I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube, Oricon charts are courtesy of and my research is translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ken Hirai -- Ookina Furu Dokei (大きな古時計)

I've often marveled at how the Japanese tune "Ue wo Muite Arukou"(上を向いて歩こう)became such a hit overseas and over time in its guise as the "Sukiyaki" song. But not too long ago, there was a reverse phenomenon of sorts involving a song that had been originally created all the way back in 1876.

"My Grandfather's Clock" was made by Henry Clay Work and later became the go-to song for British brass bands and bluegrass musicians (according to Wikipedia). And then singers ranging from The Everly Brothers to Johnny Cash covered it. I even had my experience with it during my band class in junior high school as one of the clarinet players. It was a pretty chipper song but otherwise didn't think much more of it once I left the music field in high school. Little did I know that it would become a huge hit in Japan a little over 20 years after putting down my licorice stick for the final time.

Soulful singer-songwriter Ken Hirai (平井堅)covered it under its Japanese title of "Ookina Furu Dokei" (The Big Old Clock) as his 16th single in August 2002. Initially, Hirai sang the song as part of his concerts and with its growing popularity, the decision was made to put it to CD. Good decision. His slow and tearjerking delivery hit the right nerve amongst the Japanese listening public and the song went Triple Platinum. "My Grandfather's Clock" was also a favourite in the country for generations but Hirai's approach perhaps brought out more of the heart about this clock which lived and died with the original owner. The late lyricist Kogo Hotomi (保富康午...who had a hand in creating the iconic programs of NHK's Kohaku Utagassen and Fuji-TV's "Music Fair") had written the Japanese words to "Ookina Furu Dokei" when the song was used in 1962 for the NHK children's music program "Minna no Uta"(みんなのうた...Songs For All), and it was those words that Hirai sang in his moving version.

When I first heard Hirai sing this on TV, I just thought (considering my own experience with the song) it was a one-off gimmicky thing for him to show how he could transform a song into a Hirai-style ballad. However, "Ookina Furu Dokei" started to become a much-in-demand tune for the singer and I wonder if perhaps he is gonna end up being most recognized for his cover of an old music class song. As much as "Sukiyaki" had charmed people like the Americans and the British ages ago, "My Grandfather's Clock" did the same thing for the Japanese.

At the Japan Golden Disc Awards, it won Song of the Year. On Oricon, it stayed at No. 1 for 4 weeks straight and became the 7th-ranked song for 2002, and just skirted under a million in sales. Not surprisingly, Hirai was invited onto the Kohaku Utagassen for the 2nd time on the strength of "Ookina Furu Dokei".

It's amazing how a song that I squeaked and tooted my way through in band class in the early 80s became a megahit in the first few years of the 21st century.

As a comparison, here is the English version.

courtesy of
from Flickr

EPO -- Asa no Drive (朝のドライブ)

I first heard EPO's "Asa no Drive" (Morning Drive) on her GOLDEN BEST compilation from 2005, although it was originally a track on her 6th album, "Hi Touch Hi Tech" (February 1984). EPO herself composed and wrote this relatively calm and collected mid-tempo ballad about a woman's inner thoughts as she is escorted home in a taxi by a male colleague who she has some unrequited feelings for.

I love the whole song but especially at the point EPO tells herself "No, no" (sounds like a pounding heartbeat) in the refrain to refrain herself from confessing her feelings. Most of us have been there, haven't we? I still consider it a City Pop tune although the theme here is not so much about life in the big city but is more introspective. I guess it must be the arrangement by Nobuyuki Shimizu(清水信之)....the flugelhorn always helps in that respect. While the lyrics have EPO struggling with her feelings, the music has that sense of driving during those cool early hours. It feels somewhat dreamy and relaxing as if finishing off the midnight shift and heading home for a good morning's sleep....although I hope that any person who had been listening to "Asa no Drive" on the car stereo didn't take the music too much to heart lest he/she wrap the vehicle around a light pole.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

nikala's Techno-Kayo Playlist (Idol Edition)

Having a strong fondness for Japanese techno/synthpop, I thought for a while about making an entry about some of my favorites but also decided to narrow things down a bit. This one specifically deals with aidoru tracks produced by some techno masterminds like YMO, Masami Tsuchiya and Moonriders, also known as aidoru techno-kayo. I don't usually have an urge to listen to idols, but when I do, more often than not it's this stuff right here. I think it's because the arrangements and the concepts keep me interested. I love the quirky techno-ness of it all, and it seems like the creators actually put effort into these songs. Or perhaps I just like the sound of computer music mixed with cute vocals. Not that all the singers below necessarily sound cute, but those that do definitely benefit from all the synths and bleeps in the background.

