Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tokyo Clubbing: Club Yellow, Sayonara

Some more sad news for electronic music lovers here in Tokyo. I’ve received an email from the promoter of one of Tokyo’s monthly techno events confirming that as of June 2008 the venerable Club Yellow will be closing its doors. Forever.

Yellow (actually called Space Lab Yellow, but everyone just knows it as Yellow) first opened its doors at the end of 1991. Located in Nishi-Azabu (not Roppongi, as is often and erroneously said) the club became known world wide as Tokyo’s bastion of house music, seeing regular visits by such artists as Francois K, Laurent Garnier, Theo Parrish, and Moodymann.

Yellow was more than a house club, however, regularly hosting techno events. Jeff Mills, Michael Mayer, Scion, Akufen, John Tejada, Derrick May, Derrick Carter, Steve Bug, Whignomy Brothers, Bruno Pronsato, DJ Zip, Lawrence, Cobblestone Jazz, Pier Bucci, Ellen Allien, and many others have graced the decks and laptops at Yellow. It is no exaggeration to say that the club was an integral part of Tokyo’s electronic music scene.

I have yet to learn the reason for the upcoming closure, but the promoter told me that it “has something to do with the government.” This comes as little surprise, as Yellow has long been targeted by the police, who randomly drop by to enforce Tokyo’s “no dancing” law. 2007 saw the police stepping up their attacks on Yellow, with several parties effectively shut down as the club was forced to close off access to the dancefloor.

(A very brief digression about Tokyo’s “no dancing” law is necessary here. That isn’t the law’s proper name, but I’m not an expert on Japanese law, and that’s what everyone refers to it as. Essentially, if an establishment has a dancefloor, dancing is not allowed between the hours of midnight and 5am, although I believe the hours were recently changed to 1am to 5am. An odd sounding law indeed, and from what I’ve heard it’s actually an anachronistic one. I’ve been told that the law was passed sometime during the post World War II American occupation as a way of keeping American soldiers away from dancehalls and the “women of the night” who frequented them. The topic deserves a proper post of its own – in fact it really deserves a thoroughly researched article – but for the time being this should suffice to bring readers up to speed.)

Tokyo’s electronic music scene has been diminishing over the past few years, with the loss of such legendary venues as Maniac Love and the Liquid Room (the new Liquid Room in Ebisu is essentially a venue for live bands) limiting the options for clubbers who are serious about electronic music. Yellow’s upcoming closure will draw the circle in even tighter, and may well be a crippling blow to the scene.

Yellow currently plays host to at least three major regular techno events: the monthly Real Grooves parties, Fumiya Tanaka’s Chaos parties, and Mule Musiq’s Kompakt nights. As of May, the Real Grooves events will relocate to Unit (the best remaining club space in Tokyo); where the other events will relocate to is currently unknown.

There’ll be more news as it comes - stay tuned to this channel.

Personally speaking, I’m shocked and saddened by the news of Yellow’s closure. It was a special place for me, being the very first dance club I was taken to when I discovered electronic music. (I remember Safety Scissors and Jake Mandell were playing that night.) It has been a key player in the scene here, and its loss will be enormous. With the police enthusiastically targeting clubs left and right (even Womb has been having problems lately) and major (techno) record stores such as Cisco closing down, I’m seriously worried about the future of clubbing and electronic music in Tokyo.

Chris laments: Something is Rotten in the State of Techno in Tokyo

When I heard the news that now Yellow would be shutting its doors, my initial response (once after I got over the initial shellshock) was to consider buying a plane ticket to Tokyo. Yes, the impending death of Yellow is that significant. There was understandable scepticism over whether we were making too big a deal over the Cisco Records closing its record stores and moving to a completely virtual presence. Fair enough, as many people commented people will keep getting their music in other ways, and the community of records stores is probably overplayed anyway. But now we hear that the best club in Tokyo - Yellow - is shutting down in a few months time.

To put this in perspective, when I visited in Japan in 2001, the 3 major and most central clubs in the Tokyo scene were the Liquid Room, Maniac Love, and Spaceclub Yellow. First, the Liquid Room left us, only to be replaced by the ultimate cocktease - a new Liquid Room, which looks and sounds amazing, but almost never has techno. Then came the slow decline and eventual death of Maniac Love. Yellow, along with Unit (run by the Liquid Room peeps), have since taken up the slack, with the vast majority of people worth seeing playing at either of these places. Yellow has been absolutely central to the techno and house scene especially since the Liquid Room's passing, with great djs and lives gracing its decks every week.

And soon, no more. Not only is Tokyo losing a crucial cog in the techno wheel, it is also losing an amazing club. Reflecting on the places I've been, the Liquid Room and Berghain/Panorama are the only clubs I've prefered to Yellow. This was a small intimate space with great sound and crowds that cared (unlike the dancefloor hell that is the awful Womb). I know I am not alone in these sentiments; I remember Laurent Garnier describing it as his second home (after The Rex) and Francois K saying something pretty similar. Hell, this is even where Richie chooses to spend part of his remarkably loud and silly '10 weeks of silence' (based on an eye witness spotting by one of the ssg crew).

So beyond us losing another great club (hardly a first), what exactly does the death of Yellow mean? Well I guess it depends on whether the Yellow crew setup shop somewhere less troublesome (they had been shut down repeatedly for breaking the incredibly stupid anti-dancing laws). Presuming they don't, Tokyo is suddenly left with a huge gaping hole - I'm sure Unit and Colors will pick up some of the slack, but what I fear is that the previous comments made by Pete, which appeared a bit too hysterical at the time, could be a bit more likely. His main point was not simply that these closures are bad for the Tokyo scene, but also that it has serious ramifications for many artists who use the huge payments from Tokyo stopovers to help support themselves during leaner times in Europe and elsewhere. To take a specific example, I remember talking to Jeff Milligan and he said this is exaclty what he does - a Japan leg lets him survive for months in Berlin and, also, importantly, makes him more willing to tour new places (like China and Australia in this case) for a much lower fee. So the point is, Yellow's death could have greater consequences, depending on how things play out.

Also, I think it is representative of a more general challenge that techno culture will face in the coming years. The increasing gentrification of many cities is bringing about more and more closures of clubs, or refusals to give licences for parties at warehouses and other spaces, plus less locations for underground/illegal parties. The environmental conditions that existed, and were so important, during the early decades of techno's emergence and consolidation are now under threat. Hell, even the authorities in Ibiza are cracking down on clubs. So to put it simply, how long can techno survive and thrive without the spaces and places to listen, dance and enjoy? Do we all have to move to Berlin? How long before things start changing there too? To my knowledge, I think Bar25 has now closed its doors for good because the area is being redeveloped, so perhaps things are already changing in Berlin too. So where are we going to go? Instead of asking "where's the after party?" we may have to start wondering, "where's the party?" Hmm. Not the best start to 2008...


  1. Well if it's simply a matter of gentrification and loss of marginal spaces (abandoned warehouses and so on) then we may have a cause for optimism in the coming global recession. It's not completely certain but it looks like in the near future quite a lot of real property will be abandoned/foreclosed on. That may mean more of the kind of spaces where techno culture can thrive.

  2. Sure there were some good parties at Yellow, but as far as I am concerned the club itself wasn't particularly crash hot. I much prefer the new Nishi-Azabu powerhouse Colors Studio which has some great parties in its own right. I think more saddening than the closure of Yellow should be the news that Mixrooffice has closed. Sure Yellow was an icon but Mixrooffice was much more relevant to contemporary techno.

  3. @ ilya: interesting thought. i guess that could perhaps be some silver lining, but i am not so confident, partly because the kind of spaces that techno thrives in - which often tend to be big and industrial - are rather different from the kinds of spaces being designed and built in today's largely post-industrial age...

    @ whalecurry. i personally had a lot of fantastic nights at yellow. i found it good for either a big night, or a quieter one just hanging with friends at the bar. but if it aint your thing, fair enough. and you are right - colors studio (based on my one visit) is great. kind of has the old maniac love feel to it. i didnt know (or visit) mixrooffice, but if that is also gone, that just strengthens the argument being made here: something is rotten in tokyo.

  4. That is sad. I didn't know cisco, but Yellow I was familiar with, even if I've never been to Tokyo.

    On the bright side, "government" doesn't equate to "no demand." hopefully some enterprising soul will pick up the slack.

    As for the no-dancing law, WTF?

  5. whalecurry you must be joking when you say that colors is the new powerhouse in nishi azabu and that yellow is not crash hot. what about all of the amazing events that yellow has put on???? cobblestone jazz, steve bug, laurent garnier, herbert to name a few of the many they have done. any time ive gone to colors, it has been very dull. the music is often uber minimal with no melodies at all(which i personally think is boring and lacks any kind of creative, musical talent). long live Yellow. lets hope they find a new venue soon...

  6. It was primarily a house club, with props for hosting people known as house dj's who in fact played across the board in long sets, with an amazing sound system, the right proportions exactly for a proper night. Not to o big, not too small, just the size of Montreal as we say in Canada.

    I lived in Toyko for two years and spent a lot of time at Yellow. Music hit you in a different way there.
    For people that doubt the veracity of the club in history, it should mean something that the forefathers of this whole music who had called The Paradise Garage the greatest ever, basically put Yellow in the same category.

    The best word I can think of to describe it in essence is authenticity.

    I took a trip back to Japan last year and caught two show there, FK, the greatest and defining dj to play there, plus Kerri Chandler, a godfather that techno heads should pay due to.

    It feels as if an era of my life has been capped since coming upon this news.

    Bitter-sweet. I had always wanted to DJ there.


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