This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.
By 2008, I was looking to do another compilation. Bands come and go, and I’m always discovering new music, so every three or four years, I always find myself looking to do another compilation, not just of Call And Response artists (there are few enough of those) but also of artists around me, that I like, that I book for my live events, and that represent something of where my head is musically at that time. At about that time, I’d been getting into the alternative scene that seemed to have coalesced around Akihabara Club Goodman at that time. In 2005 it had all been about the Kansai area, but that scene had started to die out by 2007, while there were a lot of good Tokyo bands reaching maturity, if not quite the same levels of buzz. At the same time, a lot of what was interesting about the music these bands were making was in how it seemed to be reconstructing rock outside the constraints of Anglo-American 60s forms. It was like being in a parallel world where instead of The Beatles and The Sex Pistols, the dominant creative forces behind rock and punk had been Can and Public Image Limited. So what I thought of doing was making an album of cover versions of 1970s Krautrock as a way of drawing a parallel between the way bands from 70s Germany and modern Japan were both remaking rock without paying tribute to the Old Gods as it were. As I discussed that project with various people, it seemed like it would be quite daunting, and I found the project running away from me. At about the same time, I heard the album Never Mind The Bollocks “Here’s the Softly!”, a compilation put together by neo-Shibuya-kei label Softly! Records that covered The Sex Pistols’ album track by track. Now I hate The Sex Pistols. They’re the utterly overrated, musically uninteresting and regressive, and they suck suck suck. But the covers album was really interesting, partly because the songs are so simple and stupid that they forced the bands to reconstruct them a bit in order to add their own character to them. This got me thinking about another, much better but still minimal and musically simple 1977 album: Pink Flag by Wire. Now to say Wire are my favourite band ever would be an understatement. Nothing comes close to them for me. They opened my eyes in a way no band had previously and I doubt any band will be able to again (maybe Guided By Voices had a similar impact on me… maybe), giving me that inspiring feeling that anyone can make music, but at the same time steadfastly refusing to be normal, laughing at convention, and delivering everything through a cloak of lyrical mystery. Chairs Missing remains my favourite album, but Pink Flag is simpler, probably still better known, more iconic, and most importantly had 21 songs on it, which meant I could get a really broad range of bands involved. So the project became a Wire covers album, taking apart Pink Flag and reconstructing it track by track. I wanted to do it properly, so I spent $1,500 buying the song rights through JASRAC (I still legally can’t sell the album in foreign shops or on iTunes), and set to work recruiting all my absolute favourite bands. Getting Totsuzen Danball involved was a coup, because they were one of the very first Japanese punk bands and are in many ways a kind of Japanese equivalent of Wire, and getting Panicsmile was perhaps even more important given their role at the time as a lynchpin of the Tokyo alternative scene. Of Call And Response’s own bands, Mir and Hyacca both joined, the two bands representing the two different angles bands involved in the project were coming from. I didn’t want the album to be a “tribute album” so much as a radical act of reinterpretation, so I didn’t restrict my recruitment to bands who were already Wire fans and the end result was a mix of musicians who knew and loved the band and those who were approaching their music for the first time. Mir were enormous fans (one of the reasons I fell in love with them was that Yoko used to have a Wire reference in her email address) whereas Hyacca despite their similarities and second- or third- hand influence had never heard of them. Some artists took it even further. Groundcover. leader Ataru Mochizuki knew the song they were doing, Lowdown, but didn’t let the other members hear it, instead letting them jam with him on it until something that sounded like Groundcover. came out. Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile took it even further, recording Strange (based on the REM cover from Document rather than the original) alone in the studio on one night and then giving the result to his band members to improvise over the following day. Eiko Ishibashi (also then a member of Panicsmile, and the only musician who took part in both the Sex Pistols album and this one) just listened to Fragile a dozen times over and over again, and then played an improvised solo piano instrumental based on how the song made her feel. Electric Coma Trio turned 40-second instrumental track The Commercial into a twelve-minute NDW electro-dub epic. When I heard Yolz in the Sky’s version of Pink Flag, I was at first a bit disappointed because of the straight approach they had taken to the source material, which sounded a lot like Wire, but not much like Yolz in the Sky themselves. Once placed in context, however, it became clear how necessary their track was, as a rare anchor in the original amid a swirling sea of radical oddity. This was a lesson I had at the forefront of my mind when doing the Black Sabbath Paranoid covers Valentine’s gift earlier this month, and I made sure that somewhere in it there would be at least one straight take on the song. I was surprised that more bands didn’t do anything with the language, with Mir translating the lyrics of Mannequin poetically into Japanese, Groundcover. gutting Lowdown of most of its contents and just bellowing the title over and over again, and Agolay Culkin just free-associating brand new Japanese lyrics over the chords to Brazil, but as a rule, bands stuck to some approximation of the original English words. With ramshackle and gloriously cute punk-pop party band And About Hers, this was essential, and the sweary lyrics of Mr. Suit work brilliantly with their irrepressibly happy vocals, emphasising the absurdity and satire of the original song (surely Wire were taking the piss out of the dumb anti-authoritarian stance of so many of their contemporaries with likes like, “I’m tired of fucking phonies, that’s right I’m tired of you! No no no no no no Mr. Suit!”) The cover art was done by my friend Akiko Yoshida, who is one of the most important people in my whole involvement in Japanese music, with her band The Students being the first group I really discovered and who really were singlehandedly responsible for introducing me to the live scene back in 2002. Unable to hold down a steady lineup and never satisfied with their own recordings, Akiko was at least able to contribute to this project by doing her own “cover version” of Pink Flag‘s jacket art, reconceptualising the flag as half a dragonfly in a way that no doubt seemed logical to her. Again, her approach was just right though, preparing you for what you’re getting before you even break open the case. Given that Wire remain pretty much unknown in Japan and bearing in mind the idiosyncratic approach to recruiting bands, it was never going to be a big commercial success, but it did OK and seems to have achieved some sort of cult respectability in underground circles. I’ve always been rather wary about Wire themselves hearing it though. I informed them that I was doing it during the early stages of its production, but never tried to contact them after that. The whole don’t-meet-your-idols thing really, but I think the resulting album in its utter lack of respect for the sanctity of the original material is at least true to the spirit of what Wire continue to stand for, and more than that was a teriffic document of the Japanese underground scene.
Post Flag is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.