To those of us who lived through it, the latter part of the 1990s clearly rates as one of the all-time classic eras of punk music. Only first wave (’77-’79) and early/pre hardcore (’80-’82) were better. There were SO many great bands going circa ’95-’99, many of whom (Teengenerate, Prostitutes, The Fuses) we’ve previously chronicled on these very pages. While I’d be hard-pressed to name one greatest punk band of the period, Japan’s mighty Registrators have to be in the conversation. How many other punk bands of that era delivered two certifiably classic full-length albums? How many other bands of that era managed to push the envelope of how punk music could sound while still retaining the energy and catchiness of the genre’s original definers? Throw in at least a full album’s worth of good-to-spectacular singles, and you’ve got yourself a recorded output for the ages! Depending on your sub-genre of choice, you could make a case for anyone from The Rip Offs to The Queers to Turbonegro as the supreme punk band of the mid-to-late ’90s. But if your top five doesn’t include The Registrators, I vehemently protest!
The mid-to-late ’90s was the golden era of garage punk LPs. Even amongst a slew of truly legendary titles, the Registrators’ 1996 debut Terminal Boredom stood out as an instant classic of the genre. Had the band chosen to make another album or two just like it, no one would have complained. But like a bunch of evil geniuses toiling away in the lab in pursuit of universal domination, The Registrators had something far more unprecedented in mind for their second LP. They were poised to take punk rock into the future. And initially, I was one of the skeptics. The new wave/post-punk thing was at the time becoming trendy, and I would have preferred more of the early Damned on amphetamines primitive trash-bashing action of Terminal Boredom. I simply didn’t “get it” at first. But I got it soon enough. Given my somewhat notorious appreciation for the “melodic” side of early punk, it was probably a surprise I didn’t immediately flip for the Buzzcockian mutations of Sixteen Wires. To the band’s credit, the “modernization” of its sound was achieved not through the use of electronic instrumentation, but rather through sheer musical inventiveness and the advantageous use of advancing recording technology. While more melody-driven and far “odder” than Terminal Boredom, Sixteen Wires in no way abandoned the band’s trademark hyper speed pogo punk motif. It simply took it to the next level. And in direct contrast to the cold, dark sounds that were passing for “new wave” in the late ’90s, Sixteen Wires is just wild, crazy fun!
From the moment it kicks into action, Sixteen Wires sounds like the work of a band that’s been wearing the grooves out of the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP 24/7. You’ll swear that a young Shelley and Diggle are playing the leads and singing the harmonies! But easy as it may be to detect, this influence is just one element of many that make this record so extraordinary and distinctive. Perhaps if the ‘cocks had attempted to replicate the aggro-synth stylings of Ultravox and The Screamers with guitars, gotten hepped up on caffeine, and time traveled to 1999, they may have made a record like Sixteen Wires. Or maybe they wouldn’t have. The beauty of Sixteen Wires is that, really, no band but The Registrators could have made the album. It’s uniquely them - highlighted by Hiroshi’s crazed, wonderfully mangled English vocals, Ren’s out-of-this-world bass playing, and a generally off-kilter take on the punk rock sound that only a Japanese group could have fashioned. Somehow the band mashes together classic punk, lo-fi garage, and futuristic art-rock to create something totally fresh and legitimately “new”. The songs, while inflected with “experimental” tweaks of various sorts, are instantly likable and almost dangerously infectious. Side 1 scorchers like “School’s Lust” and “Panic Action” are as explosively catchy as anything off of Terminal Boredom, and even when the band really pushes the “weird” quotient, the results are massively enjoyable. Songs like “Pink Lipstick” and “Kiss Me Kiss Me” suggest what might happen if an army of aliens got ahold of some '70s punk recordings and started their own Martian new wave band. At times it sounds like The Registrators of old (the blazing “T.V. Hell” and “Automatic Exit” are re-records of A-sides from ’97), and at times it’s completely the opposite. The near-epic “Louder Faster” sounds like a long-lost masterpiece of English post-punk from 1980, while the magnum opus title track brings to mind the experimental side of the Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension.
It’s interesting to note that The Registrators kind of lost the plot after Sixteen Wires, their scant pre-breakup output ranging from pedestrian power pop to almost unlistenable indie rock. Much like another defining punk band of a particular era, The Clash, they had probably reached such heights of greatness that there was nowhere left to go but off the cliff. But isn’t that the sort of problem almost every band in the world wishes it had? The last time I spoke on the telephone with resident DS pundit Shawn Abnoxious, he told me The Registrators were going to save rock n’ roll. This must have been 1997, ’98 – a couple years before anyone knew what was coming in Sixteen Wires. I can only surmise that Shawn saw the future, that perhaps he’d even traveled there with The Registrators and sat in their luxury sky box. I’m reminded of the plot of that classic American film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which the very foundation of civilization surviving is predicated upon the existence of a rock band. I can truly imagine a future world in which Sixteen Wires is hailed as society’s salvation and all the little cyborg children fall at Hiroshi’s feet. Even in our more primitive early 2000s, we encountered scores of bands that attempted (mostly in vain) to emulate the modern punk sound of Sixteen Wires. If it were simply as easy as utilizing phaser guitar, choppy rhythms, discordant instrumentation, and bizarre vocal effects, this album could have been re-made a dozen times over and perhaps even improved upon. But as we well all know, that wasn’t it at all. Great music results from neither style nor techniques. It results from talent and inspiration, and The Registrators had both in abundance. Sixteen Wires is far more than merely a groundbreaking achievement. It’s simply a great album on every level. It’s fun to listen to and contains a large number of truly classic songs. Here’s a top secret known only by the reptilian hybrid men who live under ground and clandestinely control all the world’s governments: The Registrators did save rock n’ roll. Eventually, we will all be informed.