Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – regularly one per week, but as this first column is so close to the end of the month, this debut feature will feature two per post.
Pizzicato Five predates the term “Shibuya-kei” – the term was originally applied to the crop of artists that sprung up alongside Flipper’s Guitar years after P5’s 1985 debut – but it would be incredibly difficult to find a group that better embodies the carefree, jet-setting kitsch aesthetic of Shibuya-kei than Yasuharu Konishi’s brainchild. They were also among the first to break out of the Japanese market, signing with American indie label Matador and enjoying a remarkably successful stint as crossover artists – with songs winding up in as unlikely places as the show Futurama (which featured “Baby Love Child” in an episode) and the Kids in the Hall movie Brain Candy (with “Nata di Marzo.”) This first spotlight will focus on the early days of the group, prior to third member Keitarou Takanami’s departure, while the second will highlight the two-piece group’s material.
As the advent of Wikipedia has largely rendered profile pieces in the conventional sense hopelessly redundant – if one lacks any insider information, the best they can really hope to provide in the way of biography is, at best, a paraphrased version of that wonderful/terrible site’s primer. In light of this, with Memories of Shibuya‘s Artist Spotlight series, I aim to capture the careers of the artists and groups profiled through their own music, limiting the words wasted on redundant information that could be easily gleaned from any number of online artist profiles. Additionally, as the incestuous nature of the Shibuya-kei scene led to countless collaborations between artists in varying configurations, spotlights will aim to be as specific as possible; Flipper’s Guitar’s spotlight series will be separate from Kenji Ozawa and Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, and Cornelius himself will receive separate features as a performer and as a collaborator. Similarly, a later spotlight is planned for Yasuharu Konishi’s work outside Pizzicato Five, as the former Pizzicato band leader is every bit a solo artist in his own right.
The first song I’ve chosen to highlight, somewhat disingenuously, is their debut single; 1985’s “The Audrey Hepburn Complex”. Darker in sound than much of what was to come, “Audrey Hepburn” marks an incredibly unpolished effort that nevertheless stands out as a vital reminder of how much of a transitionary group P5 was. In its chunky ’80s synthesizers and original vocalist Mamiko Sasaki’s decidedly dated singing style (barely removed from the kayokyoku sounds of 1970s Japan – the very “unfashionable” kind of style that P5’s Western influences were in open defiance to), one can hear the past clinging on, but the title and video’s ode to a Hollywood sex symbol betray a decidedly forward-thinking approach to the Occidental nostalgia that would come to define both the band and the scene they birthed. The group is justly most famous for its work with the sultry Maki Nomiya as frontwoman, but she was in fact their third lead vocalist – I’ll spare you any of second vocalist Takao Tajima’s contributions as lead singer, as male lead vocals never fit in well with P5’s sound. The albums he contributed to were commercially and critically unsuccessful, with good reason.
Next we come to “Sweet Soul Revue”, one of the band’s earliest hits and one which perfectly embodies the throwback pop sound that Pizzicato Five specialized in (whenever not indulging in bizarre genre experiments – more on those in week two). Maki Nomiya’s joyful vocals provide the icing on a brilliant slice of pop-music cake, the whole song shining like a summer’s day without a care in the world. Cynics quick to criticize Shibuya-kei artists for not adhering to Western indie dogma about credibility and “selling out” would doubtlessly be disgusted with the fact that P5 gladly licensed this love letter to life to be used in a popular television commercial in their native Japan, but applying the language and ethos of punk rock to Shibuya-kei would be a losing proposition. Although some artists would release deliberately challenging and uncommercial music while still falling somewhere under the umbrella of Shibuya-kei (Cornelius’s Point comes to mind), selling out was never a concern for the scene – if a company wanted a song as perfect as “Sweet Soul Revue”, they could have it.
Pizzicato Five didn’t spend a lot of its Maki Nomiya years as a full band, being reduced to a two-piece group just one year after the song’s release. As a result, in addition to being a wonderful song in its own right, “Sweet Soul Revue” serves as a time capsule of the brief period with their most beloved vocalist when it was more than just a two-person show. While some of their best work was done after guitarist Takanami left the group, this period – particularly the spectacular This Year’s Girl album – remains my own personal favourite era of P5’s diverse catalogue.