Without further ado, here's the playlist, organized in chronological order. There isn't a particular theme to these selections since good music comes in different forms and moods. Enjoy!

1. Fever -- Digita Love [フィーバー -- デジタラブ] (1980)
Long before Yasutaka Nakata came along with Perfume, Keiichi Suzuki (鈴木慶一) already digitalized the Candies aesthetic with this edgy new wave tune for Fever. It doesn't actually sound like Perfume but the concept and the image are there. The cover image above of Naomi Watai (渡井なおみ), Izumi Okahiro (岡広いづみ) and Mayumi Kitagawa (北川まゆみ) in triangular formation really do resemble Nocchi, Acchan and Kashiyuka from their Computer City~Game era though in different outfits. The song itself has a nice mix of techno bleeps set to a surf rock rhythm. I found it enjoyable from start to finish. Always appreciate a bit of experimentation with aidoru tracks. P-Vine's compilation of Toshiba EMI's Techno-Kayo works was the one that introduced me to this obscure song. I wouldn't have heard it otherwise. As for Fever themselves, the little information I could dig on them tells me that they started off as a sexier version of Candies, debuting with the single “Akuma ni Kushizuke” (悪魔にくちづけ) in April 1979. They had one album and another four singles after that before they broke up in late 1980. “Digita Love” was their final release and their only techno song as far as I know.

2. Junko Sakurada -- Kitto Kitto [桜田淳子 -- きっと きっと] (1981)
As a one-third of the Hana no Chu-San Trio (花の中三トリオ), Sakurada may have been overshadowed by the legendary Momoe Yamaguchi but she did hold strong on her own with some of her mid-70's hits like “Hajimete no Dekigoto” (はじめての出来事) and “Juushichi no Natsu” (十七の夏). One of her latter highlights was the album “My Dear” from 1981, which had Side 1 of the LP produced by Akiko Yano (矢野顕子), who brought in all that bubbly technopop for Sakurada to try. Lots of great songs there, but the one that captivated me the most is “Kitto Kitto”. Although the music itself has Yano written all over it and in the refrain Sakurada copies her fluttery manner of delivering the lyrics, she interpreted it in her own way with that mature womanly voice of hers. Whereas Yano sounds sweet like the kindest friend, Sakurada goes for the sultry. Makes for an interesting combo with the music. You can call me addicted to the rapid refrain and the strings riff that follows it. It's just cleverly crafted in general with all these delicate details in the arrangement. Better not dissect them.

3. Chiemi Manabe -- Nerawareta Shoujo [真鍋ちえみ -- ねれわれた少女] (1982)
Chiemi Manabe had a very short idol career in the early 80's first as a member of the group Pansy (パンジー) and then as a soloist before she switched to modeling and acting and then disappeared from media altogether later in the decade. Techno-kayo enthusiasts refer to her as the original techno idol since she was one of the first along with Starbow to specialize in the sound. “Nerawareta Shoujo” was her debut single, which was written by the eminent Aku Yu (阿久悠) and composed/arranged by Haruomi Hosono (細野晴臣). What can I say... That synth line is a killer. And the melody has a unique eeriness to it that's unlike your generic pop song. Manabe's vocals are rather thin, but they don't bother me at all when set against the solid techno backdrop. Unfortunately, she didn't pursue singing for long only leaving us with three singles and one album, but what she had was very nice.

4. Imokin Trio -- High School Lullaby [イモ欽トリオ -- ハイスクール・ララバイ] (1982)
I couldn't help it, it's just too darn infectious. J-Canuck wrote an informative entry on Imokin Trio and the song, so I don't have any factual information to add. It's a pretty silly and classic Takashi Matsumoto (松本隆)/Hosono work for a group of boys who just wanted to make people laugh. The hilarious choreography, which had Kojio Nishiyama/Waruo (西山浩司) playing air drums as if he were Yukihiro Takahashi (高橋幸宏) and Ryoichi Yamaguchi/Yoshio (山口良一) behind the air synths in the position of Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本龍一), probably played a huge role into making this song a winner, but even on its own, it has some strong synth lines that make it a quality techno tune. What was meant to be a novelty tune happened to turn into a classic. It hasn't worn itself out in my ears yet. When I sang it in karaoke, my friend remarked that it sounded girly with all those “suki suki baby” parts so I showed the performance to surprise her. She's been hooked ever since.

