C86 sound jangles on in the Japanese indie scene

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

If pop culture is primarily about escapism, one of the enduring mysteries of the music world must surely be how the sounds of cold, wet afternoons in mid-1980s Manchester came to capture the imaginations of artists around the world. From the sunny shores of California to the icy hillsides of Finland, there remain to this day little pockets of musicians where it is forever 1986.

The modern notion of indie music was formed to a large extent by the sounds of melodic guitar bands from declining industrial cities in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, many of which were collected by music weekly the NME on its iconic “C86″ compilation album. Disaffected by the implosion of punk and inspired by the proto-psychedelic sounds of ’60s garage rock, bands such as The Wedding Present, The Pastels, Close Lobsters and others retained punk’s wariness of the commercial music industry but developed a more tuneful, occasionally whimsical musical style.

In Japan, the legacy of “C86″ remains strong among a core group of bands. Tokyo-based band möscow çlub curated a 2012 compilation called “Ç86” featuring Japanese artists who shared a similar DIY sensibility, albeit in more of a synth- and electronic-biased style. However, guitar-pop bands who wouldn’t have seemed out of place among the “indie shambling” (as they were sometimes known) artists of the original 1986 album are still very much in evidence around the Japanese music scene.

One of the clichés of Japanese artists is that they are often dedicated collectors with an obsessive eye for detail, and one band that gives weight to that stereotype is Sloppy Joe. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary British band getting away with a sound that so closely resembles so many specific ’80s artists. Hitoshi Oka’s vocals are an alarmingly accurate recreation of Morrissey’s distinctive honk, although he points out that, “Orange Juice was my biggest influence, ever since I was 16 — especially Edwyn Collins’ vocal style.” Indeed, hints of Orange Juice and Postcard Records labelmates Aztec Camera are also detectable in the shuffling guitar work, as well as the Rickenbacker jangle of Liverpool indie-pop pioneers The Pale Fountains.

There’s obvious love for the source material though, and the tribute to these older artists is clearly tinged with knowing reference, more like the games hip-hop sometimes plays with samples of old records than an attempt to smuggle the ideas in under the guise of being their own. Still, it’s hard to escape the sense of dislocation and disorientation at just how close it sounds, as if time and space themselves are somehow broken.

Writer, DJ, label owner and all-round walking indie-pop encyclopedia Sumire Taya (also owner of Shibuya DIY boutique Violet and Claire) believes that there’s a fundamental difference between how indie musicians in Europe and America think compared to those in Japan.

“Those ’80s musicians were basing their sound on ’60s influences,” Taya says, “and foreign indie bands now tend to base their sounds on similar ’50s and ’60s garage and punk music in a more melodic way. Japanese bands miss the basics.”

Sloppy Joe’s Oka believes that for indie musicians, “The most important thing to begin with is to just enjoy the current bands around you,” and for a lot of the younger generation of Japanese guitar-pop bands, such as Groves and DYGL (pronounced “Day-Glo”), both of whom are still in college, the similarity with jangly ’80s U.K. indie is coincidental.

Their main influences often come from those same ’60s-influenced contemporary overseas bands that Taya mentions. Nobuki Akiyama of DYGL speaks highly of Best Coast and Pains of Being Pure at Heart, adding that “French Films, Soft Pack and Vaccines are like textbooks to us,” before going on to rave about his love for British indie-garage band The Cribs.

Japan also has a tradition of guitar pop all of its own that grew up in the 1990s under the influence of Shibuya-kei pioneers Flipper’s Guitar. With its roots in the same ’80s U.K. generation, ’90s Japanese guitar pop is characterized by a lot of the same guitar sounds but with a melodic sense that lies a bit closer to J-pop than the ’60s.

There are elements of this Shibuya-kei tradition in The Keys, whose label Niw! Records is in many ways a stylistic successor to the likes of Cornelius’ iconic Trattoria label. They’re also far more likely to be found singing in Japanese than some of their more dedicatedly U.K.-influenced contemporaries, which in the long term will probably make it easier for them to escape the niche that can trap music that too closely fetishizes overseas styles.

Indeed, the separation of the Japanese underground music scene into so many niches might be part of the reason why it takes the form it does, with ’50s/’60s-influenced music tending to be confined to its own mod/garage subculture that never crosses over with the otherwise generally more open-minded indie crowd.

Nevertheless, guitar pop in Japan isn’t a gallery of museum pieces. Bands such as Half Sports recognize the punk origins of indie, combining melodic guitars influenced by The Stone Roses with the propulsive rhythms of The Mighty Lemon Drops and a ramshackle energy all of their own.

While Tokyo is easily the hub of contemporary Japanese indie shambling, the style has outposts in cities all over Japan. Half Sports themselves originally hail from Gifu, while in nearby Nagoya, The Moments are flying the flag for chiming guitars and sweet melodies internationally with a new release from Britain’s Dufflecoat Records. Wallflower represent Kansai, while Fukuoka is home to indie label Dead Funny Records, who as well as releasing the debut album for Tokyo shambling upstarts Boyish and collecting a large chunk of the Japanese indiepop scene on their 2012 “Dead Funny Vol.1″ compilation, are home to much of their local indiepop scene, including Asoboys and the excellent Hearsays.

