The Story of Japanese Disco in 10 Records: Part One
WORDS BY XAVIER AUTY
Following last week’s introduction to this series on the story of Japanese disco, Xavier Auty returns, bringing you a rundown of the first five records.
Dr. Dragon & The Oriental Express – The Birth Of A Dragon
A good place to start is with the first domestically produced Japanese disco record ever made, and one that also marked the start of the production career of the most prolific producer of J-Disco – as we’ll call it – Satoshi ‘Hustle’ Honda, who spawned a total of 13 records in the genre. His debut LP was released on Victor Records, where Hustle was working as a director and producer, and was released in Japan and then Greece, a year after its domestic release in ‘76.
The artwork and imagery featured on the release heavily mirrored the music: a medley of Japanese and American – specifically African-American – influences, spliced to create a very mixed album.
Some songs on the album featured American vocals and sounded similar to US records whereas others featured now clichéd Japanese woodwind and string sounds – many even included both, merging cultures with all the subtlety of your Japanese dad wearing his stars and stripes hat in Times Square.
However, none of this stopped it being a pretty good record (when was disco ever subtle anyway?) In fact, the slight ridiculousness even added to its quality. Certainly, ‘Sexy Bus Stop’, which used a classic sounding disco instrumental, added some ‘Japanese sounds’ and an Enka style vocal, was nothing less than a camp, theatrical, homegrown J-Disco banger.
It was also Hustle’s first attempt at combining East and West within the spectrum of disco, and represents a sort of ground zero for the genre. It wasn’t subtle, it didn’t scream of accomplishment, but it was an important landmark nonetheless.
Various - Kayo Hit-In-Disco '76
Following Victor and Hustle through the newly formed J-Disco dance tunnel were Sony, with their CBS label releasing a tentative split “7 featuring the Minor Tuning Band on one side and an artist, affectionately named Marilyn Monroe Husband, with their song ‘Peanuts’, on the other.
The A-Side (the only one available to listen to online) is a complete working bio of the short-lived career of the Minor Tuning Band who, in the realms of catalogue expansion, never ventured any further than one six-minute production. For what reason this might be, we have no idea. Maybe they fell out with the label? Maybe they fell out with each other? Who knows…
Probably, though, they just didn’t sell any records – which by all accounts doesn’t make sense. This is clearly a great disco song. It strikes a great balance between melody and frenzy, includes forcefully addictive slap-bass ‘wobs’ on the breakdown, and a swooning Japanese vocal that beautifully ties the song together – heightening the euphoria on the chorus, drawing your attention on the breakdown. It’s a fun floor-filler and, aside from its cutesy feel (and the Japanese singing), could easily be mistaken for an accomplished hit from across the Pacific. Certainly, it manages an amalgamation of its influences better than Hustle did.
Why then did this song not make it big? (It’s 200,000-odd YouTube views seem only to verify that this was an underappreciated hit of its time). This story itself gives us an insight into the difficult beginnings for Japanese disco. So saturated was the Japanese taste, with both American imports and domestically pressed American disco records, that Japanese disco initially struggled to break its own market. This wasn’t the ultimate fate of J-Disco, however, and later records had more success, but this is an important piece of the story, and represents clearly the state of the early disco market, and the odds J-Disco was up against.
Hiromi Iwasaki – Fantasy
Skipping forward quickly to 1978, disco had become officially huge. An annual top 10 sellers chart from the same year included seven pure disco records (classics, such as ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘Night Fever’, Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Fantasy,’ Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’... the list goes on).
Around the same time, it was noted by Tak Tonoi of Sony/CBS records that, “a song really has to have something of the disco sound in it in order to go down well.” And towards the end of the decade, a huge number of the pop hits being churned out (largely by the monopolistic talent agencies and recording companies) were heavily disco influenced.
Pop and disco were melded into the sort of compositions familiar to anyone who has listened to ABBA – stripped back versions of the early disco classics that were simple, catchy and wove a vision of the wholesome good times that the Japanese mass market never ceased to crave – they were bridges to an imagined past: Western fun with a Japanese feel.
