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Book update: 70s pop

The latest book update sees me still stuck in the 70s, but this time looking into the pop music of the era rather than rock. I’ve written about this in The Japan Times, and the stuff in my book basically goes over the same ground, but it’s a good period and deserves writing about. It’s not directly relevant to any discussion about the contemporary alternative music scene, but it’s relevant to discussion about idol music, which is relevant, as well as to new wave given the way they started to converge in the 80s and eventually completely subsumed each other to create J-pop.Yumi Arai: Rouge no Dengen

It was also relevant to talk about “new music”, which means a bunch of artists I have no particular interest in. I’m a great admirer of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya and Miyuki Nakajima has a place in my heart thanks to the use of her crazy, melodramatic power ballads as the theme songs to series 1 and 2 of the downright psychotic 90s TV drama Ienakiko. Amii Ozaki did some good stuff but Yosui Inoue always bored me and Southern Allstars are simply dire, so I have mixed feelings about the whole thing really. I put it down to its roots in Japanese “hikikatari” folk balladeering, which is a kind of music I’ve always found on the cusp between boring and annoying. As I said though, there’s good stuff in new music, but it ain’t really my scene.

I’m very biased towards female singers in this period, which is probably primarily down to me being a guy, although honestly, male Japanese pop singers do tend to be a bunch of smug, punchbag-faced twats who take themselves way too seriously considering how shallow and inconsequential their music is. Let’s face it though, Hiromi Go was a funky, funky dude in his day.Hiromi Go: Hana to Mitsubachi

But yeah, I’m standing by my position that the girls got all the best songs. I’m a massive fan of Saori Minami and she’s interesting because of her position as a prototype of the contemporary idol singer, although she never liked being presented as such. Her songwriters were on her side and they came up with some ace tunes.Saori Minami: Junketsu

Momoe Yamaguchi was probably the greatest pop star of her day, and while these days I think the longevity and sheer ambition and drive of Seiko Matsuda has guaranteed her the position of greatest ever, her music itself was mostly nothing much to write home about. Yamaguchi had way better tunes and like Saori Minami seems to have had her own opinions about music to have worked quite closely with her songwriters to make them happen. From her early days as a fourteen year-old being manipulated into singing songs begging men to take her virginity, by the late 70s she was rocking it for herself.Momoe Yamaguchi: Zettai Zetsumei

The Candies I’m long on record as being a massive fan of, and they and Pink Lady are pretty much the definitive girl groups of the day. This was a long time before the days of mass idol collectives, and two or three was a perfectly satisfactory number of members for a pop group back then. Sigh. I also mention a bit about some of the 60s singers who crossed over into the 70s era although their roots were strictly speaking in a rather earlier music industry environment. Linda Yamamoto was a wild girl but Chiyo Okumura had a sultry charm of her own and probably has a stronger catalogue.Chiyo Okumura: Koi Dorobou

I’m onto punk and new wave now, which is where the book comes back to my key points about how the music scene works and how it’s structured at grassroots level. Again, I’m not sure if I’m going to carry on doing this in order, and the music history segments aren’t really what the book’s about as a whole (I don’t want them to take up more than about 15-20% of the total page count), but it feels right having the background there since I’m going to be referring to a lot of this at various points. Anyway, more sooner or later, and enjoy the pop.

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Book update: 70s rock

There haven’t been any updates on the book in ages, although the work I’ve been doing for The Japan Times and other places is dovetailing with the book on a number of points. Still, I haven’t really been discovering anything new or at least anything that seemed worth sharing so I’ve been quiet. I finally decided to return to Japanese pop and rock history for a bit though, and so I thought a quick update could be worthwhile.Les Rallizes Dénudés: Night of the Assassins

Now 70s rock was the bit I really wasn’t looking forward to writing, partly because Julian Cope has already done such a bang-up job on it, and partly because I don’t really like any of it that much. Bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés/Hadaka no Rallizes, Murahachibu, Speed, Glue & Shinki, Flower Travellin’ Band et al are all artists you’re sort of expected to like: bands who you revere like religious artifacts and who you’ll look really uncultured if you admit that you find them boring, boring, boring. It’s not that they’re no good, it’s just that while Rallizes’ feedback fury can be incredibly exhilarating, 70s riff merchants of whatever stripe — Flower Travellin’ Band, Shinki, whoever — have never chimed with me. I’ve never really enjoyed Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix and I enjoy bands who sound like them even less. So my summary of “new rock” goes something like this: Rallizes are OK but the rest can go hang.J.A.Seazer: Ootori no Kuru Hi

