Summer Sonic 2010 – Smashing Pumpkins, Jay-Z, The Drums, Hurts

This weekend, the sun beat hard on another Summer Sonic – Japan’s coolest international music festival, held on 7 and 8 August.

The event is held simultaneously in Chiba (near Tokyo) and in Osaka (the other side of Japan), in a sort of Reading/Leeds-type arrangement; NME attended the Chiba leg, which houses three huge arenas in a vast expo centre and, on the other side of a six-lane highway, the 30,000-capacity open-air Marine Stadium, the tented Island Stage and the seaside Beach Stage.

And with temperatures soaring into the mid-30s, a crowd made up of impossibly sexy young lads and ladies, and a line-up featuring Jay-Z and Pixies, there was plenty to get sweaty about.

But if all that sounds like too much fun, it’s time to get serious. Hurts played their first ever Japan show on the Sonic Stage on Saturday lunchtime, and an appreciative crowd turned out to see their five-piece stage show.

The tuxedos might not have been a top choice in this weather, but Adam Anderson’s aching synths and grandiose strings set the perfect platform for the deep, rich vocals provided by Theo Hutchcraft, whose hair was slicked back like a Miami beach. The boys won a fair few fans, but then, they seem to be good at that.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

The Maccabees’ Orlando Weeks was also in fine voice (deep but somehow slightly distant, like Elvis singing from around the U-bend) as his band took the 20,000-capacity Mountain Stage, also for their first Japan show. A selection of kinetic grooves and sparing bombast got people moving, and Orlando’s attempt at speaking Japanese provided excellent comic relief.

If you’d wondered who that was waving a Union Jack down the front for The Maccabees, nope, it wasn’t the large contingent of Brits who’d turned out to heckle them with cockney accents. In fact, many Tokyoites are infatuated with UK music, and have been for some years. There’s even a dedicated biannual music festival, British Anthems.

No surprise, then, that the next band on the Mountain Stage was The Courteeners, who strolled on to the strains of Kasabian’s ‘Fire’ to become our third British five-piece in a row that day.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

Liam introduced ‘The Opener’ as being “about Manchester”; the sweetly romantic tune recalled rainy days and lumpy ale, just as it should, while ‘Cross My Heart & Hope To Fly’ was a heavy, bruised slow-burner. The crowd didn’t quite go off, but with The Courteeners, that’s not really the point.

Two Door Cinema Club packed out the 10,000-capacity Sonic Stage, to the extent that one fan near NME collapsed flat and had to be carried off bodily by festival staff. Others enjoying a TDCC-style pop injection included a couple of Japanese TV celebrities, a toddler and a chap dressed from head to toe as a pig.

Medical catastrophes aside, the band’s set was a triumph, with roof-raisers ‘Something Good Can Work’ and ‘What You Know’ drawing huge responses.

Stepping outside of the dark, air-conditioned Makuhari Messe convention centre and into the sun feels like someone’s switched on halogen lamps in your retinas and poured tepid sweat all over your body. But venture outside we did, crossing the highway (careful!) to check out Tahiti 80 on the Beach Stage.

As NME bought a beer from a bikini-clad barmaid – the gentle waves to our left, setting sun behind the stage and a cool breeze all around – we felt something that we never have at Reading or Glastonbury: relaxed.

Headlining the mammoth Marine Stadium – and packing it out completely – was Jay-Z. “Rock is in the building!” he exclaimed, even though we were outdoors and Jay-Z plays hip-hop, but what the hell.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

By now the Jack Daniel’s and ginger ale we’d purchased from a cowgirl was kicking in, and Mr Z’s set was electric. Clad in a Summer Sonic T-shirt, he paraded in front of a giant screen showing arty videos as tens of thousands of fans waved glowsticks and mobile phones as one.

Venturing back to the Messe for Smashing Pumpkins, we arrived in time to see Billy Corgan (the band’s only remaining original member) whip out his ukulele for a tender rendition of Ray Noble’s ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’ – very cute, and just quiet enough that we could hear the nearby summertime fireworks.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

Soon Corgan unleashed a few fireworks of his own, in the shape of ‘1979’, ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and ‘Cherub Rock’, as well as plenty of songs from ‘Zeitgeist’ and new album-in-progress ‘Teargarden By Kaleidyscope’. With new band members including 20-year-old drummer Mike Byrne, the rhythm was not as primal nor the bombast as dramatic as the Pumpkins of old, but for a nostalgia trip, you couldn’t fault them.

Since public transport in Japan winds down so early, the headliners at this urban music festival finish at around 9:30pm, though two midnight stages keep the action going till around 5am on the first night. Opening the Midnight Sonic Stage were Billy Corgan’s best chums Pavement, gracing Japan with their second appearance of 2010.

As you probably know by now, their shambolic-but-not-as-shambolic-as-it-used-to-be reunion shows focus heavily on their first couple of early-’90s albums. Sadly Stephen Malkmus seemed to have gone into autopilot already, fluffing the lyrics to ‘Spit On A Stranger’ and generally looking disengaged. But a selection of rough-edged classics stuffed with wiry guitars and silly voices kept the crowd smiling into the night.

On Sunday morning, NME dashed past Orianthi backstage (her hair’s bigger in real life) to get to the Island Stage, where Shinsei Kamattechan were preparing for their 11am set in front of 3,000 hungry fans. Shinsei Kamattechan are one of the buzziest and most exciting young bands in Japan right now, and were recently snapped up by Warner.

In a country where the mainstream music industry still clings to decades-old auditions and top-down marketing strategies, bands like Shinsei Kamattechan are all the more crucial, and their utterly deranged fusion of furious punk rhythm, cheesy pop piano, tortured synth sounds, pitchshifted vocals and uncloaked violence made for the best performance of the whole weekend.

Darwin Deez and his three band members brought a party of their own. Alternating performances of their own songs with flawlessly choreographed dance routines to tracks as diverse as ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, ‘Do The Bartman’ and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘That’s What I get’, they left the Dance Stage audience delightedly dazed. Darwin has NYC written all over him, and the overall effect was that of an intimate house party, despite the large hall in which we were gathered.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

The Drums pulled a huge crowd over on the Sonic Stage, where their homage to the ’80s UK indie sound – The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division – thrilled the young audience. Jonathan Pierce is hardly Morrissey, but he minced around the stage convincingly as his band unleashed the sort of bouncy pop tunes that go down great in Japan.

Hole’s Mountain Stage set was hard to fault – the new band members are all technically competent, and Courtney’s voice sounded stronger than ever; she even sang in tune, which never happened in the old days.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

But it lacked heart, and the new tunes, let’s face it, stink of commercial daytime radio. ‘Doll Hearts’ has aged poorly, though ‘Plump’ sounded every bit as brutal as it ever did.

The sideshow stages that dotted the inside of Makuhari Messe played host to a Michael Jackson impersonator, various Japanese comedians and pole-dancing troupes. But on the Dance Stage, Cape Town trio Die Antwoord showcased their own take on sideshow freakery.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

Clad in matching trackies, MCs Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$a strutted their gaudy stuff to DJ Hi-Tek’s handcrafted beats, rapping in a mix of English and Afrikaans. Though the music sometimes bordered on Europop and there was a whiff of comedy act about them, their bouncing beats and sheer abandon was infectious.

This writer has never been a fan of Guns N’ Roses, nor metal, nor interminable guitar solos. So what persuaded us to venture back to the Mountain Stage for a whiff of Slash we’ll never know. The 20,000 or so fans and smattering of Japanese celebrities who’d turned out to watch might disagree, but his turgid metal fretwankery made for the worst throwback of the weekend.

Photo (c) Summer Sonic 2010: all rights reserved

And so, finally, to Pixies. Yes, on stage, relations seemed frosty between Kim Deal and her bandmates. Not only that, but the fire in the six-years re-formed band’s belly seemed to be dwindling just ever so slightly. The edges on their once-ragged and vital songs have been smoothed by constant touring, probably not helped by the sore throat Black Francis claimed to have at encore time (though mysteriously his voice sounded fine throughout the set).

Don’t get us wrong: Pixies are still one of the finest bands on earth, and hearing ‘Bone Machine’, ‘Gigantic’ and a wrought ‘Hey’ in all their glory brought a magnificent close to the weekend. But we’d be pretty surprised if the Pixies wagon continues to roll much further.

Daniel Robson is a British music journalist and events organiser based in Tokyo. For info about Japanese bands playing in the UK and a free podcast, go to

All photos by Daniel Robson unless stated otherwise