By the time the term “cover song” entered the English lexicon in the mid-1960s, the practice of one artist playing the work of another was as ubiquitous on the pop charts as it was onstage. Some covers were respectful tributes, others opportunistic rip-offs. Another category could be called language crossovers — hits from one country translated (linguistically, sometimes artistically) for another.
Rock ‘n’ roll had its share of this third group when it hit Japan’s shores in the 1950s. With the mambo craze waning, many young Japanese big bands split or adapted to crank out their own take on the new sound. An excellent snapshot of this period comes in the form of “King Twist,” a new CD series from Tokyo’s Basis Records.
This isn’t your standard moldy golden oldies. Eschewing nostalgic obsolescence, these tracks crackle with a very palpable kinetic energy. Since they’re dubbed straight from the master recordings, there’s no murky hiss of overused vinyl to hint at their age. It’s like kissing your high-school sweetheart in her prime — instead of the one at the reunion party, hiding her wrinkles behind a Bloody Mary and too much mascara.
King Twist co-producer Hiroshi Yamazaki admits that he didn’t know half of the performers before production began. He can be forgiven. At 40, he’s close to 20 years younger than a majority of the original fans. Like most people, he knew the harmony-pop of The Peanuts, two coy, girlish twins who disappeared from the spotlight after they split up in the ’70s (to the dismay of many male baby-boomers). Other artists are still around: Yukari Ito (the original “Twist Girl”) still sings occasionally on variety shows and Nana Kinomi is now an actress.
The true star of the series, however, is the late Chiemi Eri, whose versatile, brassy vocal delivery opens all three discs in the series. On Disc 2, “King Twist Kikambo” (released Dec. 8) she has the chutzpah to scat her way through Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and then bookend the disc with a flirty version of “Jingle Bells” (think Ella Fitzgerald spending the holidays in Naka-Meguro). Her range is unmatched here. She can emote like a jazzbo sophisticate or sneer like a precocious brat (kikambo means “spoiled child,” by the way), transforming whatever she’s singing into her own.
There’s something about juxtaposition of the familiar and the foreign on the “King Twist” CDs that makes the series so listenable — and that goes for listeners on both sides of the Pacific. I know what you’re thinking: so many of these songs are played to death (who really needs to hear another version of “Rock Around the Clock”?) But with a clean recording, different arrangements, a little nihongo and the right voice, the songs transcend their overuse and cliched baggage to become fresh ideas again.
Yamazaki says that “King Twist” wasn’t meant to be a nostalgia trip, but about discovery, like when DJs in the U.K. first came across ska. It’s an apt description, since the undercurrent of early Jamaican ska can be heard throughout the series. One reason for that is Yamazaki and Basis Records president Kenichi Tateiwa gave compiling duties to Naoyoshi Kouzu, vocalist for the now-disbanded J-ska group, The Determinations. Kouzu told me via e-mail that most of his choices centered on a connection to early ska.
So Millie Small’s Jamaican pop classic “My Boy Lollipop” is an obvious choice, but what about Elvis’s “Rock a Hula Baby,” or Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk”? Kouzu says he based his selections on production values and mood as much as on Caribbean origins. There was a raw immediacy in Jamaica’s music after the island nation gained independence from England. Listen to gritty greaser anthems and slick doo-wop and you’ll hear it, too.
As Kouzu puts it, the music captured on the “King Twist” series reveals a sense of confidence, hope and “barbarity” — three things early ska, mambo and rock ‘n’ roll never ran out of.
The series’ first release, “King Twist Ginza,” certainly has plenty to go around. Eri’s punchy opener, “Come on a My House” has as much sass as the Rosemary Clooney version, and Hirao Masaaki’s wailing on Little Richard’s “Lucille” hits like a hammer on a beating heart. Japanese originals like Miki Nakasone’s “Kaminari Rock” have a throat-rattling vocal delivery that demands your attention.
“Kikambo” cruises deeper into studio-pop — the kind with honeyed vocals and string sections that once made women tremble — but the mix never ceases to excite. Oddities like Nana Kinomi’s “Tokyo Kikambo Girl” sound like a sock hop held at your local matsuri, and Michio Azusa’s spanked-up “Bossa Nova Kiss” is enka gone tropical.
Obscure cuts and rough edges are an essential part of each release, but don’t dismiss (or embrace) the series as a mere exercise in kitsch. The musicianship is too damn good, and the energy and emotion they emit surpasses that of any band of Harajuku punks banging out a sidewalk set today.
Both Kouzu and Yamasaki lament that musicians of this caliber are almost forgotten. With releases like this, that should prove impossible.
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