Although a large chunk of this music can be comfortably ignored, Hiromi Iwasaki’s 1976 album Fantasy is worth taking note of for two reasons: one was that it was the very beginning of this trend. Previously, there had been little attempt to make J-Disco at all, let alone make it highly sellable to mass audiences. It was the sperm-egg moment of Japanese disco-pop and signalled a trend in Japanese music that would continue to spiral heavily upwards, informing much of J-Pop even throughout the 90s. At the same time, however, it was also part of a wider trend of increasingly catchy music that the Japanese – and indeed everyone else – had been practicing since the dawn of mass media, and is perhaps less interesting in that respect. The second reason was that it was actually good. Iwasaki was one of many heavily manufactured artists who rose to fame after winning the Japanese talent competition show Star Tanjou! (A Star Is Born, which was basically like the X-Factor, just three decades earlier); think of her like a 70s Leona Lewis or Steve Brookstein (the guy who won the first one… yeah, me neither), but despite all this – and unlike Leona Lewis – some of her material was good. I challenge you not to find Hitoribochi No Heya hilariously catchy and whatever you want to think about it this album, it proved seminal in its own way.
Black Level – Disco Action
Back to the less poppy disco now, with this 1976 LP from Black Level, titled ‘Disco Action’. This record is special in our list as it’s one of the few where you can find the majority of the songs online – here’s a link to the Discogs page where you can find them. Something else to note on the Discogs page – and not that this is much to go by – but this record goes for a lot. Ignoring the one guy trying to flog it for £411, people have bought it for as much as £58 – and you can hear why. It’s brilliant. (My personal favourite’s the A1 – ‘Soul Pilot’, although in truth I could pick nearly any: ‘Mysterious’, ‘Walkin’ and ‘Speedy Walkin’ are also excellent).
It’s also one of the least Japanese records. None of the artists credited with the production or recording of this album were even remotely Japanese – nor did they do anything else aside from this record (perhaps resting on their laurels) – however there is a distinctly Japanese sound to it. Their backing vocals are given a dose of twee to make them sound distinctly more ‘Japanese’, there are Japanese strings, Japanese woodwind and synth noises familiar to anyone who has listened to the Yellow Magic Orchestra. It was also made in Japan, and primarily distributed there – as well as in Australia.
Although slightly tangential to the story of Japanese homegrown disco, this record is interesting in that it has been produced for the Japanese market. And there were big interests backing it – most importantly the Warner Group, via sub label Atlantic. In that sense, this record signifies an import piece of the story, which was that even by 1976, and clearly to the knowledge of the large media corps, Japan was well on its way to becoming the second largest market for music in the world – a feat it had comfortably achieved, in value terms, by 1979.
Japan’s music market, however borrowed it felt, was influencing the international music scene like never before. To demand its own exclusive productions was, at the time, a big deal and looking at current trend in the exportation of popular media (not just music), this was a part of a much wider trend that would continue heavily and is still growing today (what do you imagine inspired Kung-Fu Panda, for example?).
The Funky Bureau – Boogie Train
Next we move on to 1977 with this record from The Funky Bureau. Another of Satoshi ‘Hustle’ Honda’s productions, it’s consistent with the last record in that it doesn’t sound particularly Japanese – in fact it was less Japanese sounding than his previous work, and marked a move towards an even more American sound for Honda. The vocals: distinctly African-American. The Japanese sounds: distinctly absent. This record sounded like something straight from the States, and was arguably no worse for it.
The reason for this was that Hustle wanted to Japan to be an exporter of music, not just a consumer. In 1976, around the time of Hustle’s first productions in Japan, Victor Music Industries had been negotiating with US and European-based record companies to release J-Disco internationally. So far, this hadn’t been happening a whole lot, especially not for Hustle, whose record had only been released in Japan and Greece. Wanting to tap into the US market, rather than try to blend East and West – a feat few from the East had ever achieved successfully – he made something that sounded so authentically American they would have to release it internationally. Sadly, his effort didn’t pay off and Boogie Train was confined to the Japanese market – until 2010, when it was reissued in the UK, from Victor Records.
Although this marks a somewhat failed experiment for Honda, and is a record that heavily denies its origins, it’s hard to deny just how good a record it is.