Following the death at the age of 60 of Mark E. Smith of Manchester postpunk band The Fall, Japanese music magazine ele-king asked me to write an article (an obituary, I suppose), about him. I can't claim a deep or extensive knowledge of his enormous back catalogue of music, but nevertheless I count myself as a fan, not least because he was one of the most extraordinary poets in the English language of the modern era. For Japanese-speakers, the ele-king article is here. I'll post the original English text below the fold.
Growing up in England in the 1990s, I was only ever vaguely aware of The Fall as anything so simple as a band. The Fall and Mark E Smith existed like shadows, moving inscrutibly behind pop culture, occasionally penetrating its screen and allowing something disconcerting and otherworldly to slip through.
Smith’s voice was familiar as the vaguely American-tinged Manchester accent ranting down a telephone line on The Inspiral Carpets’ “I Want You” and Elastica’s “How He Wrote Elastica Man”.
The comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring used The Fall’s “Kurious Oranj” as the theme song and basis for a bizarre recurring character called The Curious Orange (a giant orange with a human face who asked rhetorical questions that he wasn’t interested in learning the answers to, and who had a inexplicable taste for human flesh).
On the radio, Ex-Fall member Marc Riley had his own DJ slot on the schedules. Meanwhile John Peel was famously one of their biggest fans and could always be relied on to play them as the BBC bounced his show around their radio schedules in muddled embarrassment.
These confusing fragments of The Fall that slipped through the cracks seemed funny and absurd, but they also always had something a little dark, dangerous, magical about them, something hexen (the raw, Germanic “hex” was always a more appropriate word for Mark E Smith’s particular brand of sorcery than the more graceful, French-derived “magic”). It was enticing, but actually stepping beyond them and entering into the world of The Fall was a more difficult step to take. It was a world the band themselves had, with admirable self-awareness, already labeled “wonderful and frightening”, but more than that, ’90s England didn’t have an easy place to put them.
Media discourse around of pop and rock culture in ’90s Britain was characterised by a simplistic, two-dimensional split between “working class, northern and real” as exemplified by bands like Oasis, and “middle class, southern and pretentious”, for which Blur were made the convenient stereotype.
Mark E Smith wasn’t made for such simple times, and the media struggled to classify him, make him palatable, to neutralise his witchcraft. It reduced him to adjectives describing a celebrity persona: “fractious”, “irascible”, “curmudgeonly”. It’s with words like these, worn to clichés over time, that Mark E Smith was turned into a caricature of a grumpy old man, a rambling, incoherent old coot, yet nonetheless lovable for his eccentricities – co-opted as that most grotesque and sanitised of cultural constructs, a “national treasure”. These words drew a magic circle around him and made him safe for the English, protected them from what was truly dangerous about him.
English culture has always had trouble dealing with the idea of working class intellect. Working class people are supposed to be simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious (that is to say unimaginative), suspicious of reading or anything else that smells of cultural elitism. They are celebrated for this, but also patronised – it is one of the ways the ruling classes keep them in their place. Art, poetry and intellectual ambition, meanwhile, are for middle class liberals – people like me, who the working classes are encouraged (often accurately) to think of as effete, dissembling and disconnected from reality.
Mark E Smith threatened this model of understanding English culture. The idea of working class music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was most comfortably defined by the kitchen sink realism of Paul Weller and The Jam. Smith, on the other hand, was a poet, whose lyrics tripped through cryptic, occult flights of imagination and referenced Nabakov, Lovecraft, existentialist novelist Colin Wilson, and in the band’s name Albert Camus.
His songwriting also tore a ragged hole through the art-school intellectualism of the postpunk era, making the radical sentiments of even undeniably great contemporaries like Gang of Four, The Pop Group and fellow Camus fans The Cure seem prissy and inhibited by comparison.
As a lyricist, Smith combined intelligence, mysticism, humour both bawdy and harshly observational, and an instinctive, utterly distinctive understanding of the aesthetics of language. He was a Prole Art Threat that challenged both established prejudices about the working class and the bourgeois grip on the arts.
