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Friday, Aug. 15, 2008

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Sunny delight: Some of Summer Sonic's 190,000 revelers in the Marine Stadium. © SUMMER SONIC 08. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Another scorching Summer Sonic

Staff writer

Held simultaneously in Tokyo (well, Chiba's Makuhari Messe and Marine Stadium) and Osaka, Summer Sonic pulled a combined 190,000 music fans for a weekend of polite debauchery under a scorching sun on Aug. 9-10.

The Tokyo leg kicked off in fine style. With 120,000 punters watching 107 acts from around the world, boredom was never going to be on the agenda, but opening the Dance Stage with lo-tech idol-pop trio Perfume got pulses racing right away. For me it was a damp squib — the girls played just four songs, instead yapping away for ages in voices so high-pitched as to be barely audible about how much they love the summer; and worse, they were clearly miming to the songs. But the thousands of fans in the packed hall didn't seem to care, won over by the immaculate choreography to such amazing tracks as "Polyrhythm" and the suspiciously named "Baby Cruising Love." The two-day party had well and truly started.

In fact, the Dance Stage had a strong hand this year, graced as it was by the dance-floor demolition of French electro- fille Yelle ; the anthemic pop of American hit-maker Santogold (who was a bundle of energy despite having lost her voice); and all-night entertainment on Saturday courtesy of eclectic Australian label Modular. The label's New Zealand signing Ladyhawke persevered through terrible sound trouble to play their groove-riding pop and walked off triumphant.

Most of the Japanese bands were herded together on the Island Stage, under a marquee near the stadium. Always a festival crowd-pleaser, HiGE unleashed a set of their raw, chart-friendly pop, an update of the grunge sound of the early 1990s. Part of their appeal is their gently odd stage persona, and here Koichi "Koteisui" Sato wandered out from behind one of the band's dual drum kits and danced Bez-like before bellowing into a megaphone. Later, GO!GO!7188 belted out their uniquely Japanese take on a rockabilly sound, erupting into a cacophonic finale before being called back onstage with a chant of "Busaiku" ("Ugly"), as is the tradition among their fans. The tent was packed despite strong competition on the other stages, proving that thoughtful and intricate music can provoke a wild response.

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Santogold (above), The Ting Tings (below) and GO!GO!7188 were among the bands that dazzled the crowds this year.

Over on the Sonic Stage, the British shoegazing revival was represented by Spiritualized and The Jesus and Mary Chain . The former built up a raging wall of noise during "Shine a Light," which fell suddenly to a peaceful plateau of soulful backing singers, like the storm before the calm. Troubled main-man Jason Pierce stood side-on, facing not his fans but his band mates, controlling the chaos with grace.

The Mountain Stage played host to my three festival highlights. The Sex Pistols stormed out armed with Union Jack and Japanese Imperial flags, a wickedly sharp sound and a whole lot of snot, which "singer" Johnny Rotten blew violently from his nostrils from time to time. Yes, they're fat and old now, but simple, powerful classics such as "God Save the Queen" and "Pretty Vacant" sounded as fresh and vital as they did in 1977 — and rewriting the lyrics of the fierce "Belsen Was a Gas," now renamed "Baghdad Was a Blast," showed that Rotten can still get the punters riled over politics.

In the same hall the next morning, a surprising number of fans had rolled out of bed to bounce along to the superstellar single "Great DJ" by Mancunian duo The Ting Tings . Guitar-vocalist Katie White and drummer Jules De Martino played their newish debut album "We Started Nothing" in a different order, but with some songs subtly reworked. Triggering backing tracks and looping backing vocals on the spot, while oozing stage presence, the pair proved that two members is plenty.

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Maid our day: Grownup fun included the Sonic Casino.

But outshining them all were Devo , who have influenced so many of the bands on the festival bill, from outright copyists Polysics to British high-NRG indie band Late of the Pier, who had confessed their debt to Devo in a handwritten note earlier in the day. The Ohio five-piece took to the stage in bright-yellow boiler suits to play their sloganeering '70s and '80s hits that set the blueprint for generations of new wave and postpunk bands to come. They presented undying genre classics such as "Whip it" and "Girl You Want" with a simple stage show of robotic dances and costume changes, and while much of what they do could nowadays be run off a computer, their use of battered analog synths, custom-made guitars and weird boxes covered in buttons made devolution seem a thrilling prospect.

The vast Marine Stadium played host to headliners The Prodigy and Coldplay, who officially closed Saturday and Sunday night respectively (although some other stages carried on much later). The Prodigy 's crisp beats, deep bass and acid 808 hooks worked the stadium into a lather, as tracks such as "Voodoo People" showed how forward- thinking they were in their early-'90s prime. After all, Tokyo's Boom Boom Satellites, who played the Mountain Stage the next day in front of a capacity crowd, practically owe them their whole career.

The last time I saw Coldplay , at 2005's Fuji Rock Festival, Chris Martin spread his arms wide after the first song and bellowed "Sayonara!" ("Goodbye!"), when he'd meant to say "Arigato!" ("Thank you!"). This time I thought I'd spare him such embarrassment by not going to see them. But watching their performance on a TV set backstage, it was apparent that he'd been practicing: The singer of one of the biggest British bands in the world was singing a song by the terrible J-pop boy-band SMAP. All the Japanese around me cringed. But hey, that's what happens when you have a band as unimaginatively dull as Coldplay closing a festival as exciting as Summer Sonic. Tens of thousands of fans seemed to enjoy their set, especially when Alicia Keys came out to duet on piano, but then there never was any accounting for taste.

The best, worst and weirdest bits

Best freebie: Paul Smith cotton handkerchiefs, handed out outside the Paul Smith Jeans booth.

Biggest fib: "F*ck this. I'm never playing that song again." Richard Ashcroft of The Verve after messing up — and cutting short — "The Drugs Don't Work." He then promptly led his band through the song again.

Most ubiquitous fashion accessory: Trilby straw hat (boys); hippyish hair bands (girls)

Most mind-boggling visuals: Friendly Fires' computer-generated Pop Art squiggles

Most heartfelt onstage comment: "I'm really sorry." Alison "VV" Mosshart of The Kills, braving boos and the odd plastic bottle thrown in her direction, after coming on stage to apologize for her band's no-show after the data on their drum machine got wiped.

Sweatiest mosh pit: Japanese pop-reggae phenomenon Shonan no Kaze's Sunday-afternoon set under a boiling midafternoon sun on the outdoor Beach Stage

Best-chosen cover: Jesus and Mary Chain's pulverizing take on Pink Floyd's "Vegetable Man"

Most gnarled onstage banter: "Oh, look at the Westerner asking for 'Anarchy (in the U.K.)' How cute. Well, go back to your own country and cause some, then. We did." Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols (David Hickey)

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