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The Unparalleled Innovation of Musician Haruomi Hosono

Ian F. Martin traces the life and career of the pioneering Japanese musician, on the 50th anniversary of his first record

Haruomi Hosono is probably the most significant artist in the history of Japanese popular music. This might seem like a bold claim, but it’s one that many in Japan would struggle to disagree with. Time and time again, as Japanese music lurches forward, it follows a path first walked by Hosono himself as he evolved as an artist, musician and producer. His footprints circle almost every major musical movement since the early 1970s.

After World War II, Japanese pop took its cues from overseas. First and foremost was the US, whose continued military presence in the country provided an entry point for jazz and rock and roll. American and British guitar groups like The Ventures and The Shadows sparked the Japanese craze known as ‘eleki’ in the early 1960s, while the arrival of The Beatles in 1966 kicked off what became known as the ‘group sounds’ movement of mop-topped ravers. Throughout this period, homegrown Japanese rock struggled to find its own identity: Japanese-language music was heavily associated with the production line of disposable pop singers, while English was regarded as the mother tongue of rock. But that was all about to change: enter Hosono.

Hosono began his career as the bassist of psychedelic rock band Apryl Fool, who released a self-titled album of predominantly English-language songs in 1969. But it was when he joined forces with guitarists Eiichi Ohtaki and Shigeru Suzuki and drummer Takashi Matsumoto to form the folk-rock band Happy End that Hosono really made an impact. One of the most influential figures in rock at the time was Yuya Uchida, producer of Zeppelinesque psych-rockers Flower Travellin’ Band. Uchida argued that the strictly syllabic nature of Japanese didn’t suit the rhythm of rock music and that, if Japanese music was ever going to establish itself on a global scale, then overseas success was essential. Happy End’s self-titled debut album, released in 1970, was a direct affront to this view. It is widely credited as the genesis of Japanese-language rock music.

While Matsumoto wrote most of Happy End’s lyrics, it was Hosono who questioned Uchida’s opinion most publicly, frequently advocating for Japanese-language rock to the press. The commercial success of Happy End’s debut and their sophomore album Kazemachi Roman (Wind City Romance, 1971) made this point decisively, and gradually rock became an almost entirely Japanese-language affair. In a movement that was later dubbed ‘new music’, the 1970s heralded the emergence of a new generation of pop and rock musicians, including artists like Yumi Arai, Yosui Inoue, Miyuki Nakajima and Takuro Yoshida.

Harumi Hosono from Yellow Magic Orchestra on stage, 1979. Courtesy and photograph: Ebet Rogers/Getty Images

Harumi Hosono from Yellow Magic Orchestra on stage, 1979. Courtesy and photograph: Ebet Rogers/Getty Images

But Hosono was no Japanese rock nationalist. In 1972, having grown frustrated with the music scene in Japan, Happy End recorded their third album in Los Angeles with the producer Van Dyke Parks. Again, the album was self-titled, but this time the band opted for the Roman alphabet rather than the Japanese Hiragana script. But the sessions were troubled: Happy End split up before the album was released in 1973. The break set Hosono on a creative path that sought to explore and exploit the gaps between the American rock that he so greatly admired and the Japanese culture in which he remained rooted. He embarked on a string of increasingly exotic, eclectic and playful recordings, incorporating tropicália, folk and Asiatica into his existing melodic sensibilities. With Happy End’s Suzuki, he formed the session music collective Tin Pan Alley and recorded his solo debut, Hosono House (1973), at home on a 16-track.

1978 was a particularly explosive year for Hosono, beginning with the album Paraiso, which was partly recorded with drummer Yukihiro Takahashi (of glam rockers Sadistic Mika Band) and synth player Ryuichi Sakamoto and released under the name Harry Hosono and The Yellow Magic Band. Hosono and Sakamoto took the synth experiments of Paraiso further with the fully electronic Cochin Moon (1978), a concept album envisioned as a soundtrack for an imaginary Bollywood film. This period of intense experimentation and productivity culminated in November of the same year with the release of the eponymous debut album by Hosono, Takahashi and Sakamoto’s new electronic outfit, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).

YMO were clearly aware of the experiments in electronic pop that were being undertaken by bands like Kraftwerk, and while their approach was more playful than their icily ironic European contemporaries, it was no less satirical. Extending out of Hosono’s love of exotica and poking fun at Western stereotypes of the Orient, YMO’s first album was a riot of colour. Having been joined by legendary Japanese singer-songwriter Akiko Yano on keyboards, a band that only ever intended to produce a one-off novelty record became the group’s central project for the following six years.

YMO also marked a direct reversal of Hosono’s position during the Japanese-language rock controversy of the late 1960s and early ’70s, with the group employing British lyricist Chris Mosdell and achieving significant success overseas. As well as influencing synth-pop and electronic music in Europe, the tracks ‘Computer Game’ and ‘Firecracker’ were important to the nascent hip-hop scene, with the band’s 1980 appearance on the television show Soul Train (1971–2006) solidifying its significance to a wide variety of genres. (‘Firecracker’, which was performed on Soul Train, would later be sampled on Afrika Bambaataa’s 1983 ‘Death Mix (Part 2)’ and Jennifer Lopez’s 2001 single, ‘I’m Real’.) But, in spite of YMO’s growing notoriety, their playful, satirical edge remained, as did Hosono’s personal quest to chart the unexplored areas between East and West – without ever fully committing to either.

It wasn’t as a musician alone that Hosono left his mark on the Japanese music scene: following the success of YMO, he became one of the country’s most influential producers. Hosono was an early champion of Pizzicato Five, producing their 1985 debut EP The Audrey Hepburn Complex and releasing it on his own label, Non-Standard. The band subsequently became key players in the art-pop movement known as Shibuya-kei, which provided a chic, playful and ironic counterpoint to the burgeoning pop scene of the 1990s. More commercially significant was Hosono’s work with the band Sheena & The Rokkets, who he turned from gasoline-fuelled rock-and-roll rebels into something more attractive to mainstream television, and Miharu Koshi, who he supported as she developed into a striking, ultra-modern, avant-pop ice queen. In this behind-the-scenes role, Hosono was able to channel the electronic influence of YMO to a whole new generation of Japanese artists and, in doing so, set the scene for the next phase of the country’s popular music development and, ultimately, its evolution into what is now known as J-pop.

Since YMO disbanded in 1984, Hosono’s solo music has continued to cut a distinctive yet meandering path, from the electro-funk of S-F-X (1984) through the experimental electronica of The Endless Talking (1985) to the languid, eclectic cover versions of Heavenly Music (2013). (In January of this year, Canadian musician Mac DeMarco recorded his own cover of the 1975 single ‘Honey Moon’, citing Hosono as ‘the main reason I’ve continued making music since I was, like, 19.’) In March, Hosono released a reimagined version of his debut album, now titled Hochono House, to mark the 50th anniversary of his first-ever release with Apryl Fool. Primarily electronic, the revised record folds-in a wide array of experiences and influences that Hosono has worked from and through over the years and, in this, can be seen as something of an audial map, one that traces his decades-long artistic journey all the way back to that first ever collection of solo songs, recorded in his bedroom on a 16-track.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 204 with the title ‘Sightseeing Music’

Main image, left: Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band, Paraiso, 1978. Courtesy: Alfa

Main image, right: Yellow Magic Orchestra, Tighten Up, 1980. Courtesy: A&M Records, Inc.

Ian F. Martin is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan. He is the author of Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground (2016) and founder of Call and Response Records.

Issue 204

First published in Issue 204

June - July - August 2019
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