Tokyo Soundscape Episode 21

Tokyo Soundscape

Apologies for bunching up all these playlists and shows, but actual proper articles forthcoming over the Christmas/New Year period are coming (including the culmination of the 2012 Cracker Joke challenger, a feature on product placement, and my top films, albums and soundtracks of the year). But first, to kick off the festive mood, a Tokyo Soundscape Christmas Special! Well, half a Christmas Special, the rest is a collection of tracks new and old, odds and ends, but all jolly good fun. More Soundscape next year no doubt, but until then, メリクリ!

  1. Cubismo Grafico – Candy Favourite Shoes
  2. Shugo Tokumaru – Parachute
  3. Ken Kobayashi – Orange Boxes
  4. Hifana (feat. Kotobuki) – Uchi-Nan-Champroo
  5. Yellow Magic Orchestra – Radio Junk (live at The Bottom Line, New York on 6th November 1979)
  6. INU -気い狂て
  7. Shonen Knife – Sweet Christmas
  8. Judy And Mary – クリスマス
  9. World’s End Girlfriend – Jaichel Mackson
  10. Pizzicato Five – 12月24日
  11. Kick the Can Crew – クリスマス・イブ Rap

A Personal Document of How I Came to Love Japanese Music

Readers of Viewing Gum may or may not be aware that, since 2005, I have presented Tokyo Soundscape, a Japanese music podcast hosted by SOAS Radio (based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). Many episodes have been lost in the annals of history, and I usually record them in brief spurts, based on what material I have to hand and what related events and gigs are taking place in London, but I largely cover contemporary alternative pop, rock and electronic music from Japanese artists, with a few curveballs thrown in for good measure.

It all came about when the initiative was launched to have a radio station at SOAS which would have a brief FM broadcast in November/December 2005. Then titled Open Air Radio, the station transmitted music and talk shows live around London for three weeks, including 3 editions of Tokyo Soundscape. Almost six years later, I have just recorded a couple more and I thought it would be a good time to perhaps talk a little bit about how I came to be interested in Japanese music. I had developed an interest in its popular culture, largely through a Japanese friend of mine at school when I was little, and more recently cinema, particularly the likes of Ringu, Audition, Battle Royale, and Brother. However, my love of the music specifically can be traced back to Spaced: 1999.

Spaced was in many ways a ‘game-changer’ for me, in that as funny and exciting and brilliantly performed as it was, it’s kinetic camerawork and tightly-packed references and in-jokes spoke to me on a deeply personal level, especially as a teenager still giddy from seeing Evil Dead II for the first time as part of Channel 4’s Uncensored season the year before (shown avec un intro de Mark Kermode, along with Zombie Flesh Eaters). However, I only started watching when my friend Stu informed me the last episode had zombies appearing out of Resident Evil 2 and terrorising the characters. What sounded like the greatest thing ever, in a rare occurrence, did indeed turn out to be the greatest thing ever, and so I watched in awe from episode 4 (aka ‘the paintball one’) onwards.

But we’re getting a little side-tracked here. As the Spaced DVD was released, so too, in a welcome surprise, was the soundtrack. The show had matched a great visual style with a nifty song selection too which, coupled with Guy Pratt’s own superb original compositions, really contributed to the feel of the show, and helped it stand out from any comedy that had come before. Amongst the likes of Ocean’s 11 scorer David Holmes, Nightmares on Wax and Coldcut, two contributors stood out: Fantastic Plastic Machine and Cornelius. And it was only after internet research that I discovered they just so happened to be Japanese (also known as Tomoyuki Tanaka and Keigo Oyamada respectively).

As leading lights of the Shibuya-kei music scene (so-called because their offerings, a mix of French ye-ye, bossa nova and beats, became popular at the HMV in Shibuya, Tokyo’s hip fashion district), their tunes struck a chord. In particular, Cornelius’ blistering ‘Count Five or Six’ was my new favourite song, and encouraged by critical consensus, I ordered the album it came from, 1998’s Fantasma, off Amazon. Upon receipt, I listened to it from start to finish, poring over the beautifully designed and detailed inlay, with a big grin on my face. It was like a magical musical mystery tour through influences as diverse as Beck, Bach, and Boys both Beach and Beastie.

