“Tokyo Flashback” Compilation (1991 / 2017)

Originally released on CD back in 1991, the eight song Japanese psych comp Tokyo Flashback got the vinyl treatment in 2017. A double LP with a gatefold jacket and slipcase, it carries all the hallmarks of high quality Japanese production, the printing flawless, the materials beautiful. The one complaint with the physical product, however, is how snuggly the gatefold fits into the slipcase – others have also remarked about how difficult it is to remove the jacket to get at the records, and I can attest to this from personal experience, with my slipcase suffering from a corner ding from when I dropped it while trying to separate the two. Such is life.

Japanese artists have carved out some special musical niches, and one of these is psych. I first got turned onto this scene thanks to Julian Cope’s 2007 book Japrocksampler, which introduced me to artists like Les Rallizes Denudes and Flower Travellin’ Band, and later after seeing a live performance by the insanely intense Bo Ningen. And while it’s not music I want to listen to all the time, I’m completely fascinated by the crushing sonic wall these performers unleash. And Tokyo Flashback provides plenty of fuzz and feedback and jamming, more than enough to make my brain feel like a scrambled egg.

Yūzō Kayama – “加山雄三のすべて〜ザ・ランチャーズとともに” (1966)

I’m sharing this record today in large part because it was a cool find. When we visited Hong Kong a few years back we visited The Record Museum and over the course of about 90 minutes proprietor James Tang gave us a masters-degree-level lesson in sound recording and quality. I can’t recommend a visit to The Record Museum enough should you find yourself in HK. One of the things James discussed with us was his opinions on recording quality, specifically which countries tended to produce the best vinyl pressings. Unsurprisingly he considered Japanese editions superior, but then took it one step further and told us about the red vinyl pressings that were often the very first runs of a given album. I’d never heard of Japanese red vinyl before, but some later research not only confirmed this (or at the very least that many others shared this opinion), but also that these wine-red versions are very collectible.

Fast forward to yesterday and I popped into a small local shop to do some digging. I was surprised to find a handful of Japanese pressings in the bins, most notably a number of Elvis 50th Anniversary editions with the OBIs intact. Though the prices were good, I passed on them as I’m simply not that into Elvis. But in a separate bin I came across a few more obscure Japanese titles, including this one by Yūzō Kayama. And lo and behold, it was the red vinyl pressing. For two bucks. It almost didn’t matter what was on it or that it was missing the OBI – I was going to buy it.

I didn’t find a lot about Yūzō Kayama online, at least not in English, but he was a very popular actor and musician. He played with a surf-inspired band called The Launchers, and 加山雄三のすべて〜ザ・ランチャーズとともに (All of Yūzō Kayama with The Launchers) is a combination of love ballads and pure surf guitar goodness. For some reason the vocal tracks on some of these songs aren’t up to snuff, many of them generating distortion, but the musical portions are quite clear and the surf instrumentals are pure gold, the stereo aspect very pleasing with different instruments in each speaker on tracks like “モンキー・クレイジー”.

Not only did I end up with a cool rarity, but one with some great jams on it as well. Best two dollars I’ve spent in a while.

Mika Bomb – “The Fake Fake Sound of Mikabomb” (2001)

Better change your underpants,
Cuz you might need an ambulance.
— “Contact Tokyo”

I have a thing for Japanese punk. I can’t fully explain it, but one aspect is that Japanese musicians are definitely “all in” – it’s a lifestyle. So that being said I’m always on the lookout for this kind of thing when I’m digging, and that’s how I pulled a copy of Mika Bomb’s The Fake Fake Sound of Mikabomb out of a box at a Seattle record show recently. A quick check online revealed that prior to this album Mika Bomb had been signed to the Beastie Boys’ label Grand Royal, and if they’re good enough for the Beasties they’re good enough for me.

Mika Bomb is that perfect combination of pop punk and garage, consisting of an intentional rawness and strong pop aesthetic. The vocals are all in English and Mika’s signing is almost flawless – you could easily assume that she’s a native English speaker, and that makes the record all that much more approachable. The Fake Fake Sound of Mikabomb is probably at the top of my list of favorite Japanese punk albums at the moment, definitely the one I’d reach to first if someone was looking to explore the genre.

Tomita – “The Planets” (1976)

The Planets is somewhere between classical and film score, but all (or at least almost all) of it played on synths. It’s spacey quality makes sense given that the album is called The Planets and that each of the five tracks are named after planets, with the conspicuous absence of Pluto. Did Tomita somehow know that Pluto would someday lose its planet status? Was he a time traveler? Was he from the future? Those theories don’t seem so preposterous as I sit here listening to the theremin on “Venus, The Bringer Of Peace”.

If you’re into synths and 70s electro-weirdness, The Planets is for you. And if you’re picking up a vinyl copy, make sure the poster insert is included. If it’s not, that should drop the price a little… though not like this is an expensive purchase.

Pizzicato Five – “Playboy & Playgirl” (1999)

This is some “Miscellaneous P” section action I found the other day at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records. I’m fascinated by Japanese pop, though honestly often disappointed. But Playboy & Playgirl… oh you coy Playboy & Playgirl.

I don’t entirely know what’s happening here. There’s a distinctly retro-pop feel to the opening “La Dépression”, and the same is true of the following number “The International Pizzicato Five Mansion”… two songs that are very similar and very opposite at the same time. The 70s lounge-style synths of the latter are compelling, sucking you in like some kind of Sonny & Cher tune you pretended to hate even though you secretly loved it. There’s a sort of sitcom theme song vibe happening, like some wacky Japanese roommates with bright clothing sharing a small shag-carpeted apartment are about to engage in some wild hijinks, maybe something involving the cranky-but-lovable bus driver who takes them to work every day, or the wise old lady at the soba shop.

And yet this was originally released in 1998 (the American version, which I have, came out in 1999).

As for the hot-organ-action of “Week-end”? Fuh-gedda-bout-it. It makes me want to take up smoking and drink a Michelob.

Cool retro.