Two on Tuesday: ancient and formative

Two on Tuesday is a nascent attempt at regular blogging, by writing about two songs that are linked in some way, at least in the mind of the writer. Today it’s late, so I made it more of a three on Tuesday

Sometime in 2007 I was aimless after moving to Santa Fe and trying to start a new life, and I dedicated worthwhile hours to hunting YouTube for entertainment. Somehow, I hit upon the clip above, and so, with this video, I launched into the world of Japanese music. P-MODEL, Hikashu, and Plastics. Twenty-seven years old(older than me!) and as fresh to me as my first sunrise. I had slight knowledge of the industry before, thanks exclusively to those musicians that crossed the Pacific: Pizzicato Five, Guitar Wolf, Puffy, Kahimi Karie, and the many different video game soundtracks I had absorbed over the years. But here was something very exciting and unfamiliar, ancient and formative to all that came after it, at least I assumed that was the case. That ended up being true. This clip, broadcast on the NHK in 1980, was a punk shot in the arm to the refined technopop of YMO. My ears were drawn most to Hikashu, and the strong melody of their song here, “At the end of the 20th Century,” but it ended up being Plastics that captured the most attention at the time, mostly for being kawaii. Their record was picked up in the US(a video of them was even broadcast on SCTV!). Plastics influence is all over later bands like Polysics, Eel, and countless groups flying the day-glo banner of Shibuya-kei.

I didn’t really care for Plastics, to be honest. Like I said, I loved Hikashu, down to their matching red suits and white fedoras, looking like they all got back from their day jobs selling monorails. The sly grin of the vocalist, Makigami, and his utter confidence no matter how he was singing, it was all captivating. My googling of them was immediate and unsatisfying. There was an unhelpful English website and little more in Japanese that I couldn’t translate. But I learned they were still around and performing. They had caught the notice of John Zorn and released music on his label, along with collaborations. Later, an English language blog appeared that gave me more information than I could ever use unless I wanted to go to graduate school for Hikashu studies, but I rarely listen to them now. As you may have guessed from “caught the notice of John Zorn”, they went in a more avant-garde direction, which, while I have a healthy appreciation for, isn’t as deliciously pop as the song they played above, nor even as pop as anything from their first few albums. In fact, I heard a story that they refuse to play “At the end of the 20th Century” at shows, but once, a young child asked for them to play it because it was her favorite song. They couldn’t refuse. I wish I had been to that show, but I saw them at the Fuji Rock festival in 2010. They were fantastic. Makigami played the theremin, danced around, and they even performed a few songs from their first album. I bought a T-shirt.

P-MODEL, the first and most ruthlessly punk of all the performers, was the vehicle for Susumu Hirasawa’s technopunk vision. Take note: he’s the only singer who snarls in the entire video. All the bands owed a debt to Devo, but P-MODEL paid that debt back with interest. This song, “Art-Mania”, was the opening song on their first album In A Model Room, an album of songs with the same frantic energy as the first. It bounces around like a neutoric corgi with a storied history of insomnia. Occasionally, the songs feel suffocating, maximally tinny with plinky flourishes abounding, and rarely taking some time to breathe(except when Hirasawa apparently runs out of breath by the third song on the album). The performance on the NHK documents this in a pristine condition, with the members jumping around the stage and Hirasawa nervously shifting his shoulders to the beat. Hirasawa went on to make less music that was punk in sound, but punk insofar as no one else sounds like him. He is well known for having scored many of Satoshi Kon’s animated works, and still produces his swirling and theatrical music today. It’s often lovely, and thanks to his voice, unmistakably his. Still punk after all those years.

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