The Japanese pop scene can be baffling

At first glance, the Japanese pop scene can be baffling. The music is super-sweet and hyperdynamic, an offshoot of Japan’s kawaii culture of cuteness and a literal world away from earnest singers with guitars or scathing rappers with laid-back beats. While there are solo stars and boybands, just as in western pop, there’s a particular cultural excitement around girl groups.

These can be relatively small troupes like Perfume or Momoiro Clover Z, or bands who have so many singers they run the risk of outnumbering their audiences, such as AKB48, who can boast 130 singers on their payroll and are not only Japan’s biggest selling group, but the world’s largest pop troupe.

As East Asian culture has traditionally valued teamwork and harmony above individualism (see How East and West think in profoundly different ways), so groups and collectives have tended to be more popular in Japan than solo artists. In the case of AKB48, competition to join the band is not only fierce, it’s televised, in a tense spectacle that makes The X Factor look calm and sedate

There comes a time in every forward-thinking musician’s journey

There comes a time in every forward-thinking musician’s journey when it seems the possibilities of traditional instruments have been exhausted, every string already plucked, every chord already strummed. Computers and samplers are one contemporary solution to composer’s block, but they don’t provide quite the same satisfaction as being able to hit, blow or caress a physical object in order to create a pleasing noise. For some, the only solution has been to invent their own instrument.

Here are eight examples of when musicians ditched the guitar, bass and drums for something more outlandish of their own creation. Most of these bespoke instruments led to some pretty interesting music… even if you’re unlikely to see any of them being played at your local open-mic night any time soon.

Icelandic innovator Björk has a history of using strange or bespoke instruments and incorporating them into her digital world. Having used a celeste – a kind of small, spectral piano – to great effect on 2001’s Vespertine, Björk decided that for her multimedia Biophilia project, she wanted to cross-breed it with Balinese

Most groups appear to burst into the limelight fully-formed

Most groups appear to burst into the limelight fully-formed, but in reality there’s usually been plenty of chopping and chiselling to get to that point. Often there’s a Pete Best figure, elbowed out of the picture just before fame came knocking because their face didn’t fit. Or perhaps they couldn’t keep up, or they kept getting “tired and emotional” on tour. And when success does come, it can sometimes be divisive, leading to further sudden personnel changes. The official press release may say “mutual consent” but the look on everyone’s face suggests summary dismissal.

So what happened to those unfortunate musicians left clutching their P45s as their former bandmates marched on to glory? Here are the stories of seven high-profile rock firings, and what the recipients did next.

 Oasis’s original curly-haired drummer played on Definitely Maybe but once the band became megastars, his relationship with the Gallagher brothers deteriorated. Noel repeatedly derided McCarroll’s musical chops in public and would pretend to forget his name in interviews; amid rumours of a punch-up

The two-word doom most feared by every Eurovision

The two-word doom most feared by every Eurovision hopeful flashing their molars to the back rows and carrying the weight of their country’s pride on their shimmying shoulders. But no points doesn’t have to mean no future, as our list of just a selection of zero-to-hero nul-points survivors shows (there have been many others).

Some went on to bigger and better things, some just to weirder things, but do you know what? They all went on. And that’s an uplifting message to match any in the power ballads you’ll hear at this year’s competition.

Jahn Teigen (Norway, 1978)

“It’s a strange thing,” said Jahn Teigen when interviewed in 1980 by Arena, above. “I got no points and since then I had a lot of success.”

In a stunning display of 70s brand management, Norway’s 1978 contestant managed to spin his abject failure with the inoffensively naff song Mil etter Mil (Mile by Mile) into a triumph. His loyal countrymen kept the song at the top of the Norwegian charts for four months, and Tiegen capitalised on the sympathy, calling his subsequent album This Year’s Loser. Teigen then returned to Eurovision in 1982 and 1983,

Inspiration is fleeting

Inspiration is fleeting – it’s up to the songwriter to bottle that lightning as fast as they possibly can, before the phone rings and half of the golden chorus they’ve just imagined falls out of their heads forever. But some songs are so quick to write, their essence – whittling and polishing aside – was captured in only slightly more time than it takes to play them from start to finish.

Here are some of the most speedily captured flashes of inspiration in musical history.

Ray Charles – What’d I Say

The subtext with each of these songs is that while it may have taken just a few minutes to write the song, there’s a lifetime of preparation behind that moment of inspiration. No one exemplifies this better than Ray Charles. At a 1958 gig in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, he found himself 12 minutes short of material, and with an expectant audience waiting to dance. Turning to the Wurlitzer electric piano he brought with him (because he hated relying on venues to provide a decent piano to play), he pounded out an

Time to get excited, folks Glastonbury with it the chance to see of new music

Time to get excited, folks, Glastonbury looms and with it the chance to see a whole load of new music. There will be bands on their first run round the festival circuit and also a few artists you might think have played Glastonbury before but haven’t. Here’s our pick of six who have taken many years to make the journey to Worthy Farm and are more than worth the wait…

Katy Perry

Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran are headlining, all of whom have played before (the first two going all the way back to the 90s). In many ways, though, the big announcement this year was that Katy Perry was joining the bill. It’s a great booking – Katy loves it here in the UK, and she’s emblematic of quite how musically broad Glastonbury’s lineup has become in recent years. Before Glastonbury, though, be sure to check Katy’s set at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull, 27-28 May.

Shaggy

NME have truly nailed their colours to the mast on this booking, saying in March: Sorry Ed, Shaggy’s going to

Music pioneers who just missed out on the big time

The history of popular music is littered with examples of trailblazers who, for whatever reason – poor luck, bad deals, being ahead of their time – didn’t get the props they deserved. Sometimes, time catches up with them and at the heart of Arena’s excellent new documentary series American Epic are scores of songwriters whose influence on the course of music in the US and beyond is finally coming into focus.

This list looks at three featured in the series, alongside four others, and we’re just scratching the surface. Who do you think has been overlooked by music history? We’d love to hear your views on Twitter.

Will Shade

Part 1 of American Epic tells the story of how record companies travelled the American south in the 1920s recording the music of ordinary working people. “It was the first time America heard itself,” narrator Robert Redford says, before giving over the second half of the episode to Will Shade, driving force behind the Memphis Jug Band.

Groups like the Memphis Jug Band were too poor to afford instruments, so they made do with what they

Even by The Beatles’ lofty standards, and evocative of a particularly giddy moment in pop music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a remarkable album, even by The Beatles’ lofty standards, and evocative of a particularly giddy moment in pop music. But the startling mix of psychedelic whimsy, music hall pastiche, Indian classical music and conceptual art didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was it the sole interesting thing to have happened at that moment. Far from it, in fact.

This, then, is a snapshot of the world Sgt. Pepper entered, a look at other cultural events that were also going on during 1 June 1967, on the TV, on the radio, in literature and in sport. So, to put the album back in its rightful context on the family Dansette, crack open a bottle of Corona cherryade, grab a slice of Black Forest gateaux and dive in.

TV was very different in 1967. There were only three channels, most television sets were black and white, and programming was not 24 hours a day. But some things remain constant, like a nice chat show in the vein of Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross. Simon Dee was the host of Dee Time, and in the early evening of 1 June, he played

Show stopping moments from Series 50 of Later … with Jools Holland

Back in October 1992, a new music show crept on to the schedules. In contrast to the hectic, yoof-oriented pop TV of the day, its emphasis was on stripped-back performances that let the music do the talking. Twenty-five years and 50 series on, Later… with Jools Holland is still going strong and providing a much-needed fix of live music on TV.

There was some nice continuity in the seventh episode of the current run, which featured the return of Malian singer Oumou Sangaré – a guest on the first ever series. Naturally, Jools also welcomed back a number of old favourites, including Paul Weller and Goldfrapp. And there was also room for a host of exciting artists making their Later debuts, including three on our list of standout performances from the anniversary series.

With Shape of You still riding high at the top of the singles charts, Ed Sheeran appeared on the second episode of the series and unveiled the song’s stripped-back live version. Using his famous loop pedal to create all the parts himself, the song’s remarkable simplicity is laid bare – but like a good magic trick, it doesn’t lose any of its wonder

Ariana Grande took to the stage for a solo encore and sang a highly emotional version of Over the Rainbow.

At the very end of Sunday’s One Love Manchester concert, after the big celebrity singalong, Ariana Grande took to the stage for a solo encore and sang a highly emotional version of Over the Rainbow. It was the perfect song for the moment – a song well known to everyone watching, one that speaks to young and old alike, always bringing with it a universe of hope and optimism against a backdrop of yearning. And at that moment, in front of those fans, it reduced both Ariana and her audience (in Old Trafford and watching at home) to tears.

It’s not the first time that this Oscar-winning song has offered hope and consolation to people in extreme circumstances. From the moment it was written, for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Over the Rainbow took on a significance greater than the moment it was intended to soundtrack. And that’s partly because the duo who wrote it – composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg – had known some fairly hard times themselves.

Yarburg in particular had been born poor in New York, the son of

Quirkiest world records held by British musicians

This year’s BBC Music Day (Thursday 15 June) is about the power of music, and included among the many events taking place are attempts to break music records. In Bradford, 800 children will gather in the City Park to try and beat the current world record for Bamboo Tamboo (a form of music created by hitting a bamboo stick on the ground, which originates from the carnival traditions of the Caribbean). And in Portsmouth, over a thousand children will join together at the city’s Guildhall Square, with the aim of breaking the world record for the world’s largest djembe drumming ensemble.

