Speakerfone is a new column that focuses on music in film.
When "Kill Bill Vol. 1" was released 10 years ago, on October 10, 2003, it was billed as a "roaring rampage of revenge." While movies often fail to live up to their over-inflated taglines, this was not one of them. Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked tale of vengeance had everything you'd want in a revenge fantasy: a head getting slammed in a doorway, limbs chopped off by samurai swords, and even a man's heart exploding. (Huh, this film feels way more violent when you list them out like that.)
Yet, despite its title, "Kill Bill" wasn't all about death and destruction. In fact, one of the movie's most memorable moments doesn't involve violence at all. It involves an all-girl Japanese surf rock group called the 220.127.116.11's. Their appearance before the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, where our heroine, Beatrix Kiddo, stabs her way through 88 yakuza, is a fun moment in a film filled with morbidity.
The story of how the 18.104.22.168's ended up in the movie, and what it did for their career, is a fascinating look at the divide between East and West, as well as the power and influence of the Tarantino brand.
Before popping up on screen in "Vol. 1," the 22.214.171.124's were a small independent band in Japan playing American rock music. The group formed in 1986, with an original lineup consisting of guitarist/singer Ronnie "Yoshiko" Fujiyama; her sister, drummer Sachiko Fujiyama; a second guitarist named Rico; and a bassist, Yoshie (the last names of Rico and Yoshie don't appear to be printed anywhere). Though the band saw members come and go through the years, Ronnie and Sachiko kept it going. By 2003, the 126.96.36.199's had developed a small but dedicated following in Japan. And that's when QT came calling.
This part of the story is a legendary one among Tarantino fanatics. For the uninitiated, the filmmaker discovered the group while in Japan, doing pre-production on "Kill Bill." Toward the end of the trip, he stumbled across their music in a clothing store.
"I was in Japan and getting ready to leave for Australia with, like, two hours before I had to head to the airport. So I took a walk and passed this clothing store, I went in and there's a cool group of girls singing on the sound system. I asked the counter lady who it was and she goes, 'That's the 188.8.131.52.s,' and shows me the CD. I said, 'Can I buy this?' and she goes, 'No, it's our CD. This is a clothing store, not a music store.' So I asked her to call the store manager. Being insistent in Japan is considered very rude. I was just being an A-hole American, but I was thinking it could be good for that crane shot I use in the movie. And I also knew, if it's gonna happen, they'll sell me the thing right now or I'll forget about it. Like it's kismet or nothing. The manager agreed to sell it to me for six Yen."
For this band, being selected to perform on camera in a Quentin Tarantino film was like winning the lottery. The group ended up flying to Beijing, gear in tow, to perform during the infamous House of Blue Leaves scene -- before Beatrix slices and dices her way through the crowd.
The scene starts off with O-ren Ishii, the leader of the Tokyo yakuza -- and Beatrix's ultimate target -- waltzing into the club with her entourage in tow. Eventually, the 184.108.40.206's appear on screen for the first time, playing "I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield" to a group of patrons dancing and swinging their hips on the floor in front of them. As O-ren and her group get settled upstairs, the band goes directly into their next song, a cover of "I'm Blue" by the Ikettes (a trio of female backup singers for Ike and Tina Turner). You can see the raw footage Tarantino shot of both songs in the video below:
As Beatrix makes her way into the club -- and right before Sofie Fatale gets her arm chopped off -- the band plays their last song, "Woo Hoo." It's a simple but catchy tune originally performed by a 1950s rockabilly group called the Rock-A-Teens. It's also one that would put the 220.127.116.11's on the map. As soon as the film was released, it seemed like "Woo Hoo" was everywhere -- especially when it made its way onto those grainy funniest home video ads for Vonage.
But they weren't the only ones calling the band for access. As guitarist/singer Ronnie told the Japan Times, right after the film's release, "We've received an avalanche of offers from abroad. Italian Vogue have even tried contacting us. But I don't speak English so we're having a hard time. We've got this stack of emails that we haven't replied to." The group even found their popularity rise in their own native Japan. As Simon Bartz, the writer of the Japan Times article, pointed out, before "Kill Bill Vol. 1" was released, he saw the 18.104.22.168's play in Japan with only 50 fans in attendance. After the film hit theaters, their shows were selling out.
Just last year, QT himself admitted the popularity his movies can bring to small bands, something he brought up while discussing song rights with Billboard Magazine.
"It's actually quite easy to get the rights now, because I'll use music that some people haven't heard that much before. Then after my movie comes out, it seems like every commercial in the world buys it. They can double or triple and quadruple their income just by the exposure the movie gets it. That 22.214.171.124's song, "Woo Hoo," seemed like it was on every commercial for a long time."
As for the group themselves, the fandom surrounding the 126.96.36.199's has cooled since the film's release in 2003. But the band is still going strong. Just two years ago, they teamed up with Jack White to record a few rock and roll classics, like Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire." Plus, who cares about bandwagon fans when you have a listener (and dancer) in Quentin Tarantino: