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Beat girls and beautiful basslines: Japanese pop of the 1960s

A new box set, Nippon Girls 2, brings us the best of a good decade for Japanese pop. From the artwork to the vocals to the super-sharp stereo productions, this is something quite special.

Akiko Wada, whose “Boy And Girl” is one of the highlights of the box set. Image: Ace Records

The main thrust of the modern pop narrative is Anglo-American, with occasional significant interventions from Jamaica and Germany. But over the last 20 years it has been more worthwhile for crate-digging collectors to look further afield rather than try and mine an ever-shrinking supply of undiscovered Northern Soul 45s or New Orleans R&B obscurities.

Ace Records, to their credit, have continued to uncover, re-evaluate and re-issue soul, rock’n’roll and R&B (more of that in a forthcoming column). Yet their handful of incursions into the history of Japanese pop have been a revelation – beautifully annotated, properly mastered, a window into a world which, unless you are a serious student of Japanese culture and language, is very hard to penetrate.

Sheila Burgel worked on Rhino’s definitive Sixties Girl Group box set One Kiss Can Lead To Another and lived in Japan for several years, so is the ideal guide for Nippon Girls 2: Japanese Pop, Beat and Rock’n’Roll. It’s identifiably Sixties pop, but not in the way Dusty or Cilla would have played it. From the artwork to the vocals to the super-sharp stereo productions, this is something quite special.

One of the notable characteristics of the vocals on this collection is the long, soulful vibrato. This had been a good match for the non-descript ballads (Connie Francis covers were common) that were biggest before the Japanese pop scene started to shift in 1965, but rubbed intriguingly against the uptempo strings-and-brass backing, with beautifully upfront basslines, that the Nippon Girls were given later in the decade. The instigators of the new guitar-based beat weren’t the Beatles, but American instrumental band the Ventures, a less characterful version of the Shadows. They had first toured Japan in 1962, supporting Bobby Vee, but when they returned in 1965 they caused a revolution; guitar shops couldn’t keep up with demand. A wave of Japanese male guitar bands – what became known as Group Sounds – was the result. As in Britain, this beat group boom helped to birth a new style of female solo artist.

The “beat girls” that emerged in the wake of the Group Sounds boom tended towards organ-driven beat and dancefloor-friendly ballads.

The CD artwork for Nippon Girls 2. Image: Ace Records

Japanese vowel sounds suit vocals that are both yearning and keening, and the brand leader here was Jun Mayuzumi – “Ai Ga Hoshii No” has a sweet verse, rather reminiscent of Sandie Shaw’s “Long Live Love”, before it cuts into a keening minor-key chorus. I’m hooked immediately. Another frontrunner was the extraordinary looking former model Chiyo Okumura – over a tight, high, fuzzed guitar on “Koi Gurui” (“Love Slave”), Chiyo comes up with a panting, devotional vocal. It’s not hard to see why she became a major star.

Anne Mari’s “Wild Party” had been the breakthough single for the beat girls in 1965, riding on a ragged Ventures-like surf sound (complete with a guitar line pinch from the Chantays’ “Pipeline”); her vocal is all over the place, and I’m reminded of actress Anna Karina’s daffy “Roller Girl”. The only vaguely familiar name to western listeners on this collection might be Emy Jackson, famed – if at all – for her extraordinary 1965 surf-beat single “Crying In A Storm”, which sold a million. Her fierce contribution to this compilation, “Namida No Go Go” (which in spite of the title is also sung in English), has an almost parodic teen lyric (“Tell your mama, tell your papa... You don’t know baby, you don’t know... I wanna die!”). She was originally Emy Eaton from Romford, living just up the road from Sandie Shaw in Dagenham, before she moved to Japan aged 13. One of the reasons she sang in English rather than Japanese was that Columbia Records could charge the international rate of 370 yen for her singles rather than the 330 yen that domestic releases cost. The industry never rally changes that much.

Other highlights include Akiko Wada’s “Boy And Girl”, which has an almost masculine vocal (google her name – the poor woman is the Amelie Mauresmo of Japanese pop). It’s reminiscent of French soul/rock growlers like Nino Ferrer – probably no coincidence, as the Japanese loved Sixties French pop at the time, unlike the British and Americans who took three decades to overcome their prejudices and embrace Serge Gainsbourg and his contemporaries. Identical twins the Peanuts were big names with a rather patchy catalogue, but “Tokyo No Hito” is a gem, with a beautiful earworm of a guitar figure; the Bay Beats’ “Kizudarake No Taiyou” has an unlikely Spaghetti Western element to it; “Kiyoko Ito” is backed by woodwind and plucked harp on “Mishiranu Sekai” – always, there are those beautiful, fat basslines.

Looking through the booklet is a treat in itself; the artwork is gorgeous. Any Sixties aesthete will have an instant urge to start collecting the original 45s. Well, good luck with that – the Japanese are protective of this corner of their culture and you won’t have much luck on eBay.

Nippon Girls 2 is also available as a 12-track vinyl album. Ace have plans for a similar Italian Sixties compilation in the new year. These are good times for girl group fans.

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism