[23 September 2003]
In their promotional materials, this hard rock band from Spain trumpet their debt to the MC5, and indeed, it’s unmistakable, from the innumerable variations of the “Kick Out the Jams” hook they work up to their propensity to shout rallying cries for the people during their breakdowns. They play at reckless tempos, with the guitar and the organ at dueling levels of distortion and volume both vying for supremacy. Singer R.J. Sinclair’s voice suits this propulsive, relentless style well; one can imagine the sweat spraying from his lips as he’s shouting on “Break-out Town” and “Capitalism Plus Dope Equal Genocide.” His English is uncertain at best, so in the moments when the band pauses to propound aspects of their manifesto he ends up sounding unintentionally and endearingly silly, if not downright embarrassing, as when he leads an imagined crowd through a chorus of “Dance to the Music.” In whatever Spanish rock scene that spawned Tokyo Sex Destruction this kind of call-and-response action might have worked, and might have even seemed inspiring, but listening to it on headphones, it seems absurd and a bit forced.
There’s no doubting Tokyo Sex Destruction’s love for not only Detroit-style hard rock but for soul music—they take several opportunities to announce, “We love you and we love soul music!”—but that earnestness and those well-meaning intentions to honor what they love don’t automatically translate into musical soulfulness. In many songs the band breaks it down gospel-style, introducing handclaps and ersatz preaching, but this is far less effective than when they plow ahead behind their “Train Kept a-Rollin’” riffs, rolling over whatever resistance one might have to their derivativeness. Much appears silly about Tokyo Sex Destruction—their name, the black shirt and tie uniform they wear, the members all adopting the last name Sinclair in honor of ‘60s radical John Sinclair, who tried to politicize the MC5.
Taking up radical politics, though, is not silly—on the contrary, more rock bands should try to fuse the unrelenting tension rock generates to a meaningful critique of the status quo rather than let their performances simply sap away youthful energy and use it up in a fruitless hedonism. The hollow rebelliousness that commercial hard rock occasionally embraces seems especially cynical in this regard; the legion of apparently angry nu-metal bands espouses a nihilistic view which may accord with a teenager’s actual worldview, but tends also to reinforce it, and to encourage a passivity in the face of life, leaving efforts to find meaning and personal identity restricted to what shopping choices one makes, what music one listens to, what sized tattoo one has on one’s neck. So Tokyo Sex Destruction’s impulse to radicalize hard rock is as laudable as it is unmistakable.
Their ideas, apparently informed by a crude form of Marxist critical theory, are provocative, and could give their audience something useful to think about: In the band’s liner notes, littered with photos of the Black Panthers, they include an essay called “Revolutionary Violence”, wherein they denounce a “youth that has been predisposed to become part of the production line of that terror machine called Capitalism”, and education, whose purpose, they claim, “is to rid individuals of their ability to choose, to generate empty individuals”. Plenty of American kids feel disgruntled and ill-served by mass education without being able to articulate why; they feel bored but think the solution is to consume more and more extreme entertainment product. That, of course, only reinforces a cycle of boredom while leaving them grossly undereducated and lacking the basis from which to conceive a more active, more involved way of life (a praxis, if you will).
What is silly about Tokyo Sex Destruction is not their message, as convoluted and utopian as it is; but their failure to have their essay translated and edited into a more fluent English, which leaves the impression that we are supposed to laugh at their naive and inarticulate attempts to be political, and to dismiss their ideas as comic, another foolish and funny thing that foreigners do. Combined with their uniforms and their nostalgia, we are invited to see radical politics as another campy element in their package, a kitschy style to take up, as when Socialist poster design motifs are used to sell vodka. In a country that encourages everyone to vote, but discourages the prerequisite of having to know anything about issues (see, for example, the surveys in USA Today,, where the celebration of know-nothingism is taken to its most preposterous extreme), attempts to make it seem boring or fatuous to understand what’s at stake in politics protect the system where votes are rotely cast without comprehending what they authorize or expecting that it makes any real difference, while those thereby authorized are permitted to expand their profit-extorting fiefs. American culture already trains us to ridicule efforts to become invested in politics; we certainly don’t need anything that encourages more laughter. So look past the packaging and the language lapses to dig in to the compelling natural fusion of a critical spirit and rock and roll raucousness. Or if you think listening to music should be strictly about having a good time, and don’t want to be distracted from your womb of hedonism, listen to the Mooney Suzuki or whatever other hard rock Sha Na Na the major labels are promoting these days.