Here’s a music vid I chopped together for my friends, The Ed Woods. They’re a great, demented Japanese horror-themed punk/psychobilly band. They always put on an incendiary live show, so you should check them out if you get a chance.
Here’s a video a friend and I made for my Japanese mates’ wacky band. Enjoy!
A couple of years ago, I was asked to write an article about karaoke for a travel site, but it never got used, (probably because of the increasingly hyperbolic and negative tone towards the end!) so I thought I’d post it here:
Just as soft drugs supposedly lead to harder drugs, in Japan booze inevitably leads to… karaoke.
Now, I should point out that Karaoke in Japan is a very different proposition to Karaoke at home. In Japan, you generally go to a “Karaoke box,” a building full of tiny private rooms where you and your friends are led to your own snug little booth, with comfy chairs, a remote-controlled karaoke machine, and a phone for ordering drinks and snacks. Here you can happily warble without the drawback of being humiliated by a jeering, drunken mob of disapproving strangers. The rooms come equipped with phone-book-sized lists of songs to choose from, both English and Japanese. Every kind of song imaginable is available, both pop-tastic hits and indie obscurities, from 50s standards to current chart-stormers released as recently as last week.
At home you would not be trusted to drink in such a room unsupervised, without stealing the karaoke machine, or at least throwing up all over it. Meanwhile, the Japanese are trusting to the point of recklessness, cramming their karaoke boxes full of state-of-the-art gizmos, such as giant flat-screen TVs which broadcast the number of calories you burned off during your performance, and novelty items like tambourines, or sometimes even costumes. (I advise you to approach these costumes with caution. Thanks to the advent of camera-phones, pictures of me clad in both a monkey costume and an ill-fitting schoolgirl uniform are now floating around on various social networking sites.)
All this makes for marvelous, childish fun, so it’s no surprise that karaoke clubs light up towns all over Japan. There were approximately 130,000 of them at last count, in 2007. A desperate karaoke junkie could easily find somewhere to sing, even if stranded in the remotest of villages at four in the morning. Near any major station, you should be able to spot a branch of one of the big chains- Big Echo, Shidax, Pasela, Daytripper, 747, or Karaoke-Kan. They are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. And karaoke boxes are not the only outlet- the “snack” pubs and hostess bars frequented by businessmen uniformly have a machine in the corner. You can get tinny digital karaoke tunes on your mobile phone, with the accompanying lyrics scrolling down the screen. There are at least two karaoke channels on cable TV, running an endless loop of backing tracks and subtitled song words, over romantic images of tropical beaches and cornfields.
Insecure individuals slip into karaoke boxes alone to practise. On quiet weekday afternoons, senior citizens go for a polite croon with their withered old friends. Solitary salary-men book themselves a room just to sleep in, when too much grueling overtime leads them to miss their train home. Tone deaf or terminally shy businessmen, who want to wow their bosses at parties, pay big bucks to personal karaoke trainers, who knock their vocal skills into shape, like musical Mr. Miyagis.
Japan is, after all, the birthplace of karaoke. The name is derived from the words “kara” (which means “empty”) and “okesutara” (which means “orchestra”). “Empty orchestra” may sound like an episode of Scooby Doo set in a haunted concert hall, but to the Japanese it has less spooky connotations.
It was invented in the early 70s by an enterprising drummer-come-mad-scientist from Kobe, called Daisuke Inoue, who cobbled together the first ever karaoke machine out of a mini-amp, a mic, a coin box, and a car stereo equipped with a tape of his band playing backing tracks. You might imagine that he now spends his days singing “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” into a diamond-encrusted microphone but, alas, this is not so. Poor old Inoue neglected to patent the idea, never made a penny, and now peddles cockroach-repellant for a living. Doh! Inoue may well consider himself unfortunate, but I’m sure old men across the globe, who regularly have their quiet evening beers in the pub interrupted by karaoke nights featuring the caterwauling of shit-faced Celine Dion wannabes, would consider his bad luck to be divine justice.
