The Ventures have just finished playing 33 songs in the space of two hours in front of some enthusiastic, though seated, middle-aged fans at the Hokutopia concert hall in Tokyo. Kazushi Kojima, who calls himself a “philosopher,” is there with his son. He’s been attending Ventures shows for 30 years.

“My parents listened to The Ventures,” he says. “My first musical hero was Tom Jones and later I was into British rock — Led Zeppelin, that sort of thing.” Eventually, he gravitated back to The Ventures. “I’m really into martial arts and jazz, and I make sure my son listens to everything.” The son nods sheepishly. Asked if he likes The Ventures, too, he says, “I borrowed some CDs from my father. I was impressed.”

“The Beatles were always overrated in Japan,” Kojima says.

It may seem odd to compare the most famous pop-vocal group in the universe with a guitar-based rock quartet that plays instrumentals, but in Japan the contrast is instructive given the way Western pop infiltrated the country in the 1960s. Actually, the statistics contradict Kojima. In Japan, Ventures records have outsold Beatles records by a ratio of two to one. The Ventures saw 37 albums reach the Japanese charts, The Beatles 35. If The Beatles are overrated in Japan, it’s only in terms of lip service. In the places where it counted — record stores and concert halls — The Ventures ruled.

And they still do. At this moment the group is in the midst of its 56th tour of Japan, and by tour we don’t mean the usual Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka axis. We’re talking almost every civic auditorium in the country: 45 concerts in 57 days. But that’s nothing compared with 1968, when the group did 122 shows in 107 days. The Ventures continue to spend an average of three months of every year in Japan. Of the 100 million records they’ve sold worldwide, 40 million were purchased here.

“Some years we’ve done three separate tours of Japan,” says Don Wilson, 75, the band’s rhythm guitarist and cofounder. “At one point in the ’60s, we were so popular they were lined up five abreast around the block. We’d play Koseinenkin Hall (in Shinjuku) three times in one day.”

Don Wilson and Ventures cofounder Bob Bogle circa 1962
Don Wilson and Ventures cofounder Bob Bogle circa 1962

Wilson is sitting in his Tokyo hotel the day after the Hokutopia concert with the other members of the band: guitarist Gerry McGee, a laconic Louisiana native and former session man who’s been a Venture on and off for more than 30 years; Leon Taylor, who took over on the drums from his late father Mel in 1997; and bassist/guitarist Bob Spalding, who replaced cofounder Bob Bogle after Bogle retired in 2005. Spalding points out that he attended a show on The Ventures’ legendary first Japan tour in 1962 when he was a teenager and living on a U.S. military base.

“We were the opening act for Bobby Vee and a girl named Joanne Campbell,” explains Wilson. “She was in a movie at that time, a ‘twist’ movie with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and she was popular in Japan because of the movie. She was the headliner.”

But who remembers Joanne Campbell? It was The Ventures who made history on that tour, despite the fact that they were two men down.

“Our agent in the U.S. said, ‘Would you like to go to Japan?’ ” Wilson continues. “And we said, ‘Of course.’ A couple of weeks later he called and said, ‘They can only afford two of you.’ They put two Japanese musicians behind us — one guy playing a small kit and another guy with a standup bass. But they had been playing Glenn Miller; they didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll. They kept slowing us down, so I talked to the interpreter and said, ‘I think the two of us can handle this by ourselves.’ ”

It was the electric guitars that made the impression; that and the unique rhythmic pulse that Wilson and Bogle had developed in 1958 in Tacoma, Washington, when they tried to make up for the fact that they didn’t know any drummers, let alone pianists or sax players. At the time, most record companies wouldn’t look at you if you had neither.

“I played a very percussive rhythm-guitar style,” Wilson says. “And Bob used to play with the whammy bar, and once in a while instead of a note he’d hit a chord and give it a little vibrato.”

But the most distinctive element of the Ventures sound was that damped, rapidly picked descending glissando, which Japanese call “deke-deke-deke.”

In 1960-61, The Ventures scored three Top 40 singles in the U.S., including the iconic “Walk Don’t Run,” a No. 2 hit that was recently inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of the most influential records of all time. In the meantime, the duo had added a drummer, as well as a bassist, Nokie Edwards, who would eventually trade places with Bogle and become lead guitarist. In the days leading up to the British Invasion, it was The Ventures, as well as other instrumental music-makers such as Duane Eddy, who played what we would now call rock, since the singers who dominated the U.S. charts were pop artists such as Pat Boone and Connie Francis. Today, “Walk Don’t Run” may sound technical and tame, but it had a bracing effect at the time, especially in Japan, where electric guitars were exotic.

“In 1964 we returned to Japan and 6,000 people met us at the airport,” Wilson says. “In those two years they had been playing our records. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing The Ventures: coffee shops, radio, even outdoor loudspeakers.”

Not everybody was pleased with their popularity. “The PTA or their equivalent here tried to ban us,” says Wilson, and Spalding adds, “I think they even tried to ban electric guitars.”

It’s difficult to believe that these four mild-mannered men, two of whom are now in their 70s, could ever have provoked such a reaction, but if you see footage of the band playing in the ’60s and contrast it with what was considered standard Japanese pop (kayokyoku) at the time, it could be considered transgressive.

A promo shot of the band from the 1960s
A promo shot of the band from the 1960s

“The electric guitar wasn’t really played here,” says Wilson. “What they had then were things like Trios Los Panchos — all acoustic guitars. That was the Japanese idea of a small instrumental group.”

Generally, electric guitars were used as just another orchestral effect. The Ventures showed them off as a lead instrument. Following the ’62 concert, Japan experienced the “eleki boom”: every instrument-maker as well as a few manufacturers who didn’t make instruments (a sandal-maker, for one) starting churning out electric guitars. In the pop world they were played by technician-musicians such as inventor-musician Takeshi Terauchi and the popular actor-singer Yuzo Kayama.

The electric guitar stood for two things — modernity and sex — which is why it was the sole obsession of boys. Girls went to Ventures concerts to see the matching suits and smiling foreign faces; the boys went to ogle the equipment. To this day, Ventures concerts attract a sizable number of younger men who sit around during the intermission, intently discussing Sunbursts and whether pre-CBS Fenders are better than post-CBS Fenders.

A far less remarked-upon result of The Ventures’ popularity in Japan was the development of the concert-tour business. Foreign artists usually came to Japan to play U.S. bases and Tokyo. The Ventures played everywhere, proselytizing for Western rock ‘n’ roll all over the country.

“The person who hired us was named Tatsu Nagashima,” says Wilson. “He said, ‘I could put you in a ballpark, but you should be in a more intimate setting,’ so he had us play three shows a day at places that held about 3,000.”

It was exciting but unglamorous. “There were no Western-style hotels,” recalls Wilson, “just Japanese-style inns. Also, we toured in the summer and the venues had no air conditioning. They’d place a block of ice on a table and put a fan behind it.”

Inevitably, as more Japanese pop artists adopted electric instruments and started incorporating Western music ideas, they sought the group out, some more tentatively than others. Wilson recalls superstar Kayama showing up in their dressing room before a concert just to say hello. They had no idea who this very polite young man was, but they knew he was a star. “The girls who were serving us, their jaws just dropped to the floor.”

Terauchi would seek the band out whenever they toured. “He found out what train we were traveling on,” says Wilson, “and in those days it took six hours to get somewhere that today would only take 90 minutes. He would bring his guitar and sit with Nokie the whole time, asking him how to do this and how to do that.”

More significantly, the group started writing music for very popular singers such as Oyan Fifi, Yuko Nagisa and Chiyo Okumura. Among the group’s 20 No. 1 hits in Japan were at least five sung by female artists, all of which have become pop standards.

“We got the feel for enka (Japanese folk ballads) when we first got here,” says Wilson. “So we started writing in that vein, but just a little bit away from it. Then the girls who recorded our melodies put Japanese words to them.”

“We often do interviews with younger Japanese,” adds Spalding, “and when we tell them we wrote ‘Kyoto no Koi’ and ‘Futari no Ginza’ they say, ‘Really?’ They know the songs but they don’t know we wrote them.”

Five such Japanese happen to be members of the idol group SMAP, on whose TV show “SMAP x SMAP” The Ventures appeared last year. When they found out that the band had written songs for some of their daisenpai (seniors) they asked if The Ventures would write one for them. “We’re still working on it,” Wilson insists.

Spalding believes something elemental in The Ventures’ music makes it easier for them to write and play in a Japanese pop idiom. “One of the characteristics of our early songs was that muffled rhythm within a minor key, and if you take that sound and place it in a different context, like traditional Japanese music played on a shamisen, it fits. There’s also that plucky quality, and the phrasing is similar, too.”

But while the Ventures sound is immediately recognizable, it’s difficult to pin down. The vast bulk of the group’s repertoire is made up of other people’s songs that the group has, as Wilson puts it, “Venturized.” Most of the songs are rock and R&B classics from the ’50s and ’60s, but they also tackle jazz and Fine Young Cannibals.

“We play a lot of things,” says Wilson, “so when I read that The Ventures are the pioneers of surf music, I go ‘What?’ We were never a surf group.”

“I think the only person in the band who has ever surfed is me,” says Taylor, “and that was when I was a teen.”

The band’s following in its native America has never been quite what it is in Japan, but that could change. Last March, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, exactly 50 years after Wilson and Bogle formed the group.

“We’d been eligible 22 years,” says Wilson. “This was the first time we were nominated.”

“It was Madonna’s first time to get nominated, too,” adds Taylor, “and she also got in.”

Since the induction, the band have been busier than ever, playing sold-out shows at Disneyland in California and a festival in Quebec, where they performed for 30,000 people. Wilson says that between the band’s U.S. and Japan obligations, they have no time to tour Europe, where they are also in demand. They are cited more and more by younger musicians who learned how to play by listening to Ventures records — and not just on guitar.

The Ventures back in Japan | YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
The Ventures back in Japan | YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

“Billy Joel was backstage at the Hall of Fame ceremony,” says Wilson, “and he told me that one of the very first songs he learned on the piano was ‘Walk Don’t Run.’ ”

As the Black Ship that opened Japan to American rock, The Ventures are owed a lot by artists who have since become frequent visitors. And because The Ventures spend so much time here, paths inevitably cross. Some years ago, they were waiting for a train in Nagoya when Wilson noticed a group of foreigners on the same platform.

“One of them comes up to me and says, ‘Are you The Ventures?’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’ And he asks, ‘Can I have my picture taken with you?’ ”

Wilson assented, and the man, guitarist Joe Perry, who was touring Japan with his band Aerosmith, gestured to his manager. “Come on over here and get in this picture,” he yelled. “This is history.”

Video references for the ‘eleki boom’

The “eleki boom” is well documented on video — here are some good places to start.

“Beloved Invaders: The Ventures” (1966): This documentary alternates concert footage from the group’s 1965 Japan tour with semi-staged episodes of The Ventures enjoying Japanese culture and interacting with fans.

The latter is a bit corny, especially in the Japanese dubbed version currently available, but the former is electrifying. Many fans believe this film catches the band at their peak, and the recording is excellent.

“Eleki no Wakadaisho” (1965): The second film in the “Wakadaisho” (“Young General”) series has Yuzo Kayama as a college American-football player who starts his own band to enter a talent contest. One of the members is Takeshi Terauchi, who plays a noodle delivery man.

The movie also introduced the two songs that would become Kayama’s signature tunes: “Yozora no Hoshi” (“Stars in the Night Sky”) and “Kimi to Itsu Made mo” (“With You Forever”). The Ventures have made both songs part of their repertoire.

“Seishun Dendekedekedeke (The Rocking Horsemen)” (1992): Nobuhiko Obayashi’s comedy tells the story of a teenage boy living in Kagawa Prefecture in 1965 who hears The Ventures’ “Pipeline” and decides to form a band.

It’s one of Japanese cinema’s best coming-of-age stories, and captures the cultural flux of the era with wit and insight rather than mere nostalgia.

Look for current screen star Tadanobu Asano as the band’s lead guitarist. He was 19 at the time, appearing in his third film.

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