Monthly Archives: June 2017

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 by comparison.

As part of the BBC’s Japan Season, Storyville presents the documentary Tokyo Girls, a film by Kyoko Miyake, which explores the phenomenon of idol groups, who have come to dominate J-Pop, through the eyes of Rio, an aspiring performer, and her devoted fans, who call themselves Rio Brothers.

Rio’s fans are, in the main, adult men, some in their mid-40s, and they call themselves otaku, a word used to describe someone with an obsession with an item of popular culture that is so great it can detract from their abilities to socially interact, ie. an equivalent to nerd or geek. Otaku display the same passion and devotion as any teenage Justin Bieber addict, and in some cases are prepared to give up their careers and devote all their savings to following their favourite performer.

This isn’t an isolated situation. While J-Pop remains hugely popular in Japanese culture, idol fans are an entirely different social demographic than pop fans in Britain. More male than female, and older too. So while some Japanese music fans of a certain age might spend their time painstakingly recreating the music of Radiohead, others are bent over the craft table, making immaculate glittery gifts for their pop idols.

In the main, idol singers are presented as fantasy versions of perky schoolgirls, full of pep and vim, and entirely innocent about adult matters. Even Babymetal, a band who apply J-Pop sensibilities to heavy metal, sing far more about chocolate and dancing than they do about Satan or sex.

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 gamelan tonebars, adding remote control for good measure. British percussionist Matt Nolan and Icelandic organ craftsman Björgvin Tómasson were commissioned to build the hybrid instrument, which they managed to do in a very intense week-and-a-half. You can hear the bewitching results on the track Crystalline, below. The gameleste isn’t the only instrument Björk invented for her Biophilia tour; she also created a visual synthesiser, a pendulum harp and a crystal trombone. OK, we made that last one up. But maybe next time, Björk?

In the days before sampling, 10cc’s quest to cheaply reproduce the sound of an orchestral string section led them to invent the Gizmotron – a device that clamped across the strings of an electric guitar, its small motor-driven plastic wheels providing a hypnotic sustain effect. 10cc used the Gizmotron widely on 1974’s Sheet Music and its two subsequent albums. Drunk on possibility, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme then quit the band to develop the instrument, showcasing its charms on their 1977 triple album Consequences. Mass production commenced, yet despite further exposure on albums by Wings and Led Zeppelin, the Gizmotron proved unreliable and ended up bankrupting its manufacturer, Musitronics. Luckily, there’s a happy ending – in 2013, a new team of engineers took up the concept and you can now buy your very own Gizmotron 2.0 for $289.99.

This incredible mutant guitar looks like a photoshop creation but we can assure you that jazz virtuoso Pat Metheny has been witnessed playing the Pikasso at many of his concerts since the mid-80s. The four-necked, 42-stringed beast was invented by Metheny in conjunction with Canadian luthier Linda Manzer and was named the Pikasso because, well, you can see why. It took two years to build and includes a ‘hexaphonic pickup’, allowing Metheny to trigger samples as he plays. More recently, Metheny has unveiled his Orchestrion – a whole ensemble of custom-built, self-playing instruments that serve as his backing band. Which is one way to get the tour bus to yourself.

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 with Liam, it was no surprise to anyone when McCarroll was sacked in April 1995. “I like Tony as a geezer but he wouldn’t have been able to drum the new songs,” said Noel, referring to Oasis’s notoriously complex rhythm tracks.

Having sued Oasis for unpaid royalties, McCarroll took further revenge on Noel in his 2010 autobiography, Oasis: The Truth, although his allegation that the Oasis songwriter regularly echoed melodies from other sources was hardly a revelation. These days – minus the hair – McCarroll is still drumming, and, according to The Mirror, was primed to take part in an Oasis reunion for the One Love Manchester concert, until Noel nixed the idea. McCarroll was also recently immortalised as a garden gnome, as the Manchester Evening News reported.

When Kim Deal quit the reformed Pixies in summer 2013, former Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck was drafted in as her replacement. All seemed to be going well until Shattuck was unexpectedly relieved of her duties less than six months later. No reason was given, but the bassist speculated to NME that an over-enthusiastic stagedive may have sealed her fate. “When I got offstage the manager told me not to do that again. I said, ‘Really, for my own safety?’ And he said, ‘No, because the Pixies don’t do that.'”

Shattuck wasted no time in reforming The Muffs. Their sixth album Whoop Dee Doo was released in 2014 and they’ve just completed a South American tour.

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, reaching 12th and 9th place respectively.

A former member of Popol Vuh (not the Werner Herzog-collaborating krautrock legends from Germany, but a Norwegian band named after the same ancient Mayan mythical text), Teigen is also a comedian, specialising in spoof songs (including a parody version of Mil etter Mil in Russian) and has starred as an executioner in the 1992 London run of Norwegian rock-opera musical Which Witch, noted to be “the most heavily panned London stage musical in a generation” by the Telegraph.

Nora Nova (Germany, 1964)

Ahinora Kumanova’s father was an official to Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, and after the country’s communist coup in 1944, her family became persona non grata, with some of her relatives put to death or sent to labour camps. In 1959, at the age of 31, Kumanova escaped Bulgaria by a marriage of convenience to a West German. Five years later, she represented Germany at Eurovision as Nora Nova, with the mischievous oompah-pop of Man Gewöhnt Sich So Schnell an Das Schöne (How Quickly We Get Used to Nice Things). It retains the title for longest, er, title at Eurovision, but that was all it won.

In 1989, the Iron Curtain fell, and Nora Nova returned to Bulgaria, opening up a fashion boutique in Sofia. A more bizarre turn was to come: in 2001 she helped to found the National Movement for Stability and Progress, a political party aimed at the restoration of the tsarist monarchy, in the form of Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who ruled as a minor from 1943-46. The party has subsequently dropped out of Bulgarian politics.

Daniel (Iceland, 1989)

“Though the road seems clear there are things the eye can’t see,” went the lyrics of Það Sem Enginn Sér (What No One Sees), Iceland’s nul-points scoring entry in the 1989 contest. No truer words, and although you’d think that such a crushing defeat would be enough to put a 20-year-old off music for good, Daníel Ágúst went on to front internationally successful band GusGus, whom 90s indie kids may remember from such cuts as Polyesterday. They released their latest album, Mexico, in 2014.