5. Mari Iijima -- Love Sick [飯島真理 -- Love Sick] (1983)
Mari Iijima's debut album “Rosé”, which was produced and arranged by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is notable for being of interest to both techno and City Pop enthusiasts, judging by some responses I came across online. Couldn't miss that pretty pink cover while flipping through the pages of Japanese City Pop either. Just listen to “Love Sick” and you'll know what the deal is. It's a loungy nightime melody with a digital/string arrangement and it's wonderful. Every time I listen to it, I can't help but be charmed by the way the classical strings in the opening give way to the synths that take over from there. Kudos to Sakamoto for that clever arrangement. Iijima's voice is sweet like the purest honey but it also has a mature flair to it, which you can pick out easily in this song. It's not often that you find a singer who had it right from the very start, but I'm happy to say that her debut was great. And she wrote and composed the whole thing herself.

6. Hiromi Go -- Dakara Spectacle [郷ひろみ -- だからスペクタクル] (1983)
Just to prove that YMO practically owned Japanese pop of the early 80's, they had to involve themselves with Hiromi Go or else their control wasn't complete. Ryuichi Sakamoto produced his 1983 album “Hiromi-Kyou no Hanzai” (比呂魅卿の犯罪), inviting the rest of YMO and its family including Kenji Omura and Akiko Yano to play the instruments. The album cover and the booklet images feature the idol in a New Romantic getup complete with blush and lipstick. It was a bit of an oddball entry in Go's discography but it was also the one that convinced me to get over my embarrassment of liking his music and give it an earnest try. Of all the tracks there, however, I decided to go with the one that he wrote and composed himself (and did it well) while Sakamoto let his arranging magic do the rest of the work. “Dakara Spectactle”, as you can tell from the title, is quite theatrical and somewhat cheesy but in a good way. Even though it's just little over 7 minutes long, it never drags. I like everything about this: the chorus, the verses, the instrumental bits. Despite Sakamoto's influence, it's very much a Go piece and he owns it like a dandy heartthrob that he is.

7. Kilala & Ulala -- Yume, Fushigi Ikaga [キララとウララ -- 夢・不思議いかが] (1985)
Like Chiemi Manabe, I would have liked for Kilala & Ulala go further but alas they only lasted for two years. Their only album “Double Fantasy” doesn't feature the usual techno composers save for Hosono and Masaya Matsuura (from PSY-S) on a couple of tracks but it's still memorable. My personal favorite number from it is “Yume, Fushigi Ikaga”, which was written/composed by EPO and arranged by Nobuyuki Shimizu (清水信之). Just listening to the futuristic melody and synths and the girls' bold voices makes me want to launch a rocket into the stratosphere. Although it was a CM jingle for some cosmetics company, I think it would make a fine theme for a tokusatsu show. Just an observation. You can read more about the duo in my entry here.

8. Chiemi Hori -- Wa Shoi! [堀ちえみ -- Wa・ショイ!] (1985)
According to J-Wiki, this was considered an unusually experimental for an aidoru tune due to all the sampler effects, but being accustomed to random noises and grunts in Morning Musume's songs, I wasn't that fazed when I first heard it. I just thought it was really catchy. Maybe it's because of Hori's happy-go-lucky vocals and the bouncy melody that it fits with all the sugary idol pop of the time. The arrangement and the effects are still pretty interesting though, so they make this stand out for me. The lyrics were provided by Hirofumi Suzuki (鈴木博文) and the music/arrangement by Ryomei Shirai (白井良明), both from Moonriders. I'm not sure if that was Shirai's intention, but those buzzing synths remind me of cicadas in the summer. Then again, the single was released in the midst of July heat, so it was crafted for the summer anyway. J-Wiki also notes that he created it with matsuri and ondo music images in mind. “Wasshoi” itself is sort of like Japanese equivalent of “heave ho” and is usually chanted at matsuri when carrying floats and portable shrines. I can just picture Hori herself taking part in the festivities while singing this. Oh, and the way she chirps “kira kira” is adorable. You can read more about the singer through generasia. Marcos V also wrote a great article on her last single here.