Beyond the words, the music Smith made with The Fall was every bit as important. If The Damned and The Sex Pistols showed that basically any talentless bum off the street could play rock’n’roll, The Fall showed that those same talentless bums could make entire universes. Repetitive, shambolic and insistent, there were simple punk- and garage-rock chords and riffs underlying much of their output, but there were also the sparse, otherworldly, industrial spectres of Neu! and Can. It all sounded as instinctive and immediate as any punk rock, but it also had that mythical element, that sense of dislocated reality, that only the most truly inspired musical visionaries ever have.
For me, all the elements that made The Fall such an essential band and Mark E Smith such an extraordinary frontman come togetherin “Iceland” off the album “Hex Enduction Hour”. Two endlessly looping piano notes hammer away in the foreground, reducing the growing cacophony of drums, scratchy guitars and the piano’s wandering right hand to background texture. Meanwhile Smith urges us to “witness the last of the god-men”, “roll up for the underpants show”, “make a grab for the book of prayers” and “cast the runes against the self-soul” – a seemingly nonsensical clutch of nonetheless evocative images, hexes cast scattershot across the pop cultural landscape of 1980s Britain to bleed out their arcane magic over the subsequent decades.
Over the course of their 30+ albums, Mark E Smith and The Fall left enough of a mark on their own for any further validation of their influence to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to see their hexes still at work.
It’s an interesting and sad coincidence that Smith’s death coincided so closely with the death of Japanese rapper ECD, a similarly difficult-to-classify artist from a similar background, who was admired for his unique lyrical sensibility, and whose influence filtered subtly through into the punk, underground, hip hop scenes and beyond.
While listening back over some of the best Japanese indie and underground albums of last year with a view to writing some retrospective reviews of 2017, echoes of The Fall kept bleeding through there too. You can hear them in the oddball garage rock and meandering vocal rants of Bossston Cruizing Mania’s “Idea”, in the repetitive rhythmical minimalism of Triplefire’s “Fire”, in the dry, disaffected postpunk of Sekaitekina Band’s “New” and WBSBFK’s “Open Your Eyes”.
With last year’s “New Facts Emerge” seemingly The Fall’s final album, it will be up to bands like these and more to keep casting those hexes over future generations.
Last week, on the one year anniversary of the English edition’s release, the Japanese translation of Quit Your Band! came out, with the title バンドやめようぜ！ ("Band Yameyouze!”)
It’s an interesting choice for a title in that it works as a more or less direct translation of the English, albeit phrased more as a call to arms than an instruction, while at the same time it’s a play on “Band Yarouze!”, which is either a Japanese TV show, video game or both. That title alone seems to have done a lot to gather interest in the book in advance of the release, and judging from the chatter online since the release, that interest seems to be spilling over into the book itself.
Obviously when writing it I had to be aware of two different audiences it would reach, each with different backgrounds of knowledge and different conceptions of my role as a commentator. To English-speaking audiences, my value as a commentator is as an insider, while to Japanese audiences, what they want from me is an outsider’s perspective. Of course I’m both, and that was something I had to take into account during the writing process. An interesting reversal is in play in the way the translator, music journalist Mariko Sakamoto, is a Japanese expat living in the UK who made her name covering the explosion of new bands coming out of London and New York in the early 2000s, while I’m a British immigrant living in Tokyo whose reputation, such as it is, rests on my coverage of Japanese music over the same period. Our experiences of the UK and Japan are almost exact inversions of each other, so while living in the UK probably gives her some insight into my background, being absent from Japan over the main period the book covers means she has some sense of the audience’s position as well (the musical environment I’m describing is pretty obscure for the most part, even to people living in Japan).
