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.