9. Yukiko Okada -- Wonder Trip Lover [岡田有希子 -- WONDER TRIP LOVER] (1986)
Here's a Sakamoto creation that has popped at me in various incarnations over the years, but it's Yukada's glorious opening track to her final album “Venus Tanjo” (ヴィーナス誕生) from March 1986 that I'm partial to. The other two are Sakamoto's self-cover with different lyrics titled “Ballet Mecanique” which came out a month later and Miki Nakatani's “Chronic Love” from 1999, an opening to the quirky mystery drama Keizoku that she has starred in. Those unique melody chords cannot be mistaken for anything else. It's one of Sakamoto's quintessential compositions, in my opinion. Combine that with Okada's cute and quivering vocals and you have an idol masterpiece. I've never seen her perform this which I doubt even happened considering the brief time between “Venus Tanjo” and her death, but I think it'd be a lovely sight. She had a lot of nice songs in her brief but legendary career, including the acclaimed “Kuchibiru Network” (also created by Sakamoto), and she also passed the test of keeping up the good work beyond the singles. That's why I decided to highlight “Wonder Trip Lover” aside from the fact that it happens to be a fine techno-kayo song. The other two names involved with it were EPO behind the lyrics and the late Tetsuro Kashibuchi (かしぶち哲郎) from Moonriders behind the arrangement. That galloping drumming in the refrain and the sax are unique to Okada's version and make it the special one for me.

10. Kyoko Koizumi -- Tsuretette Phantasien [小泉今日子 -- 連れてってファンタァジェン] (1987)
I just like the spunky Kyon Kyon in general, so it really made my day when I found out that she teamed up with folks like Hosono and Masami Tsuchiya (土屋昌巳) who composed and arranged this tune. It was a leading track on her eleventh studio album "Phantasien" from July 1987. Being released later in the decade, it doesn't really resemble that early techno-kayo style, but it still has enough happy synthesisizer in it be their relative. Being a sucker for anything fantastical, I obviously enjoyed “Tsuretette Phantasien” for the whole “girl lost in a fantasyland” theme. And that German bit in the bridge specifically transplanted me to the fairytales of Brothers Grimm. I particularly enjoyed the toy military drum rhythm combined with that adventurous melody in the refrain. And the way it wraps up at the end is magical. The promotional video of Kyon Kyon in wandering in the forest and encountering various creatures is very fitting.

That's it, folks. If you're interested in sampling more techno-kayo, you can check out P-Vine's impressive compilations where they selected a bunch of songs on various labels from Polydor and Teichiku to Victor and Kind Records. More about those here. Unfortunately, For Life Records and Sony didn't participate in the project, so names like Chiemi Manabe aren't represented there. Those are still extensive compilations though that include both aidoru tunes and more experimental fare. My playlist here has many of the artists featured there, though I didn't necessarily go for just the signature tunes. Hopefully you found something of interest.

Akira Kobayashi -- Atsuki Kokoro ni (熱き心に)

I wasn't quite sure what to make of "Atsuki Kokoro ni" (In A Passionate Heart) when I first heard it on "Sounds of Japan". It didn't quite sound like an enka song but it didn't really sound like a regular pop tune either. And this was the first that I had heard of Akira Kobayashi(小林旭). But later on, I learned that he started his long career in Japanese showbiz as an actor for Nikkatsu Studios in 1956 and was placed alongside cinematic legend Yujiro Ishihara (石原裕次郎)as one of the young turks for the studio.

Looking at the J-Wiki article for Kobayashi, he also has a very long line of singles that started with "Onna wo Wasurero"(女を忘れろ...Forget Women)in 1958 and has continued up to 2013. However with a lot of folks, it's "Atsuki Kokori ni" that is most associated with Kobayashi. As I said in the first paragraph, the song doesn't categorize easily. When I further listened to it, it sounded like something suited to a Hollywood western, and at the time I was still accustomed to knowing Japanese popular music as two distinct entities: pure enka and aidoru (well, there is also YMO...).

Much later, I found out that the song was composed by the late Eiichi Ohtaki (大瀧詠一)who seemed to specialize in crafting these heroic-sounding songs, such as "Saraba Siberia Tetsudo"(さらば、シベリア鉄道)and "Fuyu no Riviera"(冬のリビエラ). Initially, Kobayashi was less-than-impressed when he had heard the demo tape for "Atsuki Kokoro ni" but when he heard about the string arrangement by Norio Maeda (前田憲夫)at the recording studio, he quickly changed his tune (no pun intended). And on hearing the grand introduction, he got the image of a John Wayne oater and concluded that perhaps he could take this song on (so, it wasn't just me then). As someone who spent years playing tough heroes, I can imagine how this would appeal to him. Lyrically, though, Ohtaki asked Yu Aku (阿久悠)to take the helm instead of his usual songwriting partner Takashi Matsumoto (松本隆)since Aku could bring a more traditional style to the words.

