Cold Cold Scary Scary Dark Dark: The Story Of The Japanese Teenage Girl Noise Trio, Super Ball
In the early 90s in Southwestern Japan, three teenage girls formed a band. Unlike other bands, they did not play indie music, they did not create electronic music, they did not play punk, they did not play retro-styled rock’n’roll, they did not even create the insanely deranged sound known as noise music — though it was that scene that inspired leadwoman Naomi Shimada to form the group, and it would also be the scene that they existed in.
Super Ball were essentially a performance art group using the framework of rock music, or at least just the act of performing music. They did create records, after a fashion — and they also played gigs. Yet what they actually did was some sort of ultimate deconstruction of the act of playing and making music — a bewildering, nonsensical, dadaist outfit only rivalled by a few other experimental artists: The Gerogerigegege, Runzelstirn and Gurglestock, Violent Onsen Geisha, Vagina Dentata Organ. As it happens, two of those artists are also Japanese.
Super Ball consisted of Naomi, Chinatsu, and Yoko. They all lived in Osaka, a city in the Kansai region of Japan. The group were once described as “exceed[ing] the boundaries of musical performance and non-performance”. To explain that statement, I just need to describe their gigs.
Super Ball performances were simple expressions of absurdism. Naomi would tunelessly strum her guitar like a small child pretending to be The Beatles; Chinatsu or Yoko would sometimes skip rope or blow bubbles instead of actually playing anything. They employed a drummer, who was not a living being or even a drum machine, but a little battery operated bear toy that clattered away on a fake plastic snare. Their signature tune, their most famous “hit” if you will, was Naomi singing the Alphabet Song (“A, B, C, D, E, F, G… H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P…”) while everybody improvised some sort of backing. Sometimes there would be no attempt at music at all and people would just sort of run about, stopping occasionally to admire a little toy or trinket that they had brought on stage with them. They are, in all honesty, one of my favourite bands.
Naomi met Chinatsu in 1991, when they were both fifteen years old. This was at a gig for the Madchester band Candy Flip, who some will recall for their only hit, a raved-up cover of Strawberry Fields Forever. Apparently Chinatsu didn’t notice Naomi, but Naomi certainly did notice Chinatsu standing in front of her in the queue to get in. It was due to her unusual haircut, or lack of it — at the time, her head was shaved completely bald. Their second meeting was the one where both of them noticed each other and started talking, and they became friends.
About a year and a half later, Naomi met Yoko, under circumstances that were not as favourable as when she met Chinatsu. Naomi had arranged to meet up with some friends to hang out (at a part of Osaka called Nishinari-ku — which contains a number of entertainment areas and restaurants, and is also considered to be the most dangerous location in Japan as regards to crime). Yoko was a friend of some of these friends. Naomi arrived extremely late, and Yoko responded, in the terminology of British schoolkids, by giving her evils. Naomi initially was put off by the nasty looks that Yoko was giving her, but then an odd thing happened. In a later interview conducted with Naomi and Chinatsu in 1994, Naomi said the following:
Yoko-chan was giving me this fierce look. I was about to start a fight, and I would’ve done it, but I thought, “This person over here–there’s something about her that’s appealing.” Then I started to really like her.
Quite what that thing was that instantly changed Naomi’s mind is not elaborated on, but I like to romantically think of this as the hand of some kind of cosmic fate.
The three girls were now in place. They did not yet have a band. The idea of forming a band, however, had already occurred to Naomi — but it would take some time between Naomi’s noise music related road-to-Damascus moment and the actual formation of Super Ball.
In the autumn of 1991, Naomi attended a gig by a band called Audio Sports. Audio Sports were a hip hop group that happened to be a side-project of Yamantaka Eye, frontman of the Boredoms. Eye was a well-known character thanks to his extraordinary 80s noise outfit The Hanatarashi (later just Hanatarash), which when translated to English means something like “The Snot-Nosed” or “Sniveller”. They were a frighteningly extreme duo consisting of Eye and Mitsuru Tabata, guitarist for rock band Zeni Geva. At these performances, which were more like one-man riots, Tabata would play drums while Eye would hurl and break things and attempt to literally destroy the venue. The audience would always end up cowering somewhere far away from him, and at least one gig is noted for having said audience to sign waivers that the band or promoters would not be held responsible if they were injured.
Eye had formed the Boredoms as some sort of response to his previous group — they were a deliberate step away from any kind of literal violence and were a purely musical form of lunacy, playing an amazing form of what came to be known as noise-rock. In time, they would cross over to the West and become a gateway for 90s American and European rock fans into noise music.
Naomi enjoyed Audio Sports and decided to check out the Boredoms. Like those aforementioned American / European indie kids and rockers, she was stunned by them, and at this point a whole potential world opened up to her. She started attending local concerts at places known as “livehouses” where many underground Osaka artists played. Naomi realised that her city had a thriving and thrilling scene going on, one that local Japanese media were quite uninterested in, even if they were aware of it at all.
(I should point out here that over the course of the 90s there were actually a few fleeting mentions and news features on noise acts on various Japanese TV shows — here’s a NSFW example — but the very nature of the genre meant that it was never taken particularly seriously.)
She realised she had to do something noise related, but what that thing was she was unsure about. Super Ball was eventually born out of Naomi’s naivete about the actual mechanics of making music. In her own words:
I used to have simple ideas about making music. I thought that you could just pick up an instrument and soon play anything. When I first picked up a guitar it was like ‘What’s this, I can’t play anything. I can’t figure this out!’ I realized that it was difficult, but I thought it really didn’t matter one way or the other. I was thinking, ‘I can’t play an instrument, isn’t there something I could do!?’ and that was how I came up with Super Ball.
It was the classic example of making do with what you already have; making your weaknesses into strengths. Naomi was unintentionally following in the footsteps of many punk and post-punk artists before her, from Mark E Smith’s defiantly unmusical vocals to Beat Happening’s deliberate focus on shambling amateurism. And so eventually, in 1993 she decided to form a band with her friends.
In due course a 10 minute cassette was recorded and released, and it was on the strength of that tape that they started getting booked in clubs. They would end up releasing two cassettes, but only the first has appeared on the internet, and it’s also the one I own a physical copy of. It was an EP of roughly five tracks — not so much songs — and they were bizarrely skeletal affairs.
The lyrics were written not by Naomi but by another one of her friends, who was unconnected with Super Ball. This friend had written a series of poems in her notebook which simply consisted of the Japanese words for things like “cold”, “scary”, and “dark” over and over again. The instruments used were acoustic guitar, some sort of simple Bontempi-esque electric organ, and shakers — typical percussion instruments of the kind often used in primary schools. Over ten minutes and two sides these oblique, barely existing noises unspooled — nagging penny whistles, breaks into laughter, and finally a long concluding sample of an American instructional tape for playing bass in surf music.
Their second gig in August 1993 went down in noise music legend. It was attended by none other than Eye of the Boredoms, the man who inspired her. He later claimed that it was “the greatest sensation since hearing the Butthole Surfers for the first time”.
It’s here I should point out that Super Ball were very much more a visual and theatrical experience rather than an audio one. If you were to divorce the cassette from its context, some may potentially think of it as just odd and annoying — though I was personally fascinated enough to enjoy the cassette on its own merits. But even if you don’t think the same as me, when you see actual footage of them, you get it.
All existing video of them comes from a single VHS tape released by noise label Augen. The tape apparently covers an entire tour’s worth of performances as well as some backstage footage, and it only lasts 45 minutes. In 2013, experimental music artist C Spencer Yeh claimed that it was this VHS tape that “serves as both their official debut album, as well as their greatest hits collection”. He’s absolutely bang on. I got the cassette before I managed to see the video, and I knew I was missing out on something before I did. Most of the descriptions I’ve written in this article of their stage antics come from that tape, and all the “hits” are there, including a performance of the “ABC” song.
Super Ball ended up attracting a significant amount of attention, but it seems that at some point after the VHS-documented tour things just sort of petered out. This was for the best; you can’t be the ultimate deconstruction of rock music forever. In 1994, Naomi stated:
“I’m not thinking of doing Super Ball for my whole life and there’s no way that being in a band is going to put groceries on the table. There are many things that I want to do and I honestly feel that music is only one of those things. Super Ball is not the only thing that I think about.”
The end of Super Ball was as quiet as their initial impact had stunned. Life basically got in the way, it seems. At the end of the interview where I’ve been pulling those quotes from, Naomi says that both her and Chinatsu had dropped out of high school, and Naomi was planning to enter a special high school to continue her education. This sort of thing is a much bigger deal in Japan than it would be in the West. Yoko graduated high school and by the time of that interview was attending college. Things wound down to a halt, like that drummer’s batteries going flat.
