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Sale Is Unlawful
I’ve pirated music since childhood. I killed it with home taping. I bought and sold LPs with foil stamps reading “FOR PROMOTION ONLY / Sale Is Unlawful.” I downloaded illegally. I duplicated music and distributed it via the US Mail. I committed what may constitute a felony with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
I caused concern at Interpol.
And now I am about to share a YouTube link that was almost certainly uploaded without permission of its intellectual property holders, yet has not been taken down by the platform in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act - perhaps because Section 512 of the DMCA shields YouTube and its parent corporation Google/Alphabet from any liability. Still, my guilt as I post this - and yours as you click on it - are sure. Join me in a mutual criminality:
Is music a crime? The same year these recordings were made, 1970, the bass player for this enigmatic band Les Rallizes Denudes hijacked a 727 with 122 people aboard, and, alongside a group of his Japanese Red Army comrades, defected to North Korea. He has been on a most wanted list ever since.
So have any recordings he may have participated in. The CD ripped for that YouTube post came out in a limited edition of 500, in 1991. The only two copies available on Discogs today are priced at $550, and $800.
My own copy of this disc is an ice-blue CD-R labeled with a small, carefully typed slip of paper, presented to me by a fan at a show of our own in Japan. A gift I have treasured ever since.
That fan was also a pirate.
The first time Naomi and I toured Japan, in the fall of 1995, we made a pilgrimage to the great record store Modern Music (we knew it from the photo on the cover of the PSF compilation Tokyo Flashback).
Pinned to one wall was a plastic bag with 3 new CDs inside, and a price tag so high I thought I must be getting the exchange rate wrong. I asked about these discs, and the only explanation I got was the band name: Hadaka no Rallizes… We were already aware of their enormous influence over the Japanese scene, and shadowy existence, so we understood. Still: money like that for CDs? It didn’t seem possible.
CDs never felt like they had intrinsic value, because they were eminently copyable. There is no audio difference between the ice-blue CD-R in my collection, which has zero exchange value, and the CD inside the $550 or $800 copy on Discogs. This could not be the case with an LP, or a tape, or any other analog medium. The original would necessarily be distinct from the copy.
Not only is a CD copyable, once inserted into a computer it dissolves into digital files that are, again, indistinguishable from the original. These files require no physical form at all to be heard. Which meant that bag on the wall with a price tag was essentially empty, in terms of audio. The printed artwork, the object, and the collectability attached to it was what was on sale. The head of Modern Music, the wonderfully sage Ikeezumi-san, made that clear in his answer to my question at the time. Not by saying anything in particular - but by saying nothing about my needing to buy this object. He knew us as musicians, knew our interests, and I am sure he thought I should hear the music on those discs. But he also knew I would hear it, without paying that price.
Les Rallizes Denudes recordings had always circulated by piracy – those 1991 limited edition CDs I saw at Modern Music were, in fact, the very first authorized full-length releases by the band, despite their having been active since 1967. Les Rallizes’ original bass player’s very public crime may have contributed to this subrosa existence; rumors are that the band’s mainstay and leader, Mizutani Takashi, felt a need to lay low because of surveillance by the CIA and others in the wake of his bandmate’s defection. But those are just rumors, because hardly any facts are known about Mizutani. Performances and recordings of Les Rallizes have shaped much of the Japanese rock avant-garde. But Mizutani himself was like a CD that dissolves into audio files. The music disseminated, regardless of his own inaccessible form.
Last week an “official” website for this least official band in rock and roll suddenly appeared – and announced that Mizutani Takashi had died two years ago.
Is it true? Like anything to do with Les Rallizes Denudes, it is difficult to corroborate. But it is even harder to disprove - no one has reported communicating with Mizutani in recent years. And no one has seen a public performance since 1997.
I played my ice-blue CD-R this week, many times. Its beauty always surprises me. Les Rallizes are known primarily for noise – but Mizutani left as delicate recordings as noisy ones. Why the band’s reputation attaches more powerfully to one aspect of its sound and not the other I’m not sure. Noise can be a magnet for our ears, I suppose. Even on this largely quiet disc, it erupts and leaves an indelible impression in its wake when it does. But like their US counterpart, the Velvet Underground, the noise of Les Rallizes is maybe so memorable precisely because it emerges from its opposite. There’s always that moment of explosion, when Mizutani’s guitar seems like it’s just on and the only thing he can do is try and restrain it.
Is that moment of sonic energy that cannot be contained, an analogue for the way Les Rallizes always burst past the physical format of recordings?
Piracy is an acknowledgement of the power of sound to transcend any given form. The original has an aura – a power of its own. But the copy frees the music from that, lets us feel the power of the sound alone. Les Rallizes is a band that inhabits the world of copies more than it ever could the world of fetishized originals.
At least, that’s what I tell myself when I think back to leaving that plastic bag on the wall of Modern Music in 1995, without even asking if they accepted credit cards. I could have been the king of Discogs. But I was already too attached to my life of crime.
Listening to: Circuit des Yeux, -io