BOOK ONE: Chapter 4


The Beatles' Japanese Tour & the Second Coming

On 29th June 1966, Japanese music, nay, the whole of Japanese culture changed for ever with the arrival of the Beatles. Taking the arduous polar route north via Anchorage, where they were grounded overnight to avoid a typhoon in the China Seal it's fair to state that when the exhausted and irritable John, Paul, George and Ringo stepped off the plane at dawn into the oppressive summer heat of Haneda Airport, everyone was delighted to see these four young Gods, with the possible exception of certain militant nationalist student groups and the Tokyo Beatles themselves. Indeed, rock'n'roll Singer Yuya Utchida had gone out of his way to honour the band with his specially recorded ballad 'Welcome Beatles'. Unfortunately, it was the malevolent attitude of the student fanatics that provided the real backdrop to the Beatles' stay, and Tokyo's police commissioner greeted Beatles manager Brian Epstein with the news that death threats had been made against the fabulous four. Already unhappy with the ever increasing Westernisation of Japan, the students were outraged at the authorities' decision to stage the Beatles' shows at Tokyo's legendary Budokan culture centre, which contained a shrine for Japan's dead war heroes. The Japanese authorities, painfully obsessed with maintaining their national honour whilst playing host to such international stars, would not kowtow to the students' demands by relocating the shows, and chose instead to guard the Beatles and their entourage with several thousand police and soldiers for the entire duration of their stay. And so it was as part of a military motorcade that the Beatles' touring party made their way along the Tokyo road from Haneda Airport, as armed motorcycle outriders announced the group's arrival to the tens of thousands who struggled to break through the police cordon to hurl themselves delightedly at the Beatles' vast white 1950s limousine [1] as it crawled through the early-morning chaos. The four Liver-pud-lians holed up in the 24-room Presidential Suite in the penthouse of Tokyo's Capitol Tokyu Hotel, where the lifts had been programmed to terminate at the floor below. Here, guests of the touring party would be greeted by an entire platoon of military guards, who allowed ascent into the penthouse only via one single rear staircase. Brian Epstein was informed that none of the Beatles' party must leave for fear of assassination. Instead, seemingly endless supplies of fine jewellery, garments, trinkets and the like were brought up for their inspection, as an overawed gaggle of star-struck celebrities crowded the expansive lobby, awaiting an audience with these alien lords. Spurred on by the overwhelming success of the Ventures' 1965 Japanese tour, Japanese guitar companies had built over 760,000 guitars up to year's end. But if the eleki buumu of the previous four years had looked like being the pinnacle of rock'n'roll in Japan, it was only because the Beatles had not yet been factored into the equation; and many of the exotic wares now being paraded through the Beatles' penthouse, especially such technological triumphs as cameras and recording equipment, were accompanied by the enthusiastic managing directors of the companies which had made them.

Preparations for the tour had been fastidious at the Japanese end, and all the major music production companies had battled hard to secure their artists a support s lot on the five controversial Budokan shows, scheduled to take place in Tokyo's Kitanomaru Park. All except the Spiders, that is, who already ran their own Spiduction management company and whose five-year climb to the top of the Japanese music scene was considered far too important to risk being dismissed by weepy teens with eyes only for Beatle John and his cohorts. No, the Budokan support slot was an honour to be shared between Terry & the Bluejeans and the humorous pop troupe the Drifters [2] - both outfits led by former sidemen of eleki pioneer Jimmie Tokita - as the Beatles laid upon the Japanese an eleven-song live set that was more dutiful than inspired. Indeed, over those five consecutive shows, rigorously policed by 3,000 armed cops, John, Paul, George and Ringo played just eleven songs to their 9,000 delirious fans before high-tailing it south to Manila, where they would be unwittingly plunged into an even bigger diplomatic spat with Imelda, wife of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It's now common knowledge that, by the time the Beatles hit Japan, they'd just about had it up to here with touring, and were about to call it a day. But it's still something of a shock to peruse the Beatles' Japanese setlist and see nothing more than a catchall of their previous four years' work. Who could believe that Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Starr (then arguably at their artistic height with RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER) could have gained one iota of satisfaction from churning out, night after night, Chuck Berry's 'Rock'n'roll Music', 'She's a Woman', 'If I Needed Someone', 'Day Tripper', 'Baby's in Black', 'I Feel Fine', 'Yesterday', 'I Wanna Be Your Man', 'Nowhere Man', 'Paperback Writer' and 'I 'm Down' (and always in that order)? But, with only two current tunes in their set, that was precisely what the Beatles chose to unleash, as armed military sharp-shooters hidden in the orchestra pit and placed high in the eaves of Budokan scanned the exits for evidence of extremist reprisals. However, the Japanese audiences in attendance that summer were not at Budokan to applaud the quality of their heroes' respective performances so much as to honour and worship the Beatles themselves. Thus waving goodbye to the Beatles at Haneda Airport, on 3rd July 1966, was - to the newly Westernised and still-insular Japanese - somewhat akin to watching four divinities departing Earth; so much so that damn near everyone in Japanese popular culture was, for the next half decade at least, consumed with following 'The Way of the Beatles'.

Careful with That Mosrite, Masayuki!

If early July 1966 was a cool time to be English in Japan, then late July '66 was even better, as the England football team won the World Cup by beating Germany 4-2 at Wembley Stadium. Carnaby Street threads, Union Jack prints, Swinging London and the fabulous four were all the Japanese could think about, as scores of new groups formed in the wake of the Beatles' visit. The media resounded with the new term Group Sounds, as Yuzo Kayama's clever catchall description was applied wholesale to any and all of the British-Invasion- and Beatles-inspired ensembles that had been cropping up across Japan throughout late '66; groups with names such as the Free Lancers, the Dimensions, the Carnabeats, the Fingers, the Darts, the Glories, the Black Stones and the Napoleon [sic]. Of the first wave of these all-new post-Beatles-Tour bands, however, those who were first to make a real impression were certainly the Mops, the Golden Cups, the Tempters, the Jaguars and the Tigers.

The Mops were a Tokyo quintet led by drummer Mikiharu Suzuki, who had actually begun as an instrumental Ventures-styled four-man combo in the spring of '66. However, the band was completed with the arrival of Suzuki's older brother Hiromitu, a lead vocalist with an Eric Burdon obsession. Suzuki added hugely to the Mops' fuzzy garage soul, and Victor Records soon snapped up the band. Despite their redundant Merseybeat-homage name, the Mops were a dedicated closely knit family whose love of garage rock and the burgeoning psychedelia would, in the coming years, help them to create some of the most urgently deranged and euphorically disruptive music of the entire Group Sounds era. Moreover, it was the Mops' love of rock'n'roll excess in all things - lighting rigs, huge PA systems, FX pedals, etc. - that was to goad other contemporary Japanese bands into making real sonic statements.

Similarly screwy, and in collective possession of a delinquent gene hitherto unknown in the overly polite Japanese society, were the fabulous Golden Cups. This young quintet hailed from the cosmopolitan port of Yokohama City, whose nearby docks and US Army base guaranteed that every local hipster who bothered could get their hands on the newest sounds from the West months in advance of the rest of Japan. Moreover, the Golden Cups were a truly international bunch, whose lead vocalist Tokimune 'Dave' Hirao and lead guitarist Eddie Ban had both (separately) made rock'n'roll pilgrimages to the United States in 1965. Indeed, when Eddie had returned with the first fuzz box to arrive on Japanese soil, a local guitar manufacturer had copped a look at its contents and was soon selling knock-offs around the islands. Rhythm guitarist Kenneth Ito was actually an English-speaking Hawaiian, giving the Cups an easy entry into authentic rock'n'roll lyrics, and Ito claimed to be the first in Japan with a genuine Fender guitar; whilst the Cups' 6'1"-tall bass player, who went by the stage name of Louis Louis Kabe, was a beautifully lean Franco-Japanese druggie from the local international school, who - in the absence of marijuana and LSD - turned the rest of the Golden Cups on to sniffing paint thinner and Marusan Pro Bond glue. Compared to other Japanese bands, the Golden Cups were sociopathic renegades from the wrong side of the world, and their career was to be one of multiple highs, lows and total disasters. But dammit they were (mainly) forward-thinking motherfuckers whose attitudes (if not always their music) dragged Japan's reluctant ass out of its sobriety like none before or after them.

Also of immense importance to the fashioning of the early Group Sounds scene was the six-piece known as the Jaguars, led by drummer Yukio Miya. The Jaguars, or 'jaggerz' as the Japanese referred to them, straddled the hinterland between pure pop music and garage rock, turning out versions of the Blues Magoos' arrangement of 'Tobacco Road' and Mitch Ryder's 'See See Rider', but taking their shorter-haired image from those overly smiley British muckers Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Indeed, the Jaguars recorded their own version of that band's 45 'Zabadak' and scored another Top-20 hit with Dave Dee's cod-Spaghetti-Western epic 'Legend of Xanadu', transplanted into a Greek context with balalaikas and the whole band done out as Greek-peasant fashion victims.

Far heavier and more garagey were the Tempters, a smart-looking five-piece from Saitama led by sixteen-year-old soul singer Kennichi Hagiwara. The Tempters prided themselves on their Shadows-of-Knight-style dedication to the Rolling Stones and Them, and the band's earliest singles have long appeared on Western Nuggets-style garage compilations. And although the Tempters' roots as a Ventures-styled instrumental act were given away somewhat by their two guitarists' use of ice-white Mosrites, the overall effect was of something brand new and refreshingly free of artifice.