Nevertheless, residents of Japan have a lot to thank Daisuke Inoue for. His creation has one invaluable use- a trip to the karaoke box is the ideal way to finish off a hot date. What better way to ensure a sexy end to the evening than to escort your lady or lad into a dark, secluded room, where booze flows freely, conversation is no longer required, and you are able to express your romantic side through the power of song. I’m sure many a child has been conceived on the soft seats of a karaoke box, sound-tracked by crappy instrumental versions of Barry White songs, while the microphone lays idle. Before getting anywhere, however, guys may have to swallow their pride- Japanese girls often expect to be serenaded with their favourite songs, by the likes of The Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. I am ashamed to say I, myself, have sold-out and sung sickly love-ballads which not only have I never heard before, but I have, in fact, studiously avoided. It is extremely difficult to hit Britney’s high notes, I can tell you. Such performances are both humiliating and risky (lest we forget, phones have video-cameras on them these days,) but sometimes a man must do what is necessary to get his leg over. At least nobody has asked me to sing Meat Loaf. I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.
Lamentably for me, these romantic encounters are few and far between, and I’m far more likely to end up piling into a karaoke box with a group of drunken mates. A trip to the karaoke box with your buddies can be tremendous fun. Well, it’s fun once or twice. The first time that you heroically hold aloft that mighty microphone, like He-Man, years of inhibition, embarrassment, and repressed emotion come flooding out in the form of music. It’s incredibly cathartic. Old teenaged dreams of pop-stardom momentarily manifest themselves as you belt out the classics with relish.
By the seventh or eighth time you hit the karaoke box, however, the novelty has already worn off, and your own nervous excitement has been replaced by dread at the prospect of spending an entire evening in a tiny box with the same handful of people, all singing with such ineptitude that you yearn for Simon Cowell to appear and berate them. Luckily, most karaoke boxes offer cheap, all-night, all-you-can-drink deals, so you can cope with the cacophony by drinking excessively.
Here’s how a bad all-night session in a karaoke box typically unfolds:
Late at night, after drinking in a bar, some deluded show-off will propose a karaoke jam. You must then decide between catching the last train home, or enduring five hours of liver abuse and aural torture in a karaoke booth. This is a no-brainer if you’re sober, but common sense tends to fly out the window when you’ve been drinking copious amounts of sake.
Once inside, the most inarticulate, slurring wino in the group grabs the mic, and the musical misery begins. You now find yourself trapped for the night in a claustrophobic, black room, with men and women fighting over microphones and screaming themselves hoarse. Emotions are laid bare, fluids are spilled. It’s a bit like the films “Cube” or “Saw,” but with a worse soundtrack. In the karaoke box, no-one can hear you scream (unless you’re the one with the mic).
These five-hour sessions, customary for those who have missed their trains home, can become brutal affairs, thanks to sleep-deprivation combined with cheap unlimited alcohol. As the night unfolds and everybody becomes drunker and more emotional, aggressive lunges are made for the remote control. Everybody squabbles over whose song is next. Blood, as well as beer, is sometimes spilled. One guy I know was head-banging so vigorously to his own rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” that he smashed his face into the table -Thwack!!- and cracked his head open. He was unconscious on the floor in a mess of blood for an alarming moment before clambering to his feet, whimpering.
On the karaoke monitor, the repetitive washed-out video images of young couples promenading in San Francisco, London, and Paris look like out-takes from an early 90s commercial for women’s deodorant. They begin to have a hypnotic effect after a couple of hours and make you lose the will to live.
