Alphaville

Mixtape: Big In Japan! 0

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. (For this and our other Spotify playlists, click here.)

 

“Ghosts,” Japan

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.

“Morning Time,” Targets

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!)

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Mixtape: Our Fave European New Wave 0

The first caveman to make a beat by banging a dinosaur skull and a human shinbone together sang along to the sound in an American accent. And that’s the way it went. America invented rock music, the British took it over, and it’s been ping-ponging between the two countries ever since. Except in the eighties. Suddenly, the influence of other countries was felt. Germany. Italy. Belgium. France. Even Norway. Let’s remember some of the highlights from those few short years when America opened her doors to all manner of musical immigrants. (On Spotify? Check out our Euro New Wave Faves playlist there too.)

LM’s picks:

“Forever Young,” Alphaville  
One of my Mad World regrets is that I was unable to track down any of the members of Alphaville. I wanted to get their perspective on being continental Europeans during an era that was so UK-centric. (Although the early new wavers modeled themselves on the late-seventies electronic acts coming out of Germany, Alphaville’s homeland.) I also wanted to talk to them about “Forever Young”: its  unexpected longevity (it’s much more popular now than it was at the time of its 1984 release), its reimagining by Jay-Z, its licensing for Napoleon Dynamite. To me, “Forever Young” is new wave at its apex. It’s melancholy; the vocals are haunting and sung by a non-traditional singer with a foreign accent; the recording sounds throughly modern yet, at the same time, like it was just retrieved from a time capsule. See, Alphaville, we have so much to discuss — do get in touch for Mad World 2, you hear?!

 

“Hunting High and Low,” A-ha
The pride of Norway, A-ha were granted knighthood in their land-of-the-midnight-sun homeland. During my interview with Mags (who seems to only have gotten hotter with age), he talked about “Take On Me,” and how different it is from the rest of the band’s discography. “Hunting High in Low” is more their usual speed. Like “Forever Young,” “Hunting” exudes a bitter sweetness, a sense of intense longing. “There’s no end to the lengths I’ll go,” sings Morten Harket in his quest to find his lover. Sigh.

 

“Major Tom (Coming Home),” Peter Schilling
We tried to find Peter Schilling for Mad World too. (No luck with Nena either. Clearly the Germans had better things to do than submit to our interviews. Although JB did manage to interview Propaganda — more on that below.) We also tried in vain to find the original English version of “Major Tom” for our Spotify playlist, so we added the German version. Like his country-mate Nena and the late Austrian Falco, Schilling’s biggest hit was originally released in his native tongue.

 

“Heaven I Want You,” Camouflage
In the early 90s, DJ Father Jeff was a hearse-driving lawyer who had a new wave night upstairs at the Palladium in Manhattan, and I was a faithful member of his weekly Saturday-night congregation. His playlist included songs I’d never heard in a club before or since  – OMD’s “Maid of Orleans,” Kirsty MacColl’s “Walking Down Madison,” and this one by the German synth outfit Camouflage, who’d made a name for themselves on the new wave scene with the 1988 dance hit “The Great Commandment.” I didn’t realize until today that it was produced by Colin Thurston (Bowie, Talking Heads, Duran Duran).

 

“Once in a Lifetime,” Wolfsheim
This was another club fave, but the location was Aldo’s Hideaway in beautiful Lyndhurst, NJ, and the DJ was Ted Wrigley (who’ll be warming the decks for Vince Clarke at our April 21 Mad World launch party in NYC). “Once in a Lifetime” is a turn-of-the-millenium dark wave hit by the German group Wolfsheim that quickly became an Aldo’s dance floor classic, thanks to melodramatic lyrics like “You took my wife, my unborn son/Torn into the deep of the ocean.”

JB’s Picks:

“Dr. Mabuse,” Propaganda 
As frequently stated in this blog, my favorite album is The Lexicon of Love by ABC. My other favorite album — there’s no rule that says I can’t have two — is A Secret Wish by Propaganda. Also produced by Trevor Horn, it’s a towering achievement, the result of unlimited resources meeting unlimited imagination. Germany’s Propaganda were the first post-Frankie Goes to Hollywood release on Horn and Paul Morley’s ZTT label. “Dr. Mabuse,” their debut single, was a vast and nightmarish evocation of Germany’s favorite fictional unkillable criminal mastermind. I interviewed the band’s singer Claudia Brucken for the book but that chapter sadly fell victim to the editing process. Perhaps it was for the best; neither my questions nor her answers really did justice to how epic Propaganda’s music was and remains.

 

“Hypnotic Tango,” My Mine
Bananarama had a small UK hit a few years ago called “Look On The Floor.” It’s an okay record, then the chorus kicks in and suddenly it’s a way-better-than-okay record. Good for you, Bananarama, I remember thinking. Still some gas left in that tank. Didn’t think you had it in you. A matter of moments later, there was a small, bloggy Italo-Disco revival which opened my clogged ears up to a sub-genre of which I’d had little previous knowledge. Amid the welter of cheaply-made Italian synth-pop records with terrible vocals in garbled nonsensical semi-English posted indiscriminately among the welter of mp3 blogs that thrived then burst like bubbles, a few genuinely great records rose to the surface. This was one of them. And Bananarama totally lifted that memorable chorus straight from it.

 

“Main de la Main,” Elli et Jacno
Just like Billy Idol and Adam Ant shed their punk skins and evolved into pop stars, Ellie Medeiros of formative French punk band Stinky Toys stopped screaming about injustice at the boulangerie and formed a delightful synth-pop due with taciturn ex-band member Jacno.

“Moskow Disko,” Telex
Irresistibly cheeky Belgian appropriation of “Trans-Europe Express.”

“Careless Love,” Humpe & Humpe
Inga and Annette Humpe seem to have been fixtures of Germany’s new wave scene for most of the eighties. Very endearing record.

“Los Ninos Del Parque,” Liaisons Dangereuses
German, despite the French name. You can hear the seeds of industrial music and Chicago house being sewn right here.

“Amoreux Solitaires,” Lio
Tying the whole European new wave scene together, here’s a song written by Elli and Jacno for their old punk band, Stinky Toys that was produced by Telex for Belgium’s Lio, who was the awkward, self-conscious Britney of her day and had a hundred hits that are more or less variations of this one.

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