

1CHALLENGE (by the Flowers)1969Synton
4MADE IN JAPAN1972Atlantic
5MAKE UP1973Atlantic
6THE TIMES (compilation)1975Atlantic

Singles Discography

.'Satori Part 1' b/w 'Satori Part 2'1971Atlantic
.'Shadows of Lost Days' b/w 'Satori Part 2'1972Atlantic
.'Make Up' b/w 'Shadows of lost Days'1977Atlantic