The other interesting thing about the Japanese edition and its audience is the way the publisher, big indie label P-Vine’s Ele-king Books imprint, clearly envisions a wider audience for the book than would have been possible for the English edition (they’re looking for thousands rather than hundreds of sales). This means there are going to be people far outside the music audience I know and recognise from my weekly gig-going who encounter the book, and they’re going to bring with them all sorts of expectations I hadn’t accounted for. This has been a source of certain anxiety for me over the past few weeks, but it’s out in the world now, so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
When writing Quit Your Band! I made a conscious decision that the book wasn't going to be a guide to the music itself so much as a book about the world musicians inhabit and the background against which their music exists. Under this structure, the artists I talk about really function as examples for broader points I want to make about trends in music culture or aspects of how the scene’s infrastructure work, and they fall into two main categories.
Firstly, there are the artists I encountered in the live venues of Tokyo and beyond as I navigated my own path through the music scene. This would include the bands I have released myself through Call And Response Records, the wider pool of artists I book my events from and the even broader tapestry of artists who make up that world. Basically no one knows who any of these bands are, and most people don’t really want to.
EARLY JAPANESE POP AND ROCK
1. Tokyo Kid - Hibari Misora
2. Ano Ko no Namae wa Nanten kana - Kyu Sakamoto
3. Test Driver - Takeshi “Terry” Terauchi & The Bunnies
4. Aoi Tori - The Tigers
5. Hey Joe - The Golden Cups
6. Marianne - The Jacks
1970s UNDERGROUND ROCK
7. Night of the Assassin - Hadaka no Rallies (Les Rallies Dénudés)
8. Horibieta-mono no Densetsu - Zuno Keisatsu
9. Kodomo Bosatsu - J. A. Seazer
10. Satori Part 1 - Flower Travellin’ Band
11. Lemon Tea - Sonhouse
1970s "NEW MUSIC"
12. Dakishimetai - Happy End
13. Jiko Ken’o - Yosui Inoue
14. Kanashikute Yarikirenai - Folk Crusaders
15. Hikouki Gumo - Yumi Arai
THE GOLDEN AGE OF KAYŌKYOKYOKU AND IDOLS (70s-80s)
16. Koi Dorobou - Chiyo Okumura
17. Hitonatsu no Keiken - Momoe Yamaguchi
18. Junketsu - Saori Minami
19. Shochuu Omimai Moushiagemasu - Candies
20. UFO - Pink Lady
21. Young Man (YMCA) - Hideki Saijo
22. Makka na Onnanoko - Kyoko Koizumi
23. Akai Sweet Pea - Seiko Matsuda
24. Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide - Onyanko Club
PUNK/HARDCORE/NOISE/EXPERIMENTAL ROCK (70s-80s)