In the end, perhaps the truth is that the run-down urban landscapes of 1980s Britain were ideal breeding grounds for escapism, and it is perhaps that combination of wistful longing for something else coupled with the melancholy realization of where you are that is key to the enduring appeal of the “C86″ sound and the reason it keeps shambling on.

For more information about some of the bands mentioned in this article, visit www.sloppyjoejp.blogspot.jp, www.niwrecords.com and www.deadfunnyrecords.com

  • tomado

    “In the end, perhaps the truth is that…” Japanese bands today mostly copy old music and endlessly cover the same ground without adding anything new. And that most live houses are hobby houses and bands like this that “make it” are merely good at packaging their hack work for people who might not know or care about what the original even was.

    • Ian Martin

      That’s a very unfair characterisation of the Japanese music scene. The bands mentioned here are musicians playing in a certain style and I’m not sure originality is really part of their remit anyway, but there is some startlingly original stuff going on across a wide range of genres. What you say about most venues catering to hobby bands is certainly true and there are massive problems with the available routes to success and how that influences the kind of stuff that gets popular, but the music scene in Tokyo and many other cities is home to a lot of very distinctive musical voices that deserve far more credit than you’re giving them.

      • tomado

        Well, I’ll try to remain at least somewhat open-minded. Maybe it’s in a different genre or a different town then. The punk rock and indie rock I’ve seen in Kansai are, unknowingly perhaps, derivative and empty. Most bands are trying to do something that’s been done better 20 years ago. All the ridiculous middle-finger flashing doesn’t help. Maybe the new ideas are coming in sampling or digital programming or something. @ Dr No: ad hominems don’t help your case. Perhaps you’ll learn that when you grow up a little.

      • Ian Martin

        I’m really out of touch with the Kansai scene, but the punk scene generally has a lot of what you describe. From Kobe though there’s the brilliant ZZZ’s (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BF2DBzK6uo8), who perhaps aren’t exactly “original” but their music is certainly far from complacent. In Kyoto there’s still (I think) the quite wonderful Fluid (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpvzEO9Emn0). Venues like Bears in Osaka, Metro in Kyoto and Helluva Lounge in Kobe seem to have a lot of interesting, creative bands playing.

      • tomado

        Most of what I’ve seen seems like more of an escape, a rehashing or a child’s punk fantasy, rather than a confrontation or an inspiration. But, if you locate music that you think is going to make a global impact due to its originality and poignancy, I’m eager to read about it. I’m afraid the insularity of this generation is showing itself in the music and that Bach Collegium Japan (strangely overlooked by the Times, though feted worldwide) is far more globally important and innovative than anything the kids are churning out these days. Thanks for the links! I’ll check them out!

      • YES/NO MUSIC

        I know the article mentioned Moscow Club, but they are really good. This song, ‘Farenheit 451′ is a big tune: https://soundcloud.com/wearemoscowclub/fahrenheit-451

    • Dr. No

      You’re listening to the wrong bands, kid.

    • YES/NO MUSIC

      New music, whether it sounds derivative or not, is always new music. I personally love it. If I can find a band that sounds like The Smiths I am very happy – The Smiths don’t make music anymore. But to get at least an echo of their sound from people who obviously love that kind of music is a real joy. The Smiths, of course, is just an example, but it goes for everybody. However! There is bad music everywhere, and a derivative band can be awful. To be equivocal, you’d have to acknowledge that even non-derivative stuff can be bad.

      • tomado

        Yes, but I worry when music becomes mostly about a rehash and when music in general doesn’t speak to anything. Then, the scene becomes very boring. Sloppy Joe is just ridiculous. They would be laughed off the stage in Manchester or NY, as Martin hints. Frequenting live-houses the last few years, I notice a pattern: many bands try to do the exact thing that a band like The Replacements did at 7th St Entry in 1981. Look that up on youtube. Only they are just pale copies. When a generation has nothing to say they become irrelevant. But I can’t be the only one trying to start a conversation about the raison d’etre of current Japanese indie/punk rock. I believe this is an important conversation for Japanese musicians to have. Right now, there is no sense of danger or vitality in any of this.

      • YES/NO MUSIC

        Whilst I see your point I think is a lot of vitality in this scene – no danger, perhaps – but certainly a lot of vitality. I for one find it madly exciting that in Japan right now, bands and audiences are fuelling their creative drive with music from England circa 30 years ago. If these guys were covers bands, perhaps I’d agree, but they’re not – they’re new. They’re interpreting the sound of yesterday for today’s audience. Pale copies or not, new music doesn’t always have to be about pushing boundaries – it’s about doing what you love.

  • Guest

    It wasn’t an attack. I feel badly you took it that way.