It was about this time that Jet Set Radio was released on the Sega Dreamcast. A graffiti-tagging roller-blading slice of videogame cool, Smilebit’s classic featured ground-breaking cel-shaded graphics and, more to the point, wonderful music. Guest tracks came from hip-hop posse Jurassic 5, Headhunter scorer and Metropolis Street Racer songsmith Richard Jacques, and Japanese indie rockers Guitar Vader, but the music was largely provided by Hideki Naganuma, who built upon a Shibuya-kei sensibility with a lively and vibrant soundtrack which fitted the game’s action and aesthetic perfectly. Both Spaced and Jet Set Radio became key touchstones in my blossoming love for Japanese music, which came to be solidified watching coverage of the 2002 Fuji Rock Festival on late-night Channel 4 (back when late-night Channel 4, especially its 4Later strand, was something to get excited about). Cornelius performed ‘Star Fruits Surf Rider’ and it was also my first introduction to one of my favourite bands Supercar.

However, probably the finest exponent of cool Japanese music around the time was the excellent Adam and Joe Go Tokyo! on BBC Three in the summer of 2003. Hosted by the brilliantly funny Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, …Go Tokyo! was a magazine show of sorts, charting their unsuccessful attempts to integrate into and understand Japanese culture, with informative and entertaining interviews, reports and features.  On the music side of things, there were the latest pop promos and their own attempts at chart stardom (with Gaijin Invasion), but they also closed each show with a live act, and featured some great performances from Guitar Wolf, Polysics, Hoover’s Ooover, and Plus-Tech Squeeze Box.

When I finally had the chance to visit Japan as part of my gap year trip, I put my education into practice, spending hours in HMV and Tower Records listening to the in-store headset, and picking up Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’s Cartooom! and Supercar’s Futurama. And my study year in Kyoto allowed for regular trips to rental emporium Tsutaya, second-hand CD goodness from Book-Off, and the opportunities to see the likes of Cornelius, Hoover’s Ooover, and YMO live. Yet, when I spoke to any Japanese person about the bands I liked, they would usually draw a blank, as little of the J-pop idol stuff, anime theme tunes or extravagant visual-kei malarkey that many would associate with contemporary Japanese music really appealed to me.

Though I still spend time seeking out new artists, it was this early blossoming period that still holds most sway when it comes to my taste in music, even if its kind has fallen somewhat out of favour. There are still examples out there (Kyoto’s Second Royal Records offer a raft of DJs big on playful beats and noises) but they’re harder to find. Even the artists have evolved, with Fantastic Plastic Machine following a more trad house route, while Cornelius stripping back his sound to a more minimalist, but still magical, approach. I have had to recently go back to the well somewhat by finally getting a copy of videogame sequel Jet Set Radio Future, close to 10 years since its release.

But it can all be traced back to a time when all my interests seemed to fit into place – and Spaced kicked it all off, just as Edgar Wright’s subsequent works spoke to my specific love of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (in Shaun of the Dead) and intimate knowledge of Wells town centre (in Hot Fuzz). It all seemed to culminate with Scott Pilgrim vs The World – based on a graphic novel series which I only read because it was announced post-Shaun that Wright was due to direct. And amongst all the videogame nods, crazy visuals and referential humour, what should be found on the soundtrack but an original composition by Mr. Keigo Oyamada himself, Cornelius.

 

UPDATE! 24th July 2012

I had the immense privlege and pleasure to meet and interview Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius when he was in London to perform with singer Salyu as part of their salyu x salyu project. You can listen to the interview on this episode of Tokyo Soundscape. As you can see from this post, Cornelius is one of my all-time heroes, so it was an honour to be in his company. I even got him to sign my copy of 69/96 (bought second hand from a Book Off in Tokyo), and it turned out it was also the first album drummer and salyu x salyu band member Asa-chang had performed on, so he signed it as well.

Just one thing…how come he’s wearing the same cardigan and t-shirt meeting me as he is with Edgar Wright in the picture above?

 

Having touched on a bunch of Japanese musicians in the main text, here are just three of my favourite albums in a little more detail:

Cornelius – Fantasma (1998)

Cornelius was originally a member of early Shibuya-kei duo Flipper’s Guitar before releasing his first solo album The First Question Award in 1994. 69/96 would follow, opting for a bigger, bolder and more sample-led sound, but Fantasma remains his masterwork. A glorious patchwork of influences pieced together to form a unique whole, it still manages to be a hugely entertaining and satisfying listen from start to finish.

