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.
Even as the internet obliterates most barriers to attaining information, and just shy of all the world’s music is conveniently accessible from anywhere across the globe, there still remains a fairly strong divide in terms of which Japanese groups fans outside of Japan do and don’t know about. Former Matador signees Cornelius and Pizzicato Five sit comfortably on one side of this divide, having gained significant cult followings outside of their home country, while on the other side sit acts like Love Tambourines and this month’s spotlight group, Original Love. These groups never released albums or performed overseas like their more well-known scene counterparts, and as such they remain far more obscure on the global scene. So, naturally, Memories of Shibuya is here to step in and shine some light on a more obscure corner of Japanese history, with our spotlight falling on former Pizzicato Five vocalist and sometime Negicco collaborator Takao Tajima’s long-running band, Original Love.
It would be tempting to romanticize the late 1980s emergence of Flipper’s Guitar as something completely unique and unprecedented in the Japanese scene – two fearless musical pioneers doing something nobody else had thought to, taking influences from forgotten European and American music of the ’60s and ’70s and blending them in a wholly original fashion – but, alas, such is not entirely the case. While it is true that nobody else was name-dropping Boy Hairdressers and jacking songs wholesale from Burt Bacharach as the Double KO Corporation so brazenly did on Three Cheers for Our Side, the genesis of Flipper’s Guitar can be traced back to the “neo-GS” movement of the 1980s, and more specifically the neo-GS group Original Love.
Its two letters standing simultaneously for “group sound,” “guitar sound” and “garage sound,” neo-GS described a mixture of psychedelic rock and Mersey Beat inspiration, its pastiche version of 1960s British pop-rock inadvertently providing the template for early Shibuya-kei groups like the aforementioned Flipper’s and Hideki Kaji’s band Bridge. Although far more limited in the scope of its genre homage than the famously eclectic Shibuya-kei palette, neo-GS proved that there was an appetite for Japanese rock outside of the warmed-over Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick imitations that had previously stood as the only significant musical counterpoints to kayokyoku pop in the 1980s. Shibuya-kei was the next logical step in that evolution, and the crossover between the scenes was significant for obvious reasons.
Takao Tajima started his band as The Red Curtain in 1985, adopting Colin Moulding of XTC’s pseudonym from the British band’s psychedelic side-project The Dukes of Stratosphear. Originally joined by Yukihiro Akiyama on drums and Makoto Ori of fellow neo-GS group THE COLLECTORS on bass, the band started out as a fairly straightforward psychedelic/garage-rock outfit, but would not stay so for long. Adding guitarist Takashi Yamamura in 1986, Tajima’s group had already began to move away from the neo-GS sound, and towards what would later come to be called Shibuya-kei, by the time their first song, “Talkin’ Planet Sandwich.” was officially released on a Mint Sound Records compilation early the next year. The Red Curtain’s work had caught the ear of Pizzicato Five’s Yasuharu Konishi, whose band had lost both keyboardist Ryou Kamomiya and vocalist Mamiko Sasaki in 1987, and in 1988 Takao Tajima joined Pizzicato Five as lead vocalist, recording Bellissima! for P5 as well as his own band’s debut as Original Love.
On songs like this week’s featured selection “Orange Mechanic Suicide” (a cut from Original Love’s self-titled debut in 1988), Tajima showed off the qualities that made him and his band so appealing to Konishi and Flipper’s Guitar alike – Kenji Ozawa and Keigo Oyamada of the latter both having acknowledged Original Love as a major influence. With its upbeat sound and the cheery “da-da-da” of the chorus completely at odds with the song’s incredibly morbid subject matter (depicting someone calling a person at random and killing themselves with a gunshot over the phone), “Orange Mechanic Suicide” carried on the spirit of ’60s oddities like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but more importantly it did so without merely sounding like a novelty song as it so easily could have. While Original Love would go on to better and bolder things as Tajima stepped further out from the neo-GS formula, the playful spirit and technical proficiency that has defined the group for decades was present right from the start.