25. Crazy Dream - Friction
26. White Man - Totsuzen Danball
27. Ponytail no Kawaii Anoko - Ultra Bide
28. Coca Cola - SS
29. Kii Kurete - Inu
30. Subete Urimono - Aunt Sally
31. Signal - Phew
32. Romanticist - The Stalin
33. Broken Generation - Laughin’ Nose
34. Nih Nightmare - G.I.S.M.
35. Fuck Head - Gauze
36. Zouroku no Kibyou - Hijokaidan
37. Pow Wow Now - Boredoms
38. Ecobondage (Ending) - Merzbow
39. Galois - Aburadako
40. Dadaism - Ruins
41. Twist Barbie - Shonen Knife
42. Owaranai Uta - Blue Hearts
NEW WAVE & AVANT-POP (70s-80s)
43. Mummy Doesn’t Go to Parties Since Daddy Died - Sadistic Mika Band
44. La Femme Chinoise - Yellow Magic Orchestra
45. Sheena & The Rokkets - You May Dream
46. Copy - Plastics
47. Bijutsukan de Atta Hito Darou (Artmania) - P-Model
48. Puyo Puyo - Hikashu
49. Medaka - Chakra
50. Jenny wa Gokigen Naname - Juicy Fruits
51. Radar Man - Jun Togawa
52. Uchoten - Wahaha
53. Parallelisme - Miharu Koshi
BIRTH OF J-POP (CIRCA 1990)
54. Ai ga Tomaranai (Turn it into Love) - Wink
55. 17-sai - Chisato Moritaka
56. Furyou Shounen no Uta - Blankey Jet City
57. Kimi Shika Inai - Tama
58. Aoi Kuruma - Spitz
59. Rosier - Luna Sea
60. Gravity of Love - Tetsuya Komuro
PEAK J-POP (1990s)
61. Boy Meets Girl - TRF
62. Can’t Stop Falling in Love - Globe
63. Only You - Yuki Uchida
64. Seesaw Game ~ Yuukan na Koi no Uta - Mr. Children
65. Mottö - Judy And Mary
66. Asia no Junshin - Puffy
67. The Audrey Hepburn Complex - Pizzicato V
68. Dolphin Song - Flipper’s Guitar
69. Konya wa Boogie Back - Kenji Ozawa featuring Scha Dara Parr
70. New Music Machine - Cornelius
71. Good Morning World - Kahimi Karie
72. Fantastic Cat - Takako Minekawa
73. New Rock - Buffalo Daughter
74. Living on the Same Planet - Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her
END OF A CENTURY POP AND ROCK
75. Boys & Girls - Ayumi Hamasaki
76. Can You Keep a Secret? - Hikaru Utada
77. Love Machine - Morning Musume
78. Ne~e - Aya Matsuura
79. Cream Soda - Supercar
80. Ai Naki Sekai - Quruli
81. Toumei Shoujou - Number Girl
Over the past few months, I've had the interesting experience of being on the receiving end of quite a lot of media coverage about the book, mostly from Japan-focused web sites, magazines etc.
As well as providing a nice boost to my ego and a sense of acknowledgment after all the time toiling alone with only my editor and publisher to encourage me, it's also been interesting to see what aspects people have picked up on. One theme recurring in the feedback I've had is the idea of music as a route into finding a sense of belonging within Japanese society. I made a remark about that almost as a throwaway point near the beginning of the book, but it seems to have struck a chord with several of the people who've read it.
Part of this is perhaps that media focused on life in Japan (the Japan expat village, as it were) is likely to be more conscious of the way sense-of-belonging can be an issue many foreigners in
Japan struggle with. If international music media had taken more interest in the book, their takeaway might have been rather different.
The idea of a music scene as a route into a sense of belonging is applicable to more than life in Japan though. Music has been providing a home for misfits since at least the birth of rock'n'roll, and probably beyond. As I was travelling around Japan researching the local music scenes of each prefecture, I noticed that it was becoming more a meditation on the nature of "home", and I'm starting to see that I'd already planted the seed of that idea in Quit Your Band! without realising it.
The other thing that happened was that through the various interviews I did, I refined a lot of the ideas in the book and perhaps improved on my explanations of them. The book itself was a refinement of many points I'd made in my Japan Times writing, and was in part a result of my dissatisfaction with how I'd expressed them the first time around, but now the interviews are starting to make the book feel out of date as well. It's good that I still think I can improve, but also a little bit of a source of worry to find myself revisiting the same ideas over and over again.
In any case, here's a summary of the various online commentary and interviews about the book:
Largely positive review in one of Tokyo's local listings papers.
Another review from a listings paper, this one written by Patrick St. Michel, who I've known for a while from The Japan Times and the music scene generally.
A Japanese culture and language web site and podcast. I can't listen to the sound of my own voice on tape, but some people said this was interesting.
The only coverage I've received in actual music media, I'm nonetheless glad it was The Quietus who did it. It's also very long and goes into a lot of depth. Probably the most interesting one to
INTERVIEW - Tokyo Weekender
Another local Tokyo listings paper, with a more upscale focus.
INTERVIEW (AUDIO) - Japan Alternative Sessions
INTERVIEW - Zoom Japan
The web version of this is distractingly garbled, so I won't link to it here. I have a (slightly smudged) scan of it though, which is a little bit more readable.