Plus-Tech Squeeze Box – Fakevox (2000)

Tokyo duo Tomonori Hayashibe and Takeshi Wakiya’s debut release is like trying to tune a perpetually scrambling radio from the future while on a wild sugar-rush bender. Stand-out tracks ‘early RISER’ and ‘Sneaker Song!’ show their pico-pop neo-Shibuya-kei stylings at their most wild and wacky, but every track, even the mini interludes, is a delight. Since their 2004 follow-up Cartooom!, they have focused more on remixes, side-projects and production recently, but an appearance on the Spongebob Squarepants Movie soundtrack was a gleeful reminder that no-one does manic electro-pop better than them.

Supercar – Highvision (2002)

Having started out as a somewhat conventional, if still excellent, indie rock band, Supercar gradually developed a more electronic sound, with Highvision marking the high-point of their straddling of genres, venturing close to dance music territory with the likes of ‘Yumegiwa Last Boy’ (featured in quirky comedy drama Ping Pong). Even David Bowie claimed to be a fan. Though they called it a day as a group in 2005, lead Koji Nakamura has released his own material under the moniker iLL, and just this year started a new band with former bandmate Miki Furukawa as LAMA.

To listen to Tokyo Soundscape, please visit the official site at SOAS Radio, or you can subscribe on iTunes. Please also like the show on Facebook.

GIG REVIEW: Live Earth Japan – Kyoto Toji (07.07.07)

While major cities played host to day-long mega-concerts in vast venues to alert the world’s attention to Al Gore’s SOS campaign to curtail global warming, the city that gave it’s name to the best known climate change treaty yet devised (the Kyoto Protocol) was hosting it’s own side concert. And what better setting for a smaller, more low-key affair, than the serene surrounds of the Toji, home to Japan’s tallest wooden tower and a symbol of Kyoto itself. As a gig venue, it reminded me of the annual summer concerts held at Glastonbury Abbey, which dates from around the same era; the only exception being that the Toji is not in ruins and is still a functioning place of worship, some 1,200 years later.

So to get myself in the mood, I watched some of the live feed online from the Tokyo concert already underway, as Japanese rockers Rize thrashed about and screamed with crazy hair, outfits and tattoos. That afternoon, I took the train to Toji station (about half an hour away) and joined the queue lining up beside the temple grounds. Once inside, we gathered in groups according to our ticket number, and were sent into the inner area via the pagoda in batches (picking up a Live Earth pamphlet and tote bag along the way). While much of the seating had already been taken, I found a seat near the back but with a fine view of the stage. What was wonderful about the setting was how it wasn’t just a concert within the temple grounds, but the temple building was the stage itself (well, everyone was performing in front of it, but it made for a gorgeous backdrop once the lighting was in full swing). It was just after 7pm, the sky was darkening, the humid air was thinning and a cool breeze was…erm…breezing. Then suddenly the tinkly Zen music was broken with a thump. Then another. Then another. Was Godzilla approaching? Were storm clouds looming?

No…DJ Fumiya marches across to his decks, scratches the SOS morse code (used in the interval music throughout), and is joined by the rest of his Rip Slyme cohorts decked in white jackets, different coloured hats, and shorts. The closest thing you’ll get to the Beastie Boys in Japan, Rip Slyme‘s goofy upbeat rap is a great way to start, and the audience claps and nods to their bouncy antics. I was pretty amazed how small some of them were, but they can sure rhyme the rhyme well, and as a rap combo, Rip Slyme‘s dash of humour and self-deprecation (no band can take themselves seriously dancing the way they do) is fun and refreshing. Even if I didn’t recognise any of their tracks.

Next up was song siren UA. Having not heard any of her material beforehand, I didn’t really have high expectations, but I was blown away by her performance. With only a single guitar accompaniement, she belted out a stunning epic flowing number of incredible range and a unique singing style – while it was clearly Japanese she was singing, she managed to make it sound as un-Japanese as possible, and more like Icelandic (though that might just be the easy to lump together Sigur Rós / múm effect when it comes to strange or ethereal non-English singing). She also made little monkey noises during and after the songs. This is a good thing. And she was also the most conscious of the evening’s goal in terms of saving the world, and seemed the most earnest in her appreciation of Kyoto (“日本の心”, “the heart and soul of Japan” as she called), even going so far as saying thanks in local dialect.

