Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2010

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As Janis Joplin tears into a rip-roaring version of “Another Piece of My Heart,” ably supported by none other than Jimi Hendrix on guitar, Keith Moon watches with interest from the crowd. This is a collaboration that, tragically, never happened, and you’d be forgiven for wondering who spiked your drink. But we’re at a Legend of Rock (LoR) tribute show, and anything is possible. Janis—or Zaisu Joplin, as the Japanese impersonator is known—pulls off the impossible, her familiar rasp sending shivers down the spine. Jimisen is more than just note-perfect. He is Jimi.

Strangely, despite the popularity of Western rock bands in Japan, the tribute scene has never really taken off. While the likes of Abba impersonators Bjorn Again regularly play to thousands in Europe, their Japanese counterparts are confined to sparsely attended basement live-house gigs.

LoR promotor Takashi Okabe is setting out to change that, but it’s a tough challenge.

“Japanese people aren’t yet tuned to the tribute band scene,” he says in an email interview. “But we hope to be able to share classic rock music with a new generation, and the quality of the musicians is very high.” Okabe is undoubtedly right about that: without exception, the LoR acts are tight, well drilled and ooze real passion for their music.

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Metropolis managed to catch up with several of the artists at Ikebukuro live house ADM Garage, and discovered a common inspiration. Hiroshi Fujie (a.k.a. Jimisen) says he “saw the Woodstock movie at age 16—Jimi’s guitar sounds were just amazing.” Townzen guitarist Samurai Sam nods enthusiastically, having been similarly moved by the energy of The Who’s performance. “Windmill jumps, crazy drumming—I thought this is the only band for me.”

It’s clear that for many of the groups, it’s not enough simply to play the music; getting into character is a vital part of the experience. The members of Kiss tribute band Makin’ Love are visually (and musically) indistinguishable from the real thing—Jimisen blacks up, dons an afro wig, and plays guitar with his teeth. Once a year, on the real Jimi’s birthday, he burns a guitar onstage.

From time to time, there are even some authentic rock ‘n’ roll moments. “A couple of years ago at one of our shows, our drummer Mr. Monner [i.e., Keith Moon] and our former vocalist turned up drunk—really drunk,” Samurai Sam recalls. “The gig was terrible and I got really angry and started smashing up equipment.” Fans could be forgiven for thinking this was part of the act, until Sam asked the crowd, “Can you sing better than him?”

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“I could try!” shouted back Englishman Ian Webster. A few days later, Sam advertised in Metropolis for a new singer, and Webster seized his chance to become the new Roger Daltrey—and the only foreigner on the LoR tour. “Ian and I have a real chemistry,” Sam says. “Thank you, Metropolis, for being our cupid.”

This being Japan, many acts, while true to the music, have their own little quirks. AC/DC’s schoolboy outfits become salarymen; Aerozamath are all women. The Beggars (Rolling Stones) are all men but look like Osaka oba-chan. Which, come to think of it, is exactly how Mick, Keith, et al. look these days too.

Last month, Townzen, Jimisen and Mr. Jimmy (Led Zeppelin) combined to produce a CD. Intriguingly, each band also recorded an original track in the same style as the bands they cover, with impressive, if somewhat surreal results. Singing in Japanese while pretending to be Daltrey was, says Webster, “challenging to say the least.”

“There’s still a long way to go before tribute culture is fully accepted in Japan,” he concludes. “A few people just don’t get it: one member of the audience I spoke to after a show thought I was wearing a wig on stage because I was bald!”

What she made of Jimisen’s blackface and afro is anyone’s guess.

Legend of Rock is available on Omagatoki/Columbia.

“Legend Of Rock Vol.50”
Japanese bands play tribute to Jimi Hendrix, The Who and others. Jan 10, 2:30pm, ¥3,500. Duo Music Exchange, Shibuya. Tel: 03-5459-8716.