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.
When people talk about Kahimi Karie, the discussion is never about whether or not she was Shibuya-kei royalty; the question is whether she should be called “queen” or “princess.” One of the scene’s most successful artists during the golden age of Shibuya-kei in the mid-’90s, her music took the jet-setting chic of Pizzicato Five one step further – not only singing in multiple languages, but working with a number of outsiders as well. Chief among these outside talents was the Scottish-born Nick “Momus” Currie, who would go on to become a Shibuya-kei legend himself, and Memories of Shibuya is overwhelmingly proud to present his spotlight on Kahimi Karie as our second guest series.
As a player in this story — a writer and producer of big chunks of Kahimi Karie’s catalogue from 1994 to 1999 — I can only give an insider’s view of the Shibuya-kei phenomenon, and Kahimi’s role as the scene’s undisputed queen. It was a dizzy period which saw the house style of the indie-est of indie labels in England — Mike Alway’s él Records, a label based on cult British comedy films of the 1950s, cricket and surrealism — becoming the stylistic template for an extraordinary crossover to commercial success in Japan.
I first heard “Mike Alway’s Diary” in a BBC World Service studio in Bush House, London, in 1993. Philippe Auclair — better known to discerning fans of anglophile French pop as él recording artist Louis Philippe — played it on a music show to which he’d invited me as guest. Philippe and I had bonded in 1985 as fellow él artists; we sang backing vocals on each other’s first albums, and I was invited one summer to his family fruit farm in Normandy. Since then we’d taken slightly separate paths; I’d signed to Creation Records, which had a better press profile than el and a rather more conventional rock’n’roll ambition. In the process, I’d missed out on the 1987 él Records tour of Japan, an event which laid the foundations for the Shibuya-kei phenomenon, and made the miracles of the 1990s possible.
On that tour, Sitwellian label boss Mike Alway was joined by film composer (and ex-child star) Simon Fisher Turner (who recorded for él as The King of Luxembourg), film director Derek Jarman, and Louis Philippe. It was Mike’s first and only trip to Japan. The Siberian wastes terrified him: “You look out of the plane window, Nick, and you know that if there’s a problem with the plane there’s just nothing down there, nothing. It’s like the moon.”
Sitting in that BBC studio six years later with Philippe, I was largely unaware of the seeds the 1987 visit had planted in Japanese subculture. I was amused and bemused by the fact that a Japanese artist (a pretty young girl in a beatnik cap) would make a record — in French! — about my old label boss in a style which seemed to be pastiching the el Records style, itself rooted in the manager-constructed bubblegum pop of the 1960s.
I knew some kind of scene was developing: in 1990 Philippe had co-ordinated a compilation album called Fab Gear which featured my song “Summer Holiday 1999” alongside material by Flipper’s Guitar, The Monochrome Set, Louis Philippe and Edwyn Collins. A shy Keigo Oyamada had been introduced to me at a Momus concert in Camden. When I played my first concerts in Japan in 1992 I’d seen prominent displays in the eclectic and well-stocked Shibuya record stores of an artist called The Poison Girlfriend, obviously inspired by my 1987 Creation album The Poison Boyfriend. Something was happening.
On my 1993 trip to Tokyo — already engaged as producer for The Poison Girlfriend’s next album on the Nippon Columbia label — I was invited out to an Indian restaurant with Kahimi Karie and Keigo Oyamada. After the meal we went back to the tiny Roppongi apartment they shared. I carried my Sony video camera with me everywhere in those days, so the whole encounter was captured on video 8: Kahimi sitting beside me in the theatrical decor of the Indian restaurant, tiny and radiantly beautiful, Keigo shy but friendly, their cat climbing all over me. Long-faced, broken-toothed, smiling Kenji Takimi, the founder of Crue-l Records, was also with us.
I knew little of Keigo’s success with Flipper’s Guitar, a teenybop band modeled on Orange Juice and early Primal Scream. I remember being quite critical of “Mike Alway’s Diary,” which was co-written by Kahimi and Keigo and released by Kenji. It was too much of a parody of the él style, I said, too derivative. If they really wanted that kind of pastiche, I could do it better! Rather than taking offense, my new Japanese friends took me at my word, and I found myself engaged, the following year, in composing and recording with Kahimi.
Ironically, some of the material I made (“Vogue Bambini,” for instance) was even more of an el pastiche (or tribute) than “Mike Alway’s Diary:” intrigued by the Japanese postmodern filtration of the style we’d been using at el, I found myself pausing as I wrote my Kahimi songs to ask: “Now, what would an él band do here? Where would this song go if it were by the Would-be-Goods?” (This el band of svelte sisters had scored a major success in Japan with their song “The Camera Loves Me.”) The answer was usually that there would be a bossa nova swing, and light, witty lyrics calling on 1960s stereotypes of Italian brio, French charm.
I learned that Kahimi was a photographer for music magazines, and had met Serge Gainsbourg in this capacity. “I was the only photographer he took his sunglasses off for,” she told me, proudly. So photography became a theme in the songs I’d write for her, as well as Gainsbourg pastiche (notably in “Nikon 2,” the tale of a female photographer who takes revenge on her unfaithful lover by publishing photos of his indiscretions in the press). Even the cat which had jumped into my arms in the Roppongi apartment featured in our first EP, I am a kitten, reimagined through the lens of Natsumi Soseki’s novel I Am A Cat. (I sexualised the scenario somewhat: my kitten longs to become a man after watching his mistress’s naked body being “devirginised”.)
There was an initial frisson of attraction between Kahimi and myself, but it wasn’t enough to disturb her relationship with Keigo or mine with Shazna, the British-Bangladeshi girl I married in 1994. Soon we would all be living in Montmartre together, making hit records in Paris recording studios. As the 1990s progressed, I developed a strange but highly enjoyable and lucrative female side in my psyche, a semantic transvestism: “Good morning world, it’s so nice to be a beautiful girl!”
When I listen to “Mike Alway’s Diary” now, I like it better than I did at the time. It has a lightness, a zingy, summery swing to it, a combination of eccentricity and commercial nous. Kahimi once told me that it was the song “Mr Polyglot,” a jazzy number I wrote for The Poison Girlfriend, which first made her want to get me involved in writing songs for her. The two songs are like mirror versions of each other. Like “Mike Alway’s Diary,” Mr Polyglot is a slightly perverse tale of an eccentric older man being presented to schoolgirls: “Mr Polyglot, oh, the things you taught us little girls!” In the Alway song a lycee class is fed intriguing tidbits about a mythical Englishman who drinks only coffee, but here it’s the girls who try to corrupt the man: “Don’t you like a Coca-Cola, monsieur, doo-doo-di-doo-di, doo-doo-dah?”
In a process which could be seen as both vindication and dilution, the bitter espresso of Mike Alway’s vision for él Records — too eccentric and ironically too English to succeed in its home market — sold like Coca-Cola in Japan, a country which loves eccentricity on condition that it’s packaged with the cuteness of Betty Boop and the charm of Serge Gainsbourg. It was an extraordinary fusion of cultures, genders and styles, and I was very lucky to be at the centre of it.