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Flower Travellin’ Band

The Japanese Re-Invasion

Note:  On August 7, 2011, Flower Travellin’ Band singer Joe Yamanaka passed away of lung cancer in Yokosuka, Japan at age 64.  R.I.P.  This piece from December 2008 is reprinted in his honour.

FTB Thirty-eight years ago this month, the members of the Flower Travellin’ Band moved from Tokyo to Toronto, poised to take on the world. A little over a year later, they returned to Japan, broke and somewhat disillusioned. But from the Land of the Rising Sun to the land of the ice and snow, rock ‘n’ roll dreams die hard, and now, FTB have returned to take care of some long-unfinished business.

With their first Toronto gig since 1972 rapidly approaching, four of the five band members sit in a hotel lobby at Pearson Airport, eagerly awaiting news of singer Joe Yamanaka, who has been temporarily stranded in Tokyo due to a passport screw-up. They could go on for hours about how visas have been the bane of their existence, but they’re just as eager to reminisce about their heyday, when they hung out in Yonge Street clubs and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Seger and The Guess Who. Now in their early 60s, they all look fighting fit, and as guitarist Hideki Ishima is keen to note, they’re “still crazy.”

Back in the day, FTB were crazy indeed: the cover of their first album, Anywhere, depicted the long-haired rockers riding motorcycles naked on a cold April morning. Their music was harder and more intense than anything Japan had ever heard, and on stage, they played with energy and abandon – one vintage video on YouTube shows the band working a deliriously enthusiastic crowd in Kyoto as a loincloth-sporting Yamanaka whips them up (and dodges items of their clothing) from astride a large fibreglass elephant.

When FTB met the band Lighthouse at Osaka’s Expo ’70, they were captivated by the jazz-influenced Canadian rockers’ enthusiastic description of Toronto. FTB recorded their second album, the mind-warpingly bruising Satori, in two days, and hopped a plane across the Pacific to join their new friends shortly thereafter.

The single “Satori, Part 2” charted in Toronto, where audiences proved, as bassist Jun Kobayashi notes, “more excitable” than back home. The band began to find fans in unexpected places: Ishima recalls a policeman who pulled them over and body-searched them one night for looking “suspicious,” but ended up asking, “Are you guys Flower Travellin’ Band?” Instead of being handcuffed, they got a lift back to their apartments.

In Trudeau’s multicultural Canada, FTB’s heritage became a selling point; they even called an album they recorded in Toronto Made in Japan. They landed opening-act gigs for Lighthouse and Emerson, Lake & Palmer at Ontario Place and Stanley Park Stadium on King Street, but despite their best efforts, their career stalled because they couldn’t obtain the visas they needed to tour the U.S.

Living in penury took its toll: drummer George Wada was hospitalized for three months with tuberculosis. He had contracted the disease in Japan, he says, but he developed its symptoms in Toronto because “all the stress and no food made me weak.”

Bowed but unbroken, FTB returned to Japan in 1972, only to find that while they were away, as Kobayashi recalls, “the whole country went [over] to folk music.” Still, they soldiered on – literally. At one concert, they were attacked by a group of helmet-wearing, spear-carrying students protesting the admission charge. The band members (especially Yamanaka, a former boxer) fought them into submission and kept playing.

FTB added keyboardist Nobuhiko Shinohara to “widen the sound” and were signed up to open for The Rolling Stones on a Japanese tour. Alas, Mick Jagger’s own visa issues scuppered what could have been their big break, and the band parted ways soon after.

And yet, over the decades their profile has increased, largely due to Satori, which was hailed as an undiscovered classic of proto-heavy metal and stoner rock. In 2002, director Takashi Miike used it to soundtrack much of his ultraviolent Yakuza movie, Deadly Outlaw Rekka. Singer and music historian Julian Cope put the record at the top of his list of best 1960s and ‘70s Japanese albums in his 2007 book Japrocksampler, which featured Anywhere’s infamous naked-motorcycle photo on the cover.

Most importantly, the cult success of Japanese progressive, psychedelic and experimental bands such as Boris, Acid Mothers Temple, and The Boredoms has prompted fans around the world to explore the work of their antecedents, and FTB have developed a following among people who never had the chance to see them play.

The band remain unfamiliar with the work of these younger acts, and the term “stoner rock” simply makes them laugh. Nonetheless, they knew from the growing number of mentions of their name on the internet that it was a propitious time for a reunion. Only Kobayashi needed to be coaxed: he hadn’t picked up a bass in nearly 35 years and was living in Toronto, designing watches and accessories.

Eventually, Ishima’s philosophy convinced him. “I feel like I want to keep trying, even though I may fail,” says the guitarist. And even though the band’s reunion album, We Are Here, feels somewhat tentative, it still showcases the band members’ personalities: Wada’s pummelling drums, Kobayashi’s slinky bass, Shinohara’s expansive, jazz-influenced keys, Yamanaka’s keening vocals, and Ishima’s winding licks – now delivered on a “sitarla,” a guitar-sitar hybrid which he helped to invent.

On stage, they’ve truly come back into their own, as fiery footage from their recent Japanese reunion tour suggests. Says Kobayashi, new fans were “excited” by the sight of “old guys like us, still performing this way.”

Alas, American fans still have to cross the border for their FTB fix: Yamanaka’s passport problem means a planned concert in New York City has been scrapped. But this Monday, at Toronto’s Revival, the dreadlocked singer will join his “crazy” bandmates on stage.

And even though this time they’re under no illusions that they’ll conquer the world – “We’re too old!” laughs Kobayashi – their very presence is an antidote to the over-produced, Nickelback-led bilge that continues to pile up on Canadian rock radio, and to Japan’s preternaturally perfect pop.

“We are against that,” says Kobayashi. “That’s ridiculous. We want to make more mistakes.”

— Originally published in The National Post, Dec. 12 2008

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