To provide some inspiration for those taking part, here’s a list of some of the UK’s quirkiest musical record-holders, from artists playing underwater or in freezing temperatures, to being broadcast in space or coming up with the longest album title ever. A record-breaking drum roll, please…

Katie Melua performs in the bottom of one of the four shafts of the Statoil Troll A Platform gas rig in the North Sea

Singer-songwriter

40 photos that prove the 80s were the best decade

Set your calculator watches for 1980 and join us on a trip deep into the BBC’s picture archives – the realms of Top of the Pops, Saturday Superstore and many a striking photoshoot.

This was the era of voguish shoulderpads, voluminous hairstyles and smouldering stares, all heralding a daring new streak of ostentation. For the fans, it was a gift of dress-up glamour that brought escape from the humdrum. Embracing the rapid rise of a new electronic era, it played with the concept of the high gloss, semi-synthetic human.

Those who rode the crest of the New Wave, glittered in the discotheques or found love with the New Romantics – we salute you.

Kelly Marie

Spandex – check. Lipgloss – check. Here’s Scottish singer Kelly Marie, who scored a No.1 hit in 1980 with disco track Feels Like I’m In Love. Hear it on Sara Cox’s Sounds of the 80s playlist.

Toto Coelo

Kaleidoscopic quintet Toto Coelo savaged the charts in 1982 with I Eat Cannibals, a love-hungry number

Glastonbury has been graced with extraordinary headline slots from the start, but who was the best?

Glastonbury has been graced with extraordinary headline slots from the start, but who was the best? One of the legendary sets from the Britpop era? That moment when hip hop stole the headlines? Something from way in the past?

Here’s a selection of great sets for your consideration, from T. Rex and a Cadillac, through to Suzanne Vega in a bulletproof vest, Beyoncé with an unexpected guest, and up to a fantastically profane Adele just last year.

And now, just for fun, it’s over to you to rank these 11 performances and come up with the ultimate answer (until, of course, Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran make us re-think this all again)…

Michael Eavis has described this watershed moment in the band’s career as the best Glastonbury performance ever and, well, he’s seen a few headliners play. There’s also the fact that readers of Q Magazine once voted this their best concert of all time (though that was back in 2006, so maybe they’ve seen a better one since then; you’ll have to ask a Q reader). The set came just a fortnight after Radiohead released OK Computer, and the band played

Of the most heartwarming letters written by musicians

We may not send nearly as many letters as we used to, but we remain fascinated by them as historical documents and because they provide insight into the private worlds of people we admire. And while email and other forms of instant digital communication might have made the purpose of a letter in its simplest form redundant, it’s online that we’re now able to investigate many centuries of letter writing.

Here are six sent by musicians that have come to light in recent years…

A 1994 love letter written by country superstar Johnny Cash to his wife June Carter Cash on her 65th birthday made headlines around Valentine’s Day in 2015 when it was voted the greatest love letter of all time in an admittedly rather spurious online poll commissioned as a marketing exercise by an insurance company. But that doesn’t take away from how wonderful the letter is.

Sent from Denmark, the letter begins “Happy birthday Princess”, before Johnny writes: “We get old and get used to each other. We think alike. We read each others minds. We know what the other wants without

One of the hot topics in the toilet queue at Glastonbury

One of the hot topics in the toilet queue at Glastonbury is always: who should headline the next one? But as anyone who’s ever been will tell you, Glastonbury isn’t all about the headliners. The wealth of entertainment on offer at Worthy Farmmeans that the organisers have always been fairly relaxed about exactly who is topping the bill. In the early days in particular, a highly personal approach to booking bands led to some memorably eccentric line-ups that defied contemporary pop trends.

Looking back at old Glastonbury posters also reveals a number of headline bands whose star has since waned, but who were undoubtedly big at the time, particularly with a festival-going audience. Here are 12 of the unlikeliest Glastonbury headliners from years gone by – and by headliners, we mean any act who closed out a night on the main/Pyramid Stage or received top billing on the official poster.

When reminiscing about the glory days of Britpop, Northern Irish pop-punk outfit Ash are rarely one of the first bands mentioned. But a string of hit singles in the mid-90s earned them an Other Stage headline slot on the Friday. Then, when Steve Winwood was forced

Pop history is littered with examples of artists who have wasted money

Pop history is littered with examples of artists who’ve squandered their cash on wacky ventures, like when Rita Ora put thousands towards a cup that enables women to wee standing up (“That is one of my worst investments,” MTVreported her saying) or The KLF burning a million in cash (“Of course I regret it – who wouldn’t!” the group’s Bill Drummond later said).

As news reaches us of yet another pop star frittering away their fortune – last week, the Telegraph reported that Mel B had “wiped out all her Spice Girls money” thanks to a series of “improvident lifestyle choices” – here are seven other tales of woe, beginning with the grand tale of The Haçienda, the Manchester club that New Order helped run at a tremendous loss for 15 years and that closed down 20 years ago.

Manchester rave mecca The Haçienda was a club that had windows and no cloakroom. As part of a consortium that included their label, Factory Records, and its boss Tony Wilson, New Order opened the venue in 1982, having poured around £3m (in today’s money) into creating a space

The prospect of having an artefact around the house that’s worth a

The prospect of having an artefact around the house that’s worth a mint is a tantalising thought. And if you’re sure you don’t have a painting by a great master or half a dozen Fabergé eggs, perhaps you ought to have a rifle through your collection of pop culture memorabilia. These eight people did, and when they brought their findings to Antiques Roadshow, they delighted the show’s experts…

1. Stowe School’s Beatles collection

This is quite a story – in 1963, a pupil at Stowe invited The Beatles to play at the boarding school, and they agreed. The entire paper trail of booking the band has been preserved, as the current headmaster explains to Paul Atterbury. The heads of the groups were made by sculptor David Wynne, a former pupil. And the value of the entire lot? Wow.

2. Vintage Clash t-shirts

Now, you wouldn’t necessarily think that band t-shirts bought at a gig more than 30 years ago would be worth much today, but if that band is The Clash and you’re a Glaswegian fan who’s kept a pair in great condition, you might be in for a surprise. Expert Hilary Kay says

One record label arguably shaped and reflected British life more

In the 70s and 80s, one record label arguably shaped and reflected British life more than any other – BBC Records & Tapes. It was the type of label that released an album of sound effects called Death & Horror (sample tracks: Neck Twisted and Broken; Red Hot Poker Into Eye) as well as keep-fit music for new mothers, like Diana Moran’s Get Fit with the Green Goddess (sample tracks: Boobs, Chest and Underarms – I Heard It Through the Grapevine; Back and Legs – Who Pays the Ferryman?). It scored big with Top 10 singles (including Nick Berry’s No.1, Every Loser Wins in 1986), but also had a thing for puppet ducks (Orville and Edd the Duck both released songs on the label). And it was equally praised and moaned about in the national press.

Then, sometime in 1991, it suddenly closed up shop, pulled down its shutters and disappeared from history. Some of its releases have become cult classics, most have been lost to time, as has its story. Until now.

Bizarrely diverse

“It put out the most bizarrely diverse set of records I’ve ever seen,” says Tim Worthington, author of Top of

Very few acts have a decent answer beyond “we just liked it”

Asking a band why they gave themselves the name they have has to be the single most obvious question in pop. Very few acts have a decent answer beyond “we just liked it”, and certainly no one has managed to reach the gold standard set by The Beatles, whose common response was something along the lines of: “I had a vision when I was 12. And I saw a man on a flaming pie, and he said, ‘You are The Beatles with an A.’ And so we are.”

The fact that it’s just a pun on both Buddy Holly’s Crickets and beat music was felt to be too obvious to comment upon. So, to save at least 10 bands and further interview awkwardness (and unnecessary storytelling), here are the less vivid, and more humdrum accounts of how they got their names.

1. The Jam

Popular culture has found a few uses for the word ‘jam’ that could have been invoked in the naming of Paul Weller’s first band. It’s a term for improvising music, it denotes things which are stuck or crushed together, there’s a thrillingly urban traffic connotation that echoes The Clash naming themselves

The stories behind Jazz Funk Greats

Album titles are often a signpost offering directions to the music within. Sometimes they suggest what the songs sound like, sometimes they’re a statement of a theme; a clue as to why the album was written. But sometimes albums are given titles that appear to be deliberately trying to mess with people’s expectations.

This can be for mischievous reasons – such as Paul McCartney’s 2012 album Kisses on the Bottom – or an attempt to remain coy and open to misinterpretation by listeners (especially in the field of live recordings). And some, as in our first example below, are just plain shifty.

With the driest of wits, industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle titled their third album 20 Jazz Funk Greats partly out of scorn for people who might like an album with that title, and partly because their music had started to incorporate elements that could loosely be termed either jazz or funk. Even the cover was deliberately misleading, as Cosey Fanni Tutti explained to Music Academy: “It was a pastiche of something you would find in a Woolworth’s bargain bin. We took the photograph at the most famous suicide spot in England, called Beachy Head. So,