Lynyrd Skynyrd toured Japan in 1977 playing 5 nights, Jan 14th -18th & 21st at Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo and Osaka Koseinenkinkaikan Hall. It was the only time the original band played there. Opening for them was Japan's top Southern Rock band, Idlewild South. Music Life was the major Rock magazine in Japan at the time, their equivalent of England's Melody Maker. When looking for someone to interview Skynyrd for a feature article they decided to let Idlewild South have free reign. Who better to interview Skynyrd for Music Life? It proved to be a good choice; rather than answering cookie-cutter questions from a journalist Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins and Artimus Pyle sat down for some friendly conversation with musicians who had embraced the Southern Rock style during it's heyday and were eager meet their heroes. The result was a very candid, informal article that did the band justice.
From the March '77 issue of Music Life (Ted Nugent cover)
"Are you sure this is the first time we've had a Southern Rock band in this country? Skynyrd has a powerful live sound; have you seen this amazing triple guitar? One of the biggest bands from the South, becoming one of the biggest bands around. The people interviewing them are Japanese Southern Rockers Idlewild South. Both of them have roots in the South so they really got along good."
"Any type of band that makes it big scuffles along the way."
"They're satisfied having Tom Dowd for a producer."
The guys from Idlewild South were waiting in the room and seemed a little nervous. Ronnie and Artimus showed up a little late. Idelwild South were still tense but after Ronnie said 'hi' and 'sorry to keep you guys waiting' they relaxed. Seeing them as down home folks, Idlewild South introduced themselves showing their albums and t-shirts. Since they both have similar musical interests they didn't have any communication problems. Allen Collins hasn't shown up yet but they're going to start anyway.
Matsura: We really like Southern sound and like the Allman Brothers. That's why we call our band Idlewild South, from the ABB album. What do you think of the South?
Ronnie: We're from the South and proud of it.
Ikemoto: Where in the South are you from?
Ronnie: Jacksonville, Florida. 70 miles from Georgia.
Matsura: We have an instrumental called “Jax”.
Ronnie: Really? I'd like to hear that.
Namba: Did you guys hear anything about Japan before you came here?
Ronnie: I heard Japanese people are very polite and it's a good place to play. Been looking forward to coming here.
Ikemoto: You guys play many concerts. How do you practice? We don't have a studio so we rent one. Do you have you own studio?
Ronnie: We tour a lot, about 200 days a year. We take two weeks off after we come off the road and rehearse in our studio in Jax. We practice every time we get a chance! (laughs)
Matsura: We love pick-up trucks so we tour in a truck. What do you guys tour in?
Ronnie: We got our own plane this year. We can carry the band, equipment and road crew. We crossed the U.S. many times by bus but I'd rather fly.
Matsura: I guess you guys have a lot of gear and a large band so it's hard to travel. We don't even have roadies so we have to set up ourselves.
Ronnie: We all did that in the beginning. That's how we started.
Namba: What's the story on Tom Dowd producing your new album?
Ronnie: We listened to different records looking for a new producer and when we heard LAYLA I really wanted him to do our album and called our manager. We're really happy with the result. Tom's first hit was “Coming Out Of The Cave”. You know that one don't you? He also produced “Charlie Brown”. He's been producing since '48.
Ikemoto: 1948? I wasn't even born yet! (laughs) Artimus, what kind of drum kit do you use?
Artimus: Right now I use a custom Slingerland. I don't use anything else. The drummer from The Doobie Brothers introduced them to me and they make a wonderful 26" double bass.
Namba: Why do you use Peavy amps?
Artimus: We have an endorsement with Peavy. They made us some with a Mace top, four JBLs and cabs like a Marshall. JBLs last longer.
(Allen Collins shows up wearing a red hat with blue feather)
Matsura: I want to ask you something, Allen. Do you use a Firebird all the time? I've seen pictures of you playing a Strat too.
Allen: I play a Strat on a few songs. Now I'm using a '58 Explorer. Here, this is my Explorer. (takes out guitar and shows him)
Matsura: How many guitars do you have?
Allen: I have three Strats, two Firebirds, the Explorer, a new Gibson L-6 and an L-8. The L-8 has a good Country sound. Also a J-160 E like The Beatles had.
Artimus: Don't forget your Les Paul!
Allen: That's not mine, that's Gary's! (laughs)
Matsura: Does Gary have a Les Paul?
Allen: He has a '59 and a '67.
Matsura: There's a '67 Gibson?
Allen: There's a lot of them.
Matsura: I have a Les Paul which has two single-coil pickups.
Allen: Oh yeah, I know what those are. Those are the same pickups I have in my Firebird.
Matsura: I'd like to switch to humbuckers.
Allen: You get too much high end if you switch to humbuckers. It works for old guitars but if your Les Paul has single-coil pickups stick with that. You can put a humbucker in the front but if you put humbuckers in both positions you're gonna regret it.
