The Big Beat International label returns with a bang and another celebration of the wonderful world of Japanese pop. After our acclaimed GS I Love You volumes, it’s the girls’ turn, as we examine the female side of the country’s remarkable pop scene with Nippon Girls.
In the years between Elvis’ debut and the rise of Japan’s own Group Sounds scene in late ’65, the country’s pop artists were confined to a repertoire of rehashed Western chart-toppers. Kenji Sazanami was one catalyst for change. Fed up with the traditional songwriting establishment, he headed Stateside, where he obtained the rights for hundreds of American hits. His translations of ‘Johnny Angel’ and others launched the careers of Japan’s most revered female pop stars – the Peanuts, Mieko Hirota, Ryoko Moriyama, Mie Nakao and Yukari Ito. But, aside from a few winners, the bulk of these cover versions were twee reductions that lacked personality and pizzazz.
The record sleeves featured the young girl stars in spaghetti straps and petticoats, looking very Shirley Temple and perpetuating a morally upright image deemed safe for the Japanese public. The Japanese media and monopolistic talent agencies were relentless in their pursuit of wholesome talent, but their plans were derailed by the Beatles’ incursion. Japanese teens too, had been seduced by the Liverpudlians’ DIY spirit and the authenticity that was missing from Japan’s manufactured pop. This new wave of rock bands swiped from the British Invasion and blurred their influences with dissonant chords and Oriental melodies, thus creating a unique brand of Japanese rock’n’roll called Group Sounds.
The GS boom liberated many of Japan’s finest writers, who were sidelined by the tenured Enka (traditional Japanese music) songwriters and rendered useless during “cover-pops” mania. For example, pianist-cum-songwriter Kunihiko Suzuki had to adopt an alias in order to land writing gigs. Once the GS boom hit, however, he emerged from anonymity and penned ‘Koi No Hallelujah’, a monster hit for little-known Jun Mayuzumi. The record was the girl-pop manifesto. It replaced orchestras with organs and shrill electric guitars, upped the volume and vibrato, and showcased a yearning, mournful vocal that came to epitomise the girl-pop sound. Her two best records are undoubtedly ‘Black Room’ and ‘Douyou No Yoru Nanika Ga Okiru’. Both share booming bass lines, a tough vocal and a dancefloor readiness that’s already caught the ear of DJs and freakbeat collectors worldwide.
Elsewhere on this lavishly illustrated comp, you’ll find Margaret, the protégée of guitar wiz Terry Terauchi, who co-wrote her two singles for Seven Seas. ‘Aeba Suki Suki’ is primitive girl punk, with its shambolic backing provided by Terry’s group, the Bunnys. Other highlights include ‘Taiyou Ga Kowai No’, the storming Crown debut of “the new voice of 1968” Kaoru Hibiki, the wild ‘Bazazz Tengoku’ by the Cupids and actress Mari Atsumi, who rose to fame in a series of flicks known as the “soft-bodied mollusk” series and cut a number of very sexy singles in the early 70s. Third single ‘Suki Yo Ai Shite’ is the most sensual of them all.
The collection is the brainwave of noted girl group expert and latter day Japanese pop champion Sheila Burgel of Cha Cha Charming magazine, who provides a fascinating overview of this tremendous and compelling tributary of 60s pop. Highly recommended to girl group fanciers, GS groovers and anyone else with a keen ear for eclectic sounds.
Sheila Burgel is editor of Cha Cha Charming magazine: (chachacharming.com) a journalistic tribute to girl-powered pop - past, present and future.