editorial, music

Was Shibuya-kei just a watered-down version of the Japanese avant-garde?

Well, what if it was? What if “Shibuya-kei” wasn’t a unique movement at all, but instead was just a defanged copy of Japanese alternative? Could this be?!!!

What we’re going to right here is go back, way back, back into time. Specifically, back to the late 1970s. As chronicled in places like Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler, as rock ‘n’ roll reached Japan in the ’60s and continued to evolve into the ’70s, many bands embraced the weirder side of Western rock and pop music, with a number of psychedelic acts popping up in Japan as a welcome alternative to the more straightforward rock groups in this time. Now, I won’t be trying to give anything approaching a history of Japanese psychedelic rock here; others have done such a thing better than I could (and those are just a few from Google’s first-page search results). However, it is worthwhile to start off by looking at this era in Japanese music to understand where the cultural context for Shibuya-kei began to be formed.

Rock music in Japan, originally, was very openly intended as a wholesale imitation of Western styles, down to the point where the original Japanese rock groups sang exclusively in English – there was actually controversy that lasted up until the ’70s over whether or not music sung in Japanese could truly be “rock.” However, as even the safer sounds of the popular “group sounds” acts were pushed underground by government censorship, rock music had become safely cemented as the sound of the Japanese alternative, and stylistic experimentation took off along with this.

With that in mind, take in this Les Rallizes Dénudés performance from 1976:

If the bassline there sounds familiar, it’s because it was taken wholesale from “I Will Follow You,” a soft-rock number made famous by Ricky Nelson in 1963. Now, in no way am I suggesting that Rallizes there are Shibuya-kei, or even that the cult band was a direct influence on any of the later Shibuya-kei artists – with no official studio output, the band’s music survived only thanks to bootleg recordings that were much harder to find back then than they are now – but, by the late ’70s, there was definitely a precedent already set for the sort of things the Shibuya-kei scene would later be doing.

Long after the initial moral panic that led to a governmental ban on the broadcast of early rock music, the underground continued to evolve, ever more obscure influences beginning to be picked up as things grew further away from anything one could consider “mainstream.” Starting at the end of the 1970s, groups like Osaka’s Hijokaidan picked up where Rallizes and the like left off, pushing the boundaries of both taste and what could reasonably be described as ‘music.’ That group’s Zouroku no Kibyou album, documenting early live performances from 1980 and 1981, begins with a recording of one of the band members vomiting, and doesn’t get any more polite when the actual music starts. This new wave of Japanese alternative, later dubbed “Japanoise” by the international press, counted among its members the two-piece outfit Hanatarash; possibly the most infamous of the 1980s noise groups due to violent live shows that ended up getting them banned from performing at most venues they played. We’ll get back to them later.

Now, at the same time as these alternative acts that went out of their way to shock and offend, another new wave had arrived, closer to the surface but still soundly ‘alternative.’ Acts like Yellow Magic Orchestra were building on the sonic template of post-punk and the fledgling synthpop genre, and among these one could find hipster combo Salon Music – the ones who would go on to get Kenji Ozawa and Keigo Oyamada’s early band Lollipop Sonic a record contract on the condition that they changed their terrible name. They did, and we got Flipper’s Guitar (and thus Shibuya-kei) thanks to that. Where Salon Music, and other proto Shibuya-kei groups like Lollipop Sonic and the original incarnation of Pizzicato Five, differed from both the extreme sounds of Hijokaidan et al. and the new-wave groups was in their aesthetic sensibility; the noise groups wanted to be disgusting, the new wave wanted to be robotic, while these groups wanted to be cool. A very specific, worldly kind of cool; and not one that relied on references to bands that plebeian audiences would already be familiar with, naturally. When rock went underground in Japan, its strains diverged very significantly, so much so that one might wonder how one could find any validity in the argument that Shibuya-kei was a watered-down, ‘safe’ version of what the extreme underground was doing.

But, of course, now is where I ask – but what if it actually was? I mentioned above to keep the name Hanatarash in mind, and there’s a very good reason for that. Keigo Oyamada’s Trattoria label, among the most important labels in the Shibuya-kei scene (and one could probably make an argument for it as the most important) put out Hanatarash’s LP “5” in 1996, only one of the label’s noisy releases that also included selections from the likes of Violent Onsen Geisha. Now, turn the volume on your headphones down to avoid severe hearing damage and take in this VOG selection:

Willy-nilly sampling? Bossa nova? Breakbeats? Retro-kitsch aesthetic focusing on pop-culture detritus of a long-dead era? Why, it’s almost exactly like… or, in fact, maybe it is, Shibuya-kei! Yet, it’s also filled with bursts of chaotic noise that make it so entirely unlike… wait…

Ah, yes. That’s what I was getting at. While the chaotic elements of Shibuya-kei may not get as much publicity as the smoother ones, they are still an integral part of the scene as it was. From the filthy fuzz guitar on Dr. Head’s standout “Winnie-the-Pooh Mugcup Collection” to the manic madhouse of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, Shibuya-kei could get loud with the rest of them. So, no, instead of Shibuya-kei being a watered-down rip-off of what noise musicians were doing, the noisy Japanese alternative was just one of Shibuya-kei’s plenty of ultra-hip references.

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