Respite can be found in periodic trips to the toilets. En route, you can enjoy the muffled melodies from other rooms full of inebriated locals. Be sure to take note of your room number when nature calls, because all the rooms are identical. You might never find your way back, and be lost for all eternity in the labyrinthine corridors. Although, roaming the hallways can be an adventure in itself, and is often preferable to returning to your red-faced friends. More than once I have ended up stumbling into the wrong room, and been invited by jubilant drunkards to sing a Beatles song or two. (Be careful, though. Open the wrong door once too often and you might burst in on a rutting couple. Randy teenagers use karaoke rooms as a cheap alternative to hotels. The karaoke box is the Japanese version of the car back-seat.) Indeed, an amorous couple among your own party might also slink off to the bathroom for some intimacy that they will regret in the morning (perhaps sneaking the monkey and schoolgirl costumes out with them, to spice things up.)
As dawn draws near, your friends begin passing out on the seats. The tambourine lies broken. An inch of beer is sloshing around on the floor.
Slowly darkness descends, your vision blurs….
… and you wake up on a bench under the blazing sun, your ears ringing, the scuff-marks on the toes of your shoes indicating that you had been dragged there by the thankless karaoke-box staff. You rue having been foolish enough to go to the karaoke box yet again. I wonder if Daisuke Inoue ever knew it would come to this!
Rocknococoro is a fine place to rock yer coconuts. A fun little DJ bar in Shibuya, it’s frequented by the kind of enthusiastic teenybopper fanboys/girls who attend the Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic festivals (indeed, they even throw parties themed around those festivals). I’m usually the oldest person in there, but fortunately I’m entirely shameless, and the endearingly sweet and nerdy crowd are always friendly anyway, especially after they’ve knocked back a few drinks.
It’s narrow, but there’s room to dance in front of the DJ booth, and the large windows give a compelling view of the goings-on on the urban streets three floors below.
Ladies take note- it’s half price drinks for you on weeknights. (I’d try to get round this misandrist policy by wearing a dress and a wig, but at 6’5″ I’d make an unconvincing tranny. Oh well- at least this policy ensures that there are always more than a few nice women in the place.)
Park Bld.3F,10-1, Udagawa cho, Shibuya-Ku,Tokyo JP
Open from 7pm-5am daily.
Thanks to everyone who came to the “Wild Mood Swings” shindig I put together, (not least all my ace mates who did a top-notch job of DJing!) And the usual apologies to anyone I trampled while dancing, puked on, or offended in an attempt to be affable!
The enigmatic, blue-haired Leanne of “The Fashionate Traveller came along and gave us a nice write-up. Cheers, Leanne! Come along again, sweetie!
Another party worth coming to is Farm party Vol.2, at Asagaya Gamuso on 4/17 from 7pm, organized by Craig of Tokyo Gig Guide and my good pals Abikyokan, and featuring lots of diverse and wicked live music courtesy of Abikyokan, Belgium Internet (UK), Akane Hosaka, LIVING ASTRO, and Eri Makino, with Craig Eee and yours truly spinning a few tunes.
Get all the details at Tokyo Gig Guide!.
The other day I stumbled upon a Jackson Five-themed bar in Nakano, Tokyo. Groovy!
Perhaps the bar was named to commemorate the famous quintet’s epic 1979 concert in nearby Nakano Sun Plaza.
Unfortunately, the proprietors don’t stick too rigidly to the concept, as you can see from the sign: “we play trance, reggae, and hip-hop”. I don’t remember hearing any trance anthems by the Jackson Five!
However, the drinks are all four hundred yen during happy hour (from 6-9pm) which is fantastically cheap, and they’ve got a dartboard, so who’s complaining.
Jackson Five Bar:
東京都中野区中野5-67-12 ＳＫビル Ｂ１Ｆ
More info (in Japanese) with a map: Jackson Five Bar
By coincidence, this week I also discovered Japan’s very own domestic answer to the Jackson Five, called “Finger 5”, who were great. Fronted by a pint-sized, bespectacled boy (who looks like a girl), and accompanied by his younger sister (who looks like a boy), and backed up by their three gangling teenage brothers, Okinawa’s Finger 5 made catchy bubblegum pop in the early seventies and had several smash hit singles (and even made four movies!) until an unsuccessful bid to crack America, combined with the inevitable onset of puberty and broken voices, put an end to their short-lived stardom.
