Summer Sonic 2011 – Review

After all the stress of post-quake (and post-meltdown) Japan life, this weekend’s Summer Sonic festival proved a welcome celebration of the brighter side.

At one point it had seemed that it may not go ahead: The site of the festival’s Chiba leg (near Tokyo; it also takes place in Osaka the same weekend, like Reading and Leeds) had been damaged badly in March’s mega-quake; and some Western bands were cancelling Japan tours for fears that radioactive fallout might leave them glowing in the dark. But in the end, the festival was a triumph for debauchery over disaster.

A few British acts even managed to tear themselves away from rioting to perform. Beady Eye were one of the headliners, though Liam seemed to have mixed up his seasons (the clue is in the festival name) and wore a raincoat.

Grime shouldn’t work in Japan – there’s no ghetto here, and the average Japanese youth has about as much connection with an impoverished South London upbringing as does David Cameron. Yet Tinie Tempah had the crowd bouncing nonetheless.

Even better was The Horrors’ midnight show on Saturday night. They’re huge here, and tens of thousands of fans turned out to see them. The band played a nicely subdued set that felt somehow electrified; it’s as though Farris and co are slowly growing into their own weirdness.

Another perfectly strange (and strangely perfect) band was Death From Above 1979. Their backdrop showed a gravestone inscribed “DFA1979 – 2001-2006”, and yet there they were in the living flesh, blasting out super-tight rhythms that hit us right in the groin. Drummer/vocalist Sebastien urged the crowd to fuck so we can “have more Japanese people in the world” (Japan has a severely declining birth rate); not sure whether the crowd made love, but they sure listened to DFA.

Julian Casablancas’ banter was somewhat more inane during The Strokes’ set – “Japan is really cool. You guys have your shit together.” Their set was plenty static too, with songs getting a better reaction the older they were. Ouch.

Then again, sometimes the oldies are the best. Bow Wow Wow, inexplicably but happily re-formed, played one of the coolest sets of the weekend. Annabella Lwin, 30 years on from her debut at age 14 with C30, C60, C90, Go! – the first (and best) ever song about music piracy – was dressed as a belly dancer, with round but toned belly to match, and her bonkers band and their Burundi beats are still to die for.

Japan was representing as well, obviously. Excellent rising garage trio The Cold Tommy rocked the ePlus Stage, where unsigned artists are invited to play each year after winning a public vote.

On the other end of the scale, packing out the 35,000-capacity Marine Stadium (one of the urban festival’s venues), Maximum The Hormone are one of Japan’s hardest, scariest and most popular bands; they played a fierce set of metal so sharp you could shave with it.

You might know J-pop trio Perfume from their track Polyrhythm, which is featured in Cars 2. Or maybe not. Anyway, the girls filled the Mountain Stage to its 21,300 capacity, their choreographed dances and stylish red mini-dresses turning as many heads as their fat electro basslines, which sounded delicious over the huge PA.

More great pop came courtesy of The Ting Tings. Their new material brought the party vibe, and while fans were packed in too tight to dance, they clapped along as Katie and Jules somehow filled that massive stadium stage. At one point, Katie, in short shorts and knee-high socks, read out some Japanese from a piece of paper, one syllable at a time, translated thus: “My Japanese is terrible, so I’ll just shut up and dance.” And then she did.

Speaking of dancing, Taiwanese outfit Go Chic’s singer Ariel, who moves as though she’s made entirely of elastic, berated her audience for not doing any. They’re a great band and they drip attitude, but comments such as “All the people at the back: Fuck you!” were enough to cause some to walk out.

No such problems for club-pop trio Yelle, house DJ duo Carte Blanche or ego-maniac DJ SebastiAn: The three French outfits created meltdowns of their own, especially Yelle, whose slot on the Mountain Stage saw 10,000 fans copying her every dance move.

Local dancefloor grooves came courtesy of Angree Yung Robotz, a sexy new unit made up of rapper Verbal from chart-topping band m-flo, DJ-cum-singer Mademoiselle Yulia, and electro-artcore six-piece Trippple Nippples, the latter of whom wore grotesque wings covered in fairy lights and tape over their tits.

There are always schedule clashes at festivals, and Summer Sonic was no exception. Two Door Cinema Club, for example, clashed with me being offered a free lunch – sorry boys! But Sunday night posed the biggest dilemma for most, as Suede and Public Image Ltd went up against the insanely popular Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I caught a bit of PiL before the Chilies started (and then went to their headline show in Tokyo the next day), and damn they’re on fine form. In his white V-neck sweater and tartan shorts, John Lydon looked like he’d come straight from the golf course, but he spat and wailed his lyrics in a full and forceful voice.

As for the Chilies, you can read about that here.

The unbearable heat and humidity did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 60,000 revellers who turned up each day to immerse themselves in music and booze and dancing and love. Japan’s problems are far from over, and there was no question that anyone would forget that. But two days of escapism? Yeah, I’d say we needed that.

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