I've heard that book trailers are a thing, so I made this out of a pile of old film & TV footage, iMovie, and a set of vague memories of Godard from film studies classes.
The song is Inori by Nakigao Twintail, who played at the Quit Your Band! release party last Saturday in Kichijoji. They played this song last and a friend of mine asked me afterwards if the lyrics, "Yamete yaru! Konna band, yamete yaru!", had been inspired by my book. Those who've read the book will know that it was very much the other way around, and I'm very lucky to have had to opportunity to get them in the studio and record them before they freak out and split up again. I'm also really happy to have had the opportunity to pay tribute to them in this admittedly small way.
(You can get the CD from the Call And Response Records online store, by the way.)
Also, the music playing over the outro is the song Angel Fish by the magnificent Hyacca, from the album Sashitai - again available from Call And Response.
My January column for The Japan Times was about legendary 90s pop producer Tetsuya Komuro, who has a new album coming out and who, since his unceremonious plummet from the limelight, I’ve been finding myself feeling a bit more affection for than I used to at the pinnacle of his 90s ubiquity.
You can read it here.
I mention a few of his songs in the article, but you probably don't need to spend that much time with them unless you really are a fan of 90s J-Pop (in which case you probably already know everything you need to about Komuro. I can enjoy him nowadays as nostalgia, but it is also interesting that he (and the Avex Trax label) was so willing to try out forward-thinking ideas from overseas in massive mainstream pop productions.
OK, so obviously "Only You" is terrible if you judge it as a drum'n'bass track, although David Bowie's attempt a couple of years later (yeah, Bowie, way to stay ahead of the curve when J-Pop producers are getting there two years ahead of you!) was hardly a career highlight either, although admittedly it is better than I remember it being at the time.
And as I mention in the article, Yasutaka Nakata occupied a similar role, incorporating Western dance music into J-Pop, most effectively with Perfume, although he struggled a bit with drum'n'bass as well.
For all I go on about how daring some of his musical appropriations were, however, the real joy of Tetsuya Komuro is probably still in his deliriously cheesy 90s dance-pop anthems. It's terrible, but like a cheap, discount store vodka, it gets you there.
A bit late posting this, but my 2016 indie roundup column for The Japan Times is available to read here.
There’s a lot that I didn’t get round to mentioning in this article, but which I’m still planning to write about more comprehensively somewhere else, but there’s a still a lot of great stuff to get started with. Here's three to help you kick things off:
Sonotanotanpenz played at a show I helped organise in December, coming on in the middle of a lineup composed almost exclusively of noise-rock and dance-punk acts. They struck the room silent almost instantly and the response when they finished was incredible. It was, I believe, what we call a "moment".
Like Sonotanotanpenz, Narcolepsin hail from Fukuoka in southwestern Japan, where a lot of my favourite bands continue to come from. Narcolepsin's "Mojo" was a wonderfully, insistently irritating take on post-James Chance no wave, and a strong contender for my favourite of the year.
If Narcolepsin exist at the mischievous end of the noise-rock spectrum, Kuruucrew are more towards the cosmic end. Both bands make good use of sax though. 2016 may have a been a bad year for musical heroes and Western civilisation generally, but was a good year for sax in Japanese indie.
I’ve been a longtime fan of delinquent anime blogosphere bad boys Colony Drop, so when they asked me to contribute to a special zine they were putting together
focused exclusively on Patlabor (the best robot anime ever made), I jumped at the chance – which is to say I procrastinated for about a year and then jumped at the chance.
In any case, the zine is now out, and the short story that closes out the zine was written by me (yes, my first ever published fiction is anime fanfiction, and I’m proud of that). You can buy it here.
