JULIAN COPE, Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds On Rock’n’Roll
Observer Music Monthly, August 12th 2007
by Simon Reynolds
Twelve years ago Julian Cope published his celebrated celebration of 1970s German cosmic rock. Passionate, pithy, and portable, Krautrocksampler was wittily styled as a pocket-sized field guide along the lines of the Observer Books of Birds. It quickly became a cult item and was widely credited for kick-starting the Nineties boom of interest in Krautrock (something of an over-estimation, given that groups like Stereolab had long been citing Neu! et al). Now here comes Copey with a sort-of-sequel, this time exploring and exalting the even more esoteric world of Japanese freak rock.
Krautrocksampler and Japrocksampler are decidedly different, however. Although it contained lots of little-known information, the earlier book didn’t belabor the back story but focused on Cope’s rabid enthusiasm for the music, His ultra-vivid and hilariously over-the-top descriptions of a legion of German post-psychedelic records suggested that this prolific musician (he’s just released his umpteenth solo album, You Gotta Problem With Me) might have missed his true vocation as a Lester Bangs-style advocate. Japrocksampler is a far more substantial work, for better and for worse. It’s a heavier book (more than twice the page count of Krautrocksampler) and heavier-going too. Especially early on, there’s a self-conscious air of scholarship. Context-setting is just dandy, but was it really necessary to start with the 1853 arrival of US vessels on Japanese shores, thereby ending centuries of cultural isolationism? (The Krautrocksampler equivalent would be kicking off with the Franco-Prussian War!).
Was Cope maybe piqued into overcompensation by that smatter of niggardly experts who complained that Krautrocksampler wasn’t comprehensive or authoritative enough? Or did he just develop a taste for research while working on his highly-regarded “stone circle” histories The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European? Either way, a certain windy ponderousness of phrase and tone creeps into the prose now and then, suggestive less of long hair and loon pants than of donnish tweed and leather-patched-elbows. In the introduction, the word “study” crops up repeatedly, including the assertion that a “detailed study of this book will have you rethinking your attitudes to music, art, time… indeed life itself”. Presumptuous, moi?
Fortunately, the story itself is sufficiently fascinating and untold to keep the reader gripped. Japrocksampler divides into two parts. The first, really a prequel to the book proper, deals with the 1960s, with chapters examining Japanese experimental music (a scene hugely impacted by musique concrete, with Yoko Ono and her erstwhile composer-hubby Toshi Ichiyanagi prominent among the cast of characters), the “Eleki” craze for Shadows-style twangy instrumental rock, and the “Group Sounds” movement (suit-wearing Japbands modeled on the British Beat boom). Part Two plunges us into the era of freaks, a.k.a. futen, with chapters on Flower Travellin’ Band, Taj Mahal Travelers, and Speed, Glue & Shinki, among others. All have become prized by Western record collector fiends this last decade, especially now the Kraut kosmiche seam has been mined beyond exhaustion.
Les Rallizes Denudes are the biggest cults of the lot, and my inner cynic can’t help wondering if that’s because they never made a studio album (an abortive attempt saw leader/guitarist Takeshi Mizutani mortified by his feeble vocals) but instead left an endless spoor of live bootlegs (hard-to-find being a huge turn-on for the collector scum community). Paralleling the way Amon Duul were involved in Germany’s commune-dwelling counterculture and allegedly had ties to Baadher-Meinhof, one member of Les Rallizes Denudes participated in the Japanese Red Army’s 1970 hi-jacking of a Boeing 721. Strangely, though, Cope doesn’t make much of the parallels between Krautrock and Japrock: two Axis powers whose post-War youth revolted against their nations’ tarnished pasts and embraced Anglo-American pop culture in its most undisciplined and “decadently” anti-fascist form. One larger idea he does grapple with is the Japanese talent for mimesis. Most of the individual bands Cope writes about have a specific Western precursor/model. Often it’s a distinctly unpromising-seeming one, like those proto-metal one-trick ponies Blue Cheer (with Les Rallizes Denudes) or the bleedin’ Moody Blues (with the Far East Family Band). Cope argues that the West-to-East translation process creates “a peculiar copy of the original,” a wrongness that in some instances allows the Japanese version to surpass its inspiration.
If Cope’s exaltation of Les Rallizes Denudes seems like mystique-building covering up simple underachievement (he hails the hermetic, retired Mizutani as “this great nihilistic spirit, this sonic executioner”), elsewhere his evocations of all this authentically inauthentic music are enticing and convincing. He raves about the “fascinating and wildly eventful” multi-generic pastiches created by theater score composer J.A. Caesar (mostly only released as cassettes sold at stalls in the theatres) or the bizarre jazz-rock tangents spawned out of the Japanese cast of Hair!. Shedding the “proper historian, me” persona, his true voice breaks loose with the closing section, his all-time Top 50 Japrock LPs. This consumer advice is the fruit of much labor and expense, Cope reveals, the sifting process being “an arduously hit-and-miss affair… I’ve spent a fortune buying Japanese stuff because it has a great jacket”. There’s also a brief addendum on must-to-avoid Clunkers, Cope astutely noting how collectors gull themselves to feel better about having shelled out so much dough, starting an inflationary cycle whereby “deadly rare foreign albums often become classed as classics merely because no one outside an elite few has even heard [them]”. There are moments in Japrocksampler that’ll make more skeptical readers wonder if that very syndrome isn’t going on in Cope’s own text. But for the most part, the book persuades you there’s reams and realms of triptastic Japanese music that deserve the wider world’s ear.