One day while watching the kids at my elementary school run laps around the schoolyard, I was surprised to discover that the song playing on the loudspeaker was a track that I knew and liked.
‘You know Mongol 800?’ the grade 5 teacher asked, taken aback that his ALT would know a flash-in-the-pan Okinawan ska/punk band. When I confirmed that I did, he immediately suggested that I listen to the Cro-Magnons.
I picked up their self-titled debut album, and while there were a few tracks that got my pulse moving, I found myself listening to it mainly out of a sense of obligation. Nonetheless, when the same teacher blindsided me one afternoon by offering me a ticket to see them live in Shibuya, I readily agreed.
The Cro-Magnons (‘za kuro-manionzu’) have released a total of three albums to date, the remainder being Cave Party and Fire Age. The quartet is fronted by Hiroto Komoto on vocals and Masatoshi Mashima on guitars, two Japanese punk legends who made a name for themselves leading the Blue Hearts from 1985 to 1995, and then played as the High-Lows for another decade before forming the Cro-Magnons in 2006. The Blue Hearts’ ‘Train-Train’ and ‘Linda Linda’ remain regular numbers on karaoke machines across the country.
The Cro-Magnons look and sound like what you’d get if you crossbred the Ramones with the Rolling Stones: Fast, furious, frivolous, oblivious, 1960s rock-star skinny, tight pants, and an unhealthy obsession with primates.
Sporting a bowl haircut and playing up the monkey act for everything he’s worth, Komoto moves like a stilt-legged marionette with all of its strings being pulled at once, less a vocalist than a sandpaper-throated explosion barely contained in a red T-shirt. He looks like you'd have to tie him down just to get him to sleep at night.
Mashima is Komoto's opposite: Totally laid back and decked out as if mourning the death of ‘80s hair rock, he spent the evening tossing an endless supply of guitar picks into the first two rows of the audience, a lazy smirk dragged across his face.
The band blasted from track to track with barely a pause for breath, Komoto screaming out the name of each song over the first beat. They’d stop for a drink every five tracks or so, occasionally taking time out to shake hands, get names to incorporate into songs, or let themselves get ribbed by the audience. With Komoto eclectically responding to every comment he could make out, it felt less like a rock concert than a meeting of a circle of friends. Everyone even seemed to know the same set of gestures to accompany each track.
Shibuya’s C.C. Lemon Hall is like a high school auditorium. Aside from the drum kit at center stage and a peculiar assembly of 1950s caveman-style fire bowls, I half-expected a pimple-faced brass band to take the stage. When the Cro-Magnons came out and kicked it into gear with the first track from Cave Party, I had a serious desire for the seats to disappear so I could start moshing to the vacuously uplifting refrain, ‘Giri giri ga-gan-gan: I feel awesome today’ (‘Kyou wa saikyou no kibun da’). Nonetheless, we had a good position in the 4th row thanks to the grade 5 teacher’s friend, who had managed to snag 2nd-row seats for himself. Between the two of them, they’d seen the band live about 45 times. I was the only one in the group to own less than half a dozen Cro-Magnons T-shirts.
Highlights included Komoto and Mashima taking the fastest track off their debut album, Aruku Chibu (‘Walking Private Parts,’ don’t ask), and speeding it up, only to leave the stage halfway to allow drummer Katsuji Kirita a glorious five-minute solo before coming back to toll out the slow-paced coda. Komoto then emerged for the inevitable encore wearing only an inverted tour T-shirt around his vitals, which, the grade 5 teacher assured me, was a regular tradition.
He further advised me to keep an eye out for the moon at the end.
Published March 2009. Photo © 2009 Michael Kanert (taken from my cell phone).