She was followed by Kyoto-born Bonnie Pink, another well-known Japanese songstress, but also one I’d yet to hear in any shape or form. As expected, the stage turned pink, and she began her first track, entitled ‘Heaven’s Kitchen’, which followed your typical pop-song formula, but the funkier vibe and the gutsy performance were enough to win me over. I wouldn’t usually go to see this kind of music live, but I think it’s safe to say that once can appreciate the talent and the quality of singing far better than just hearing it pop on the radio. However, her following songs weren’t anywhere near as interesting, and the rather shameless plugging of her singles and albums offset some of my newfound appreciation.

With a sole piano now occupying the stage, it was time for Michael Nyman, and it was probably the first time I’ve seen a solo pianist perform live since my school recital era (actually, there were a few kids taking turns at keyboards at the Sapporo Snow Festival). As the only foreigner performing that night (I’d only seen four other gaijin at the concert, all middle-aged, 3 with Japanese wives, 1 with a camera), I wondered whether he was especially popular in Japan, or had some connection with the country. It seemed an odd choice – I’m only vaguely familiar with his work, with only his collaboration with Damon Albarn on the score to overlooked frontier cannibal thriller Ravenous I could really vouch for. As a result, I was never too sure if the odd mis-plinks and mis-plonks were intended or nerves getting the better of him (his only audience interaction, understandably, being a series of bows before and after hi set). But having checked his Wikipedia entry, it seems like his music was also frequently used in Japanese cooking competition show, Iron Chef, which would explain the connection. Perhaps it was the slow and minamilist nature of his tunes, but his segment did seem to go on longer than the others (each getting only a piffling 20 minutes), and the close proximity to the road behind meant one tune was interrupted by the motorcycle revs of some jackass bosozoku. However, everyone seemed to recognise his final tune, ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from his score to The Piano. And there was much applause when he took his final bow. But was this genuinely appreciative of his perfomance or were people just happy to see him go? Well, it soon became clear that everyone was here to see one act and one act alone.

Having recently reformed for a beer commercial (what do you expect in Japan), the legendary trio of Haruomi Hasono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, aka Yellow Magic Orchestra, were taking to the stage for the first time together in 14 years (at least under the YMO name). It only took the stage crew to move on their individual mini-stages to get the crowd to stand, applauding and whooping. But when they appeared, the crowd were esctatic, as was I. Undeniably greyer, but also, undeniably cooler in their older age, they began with a stirring rendition of ‘Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself)’, which fitted in well with the nature of proceedings. This was followed by two tracks I hadn’t heard before, and I have a feeling at least one may have come from Hasano and Takahashi’s Sketch Show project (which also sometimes featured Sakamoto, all three appearing under the guise of Human Audio Sponge). Whatever the case may be, they were both typical of their distinctive sound. Their final tune was their new remix of the classic ‘Rydeen’, which sounded so very good live, and had the audience humming the melody as they departed. While there was a wait for an encore (such a tease – waiting over a decade to play four tracks – what about all the guys who came in their YMO shirts?), when the equipment was being removed and the stage dismantled, it became clear that was that. Too short it may have been, but it was worth it, and for what will most likely be my last gig in Japan, I couldn’t think of any domestic act I’d have rather seen.

But did all this really get its message across? Who knows…unlike most of the other concerts, the attendees here were mostly plus 30 years old, who may not be as clued up in green issues as their younger counterparts. But Japan already has a pretty good record when it comes to recycling and the like, though it could probably improve on it’s ‘burn everything’ mentality, as well as the amount of unnecessary packaging used for most everyday shopping purchases. I guess the problem with the Live Earth concerts as a whole is that there isn’t really a clear goal or sense of unity or ultimate progress or achievement or influence being created. Especially as there has been little publicity made about them at all. Only two or three people I told about the event had a vague idea of what it was, and I haven’t read or seen anything about the concerts in Kyoto or Tokyo in the run-up to the day (okay, so I don’t read the newspapers or have a TV, but these things are meant to seep through somehow). At least I can be thankful for not having it’s omnipresence rammed into my brain – I can imagine in London there’s probably a bit of big important concert apathy, considering there’s one held in Hyde Park or Wembley Stadium seemingly every weekend. While I indeed have concerns about global warming, at least I got to see YMO. Regardless of whether the day’s objectives are achieved or not in the long run, for now, that’s good enough for me.

8/10

You can view videos of Rip Slyme and YMO perfoming, plus photos of all the acts, taken by yours truly, at my special Live Earth Kyoto YouTube Playlist and my Live Earth Kyoto Flickr Set.

> > > Live Earth Japan