Faux Four Trump J'Elvis

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2002

Let's face it: When it comes to rock'n roll, Japan loves the Beatles.

by Wil Fennell

OUR BLUE SUEDE KIMONO feature in June's issue generated a sackful of mail from readers eager to know more about J'Elvis and his dedication to the King of rock & roll. One correspondent, however, was more concerned with redressing the balance between two defunct musical giants. Wil Fennell wrote to say: "I took special notice of the comment that 'Elvis is underappreciated here compared to artists such as the Beatles.' Absolutely. Here in Kyoto, I've been following an up-and-coming group called The BeaTrips, who are in many ways representative of the Beatles tribute band subculture in Japan. I'd be happy to introduce them to your readers in an upcoming issue of J@pan Inc."

Sounds like an offer we can't refuse -- Wil Fennell reports.

Even though they sport such frivolous monikers as the Mendips, the Geatles, Jacaranda, Blue Meanies and the Beatballs, the 20 or so professional tribute bands that perform here, there and everywhere across Japan are no mere dabblers in the Fab Four music trade. They take their business seriously, as do their thousands of devoted fans. Also known as copy bands and cover bands, tribute bands frequently get lumped in with the monomane (impersonation) genre that's always been popular in Japan. But just raise the question to true-believing fans and they'll be more than happy to set you straight: Creating excellent live music is the focus and getting the 'look' right comes only a distant second.

The BeaTrips came together when tribute band veterans Takao Kawabata (Paul) and Seiichi Matsumoto (John) recruited newcomers Takayuki Hojo (George) and Takashi Yoshioka (Ringo) and set their sights on creating the definitive virtual Beatles sound. One look at their authentic instruments (Hofner bass, Epiphone and Rickenbacker guitars and Ludwig drum kit) tells you that they do sweat the details, but the real key to the band's appeal is the chemistry that's evident among the four members.

Diminutive and right-handed (Paul is a lefty), bass-playing leader Kawabata, 35, stands out as the band's hard-driving force. He explains what goes into the making of a top-quality Beatles tribute band. "First, you need good vocals and instrumental talent. With all the close harmonies and background fills, it's tough to recreate the songs in real time. Our fans were Beatles fans first, and they definitely compare our performances with the 'perfect' originals that they know inside out."

It also takes perseverance, he says. "After all, we've played many of the late-era Beatles songs, such as Back in the USSR and Get Back, hundreds of times more than the Beatles themselves ever did," he says. "If you don't truly love the original songs, you'll go insane." A perfect counterpart to Kawabata's Type A personality, 32-year-old Matsumoto keeps things loose with a healthy dose of wit and humor on stage. Upon flubbing the legendarily difficult a capella opening to Mr. Moonlight at a recent gig, for instance, he crumpled to the floor in feigned shock and lamented, "I practiced the damned thing 20 times at home today -- letter-perfect every time. You should have heard it!"

Kawabata and Matsumoto's taste in Beatles music reveals a lot about their disparate personalities. "There are so many great songs that I could never choose just one," says Kawabata, "but I like anything by Paul." The always candid Matsumoto, meanwhile, deadpans that he prefers "anything not by Paul," echoing Lennon's 1980 comments that McCartney's "granny tunes" were "boring songs about boring people."

Drummer Yoshioka, 32, resembles Ringo not only in drumming style (steady, straightforward, no frills) but also in his approach to singing duties with the band: "I can't say I enjoy it much. Like Ringo, I have a perfect voice for drumming," he quips.

Each member is talented in his own right, but the secret ingredient that sets the Beatrips apart from their colleagues may well be the contributions of lead guitarist Hojo, the baby of the four at 25. When asked about his role, Hojo himself humbly credits his bandmates' unselfishness. "In most tribute bands," he says, "George is an afterthought, like an understudy to John and Paul. But this band is focused on recreating the total Beatles sound, not just on doing the big crowd-pleasers."

And rightly so. Close your eyes and listen to Hojo's acoustic interpretation of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, for instance, and you could almost believe that Harrison's spirit has visited the stage. Much like his idol Harrison, Hojo is a quiet, spiritual person. Born into a family of Buddhist priests, he attributes his flawless sense of rhythm and ability to forcefully project a whispery voice to the thousands of hours he has spent chanting prayers at his father's temple.

Hojo first heard a Beatles tribute band while working in a bar five years ago. "It was fate," he says. "I knew right then that I wanted to play George's music and share it with Japanese audiences." True to that aim, he took the opportunity to introduce such relatively obscure Harrison songs as Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), I Want To Tell You and All Things Must Pass at February's George Harrison Memorial concert at Kyoto's Studio 909 (itself a veritable Beatles' shrine).

Some zealous fans should rightly be termed 'fanatics.' Take Ayako Tanaka, an Osaka office worker who's been following several Beatles tribute bands for more than eight years. She offers this testimonial: "These bands have changed my life. I used to be really shy and introverted, and I spent all of my time at work or at home. Now I have several friends who are BeaTrips fans, and we get together for live shows eight or ten times a month."

The band members themselves share the dream of performing at the annual Beatles festival in Liverpool. For the time being, though, they put in a hard day's night each Friday at Bar Get Ready in Gion (www.bar-gr.com) and monthly at Studio 909 (www.studio909.com). @

* Check out the faux four at www.beatrips.com and their rival Beatles tribute bands worldwide at www.beatlelinks.net/links/Tribute_Bands

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