The song managed to get as high as No. 12 on the Oricon singles charts after its debut in November 1985 and later became the 20th-ranked song of 1986. It also became the winner of three prizes at the Japan Record Awards, including one for songwriting. Kobayashi also appeared on the 1986 Kohaku Utagassen to sing "Atsuki Kokoro ni", something that he repeated at the 1994 Kohaku.

courtesy of
david haggard
from Flickr

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ego-Wrappin' -- Ashinaga no Salvador (あしながのサルヴァドール)

Another cool and swingy number from Yoshie Nakano (中納良恵)and Masaki Mori (森雅樹)of Ego-Wrappin', "Ashinaga no Salvador" (Long-Legged Salvador) is one of those tunes to suck back a cigar while swirling that glass of brandy in a comfy armchair. This is a track from their 3rd full album of "Night Food" (July 2002) and I enjoy the muted horns along with the relaxed evening guitar.

I came across this one via their music video which unfortunately isn't on YouTube or any of the other sites but it had Nakano and Mori slowly traversing the desert at dusk which makes for an appropriate scene for the song. It sounds perfect for that time of day. The other thing I was interested in about the song was the first half of the title "Ashinaga". I've often seen or heard that word in various aspects of Japanese pop culture whether it be through certain characters on TV or in other song lyrics, but the Japanese did have a thing for height way back when (as did I when I was a kid....luckily, those growth spurts kicked in). Then all those fast food chains landed in the country and people aren't so self-conscious about it anymore.

SHOGUN -- Otokotachi no Melody (男達のメロディー)

This is a song that I often heard on all those old music retrospectives such as "19XX", and considering what was being played in Japan during that decade of the 70s, I thought it was just one of the more cheerfully unusual tunes that I had ever heard.

SHOGUN was a band that was first brought together through a conglomeration of studio musicians including guitarist Fujimal Yoshino (芳野藤丸)which had released the album, "Yellow Magic" under the band name of One Line Band. A majority of that grouping stayed together to become SHOGUN. As for how the name came about, a staffer for the Nippon Television Music Corporation had gone to America for a vacation and at a US airport, he saw a ton of James Clavell's "Shogun" novels stacked up somewhere. So when he returned to Japan, he made the suggestion to his junior colleague Noriko Iida (飯田則子)who had taken an interest in Yoshino's group; Iida had always dreamed of a Japanese band whose name could be understood overseas, and with her senior's suggestion, that was that for this particular group of musicians.

The debut song for the new band of SHOGUN was "Otokotachi no Melody" (Melody of Men) which became the theme song for an action-comedy titled "Oretachi wa Tenshi da!"(俺たちは天使だ!...We Guys Are Angels!)about a group of motley detectives and their agency. Released in April 1979, it was written by Makoto Kitajo (喜多條忠)and composed by then-member Casey Rankin. Starting with a blast of anthemic rock guitar, the song quickly transitions into a comical country-style melody, perhaps reflecting how the TV show progressed, and one of the things I remember from the song was the English that popped up now and then such as "Pick up your head, throw away your blues". I thought it was more suited to the hills of Kentucky than the skyscrapers of Tokyo.

The above is the English-language version of "Otokotachi no Melody".  The song became a big hit for the band which, according to J-Wiki, scored over half a million records (although entamedata shows a far more modest number) in sales and became the 64th-ranked song of the year. However, even more fame was to come in a couple of singles with "Bad City", another catchy detective show theme.

courtesy of
from Flickr

Dreams Come True -- Mirai Yosozu II (未来予想図II)

One thing I didn't mention in my article on Dreams Come True's "Egao no Yukue" (笑顔の行方...February 1990) many many moons ago was that it was the first DCT CD single that I had ever bought. I was just impressed by the brassiness in Miwa Yoshida's (吉田美和)delivery and the arrangements that seemed to sparkle along with the lead vocal's smile.

Now, the coupling song for "Egao no Yukue" was "Mirai Yosozu II" (Forecast Map of the Future 2), an entry in the Dreams Come True discography that has arguably become even more beloved than the A-side and which has certainly become one of the most popular tunes by the band, especially when sung from the concert stage. I think as soon as the first notes of the intro are played, the usual reaction is a huge whoop of applause from the audience and the lightsticks start waving and the tears start flowing.

Yoshida first wrote and composed one of her most famous creations back in her high school days, and she decided to write about looking back at her high school graduation with her darling...a bit of future nostalgia, so to speak. The song perhaps could also be used every time she sings it on stage for Miwa and partner Masato Nakamura(中村正人) to look back at their own career which has now spanned over a quarter of a century. And of course, I'm sure "Mirai Yosozu II" can be sung at any event like a graduation ceremony or a wedding reception, and the water works are promised to flow. The song is not only an epic one for being the longest one in DCT's discography but also for Yoshida's slow crescendo which increases in power at the end. It would be the one song to end a concert....before the inevitable encores, that is.