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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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood