‘There was a bucket where you could squeeze sweat out of your clothes’: OZ, the club that changed Japanese rock

The venue, which opened in Tokyo in 1972, created a pioneering space for musical experiment. As a record of its wild last days is released, habitués recall how it ‘brought legitimacy to the underground’

Minoru Tezuka remembers the start of the 1970s in Japan as a time when the youth appeared lost. “The student protest movement had died down, and young people were depressed, seeking out new ideas,” he says.

They needed room to express themselves, and Tezuka played a central role in creating that space. He managed the “live house” OZ, a tight two-storey building situated in the western suburbs of Tokyo that opened in 1972. Intent on making a space for young people to get together and collaborate, he held concerts and other events and kept entry fees low. It attracted musicians from across Tokyo along with local university students sporting then on-trend long hair and bell bottoms. “It was a free atmosphere, and probably an easy place to get drugs – though I don’t know about that,” laughs Makoto Kubota, who played with Les Rallizes Dénudés at the time.

Despite closing just over a year later, its influence has lasted for decades: it’s here that some of the most influential underground rock acts in Japanese history – including Les Rallizes Dénudés, Taj Mahal Travelers and Masato Minami – developed their sound, while also showing that independent spaces could flourish in the country. “We were the first generation of school dropouts and hippies, and OZ was the first place for us to play,” says Kubota.

Les Rallizes Dénudés performing at OZ.
Les Rallizes Dénudés performing at OZ. Photograph: Courtesy of M Tezuka and OZ Press

California-based label Temporal Drift places a spotlight on this period of underground music history with OZ Days Live 72-73 Kichijoji: The 50th Anniversary Collection, a reissue of a private-press collection of live recordings, including from the venue’s blowout run of final shows in 1973. “OZ brought legitimacy to the underground, providing a home base for likeminded musicians and artists who otherwise did not have many opportunities to showcase their talent,” says Temporal Drift co-founder Yosuke Kitazawa. “Major labels and concert promoters weren’t necessary for great music to exist and be experienced. OZ could be seen as a precursor to the DIY movements in the punk era and beyond.”

Before OZ, underground rock in 1960s Japan intersected with hippie culture inspired by events in the US and propelled domestically by opposition to the Vietnam war. A new wave of independent Japanese artists was emerging, influenced by the embers of domestic leftwing protests, exposure to global hippie culture and encounters with drugs. “It was an epoch shift when young people started writing songs with philosophical lyrics criticising society instead of love songs,” says OZ-regular Hiroaki Horiuchi. “It was all against the entertainment world, about presence over technique or singing ability.”

But there were few venues that would welcome them. In the late 60s, a more polished, major-label style of music dubbed Group Sounds was taking up space at the larger music halls and discos scattered across the country. These venues didn’t look fondly on the type of artists with long hair who hoped to explore the outer reaches of rock, says Tezuka. They sometimes found a home at cafes, but often had to go to great lengths to play live.

OZ manager Minoru Tezuka.
OZ manager Minoru Tezuka. Photograph: Courtesy of M Tezuka and OZ Press

“Everyone in the scene played at outdoor music halls that we’d hitchhike to,” says the self-styled Dr Seven, who recorded as Acid Seven and played at OZ frequently. “Many of them were up in the mountains, near communes, or we’d sometimes use university lecture halls.” Even campus events could turn tense: future OZ regular Hiroaki Horiuchi recalls being constantly antagonised by the police and rightwing student groups, to the point where they were brawling more often than performing.

OZ became the home this wave of artists needed. Located steps away from the train station in the western Tokyo neighbourhood of Kichijoji, it was the undertaking of couple Shinya and Tami Kawauchi, who had found success one station over in Nishi-Ogikubo by opening a handmade accessory store. Tami’s brother Arita Takeo suggested they open a space where musicians like himself could play shows, given how hard it was to land them. They procured the space, got to work renovating it, and made Tezuka, a regular in Nishi-Ogikubo, the manager.

It was a tight, homespun place: a bar on the first floor, not much more than a dark, narrow passage on the second, says Tezuka. The main performance space featured a disjointed collection of items – kid-sized chairs, empty beer crates – as furniture. They had space for people to sit and relax and a chandelier. “It fit less than 100 people inside,” says Kubota. “Even when you had 80, it looked packed. By Japanese standards, it probably looked a little dirty.”

“I was blown away,” says Dr Seven. “It was like an underground cave.”

Although lectures such as “Beatniks and poetry” proved influential, concerts were the main draw. Connections between friends in the underground music community created opportunities to perform. Arranging a gig could be quite informal: Kyoto-born group Les Rallizes Dénudés simply walked in one day with a photographer friend and asked if they could perform. “They were playing while wearing all black and sunglasses,” Dr Seven says.

OZ attracted the like of psych-rock pioneers such as prolific experimental artist Keiji Haino, mop-topped Beatles tribute act turned hard rockers Miyako Ochi (featuring Horiuchi) and more. “I saw [folk singer] Minami Misato and friends perform, and I was worried the floor would collapse because we were dancing so hard,” says Dr Seven. “Everyone was drenched in sweat. They set up a bucket near the door where you could squeeze it out of your clothes.”

Acid Seven performing at OZ.
Acid Seven performing at OZ. Photograph: Courtesy of M Tezuka and OZ Press

OZ closed in 1973, as Tezuka decided to pursue bigger goals, including managing Les Rallizes Dénudés. The area around Kichijoji Station was also set for redevelopment – today, the spot where OZ once stood is a bank. To mark the end of the venue, Tezuka held the five-day concert series OZ Last Days, which featured venue staples such as Les Rallizes Dénudés, Miyako Ochi and Acid Seven delivering ferocious rock sets to a full capacity crowd. While Tezuka was worried the floor would fall in, seeing the sweat-soaked crowd caught up in this moment of Japanese rock history made him feel happy.

OZ Days Live was released soon after, packaged in a brown paper bag. For years it remained a rarity, save for some bootlegs uploaded to YouTube. But in addition to the live recordings, it featured a special no-audience performance from Les Rallizes Dénudés. It was while working on the OZ Days Live reissue that Temporal Drift learned about a trove of unreleased tracks from that same session, which are now included in the new set.

“I hope that this set will allow listeners to realise that there was this really interesting and vital music scene happening, not in the US or Europe – where the majority of these types of releases tend to focus on – but in Japan,” says Kitazawa. “And that the days of OZ should be looked back upon as a pioneering, historic moment in time, just like how we place Woodstock or the Fillmore in the echelons of rock history.”

After OZ, live houses started proliferating in the Japanese music landscape, becoming central spots for young artists – from the members of cosmic-facing psych rockers Boredoms to contemporary pop-rock quartet Chai – to hone their skills and experiment. It offered a blueprint – although many live houses have become more financially motivated, with performers having to sell a certain amount of tickets or face owing the venue. “Owners faced the reality that they had to make money, and the original spirit gradually faded away,” says Horiuchi. “I think OZ was the rare live house to stick to that ethos to the end.”

Tezuka isn’t interested in taking credit for helping to forge Japan’s underground rock scene. “I think it certainly set the young people back then on fire,” he says. Still, listening to the remastered version of OZ Days Live does prompt some pride. “I was convinced that the quality of it transcended time,” he says. “It’s all still relevant today.”

• Oz Days Live is out now on Temporal Drift.

Patrick St Michel

The GuardianTramp

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