The story of Japanese Disco in 10 Records: Introduction
WORDS BY XAVIER AUTY
From soul and psychedelics to Mancuso’s Loft to an international boom in a singular sound, disco has a rich history – one deeply woven into the tapestry of musical progression over the course of the 20th century. Xavier Auty introduces a three-part series looking at the history and story of Japanese disco in ten records.
In many ways, disco’s beginnings in the USA was as a movement of freedom for oppressed sexualities and ethnicities. Legs McNeil, founder of the fanzine Punk, ironically, summed up perfectly the kind of vindictiveness people faced – attributing disco to an "unholy" union between “homosexuals and blacks.” In the face of this normalised prejudice, however, arose an extravagance at the heart of disco culture; it was a scene rich in fantastical escapism, where glamorous dressing, a love for the theatrical, expressive dancing and psychedelic lighting offered a world removed from a hostile reality. And arguably, in a time when stigmas around personal liberation were still deeply held by many, discos were some of the first ’safe spaces’, offering people real freedom and removal from harm.
Disco eventually caught on with wider audiences and became the defining music of a generation. Arising during a period in which introspection took precedence and escapism was becoming the norm for artists and young radicals, disco was perfect for its era. The large rooms of ethereal lighting, soundtracked by the spiralling euphoric music, typified a generation looking for an escape from a post-60s world that had materialised none of the optimism of the previous decade. During the early 80s, disco’s sound grew broader still, as much of the early cultural output was defined by its heavy commodifying of the ideas of the 70s.
"In the face of normalised prejudice arose an extravagance at the heart of disco culture"
Initially, disco’s influence could be seen everywhere from The Stone Roses to Spandau Ballet, but new developments in music making – particularly synthesisers and drum machines – led to exciting new styles and genres, and the ever-cheesier disco slowly faded from the mainstream (although, not entirely – certainly, shades of it could still be heard well into the 90s: in house music or Dee-Lite, for example). Despite this, looking at the cultural worlds before and after disco’s heyday, it’s hard not to appreciate the extent of the shift that had taken place during its lifespan.
However, on the other side of the world in Japan, disco was less a part of a story of shifting cultures than one of cultural inertia. The story of much of Japan’s 20th century development – especially post-war – was heavily, and consistently, dominated by America. As Japanese pop culture author Timothy J. Craig notes, within Japan’s cultural landscape America has served as a model for both emulation and contrast, but “nowhere is America’s cultural dominance more readily visible than in the realm of popular music.”
Prior to disco, many jazz-era musicians, unable to cope with the inner turmoil caused by their inability to emulate the spirit embodied by US artists and produce ‘authentic’ jazz, had been inclined drug habits or even, in the case of bebop pianist Shotaro Moriyasu, to throw themselves in front of trains. And their condition was not exclusive, but representative of a much greater cultural dilemma: how could Western culture and Japanese tradition be harmoniously reconciled? Especially when the differences between the two often caused the Japanese to hate that of their own culture they had been raised to respect. This meant that to imitate Western culture was at once authentic and inauthentic; a conflict that gnawed at parts of society throughout the 20th century.
"to imitate Western culture was at once authentic and inauthentic; a conflict that gnawed at parts of society throughout the 20th century"
Although the question of authenticity may have brought on an identity crisis for some, for most they could never obscure the personal liberation, spirituality and fun that audiences and artists alike found in experiencing the music. And, in disco, the Japanese certainly found something. The concept of a discotheque had found its way into Japanese cities in the late 60s, riding on a wave of imported R&B from artists such as Four Tops, the Supremes and James Brown. The discos hadn’t lasted long however, as they had been sharply ousted by the sudden, mass incursion of rock ‘n’ roll, popularised by the Beatles. Young Japanese music lovers were immediately seduced by their DIY spirit and authenticity – the same that had been missing from Japan’s manufactured pop for years.
Rock ‘n’ roll thus went on to dominate the years from the end of the 60s to the early 70s, and the way of enjoying music shifted back away from discos, leaving their dwindling numbers at just eight by 1973. However, in early 1974 Japan was introduced to The Bump by The Commodores and, as its popularity spread, the Japanese appetite for the new stylings of disco proved insatiable. Japan had developed a taste for free, fun music and, while rock remained popular, for many, disco offered a greater release. And it’s this period, from ’74 until about ‘81, in which the ‘J-Disco’ story is told. Working with a limited range of what hours of trawling online has revealed, we’re going to look at all aspects of the Japanese disco story, and unfold its relevance via a rundown of 10 defining records.