Reviews / June 13, 2017
GRASSO: Tatsuro Yamashita‘s For You LP (listen here) was released in Japan in early 1982. Yamashita was at the forefront of a new wave of Japanese musicians influenced by the slick, smooth fusion of rock, jazz, and funk that was topping the charts in the US in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Yamashita entered the ’80s having broken away from his group Sugar Babe, achieving success with his 1980 solo album Ride on Time. For You is an astonishingly cohesive sampler of all kinds of pop idioms: smooth jazz, doo-wop, and even pop vocal balladry, all backed with the rock-solid studio magic of Yamashita’s band of experienced session musicians.
TOYOSHIMA: Yamashita is one of the most famous musicians from the City Pop genre, an eclectic blend of rock, funk, jazz, and disco that was omnipresent in 1980s Japan. To me, listening to City Pop evokes feelings of speeding down a Tokyo freeway on a sunny day or dancing in a neon-lit disco somewhere in Shibuya. Though I only started looking closely at this genre after falling in love with the Yacht Rock web series and music genre, City Pop is a sound I remember well from watching anime, TV shows, and commercials from that time.
The 1980s were a good time for Japan, so it’s no surprise that the music of the time reflected that. Contrasted with the melancholy Enka Ballads of the postwar generation, their children were listening to a sound that was bright, funky, and heavily inspired by Western pop. This was perfectly suited to a new generation of young urban professionals who migrated from rural Japan to the cities to take advantage of job and education opportunities in the booming economy. The recent development of portable car stereos and the Sony Walkman (debuted in Japan in 1979) made it possible for them to take music anywhere.
GRASSO: Speaking of the American influence, I find myself lost in the design details of the magnificent album cover by Eizin Suzuki and the album’s overall art direction by Hiroshi Takahara. It immediately gives you an American West Coast vibe: palm trees and a seaside, white, stucco-sided California radio shop storefront festooned with signage. The rooftop signage also suggests both Googie architecture and 1950s gas stations. The circles and other geometric shapes found all over the front and back cover simultaneously suggest motion and the sun-dappled environment, and prefigure the later, more widespread ’80s and ’90s design trend of random geometric shapes and zigzags.
This music definitely makes you want to roll down the windows and drive around town! I also discovered City Pop through its “West Coast” cousin, Yacht Rock, and originally found For You through the use of “Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)” on the vaporwave/future funk remix artist Saint Pepsi’s track “Skylar Spence” (2013). Saint Pepsi’s sonically-warped, sped-up remix turns the mid-tempo dance tune into something close to Hi-NRG.
This really helps illustrate the diversity of tracks on For You. “Love Talkin’,” “Music Book,” and lead track “Sparkle” hit that bouncy West Coast vibe square on, but then you have “Futari,” which is a laid-back R&B/jazz ballad, and the low-down, slap-bass funk of “Hey Reporter.” And the a capella/doo-wop interludes on For You are just brilliant, tiny 5 to 10 second respites of harmonizing between tracks that get me thinking of any number of doo-wop-inflected West Coast tunes from the period like “Whenever I Call You Friend” by Kenny Loggins with Stevie Nicks (1978).
TOYOSHIMA: Thinking back to growing up in Los Angeles, there was a lot of Eizin Suzuki’s art hung up in the shops and offices around the Little Tokyo Japanese-American district in downtown. His illustrations of vintage convertible cars, yachts docked in marinas and postwar American roadside shops captures the feeling of openness and freedom that America represented to many Japanese people.
I’m really amazed by the range of songs that Yamashita is presenting here. The saxophone solos, heavy basslines, and orchestral disco flourishes definitely give these a different sound from the West Coast/Yacht Rock genre but the smoothness is definitely there. “Sparkle” makes a fantastic first impression for the album, with a great build and strong brass carrying you along to the amazing sax solo. The “Doobie Bounce” is alive and well on the second track, “Music Book,” with rolling drums and electric piano. “Futari” (“Two People”) is a classy love ballad that you’d imagine being played during a slow dance at an Osaka disco back in the day. This leads in to “Loveland, Island,” which begins with the harp flourish from Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights.” One thing that really surprised me was “Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You),” which really does feel like it could have come out as part of the recent funk-disco revival. “Hey Reporter” hits you with a fun bassline that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 1980s Peter Gabriel song, and Yamashita’s vocals on “Your Eyes” reminded me a lot of one of Paul McCartney’s Wings-era love songs.
The bonus track on the 2002 For You re-issue is “Amaku Kiken na Kaori,” or “Sweet Dangerous Scent,” that was the theme song to a popular ’80s drama series of the same name. The single charted at number 12 in the Oricon (the Japanese music charts, named after a combination of the company’s name: “Original Confidence”), and there are a lot of modern covers of the song including a chiptune version sung by a Vocaloid voice synthesizer program.
GRASSO: And “Your Eyes” gives us another West Coast smooth music connection: American lyricist Alan O’Day, who wrote songs for the Righteous Brothers and Helen Reddy in the early part of the decade, wrote the English lyrics to “Your Eyes.” He then put out a couple of solo albums in the late ’70s and worked with Christopher Cross‘s producer Michael Omartian.
So, what’s the relevance and appeal of For You and Yamashita today? As we mentioned earlier, in the early 2010s, plunderphonic DJs and internet remixers went deep into the stacks of ’70s and ’80s smooth pop, and especially Japanese pop, to create the musical genre vaporwave. A lot of jokes are made about the so-called “A E S T H E T I C” of vaporwave (this meme itself is a reference to full width computer fonts for Roman characters used in Asia). But the millennial DJs who created vaporwave and future funk were conducting a sincere exploration (and sometimes an ironic inversion) of the sunny consumer optimism contained in both the music and art of this City Pop genre.
That’s one of the most fascinating parts of this American rock and roll to City Pop to vaporwave trajectory: it’s a story of two cultures telling the same story back and forth to each other. (I’m especially reminded of the British invasion of the early 1960s, where hardscrabble postwar British youths re–introduced the original rebellious spirit of rock and roll back to America in a period where American popular music had fallen back into mawkish ballads.) The very early ’80s were not the most economically optimistic time in America, but in Japan, the boom you mentioned was bubbling under the surface. These City Pop artists preserved a certain kind of postwar American positivity. And in the 2010s, as prosperity began to slip away from a new generation of young people in the West, these songs suddenly became ripe for détournement in the hands of vaporwave artists.
TOYOSHIMA: I love the comparison to the British Invasion. One earlier example of this cross-Pacific musical exchange is Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” (released in Japan in 1961, re-released in the West in 1963). Originally titled “Ue wo muite arukou,” or “I look up when I walk.” This song’s heartfelt vocals struck a chord with an American audience who couldn’t understand the Japanese lyrics! Sakamoto was himself influenced by American postwar rock and roll, with one of his earlier hits being a cover of Elvis’s “G.I. Blues.” This was part of a wave of Japanese covers of Western pop that eventually launched a homegrown rock scene in the ’60s and ’70s.
So I’m happy to see this tradition of affectionate cultural adoption has continued with vaporwave and future funk. Much like Yacht Rock, a new generation of musicians and fans is falling in love with an obscure genre of music and remixing it for a wholly different era.
If you’re interested in checking out some of the new songs based on tracks from For You, a helpful YouTube commenter pointed towards these: