Category Archives: Classic Pop

Strange Boutique (January 2014): R.I.P. Masahide Sakuma

The topic of my first Japan Times column of 2014 was dictated by the death of Masahide Sakuma. I interviewed him in 2010 when he was working on a fundraising single for Mick Karn’s cancer appeal, and I was able to see him at work in the studio. He was relaxed, friendly, but utterly professional and his own death from the same disease just a few years later was cruel.Plastics: Top Secret Man

Obviously given my obsession with 70s/80s new wave, it was his work with the Plastics and his production work with P-Model that remains closest to me, but in a way that’s merely a footnote to a career that saw him working with some of the biggest names in pop and leaving his mark on nearly every big movement in Japanese music between 1980 and 2000. Less of an obvious superstar producer than the likes of Tetsuya Komuro TM Network, Globe, Tomomi Kahala, TRF, early Namie Amuro) and Takeshi Kobayashi (My Little Lover, Mr. Children), as producer of Glay and Judy And Mary, he was right up there with them as one of the top producers of the J-Pop era.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that his star clearly waned after the 90s came to a close, and he pretty much said as much himself when in 2012 he retired from music. The blog post I mention in the original column is well worth reading, even if you just run it through Google Translate, because it echoes what many people in the music industry are saying and he expresses it very well. Put simply, record companies just aren’t willing to pay what it costs for producers to do their job. Sakuma makes clear that he understands that people might just say that the 90s was a bubble and that that level of spending was unsustainable, but in any case, to achieve the level of quality he felt necessary, it took money and that money wasn’t being spent on producers anymore (marketing departments appear to have been less seriously affected).Judy And Mary: Motto

Now I’m not sure I completely agree with him on that point because the Plastics records were made for a pittance and they’re some of the best music that’s ever been made in Japanese music history, but then I’m a DIY music nerd who can quite happily flip out over a song made on an MP3 recorder in a rehearsal studio, and that’s not really what Sakuma was talking about. He was talking about his work, his craft, and the frustration he felt at not being able to fully use those skills to do justice to the music he was working with. This decline in the role of the producer has been one of the defining features of the past decade and a bit. Sakuma’s big 90s contemporaries have also declined in influence, with Komuro having suffered the most spectacular fall from grace, but Kobayashi increasingly sharing production duties with the band on Mr. Children records, and My Little Lover having split up and re-emerge as a bland Akko solo project. One of the few superstar producers of recent years Yasutaka Nakata once remarked to me that people in Japan just aren’t interested in producers. That’s certainly the professional environment Nakata has grown up with, but they used to be.

One thing I was unable to find a good way to work into the article was that Sakuma’s final “public” appearance relates to another big movement in Japanese music, with him appearing on the coupled DVD with idol group Nogizaka46’s 2013 single Barrette, performing a song with group member Erika Ikuta, to whom he is related through a cousin. Opinions of the state of idol music in Japan today aside, we can remark at least that as with so many other things, he was there. I should also add that despite his official retirement, he didn’t stop working on stuff that interested him, and 2014 is set to see one or two posthumous releases.

I was DJing at a show last night where new wave and technopop fans proliferated, and a few of the musicians, some of whom had known and played alongside him, joined together at the end to perform Aurora Tour, a song Sakuma made with Yuki (Judy And Mary) and Kate Pierson (The B-52’s) for the supergroup NiNa which also featured Mick Karn. It was a better tribute than anything I could write, and a fitting reminder of his influence across a range of genres and several musical generations.NiNa: Aurora Tour

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Mini Book Update: 80s idols

I’m still battling my way through the story of punk and new wave, but I took the time to add two or three paragraphs to the end of the section on 70s kayoukyoku to extend the story into the 80s. I didn’t want to go into too much depth here. The key change between the 70s and 80s was the change from TV talent shows like Star Tanjou! as the vehicle for producing and delivering new stars to using TV commercials, hence the term “CM idol”. Going hand in hand with this is the disappearance of live bands or orchestras accompanying singers on TV performances, perhaps since lots of the newer idols had been chosen for their ability to be cute in 15-second advertising slots rather than actually sing.