Matsura: Hai! (everybody laughs) How do you think about the Strat compared to Gibson?
Allen: Completely different! Strat only has half the power a Gibson pickup has. The highs are mushy. Jimi Hendrix had a cool sound using the out-of-phase position between the front and middle pickups.
Matsura: Allen, do you have old guitar?
Allen: Yes, I do. '65 body, '51 neck and '63 pickups.
Matsura: How come you don't have new Fender or Gibson? Don't like them?
Allen: They don't take enough time making new ones, not that I don't like them but they don't sound the same as old guitars. I had a '67 style Gibson but it was stolen in San Francisco. That was my favorite guitar.
Ronnie: (facing Matsura) Don't let your guitar get ripped off! (everybody laughs)
Matsura: I'll be very careful. If you buy a '58 or '59 Les Paul in Japan it costs about $6,000.
Allen: It costs that much?!! It's cheaper to go to the States and buy one. But guitars are always expensive any place.
Matsura: When I think about the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd I think of Free. I listened to them a lot when I was 15.
Ronnie: Free weren't that big back then but we started listening to them because of Paul Kossoff.
Matsura: I used to listen to TONS OF SOBS and covered “Walk In My Shadow” a lot.
Allen: I did that too.
Matsura: I love Duane Allman's slide guitar. Do you play slide, Allen?
Allen: I like to play slide but Steve does it really good so I shouldn't do it. (laughs)
Matsuro: You have triple guitars, it has to fit together just right.
Allen: Yes, we do. But the three of us have different phrasing so it blends really well.
Matsura: We have double drums and twin guitar and Lynyrd Skynyrd inspire us a lot. Really looking forward to seeing you guys tomorrow.
Allen: So we get to listen to Japanese Southern Rock tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it.
Matsuro: Thank you for coming today.
Japan set list:
Workin' For MCA
I Ain't The One
Saturday Night Special
Ain't No Good Life
Gimme Three Steps
Call Me The Breeze
T For Texas
Sweet Home Alabama
Crossroads (not on Osaka show)
*See candid photos of Skynyrd during a press conference in Tokyo ‘77, the scanned magazine article, and J.J.’s photos with Skynyrd at
These photos were loaned to J.J. from a friend's private collection. They were to remain private so in order for JoJo and later Ronnie's eldest daughter Tammy VanZant to see them they were put on an unlisted Photobucket page. They soon leaked out all over the internet and have been used in several fan videos and magazine articles. If you would like to use them please give credit.
Journalist Nishie Takehiro saw Skynyrd at Nakano Sun Plaza on January 15th, 2nd night. In March 2006 issue of Beatleg, another Japanese music magazine, he reminisced;
“Most of the audience was American. Local opening bands were usually ignored but Idlewild South was well received. The lights went down, the ”Magnificent Seven" theme played, and all 7 guys came onstage. The band didn't look as funky as expected, they looked sharp. Especially Allen Collins in his red outfit with matching red hat with feather. After the opening medley of “Workin' For MCA" and “I Ain't The One” then ”Saturday Night Special" the Honkettes came out for “Whiskey Rock-a-roller”. Nobody recognized “That Smell” or “Ain't No Good Life”, two new songs that later appeared on STREET SURVIVORS. Ronnie left the stage during “Ain't No Good Life” and new member Steve Gaines took over the mic, to the audience's surprise. Van Zant came back and the 7 piece rocked “Gimme Three Steps”. Allen, Gary & Steve triple-guitar attack was center stage just like in pictures. “Call Me The Breeze” and “T For Texas” were just like the ONE MORE FROM THE ROAD album. The Honkettes came back out for “Sweet Home Alabama”. My friend got carried away screaming, "Die Neil Young!" Barely an hour since the show started everybody left the stage after “Alabama”. Between 12th and 13th row at Sun Plaza was a walkway, I looked back and JoJo Billingsley had come out to watch “Free Bird”. She was hanging out with the crowd and I was surprised when she shook my hand. The guys came back out and played “Crossroads”, which the audience was not expecting. Afterward the hollers for “Free Bird” got louder and louder. Ronnie thanked the audience for coming to the show then announced “Free Bird” and the audience rushed the stage. Being there in person was indescribable. There are no words for it. All I can say was I was very fortunate to see the show.
Among the people they met here they made an impression as being down-to-earth. Skynyrd was watching Idlewild South's rehearsal and when one of the IS guys spilled juice on himself one of Skynyrd jumped up and wiped him off without a second thought."
When he read about the plane crash in the Asahi News (Japanese newspaper) it was disturbing; there was no pretentious "star" trip, they were ordinary people in the best sense of the word. To see a group like them who were so real and humble and had worked their way up to the top from nothing was inspiring to those who crossed paths with them. To hear of the tragedy a mere 9 months after seeing them was like losing a friend or relative, it hit home in a way that celebrity deaths usually don't.
