Though the first part of the sixties was dominated by unabashed Anglophilia, the focus of popular music has always been America and the tone it set. The last time the gaze of the world moved away from the USA was the eighties when Europe rewrote the rules of the game.But, as much as every aspiring artist affected an English accent or, failing that, a bizarre hybrid between English and German, there was another cultural obsession. Japan. Every decade sees an attempt to market indigenous Japanese pop culture to a disinterested West but, during the eighties, the Japanese influence on new wave was strong enough that it–and by it, I mean the Yellow Magic Orchestra–almost happened. Here, then, is a mixture of Western artists influenced by Japan and a few Japanese new wave obscurities.
Yes, “Life In Tokyo” would have been the more obvious choice but THIS is the most beautiful record they ever made and the biggest hit they ever had. Any kind of appreciation in their own homeland was a long time coming for Japan and they split up not long after mainstream acceptance came knocking. I can’t think of a more elegant way to wrap up a career than “Ghosts”.
“Turning Japanese,” The Vapors
The Vapors had Japan’s problem in reverse. Managed by Paul Weller’s dad, they saw themselves as a junior Jam and had a sturdy set of songs which few ever heard because “Turning Japanese” was an instant hit and also instantly eclipsed anything else they had waiting in the wings. While some bands learn to live with and even love their “Safety Dance”-level of success, being known for a sole song about furtive masturbation did not sit well with The Vapors.
“Big In Japan,” Alphaville
One of our biggest regrets about Mad World: The Book is trying and continually failing to track down Alphaville. Talk about a band that sums up the essence of the entire book. I know Alphaville enthusiasts can argue about the incredible depth of their catalog but to the average dunderhead, today represented by me, they have maintained a comfortable multi-decade career on the backs of two classic songs, “Forever Young” and this, inspired by a long-running piece of music industry back-handed bitchery. If you wanted to disdain a rival artists’ success, you described them as being ‘big in Japan” aka: acceptable to a nation who accepted anything that came from the West, which is a brutal stereotype that has a lot of truth to it.
“Tokyo Joe,” Bryan Ferry
The internet thinks everything’s racist so it’s not hard to imagine the endless apologies the creator of this song with it’s references to inscrutable orientals and pliant geishas would have to weep his way through. And the clip with it’s gyrating Asian backup dancers cooing around the suave singer is Exhibit A for the prosecution. I can’t defend it in terms of taste– except that it’s meant to conjure up the wartime Tokyo of the 1940s– but this is the kind of Bryan Ferry I like. Not quite so smooth.
“Yellow Pearl,’ Phil Lynott ft. Midge Ure
Mad World’s own Lori Majewski is in conversation with Midge Ure on Sunday September 14th, 5:00-6:30 at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. So here to commemorate that event and stay with our theme is a record Ure made with his very brief Thin Lizzy bandmate, Phil Lynott. Brits of a certain age–ie: ancient– will recall this as the theme to the 1980s version of Top Of The Pops and, as such, will be very familiar with the first thirty seconds and less so with the remaining few minutes.
“Cyndi And The Barbie Dolls,” Big In Japan
Legendary in Liverpool, barely known outside, this band, who revolved around front woman Jayne Casey, would include Holly Johnson, Bill Drummond, Budgie and, front and center in this clip, Ian Broudie
“Firecracker,” Yellow Magic Orchestra
Bearing in mind their staggering output, I imagine it could be something of an irritant to the brainboxes behind they’re known in these quarters for a scant handful of records from the start of their career. Like this one.I’ve got a lot of digging to do in terms of making a dent in the vast YMO discography.(Sounds like too much work: I probably won’t do it)
“Top Secret Man,” Plastics
Island Records took a shot at launching the Plastics on a British audience who’d shown a vague liking for quirky, staccato, herky-jerky, Farfisa-and-twangy-guitar-dominated music. I remember the NME giving away a free flexidisc of their version of “Last Train To Clarksville.” Sadly, as with every other attempt to launch a Japanese combo, there were few takers.
“Tokyo Sue,” Susan
From “The Girl Can’t Help It”, an album I used to own and try pitifully hard to enjoy, here’s a YMO-produced singer with a tiny squeak of a voice that makes a lot more sense to me all these years later. Well done, Susan.
“Drip Dry Eyes,” Sandii
Another YMO production. They basically own the entire Japanese techno pop era of which I know next to nothing.
“Hong Kong,” Pink Tank
Okay, I know absolutely nothing about this. I slipped into a You Tube k-hole in search of kore 1980s Japanese technopop and this is what I found. I like the name Pink Tank. It works on different levels: is it a pun on think tank or is an actual pink tank? This comes from an album titled Electric Cinderella so I’m going for an actual pink tank.
Again, I know nothing about this, plucked it from the swirling depths of You Tube but if this is what Japan had going on in the eighties, I need to hear a lot more of it! (maybe I will dig into that YMO mountain after all!)