Obviously Seiko Matsuda was the most famous and popular. She exemplified the 80s idol as a marketing vehicle, although I don’t think her songs were all that much to write home about.Seiko Matsuda: Hadashi no Kisetsu

Much better I think was Kyoko Koizumi, who recently appeared in the phenomenally popular NHK morning drama Ama-chan playing a woman whose childhood dreams of becoming an idol had been dashed when her manager fucked her over and used her voice to overdub another girl. Koizumi was one of the last big names to come out of Star Tanjo! so she sort of spans the changeover from the 70s production model to the 80s.Kyoko Koizumi: Makka no Onnanoko

Lastly, you can’t talk about 80s idols without mentioning Onyanko Club, the first mass idol collective, the first group produced by Yasushi Akimoto, and the source of all our current horrors. They were quite fun, although given how many of their (by which I mean Akimoto’s) lyrics were just direct invitations to sexual harassment with a very clear message of “no means yes”, it’s makes the group quite an uncomfortable listen sometimes. But then this saucy flirtatiousness was way more part of the 80s cultural discourse than it is in these more austere times. Kyoko Koizumi was notorious for flashing her underwear at every opportunity (not that I’m complaining there), and the flipside of it is that it ran parallel with some real advancement in the social position of women. When Seiko Matsuda had a baby and then went back to her singing career instead of retreating into docile motherhood, it was a scandal, but she trailed the way for numerous other singers to do the same. Anyway, here’s Onyanko Club being saucy:Onyanko Club: Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide

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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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Interview: Sheena & The Rokkets

As I mentioned in my previous post, I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and the feature appeared on this week’s Japan Times music page. Makoto did most of the talking, I think because he’s rather more confident speaking English, although Sheena chipped in. We talked for about one and a half hours so there’s no way I’m writing up the full transcript, but they were very nice and said some interesting stuff.

When I’m writing a feature like this for the JT, the trick to it is always to try to find the story from amongst the chaos of what can often be quite rambling, unstructured conversations, although in Sheena & The Rokkets’ case there were several possible stories to draw from it. In the end, I think the recurring theme was the compromises a rock’n’roll or punk band has to make in order to make a living from music. I get the impression that the “mentai rock” generation are viewed with a bit of suspicion by members of the current Fukuoka rock scene, perhaps due to a kind of subconscious resentment of the jokey and reductive nature of the term “mentai rock” itself, or perhaps due to the perception that so many of the bands seemed to have sold out. Basically, if you’re an alternative band who’s been based in Fukuoka for any length of time without moving to Tokyo, it’s because your roots there are stronger than your ambitions for commercial success. Bands who moved to Tokyo and had hits, well, they chose a different path.

Makoto’s old band Sonhouse were full-on proto-punk rockers though. I was in a bar in Koenji on Tuesday night with a couple of Fukuoka friends who were in Tokyo on tour and we got the owner to put on their first album from 1975 and it was raw, brutal rock’n’roll hedonism in its purest form. Both of my friends were nodding their heads in appreciation and eventually one of them pronounced, “Yeah, this is a really good record.”Sonhouse: Milk Nomi Ningyo

The very existence of Sheena & The Rokkets seems to have more to do with the need to move on commercially without losing sight of that rock’n’roll purity. Sonhouse seem to have split partly because they couldn’t take what they were doing any further in Fukuoka, and Makoto and Sheena had had their first daughter in 1976, so it must have been difficult to marry the responsibilities of having a family with the inherently irresponsible nature of rock’n’roll. The fact that Sheena & The Rokkets moved to Tokyo pretty much as soon as they started shows this change in attitude I think.

What’s interesting about the group is the way they negotiated these opposing principles. Makoto talks a bit in the interview about how kayoukyoku and rock’n’roll were sort of seen as fundamentally opposing forces, but lots of the people who had started out in punk and new wave bands quickly started trying to make what they did work in some sort of mainstream or semi-mainstream context and the early 80s is quite an interesting time in music precisely for how these then-underground musical ideas started to bleed across into pop (in a similar way that you can see this happening now with idol music). Sheena & The Rokkets were lucky to end up with a genius like Haruomi Hosono producing them and the results are a bunch of very good songs, although there’s still a bit a shock in how they went from this…Sheena & The Rokkets: Sugaree (Rusty York)

…to this:Sheena & The Rokkets: Ukabino Peach Girl

In any case, watching them live, it’s clear that rock’n’roll remained at the core of what they did. They seem to have commanded the respect of overseas contemporaries, with Lenny Kaye, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Wilko Johnson and others all seeming to have had an interest in the band. The collaboration with Yuu Aku is also part of this same continuum of keeping an eye on the mainstream and trying to take what’s good from it.