Jo Jo Billingsley, the most standout of the Honkettes, recalled, "Those were the days. Too much sake!!! 'Saki to me' I used to say and it did. That promoter over there was wonderful, Mr. Udo."
Nakano Sun Plaza is still open today. This author saw the Allman Brothers there in January '91. It's visible from the platform of Nakano station on the Chuo line, west side of Tokyo. A recording of Skynyrd's January 21st show is available by torrent. An audience recording of the Osaka show is also widely circulated.
The reformed Skynyrd played Japan in November 1991. Again they played three nights in Tokyo but at Shinjuku Hall instead. This author was at the second and third shows. They opened with “Smokestack Lightning” (not the Howlin' Wolf song) from their new album. They're on Atlantic now, not MCA. One or two more songs from the new album but mostly the old hits. Ed King attempted to introduce “The Ballad Of Curtis Lowe” by reading a translation of "this song is for anyone who ever named their dog Curtis Lowe" but it proved to be rather long and difficult. This is as close to to the original band as any of young'uns will get, they still have four original members. And it's much more high-energy than the Tribute Tour album. “Free Bird” is something else.
Heading out after the show I recognize some of the crew from the Tribute Tour video and ask if there's any chance of getting backstage. Big Lou repeats the same thing over and over looking kind of worn down, "One person, one pass." I ask, "What if you're from the South?" He chuckles and say, "Well, that helps." I don't want to bug the guy so I drop the subject and make a little friendly conversation before moving on. He recognizes and appreciates the consideration. As my girlfriend and I leave he tells us the hotel they're staying at and says to drop by the lobby in an hour, the whole band will be passing through and we can meet them there. Being a 19 year old American kid nothing compares to meeting Skynyrd! We drop by and they all pass through. Gary Rossington walks up, pulls his hair out of his face, and in the slowest drawl ever to come out of a human being introduces himself. Somehow we get invited to a party upstairs and we're hanging out with Steve Lockhart, former guitarist for the Artimus Pyle band and now drum tech. He's been wandering the streets of Tokyo and could use a guide so we take him out to Roppongi, the infamous red-light district. He hooks us up with tickets and passes for the next night.
The third show was just as good. The band is in top form. You can tell they're happy to be back out there as Skynyrd again. Backstage is a blast. Skynyrd are still as downhome as ever, still just a bunch of good ol' boys who like to party. Johnny Van Zant stops to check out my tattoo and then hollers at Leon Wilkeson, "Hey! Check out this guy's tattoo!" Leon has two girls sitting with him and will check it out later. Billy Powell is running around introducing himself to everybody and shaking their hand. Gary Rossington doesn't talk much but his wife, vocalist Dale Krantz Rossington, is a whirlwind of energy. Randall Hall (guitar) and Custer (drums) are kicking back enjoying it all. On the way in we ran into Ed King who grumpily asked how we got backstage. "We got passes," I told him to which he replied "Oh... that helps."
Later we're hanging out with Steve Lockhart again and I grab my Jan. '88 issue of Guitar player magazine to get it autographed. I run into guitar tech Mike Sparks who signs the first page of the article (he's halfway in the picture). A couple ladies come up to us, they heard something about some Rock band staying there and think I'm one of the band. I wish! Nope, this guy is the guitar tech, I'm just another fan. We go into the bar and I see Ed King sitting there listening to the house band. When they go on break I approach him for an autograph, carefully since I know what a sweetheart he can be. He asks if I have a pen then pulls out his own marker. I talk a little shop with him and mention my dad is a Jazz guitarist. He loosens up a bit but never invites me to sit down despite the extra seat at the table.
Back up at Lockhart's room Leon and Randall have dropped by. As Leon signs my magazine a look of shock crawls across his face, "You got Ed King's autograph? That's a hard one to get. You're a lucky man." We show off our tats, he describes his as "oldy and moldy" (from the 70's, redone a few years later). Steve, Randall and I are passing my black Firebird around and talking about Allen Collins. "All he could do was light cigarettes and answer the phone," Randall says of his final years. Steve had a song he wanted Allen to play on, knowing it would be the last time he's ever be inside a recording studio, but Allen went back into the hospital before it could happen. Finally Randall takes off and my girlfriend falls asleep on the bed. Steve and I are the last ones standing. It's 5:00 A.M. and they have to leave at 7:00. he says the hell with it, let's hang out a little more and he'll get to packing later and sleep during the ride.
That was my time with Skynyrd. In the States they're an icon like Chevy or the flag or football. They're a reflection of a significant portion of America and they do it without trying, it's just them. Although I'm not a fan of the current band even they, in they're own way, continue to be that reflection. To spend that time hanging out with them was one of the coolest things that could happen to a 19 year old budding guitarist.
*The autographed magazine was later stolen from a storage unit in Indianapolis, IN. If anybody knows of a magazine matching the description contact firstname.lastname@example.org