I’ve had very little exposure to Japanese rock and pop music. Americans are quick to look to Europe for trends in music and bands to adore, but seldom do we look to “the East” and it’s not often that an Asian band or performer breaks through other than for a one-off like Psy and his meme-like “Gingham Style.” That being said, a handful of Japanese artists have made it to the pages of the blog including the 188.8.131.52’s, Shonen Knife, Guitar Wolf, the Plastics, and Total Fury…. damn, that’s a longer list than I was expecting, though all those records and CDs were bought within the last two years. I can’t remember even being aware of any Japanese bands prior to that.
A month or so ago I was searching Amazon for some music books to read and I ran across Julian Cope’s relatively new (2007) book Japrocksampler, and it seemed like a good primer into the rise of rock music in Japan through the 1970s, so I ordered it. The 302 page hardback is a pretty good read and it appears, at least to a Japanese music novice like me, that Cope has not only done his homework but also listened to a ton of these albums from the late 1960s through the 1970s. If you read the reviews of the book online you’ll find that Cope certainly has his detractors; but that’s they way it is. I’m sure his book isn’t perfect and there are some mistakes here and there, but I’m not aware of anything else like it. Cope gives us a bit of the history of popular music in Japan post-World War II, then focuses his attention on some specific bands before finally giving us his personal Top 50 Japanese rock albums of the psych era.
TANGENT! –> I have to admit I’m not entirely comfortable with the title of Cope’s book, having long been taught that the term “Jap” is offensive and racist, something I may even be more sensitive to being that I’ve spent well over half my life in the northwest where we have a substantial Asian population. To be fair to Cope, he also put out a seminal book (I believe in the 90s) called Krautrocksampler about the rise of the German electronic scene. Kraut is kind of questionable term when used to refer to German people… though I really have no idea if anyone actually finds it offensive or not, and frankly I’m not sure anyone even uses it any more. That being said, “krautrock” is an actual musical genre much like punk or grunge and it exists in the common lexicon… though I don’t think the same is true of “japrock.” We’ve got J-Pop, but that’s about as close as it gets, at least as far as I know. Anyway, you can decide for yourself how you feel about the book’s title.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, probably the most captivating bands to me over the course of reading Japrocksampler were Les Rallizes Dénudés and Flower Travellin’ Band. Les Rallizes seemed more interesting due to their style and flat-out weirdness, but Flower Travellin’ Band sounded like they had some cool stuff going on so I decided to see if I could find any of their albums online. eBay yielded some vinyl re-releases and I pretty much narrowed myself down to Anywhere and Satori, both of which were available for around $30-35 each… or I could get them on CD for less than $15 apiece. Dammit! I wanted the vinyl, but at the end of the day my frugal side took over, especially since I didn’t know for sure how much I’d like this stuff, so I went ahead and ordered the CDs, saving myself around $40 in the process. Mind you, had I found these on vinyl at my local indie record store I probably would have bought the records instead because, remember kids, you have to support your local indie record store! If you don’t, you’ll find yourself sitting around bitching about how you don’t have any good local indie shops to go to because they went out of business. Buy local and shop indie.
Flower Travellin’ Band first came together around 1968 as part of the resistance to the pre-packaged, manufacturedness of the Group Sound bands in Japan. Group Sound bands usually had all the members dressing exactly the same, much like a lot of American and British bands were doing earlier in the decade, and often performed covers. There was a movement away from this commoditized music towards more free-form style that, while still highly derivative from American and European influences and featuring lots of covers, ensured that the artists would fall well outside the Japanese popular culture mainstream.
Cope ranked Flower Travellin’ Band’s 1970 album Anywhere #28 in his personal Top 50. Technically six songs, the first and last are simply short (less than a minute each) intro/outro harmonica pieces and nothing more. The core four songs are actually all covers: “Louisiana Blues” (Muddy Waters), “Black Sabbath” (Black Sabbath), “House of the Rising Sun” (various), and “21st Century Schizoid Man” (King Crimson). But don’t be fooled and think these are just straight covers, because they’re not; Flower Travellin’ Band puts their own spin on all of them, stretching them out into much longer versions than the originals with “Louisiana Blues” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” each lasting longer than 13 minutes, so really your six songs give you over 47 minutes of music.
And what music! Holy crap this is some good stuff! As Cope notes in his review:
It’s a dead cert that those who dismiss the Flower debut as a covers
album have never heard it, only heard about it. For its grooves contain
such monstrous modifications that each track leaves the starting block a
full metre lower than the hoary jalopy originals, a Ferrari where once
was a Ford. (p. 270)
Nowhere is this monstrousness more evident than in the clover of “Black Sabbath,” which is hard describe as a Ferrari since it’s soooo sloooowwwww… a slow, plodding, doomed dirge of heaviness and darkness and apprehension and dread. Joe Yamanaka has the perfect voice for pulling off this song with his high pitch that is very reminiscent of Ozzy himself. The band made some great choices in picking these tracks as they’re all songs that fit Yamanaka’s plaintive vocal style. Hideki Ishima’s guitar work drives all of the songs and it’s easy to hear his influences – late 1960s guitar gods like Clapton, Page, and Iommi – with long stretches dedicated to showcasing his skills with the axe. His slow intro to “House of the Rising Sun” will actually make you think for a moment that he’s covering “Stairway to Heaven”… a song that wouldn’t be released for another year. Add in Yamanaka’s slow wail and you have a piece that is best defined as desperate, almost painful. The bottom line is this album kicks ass and you need to listen to it if you like late 60s/early 70s era hard rock.
As for Satori, Cope puts this 1971 release at the very top of his list of favorites (tied with Speed, Glue, & Shinki’s Eve). It’s a more difficult album to approach for the novice, since while Anywhere offered at least a familiar framework with its covers of well-know, established rock tracks, the five tracks on Satori (all simply named sequentially – “Satori, Pt. 1,” “Satori, Pt. 2,” etc.) are all originals and a lot more difficult to pin down. What does appear apparent, to me at least, is that while Yamanaka’s singing continues to be heavily influenced by Ozzy, it sounds like he’s been listening to a ton of Led Zeppelin III as well, particularly “Immigrant Song.” Satori reminds me of what some type of hybrid between Black Sabbath, Cream, and Led Zeppelin would sound like if fronted by Robert Plant singing with a Japanese accent (to be clear, the vocals are all in English) who also plays a mean harmonica.
The songs are all fairly long, ranging from 5:25 to just over 11 minutes, and the longer tracks in particular have a tendency to move into some long sort of hypnotic instrumental sections reminiscent of “Kashmir,” a song that usually puts me into a trance and makes a good three or four minutes of my life completely disappear before I snap out of it. A couple of times these sections go on for just a bit too long and I started to find them grating and annoying, but usually within about 30 seconds of that feeling coming on the pattern broke loose into something different. The song structures are very loose and they sort of meander in and out of different styles.
I’ve got to say that overall I’m impressed with both of these albums, having just received them yesterday afternoon and already listening to each all the way through twice. Personally I’d recommend checking out Anywhere first, unless you’re already way into prog and psych, in which case you’re probably more likely to be able to appreciate Satori right out of the gate.