Happy End - Kazemachi Roman Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit an overlooked masterpiece from 1971, one that helped define the essence of Japanese rock.

In 2007, Rolling Stone Japan declared Happy End’s Kazemachi Roman to be the greatest Japanese rock album of all time. For a band that can boast such an accolade, Happy End still isn’t all that well-known in the West. If you’re a hardcore J-rock fan, you probably think Happy End aren’t as interesting or cool as noisier artists from the 1970s like, say, Flower Travellin’ Band. Today Happy End are celebrated in Japan, yet Kazemachi Roman sold fewer than 10,000 copies the year it was released, and it’s still not available on streaming services. By this point, Happy End should be as documented and famous as Love or even Os Mutantes, but they are rarely if ever mentioned in the same breath.

When Happy End first formed in Tokyo in late 1969, the Beatles were basically kaput, which should give you an idea of how much had already happened in Western popular music. In Japan, pop music transformed more slowly, to some degree because it was constantly being measured against the West.

Aside from fringe experimental psychedelic outfits like Speed, Glue & Shinki and Les Rallizes Dénudés, Japanese countercultural pop music in the mid-to-late ’60s was largely divided into two camps. On one side were “Group Sounds” acts, basically the Japanese equivalent of bands you’d find in the Nuggets box set; they combined skunky garage rock with kayōkyoku, a mix of Western scales and traditional Japanese music. The other faction was folk, either “campus folk” amateurs trying to reconstruct mid-’60s West Coast coffeehouses, min’yo artists attempting to re-create indigenous and traditional Japanese music, or unvarnished protest folk in the vein of early Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Language was another demarcation: Group Sounds bands would often sing or perform covers in English, on some level in the hopes of appealing to American listeners, while folk acts sang in Japanese, a purposeful act of resistance toward U.S. cultural dominance.

The members of Happy End weren’t interested in either side, let alone the debate itself. Actually, they thought it was all pretty lame. Guitarist Shigeru Suzuki puts it bluntly in a 2014 documentary for the Japanese TV station NHK BS Premium: “Honestly, I thought Group Sounds was pretty boring. In the end, it was just an extension of the traditional Japanese ballad. The folk musicians had good melodies, but … their rhythms were just boring.” At heart, Happy End felt that in trying so hard to either win over America or defy it, both sides were defined by their relationship to the West. The message of rock’n’roll might be universal, but the music is inescapably Western; you had to bring Japan to rock’n’roll, rather than try to force rock’n’roll to be Japanese.

Happy End only existed for three years, but the band’s enduring legacy is creating dynamic rock music that was essentially Japanese, exemplified by their 1971 masterpiece, Kazemachi Roman. Sung entirely in Japanese, the songs don’t initially sound innovative—it’s crisp, melodic, and swaggering folk-rock that recalls the Band, Little Feat, or the Kinks in the late-1960s. But Happy End refashioned early 1970s folk-rock into their own style marked by conceptual, compositional, and emotional depth. The album signaled to Japanese artists and audiences that you could make pop music influenced by the West while maintaining a distinctly Japanese identity, a breakthrough that permanently altered the trajectory of Japanese pop.

Like all legendary bands, Happy End emerged from a cosmic alignment of supernatural talents. There was Suzuki, an 18-year-old guitar prodigy. Singer and guitarist Eiichi Ohtaki didn’t have Suzuki’s chops, but he was a skilled songwriter and musician in his own right. Drummer Takashi Matsumoto wrote the lion’s share of the band’s sly and surreal lyrics. And then there was Haruomi Hosono, primarily the bassist but also an adept multi-instrumentalist and arranger who, along with Ohtaki, was Happy End’s other main songwriter.

Hosono and Matsumoto had played together in the psych-blues band Apryl Fool, which was even more short-lived than Happy End. Loosely associated with Group Sounds, Apryl Fool covered American songs like Bob Dylan’s “Pledging My Time” and sometimes sang in English, but they stood out with original, Japanese-language material suffused with lysergic vibrations.