The story originally came out of a series of thoughts that had been gradually brewing during a fairly intense period viewing the original TV series in its entirety over just a couple of weeks. The show is rightly praised for being progressive in its equal treatment of women (there are some caveats here perhaps for a sort of over-compensating or even patronising treatment of women as level-headed mother types and men as essentially childish), and the movies in particular convey a worldview that at least addresses progressive concerns about Japanese society. The prism through which I look at the world is a decidedly leftwing one, and the ideological assumptions that underpin science fiction in particular are always something I keep half an eye on.
So watching the Patlabor TV series with the benefit of 20-30 years hindsight, there was a lot happening in the background of those adventures that seemed very much an ideological feature of its era. Patlabor’s tale of a special police unit to deal with crime involving construction robots was a child of Japan’s bubble era construction boom with the vast Tokyo Bay construction project that lay at its core. However, it was also a child of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the Soviet Union’s collapse. It may have pre-dated Clinton, but it was a child of the same post-Soviet political world, where environmental activists were built up by security agencies as a new focus for resources that now had nowhere to go. The series treats these eco-terrorists as comical and misguided, perhaps recognising the spectral nature of their threat, but they still loom large in the show’s pantheon of antagonists.
Another key antagonist is Schaft Enterprises, an evil labor manufacturer from overseas, prone to running inexplicably destructive tests for new combat labors in civilian areas. Here, the Special Vehicles crew, one of whose members is the son of the Japanese industrialist who manufactures the labors the police use, are functioning as the de facto militia of a Japanese labor manufacturer protecting its economic turf from an aggressive foreign rival.
In other episodes, they have a happy jaunt with a Middle-Eastern prince who just loves labors, and a couple of cheerful adventures with a yakuza boss who is also a big fan of labors. The Special Vehicles crew collaborate with both these people to varying degrees, teaching them to use these massive machines with unparalleled destructive potential.
The world we live in now is not the late ‘80s and early ‘90s though. The world we live in now is the post-9/11, post-Fukushima world. How does the world of Patlabor fit into that environment? What does our present environment tell us about the world of Patlabor?
How would the child prince of a small Arabian kingdom use police labors in this world? What consequences could we expect of that, knowing what we do about the politics of the Middle-East?
How would the 2020 Olympics affect the Tokyo Bay construction projects? How would the irresistable pull of money into the capital affect the trickle of resources for the more mundane business of post-tsunami reconstruction?
When government, industry and organised crime have collaborated so shamelessly over the Fukushima nuclear disaster, what role is there left for the police to uphold the law?
My image of Patlabor in the post-Fukushima world is a pretty bleak one, and I felt the ideal central character for a story like this was the show’s overweight, world-weary detective Matsui. A minor character in the series, he often works informally with Goto of Special Vehicles to uncover mysteries and corruption. Despite clearly being very good at his job, he has this aura of a man who knows nothing he does will ever make a difference, but plods ahead anyway (as an organiser in the indie music scene, I relate to him more than perhaps any other character in the show).
The Patlabor movies happen in a different timeline to the TV series and have a very different, much bleaker atmosphere. I tried to keep my story more or less consistent with the events of the TV show, but the tone was lifted from the movies.
In the second Patlabor film, there’s a scene where Matsui cuts his way through a wire fence to break into an airship company’s offices, bemoaning all the laws he’s breaking to do so, but nonetheless well equipped and ready to break all of them. I expanded that wire fence to make it the whole Fukushima evacuation zone, and tried to import the ghostly, unnatural atmosphere of Tarkovsky’s Stalker into Matsui’s escapade.
That was an atmosphere that a lot of us here in Japan felt in the aftermath of the quake, as uncertain, contradictory news from Fukushima filtered through – an unreality creeping through the otherwise calm streets of Tokyo. It’s still there now, although we’ve learned to paper over it and push it from our minds more effectively as we go about our lives. Every night, I still look out of my apartment’s window at the view it offers me of my town, and it looks both reassuringly solid and fragile as glass. It’s there, anchoring me to a place and a community, but it’s also unreal and could be gone in a flash – if not in an earthquake, then in one of the many other, more human eruptions of compulsive destruction that Tokyo likes to wreak upon its people.
