Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.
Arguably the first proper Shibuya-kei group (although a very strong argument can be made that Pizzicato Five deserves that title more), Flipper’s Guitar came out of Japan’s most affluent era to become a sensation despite themselves. At Memories of Shibuya we are proud to present our Artist Spotlight on this astonishingly influential band as a four-part series guest-written by the incomparable W. David Marx of Néojaponisme.
Japan’s Bubble era pulled music in two directions — the plastic fantastic pop of Hikaru Genji and then the muscular rock of hard-working “Band Boom” acts like The Blue Hearts. Meanwhile teenage guitarist Keigō Oyamada and keyboardist Yukiko Inoue were operating in some bizarre alternate universe, forming a precious, cutesy band called Pee Wee ’60s and then adding two members for another precious, cutesy band called Lollipop Sonic. Eventually Oyamada brought in an old friend from middle school named Kenji Ozawa, who finally found time to indulge his interest in pop music after gaining admission to Tokyo University, the nation’s top academic institution. At some point, Japan’s feyest indie band Salon Music discovered Lollipop Sonic and got them a record deal — on the condition that they dropped their terrible band name. Rechristened as Flipper’s Guitar, they released their debut album Three Cheers for Our Side on August 25, 1989, the title borrowed from an Orange Juice song.
Precious and cutesy are still apt descriptors of early Flipper’s Guitar. Three Cheers’ 12 tracks have the depth and vigor of a kiddie pool. Zin Yoshida’s production is a jolly and light affair — all treble, all upbeat, all happiness. Under Ozawa’s direction, Flipper’s only sang English lyrics. Oyamada and Ozawa shared songwriting duties, but both engaged in direct pastiche of breezy post-punk UK bands like Aztec Camera, Monochrome Set, and the aforementioned Orange Juice, except they replaced any semblance of ironic awareness with further mawkishness. (Compare “Exotic Lollipop” with its motoneta “Eine Symphonie Des Grauens”) The overall effect of early Flipper’s Guitar struggles to go beyond “pleasant.” There is too much rampant melodic thievery and unabashed silliness.
Yet the track “Goodbye, Our Pastels Badges” still stands as one of the most important songs in the entire Shibuya-kei genre — the ultimate anthem of the Flipper’s Guitar cult. Most of the band’s catalog prides itself on a detached cool, but “Goodbye” is a moment of true heart, tackling that bittersweet moment when one abandons youthful hobbies on the promise of later nostalgia. During the mini Shibuya-kei revival in the early Aughts, DJs cued up the song at the end of the night, and wimpy teens in Saint James “border shirts” would scream out the lyrics in unison as if to say goodbye to Oyamada saying goodbye to anorak pop (but fortunately living in a post-modern future when no one ever has to say goodbye to anything anymore).
Beyond the heart-tugging melody, the song’s more important legacy resides in the 1,000 lbs. of cachet stuffed into the lyrics — expert references to bands such as The Pastels, Boy Hairdressers, Altered Images, The Undertones, and Haircut 100. Oyamada and Ozawa were basically the only people in Japan listening to these particular British indie bands at the time, and they seemed hell bent on everyone knowing that fact. It is helpful to note that Oyamada and Ozawa came from famous families — Oyamada the son of singer Satoshi Mihara, Ozawa the son of an esteemed German literature professor and mother an esteemed psychologist (all three have Wikipedia pages). Both were graduates of a prestigious private school, music nerds, and snobby aesthetes. The entire point of Three Cheers was to bring something completely different to the Japanese music scene that wasn’t industrial gloss or blood-and-sweat authenticity — but taste. Flipper’s Guitar wanted nothing to do with the vulgar nouveau riche values of the time and instead pretended to be leaders of an imaginary Japanese subculture dedicated to obscure UK indie acts.
Imaginary is the key word: No one in Japan had the slightest interest in listening to Three Cheers for Our Side upon its release. Viewed from the perspective of late 1989, Flipper’s Guitar was simply an eccentric band on the mid-sized indie label Polystar. But in the band’s future success, Oyamada and Ozawa would get to weave their idiosyncratic tastes into the very fabric of Japanese pop culture.