Bright cityscapes, seaside resorts, youthful summers and endless possibilities. These ideas are often associated with “city pop,” a particularly bubbly take on funk, disco and dance pop that emerged out of Japan’s economic heyday in the 1980s. One artist who played a big part in shaping how that period of optimism and luxury is remembered in song is Kiyotaka Sugiyama, the frontman for the group Omega Tribe.
“We recorded our debut album in 1983, and everything was kind of going toward the bubble era. People were looking forward to the brighter future about to arrive,” the 62-year-old singer/songwriter says about his early years in the music industry. “There was very little worry or fear about what was coming. Pastel colors were everywhere.”
Decades later, Sugiyama’s work, both as vocalist for Omega Tribe (which also features Keiichi Hiroshi, Toshitsugu Nishihara, Takao Oshima, Shinji Takashima and Kenji Yoshida) and as a solo act, continues to offer bright-hued escapes. Ahead of Omega Tribe’s 40th anniversary in 2023, music label VAP is releasing remastered versions of the band’s albums, starting with what the label has called a “remix” of their 1983 debut album “Aqua City” this past September. The group’s original producer Tetsuji Hayashi stepped up to oversee the project.
Not that Sugiyama’s work ever went away. Hit singles from the ’80s such as “Summer Suspicion” and “Futari No Natsu Monogatari Never Ending Summer” still inspire warm memories for those who came of age during Japan’s period of extravagance and draw attention from new domestic listeners and critics. His lively dancing onstage and signature sunglasses have become a pop culture reference point: When rock band Sakanaction wanted to evoke the bubble era in their 2019 video for “Wasurenai,” lead singer Ichiro Yamaguchi cosplayed as Sugiyama.
His music’s endurance has also resulted in something Sugiyama says he and his peers never considered — popularity among listeners abroad. Sugiyama’s work with Omega Tribe, which lasted from 1983 to 1986, has enjoyed newfound shine, with YouTube uploads of old footage pulling in hundreds of thousands of views and non-Japanese TikTok users posting clips of themselves drawing or railing against cultural appropriation to the soundtrack of “Asphalt Lady.”
“I think the melodies of the music have something to do with it,” he says, adding that many artists from the ’80s prioritized melody over lyrics, resulting in songs that have stood the test of time, unhindered by language barriers.
Although international listeners are more likely to think of singers such as Mariya Takeuchi, Tatsuro Yamashita or Miki Matsubara (an early hit for Omega Tribe producer Hayashi) when they think of city pop, Sugiyama represents the unique aspects of the genre — the glistening city and sea imagery that inspires nostalgia, the songcraft, the recording technology — better than most.
“I grew up in Yokohama, so the beach and resorts were something that were always very familiar to me,” Sugiyama says, wearing a white T-shirt adorned with a surf shop logo to underline his coastal vibe. It was natural, then, that Omega Tribe branded itself as a “summer” group, with “Aqua City” leaning heavily into melodies and lyrics fit for warmer climes. The songs on their debut were largely written by Hayashi and another prominent Japanese producer, Yasushi Akimoto (best known for creating idol groups Onyanko Club and, eventually, AKB48), with Sugiyama acting as the band’s singer and frontman.
Sugiyama wasn’t always comfortable with being the face of the group, though. “I felt like a player in a sense, like an actor inserted into these songs,” he says. A more difficult adjustment, however, came from dealing with another reality of Japanese entertainment — Sugiyama and the rest of Omega Tribe weren’t only expected to perform as musicians but also as tarento (TV personalities).
“I thought it would just be about recording and performing, but I felt a distance from having to appear on TV,” Sugiyama says. This led to his defining look — he started wearing sunglasses to give himself a sense of safety.
Despite the business headaches, Sugiyama looks back fondly on the actual creation and recording of Omega Tribe’s music. He says it was born out of the “West Coast sound,” referring to a type of soft rock that emerged out of the U.S. and was pushed forward by session musicians transitioning to becoming recording artists. Sugiyama is a huge fan — he almost moved to Los Angeles in the ’90s to further pursue the style, but settled for Hawaii instead — and believes the West Coast musicians’ ability to be both great instrumentalists and songwriters inspired the city pop generation.
Rapid changes in technology also had a major influence on Sugiyama’s projects, as well as all of the music released during that time. “Technology evolved so much in the ’80s, including recording technology,” he says. “Synthesizers, specifically. They were revolutionary — you could make any sound you wanted. Previously, we had to ask string players to come in, but suddenly we could make a close approximation of that sound ourselves.”
Modern updates have helped him to appreciate his work with Omega Tribe even more. Hayashi’s “remix” version of “Aqua City” offers a crisper quality to the songs, which further highlight Sugiyama’s contributions. “I realize what great singing I had done on the record. … In the original, there was this thick reverberation that made my voice unclear.” The remastering also brings “Aqua City” closer to what Sugiyama originally intended the album to be: an ode to the West Coast sound in all its sharpness.
But most of all, “Aqua City” and the rest of Omega Tribe’s work is a snapshot of a decade that Sugiyama feels was just as upbeat as people imagine it to be.
“People were hungry and ambitious to make great music,” Sugiyama says. “There was great music out of the U.S. and England, so we challenged ourselves to beat it. It was an era of all these great musicians and players — that’s what I remember most about it.”
Omega Tribe’s “Aqua City Remix” is available now. For more information, visit vap.co.jp/sugiyamaomega_40th_anniversary.
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