I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Naoko Ken/Kuniko Fukushima -- Bossa Nova (ボサノバ)

I took a look at that listing I wrote up on the Red and White teams for the 32nd edition of NHK's Kohaku Utagassen on New Year's Eve 1981, and I've written individual articles on some of the songs that were performed that night such as Seiko Matsuda's(松田聖子)"Natsu no Tobira"(夏の扉)and Hitomi Ishikawa's(石川ひとみ)"Machibuse"(まちぶせ). But the fact is that I haven't covered all of them due to failing memory.

One such song is "Bossa Nova" as performed by singer-actress-tarento Naoko Ken(研ナオコ). Listening to it again after so long, I remember that rock guitar starting things off. And as I heard the song, I realized that although there was some Latin, it didn't sound anything like a bossa nova tune at all.

In fact, I would say that it was straight-ahead City Pop. And looking at the lyrics (and music) by singer-songwriter Kuniko Fukushima(福島邦子), the bossa nova was actually a plot point and not the description of the melody. To explain, the story involved a woman remembering with a dollop of bittersweetness about the end of a relationship through a final dance to a bossa nova tune. In short, she would dearly love to get rid of the bossa nova from her memory. I think Ken's demeanor as she sang it above in the video pretty much said it all. I love the melody and her smoky vocals.

"Bossa Nova" was Ken's 28th single released on December 21st 1981. I mentioned the exact date since she did get onto the Kohaku a mere 11 days later so I'm kinda wondering how she was able to get onto the NHK stage in such a short time especially when the single got no higher than No. 69. Not that I'm complaining too much since my re-acquaintance with the song has me enjoying its City Poppiness.

The single was also on Ken's 9th album "Renairon"(恋愛論...Theory of Love), a collection of cover singles released in November 1981.

And that brings me to my next point in that Ken's single was indeed a cover of the original single by Fukushima herself. In fact, "Bossa Nova" was her 4th single from 1979. Judging from her performance on Fuji-TV's "Yoru no Hit Studio"(夜のヒットスタジオ), the original version by the Okayama-born singer-songwriter had that same Latin-tinged City Pop feeling but was lacking that oomph of the electric guitar in the intro and perhaps those smoky vocals of Ken. Still, her style is reminiscent of Junko Yagami(八神純子)and early Miharu Koshi(越美晴). The song was also on her 2nd album "To" from May 1980.

I'm glad that I was finally able to get this article about a Kuniko Fukushima song on board since I had come across another song by her in the past several months but have yet to put it onto the blog. Now I've gotten that kick to put more of her material into play. Born in 1954, she debuted in 1978 and released 15 singles and 11 albums. Along with Naoko Ken, Fukushima has also provided songs for other acts such as Anri(杏里), Checkers(チェッカーズ)and Akina Nakamori(中森明菜).

According to her J-Wiki profile, she is a writer but going to her official website, apparently she is still giving concerts even in the United States and teaches piano and voice.

Agnes Chan -- Hoshi ni Negai wo (星に願いを)

In tribute to Masaaki Hirao(平尾昌晃)who passed away in the last 24 hours, I've already written about one of his songs as a singer in the 1950s. However, I also want to pay my last respects through one of the many songs that he had written for others.

Therefore, who better to select than Agnes Chan(アグネス・チャン)since Hirao was the one who brought her over from Hong Kong, where the singer had already become famous, to Japan. Hirao also helped create four of her tunes, including her hit "Sougen no Kagayaki" (草原の輝き).

Another song that can be included in that quartet is "Hoshi no Negai wo" (Wish Upon A Star) which was her 5th single from February 1974. Another typically bubbly and bouncy number for Chan, the lyricist was Kazumi Yasui(安井かずみ)who had also written the lyrics for "Sougen no Kagayaki". I realize that Hirao whipped up songs for so many singers but it was hard for me to imagine that a rockabilly singer such as this fellow was able to create such 70s aidoru-tastic tunes like this one.

"Hoshi no Negai wo" went as high as No. 4 on Oricon and finished the year as the 26th-ranked single. I'm positive that the next "Uta Kon"(うたコン)will be providing some news and tributes to Hirao on Tuesday night so perhaps I won't be surprised if Chan or enka singer Hiroshi Itsuki (五木ひろし)appeared on the program.

Masaaki Hirao -- Diana (ダイアナ)

The announcement came out just a couple of hours ago so I think the folks in Japan are still getting the news although I've read a few YouTube comments here and there. Sadly, singer-songwriter Masaaki Hirao(平尾昌晃)passed away on July 21st at the age of 79 due to pneumonia in a Tokyo hospital.

