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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.

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war