Apryl Fool lasted less than a year and released only one self-titled album, splitting up in late 1969. Mere weeks afterwards, Hosono and Matsumoto became session players and met Suzuki; the famous Japanese folk singer Nobuyasu Okabayashi then recruited the trio, along with Ohtaki, as his backing band. It didn’t take long for the four musicians to figure out that they were destined for greater things than “Nobuyasu Okabayashi’s backing band.”

Ohtaki and Hosono both grew up listening to the Far East Network, a radio station that broadcast to American GIs stationed in Japan after the war. The two were particularly obsessed with Buffalo Springfield. “Buffalo Springfield was pretty hard for me to grasp,” Hosono says in the documentary. “I thought, ‘How could I create a sound like that?’ … I discovered that they valued their ‘roots.’ It wasn’t just the music, it was Western culture and literature.”

Hosono was amazed that Buffalo Springfield had not just one, but three talented singer-songwriters. He and the other members of Happy End envisioned an equally gifted group of musicians in which every person would write songs and sing; instead of mimicking Buffalo Springfield’s “roots,” they would channel their Japanese history and culture. Suzuki had no songwriting experience, and Matsumoto was solely a lyricist, but they were nearly at the point of making their ambitions a reality.

Multiple sources cite Happy End as the first rock band to sing entirely in Japanese, which is empirically untrue. However, Happy End was the first to bend the rules of their native tongue to glom on to the rhythms of rock’n’roll singing. As University of Chicago professor Michael K. Bourdaghs details in his book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon (the title of Happy End’s final song), most of Happy End’s lyrics were written in desu/masu, which he explains is “a more polite yet also more conversational form of Japanese conjugation.” Happy End manipulated the cadence of their lyrics to fit the melodies and rhythms of their music, most conspicuously when, as Bourdaghs describes it, “relatively meaningless syllables are extended to remarkable length.”

Released in August 1970 on the experimental label URC, Happy End’s self-titled debut is considered by some to be their finest moment—most notably by impassioned musician and Japrocksampler author Julian Cope. (The album is sometimes referred to as “Yudemen,” meaning “boiled noodles,” which is written on a storefront sign on the cover.) While it demonstrates its members’ near-instantaneous telepathic interplay, Happy End today feels a little like the band was trying to replicate Buffalo Springfield instead of taking inspiration from them. Some songs, like “Kakurenbo” and “Juuni Gatsu no Ame no ni,” sound exactly like late-’60s Stephen Stills and Neil Young sung in Japanese.

Happy End was far from a commercial hit, but it had a huge impact in the Japanese music press. The Japanese New Music Magazine anointed it the best album of 1970. Naturally, with anything that receives overwhelming acclaim, there’s an inevitable backlash. In this case, it even had a name, the infamous “Japanese-language Rock Controversy” (“Nihongo Rokku Ronsō”). Most notoriously, Yuya Uchida, who produced and managed the Flower Travellin’ Band, believed Happy End’s approach posed two problems: By singing in Japanese, they were alienating global audiences, and because of the unusual style of their singing, the words were too difficult to understand. Happy End couldn’t relate to Uchida because they didn’t share his objectives. “He was thinking about business,” Hosono says in the documentary. “We were just experimenting, without thinking about how it would appeal to the rest of the world.”

For Happy End’s follow-up, the band wanted to refine its sound and deepen its fundamental Japaneseness. Matsumoto devised a concept album that would revolve around a changing Tokyo. In the West, the city seems impossible, vast, intricate—a puzzle box of nesting dolls of rooms within rooms within tunnels within buildings within buildings, surrounded by mountains in one direction, water in another, and imperceptible horizons everywhere else. But as Italo Calvino writes in the 1973 postmodern novel Invisible Cities, “the sum of all wonders is an endless, formless ruin.” Had that sentence existed at the time, it’s one Matsumoto might have used to describe what he dreaded about Tokyo’s future. To him, the real wonder occurred in the Tokyo that existed before the Olympics, the quainter Tokyo of his boyhood.

