In 1978 60% of the pop hits in Japan were disco recordings, apparently. Naturally, a large proportion of these will have been international sensations. But inevitably there will have been an efficient home grown disco industry. Certainly the swish and sophistication of disco would have suited Japanese girl singers, and no doubt there are special interest groups dedicated to such sounds. I, however, wouldn’t want to be quizzed too closely about J-Disco. And searches can be hampered by what can be called the Sylvian question.
Thankfully there are clues out there to be followed, leading to introductions to singers like Hiromi Iwasaki, Hiromi Ohta and Junko Yagami. I confess I can share little information about these performers, but Junko Yagami’s Wonderful City, from her 1980 LP Mr Metropolis is particularly recommended. I’m certain these names are the tip of an iceberg. Once you have a key to unlock any treasure trove there’s fun to be had and J-Disco is no different to any other area of activity. Flounder around blindly and you will stumble across unfamiliar pleasures and treasures. For example, Yoko Katori singing Going Back To China is particularly striking. Fei Fei Ouyang from Taiwan seems to have been something of a disco queen in Japan, and I am very taken with some of her ‘70s recordings that have been posted on YouTube, especially when she’s urging us to do the Sexy Bus Stop.
In another direction there are the more serious-minded jazz/funk oriented performers, and that’s a whole other gold mine to explore. But I do have a real passion for the work of the exceptional jazz singer Kamiko Kasai, who features on the YHO Lonely Clouds mixtape of Japanese sounds. Kamiko made some fantastic records in the ‘70s, working with the likes of Richard Evans in 1976 and then Herbie Hancock and his full first team on the exceptional Butterfly LP. I’ve also made a mental note to explore further among the works of Haruko Kawana and Junko Ohashi when the opportunities arise.
At the other end of the disco spectrum there was the J-Pop phenomenon Pink Lady. The Japanese idols Mie and Kei took the pop world by storm in the late ‘70s with their ultra-energetic synchronised dance routines, playing up the stereotypical cute pop doll image something rotten. Watching their astonishing performances now you really can’t help but smile at the hyper surreal nature of it all. And their hit singles have pop art titles that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Davy Henderson record: Pepper Keibu, Carmen ’77, Southpaw, Chameleon Army, Zipangu, Pink Typhoon, Monday Mona Lisa Club. They even had a degree of success in the US with the excellent single Kiss In The Dark, appearing on the Leif Garrett TV show and making a series for NBC with comedian Jeff Altman which it seems was not the happiest of experiences for the pair but oh what a lovely idea.
I guess the exaggerated cartoon nature of Pink Lady is more what the West might expect from Japanese disco. And, yeah, look hard enough and you’ll find the novelty hits like Popeye The Sailor Man by Spinach Power. Of course given the fact that disco music, synthesizers and computer games were all getting into their stride at the same time, Japan’s Funny Stuff inevitably had its novelty hit Disco Space Invaders . Certainly in the late ‘70s the Space Invaders game took the world by storm, so it’s no surprise it infiltrated popular music too, from Scientist’s dub excursions to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s only UK hit.
It was with the advent of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s techno pop that the more fashionable end of the UK’s music press took notice of Japanese music. The Face in particular took a close interest in developments from Japan. The Plastics, quite rightly, caught the attention with their eccentric take on pop. Unfortunately this lost something in translation when Island teamed them with Alex Sadkin. In this they were not alone, as what was a magic touch in the Compass Point studios didn’t necessarily travel well, as Vic Godard and Paul Haig might testify.
Among those snippets in The Face was a particular photo of Sandii, from the Japanese pop group Sandii and the Sunsetz, which made a particular impression upon me. I think I have to say the Japanese artists of the time made more of a visual impact on me than the records did. I know, for example, that YMO protégé Susan had a track on the NME cassette Dancin’ Master, but it would be many years before I heard more of her work, like the excellent I Only Come Out At Night from her second LP The Girl Can’t Help It, which still sounds like the futuristic disco or techno pop you would hope 1981 was harbouring. Actually it’s still pretty well hidden 30 odd years on, which is stranger still.
Sandii and the Sunsetz, too, are a group whose music I took some time to discover and who at times still sound like the future that never arrived. It would be easy to dwell on YMO associations, or the fact that Sandii and the Sunsetz may be viewed as the missing link between Blondie and Madonna. What is more interesting is that buried away on their early LPs are a number of wonderfully strange and pretty abstract tracks that would have worked wonderfully on any of the Disco Not Disco collections that were being put together some years back. I am thinking specifically of tracks like Zoot Kook and Drip Dry Eyes with their reggae/dub influences bubbling away. Sandi and the gang later took more of an explicit reggae direction, interestingly enough. And because YHO thrives on strange connections, it has to be mentioned that Babylon, a song by Sandii and Makoto Kubota (from the Sunsetz) was recorded by Akina Nakamori in the mid-‘80s. Akina also recorded some songs around that time that had been written by Biddu, including Blonde.
Yellow Magic Orchestra, I suspect, will need little said about them, but it is worth mentioning nevertheless how perfectly they fit the outsiders’ view of Japan, in terms of mixing new technology smartly with pop influences from just about everywhere. It’s interesting that they were coming to pop prominence just as Japan’s own Roland corporation was increasing its influence on the world of music with its new products. And while it is normal for YMO to be mentioned in connection with the roots of techno and hip hop, it should also be mentioned how very much of the moment they were too. Their second LP, for example, Solid State Survivor is packed full with tracks that could serve as terrifyingly efficient disco hits with the right vocals welded on. When you see clips of them playing live Yukihiro Takahashi is working away with all the compulsion of Keith Forsey on any number of Munich disco classics you might care to put in a mix. But oh imagine the joy of YMO matched with a vocalist as magnificent as Ruriko Ohgami.