I’m going to take a little moment out here and add that J.A.Seazer (sometimes J.A.Caesar) is amazing. His position as a theatrical composer perhaps puts him in a special position, but his work is transcendent (the fact that he did the extraordinary and delightfully weird choral rock compositions for Revolutionary Girl Utena, the greatest anime of all time, is an added bonus).Rouge: New York Baby

What I have a bit more time for is some of the really uncomplicated, dumb rock’n’roll that the 70s threw up. I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and in the course of that, found myself thinking about Japanese 70s rock’n’roll for perhaps only the second or third time in my life. Again, most of it bores the shit out of me, but it has a bit more charm than the see-my-seriousness-and-tremble pomp of the heavy riffsters. New York Dolls copyists Rouge are a lot of fun, although I’ve always found Carol to be massively overrated. Out of the Fukuoka mentai rock crowd, I’ve always had time for Sonhouse. I find Sheena & The Rokkets’ leap headfirst into pop to be a bit confusing from a musical point of view — not so much that it isn’t good (it’s Hosono, so it’s always going to be interesting) and not because I don’t understand why it was necessary, more that I’m just not sure what it’s saying. Anyway, they were an interesting band to interview and there’ll be more on them when the interview’s published.Sonhouse: Lemon Tea

The best thing about 70s rock is that I’m halfway done with it, anyway. I still have to talk about “new music”, another deeply respected genre which is always guaranteed to fill me with inertia, but I also get to talk about 70s kayoukyoku, which is always much more fun. More on that later.

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Italian interview with me on Loft80.com

Earlier this week I was interviewed for the Italian music web site Loft80 by Marco Zonda, who sounds like he should be a 1920s stage magician but who is apparently an indie person. He asked me about the Japanese indie scene, my label and some other things and I typically got carried away, so it might seem a bit long-winded, but hopefully some people might find it interesting. The article’s in Italian but the original English text is there too if you click the link at the bottom of the page. There are lots of links to various kinds of Japanese indie music on there too, so it’s a good one-stop page to hear a lot of great tunes.

Read the interview at www.loft80.com.

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Scratching the surface of music in Japan’s neglected northeast

One of the quirks of the music scene in Japan is that it seems to lean dramatically westward. Not in any cultural sense, you understand — if anything, Japanese music has been becoming more and more insular and isolated from overseas trends over the last twenty years or so — but in a geographical one. From the economic and cultural capital in Tokyo, the music scene tends to drift westward, with Nagoya the next major stop, then Kansai area nexus of Kyoto Osaka-Kobe, and then on a literal and figurative island of its own there’s the Kyushu scene, centred around the regional capital of Fukuoka. Eastwards and northwards, information is scarce.

One reason for this is that for touring bands, there’s just more to explore to the west so it makes economic sense to tour in that direction. Kansai or Kyushu can make a decent long weekend tour in a few cities, while Nagoya is a big city (2.2 million) on its own and an easy enough drive from both Tokyo and Kansai. All this gives the western tail of Japan a sense of greater vibrancy with more word-of-mouth information flowing back and forth among the little networks of bands that zip along Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines.

Northeast of Tokyo, there are of course towns with their own music scenes, but they tend to be smaller and more spaced out. Sapporo is the largest, but positioned in the middle if the northern island of Hokkaido it is also the most isolated. Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu gave Japan the legendary shoegaze-cum-electronic quartet Supercar, one of the bands who helped define the sound of Japanese rock music in the new millennium, and is also home to the Aomori Rock Festival, one of the more eclectic and interesting entries in the Japanese festival circuit.Supercar: Storywriter

But it’s in the earthquake and tsunami-battered eastern Tohoku coast in Sendai and Fukushima where the lazy Tokyoite has easiest access to the sounds of the icy north. Tying the art of this area in with the earthquake and the ongoing nuclear crisis is obviously a cheap thing to do, but for better or worse, those events do seem to have drawn (possibly guilty) eyes from the capital in that direction just a little bit more. The avant-garde musician and composer Yoshihide Otomo spoke eloquently on the role of culture in reclaiming the identity of Fukushima from the associations with the disaster (and through his soundtrack work on the insanely popular morning TV drama Amachan he may have succeeded in part of his aim), and so those of us living far away from Tohoku are in the paradoxical situation of having what we might call a duty to look east because of the 2011 disaster but a parallel duty to put the disaster to the back of our minds (how far back is a question open to debate) when considering its music.

In any case, triple-disaster aside, there is interesting music going on and there are a couple of bands I want to introduce here, one from Fukushima and one from Sendai. They’re both on the alternative or underground end of the spectrum because those are the kinds of bands that interest me, and they’re both well worth listening to.

The wonderfully named Rebel One Excalibur are a ferocious math rocky trio from Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture whose self-titled debut mini album is due out soon. There doesn’t seem to be any audio from the record up yet, so this live clip will have to suffice to give you a taste of what they’re about Rebel One Excalibur: Zanpano

Rather than walking a line between discipline and chaos, Rebel One Excalibur seem to see no contradiction between the two concepts, revelling in both equally. They love dark, doomy chords and the vocals range from strangled to lung-shreddingly tortured, but there’s a playfulness to their arrangements that suggests controlled fury rather than mere angst.

Further up the coast in Sendai, we can find Umiuma. A similary technically-minded trio, Umiuma nonetheless take a poppier track, with some tracks recalling the jazzy pop excursions of 90s Shibuya-kei and melodies delivered via the candy-sweet tones of singer Masumi Horiya.

The most interesting moments are where the band subvert their pop sensibilities, setting them off against more discordant sounds, hyperactive rhythms and offbeat arrangements. They released a full-length album titled Kaiba earlier in the year that does a solid job of encapsulating most of the range of their sound (although sadly it doesn’t include any of the wonderfully odd cover versions they occasionally come up with live).

There is plenty plenty more music to be uncovered from the area, which I am only now starting to get to grips with. The intriguing Redd Temple come recommended highly by people in the know and regularly share stages with Rebel One Excalibur, and similarly, Umiuma are by no means a lone musical voice among Sendai’s one million residents. Really, all I am doing here is much belatedly scratching at the surface of a region of Japan that is too often neglected by the westward-gazing eyes of Tokyo, but which deserves much greater attention.

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Book update: 60s rock

One of the worst things in the world of blogging is blog posts apologising for the recent lack of blog posts: those short notes saying, “I’m still here, don’t leave me, I promise I’ll write more once these unspecified events pass over,” that always seem more like attempts by the writer to convince themselves than anything else.

In any case, this is one of those posts. After a productive May, posting has dropped off rather, firstly due to a series of live events I was organising, plus the release of the Quit Your Band! zine in July. The other thing that’s preying on my time is that I’ve started writing a book.

I’ve been nervous about mentioning it on here for fear of jinxing it, but the good people at Awai Books have been very encouraging and seem genuinely enthusiastic about the project, plus I’ve started making some meaningful progress with writing now, so it seems as good a time as any to mention it.

The content is primarily based around the same kind of stuff I write on here and in my Japan Times column, although I’m doing some additional research and trying to set up interviews with a few musicians and local specialists to fill in the gaps. A number of much more professional and respectable people than I have already written books in English on Japanese music so it’s going to be difficult to make my own offering stand out, but hopefully readers will find something of interest in it.

It won’t be ready for a long time yet (next year perhaps, and probably not early), but since the process of writing it is causing me to listen to all kinds of things, I’ll be posting updates with notes and comments on some of the bands I’ve been researching or writing about so the place doesn’t look too dead, and I’ll continue to try to post new stuff whenever it comes up.The Tempters: Tell Me More

I was looking at the 60s most recently, and thinking about Group Sounds. For those who don’t know, Group Sounds (“GS”) was the term applied to bands that sprung up in Japan in the wake of The Beatles’ legendary 1966 gig at the Nippon Budokan. The Tigers, The Tempters, The Spiders and The Mops were among the best known. There’s a lot of nice stuff, but for me, the only one that really stands out (and that really stands up to modern scrutiny) was The Golden Cups.The Golden Cups: This Bad Girl

The rough edged garage fuzz their recordings have really makes a lot of their contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Kenji Sawada) look like the weedy sellouts they were (check out the proto-Sonic Youth freakout in The Golden Cups’ version of Hey Joe). One thing I thought was interesting though, was how despite the way the progression of 60s rock’n’roll is usually presented as a shift from “eleki” (surf-style instrumental music influenced by The Ventures) to GS, there was a fair amount of overlap, and some of the leading practitioners of eleki, like Takeshi Terauchi, produced fascinating and brutal work, what I guess you’d call surfadelic music, in the late 60s.Takeshi Terauchi & The Bunnys: Tsugaru Eleki Bushi

