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Tom Smith on L’Arc en Ciel, the band that defines ‘Japanese rock’

It’s May 1991 and after three months of jamming, TETSU and his newly formed band have their first live show at a dingy 80-seater venue in Osaka. Skip forwards to present day and the band is preparing for a world tour estimated to draw crowds of 100,000. They are L’Arc en Ciel, and after rocking Japan for twenty years, they’re ready for global domination. London’s Indigo2 will get a piece of the action on 11 April 2012.

The secret to their success? Vocalist hyde, who has barely aged since the group’s debut, states that it’s down to having “a generous heart”. It’s a very simple answer, and a piece of advice that could serve so many bands well if only they listened. Perhaps the UK’s own rock group Oasis would still be in the charts if the Gallagher brothers took heed of such words.

Oasis are also a good comparison for people in the UK to understand the kind of cultural impact L’Arc en Ciel have in their home country. Both bands began in 1991 and went on to define their country’s pop-rock scene ever since. In fact, L’Arc en Ciel even manages to beat the Mancunian rockers’ impressive run of 22 top ten hits by racking up 21 number one singles, and a consecutive run of 35 top tens – and only one of those was as low as sixth place. In other words, just as Oasis defined a generation of British music, L’Arc en Ciel did the same in Japan, and continue to do so.

Unlike Oasis, they’re still churning out singles. Their latest, ‘X X X’ (pronounced Kiss Kiss Kiss), available digitally in the UK, went straight to number one and its follow up ‘CHASE’, featuring in the live action adaption of the 70s manga Wild 7, looks set to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps.

Through their lengthy career, L’Arc en Ciel (‘rainbow’ in French) have also had several singles appear in anime, particularly the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise. The first series includes one of their best known songs outside of Japan, ‘Ready Steady Go’, whilst the first film in the franchise received double helpings, with the group performing its opener ‘Link’, and closing theme ‘Lost Heaven’. Their anime credits also include DN, Gundam, Rurouni Kenshin and the CG film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

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Being playful has also led a big part in their continual success. You may have noticed that hyde was written in lowercase earlier, whilst TETSU was in capitals (That’s not playful, it’s just irritating – Ed). After L’Arc en Ciel had hit the big time, its members started to experiment with solo work and side projects (including various takes on the L’Arc format, including PUNK EN CIEL, a faster upbeat take on their regular style). To differentiate between their various schemes they devised different spellings and stylisations of their names. Lowercase was chosen for all activity relating to L’Arc en Ciel, forcing TETSU to become tetsu (and then later tetsuya), unless talking about his solo career, in which case all names are in capitals. Confusing? A little bit at first but the Japanese music scene is riddled with this kind of preciousness, and managers will hunt you down if you place a capital letter where a lowercase one should be.

The group recently marked their 20th anniversary with a showcase spectacular at the Ajinomoto Stadium split over two days – because there simply weren’t enough hours in a day to fit all their hits in to a single show. Each day celebrated a decade in the unit’s career and all proceeds were donated to charities helping in the relief work following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Now the group prepares for its next big set of live shows, this time playing in some of the most respected live music venues the world has to offer. The tour also sees them make history by becoming the first Japanese artist to perform solo at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, as well as the first to perform at London’s own Indigo2.

Tickets for L’Arc en Ciel’s show in London on 11 April 2011 are on sale now.

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