Not so the Tigers, however, whose lead singer Julie Sawada was a pouting effeminate prima donna whom everyone adored and loathed in equal measure, but whose presence made his band the biggest of all these brand-new Group Sounds outfits. The ultra-poppy Tigers had begun in the ancient city of Kyoto, in 1965, as the comparatively raunchy and rebellious Sally & the Playboys. Led by bass player Osami Kishibe, who went under the name 'Sally' to wind up the locals, Sally & the Playboys had one night found themselves upstaged by the antics of the lead singer of their support band the Thunders. This singer, Kenji Sawada, joined Sally & the Playboys, who changed their name first to the Funnies, then to the Tigers, as new boy Sawada - inspired by bass player Sally - adopted the stage name Julie after his beloved heroine Julie Andrews. Thereafter, the band came under the temporary influence of the ever aspirational Yuya Utchida, who secretly wished to dump Julie and become lead singer himself. However, when Utchida signed the band to a management contract at the powerful Watanabe Pro., the Tigers fell under the spell of 23-year-old Watanabe staff songwriter Koichi Sugiyama, who told them of Utchida's plans and derided him as an old failed rocker from the '50s. Unfortunately, while the Tigers' story is of great historical importance to our Group Sounds tale, their post-Utchida music was so diluted and compromised by Watanabe that it was to contribute about as much to rock'n'roll as the Pope has given feminism. So while the Tigers became arguably the biggest pop stars of the new Group Sounds scene, Yuya Utchida was so outraged at being ousted that he quit Japan and headed for the heart of the action... Swinging London.

Catch Us If You Can

Besieged by this abrupt influx of famished skinny young pups on to their scene, pre-Group-Sounds-era bands such as Jimmie Takeuchi & the Exciters and Jackey Yoshikawa's Blue Comets rightly felt pressured to drop their suddenly dated eleki sound in favour of English-language songs. The Spiders had cleverly anticipated just such a musical change by adding, two years previously, a much younger singer to their line-up in the form of Jun Inoue, the band themselves gradually adding songs by the Animals, the Kinks, Them and the Yardbirds to their repertoire. But certain groups really struggled with the new orthodoxy, especially the specific Group Sounds demand for be-suited young males bearing guitars. This Beatle Age certainly improved the lot of the Sharp Hawks' aptly named singer Jimmy Lennon. But this once-exotic four-boys/one-girl soul-revue band found it difficult to learn to play their own instruments to the level demanded by their heavyweight managers. Moreover, the presence of female singer Yuji Nozawa was now deemed inappropriate for the Sharp Hawks' essential new Group Sounds direction, so she was unceremoniously dumped. It was not quite such a drag for everyone, however. In Yokohama City, the Robin Hoods' sixteen-year-old leader Ai Takano simply renamed his band the Carnabeats and cultivated a friendship with the Walker Brothers to imply links to the British Invasion bands; whilst the Outlaws, a sextet from Tokyo in existence since 1964 and led by future '70s guitar star Hideki Ishima, changed their name to the Beavers for their first Spiders support show, giving everyone the impression that they had blasted out of nowhere as fully formed as Athena appearing from the head of Zeus. From the Philippines, the wild quintet D'Swooners were spotted supporting Manfred Mann and the Kinks in Hong Kong by a holidaying Yuzo Kayama, who invited the band to Japan where they were immediately adopted as an honorary Group Sounds act. Refusing to become anybody's has-been, the ever opportunist eleki legend Terry Terauchi left his Bluejeans to fender for themselves, and commenced a new vocal career backed by a younger ensemble whom he named the Bunnys. Meanwhile, intuitively understanding the Group Sounds trend for younger and younger ensembles, and increasingly stimulated by the new electric FX coming out of Western rock'n'roll, Terauchi also percipiently started his own stable of Group Sounds bands with whom he could conduct further sonic studio experiments in the style of Joe Meek. First, Terry hooked up with a very young six-piece ensemble who had long worshipped his eleki sound, and whose members included Mitsuharu Yamada, who played the mysterious-sounding new Yamaha Electone keyboard. Naming them the Phoenix, Terry signed the band to the King record company and produced their debut single 'Koisuru La La La' (La La La in Love), adding a mysterious early Electric Prunes atmosphere to the song with his clever use of Yamaha Electone and sending Tadashi Kutiyama's lead guitar through a wah-wah pedal. It was the first use of such an effect on a Japanese record, and the reaction was sensational. Other groups clamoured to join Terry's stable, which soon included the Edwards, [3] the Crack Nuts, 491 (Four Nine Ace) [4] and the confusingly named the Terrys. It was a business trend soon to be followed by production companies all over the big cities, as Group Sounds (or GS as it was quickly becoming known) became the only pop scene in which to be seen.

Watanabe, Asuka Pro, Spiduction & the Rise of the Management Companies

With 20/20 hindsight, it's easier nowadays to explain the Group Sounds period as a business phenomenon rather than as a musical movement, for the power was forever to remain in the hands of heavyweight management companies such as Watanabe Pro. and Asuka Pro. These big management companies paid their stylists to spot potential idoru, or lead-singer material, to overly dress and colour-code their young charges, to coiffure and manicure, paint and powder them, until many groups who had been signed up as wildly unpredictable longhairs found themselves so battered and brutalised by their arduous journey through the Group Sounds management blender that their record and TV debuts bore little or no resemblance to the refusenik bedroom ensemble they had started in the first place. Inconsistency became the order of the day, as GS outfits such as the Golden Cups - who played live shows full of screaming feedback and delivered blazing B-sides of Leaves/Love/Blues Magoos-informed punk rock - were still forced, through razor-sharp management contracts, to appear on TV performing creepy ballads that made them sound like whingeing ninnies. The Cups' light and breathy version of the Classics IV's 'Spooky' epitomises this approach, the original's tough chiming guitar and desperate vocals here replaced with a string section straight out of 'A Walk in the Black Forest' and zippy and overly loud apeman snare-drum fills.

The once rowdy Tigers eventually became absolute lords of the GS scene, but only through playing their management company's game absolutely to the letter. This included changing their image to suit each new single release and recording whatever the staff writers churned out for them, plus going along with whatever scam their PR team at Watanabe Pro. dreamed up. For example, as success abroad had always been the ultimate seal of approval to Japanese pop fans, the Tigers' management team sent the band to film a Japanese TV commercial in the USA, where they also appeared as part of the studio audience on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show. When, on the band's return home, their PR team announced 'direct from their appearance on Ed Sullivan', none of the Tigers dared admit that it had been only as members of the audience. And although the Tigers were soon generating over $1,000,000 per year, it's said that Watanabe never increased each band member's salary beyond $300 per month.

Right at the top echelon of the GS scene, staff songwriters working for the management companies guarded their territory so fiercely that, even with two self-penned hits under their belt, the Tempters were forced to record a sickly ballad as their third single. What chance was there, then, for saccharine choirboys such as the Genova, the Floral or Ox? Such was the iron fist of the GS management style that bands were even banned from hanging out with other bands for fear of giving away secrets; the Carnabeats' drummer Ai Takano later admitted to donning disguise in order to visit his good friend Sin Okamoto, vocalist with the Jaguars. Luckily, long-term careerists the Spiders had managed to avoid falling under the spell of any heavy-handed management team by forming their own Spiduction management company long before the Group Sounds phenomenon had arisen. So when the Tempters found themselves being forced to record songs they had no interest in by their bullying management, the musicians jumped ship to Spiduction because of its artist-led approach.

Early on in the GS era, producers constantly thwarted GS musicians' attempts to infuse their sound with the tough new soul-based noise that spewed from the mouths of Eric Burdon, Steve Winwood, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Barre!! Strong. Luckily, however, the tough rampaging sound of the Philippines' D'Swooners were already big hits in Japan, providing leverage for the musicians' arguments that Japanese audiences had already shown their need for hard R&B. In this way, the Voltage got to release Otis Redding's 'In the Midnight Hour', the Tempters got hold of Howlin' Woit's 'Boom Boom' and the soul standard 'Everybody Needs Somebody', and even the Tigers couldn't ruin the Rolling Stones' 'Time Is on My Side'. Zoo Nee Voo released a pretty fine version of Sam & Dave's 'Hold on, I'm Comin'', but no one was ready for their cover of Booker T's 'Green Onions', which featured an obstinate organist who ran riot across the blue notes of the melody like a Bavarian lederhosen band, but achieved a sound so dry and extremely stereo that it comes across like an early dub mix. [5]

'But What Is Group Sounds?'

By the middle of 1967, the Japanese propensity for formalising artistic and cultural phenomena was beginning to take its toll on the GS scene, as movers and shakers within the biz went further and further out of their way to define and distil the Group Sounds metaphor. And as Group Sounds had ultimately become a 'product' created not by the musicians themselves, but by young hip managers, stylists, Hairdressers, record producers and musical entrepreneurs (all of whom had shared a mutual love for such scams as the Monkees and A Hard Day's Night), then it was probably only to be expected that these music-business insiders would have taken increasing pleasure in creating the ultimate Group Sounds act. So what was their estimation of the ultimate GS configuration? Well, although the Tigers were right at the top of the Group Sounds order and wore all the correct garb, there was still something too fey, too precious, too feminine about their lead singer Julie Sawada for him to be worthy of consideration as an ultimate Group Sounds archetype. The Spiders were surely wild enough, but they'd been around since the early eleki buumu and were just too old. The Mops on the other hand were too weird, too punk, too real, too ugly! The Golden Cups? Too fumed up on paint thinners and glue and too capricious to play the game; hell, the Cups wouldn't even wear the outfits their stylists brought to promo sessions! This left the Tempters and the Jaguars as the main contenders, both bands featuring handsome Eurasian lead singers, and both sharing a thirst for immaculate King's Road-style mod uniforms, a dedication to collective haircuts à la Monkees' Davy Jones and Peter Tork, and ne'er a dark amongst them! Add a dash of Paul Revere & the Raiders' rebel costumerie and the Japanese love of chintzy minor-chord string-laden ballad weepies, and you've entered the Group Sounds' pleasure zone.

It's my assertion, however, that the Jaguars ultimately won the day and forged the uber-GS archetype with their six-piece ensemble of vocalist, two guitars, organist, bass player and drummer. For it was this precise configuration that, at the height of the GS phenomenon, cropped up again and again and again, in such sextets as the Cougars, the Rangers, the Gullivers, the Phoenix, the Lions, the Swing West and the Terrys, all of whom obeyed every GS rule to the letter, and never appeared without their uniforms. Also conforming to the Jaguarine archetype were the Lind & Linders, an exuberant all-winking, all-smiling Nehru-suit-wearing sextet who recorded their wonderful version of Otis Redding's 'Ha Ha Ha' for Philips Records, as did the Youngers, who'd been cobbled together by Philips Records stylists from GS wannabes from all across Japan.