One other influence weighed on the writing of this story, which was the 1980s BBC drama Edge of Darkness. There’s a scene near the end, where the powerful players on both sides of the conflict are seen enjoying a lovely meal and drinks together, as the show’s main protagonists push themselves to destruction in order to clean up the mess. There’s nothing like that in my story, but I know something like it was happening somewhere – whatever side they seem to be on, the fuckers are all mates in the end, and it’s the little people who clean up their mess.
My Japan Times column for November coincided with the release of my book, Quit Your Band!, so I was faced with the awkward task of trying to tie the latter in with the former without being dreadfully cheesy
about it. The approach I took was, rather than talk about my own book and make the column essentially an advert for myself, to write about other books people have written about music in
You can read the article on The Japan Times site here.
One of the overwhelming fears I've had about my own book is that it can't possibly cover the subject in a way that will satisfy everyone. Each reader will be entering with varying levels of advance knowledge and hugely different expectations. The prism through which I've come to understand music in Japan is not one shared by many other people writing about the subject, so the artists and themes that loom largest in my field of vision are going to be insignificant specks to someone else. I had to set parameters for myself though, and the route I chose for doing that was to just be open about the book's position looking at music from a position in the indie basement and to try to use that world as a microcosm to illuminate issues or themes that could be more broadly relevant.
All the books I talk about in my column limit their scope in some way as well, and you really should read all of them (and my book as well, obviously) if you really want a useful and broad picture of the music scene in Japan. Michael Bourdaghs' Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon does a great job of covering more or less mainstream music up until the end of the 1980s and putting it in its social context. David Novak's Japanoise: Music on the Edge of Circulation is obviously focused in a microscopic way on the noise scene. Kato David Hopkins' Dokkiri: Japanese Indies Music 1976-1989: A History and Guide focuses on the punk and underground scenes during its own specific time period. Julian Cope's Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew their Minds on Rock ‘n’ Roll deals with underground heavy rock and prog during the 1970s.
It's interesting that most of these books choose to end their periods of focus before the 1990s, and writing my own book I felt I could understand why. The 90s is a natural turning point in a lot of ways, seeing the emergence of J-Pop as the dominant "modern" form of Japanese popular music and the appearance of Shibuya-kei being a big enough thing in indie(ish) music that it disrupts narratives and demands quite detailed attention on its own. There's also the problem that assessing the relative importance of different artists and musical styles becomes more difficult the closer to the present day it occurred. Since the frame of my book was my own experience of Japanese music, which really began in late 2001 or thereabouts, I was never going to have the perspective needed to write a useful music guide, which again fed back into a structure that used artists primarily as jumping-off points to discuss broader issues about the scene as a whole.
There are particular things each book did well that I hope I was also able to do with my own work. Bourdaghs and Novak are both writing from an academic background (and for academic publishers), and so they are quite theoretically rigorous. I'm just a journalist, and not even a proper one at that, but I tried within the limitations of my ability to look at the structures, semiotics and culture of the music scene in something more than a superficial way. Hopkins' book is written with a real insider's eye, and so it rings with a kind of authenticity that, again, I hope I was able to evoke to at least some extent -- if a Japanese edition of my book ever appears, I'd like the people I see at venues and clubs around Tokyo to be able to read it and recognise something of their own experience in it. Cope's book retains an unapologetic focus on just what he likes, to the exclusion of almost anything else, and even if I lack Cope's swagger and buccaneering attitude towards the truth (there are fictional or somewhat fictionalised elements of my book, but they're separated from the main story), I admire his refusal to let more established narratives get in the way of him telling the story he wants. Julian Cope is also someone I admire a lot simply as a writer of the English language, and his book is by far the most entertainingly written and funniest of the four I discuss in my article. If Quit Your Band! manages to give its readers a little laugh here and there, I'm going to chalk that up as an important success.
