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The Captains chart retro course

by Steve McClure

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. In the wrong hands, it can be an outlet for excessive sentimentality and out-and-out kitsch.

In the right hands, however, it can be a healthy look at the past, an appreciation of what has gone before that doesn’t dogmatically reject the present.

The Captains, a rock band from Sendai dedicated to reviving the glories of Japan’s Group Sounds era, fall into the latter category.

This five-man group has got the GS sound and visual style down pat. Their debut album, “Shojosaku (First Work),” recently released on the independent Autobahn label, is one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year (and it’s a steal at just 1,000 yen).

On the album’s eight songs, The Captains touch all the GS stylistic bases: There are raucous rave-ups like “Koi wa Sekido Choka (Love Is Like Below the Equator),” heartfelt ballads like “Okaasan (Mother),” and soulful, midtempo songs like “Atai Juhachisai (I’m 18).”

The material is performed in authentic GS style, with twangy electric guitar, cheesy organ, lots of echo and pleading, impassioned vocals. The most important ingredient in The Captains’ music, however, is the sheer sense of fun they radiate. They obviously love what they’re doing.

The term Group Sounds, for the benefit of the uninitiated, refers to the music of mid-’60s Japanese bands, such as The Spiders, The Jaguars and The Out Cast. These groups were primarily inspired by British Invasion bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and added a large dollop of kayokyoku (Japanese pop) melodies to sweeten the sound.

The GS style fell out of favor at the beginning of the ’70s, as Japanese rock became more sophisticated and less derivative. With their bad haircuts and silly uniforms, GS bands looked hopelessly dasai (unfashionable).

It’s fair to say that a lot of the music — not to mention the hairstyles — that came out of the GS era hasn’t worn well, but much of it is simply great rock, with a naive, infectious energy.

The members of The Captains hail from various parts of Japan, but they came together in Sendai — not usually considered one of Japan’s rock ‘n’ roll hot spots. After they discovered their love of GS-era music, the five guys formed The Captains last year. Since then, the band has been proclaiming the GS gospel with high-energy shows at live houses all over the country.

So why should a bunch of guys in their 20s — who were born well after the GS boom — get so heavily into this kind of music?

“The kind of excitement you get from GS music has been missing from rock ‘n’ roll — as well as these shichi-san (seven-three) hairstyles,” said band leader Kizuhiko (band members go by one name), who is quite a card despite his determinedly serious demeanor.

“It’s the music of our parents’ generation, and it’s nostalgic for us because we heard it when we were small,” he explained. “We want young people to appreciate GS and kayokyoku music.”

There’s undoubtedly an element of parody in The Captains’ shtick, but that takes a definite back seat to their obvious love of the music.

“We’re not a parody band,” stated Kizuhiko matter-of-factly.

The band’s live set is equal parts comedy and craft, as The Captains, dressed in Mao jackets and white chino pants, ham it up with choreographed stage routines while delivering a tight, thoroughly professional musical performance.

One of the best things about The Captains is that they aren’t a nostalgia band, recycling songs from the GS era. All their material is original, penned by Kizuhiko and guitarist Hizashi, whose round, black-rimmed glasses make him look like a rock alter ego of writer Kenzaburo Oe.

The band is playing live at Phase in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, on Nov. 6. Check out the band’s home page at www.thecaptains.net/pc.htm for more information. The band’s second album, “Seishun Wanafubuki (The Height of Youth),” which will also feature original material only, is due out Nov. 7.

With their uncompromisingly retro style, The Captains are hardly musical trailblazers. They are simply a great band playing great rock ‘n’ roll. And that never goes out of style.