Beginning in 1952, when the U.S. occupation of Japan began to diminish (the occupation hasn’t really ended; approximately 30,000 troops remain in Okinawa today), Tokyo transformed amid a rapid blur of development and displacement, especially en route to the 1964 Summer Olympics. In fact, Matsumoto and his family were forced to leave his childhood home, which was razed for the construction of a new highway in his neighborhood of Aoyama.

Matsumoto didn’t only bemoan new development, he disliked what postmodernity had done to the shape and character of the city. “First the streetcars disappeared,” he says in the documentary, referencing the tramway that used to operate between the Shibuya and Shinbashi neighborhoods. “It felt good to ride along at a leisurely pace like that.” The easygoing rhythms of pre-1960s Tokyo life corresponded to an increased level of community. When Matsumoto was expelled from his home he lost contact with all his middle school friends, who were likewise displaced by the new road. He describes the aftermath as “like a piece of your heart is missing.”

Kazemachi Roman is widely considered to be a paean to Tokyo prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics—a drawing of the Tokyo streetcars features prominently in the gatefold of the record cover—yet as Moritz Sommet argues in his essay, “Framing the Tokyo Cityscape,” the concept is far more layered. Matsumoto wrote in 1985, “I made it an indicator of this act to project my personal panorama of the city in my memory, which I called Wind City, and which had been erased by that other city.” Wind City was his memory of a triangle connecting the Aoyama, Azabu, and Shibuya neighborhoods. The title of Kazemachi Roman literally means “Wind City Romance.”

Matsumoto and his bandmates weren’t hawking, in his words, “idle mourning.” Instead, they would create a new way of seeing by grafting their childhood memories onto 1971 Tokyo as it was. Bourdaghs refers to this as Happy End’s “Copernican revolution,” in which addressing the problems of history requires holistically taking on the present, rather than hashing out the past or working toward an uncertain future. As Matsumoto wrote in 1971 about the name “Happy End,” Japanese youth were living through the instability of identity, neither fully committed to a hegemonic West nor a Japan trying to appease it. The only solution was to “seek out our own Japan.” The “happy end” was one in which his generation could start over.

And musically, as they polished and focused their craft, Happy End would assemble something of the moment, something that broke away from Japanese rock up to that point. You can hear it immediately on Kazemachi Roman’s monster opening track, “Dakeshimetai” (“I Want to Hold You”). It begins with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums all playing in 4/4, but in alternate syncopations, a jerky march that coalesces all at once into a steady, galvanizing rhythm when Ohtaki’s vocals kick in. In a bridge between the second and third verses, Happy End run everything through a phaser, a passage of psychedelic trickery momentarily intruding like an acid flashback.

In Matsumoto’s first verse, a protagonist, likely a fictionalized version of himself, reminisces about the city of his youth while viewing the present-day metropolis before him: “A faint light is flowing in through the window/Flying away to the far-away countryside/I take a hard drag of my cigarette and/I think of you.” It’s a showcase of Happy End’s habitual use of irony—it scans as Matsumoto referring to another person, when he’s really describing his relationship with his boyhood.

Double meanings are all over Kazemachi Roman. “Haikara Hakuchi” (“Westernized Idiot”) opens with a short jam on a traditional taiko drum before crashing into a rollicking rock rave-up, Ohtaki growling Matsumoto’s pointed dig at glib Japanese youth imitating foreigners: “I am so stylish under a bloodstained sky/Playing with your emotions, drinking a Coca-Cola.” Yet Matsumoto playfully constructs the words so that they are also about spitting up blood (“Hai” = lungs, “kara” = from, “haku” = to vomit, “chi” = blood). The song curdles into black humor in the absolutely badass line, “I am so stylish while spitting up blood/It’s only twilight in your skull.” But Happy End follow “Haikara Hakuchi” with “Haikara, Beautiful,” a 30-second Beach Boys-esque incantation in which the band keeps repeating that Westernization is beautiful. The song is credited to Bannai Harao, a popular fictional detective in Japanese mysteries.

