Artist Spotlight: Flipper's Guitar, music

Artist Spotlight: Flipper’s Guitar (week two)

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.

Guest writer W. David Marx returns this week for a look at the dramatically reinvented Flipper’s Guitar of their second album Camera Talk – which found the group stripped down from its original 5-piece configuration to a duo, Ozawa’s English lyrics swapped out for Japanese, and the two musicians finding themselves becoming completely unlikely pop stars.

The official history of Flipper’s Guitar offers little explanation of what exactly happened in the year between the band’s August 1989 debut and the September 1990 release of their second album Camera Talk. Sometime in late 1989, the band dropped the three band members you’ve never heard of, and Keigō Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa re-formed as a duo. They called their songwriting team the “Double Knockout Corporation” — based off mutual “KO” initials — and for their new material, the lyrics were all in Japanese.

On Camera Talk, Flipper’s Guitar ceased to be a Postcard Records tribute act and took on a more sensual Continental style. Out went twee “neo-acoustic” ditties, and in came bold radio-friendly melodies embracing a broader set of references — Italian film soundtracks, house music, 1960s beach go-go, vocal jazz, close harmony, and synthesized latin rhythms. Where Three Cheers was neutered and sexless, Oyamada now seemed to be winking at you romantically with every word. Meanwhile the colorful, retro design of Pizzicato Five’s art director Mitsuo Shindō wrapped Flipper’s Guitar in a trendy visual style that matched their sound.

In May of 1990, Flipper’s Guitar came to mass media attention when their track “Young, Alive, In Love” was used as a trendy TV show theme song. From that point forward, a dedicated fan club of Olive magazine-reading girls with beret fetishes clung on to their every move. But whether an effect of their elite backgrounds or their fierce indie inclinations, Oyamada and Ozawa thought little of their fame. They gave sarcastic responses to TV hosts upon winning prestigious awards, made fun of established bands in interviews, and devised infinitely arcane playlists for their radio show “Martians Go Home.”

By all measures, 1990 was Flipper’s Guitar’s most mainstream moment and arguably the very start of the Shibuya-kei movement. Yet the best song to summarize this period is not a track from Camera Talk but the album’s second single, “CAMERA! CAMERA! CAMERA! (Guitar Pop Version).” The song is perhaps the greatest guitar moment in the band’s career — a rocket ride propelled through strummy jangle and a lightning-fast lead line. The “Guitar Pop” version is particularly good when compared to the album version — a dinky misstep recasting the song as the impoverished third cousin of Swing Out Sister’s “Waiting Game.” The Guitar Pop version of “CAMERA! CAMERA! CAMERA!” stands apart from the rest of the FG catalog. For once, Oyamada and Ozawa seem interested in simply writing a “good song” rather than walking you through their entire record collection. There are strong melodies, strong harmonies, classic instrumentation, masculinity without gruffness, and style without preciousness.

In hindsight, the song lets us imagine a warm, nostalgic past when Japanese pop could sound like “CAMERA! CAMERA! CAMERA!” and not like harpies chirping stale infantile melodies over stale digital samples. If Shibuya-kei had ever taken over the entire market like Alternative did in the U.S., the most popular musicians in Japan would have been those who loved music — rather than faceless producers who simply treat the artform as a cynical vehicle to collect money, girls, and power. “CAMERA! CAMERA! CAMERA!” is not just a mark in Flipper’s Guitar’s career but a sound message beamed from that alternative world.

Part one, part three, part four.

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