In spite of reports in US fanzines of the time that Super Ball were to release a split single with American band Truman’s Water, and that Thurston Moore wanted them to record a double album to release on his Ecstatic Peace! label, Super Ball simply ended. The VHS tape and those two cassettes were more or less the only recorded output by the band, apart from a few exceptions.
A version of their big hit, “Abc” (the Alphabet Song, as you’ll have guessed), appeared on the compilation album “Mi Caballito Chulo….! Como Lo Quie Ro…..” from ¿Los Apson?, a label that’s actually a record store who happen to have put out three records themselves — the other two being by noise legend Merzbow and dance music producer Altz. The version on this comp seems to have been deliberately distorted to make it more obviously “noise”, and there’s also an odd background of chatter from the audience — odd in that it sounds like the typical background sound of a restaurant with the audience present obliviously nattering away, only put through a fuzzbox pedal.
In addition to the previous, an outfit known as Benten Label — who specialised in female punk / indie rock groups — put out a comp called “Benten Bentoh” (that’s the English translation, the actual title is in Japanese). It features a quick little bonus Super Ball track right at the end — “It At”, perhaps an out-take which lasts all of 23 seconds, and is in three parts: a shrill whistle, followed with some blips of Bontempi organ (or harmonica?) and Naomi sullenly intoning the title a few times, before the track seems to prematurely shudder and die with a discordant clang of guitar and shaker.
And finally, on another comp also from Benten Label, there was a curious postscript recorded live in 1995. Consisting of Naomi alone with a keyboard in front of a small crowd, this was “Super Ball 2”… by “Super Ball 2”. Naomi groans and mumbles while activating various noises and rhythms on a 90s era Yamaha home keyboard (or similar) — this lasts for a couple of minutes until the performance suddenly ceases. The audience roars its approval, and the metaphorical curtain descends.
(If you’re wondering why I didn’t give the name of that final compilation, it’s because that any traces of info of this second comp seem to have erased off the internet. I still have the single mp3 off it, but all info had been deleted by the time I went back to Discogs to check. The fact that the info was all on Discogs in the first place perhaps holds a clue as to why this has happened — some mods there are notorious for their petty behaviour…)
It was only Naomi who continued making music for a while. As well as “Super Ball 2”, at some point in 1994 she also formed The Give-Ups, a Black Sabbath tribute band. But as she had said herself, music was only one of those things she wanted to do.
After that initial burst of activity, everything went dormant. There was, for some time, a few remaining copies of that first Super Ball cassette and the VHS tape available from the website of Forced Exposure, a mail order company which had also been a widely distributed fanzine back in the 80s. (It was there I bought my copy of the cassette — as long ago as around about 2000 / 2001. The VHS was out of the question at the time as it was NTSC format — a video system not used in Europe.)
In recent years, remnants of their career have slowly (very slowly) found their way online. The aforementioned first cassette appeared on the net, and as of this writing is available in full on Youtube. A public showing of Super Ball’s VHS release occurred in May 2013 at an art venue in Brooklyn, NY, alongside another VHS noise tape gem — Ziggy Atem. (Space does not allow me to really explain who this man was, but I hope to write about him in the future.) Also on Youtube is a highlights reel of that VHS tape — and you’re advised to start there if you want to delve into this curious micro-phenomenon.
Super Ball were a group that could only exist within the already peculiar realm of noise / industrial / avant-garde music. They happen to remind me of all sorts of other non-categorisable things that I would later discover as time went on (though obviously they were unique enough in and of themselves): the all-over-the-place genre bending of the Gerogerigegege, those weird one-off novelty acts in early 80s British alternative comedy clubs, experimental films from the 60s that barely resemble actual films. While I already knew about noise music before I found Super Ball, noise had already been around long enough to become something of a recognisable genre with its own tropes and standards and expectations (stick a bunch of guitar pedals together, scream threats into a microphone, job’s a good’un). They stepped outside even something as wild as noise while simultaneously drawing inspiration from it and paying tribute to it.
In these restricted, socially and commercially conservative times, Super Ball show the vital need for art and play. Anything remotely “arty” is viewed as suspicious, and “pretentious” even if you’re genuinely expressing yourself. This has admittedly always been the case, but it seems that it’s something that has worsened over time. You can easily imagine various Sheeran-worshipping dullards braying and sneering away at the Youtube upload of “Teenage Superstar On Stage”. But something as simple as a few chanted words and a few repeated notes beats the snot out of the usual approved indie or “EDM” fodder and exposes it for the tedium it is — or to loosely paraphrase someone else who once made a right old racket, their 1993 beat Oasis’ 90s.