Of course (through no fault of their own) there’s nothing really underground or alternative about the kind of rock’n’roll Sheena & The Rokkets do anymore because the goalposts for what qualifies as extreme have moved so far since the late 70s. It’s interesting that Sheena and Makoto’s two younger daughters’ own band Darkside Mirrors, while cut from similar garage rock cloth to their parents, was a dirtier, rougher and trashier sounding proposition.Darkside Mirrors: Elevator

What’s happened is that rock’n’roll has moved on from being rebellious into being something timeless, and that in turn has made the distinction between rock’n’roll and pop music that was so strong in the 70s increasingly meaningless. Still, when you compare Sheena & The Rokkets to another 70s rock’n’roll rebel like Eikichi Yazawa, it’s obvious that they’ve retained a way closer hold on their roots and importantly still seem to be having fun.

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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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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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Strange Boutique (August 2013)

My August (and I like to believe also august) column went up on The Japan Times’ web site last week, on the subject of Shibuya-kei. The event that kicked it off was when we noticed that September 1st, as well as being the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and my wife’s [CENSORED] birthday, marked twenty years since the release of Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada’ first solo single.

Obviously he’d been around for years before that with Flipper’s Guitar, who were almost certainly of greater importance in terms of bringing indie music into the mainstream in Japan, sort of like a weedy-voiced, twee Nirvana, and The Sun Is My Enemy isn’t his best song by a long shot, but in its style, its release though Oyamada’s Trattoria label, and the significance of the name Cornelius in Shibuya-kei’s popularity and influence overseas, it’s a useful benchmark.Cornelius: The Sun Is My Enemy [Sorry for the annoying twat talking over the intro]

There was some discussion on Twitter afterwards about what song would be a better choice if there were to be a single track chosen to define Shibuya-kei, and I think there is a general agreement that it would probably have to be something connected with Oyamada. One suggestion was Flipper’s Guitar’s track Dolphin Song, which is almost certainly the band’s tour de force, bringing their neo-acoustic melodic sense together with experimentation with sound production and sampling that pushes the boundaries of what indie and pop music in Japan were doing at that time way back.Flipper’s Guitar: Dolphin Song

Another possibility would be Kahimi Karie’s Good Morning World, released by Oyamada through Trattoria, which takes the sort of faux-sixties aesthete-pop that Pizzicato Five had been doing for a while, and adds an arrangement and lyrics — courtesy of British songwriter and (tender) pervert Momus — that are some of the oddest and most subversive things ever to sneak into the upper echelons of the Oricon charts.Kahimi Karie: Good Morning World

I also used the article to have another go at “Cool Japan”, which is one of my recurring bugbears about Japanese pop culture. A lot of interesting discussion came out of that as well. At the end of the article where I contrast the enduring overseas respect afforded to Cornelius with the declining fortunes of anime and video games abroad, it’s obviously not meant to be a direct comparison of a single artist to an entire industry. My point is that creating an environment where original artists can emerge is going to be more helpful to Japan’s image overseas than just treating culture like venture capital and chucking money at marketing stuff that’s been born out of particular economic conditions.

Anime in particular is an embarrassment at the moment, and despite the popularity of cosplay among certain groups of people, there is no one who actually thinks it’s cool. Its cultural cachet is confined to a niche group and is considered a joke by outsiders. Video games are in a better position, but the Japanese games industry isn’t what it once was. Sony seem to be getting some positive advance coverage of the PS4 but they’ve done that partly through Microsoft’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity and partly by going back to the old ways of scrubbing the machine’s Japaneseness from it, creating something blankly international like the Walkman.

My belief is that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry isn’t the best institution to be dealing with cultural matters, and that rather than wasting it on evil bastards like advertising giants Dentsu, the money would be more usefully spent in a similar way to how it’s been used in British theatre, i.e. in providing infrastructure that allows artists to experiment and develop ideas free of commercial constraints. Out of that, you’ll surely get a lot of wank, but you’ll also get uncommercial but notable art that would have been strangled at birth under the current system, and you’ll also get works that do have commercial potential that can then be developed into something bigger under the existing commercial infrastructure.

Encouraging international collaboration and cooperation too will be beneficial. A system of grants to help artists with the expensive business of touring overseas should be a basic given (almost every European country has this), as well as helping to build up connections with similar overseas organisations. Relaxing visa requirements for overseas artists wanting to visit Japan would also be very helpful (the opposite of what Canada is doing here, basically). As it stands, Cornelius and Shibuya-kei was a fantastic one-off, but so much more could be done to build an environment where more one-off talents could emerge.Cornelius: Gum (Ultimate Sensuous Synchronized Show)

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