Hirao was definitely one of the big songwriters for the kayo age, and along with other songwriters such as the late Yu Aku(阿久悠)and Takashi Matsumoto(松本隆), the list for his songwriting contributions to the plethora of singers over the decades on J-Wiki is so large that it has to be alphabetized. However, all the way before he started becoming more well-known as a composer, he was one of the big rockabilly singers during the 50s and 60s.

One of his earliest singles as a singer was a cover of the classic "Diana" originally by the Canadian-born singer Paul Anka. Created by Anka and Joe Sherman for release in July 1957, the Japanese version was released in 1958 with King Records director Go Makino(牧野剛)providing the Japanese lyrics under the pen name of Takashi Otowa(音羽たかし). Listening to Hirao's version, the lyrics come off as being a little stumblier than with other Japanese-language covers of American pop at the time. However, there's no doubt that Hirao had the golden voice.

Although Hirao didn't perform the song each time he came onto a music-variety show, it was still enough that I always pegged him as much as the Japanese "Diana" guy as I did peg him as the fellow behind the duet for "Canada kara no Tegami"(カナダからの手紙). And I think he really enjoyed performing it at concerts and TV shows.

We've had a few kayo songwriters pass away during the existence of this blog, and yesterday, we lost another one of the major composers for the old music. However I am grateful for the many many songs that Masaaki Hirao left us whether it be in the pop, aidoru and anison genres. May he rest in peace.

I also wrote up a Creator article on him last year so there is some biographical information about him there along with a number of his other creations, thanks to J-Wiki.

You can take a listen to the original by Anka.

ASKA -- Too many people

It's already been four years.... Imagine that being said in the low, husky voice of Ryoko Kinomiya (来宮良子).

Okay, it may be a tad dramatic to want to have sentence read by the late "Enka no Hanamichi" narrator, but that was what came to mind the moment I saw that ASKA was making a comeback after said period of time.

Actually, I was a lot more subdued than I thought I'd be at first, considering the fact that I used to be nuts over this half of the popular duo. Remember some of those nutso Mae-Kiyo or Hiroshi Tachi/Itsuki articles I wrote? Yeah, it was pretty much on the same caliber. But I guess with me shifting most of my attention to other artistes and falling down the enka-yo watering hole, it's probably no wonder my reaction to the singer-songwriter's anticipated return was more on par with encountering and then greeting a long lost acquaintance with a little smile, albeit a happily surprised one. I wonder if it's also due in part to that slight underlying paranoia I have that history might repeat itself and he'd end up in even more trouble than what had happened 4 years back. I really, really hope that he's turned over a new leaf, and will remain more stable now.

That, however, didn't stop my excitement levels from going through the roof when I finally retrieved "Too many people", as well as a Haruo Minami (三波春夫) twin-pack, from the post office after my vacation in June.

Here's the track list for "Too many people":

2. Be Free
3. Rehearsal (リハーサル)
4. Tokyo (東京)
5. X1
6. Sore de Iin da Ima wa (それでいいんだ今は)
7. Too many people 
8. To, Iu Hanashi sa (と,いう話さ)
9. Genki ka Jibun (元気か自分)
10. Toori Ame (通り雨)
11. Shinjiru Koto ga Raku sa (信じることが楽さ)
12. Mirai no Kunsho (未来の勲章)
13. Shabon (しゃぼん)

On a whole, I find that the tracks in "Too many people" very listenable and a whole lot more exciting than those in his previous original album,"SCRAMBLE", as they incorporate more of ASKA's different musical styles over his career rather than just being too 'one note', if you know what I mean. I've also noticed that the lyrics he penned for most of the songs seem to highlight his road to recovery and possibly giving reassurance to fans that he's fine now.

Moving on to the notable tracks, the first tune I'd like to talk about is track no.7, "To, Iu Hanashi sa".

Whoa, that coat looks like the one in the "Naze ni Kimi wa Kaeranai" (なぜに君は帰らない) MV.

"To, Iu Hanashi sa" was the first of ASKA's recent works I came across a few months ago after what seemed like an eternity. Admittedly, there was a hint of trepidation mixed into the eagerness when I saw the unfamiliar thumbnail and title, probably because of what I mentioned at the start of the article, but that disappeared as I watched the MV. Cool would be the word I'd use to describe "To, Iu Hanashi sa" and its monochrome MV featuring the guitar-wielding ASKA and his band. I don't know what's being sung, but I do love the way how each verse is being growled out with the boisterous beat of the drums. The piano in the back during the intense electric and acoustic guitar-filled instrumental portions is also a great addition, as it provides a mellowness to a very brash-sounding tune. That bit reminds me of the arrangement of his self-cover of C&A's past hit, "Meguriai" (めぐり逢い). Overall, this was a pretty good way to bring ASKA back into my radar - yeah, he kinda fell out for a while...

