New feature alert! Introducing….
No it isn’t a Pokémon – although I’ll admit it sounds like it could be one one. It isn’t some Q*bert
knock off homage either. It actually stands for: Criminally Underrated Geek-Inspired Bands which is going to be one of our new occasional features here on AddAltMode. Don’t knock the acronym, I could have gone with Criminally Underrated Nerd Tunesmiths you know. Ahem.
There are loads of geek bands out there, from NEStalgic chiptunes acts through to full-blown Star Wars metal. As Geek Culture has gradually become more mainstream some of these bands have enjoyed a great deal of success, and that’s a good thing. But what about those bands who never really made it, not because they weren’t great but because they just weren’t quite in the right place at the right time? The force just wasn’t quite strong enough, and the loss is all ours. CUGIBs will celebrate some gone-but-not-forgotten bands from this category. It might be too late now to catch ’em
all live but you can still enjoy their music, and I hope that you will. First into the CUGIB spotlight, it’s Scotland’s underrated low-fi sci-fi indie crew:
Who were they?
Urusei Yatsura were a Glaswegian low-fi rock band formed in 1993 and comprising Fergus Lawrie, Graham Kemp, Elaine Graham & Ian Graham. They played fuzzy, bratty pop-rock that was heavy on the cymbals and catchy hooks. Over the course of their career they released three albums: We Are Urusei Yatsura (1996), Slain By Urusei Yatsura and Everyone Loves Urusei Yatsura (2000). You may notice a theme there: that kind of swagger initially seemed a beguiling mix of irony and earnest optimism – “I’ve got my fanzine so, f*** the music scene” they pronounced in their song “Superfi.” A lot of their songs deal with fame – “starlets on a mission” is a common refrain – and their quirky, catchy lyrics seem simultaneously to denigrate and to desire the trappings of stardom. But despite some critical acclaim and support from the legendary Radio One DJ John Peel, fame for Urusei Yatsura remained more of a lyrical theme than a lived reality. One of their singles, the anthemic and oddly touching “Hello Tiger,” just grazed the Top 40, but the title of their final album was consciously bittersweet.
Well there’s that moniker for a start. The band are named after Rumiko Takahashi’s popular manga and later anime series Urusei Yatsura which focuses on Atura and Lum, the green-haired tiger bikini-clad Oni Princess who pursues his affection. In the US the band were known only as “Yatsura” for copyright reasons but with their tiger striped band logo on the cover of Slain By and with lyrics like “your bikini is of tiger fur” the inspiration wasn’t hard to spot.
The influence of Japanese culture on this band extends much more widely than the one manga series. Let’s survey some song titles: ”Osaka White,” “Eastern Youth,” and lyrics “nothing is too kawaii” and “come on down to the dojo.” There’s a lot of love for Japan going on in between the references to their hometown of Glasgow, and there’s plenty to love both in the pop-cultural references they make and their pop-noise sounds.
It’s only a theory but I’ve always wondered if the band actually managed to visit Japan sometime between releasing Slain By and writing Everyone Loves. Something changes in the tone between these two albums: while still stuffed with Japanese references, their swansong is less exuberant and more specific than its predecessor, almost as if the band had been there and found that – while undeniably awesome – Japan has plenty of its own problems and wasn’t quite the manga inspired heaven they’d imagined. It’s pure head canon, since I’ve never found an interview or biographical evidence to substantiate this notion, but that – coupled with their lack of commercial success – would certainly explain why their final album is quite so bittersweet.
If their Japanophilia wasn’t enough to prove the band’s geek credentials, how about some Dungeons and Dragons? One of Urusei Yatsura’s most well-known songs is “Slain By Elf” a shouty ode to staying in and getting your RP on: “we’re staying home in our rooms / on our dice / one hundred sides.” The track also references some of the controversies that have surrounded the game in the past: “hey Satan the mall’s in chaos / so help us to kill our parents” and later “we’re so bored of our boards / we’ll slay you. ”
They also have plenty of songs with more general sci-fi / sci-fact themes, from the epic space-scape of “Still Exploding” to the somberly thought-provoking “Uji Bomb.”
Meanwhile, “Strategic Hamlets” is a pretty through attack on the excesses of the big budget Hollywood war movie industry, set to one of the most ear-wormy “‘na na na na” refrains you’re ever likely to hear.
I was introduced to the music of Urusei Yatsura by a guy at my school, the sort of friend with whom I enjoyed a typically teenage relationship of antagonistic affection. “These guys are awful” he said handing me a tape, ”you’ll probably love them.” They aren’t. I did. I still do.
Urusei Yatsura split up in 2001 and I still regret that I never got the chance to see them live. They played a gig fairly near me in Autumn 2000 and I would have gone if it weren’t for the fact that I was so distracted by the new boyfriend in my life at the time. I’d definitely have gone if I’d known then that it would be their farewell tour. I guess it would be a fairly frivolous use of a time machine to go back and attend that gig, but if I had one I would certainly be tempted to do just that. I guess it makes a change from vowing to kill Hitler or stop George Lucas making the Star Wars prequels at least. So, I regret not seeing Urusei live, but – even if the band never achieved the fame they deserved – there is a happy ending to that anecdote for me. That oh so distracting new boyfriend? He’s now my husband.
“This is the last song / This is the last song / This is the last song / I will ever sing you” – Urusei Yatsura “Thank You.”
After the band split up, Fergus Lawrie, Elaine Graham & Ian Graham continued to work together, recording as Project A-ko (can you see the theme?) Although I’ve not managed to ascertain for sure if this band is also now defunct their broken website links probably don’t bode well. Lawrie has also been working on drone compositions with Angel of Everyone Murder.
So RIP Urusei Yatsura. Songs like “Slain By Elf” feel like a bona fide teen classics but ones that you can still enjoy as an adult. I certainly do, partly from nostalgia it’s true, but also because – almost 20 years on (gah that makes me feel OLD) – their music remains wonderfully infectious and their largely optimistic DIY aesthetic is something that still really speaks to me as an example of geek culture at its best. If you’ve an ear for a snarky lyric and a joyful fuzz of sound then it’s well worth hunting down some of their stuff. Their albums aren’t the easiest to source now, but there are still some bits for sale on Amazon and a fair few videos on YouTube.