Then there was the Out Cast, led by future guitar star Jun 'Kimio' Mizutani, who'd clearly believed that his band fitted the Jaguarine sextet archetype perfectly, only to discover that their managers Watanabe Pro. were quite happy to replace any or all of them whenever they stepped out of line... which of course they did, and then some. By the end of the Out Cast's two-year career, only one original Out Cast member survived. Then, of course, there was Mustang... ah yes, Mustang. What the hell would Watanabe have done with Mustang? Still, despite hanging out with the rest of the underground Commie sociopaths in Kyoto University. and despite looking like genuine renegades from Australia's Pretty Things-styled garage-rock scene (yeti such as the Creatures, Missing Links and Running Jumping Standing Still immediately come to mind), somehow Mustang fitted in with the rest of London Records' GS roster just long enough to fulfil their Jaguarine GS metaphor AND have a hit with their sexy garage classic 'Mustang Baby'. Oo yeah!

Other sextets ignored the Jaguars' archetype and opted instead for the Spiders' proto-Sam & Dave/Righteous Brothers twin-vocalist soul-revue approach. The Beavers may have been the best artistic example of this approach, but it was the Jet Brothers & the Fighters who did it with the most aplomb - and that convoluted name was certainly the best GS mouthful yet. It all came about when Toshiba's subsidiary Express Records signed two young mop-topped singers the Jet Brothers, but decided that the duo needed a fierce-looking backing group to pep up their image, at which point the Fighters were born. And how about the Free Lancers, who took both the look and the sound of Merseybeat into a strange almost Maoist retro-folk area with button-fronted serge land-army outfits, Salvation Army wide-eyed exuberance and Seeds-like 'Pushin' Too Hard' repeated choruses, all executed in a highly driven Beatlesesque acoustic yammer. In the 1966 movie Seishun A Go Go, the Free Lancers' wonderfully Japanglish-titled 'I Know You Love Nuts about Him' was performed by a drummer and six front men, three of whom were playing no instrument, and all this at a time when the guitar-slinging male was at its zenith as a sexual archetype. How free is that? In the same movie, big stars the Spiders were co-opted by Lulu-style singer Judy Onng as she howled out a vile big-band number 'Say Mama' like a Lena Zavaroni brat with a melting lollipop. By the end of said big show toon, Ms Onng's phizog was extended - mouth agape - across the whole cinema screen, leaving the Spiders themselves as anonymous as contenders for the Liberal Democrats' leadership. But the Spiders were, nevertheless, involved in the first of their many successful teen movies. And where the Spiders dared to tread, so the other GS bands were destined to follow...

Marianne & the Folk Rock Boom

As the Group Sounds scene became increasingly commercialised by huge management companies, many artists and musicians seeking a genuine alternative turned to playing folk music or folk rock. And so, throughout 1967-8, acoustic songs such as 'Just One More Time' by the Wild Ones, 'Memories of Bouquet' by the Darts, 'Lili' by the Route Five, 'When You Love Me' by the Black Stones and 'Kazeyo Kazeyo' by the Savage provided a genuine alternative soundtrack to the schlock served up by the Tigers and their ilk. Indeed, future Faces/Free bassist Tetsu Yamauchi began his career in the folk-rock band the Mikes, whose single 'Ramblin' Man' gained considerable attention. However, the real leaders of the folk rock boom were the dark and radicalised quartet the Jacks, whose black clothes, existentialist angst and refusal to kowtow even to the underground made them instant stars. Starting out in 1966 as the drummerless trio Nightingale, the Jacks were led by the ultra longhaired and perpetually be-Rayban'd singer Yoshio Hayakawa, whose surly interviews caused a sensation:

'We are not underground. That's just an idea created by the media. We became outsiders from the folk jamboree [as] we don't have the goal to be famous, so it's difficult for people to understand and define us... it's a dirty world, you gotta go in there yourself and find out.'

The Jacks' choice of jazz drummer Takasuke Kida gave their music an off-kilter sound, especially as they set the poems of singer Hayakawa and his girlfriend Yasuko Aizawa to music. The band went stellar after the 1968 release of their debut LP VACANT WORLD and its nihilistic single 'Marianne'. Written by Yasuko Aizawa, this was an incredible minor-key death dirge about the undead Marianne, who emerges from the stormy seas to seize the unsuspecting singer and drag him to his doom.

Feature Films of the GS Era

Teen movies had taken the post-war world by storm as early as 1956, when such fare as Blackboard Jungle and The Girl Can't Help It had captured the spirits of cinema-seat-slashing Teddy Boys. But not even the post-army Elvis movies had captured the Zeitgeist of its generation like Richard Lester's depiction of the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night and Help!. The Japanese, wi th their love of monster movies like Godzilla. Ghidorah, and (most especiallyl director Ishira Honda's Mothra trilogy. were well used to ludicrous themes that mixed the sublime with the ridiculous. The entire Japanese population appears to have embraced the female singing duo the Peanuts almost as mythical beings when the two had played the faerie guardians of the giant insect goddess Mothra. This Japanese acceptance of the entertainment industry as a mythical hinterland wherein almost any opposing ideas could meet head-on had made Yuzo Kayama's transition from film star to lead guitarist comparatively smooth. Indeed, his fans had not even complained when the erstwhile 'Young General' had combined both elements in the 1965 movie Eleki no Wakadaisho (The Young General's Electric Guitar). And so it was with a sense of inevitability that the biggest of the Group Sounds bands found themselves embarking on a movie career.

For the Spiders, their aforementioned guest appearance in Judy Onng's Seishun A Go Go had been an essential reminder that they were still the Godfathers of the scene. So when the similarly titled Wild Scheme A Go Go was sent to the Spiders in script form, the band jumped at the opportunity to be the first Japanese band to star in their own movie. That the plot and camera techniques plagiarised every Beatles'n'Monkees movie thus far invented was of no matter to the Spiders, who were seasoned enough to make any rip-off entirely their own . By '67, each of the seven members had his own personal fan club and occupied a place in the hearts of both teenage girls and boys, similar to Madness's role in the early '80s. Like Chas Smash and Suggsy, no amount of goofing around on Saturday morning TV shows, presenting prizes with old-timer celebrities or doing the occasional sappy ballad was going to convince their fans that they'd gone soft. And so long as singers Masaaki Sakai and Jun Inoue could be seen doing their James Brown-inspired 'Monkey Dance' up on the big screen, all was still right with the world. Moreover, even their film producers insisted that the wild Monks-like 'furi furi furi furi' garage chanting of 'O Monki De Odoro' (Let's Dance Monkey) be included in Wild Scheme A Go Go.

The movie was, however, a far bigger hit than any of the band had anticipated and immediately elevated them above the rest of the Group Sounds scene. There were, therefore, no surprises when the Spiders were offered a fake spy movie entitled Go Forward the following year. With their proto-Devo chant ('Are We Not Crazy Cats? No, We Are Spiders!') and stomping whooping self-referential rebel yell 'Here Come Spiders', the Spiders were in their element as sinister types engaged in airport briefcase mix-ups while dead guys fell out of guitar speaker cabs; the movie makers successfully followed 'The Way of Richard Lester' to the letter.

Feeling themselves being upstaged by the old guys, the Jaguars were the first to respond later in '68 with their movie Tekizen Youriko (Hey You, Go!). Again, the blueprint never veered off the Beatles map for a moment, but, with an evil Blofeld type manipulating the Underworld one minute, and guitarist Hisayuki Okitu soloing wildly whilst surrounded by suggestive models sucking, nay, giving head to ice lollies the next, no one was really complaining... except, of course, the Tigers, who prided themselves on being the biggest on the GS scene. Unfortunately for Julie'n'Sally'n'Co, however, disaster had struck in November 1967 when several fans had been injured in a stampede at a Tigers show. NHK-TV had thereafter pulled the group from all of their proposed television appearances as a sop to the parents' groups, teachers' unions and other authority figures who had long been questioning the acceptability of the Group Sounds scene. In short, the Tigers were temporarily used as scapegoats and, in honour-obsessed Japan, there were (and still are) protocols to be followed if a media figure falls from grace through some perceived indiscretion. Furthermore, the Tigers' mighty Watanabe Pro. management were determined - as Japan's industry standard - to be seen to have acted with utmost professionalism. In summer 1968, Watanabe cannily rushed their boys into filming their first full-length movie, a1Jowing the Tigers temporary respite from media overexposure. Watanabe then organised The Tigers' Charity Show, so that the band was seen to have publicly atoned for its somewhat ghostly wrongdoings.

So where were the Spiders? They were still working hard at it, in fact totally flat-out. Our leaders had managed a second movie for 1968, in the rather Bob Hope/Bing Crosby-titled Road to Bali, again featuring secret-agent men, plutonium-smuggling and atom bombs; then without even a break, the seven launched into the filming of their psychedelic flick Big Commotion, in which chaotic scenes full of groovy nude painted chicks, mod boutiques and ultra-disorientating rock sounds conflated together to create a generic overview of the period. In comparison to the Spiders' formidable output of this period, however, the Tigers' ill-named movie Sekai Wa Bokura O Matte Iru (The World Waits for Us) was just too little too late. And, by autumn '68, the Tigers' days at the top were slipping away as the Group Sounds era began slowly to unravel and fail.

The GS scene may have reached enormous numbers of teenagers inside Japan, but it had gained remarkably little success outside the islands. Even the Spiders had made no progress towards a successful Western career, despite having appeared on BBC-TV's top pop show Ready Steady Go! and having seen several of their 7" singles released in Britain, Australia, America, Brazil and the Netherlands. [6] Moreover, only in its death throes was the GS scene considered worthy of a real article in America's Rolling Stone magazine, finally appearing in the 1st March 1969 edition. [7] But for Western rock'n'roll fans engaged in necking vast quantities of psychedelics and, throughout 1968-69, participating in street and campus protests against racism, social injustices and the Vietnam War, Group Sounds was never going to be perceived as anything more than a charming anachronism at best.

