Ken Yokoyama is crazy.
Crazy like a fox, that is.
In the past year or so Yokoyama and his nine-member Crazy Ken Band have become the band to watch on the Japanese music scene, due to their brilliantly original fusion of high-concept parody and stellar musicianship.
You could compare the Crazy Ken Band to the Bonzo Dog Band, a British group from the ’60s who excelled at Pythonesque pop parody, or perhaps The Tubes, an American band from the ’70s that lovingly lampooned the excesses of rock ‘n’ roll.
Like the Bonzos and The Tubes, the Crazy Ken Band’s music is firmly rooted in a specific time and place: Japan in the Showa Era. “Showa” literally refers to the period between 1926 and 1989, when Hirohito was on the throne. But to Yokoyama, it means the ’50s and ’60s, when Japanese pop culture had been liberated from its pre-1945 ideological straitjacket, and myriad influences from overseas mixed with Japanese styles to create a rich pop potpourri.
“I want to tell young people about cool stuff from the Showa era,” explains Yokoyama.
His songs conjure up an engagingly sleazy, retro-world of seedy nightclubs, dockside intrigue and shifty demimondaine characters — like his home town of Yokohama used to be before the port was beautified and sanitized.
Songs like “GT Gran Turismo” and “Ame Sha to Yoru to Honmoku to (Night For V8 Monsters)” describe Yokoyama’s passion for cars, while the “The World of Suzy Wong” pays tribute to a Chinese femme fatale (slightly tacky eroticism is a recurring theme in Yokoyama’s songs).
Another song, “Sharimaru,” describes Yokoyama’s dealings with a Pakistani used-car dealer during his days as a customs inspector.
Yokoyama has liked both Japanese and foreign music ever since he was a kid. He has a deep appreciation of classic kayokokyoku Japanese pop — although he’s quick to add that he draws the line at enka.
“I don’t disrespect enka,” Yokoyama explains, “but it’s not really my type of music.”
He was exposed to American pop early on, when he used to buy old 45 rpm singles at U.S. military facilities in the Yokohama-Yokusuka area.
Yokoyama says he wrote his first song when he was 9 years old. His songwriting technique was unusual, to say the least.
“I would put a 45 on the turntable, and while it was playing, I would record my own lyrics onto a cassette tape,” Yokoyama explains.
At age 14, Yokoyama formed his first band — called The Liners — after seeing the film “American Graffiti.”
But it wasn’t until last year that Yokoyama realized his dream of becoming a full-time musician. Until then, he was working for a customs inspection service company in Yokohama. During his time as a salaryman, Yokoyama was active on the musical front, leading a rockabilly band called Cools before starting the Crazy Ken Band in 1997.
Since then, the band has developed a dedicated cult following, and in the past year or so it has begun breaking into the mainstream with more and more media exposure — their song “Tiger & Dragon,” was used as the ending theme for the TBS show “Count Down TV” last year, for example.
Besides their incredibly tight music, which includes elements of rock, Japanese pop, funk, bossa nova and soul — in fact just about everything short of Latvian sea shanties — a key part of the Crazy Ken Band’s schtick is their visual sense. Guitarist Masao Onose sports a Fu Manchu mustache, greasy locks that go past his shoulders and a top hat that makes him look a cross between the Mad Hatter and Frank Zappa. The rest of the band favor a sort of mutated lounge-wear/leisure suit look, dominated by plaid, Day-Glo and a general polyester sheen. They wouldn’t look out of place touting for a cheap cabaret in Kabukicho — and I mean that as a compliment!
Yokoyama has his own charmingly tacky apparel hand-tailored in Seoul’s Itaewon district. Due to his wisecracking, self-mocking charm, he’s able to straddle the line between kakko ii and dasai (cool and uncool), even though he looks like he’s been rejected for the role of an extra in a “Tora-san” movie.
Although their CDs make for great listening, the Crazy Ken Band is best appreciated live. At a recent show at the Shibuya Kokaido, Yokoyama and his musical partners in crime put on an absolutely brilliant three-hour-plus show.
At one point, a children’s dance group, along with two leotard-clad ladies of indeterminate age, came onstage and did a wonderfully tacky dance routine of the type beloved by NHK variety-show programmers as the band played a jaunty pop tune.
“That’s kind of a black joke,” says Yokoyama with a mischievous glint in his eye.
Throughout the show, Yokoyama uttered his favorite catchphrase: “Ii ne! (It’s OK!),” his high-pitched nasal whine never failing to please his devotees.
Yokoyama says the phrase became his motto when, as a kid being brought up by a single mother, his uncle would encourage him by repeating “Ii ne!” during times when his spirits were low.
“My music is 60 percent serious, 30 percent funny and 10 percent ‘I don’t know,’ ” says Yokoyama.
Asked what goals he has, Yokoyama says he wants to be nominated for a Grammy award.
“And I want to perform with Eminem.” Now that I would pay money to see . . .
The Crazy Ken Band have just released their sixth album, “777,” and it could well be the one that propels them into the big time.