I've been working on this book on and off for two and a half years, and finally it's out -- kind of. The Kindle edition is available on Amazon (and its various local iterations), while the paperback edition exists in a sort of quantum state somewhere between being available everywhere and not existing at all. Once Amazon and other booksellers have processed it and updated their web sites, the probability waveforms should resolve themselves and it will exist in something more than a theoretical state.
The initial idea for the book came from the publisher, Awai Books, who wanted to publish a collection of my Japan Times Strange Boutique columns in a single volume. Given how long ago I'd written a lot of them and how unsure I was about just how much I really felt I could stand by the opinions I'd held at the time, I swiftly returned with the counteroffer that I would write a fresh book, covering the same broad topics and linking them together into something that would give a broad overview of the music scene from a number of angles. I said I'd have it ready in six months, so that's something we can all laugh at now.
The emphasis of the book is on using my own experience in the Tokyo indie scene over the past 10-15 years -- as an event organiser, label owner and DJ -- to provide a framework for understanding the music scene as a whole, and as a result, it's not so much about discussing specific important bands in depth as it is using bands illustratively to establish a context that will help you make sense of pretty much any Japanese music you encounter.
It's also in the nature of the book's contemporary setting, and an idea embedded in the title, that whatever I pick out for particular mention are likely to be gone in a wisp of smoke before you even have time to get used to them. Already in the time between writing the first draft and publishing the book, a lot of the artists I mention in the book have "quit their bands", their music consigned to the scene's hopefully now not entirely forgotten past.
One band I mention briefly in the book, You Got A Radio, chose Quit Your Band!'s release day to play their final show. A coincidence, as far as I know, although a fitting one, given the significance of November 25th in musical history.
On the other hand, another band I discuss in the book -- indeed, the band whose dedication to their own demise gave the book its title -- chose to re-form during the book's long gestation period, at least for long enough for my Call And Response label to hustle them into the studio and record an EP. I describe a teenage Nakigao Twintail performing at Utero in Fukuoka (a venue since closed down and relocated, such is the transient nature of even the scene's bricks-and-mortar institutions) as a rush of energy that helped revitalise me during one of my own many slumps, and their re-formation in Tokyo more recently helped kick me out of another one. Bands like that are precious and it's to them that this book is really dedicated.
My Japan Times column for October was about the "Mama's Tattoo" event collective, but also about women in Japanese music in a broader sense.
Read it here.
It was a tricky one to write because in part it was driven by something quite personal. Through my events and Call And Response Records, I've worked with a lot of female musicians, and I occasionally get these jokey little comments along the lines of , "Oh, you like girl bands, don't you!" from people. These comments aren't usually meant unkindly, but they play on a fear I have of how my being the man directing the project affects the narrative and could undermine the work of the musicians themselves.
I was interested in Mama's Tattoo partly because it seemed like an example of women taking control of that narrative. Therefore, in order to write it, I wanted as much as possible remove myself from the story and let them tell it in their own words. For someone as opinionated as me, that's always a difficult ask, particularly since I've been more or less consciously trying to put my own subjectivity more and more explicitly into my writing over the past couple of years, but Miuko, Mariko, Mayumi and Ingel ended up giving me far more to work with than I had ever hoped. I had to cut out pages and pages of really interesting material to get a 700-word article out of it, but after battering the story around for a few days with my editor, something that seems to more or less coherently express a couple of the big ideas seems to have emerged.
I should also note that one thing that really helped me get my ideas into shape was being on the other side of the mic, as it were, to Canadian journalist Samantha Edwards. She interviewed me while I was in the middle of my email exchange with the Mama's Tattoo crew, for an article touching on similar ideas for Now Toronto about Steve Tanaka's Next Music From Tokyo tours. She quotes me a little in the article, but more than that her patiently letting me ramble on for an hour over Skype helped me sound out some of the jumble of ideas I had.
I'll post the full interview on the Clear And Refreshing blog one day. In the meantime, here's the Falsettos.