Back home in Japan, the scene's movers and shakers had - in their attempts to define the GS phenomenon too rigidly - shut the door on anyone trying to break the mould. Groups offering Western-style heavy guitar music were not accepted into the GS camp, and these outfits - Helpful Soul, Apryl Fool, Powerhouse among them - all complained that they were being given no opportunities to play concerts. So whilst Western music had by this time already been through its folk-rock phase, its psychedelic phase and its heavy phase, the success of the Tigers, the Tempters and the Jaguars had given Japanese talent scouts such tunnel vision that their quest was only for Eurasian pretty-boy singers. These half-baked missions resulted in manufactured latecomers the Lead, three of whom were European, and the shamelessly named the Half Breed, a quintet comprised of three Japanese, one Hispanic and one European. Even the mighty Watanabe Pro. had gained only minimum headway when they'd attempted to change the GS formula in order to capitalise on the success of Procul Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' with Kuni Kawachi's organ-dominated Happenings Four. 'B... b... but where are the guitarists?' spluttered everyone. 'It just ain't Group Sounds!'

Mercifully, there was still one particularly straight-talking agent provocateur unwilling to toe the official GS line. In mid-1968, the ever belligerent Yuya Utchida had returned from his self-imposed exile in Britain, where he had bided his time experimenting with psychedelics and formulating a dramatic return to his homeland. All the while watching the rise of hard psychedelic rock via the Who, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Utchida was more determined than ever to create a Japanese outfit capable of such sonic outrage. Starting with the Beavers' disillusioned star guitarist Hideki Ishima, Utchida cherry-picked the best Group Sounds musicians he could find and named his new band the Flowers. Next, lap steel guitarist Katsuhiko Kobayashi was invited to join in order to capture the stratospheric tone of Glenn Ross Campbell, from John Peel's Californian protégés the Misunderstood, whom Utchida had seen perform several times at London's UFO club. Furthermore, inspired by Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, Utchida smashed the GS mould to smithereens by asking the beautiful female singer Remi Aso to front this wild new artrock ensemble, whom he assured his colleagues were also going to play Japanese-styled instrumentals of a kind never before experienced. The new ensemble made their debut performance at the end of '68, performing their instrumental 'Sohshiju' over the opening credits of the movie Ah Himeyuri-no-Tou, and the Flowers' live shows began soon after. With their debut LP, appropriately entitled CHALLENGE!, the Flowers blasted the GS scene out of its stasis in mid-1969. For the album not only contained hard versions of Big Brother, Cream and Jefferson Airplane songs, but also entirely re-wrote the rock'n'roll map by featuring all of the band members - Miss Aso included - naked in a cornfield.

The Death of Group Sounds, the Rise of Futen & the Coming of Hair

Inspired by the hippies of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, disaffected teenagers from across Japan had, from mid-1968 onwards, begun to congregate in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, around the Village Gate jazz club and two coffee shops, Ogi and the Go-Go-Café. And, just as acid guru Timothy Leary's mantra 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' had become a rallying cry for alienated Western youth, so Japan's runaways had lately become infatuated with the romantic dropout 'Futen' character, a crazy cartoon hobo whose restless lifestyle had first become popular in the April '67 edition of Com magazine, Like America's hippie cartoonist R. Crumb, the 'Futen' cartoon's creator Shinji Nagashima had become an underground hero in Japan, and teenagers had - in the past eighteen months - rushed out to buy each latest edition of Com in order to keep up with the exploits of their proto-slacker hero, whose every thought process was antagonistic to their parents' generation. [8] The archaic pop-idol values of Group Sounds were diminishing with every long-haired hippie who arrived on the streets of Tokyo's Shinjuku area, and the ultimate celebration of the new values arrived at the beginning of 1969 with the announcement that America's hippie 'Tribal Love Rock Musical' had been translated into Japanese for a forthcoming season in a major Tokyo theatre. Yes, Hair was about to hit Japan!

From our twenty-first-century vantage point, it's quite impossible to explain the levels of worldwide hostility and adulation that greeted Hair when it first appeared in the late '60s, or, moreover, the grand kudos that rockers and entertainers received from having appeared in it. To we moderns, the songs are dismally twee playground singalongs, the so-called choreography is anarchy, the nudity is obligatory, and the script and plot are as out of reach as heat haze on a summer road. For contemporary audiences brought up on Oliver', West Side Story and Porgy & Bess, however, it was precisely this lack of structure that held them all spellbound, From its small beginnings in a New York discothèque in October '67, Hair had - by the time it hit Japan - come by way of successful performances in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, thereafter crossing the Atlantic to stages in England, France, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands. So seriously was Hair taken by the rock business that many would use it as a springboard to major '70s careers, the London cast alone yielding Alex Harvey, Elaine Paige, Melba Moore and The Rocky Horror Picture Show's future stars Tim Curry and Richard O'Brien. The Sisyphus theatre ensemble that accompanied the London performances used their position to help launch a long international career as the progressive band Curved Air, as did their Amsterdam equivalent, who became Focus, best known for their international hit 'Hocus Pocus'. Furthermore, this controversial show was further validated for Middle England's Daily Mail readership when Queen Elizabeth's eighteen-year-old daughter Princess Anne joined the cast on stage at London's Shaftesbury Avenue. However, in Australia and New Zealand, even the LP itself was banned because of the song lyrics of 'Sodomy', 'Hashish' and 'Ain't Got No Grass', while the Mexican stage version in Acapulco was shut down by the authorities after just one performance, and its cast detained overnight then expelled from the city.