Humor and duality are undercurrents of Matsumoto’s expressionistic, bucolic, and dreamy imagery, and his imagery and the music often dovetail in sublime moments. “Natsunandesu” (“It’s Summer”) is meant to evoke the season in all its blurry, floating beauty. Hosono weaves a finger-picking melody around slow-moving double-tracked drums, singing in curling arcs in a mellow baritone about being stopped by a dusty wind “on a white path, between the fields in the country,” where the summer is “eye-splittingly dazzling” and “cicada-crying.” “Natsunandesu” is the song that most acutely emanates the warmth and richness of Kazemachi Roman’s production; the band recorded the album on an eight-channel setup, which was state-of-the-art technology at the time. (To get a sense of how oaken and sticky Kazemachi Roman can sound, I highly recommend listening to the Los Angeles-based record store In Sheep’s Clothing’s “room recording” of an original pressing of Side B.)

“Kaze Wo Atsumete,” (“Gather the Wind”), Happy End’s biggest hit, is Kazemachi Roman’s buoyant acme, the most literal depiction of Matsumoto’s “Wind City.” Aside from the drums, Hosono performs all the instruments and sings the lyrics, yielding a sunny melody and mid-tempo rhythm that feel like a stroll through city side streets, with a wrinkle of yearning in the bridge and chorus that adds a thin film of melancholy.

Matsumoto composes the verses on “Kaze Wo Atsumete” as discrete passages: The first positions the protagonist seeing a tram roll through an open street in the morning; the second portrays “A city that was flying scarlet sails/Lying at anchor”; and in the third the narrator looks upon skyscrapers out of the window of a coffee shop. Hosono sings a chorus of “I want to gather the wind…and run across the blue sky.” After each verse, the chorus means something different. In the first, Matsumoto wants to run forward and celebrate the joy of his surroundings; by the end, he wants to run backward in time to the joy he experienced.

If you know “Kaze Wo Atsumete” or Kazemachi Roman, most likely it’s because the song is sandwiched between Phoenix’s “Too Young” and Brian Reitzell and Roger Manning Jr.’s “On the Subway” on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. Due to the film’s popularity, Happy End was suddenly and belatedly exposed to a global audience. In the NHK BS Premium documentary, Hosono says that Americans have stopped him on the street and started singing “Kaze Wo Atsumete.”

Those encounters belie Kazemachi Roman’s initial reception. Though it was also an overwhelming critical success, due to URC’s small-scale distribution the album failed to reach many people. In a last-ditch effort to gain a larger audience, Happy End flew to LA with a considerable amount of money in an attempt to approximate the West Coast rock albums they loved. They linked up with Van Dyke Parks and members of Little Feat, but confronted even more hostility from Americans and American musicians than they did in Japan. Happy End dissolved two months before the February 1973 release of their final album, confusingly and perhaps ironically titled Happy End.

It didn’t take long for the members of Happy End to find individual success. Before he died at the end of 2013, Ohtaki had a long career as a solo artist and songwriter (his 1982 album A Long Vacation sold more than a million copies and is widely beloved in Japan). Suzuki became an in-demand session guitarist. Matsumoto forged a multifaceted career as a record producer, songwriter, and novelist—he is the third-best-selling songwriter in Japan. And of course Hosono is one of the most influential figures in Japanese pop music history, as a solo artist, session musician, member of the pioneering electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra, and composer. All of these people were major figures in city pop, the sleek, glittery, R&B-influenced style that dominated Japanese popular music in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In hindsight, Kazemachi Roman’s canonical stature can be traced to its connection to city pop. For most people, “nostalgia” conjures the cheap sentiment of half-baked kitsch, when the word is actually a Greek compound of “homecoming” and “pain.” Just as city pop embraced American style as an underhanded way of calling attention to its artificiality, Kazemachi Roman pioneered a new Japanese rock through the true definition of nostalgia, pining for the Tokyo that existed before it became beholden to commerce, preserved in a sepia-toned portrait of four prodigal musicians fortuitously united and seizing the moment.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Happy End - Kazemachi Roman Music Album Reviews Happy End - Kazemachi Roman Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on March 27, 2022 Rating: 5


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