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RETURN TO THE CLASSICS

Please re-release me

by Steve McClure

Are you tired of hearing “Ashita ga Arusa”? This venerable kayokyoku pop classic (originally recorded by the late Kyu Sakamoto in 1963) has been revived not once, but twice so far this year. In mid-March, those wild and crazy guys from Osaka, the Ulfuls, released an upbeat, lighthearted cover. And, of course, as is their wont, they hammed it up for all they were worth in the accompanying video.

The Ulfuls’ cover of “Ashitaga Arusa” is an example of the recent trend toward re-recordings of classic Japanese pop songs.

Less than two weeks later, re:japan — a group comprising 11 “talents” from the Yoshimoto Kogyo production agency — came out with its own version. A plodding, seemingly never-ending rendition, it was a hit regardless, proving once again that a lack of musical skills is not an impediment to success on the Japanese charts. How refreshingly democratic.

There seems to be a growing trend by Japanese recording artists to delve into the rich hogaku (domestic music) catalog for songs to cover. This is both good and bad. On the positive side, covers help educate younger music fans about J-pop’s rich back catalog. On the negative side, there’s a tendency to choose tried-and-true standards such as “Ashita ga Arusa” as cover material. Which is a pity, since there are so many great domestic songs that are crying out to be re-recorded.

Take, for example, “Mangetsu no Yube (A Full Moon Evening),” an achingly beautiful ballad that should eventually be acknowledged as a classic in the same league as “Ue O Muite Aruko” (aka “Sukiyaki”). The song was cowritten by Takashi Nakagawa of ethno-rock group Soul Flower Union and Hiroshi Yamaguchi of the duo Heat Wave, both of whom have recorded their own version of the song. While Okinawan singer/songwriter Takashi Hirayasu has already released a beautifully simple and restrained cover, I can imagine various ways in which this particular tune could be interpreted.

Another great hogaku cover was UA’s beautiful rendition (on her 1999 album “Turbo”) of Hibari Misora’s “Ringo Oiwake,” which gave that kayokyoku classic a dub-style reworking.

Over the past several years, there have also been a number of tribute albums to overseas artists. One that I would recommend is last year’s “Rabid Chords 002 VU Tribute,” an excellent homage to the Velvet Underground featuring various Japanese bands. Earlier this year, power-pop band the Cymbals released a mini-album, called “Respects,” featuring versions of mid-’60s classics by bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks.

In the past, there was no shortage of Japanese covers of songs by overseas artists. This made sense when J-pop was still in its infancy, but the number of such covers declined as the quality of Japanese songwriting improved and J-pop became more self-assured.

Anyone interested in the fascinating history of Japanese covers of Western pop songs should invest in a copy of the three-CD set “Sazanami Kenji Roots 60-60′s,” which contains Japanese-language versions of chestnuts such as “Be My Baby,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” (performed by the Tokyo Beatles — where are they now?) and (my fave) “You Don’t Own Me” (originally done by Lesley Gore), performed with rare gusto by Mieko Hirota.

Fun stuff, but I think the A&R people working at Japanese labels need to show a little more creativity in finding hogaku catalog material — not necessarily megahits — for contemporary artists to cover. I’m not talking about something silly like having Ringo Shiina doing a cover of “Ue O Muite Aruko,” but something that shows a little imaginative flair — which is what A&R people are supposed to do. Maybe Lisa Ono could do some tasteful bossa nova versions of Loudness’ greatest hits.