With Hair's reputation for shock and social upheaval already preceding it, both the Japanese authorities and the country's music business prepared for the storm. At Watanabe Pro. and all the other big management companies, the news of Hair's impending arrival was received with outright dismay, as umpteen musicians from the already haemorrhaging GS scene handed in their notice and immediately got in the queue to audition for parts in this uber-hip musical. Indeed, by the time auditions had begun, over 4,000 applicants had put forward their names to fill the places of the 28-strong cast. But while every GS musician dreamed of scoring a major role in Hair, when jazz drummer Akira Ishikawa was chosen as leader of the theatre band, it became immediately clear that the producers intended to rely on seasoned veterans. Ishikawa had been a successful career musician since the mid-'50s, releasing his own records in a variety of guises as well as under his own name. The Hair producers' intentions became even more clear when not only the brass section and rhythm section was taken from Japan's jazz scene, but so was rhythm guitarist Kiyoshi Sugimoto. However, Group Sounds was at least represented when Apryl Fool's organist Hiro Yanagida and Out Cast's lead guitarist Kimio Mizutani were invited into the ensemble. Furthermore, Tigers lead guitarist Katsumi 'Kato' Takahashi finally found his opportunity to step out of the shadows of Julie and Sally, when he was given the lead role of 'Claud'. That, however, was as far as the GS contingent was going to get in the upper echelons of Hair's cast. Still, the rest would be content to take parts in the so-called 'Boy Tribe', a male chorus that soon became populated with ex-Group Sounds stars. From the Carnabeats came bass player Paul Okada, from the Glories came singer Fumio Miyashita, from the Dimensions came lead guitarist Shi Yu Chen, from 491 came singer Akira 'Joe' Yamanaka, from Apryl Fool came singer 'Chu' Kosaka; each taking a severe drop in salary and social cachet, but all happy to have jumped off the drifting ship that the foundering GS scene had become. For Hair was Right Now, and, compared to their obsolete GS scene, now seemed like the future.

Footnotes: (go back)

  1. The Japanese promoters hired a special pink limousine to carry Brian Epstein, causing him enormous embarrassment as a gay man still in the closet and struggling to accept his own predicament in those homophobic times.
  2. The Japanese Drifters were a cross between the Baron Knights and Freddie & the Dreamers, seaside-resort/pantomime fare from the days when being a pop musician was seen only as a useful springboard into the world of popular entertainment. The Drifters were a quintet led by Jimmie Tokila's former bass player Choichi Ikariya, whose intentionally gormless expressions endeared him to TV audiences.
  3. The Edwards combined excellent fuzz-guitar riffs with Latin rhythms and minor chords, their Capitol Records 45 'Cry Cry Cry' coming on like American bands such as the E-Types and the Jaguars. But they also exhibited that horrible string-laden Spanish-galleon sound, all overblown weepy self-destruction that makes the Love Affair's 'Everlasting Love' sound Presbyterian.
  4. 491 was the kind of band no one would remember if not for the vocal presence of Akira 'Joe' Yamanaka, who later joined Flower Travellin' Band. This blue-suited quintet was a cringe-worthy proposition, their single for Seven Seas Records even induding a straight '50s-styled spoken-word bit ('You're a pretty girl, like a white little shell'), whilst bland weak-as-shit harmonies further undermined the song's ersatz provenance like a powdery film of coffee complement around the rim of an instant caffé latte.
  5. Tatsuya Ogino & the Bunnys' bizarre eleven-minute 'Lento Fantasy' aced even Zoo Nee Voo! Like some percipient prequel to Creedence Clearwater Revival's massively weird instrumental 'Rude Awakening', still some four years in the future, 'Lento Fantasy' was a hostile and atonal sea of guitars and sound FX that permeated an otherwise accommodating landscape of samba rhythms and Swingle Singers-by-the-sea, whilst generic Hammond organ was daubed arbitrarily over the entire track.
  6. The front cover of their EP 'The Spiders in Europe' may have featured seven delighted band members euphoric with the excitement of having gained approval in the culture that had first inspired them. But however much kudos it gave them back home, the Spiders' career in the West was a non-starter. Few other Group Sounds acts even received foreign single releases, Mickey Curtis's Samurais (Britain, Italy, Germany) and Jackey Yoshikawa's Blue Comets (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile) being the only two I know of. Stranger still, Takeshi Terauchi & the Bunnys had their album LET'S GO CLASSICS released in Germany! Perhaps its bizarre sleeve, which depicted the band as a kind of Wagnerian Boney M, swayed the Deutsche record company.
  7. However, even this Rolling Stone piece, entitled 'Rockin' in the Land of the Rising Sun' included the inanely patronising caption: 'Lock music is very popular... Like Rady Jane and Yerroh Submaline... But Japanese people cannot pronounce Lock'n'Lorr, so we call it Group Sounds'.
  8. Japanese dictionaries formerly described the Futen as a crazy man with neither home nor family ties. However, through the upheavals of the late '60s, the dictionary nowadays offers this far wider definition: 'someone who runs away, has no fixed job, sometimes unusual (sometimes provocative) garb, which can be frowned upon. Futens tend to hang around the Shinjuku area, sometimes called Shinjuku Beggars. But some among them are dropouts from Tokyo University, even company managing directors who have left their homes after experiencing self-doubt, all sorts of people'.