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NOVELTIES A GO-GO

There is no escape from the silliness

by Steve McClure

It’s only April, but the silly season already seems to be upon us.

The first sign was the recent announcement by Universal Music’s classical department that on June 11 it will release a single titled “Asagohan (Breakfast),” which is a rather unusual a capella version of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Unusual, because the lyrics of this stunningly intricate multivocal arrangement deal with the topic of Japanese food, starting, naturally, with breakfast and moving on through the day with lunch, snacks and dinner. Gochi so, la, tea, dough, as it were.

“Asagohan” is a novelty song of the highest order, and definitely on my list of top 10 Japanese singles of 2003.

“Asagohan” was cooked up by a multimedia performance troupe called the Shanghai Taro Butoh Company, which was established in Osaka in 1989 under the leadership of the eponymous Taro Shanghai. As its name suggests, the group is best known for its butoh stage performances. It received rave reviews for its 30-minute mime piece, “A Nightmare For C. Darwin,” at the 1991 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for example.

Now Shanghai and Co. have turned their attention to music, and they’ve come up with a minor masterpiece.

Hardcore classical music fans might say that Shanghai’s decidedly unorthodox version of the immortal Fifth will have Beethoven rolling over in his grave, but I think it’s damned clever — and funny.

Isn’t it odd, by the way, that Japanese novelty songs always seem to be about food?

Last year saw the re-release of “O-Sakana Tengoku (Fish Heaven),” a paean to the pleasures of eating healthy marine products, while of course back in 1999 NHK Uta Onichan and Onechan (Kentaro Hayami and Ayumi Shigenori) scored a huge hit with “Dango San Kyodai,” the tale of three dango (dumpling) brothers set to a tango beat.

And in the same culinary-musical vein, who could forget the 3 Mustaphas 3′s tasty “The Soba Song”?

Since it’s an a cappella number, “Asagohan” may be a hard sell, at least as far as getting radio stations to put it on their playlists, but I reckon the Japanese public is hungry for another gastronomic hit tune.

Coincidentally, a tune called “Asagohan Cha Cha Cha” is one of the eight songs included on New York-based novelty act Gaijin a Go-Go’s recently released album, “Merry-55-Lucky” (“55″ = gogo, geddit?).

Other tunes on “Merry-55-Lucky” include “Tempura Mental” and “Wasabi Man (Moog Power),” which should give you an idea of where these wacky folks are coming from. The CD was produced by Joe Blaney, who has worked as a producer and engineer for The Clash, The B-52s, Keith Richards and Run DMC, among others.

Like last year’s independently released “Hello Copycat” single, the music on “Merry-55-Lucky” is uptempo kitsch, in the best sense of the word.

And on May 21 Sony is releasing “Merry-55-Round,” a mini-album featuring remixed versions of six of the album’s tracks.

As for the band’s name . . . well, at least they didn’t call themselves Sangokujin a Go-Go.

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Record company talent scouts usually find promising new acts at live houses or by listening to the bales of demo tapes or CD-Rs they receive.

But Toshiba-EMI talent-spotter Keitaro Kamo (who is a regular guest on my weekly InterFM program, “Beyond the Charts”) got wind of rock band Kishidan while attending a funeral. A producer friend he met there urged him to check out this very theatrical band from the bowels of Chiba Prefecture’s Kisarazu, whose six members affect the “yankee” look.

In this context, yankee does not mean American or the new home of slugger Hideki Matsui. Instead, it refers to the gangs of young Japanese toughs whose permed hair, shaved eyebrows, dark wrap-around shades and loose, quasi-zoot suit style of apparel immediately set them apart from conventional society.

As one scholarly dissertation explains, the yankii are a bit like bosozoku motorbike gangs, except they walk around instead of riding around on scooters.

Kamo — whose other discoveries include the Ulfuls, Super Butter Dog and Number Girl — says he didn’t quite “get” Kishidan the first time he saw them. I know what he means. At first glance it’s easy to dismiss Kishidan as a sort of ersatz Japanese Leningrad Cowboys.

But Kamo soon realized that beneath the rather silly exterior there’s a serious rock band with some good tunes. His faith in the band paid off, as Kishidan’s debut album, “1/6 Lonely Night,” made it to No. 3 on the Oricon album chart following its April 2002 release.

Like “1/6 Lonely Night,” Kishidan’s second album, “Boy’s Color” (released March 26), covers a variety of stylistic bases. There are hook-laden pop tunes such as “One Night Carnival,” rockers like “God Speed You,” which showcases the feral, chimpira-esque vocals of band leader Shou Ayakouji, and even a nod to disco on the track “Koibito (Lover),” whose lush production style makes one wonder whether Jeff Lynne produced it.

As an upstanding member of society (well, I try), I find Kishidan’s juvenile-delinquent image a little off-putting. But like Kamo, I now realize that image aside, Kishidan is actually a very good rock band.