As a young British music fan way back in the mists of time (1982) following the band JAPAN, I was introduced to the singer Akiko Yano by David Sylvian, who played a couple of her songs during an interview with David Jensen on BBC Radio One. The songs played, one earlier and one current number, were both ballads and only gave a little insight into this intriguing artist, who we were told was linked to YMO but had an established career outside the group. Sylvian was a very early champion of the Japanese music that is now increasingly popular all over the world. Lucky for me I followed the dictats of Chairman Sylvian to the letter at the time so started to investigate this music further. I’m glad I did, as many of the albums I picked up cheaply on vinyl in the 80s and 90s are now hard to find. One of those albums that is now easier to buy, thanks to a reissue by the label Wewantsounds is “Tadaima”.
From JAPAN To Japan
Before I get to that though, I want to continue my reminiscence into the last century. I warn you this will be a recurring theme of these blog pieces.
Following the introduction courtesy of Mr. Sylvian, I next found Akiko on the excellent compilation “Tokyo Mobile Music” on one of my regular record shopping excursions to Hanway and Berwick Streets in London. This album, put together by David Claridge and the Mobile Suit Corporation mixed some pretty incredible contemporary Japanese tracks with sound FX recorded in and around Tokyo. These SFX act as bridges between the songs, making the entire collection a piece worth listening to from start to finish. Akiko is represented by two songs – “Canton Boy” and “Rose Garden”. “Canton Boy”, from her 1980 album “Gohan Ga Dekitayo” (“dinner’s ready”) had been a part of the YMO live set in all the shows played in the UK, and so will have been familiar on some level to the people in the same clubbing circles as Claridge, who ran a night called The Great Wall. It’s a driving synth-rock number, with a searing guitar solo from the late Kenji Omura and full backing by YMO.
The second song featured, “Rose Garden”, which I prefer, is one of the many highlights of “Tadaima” (“I’m home now”). “Rose Garden” is an unforgettable recording! Like nothing else really in the wider YMO canon, except possibly some later work by Jun Togawa and Yapoos, it mixes rapid-fire funk guitar, bass and drums with whispered, almost threatening voices, chanting, bouncy bass synth, wild percussion, vocoder interludes sounding like robotic cats, before a chorus straight out of a mysterious ritual – culminating in a synth sequencer and taiko-drum section before we are back into the funk rhythm again. The track leaves you breathless, and sounds best played loud, which I did often and still do.
My next step into the world of Akiko Yano involved a stroke of luck. Upstairs in the new arrivals section of the Music Exchange in Notting Hill (the shop still there) I found some kind of promotional copy of a compilation called “From Japan To Japan” by Akiko Yano. This album featured the two songs that Sylvian had played on the radio, (“Coloured Water” and “Goodnight”) along with, as the typed sheet included said, other songs sung in English and featuring members of the band JAPAN. I still have this copy of the LP and it is somewhat unusual, most likely a press item as it includes a couple of photos and a brief biography. Maybe there was a plan to release the album way back in ’82 in the UK? Featured on this album were two more songs from “Tadaima”, “I Sing” and “Vet”. The former opened the compilation, and is straight synth-pop in the YMO style, and sure enough the credits said they were playing on it. On “Tadaima” the song appears as one of the final trio of uptempo songs on the album, leading off before the massive hit single “Harusakikobeni” and the aforementioned “Rose Garden”. “Don’t you worry about your bad breath…” sang Akiko and my heart skipped in surprise – it was an insight into her style. Where Sylvian and the YMO had up to that point used pretty abstract lyrics, or just plan weird (I’m looking at you, Hosono-san), this was slice of teenage life. It was slightly cringey but looking back over 30+ years, that must have been the intention, so it works.
“Vet” is a fast techno-punk track with pounding drums and screeching guitar sounding like, wait, can it be (so I thought) – yes it’s another JAPAN associate Masami Tsuchiya! Appearing on Side One of “Tadaima” in roughly the same position it does on “From Japan To Japan”, much like “Jewel” by Propaganda on “A Secret Wish” it acts as a palate-cleanser before a more substantial piece.
A “Fancy” hit
So far I’ve heard 3 tracks from “Tadaima” before the album itself – and there was one more to come. “Harusakikobeni” was a huge hit for Akiko in early 1981, following her stint as a member of the YMO live band on a world tour. It was the soundtrack to a make-up commercial and was described by the record company marketing team as “fancy”. An upbeat, cheerful number sung in Japanese, it was such a big hit in Japan that copies somehow made their way over to the UK. According to interviews the single being a bigger hit than expected put pressure on Akiko to get a new album out prior to a planned tour, which itself grew in terms of dates due to an increased fanbase. The band for the tour included Ryuichi Sakamoto and Masami Tsuchiya as the featured guests. Hosono and Takahashi were busy elsewhere – at that time YMO were going through strained times following the fractured and rushed recording of “BGM” – however both contributed to the album “Tadaima”.
All 3 members of YMO had been friends and collaborators of Yano’s for years. The first to work with her, when she was Akiko Suzuki, was Hosono. Both worked on what is now called City Pop material with Taeko Onuki, Manna and Eiichi Ohtaki in the early to mid-70s. Yano also contributed a song to the legendary lost Linda Carerre album that featured all of the City Pop big-hitters (how long before that is given its first release?). Hosono was a major contribitor to Yano’s earliest albums, along with Tomita computer programmer Hideki Matsutake. According to Matsutake, Akiko Yano was the first Japanese pop artist to use sequencers – which she did on her second album, recorded in 1976. Also in 1976 Akiko played in Hosono’s live band at a concert in Yokohama alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto, including the earliest pre-YMO performance of “Firecracker”. This event was filmed for posterity and released commercially in recent years on CD and DVD. Following that, Akiko played alongside Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1977 backing former Sadistic Mika Band guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka on a cover of the theme from Star Wars. There’s even a YouTube clip to prove it. Thank the maker that Hosono made the call to form YMO, whose first album was recorded between stints backing Akiko as members of her live band on two tours of Japan.
I first heard “Tadaima” in full on a rented cassette, from the Japan Centre in Brewer St, Soho. In Japan, rental CD shops used to be very common and prior to that they rented out cassettes and vinyl. In the 80s the Japan Centre had a basement which along with a small Izakaya-style cafe had a large number of video tapes and cassettes that you could rent out. Sadly I couldn’t rent the video tapes as at that time I had no access to an NTSC player. However, the cassettes I could use and that’s the way I heard a good number of albums by Japanese acts. The rental fee was only £1 for a week so this was far cheaper than saving up maybe £15 or £20 to buy vinyl at HMV or the Virgin Megastore. Later on Japanese music buying in London got a bit more affordable with the arrival of Tower Records, which priced Japanese stock very cheaply. By that time (1986) I had part-time jobs so could afford trips into London to buy records. One of the first albums I got there was “Tadaima” when it was reissued at budget price by the Midi label. Recently I received the cassette version of “Tadaima” as a gift from Richard Barbieri – a copy of the album he had owned since ’81.
“Tadaima” opens with the title track, which uses samples of telephone rings and keypad beeps as part of the percussion, a very breezy number, employing Sakamoto’s Prophet 5 with some de-tuned programming, making the arrangement very memorable. Vocally the track recalls much of “Gohan Ga Delitayo” by using a children’s choir – never syrupy however (this is not “I Have A Dream” by ABBA). Live, this track was one that had the audience clapping along and joining in the chorus, something that Akiko encouraged.
“Itsuka Ojisamaga” follows, a slower-pace, very typical of Akiko’s style, but with a similar sound to “Tadaima” with slightly de-tuned Prophet 5 for atmosphere. As usual with Akiko the lead instrument is the piano, but here it is treated in various ways, sometimes just at the point where the sound is sustained. It is followed by the aforementioned “Vet” and “Ashkenazy Who?”, which mixes synthpop with a slow Okinawan rhythm – sounding similar to reggae, but different. This time the track uses a number of vocal effects to have a call-and-answer effect. Musically it relates to “Bikkurigation” by Sakamoto but is at a more relaxed tempo. It is a bit of a forgotten gem in Akiko’s discography, one for the synth freaks. “Irainimon”, (I don’t Need It), co-written with Taeko Onuki and Peter Barakan, uses field recordings to present a dreamlike state, melody coming in and out but the performance is almost spoken-word poetry. Side One drifts off.
Akiko toured in Spring 1981, initially planning to promote the “Gohan Ga Dekitayo” album that had been released only 6 months earlier, the hit single and rush-release of “Tadaima” meant that the live dates were centred on both. In the middle of the live show came the piano and vocal medley now known as “Taiyo No Onara” – also in the middle of the “Tadaima” album as the first track of side 2. This 9-minute medley is comprised of several short songs with lyrics written by young fans of Akiko. Music was written by Yano with some contributions from Haruomi Hosono. It is a unique piece, and seems to have been well-received live – although Akiko speaks a lot more than on the studio version. Speaking a lot during concerts is something Yano is known for, she was the same when I saw her play in August 2018 in Tokyo. As her band last year spoke English she did too for much of the show, translating what they said for the audience. Listening to a recoding of the 1981 show, it is evident that Akiko enjoyed the interaction with fans, and as in 2018, responded to shouted comments from the audience with a quick joke or wry comment as appropriate. In ’81 and in ’18 the band just had to wait until Yano was ready to play, and on occasion they were too early! Seeing Akiko Yano live is a great experience, she is a very magnetic performer with good stage presence. Akiko is compared to Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush but live she reminds me more of Elton John – able to rouse the audience from the piano with considerable wit. You can tell that she enjoys playing with a band, coming across as the boss, but with respect and humour. If you have the opportunity to see Akiko Yano play live, take it.
The “Tadaima” tour had a programme, some pages from it are presented below. One item of merchandise was a letter-opener. Something Akiko was known for was fan interaction by mail, and as well as publishing some fan letters in official magazines and in the tour programme she also responded personally. The letter-opener is a miniature LP, with a sharp blade inside, housed in a cute mini LP sleeve – all the size of a mini-CD single.
Overall “Tadaima” is really the perfect introduction to this engaging artist, covering a range of styles that she would revisit on other albums. What makes it special is that it is so varied, representing the influx of musical influences that surrounded Akiko at the time the album was made. She had made a new start in her personal life as well as professional life, had 2 young children and had been on two world tours as a member of Japan’s biggest band. Somehow this work was written and recorded in a matter of weeks, to meet record company demand. The following albums would be recorded in a very different way, allowing more time for writing and production – but there is something special that has been captured here – a time of transition and experimentation.
The new reissue of Tadaima by Wewantsounds uses the same mastering as the recent Japanese pressing, which is excellent. It has superb dynamic range but better bass presence than the original CD release on Japan Records. It is very accurate to the sound of the original vinyl release – exactly what you want from a reissue. In terms of packaging it replicates the Japanese vinyl, but has an alternate obi design. It uses more sturdy paper stock for the insert than the Japanese release, which was very thin indeed. I hope that Wewantsounds will be able to release further Yano albums from this era, particularly “Ai Ga Nakucha Ne” which featured the members of JAPAN as guest musicians. Until then, I’ll enjoy “Tadaima”, and remember the early 80s and my memories of how I got to hear this music fondly.
Paul Rymer 12/1/19