The power of pop

<strong>Japrocksampler: How the Postwar Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock'n'Roll</strong>


Tokyo, 1969. The Spiders, the Mops and myriad other identically suited "Group Sound" beat combos making post-Beatles guitar pop are on the decline, as politicised foku geira (folk guerrilla) figures such as the camouflage-clad Dr Acid Seven gain popularity.

The city's Shinjuku district becomes Tokyo's Haight-Ashbury, filled with young people following the futen ideal - a uniquely Japanese take on the west's drop-outs, hippies and psychedelic wanderers. A black-clad band of left-wing refuseniks with the cryptic handle of Les Rallizes Denudes perform their pummelling, feedback-heavy rock with the aim of "total sensory assault of the culture". Within a year, their bass player will be hiding out in North Korea, one of a self-styled Japanese Red Army group involved in hijacking a Japan Airlines Boeing 727, and the psychedelic pop group Flowers will filter the emerging hard rock of the UK into the proto-metal Flower Travellin' Band, photographed for their debut album cover stark naked on speeding Honda motorcycles.

The Japan of Julian Cope's Japrocksampler often feels like a surreal, through-the-looking-glass version of the counterculture emerging elsewhere at the time. Of course, with its island status, unfamiliar alphabet and the perceived twin motifs of advanced technology and ancient ritual, there is always the danger of Japanese culture being uncritically lauded as mysterious and "extreme", or dismissed either as impenetrably obscure or a laughable imitation of western forms. With Cope as guide, however, readers are in safe hands. A wayward, Iggy Pop-like pop star in the 1980s and 1990s, both solo and with the Liverpool post-punk band the Teardrop Explodes, Cope has written a brilliantly funny, insightful autobiography, Krautrocksampler, a definitive study of Germany's "Krautrock" movement, and two lavishly produced field guides to the Neolithic sites of UK and Europe.

Despite his more recent passion for archaeology, it is for musical excavation that Cope is especially cherished among music fans: his infectious delight in all things "out there", combined with a fan's instinct for obscure facts and a practitioner's understanding of how seemingly difficult music works, make him a trusted, if eccentric, guide to rock's outer limits. In recent years, he has championed Japan's current fertile underground scene, and Japrocksampler springs primarily from his desire to unearth the sonic and spiritual forebears of bands such as Acid Mothers Temple, Ghost and Boris.

Like the now unavailable Krautrocksampler, Japrocksampler focuses on a period of social and cultural upheaval and deals with roughly the same phenomenon - the impact of UK and US popular music upon a "foreign" postwar society and culture. Cope sets the stage with a brief history lesson, from Japan's enforced trade agreement with the US in 1854, to its swift modernisation and rebuilding after the Second World War. This flows neatly into the cultural consequences, with Cope looking at rock'n'roll's tentative beginnings alongside the much healthier experimental classical music and art world. This double narrative, which eventually dovetails into the experimental rock that Japrocksampler celebrates, continues through the 1960s, as Cope alternates between the instrumental guitar pop known as eleki and the "Group Sound" phenomenon, and the cultural exchange between the Japanese avant-garde, the Fluxus movement, composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen and the burgeoning free jazz scene.

Selected bands have a chapter apiece, but many have stories crying out for whole books. Alongside hijacked planes, guitar feedback, anarchic festivals and nude biking, J A Caesar's journey from wandering yakuza associate and "futen number one" to avant-garde composer writing scores for the controversial playwright Shuji Terayama is an intriguing tale of beat poetry, extreme sounds and feverish creativity, perhaps best encapsulated in the title of Terayama's iconic work Throw Away the Books, Let's Go Into the Streets. Meanwhile, the story of Taj Mahal Travellers' more gentle but no less extreme penchant for playing in unusual environments, using home-made instruments and "voices, stones and bamboo winds", reads like a Zen road movie.

As a music critic, Cope is a realistic enthusiast, happy to distinguish between the cultural significance of, say, Foodbrain's debut album, and its "abominable" quality. The obligatory "Top 50" will delight fans of his reviewing style, which veers from detailed descriptions of music process to excited hyperbole and gentle ridicule, to the more surreal: "Indoor stoned-parrot cutlery & crockery grooves, anyone?"

Whether Japrocksampler succeeds in its aim of shedding light on current Japanese underground music is a moot point, and maybe not an important one. For a fuller picture of how bands such as Boredoms, Afrirampo or Boris, for example, came into being, another volume that takes into account the influences of punk, metal and electronic music is required.

Instead, Japrocksampler stands up as a document of a period, a place and its subculture. At a time when the radicalism of "the Sixties" has been co-opted and sold back as aesthetic nostalgia, Japrocksampler is a timely reminder of that era's chaotic possibilities: that things happened, risks were taken, barriers were broken - and that it sounded, for the most part, electrifying.

Frances Morgan is editor of "Plan B" magazine

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other