The Story of Japanese Disco in 10 Records: Part Two
Ebonee Webb – Disco Otomisan
(Seven Seas, 1978)
We’re continuing with the American sounds on this next record. Rather than being Japanese, Ebonee Webb were actually a funk/disco formation from Memphis, Tennessee. However, their first records were produced in Japan and Japanese vocals feature heavily on top of their own quirky disco rhythms. Released on Seven Seas – a Japanese label – this record represented a stark blending of eastern and western elements: Japanese producers, American band, Japanese singers.
And this stark contrasting certainly shows. Almost a heavily conceptual piece of listening, one of the tracks on the record blends an intro voiced by a member of the American ensemble, a very wonky stuttering bass line, theatrically traditional Japanese singing and half-gun-shot-half-hong-kong-phooey noises – and that’s just the first two minutes (sadly I have no idea which track it is – the uploader has seen fit to simply title it ‘master 99470’). Anyone who listens through this is rewarded with a tearing electronic-organ solo, a four-to-the-floor-beat and some euphoric Japanese disco vocals, all of which comprise a very fine section of the song indeed. Only a minute or so later, this breaks down again and we find ourselves back with the wonky bass line, only this time with the addition of a sporadic jazz-sax, cartoon gunshots-slash-kung-fu noises and a seductive Japanese male voice over. In short: this song’s pretty weird. But it’s also great.
The title song also, ‘Disco Otomisan’, draws attention for its unconventional feel, however this one is certainly more obvious in its appeal. The bouncy, plucky instrumental is given a very Japanese feel by its upbeat, equally bouncy, Enka-infused vocals and use of the “HA” at every breakdown.
In comparison to western culture (albeit from a viewpoint straight out of a western culture), Japanese cultural tastes often seem more honed to the ‘weird’: random concoctions and combinations of outlandish elements that often make little or no sense to people in the west – Ladybeard anyone? Judging by the general reaction to Ladybeard, though, people revel in it and on these songs, so would anyone. Although interwoven with the more recognisable elements of what we might call a disco song, at its heart it’s pure weirdness, and for that we love it.
Pink Lady – Mona Liza Club
Perhaps the biggest difference between this record and the others is that this has the most club ready feel of all of them. It’s a hands in the air, lose your shit, end of the night banger – the kind that would no doubt set certain Japanese discotheques on fire wherever it was played. It was a rare record for Pink Lady who were generally found on more poppy style records which, due to the large influence of their management on their output, can tell us a lot about the industry.
Parallel to the rise of disco music in Japan had been the rise in the ‘discotheque’ clubbing industry. Between 1973 and 1976, Japan had gone from eight clubs nationwide to around 600 pure discos, plus a further 1,400 rooms offering some form of disco music. In 1977 ‘Hustle’ Honda – believing that the necessity for a clear individual identity for each club, plus the finite space in which to do so, would ensure a process of natural selection – had predicted that discos would stabilise at around 400, but by 1979 there had still not been a single discotheque closure and business was booming, with some discos raking in up to $500,000 a month. As the new ‘in place’, discos had also changed their format to suit their mass popularity. Many offered ‘all you can eat and drink’, along with the entry fee of a very reasonable $8-10, and included seating for people to relax and socialise. Bars and restaurants were quickly overtaken by this new all-inclusive entertainment and discos became integral to the social lives of many. What’s more, to accommodate their social side, discos began turning the music down and many artists began producing more melodic, less frenzied songs: a trend this tune clearly bucks.
And, parallel to this trend, and in contrast to this softening of discos, dancing had also developed. In disco’s early years, in order to boost popularity and sell records, labels had attached dance moves to certain songs – a practice also carried out in western markets (‘YMCA’ for example) and this proved hugely successful in Japan. The dances were so popular that they became a huge part of the culture – so much so that large audiences would be moving at the same time and people were inclined to feel out of place if they didn’t know the moves to a certain song. However, by 1979, the number of dances created had saturated the market to the point that it was impossible to keep up. The new popular style became ‘Free Dance’ and people began to move how they wanted. This song, with its pure dancing energy, represents this transition. It also most likely took inspiration from the clubbing scene in the US where Tom Moulton’s ‘extended mixes’ and seamless blending by DJs such as Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were gearing disco more and more towards dancing and prolonging the enjoyment of dance songs.
It’s perhaps interesting that, rather than take notice of developments in the Japanese clubs, producers still wanted to emulate the US at all costs. Either way, this record is a real gem, and serves as yet another example of how well Japanese studio producers were able to capture an energy that wasn’t theirs and to hone and craft it into something so good, it could easily be mistaken for the realest of the real.
The Eastern Gang – The Flasher
Back to another Honda production now: The Flasher by The Eastern Gang was another ‘Hustle’ classic. Released on Invitation in ’79, this was a very accomplished sounding disco record. It also marked his first outing on new Victor sub-label Invitation which, initially, was dedicated to funk and soul-oriented releases.
