The Japanese music scene 1958~1990
The pop/rock music scene has gone through a few different stages
over the years. The rockabilly sounds of the late 50's became
popular in the cities of Japan just after they revolutionised
the US music scene. Young guys and gals flocked to see the stars
of the day do their best impersonations of Elvis and Gene Vincent
at the Western Festival in Tokyo in Februaury 1958.
In the 60's, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who inspired
the imitation of local groups. Ereki (electric) guitar music was
the in sound of what became known as the Group Sounds phenomenon.
The best known local bands of the decade include the Tigers
and the Spiders. The Tigers were the first band to play the
Budokan, then the biggest indoor arena in the country. 1965 saw the first
successful tour by US surf-sound band the Ventures, who have
retained their huge popularity to this day. Record
industry overkill finished off the Group Sounds era and the seventies
saw the arrival of New Rock and the Idols.
Chage and Aska
Aidoru (idol) was the word used to describe cute, girl-next-door singers
who were designed, controlled and marketed just like any other
product. In fact, for the talent agencies, having these starlets
chosen to be the face of a candy bar or instant noodles in a TV
commercial was as much part of the plan as selling records. The
70's and 80's saw hundreds of these idols come and go, such as
Pink Lady, Yamaguchi Momoe, Tanokin Trio
and The Candies. Pink Lady had nine No.1 hits in a row between 1976 and 1978
before disappearing without trace.
The 80's saw a degree of international success for the techno-pop
of YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra). Band member Sakamoto
Ryuichi went on to become the best known Japanese musician in the world
but with little commercial success outside of movie soundtracks.
The decade also saw the peak of so-called New Music, a fusion
of folk, rock and pop typified by singer/songwriter Matsutoya
Yumi, or Yuming. The top rock bands of the 80's included Southern All Stars,
Kome Kome Club, Checkers and Princess Princess.
The 1990's and beyond
Although the heyday of the idols was in the 80's, the musical
artists of the Johnny's Jimusho talent
agency such as SMAP, V6
and Kinki Kids have ruled the airwaves for the best part of the decade. Having
their own TV shows keeps them in the public eye even when they're
between singles or tours. Together with artists 'created' by producer
Komuro Tetsuya, they have ensured
that bland pop music by youngsters who can't
sing or play has been the hallmark of the genre known as J-pop.
The mid-90's saw Komuro make it as an artist with the groups
TM Network and globe. He then moved up a gear to exploit aspiring
singers and fans alike to become one of the richest men in Japan.
In his breakthrough year, 1995, Komuro's music made some 27 billion
yen and the following year he had 5 of the top ten singles. His
many creations include the Avex Trax label and artists trf,
Amuro Namie and Kahala Tomomi.
Another former musician turned producer is Tsunku. He 'temporarily'
retired from his position as frontman for the
group Sharan-Q to become an 'idol-maker'. Few expected the huge success he pulled
off with Morning Musume. This
ever-evolving girl group literally took the J-Pop scene
by storm following their TV creation in 1997. The 'Tsunku family'
has continued to grow into a financial and promotional monster,
with the Musumes and gaggles of other young starlets in what is
called the Hello! Project constantly changing places,
forming new offshoot groups and advertising everything under the
sun. The sheer money-making capacity of this operation ensures
that it will be with us for some time to come.
Hamasaki Ayumi was something of a
new breed in the late 1990s - a young female singer with drive and ambition...
and a good nose for marketing.
This reputed ego-centric diva caught the fancy of the all-important high-school
girl market, and became their unofficial fashion leader. This
coupled with the income from her royalties - she writes her own
material - helped her establish her position of power in the industry. In recent
years, that position has been largely usurped by Koda Kumi, ironically also
on Ayu's Avex label. She made good use of her sexy image and bubbly Kansai personality
and rose from being a club singer to the country's biggest selling artist in 2006 and 2007. Because
she was so popular Koda inspired many fans to seek singing lessons from institutions such as TakeLessons.
Lest you think that Japanese popular music is all commercialism and void of any artistic
merit, I should mention that there are some the more talented
artists who have made the big time. 1999 saw the group Glay
play to a crowd of 200,000, surely some kind of record. The 4-man
group from Hokkaido play fairly standard J-Rock but they've built
their succes through hard work and a solid 'rock n roll' image.
The late 90's also saw some more western-style artists, such as
Dragon Ash and Utada Hikaru
explode onto the scene. Dragon Ash play a mixture of rap and
rock and show that - at least when they manage to turn out a good
single - Japanese can rap with the best of them.
Born in New York, the 16-year old Utada debuted in 1999 and though she looked just
like another idol, she was clearly something completely new. She
wrote and sang her own songs with a soulfulness beyond her years.
Her good looks didn't do any harm and 'First Love' became
the best-selling Japanese debut album, with almost 8
million copies sold. Like other artists, there were immediate
tie-ins with commercials and TV appearances but Utada's experience
of life outside the Japanese music scene helped her to rise
above it. At the age of just 18, she became the youngest artist
to appear on MTV's Unplugged show. Utada's success plus the
growing power wielded by Hamasaki Ayumi paved the way
for other independent-minded young women, such as Koyanagi Yuki
and Shiina Ringo to get their break into the big time.
I'm not too au-fait with what's going on in current Japanese alternative,
indie and club music. But some of the artists that I've been impressed
with are: Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (a kind of Japanese Ramones),
The Mad Capsule Markets, Buffalo Daughter, Seagull
Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, Boom Boom Satellites and Captain