I suppose the distinction I’d make though, is that I don’t think eleki and GS should really count as “Japanese rock”. The form is too deeply rooted in foreign forms and relies too much on cover versions, or else artists just allowed themselves to be coopted into mainstream Japanese pop. For me, The Jacks are where a distinctive Japanese rock music really starts. Their most famous song, Marianne, is an amazing achievement. Like if American rock’n’roll had gone straight from the Everly Brothers to The Velvet Underground, it really must have scared the shit out of people in 1968.The Jacks: Marianne

Anyway, I’m not really writing it in any kind of systematic order, so my next update might be on something completely unrelated and who knows when it’ll be, but this is my plan for now. Keep ’em peeled.

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Analysing overanalysis (WARNING: META)

The phrase “You’re overanalysing this” is one of the most annoying phrases a music journalist can hear, because analysing music is a key part of a music journalist’s job, and so embedded in that statement is the implication that the journalist’s job is useless. Putting aside the question of whether that is indeed the case (there are lots of useless jobs, and music journalists definitely have a strong case for a berth on the Golgafrincham B Ark), let’s just say that, true or not, it’s annoying. But at the risk of overanalysing the idea of overanalysis, I do sometimes wonder “What do you really mean by ‘You’re overanalysing this’?”

Because the same J-Pop and idol fans who are likely to accuse someone like me of overanalysing pop music are people who when I occasionally visit their web forums are engaged in discussions that provoke a very similar “You’re overanalysing this” reaction in me. In this sense, it seems to me that the phrase “You’re overanalysing this” really means something closer to “You’re analysing this in a way that I personally find troubling and/or alienating.”

I think in the case of J-Pop and especially idol music, it comes down to the base assumption that discussion works off. Fan discussions treat as a baseline the idea that idols are real human beings and that what is presented to you is real. They may know that it isn’t really real, but the discussion is carried out within the confines of the narrative. They analyse the lyrics and ask themselves, “What do these lyrics express about the singer’s personality, hopes, dreams, etc.?” in the same way that fans of a TV soap might discuss the characters and their lives. The discussion can get very detailed, picking up on all manner of little effects or elements of the music or other related products. It also irritates me in the same way Wikipedia articles on some anime annoy me, where they start speculating about inconsistencies in a show by saying, “It can be suggested that Character A did this unexplained and illogical thing because of Reason X” when I just want to bang my head against the table and scream, “NO, YOU IDIOT! Character A did this unexplained and illogical thing because the writer did a shitty job!” — the need to explain everything “in-narrative” is a habit of fan culture that draws a lot of brain power into creating tortured explanations for things that have really simple explanations when you step outside of the bubble.

The reason I get the reaction that these people are overanalysing it is I think because this base assumption that these are real people funnels the analysis into areas that I tend to see as irrelevant. My baseline for any discussion of J-Pop or idol music is that everything is artificial and the girls dancing at the front are in many ways the least important element of the whole process. It’s not quite that simple, and you can kind of see with the better artists like Kyary Pamyupamyu, Perfume, Momoiro Clover Z and others that there is some synthesis between the performer and the production, but basically, I tend to discuss it all in terms of the mechanics. To return to the TV show analogy, my approach would be like analysing a drama from the point of view of narrative structure (three acts, mid-point crisis, etc.), genre studies, that sort of thing. The people on screen are characters in a holistic product that has been designed by others, and the actors themselves are simply another aspect of the production. This probably takes a lot of the fun out of it for a lot for fans.

With J-Pop and idol music, these two positions are a bit confused because the character and the actor are the same person. A lot of fan discussion takes this as axiomatic, whereas I treat it more as an actor playing a version of themself (like, say, Jerry Seinfeld or something) while maintaining a separation between the person and the role. In any case, I think the key point isn’t so much that one side or the other is analysing something too much as that the two sides are analysing it using different sets of tools and based on different sets of assumptions. Were I less of a gentleman than I am, I would note at this point that my way is correct and better, but that would be mean, so I shan’t.

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RIP Hideki Yoshimura

Died of heart failure, aged 46. I wasn’t a deep or committed fan of Bloodthirsty Butchers but they were an important band and it would be foolish not to admit they made some great music. Definitely a sad loss for the music scene here in Japan.Bloodthirsty Butchers: Jack Nicolson

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