It's been a while since I've seen him so jolly.

After "To, Iu Hanashi sa", I discovered more of the other tracks in "Too many people" through other MVs and a medley of the album, and the one I came to like the most was "Tokyo".

This one is ASKA's ode to the metropolis that is Tokyo. It's melody is bright and catchy, but the cherry on the cake here is the tolling of the bells, which are reminiscent of "YAH YAH YAH" or "Senten wo Homeru nara Yugure wo Mate (晴天を誉めるなら夕暮れを待て), and gives an airiness that are in most songs I easily gravitate to. This makes it quite the contrast to its album counterpart, "FUKUOKA", a soft and heartfelt ballad. I'm guessing it's because the latter is directed at his home prefecture, hence the nostalgia and sentimentality, whereas the former is where there were new experiences and when things kicked into high gear for him (maybe too high... Sorry, no pun intended...), hence the fun atmosphere.

Another song that's grown to be one of my favourites is "Mirai no Kunsho". I'm not able to find the original at the moment, so I've put up a pretty solid cover instead. My reason for liking it is similar to that of "Tokyo" in that it's jaunty and easy on the ears, plus there's this hint of hopefulness in it. I don't watch much anime, but I can imagine "Mirai no Kunsho" being an opening theme for one like "Natsume Yuujincho" (夏目友人帳).

Up to this point, I've largely been talking about the uptempo tunes, so I'd like to shine the spotlight on the slower paced pieces, starting with "Toori Ame", which sounds like it came right out from his 1998 album, "kicks". "Toori Ame" is a laid back and feel-good ballad with a nice acoustic guitar solo that's got a certain coziness to it, like when watching the downpour from the warmth and safety of your home.

Next is "X1" (pronounced as cross-one). I wouldn't consider this R&B-inspired song a favourite of mine, but I thought the title was interesting. Initially, I had no idea what a name like "X1" had got to do with anything, but considering how the lyrics have got to do with a friend (s) helping one through a rough patch (again with ASKA's own experience) and how the "X1" is incorporated into it, I have an inkling that "X1" is sort of a homophone for "close one". If my hypothesis is right, objectively speaking, that's an ingenious play on words... or sounds.

The aforementioned album medley.

Finally, out of all the the works in "Too many people", the one that I found the strangest and the one where ASKA sounded the most... distant, for want of a better word, was the one the album was named after. I don't exactly know what's going on in "Too many people", the song, either, somehow I feel that it lacks the warmth the other tracks have... Eh, maybe it's just me. You can sample the first bit of it in the medley above, and the rest of it pretty much sounds the same, just more fleshed out with the drums and bass joining the piano. It is pretty amusing to hear ASKA spitting out a whole string of words as fast as Minami in "Jan Naito Jan" though.

To round things up, here's some information about ASKA's 8th original album: It was released early this year on 22nd February 2017, and did well on the Oricon charts, peaking at 7th place on the Weeklies and selling around 22 000 copies within the first week it came out. If I recall correctly, there was an article on the Oricon site that mentioned ASKA planning to do an Asian tour, with Singapore included on the list. Oh geez, I hope that happens in the near future. Tom Jones and Rimi Natsukawa (夏川りみ) were great, but I'd like to see an artiste I love on stage here.

Well, I'll leave things off here for now. I might talk about the songs individually some other time, or maybe not, depending on whether I have the time.

In spite of that uneasy feeling, I'm still glad he's finally back.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Checkers -- Ano Ko to Scandal (あの娘とスキャンダル)

Long time, no see, Checkers! Welcome back. I still marvel at the old days of my 80s love affair with Japanese music through "Sounds of Japan" and my biweekly visits to Kuri the karaoke lounge in Yorkville. Checkers was part of those memories and another thing that impresses me is how these guys from Fukuoka captured the hearts of fans in Japan with their 50s rock-and-roll sound and their mix of preppie punk and belated New Romantic in terms of their fashion sense. Sha-Na-Na meets Culture Club, in a way. You can take a look at "Namida no Request"(涙のリクエスト)to try to understand.

I think I've covered most of the Checkers' songs that I knew from the above sources and beyond but there are still a few more to delve into. One song is "Ano Ko to Scandal" (A Scandal With That Girl) which perhaps didn't have as high a profile at Kuri as the other hits did, but I still know it for vocalist Fumiya Fujii's(藤井郁弥)delivery of "Wow Wow Wow!"

This was another hit tune as well as Checkers' 6th single from March 1985 concocted by the duo of Masao Urino and Hiroaki Serizawa(売野雅勇・芹澤廣明)who had also come up with "Namida no Request" as well as the band's previous single "Julia ni Heartbreak"(ジュリアに傷心). That song ended up becoming the No. 1 single of 1985.

(song starts at about 4:54)

With all of these songs about love in terms of happy romance or sad heartbreak, it's actually refreshing to find out that "Ano Ko to Scandal" goes off on a different tangent in that it has the theme of eloping...or perhaps the fantasy of one. The protagonist is massively envious about the girl of his dreams going out with another fellow and would like nothing better than to convince her of his charms and then flee out of town in unholy unofficial matrimony. One interesting point is that going through Urino's lyrics, it almost reads as if the lyricist had the climactic scene from "The Graduate" in his head when he was writing the words, although the melody comes from a time about a decade before the Dustin Hoffman movie.

"Ano Ko to Scandal" also hit No. 1 on the Oricon weeklies and didn't do too shabbily on the yearly rankings as well, finishing 1985 at No. 5. However, it was never placed on an original album but there was an earlier version of the song which had the title of "Scandal Machi"(スキャンダル魔都...Scandal City of Evil)and was recorded onto Checkers' 3rd album, "Mainichi!! Checkers"(毎日!!チェッカーズ...Everyday!! Checkers)that came out a few months after the release of the official single in August 1985. The arrangement is basically the same but the lyrics are different in that the plot is now about paparazzi going for that salacious photograph. This was also another No. 1 album for the band.

Hi-Fi Set -- Hitokire no Koi (ひときれの恋)

When contributor nikala wrote up her article on vocal group Hi-Fi Set's(ハイ・ファイ・セット)"Sunao ni Naritai" (素直になりたい) from 1984 a few years ago, I gave my compliments since I hadn't known anything about what Junko Yamamoto(山本潤子)and company were doing during the 1980s. Basically all I had known was their early 1970s covers of Yumi Arai(荒井由実)songs and other tunes done in a style reminiscent of The Manhattan Transfer. Then there was my re-discovery of them (as evidenced through the above photo of my purchase of "White Moon") when I was on the JET Programme near the tail-end of their time together in the early 1990s with their more contemporary sound. As far as I was concerned, there had been this decade-long dark hole of perception as far as Hi-Fi Set until nikala wrote her piece.

Now I've come across another 1980s song, their 24th single to be specific, "Hitokire no Koi" (A Slice of Love) from October 1985. It's definitely quite an intriguing entry for the Set since it comes off as this hint of sophisticated French pop with jabs of contemporary synth and electric guitar. The music is from Masamichi Sugi(杉真理)while Akira Koizumi's(小泉亮)lyrics about not being yet ready to move on from a recent romantic breakup.

"Hitokire no Koi" was also a track on Hi-Fi Set's 14th album "Sweet Locomotion" from April 1986. May have to think about investing in a couple of their 80s albums.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Pen Friend Club -- Doyoubi no Koibito (土曜日の恋人)

It was back during my JET days that I discovered the term pen friend which was the Japanese term for pen pal. Seems rather quaint now for such an expression to exist considering that we are now in the world of e-mail and texting. And even back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I only communicated with my old friends back in Toronto by snail mail so my round-trip correspondence would usually take two weeks! Yes, I'm sure some of you young'uns reading this article are envisioning words such as prehistoric and Cretaceous.

But hey, this is the place for some of the old stuff, the old kayo, to come through. To emphasize my point that the Japanese of today still love their standards of yesteryear, I introduce the band The Pen Friend Club(ザ・ペンフレンドクラブ). According to their J-Wiki entry, this is a rock band that started up in 2012 focusing on 1960s music, specifically covering the material of The Beach Boys, Phil Spector and other artists who were into West Coast Rock. And on the Japan side of things, the band is also a big fan of Eiichi Ohtaki(大滝詠一)and Tatsuro Yamashita(山下達郎).

Ol' Tats still gets a lot of love from the fellows around him. Perhaps a number of anison fans may have discovered the wonders of Mr. Yamashita via Junk Fujiyama's(ジャンクフジヤマ)"Hoshikuzu no Pipeline"(星屑のパイプライン). Well, The Pen Friend Club, which has had a lot of members pass through its doors, has also given its tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter with its cover of "Doyoubi no Koibito" (Saturday is for Lovers), one of the finest and sunniest numbers that he has created.

I don't know which of the female members is providing the vocals for "Doyoubi no Koibito", but she does give it a lot of justice. Sweet and light...just the type of tone for a summer song.

The Pen Friend Club has released 4 albums since its debut and its cover of "Doyoubi no Koibito" was placed onto its third album "Season of the Pen Friend Club" in 2016. I also noticed that although it's said that they focus on the 1960s, the band has also covered songs by Elton John and The Captain and Tennille.