In contrast with the last one, this record suited the new all-you-can-eat discos perfectly. The chords were melancholic, the tone was subtler, and the record provided the easiest of listening. Although he hadn’t lost his touch for making a great disco record, Honda had come to value simplicity. The 1978 sales chart in Japan had featured seven pure disco records – classics, such as ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘Night Fever’, ‘Fantasy’ by Earth, Wind & Fire, ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’ by Baccara… the list goes on in this manner. Honda had realised the importance of a catchy vocal in Japanese disco – he knew that the majority of people couldn’t understand complex lyrics in English and needed something simple they could latch on to easily.
In contrast to his last, the lyrics on this record were sung in English but with a Japanese accent – apparently Hustle’s final answer on how to incorporate both into one song. The instrumentals, also, had a ‘Japanese feel’. The slightly traditional strings, woodwind, and overall show-theme air of the tracks, were a turn away from the straight-up American disco of his last outing.
The record was released in Japan and Canada – the closest he came to the big markets of the West.
Pink Lady – We Are Sexy
This 1980 release from Pink Lady covers an important aspect of J-Disco that has only been scantily touched on here, until now: namely, the cover version.
Like Hiromi Iwasaki, the duo, comprised of Mii (Nemoto Mitsuyo) and Kei (Masuda Keiko), got their breakthrough from Star Tanjo! in 1976 where they won over the judges with their charm and energy.
Carefully sculpted by their record label, moulded into slick, choreographed disco stars, Pink Lady were arguably the biggest pop act of Japan’s 1970s and certainly the most prolific disco artists the country ever saw. They released thirteen albums from 1977 to 1980, before disbanding in 1981, only to reunite several times after. For people in Japan, their success felt as though it had come overnight, with Pink Lady sweeping the nation a mere year after their debut single. Their name was used to sell everything from lunchboxes to hot dogs.
More cynically, Pink Lady were a central part of the rise of the ‘idol’ in Japan – artists whose every move was controlled from behind the scenes and whose real purpose was to maximize their own marketability, their level of success measured in equal parts endorsements and commercials to record output and talent. An album of covers that may hardly be worth a listen, it’s not music in a classic sense but something convoluted and empty of any recognisable character or expression. They sound alien because at their core they are inhuman: they are the real monolithic sound of calculated marketability.
Although not an important part of J-Disco with regard to its progression, these types of manufactured records were nevertheless an important part of the story and well worth including. Especially when they sound as sublime as their extended-instrumental-intro cover of Donna Summer’s version of ‘MacArthur Park’.
On this album, they cover a number of well-known disco hits, such as ‘Boogie Wonderland’, ‘Go West’ and ‘I Was Made For Dancin’ – other covers they did included a number 1 hit with the Village People’s, ‘In The Navy’.
Although not original, the appeal of Pink Lady swept the nation, expanding the appeal of disco in equal measure. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny their importance.
Something Special – Got To Get Ready
(Victor, year unknown)
This, in at number 10 on the list, was another of Satoshi ‘Hustle’ Honda’s productions. Although the date is unknown, judging by his other output it most likely comes from either 1977 or 1978 – the all-out-‘Americanness’ of it mirroring his work with The Funky Bureau from ’77.
This is a masterful production that reiterates just how good a disco record Honda was capable of making. And in many ways Honda symbolises the very struggles faced by the Japanese jazz musicians, as well as many other Japanese musicians and artists. Just like the earlier Japanese jazz musicians, his problem was never with skill – they were able to match any other on the planet – the problem was making something that sounded as though it had developed within an unfamiliar context different to their own – capturing the defiant spirit of disco, in a country where to like disco was anything but defiant, was surely not an easy task and one most probably achieved through determination and careful thought.
The questions of authenticity that plagued the earlier Japanese jazz musicians are surely as prevalent here. But hearing this, does it really detract from the song produced? Does it matter, that piecing the song together in the background is a Japanese man who calls himself ‘Hustle’? Hell no. In fact, in a strange way, it makes it better.
Most would agree that disco as a genre oozes emotion; it’s pure shiny, pure sparkly and a whole range of similar adjectives, and it screams extroverted fun. But that’s not the entirety of disco. As with any genre, disco is broad and multifaceted, its edges defined by those records daring enough to exist there.
And it’s records like these, where producers, maybe by accident, have taken a different approach, that are often the hidden gems of a genre. They are the strange crossovers that fit neither here nor there, the records that push boundaries by being hard to define, placeless. They might not appeal to all, but that’s kind of the point.
To achieve through considered deconstruction what others achieved through raw emotion sums up Japan’s relationship with much of its own art, as much as it sums up their disco. The records of the J-Disco era may not have broken any sales records, they may not be well known, they may not even be that good in your opinion – but they represent the diversity that makes music fascinating.