Disappointingly, they all went on to lead normal lives, and didn’t become eccentric recluses, with pet monkeys and merry-go-rounds in their back gardens.
Check ’em out in action:
Whenever I have a rummage through the CD sections of Tokyo’s recycle shops, it’s always there, without fail: “Scatman’s World” by Scatman John. There are usually multiple copies, always priced at 100yen, coated in dust and flecked with mould (much like the Scatman himself, as I recall).
With his CDs dumped in charity shops as often as paperback copies of “The DaVinci Code”, Scatman John must have unwittingly generated more money for for the poor and needy than Bono could ever hope to.
That is, of course, if anybody actually buys these old albums. I’m doubtful. Alas, the Japanese are a fickle bunch, and that is why Scatman John, who sadly died a decade ago this month, has been consigned the bargain bin of history, along with MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and those Scandinavian line dancers who sang “Cotton Eye Joe”.
But why were there so many copies of his CD floating around in the first place? While one song was enough for the rest of the world, it would seem Scatman John’s LP made a huge splash in Japan when it was first released in the mid nineties. “Scatman’s World” (1995) is the 9th best selling album of all time in Japan by an international artist. Of all time! More than anything by The Rolling Stones, Elvis, or The Beach Boys.
Ask a Japanese person to name some classic albums and they’ll say: “Sergeant Pepper”, “Thriller”, “Dark Side of the Moon”, “Scatman’s World”.
How the hell did this happen?
Well, if television is any indicator, the Japanese certainly have an inexplicable fondness for men in their fifties. And the fact that Scatman John both overcame an impediment (stuttering) and mastered a craft (scat) would have won him respect here.
Either that or fans of Japanese poo-porn were confused by the term “Scat” and mistakenly bought the CD thinking he’d be singing odes to coprophilia. (His vocal technique does sound a bit like someone with a bad case of case of the curry splatters uncontrollably farting in a toilet bowl, so the fecal-fans wouldn’t have been entirely disappointed.)
“Scatman’s World” is, in part, a trippy concept album, all about a mythical utopian society called “Scatland”. It can’t have hurt Japanese sales that the language barrier spared people from the pain of hearing Scatman’s terrible lyrics in songs such as “Song of Scatland”, surely one of the strangest records ever recorded.
The album sales skyrocketed as Scatman’s ubiquitous television appearances in annoying pudding commercials brought him to an even wider audience. It is these ads for which Scatman is best known in Japan. Kids, grannies, and tattooed goths could all identify Scatman John as “oh, that pudding guy.”
And singing in Japanese occasionally, as he did with the god-awful “Super Kirei”and “Ichi, Ni, San… Go!”, must have only added to his popularity, however nonsensical it all sounded.
Now, I know the Japanese have a very high threshold for repetitive and inane pop songs, but surely the music of Scatman John is so infuriatingly bad that it would try even their patience.
Evidently not. Even Ultraman was grooving to the Scatman.
Of course, fame is a fickle mistress, and a decade after his death, Scatman John CDs aren’t exactly flying off the shelves (unless there’s a poltergeist in Book Off). But while Scatman John’s CDs lay unwanted in the fleamarkets and recycle shops of Japan, his spirit lives on in the form of the Scatman imitators who operate to this day, such as this motor-mouthed fella (who does well until he pretends to rap the English words at 0:25 and isn’t fooling anyone.)
And so, Scatman John, rest in peace in your fabled Scatland, and take comfort in the knowledge that the beloved New Orleans jazz tradition that you spent decades mastering is still remembered. Albeit in the form of Euro-pop pudding commercial jingles sung by Japanese men in false moustaches who are taking the piss out of you.