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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.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit