How to collect Japanese pop music, part five: the J-rock course

How to Collect Japanese Pop MusicLast week’s focus on J-pop soloists had me wondering: why so few men? Well, for one, this look was never going to be exhaustive, and I am pretty sure there are many solo male musicians in Japanese pop. I’m confident I have written about a few of them, although admittedly they’re not on the pop side – is there a male equivalent to Ayumi Hamasaki? And two, those male musicians tend to be on the rock side of things, and Japanese rock is a different beast altogether – an essential part of J-pop, but a scene with a history and heritage of its own.

Like the rest of J-pop, J-rock evolved from the Japanese’s embrace of Western pop culture. While we hear J-pop now as rinky-dinky electro stuff, historically it was the advent of bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that led the whole thing to where it is today. As performers embraced everything from country to rock and roll, and grappled with whether they can do it in Japanese or stick with covers of English songs, they slowly put their own twist on things. Later, with the rise of acts like Southern All-Stars (on the guitar-led front) and Yellow Magic Orchestra (on the electronic front), what we now know J-rock has become widely accepted and loved.


Sure, when you think of J-rock you’re likely thinking of L’Arc-en-Ciel, but it’s such a broad term. Chage and Aska, one of the country’s biggest rock groups, is really more of pop-rock with a ballad twist, but then again, you’ll hear “Say Yes” and you’ll think of some 1980s anime’s end titles, and it fits. Formed in 1979, they were moderately successful throughout the next decade (although one of their early tracks, “Banri No Kawa”, cracked the top 10 in 1980) but it was only in 1991 when their album, Tree, cracked the million-sales mark. “Say Yes” is the sixth biggest-selling single in Japanese history.

Perhaps the strength of Chage and Aska are the musical chops of the two members. The duo was formed, perhaps surprisingly, at the suggestion of the renowned Yamaha Music Foundation; both of its members have had successful solo runs. Chage was part of the band Multimax, which was founded in 1989. Aska, on the other hand, also released music by himself: in fact, it was the success of his solo single “Hajimari wo Itsumo Ame” that sent “Say Yes” to the top of the charts. Their follow-up, “Yah Yah Yah”, also breached the million-sales mark, but their attempts to break to western markets were met with a tepid response. They continue to perform together to this day, although they took a four-year hiatus in 2009, where each focused on their solo work.


One band who did have success breaking out in the west is B’z, another duo who are so legendary they have sold more music in Japan than anybody else. (Yes, anybody else – that includes the idols and soloists we mentioned in the past couple of weeks.) Comprised of session guitarist Tak Matsumoto and vocalist Koshi Inaba, the group began with a more electronic sheen, as typical of the bands emerging from the country in the 1980s. Taking the unusual decision to not do any live performances until they have had enough material, the release of their third album, the aptly-titled Break Through, in 1991 saw the duo shoot up the charts and hold a dominant position – one they continue to hold today.

The group has changed its sound with the times. After the more synth-flavored tracks of their early albums, they shifted towards hard rock from their 1991 release In The Life, and its follow-up, 1992’s Run. In 1994 they switched again, this time to a bluesier sound, with their album The 7th Blues. Their shift back to a poppier (albeit less synth-y) sound on 1995’s Loose paid off, as it became their best-selling album to date. The band’s success to this day demonstrates the strong appeal of J-rock across generations: alongside their contemporaries Mr. Children, B’z continues to sell out arenas, and their releases still sell loads of copies. Oh, and if you’re a fan of the Detective Conan series, you would likely have heard their songs in several episodes.


During the 1980s a subset of Japanese rock bands took inspiration from the glam rock movement, especially its flamboyant look and androgynous leanings. Called “visual kei”, it took on the sound of heavy metal and hard rock coming out of the United States. One of its early leaders is X Japan – they are even credited with lending the movement its name, thanks to an early slogan of theirs. Formed in 1982 as X, they first saw success as an independent act, only releasing their first album, Vanishing Vision, in 1988 after signing with a record label. In 1993, the band moved to Atlantic Records, which saw a name change to avoid conflicts with the American band X.

While the jump to the American market saw the group shift away from their visual kei looks, their music remains an interesting cross of speed metal and classical. Drummer Yoshiki, who wrote most of the band’s songs, was classically trained in piano, making much use of orchestral sequences (think the introduction to early single “Kurenai”) and sprawling compositions, like their 1993 album Art of Life, which is comprised solely of a 29-minute song of the same name. Perhaps interestingly, it’s easy to get into the band: they have only released five albums before their break-up in 1997, and while they reunited ten years later, they have yet to release new music. A new album was delayed after guitarist Pata was rushed to the hospital.


Another band that traces its beginning to the visual kei movement is Glay. Founded in 1988 as a high school band, their first breakthrough came in 1994 when X Japan’s Hide and Yoshiki decided to sign them to their record label, leading to their first album, Hai to Diamond. Their third album, Beat Out!, was their chart breakthrough, topping the Oricon charts and sending Glay on their way to become one of Japan’s best-selling artists. (Yes, I noticed that trend myself – Japan loves their bands so much more than their idols.) The late 1990s were Glay’s heyday, so much so that apparently fans trying to book tickets to their concerts in 1998 led to an interruption on the entire Japanese telephone network.

Like other visual kei bands during their time, Glay eventually let go of that movement’s trademark looks. Their restlessness also extended to their music, with a focus on new styles from their 2001 album One Love, and especially with its follow-up, the R&B-flavored Unity Roots and Family, Away. There was even a surprise collaboration with idol group Exile, “Scream”. A hiatus in 2005 coincided with a split from their agency, and they returned as an independent act with their 2007 album Love is Beautiful, which again hit the top of the Oricon charts.


This attempt at a primer focuses on J-rock bands from the 1980s and 1990s, but of course a lot of acts emerged from the past decade and a half. We’re just writing about a bunch of them on our alternatives course in a couple of weeks’ time. One Ok Rock – it’s not “okay”; the name’s a reference to the fact that they rehearsed at one o’clock in the morning – was founded in 2005 and later signed to agency Amuse. Their early albums were moderately successful, but after a decision to embrace a more western sound – Good Charlotte is a particular influence – and a change in line-up, they released Niche Syndrome in 2010, which hit the fourth spot on the Oricon charts.

From there, it was upwards and onwards: their next two albums were bigger successes in the Japanese charts, and their 2014 release 35xxxv topped them outright. A regular in the Japanese stadium circuit, their foray into the American market began when they signed a deal with Warner Bros. in 2015, joining the Fueled by Ramen roster (which also includes the likes of Panic! at the Disco and Paramore). Despite a shift towards a more slick, Americanized sound, to the concern of some of their fans, One Ok Rock continues to be a success – and the release of their next album, Ambitions, is one to keenly watch next January. [NB]


[Next week: we explore music from anime and computer games.]


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