One of the last year’s pleasures was being present for Haruomi Hosono’s first UK show at the Barbican. I frankly could have settled for his main set, a gentle take on swing and jazz Hosono-style, with the odd Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra song thrown in. But when he was joined for an encore by his old YMO bandmates, he created my concert moment of 2018.
The gig was a prelude to the Light In The Attic (LITA) label’s reissue programme of five of Hosono’s LPs, many of which were being made available on vinyl for the first time in the west. It has cost me a small fortune but I’m pleased to say that I’ve got hold of all of them. Hosono’s work is limited in terms of accessibility in either physical or digital form outside of Japan. The reissues offered high-quality restorations with beautiful gatefold sleeves, coloured vinyl and extensive sleeve notes. This wasn’t done in isolation as LITA had already released the stunning Even A Tree Can Shed Tears retrospective of Japanese folk and rock music in 2017 and this year are releasing a collection ambient Japanese music.
Hosono is a Zelig-like musician, willing to explore forms and styles, much in the way that David Bowie did. The five albums are diverse and unique and LITA are to be congratulated in their boldness in moving away from a chronologically based selection toward a quintet of differing offerings.
A stalwart of the Japanese music scene, Hosono played bass in April Fool, who had been movers and shakers in the Group Sounds movement. The Group Sounds bands had been inspired by the Beatles arriving in Tokyo in 1966. The Fab Four’s gigs at the Budokan were one of those “I was there” moments in Japanese pop history. The music scene splintered relatively quickly with a particular focus on improvised music but also heavier groups who were influenced by the likes of King Crimson and Black Sabbath, such as the Flower Travelling Band and the Far East Family Band. Also singing in native Japanese became a point of contention, with a view that bands performing in English were somehow inauthentic.
Hosono didn’t take these far-out paths but hunkered down with Happy End for a more “getting it together in the country vibe”, a la the Band and Traffic. If you are familiar with the Happy End, then chances are it is from Lost In Translation, the successful 2003 Bill Murray/Scarlett Johansson movie. Kaze Wo Atsumete was from the band’s second album and it captures Scarlett’s sense of ennui and discombobulation as she is bored and left to her own devices to explore Tokyo.
It leads nicely into the first in the re-issue series, Hosono House, Haruomi’s debut solo recording from 1975. The album doesn’t sound a huge stretch from what went before and to these Western ears is probably the most straightforward and accessible of the selections. It follows the split of Happy End after they’d had a busman’s holiday in California recording with West Coast luminaries Van Dyke Parks and Lowell George.
This wasn’t quite getting it together in the country though. Hosono had moved out Sayama, an hour’s drive outside of Tokyo. He had got a house originally used by nearby US servicemen in the post WWII period. A creative hub had formed as is so often the case when affordable housing comes available and gets occupied by creative communities. The house was crammed with instruments and musicians with a desk and 16 track tape recorder. The record was pulled together in a matter of weeks starting on 17 February with a wrap party on 12 March. Hosono was pleased with the outcome, especially capturing his desire to record in a wooden house, a more acoustically lively environment than usual Tokyo studios – his own Big Pink.
Opening song Rock-a-bye My Baby prefaces the kind of laid-back swing Dylan performed on Modern Times by about forty years and sets us up nicely for what is to follow. It is an intimate album, with Music From The Big Pink and the second Band albums as obvious touchstones. Juusho Futei Mushoku Teishunyu has a horn section to give it an Up On Cripple Creek vibe. If you love Nashville Skyline/Basement Tapes-era Dylan or the Band LPs, then Hosono House is just for you. This is the tenth track, Bara To Yaju which captures the sound of the album perfectly. To accompany the reissue series, LITA has released a 7″ of Mac DeMarco covering Hosono House’s Honey Moon. It ties in perfectly with DeMarco’s usual gentle melodies and could have sat comfortably on his last album, 2017’s This Old Dog (which I wrote about here).
It is a delightful album to listen to, laidback and easy on the ear. I’ve played it with my other half in the room. She has a low tolerance level for weird and she thoroughly enjoyed it. All in all, a good starting point for Hosono’s music.
LITA then skips two albums to 1978’s Paraiso, the third in a trilogy of tropical records, alongside Tropical Dandy (1975) and Bon Voyage Co (1976). This was credited to Harry Hosono and The Yellow Magic Band and effectively was the first Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) album, with his future bandmates, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, both contributing. It is still a distance away from the synth-driven sounds that YMO became known in the west for in the 80s, a far-east Kraftwerk. Paraiso continues the acoustic music of the preceding albums with a laid-back tropical island feel. Steel drums (or electronic approximations of them) prevail. This is Hawaii reimagined for Okinawa, the southern string of Japanese islands. It wouldn’t surprise me if August Darnell hadn’t picked this up from Bleecker Street Records, back in his own Manhattan island paradise as you can hear its influence in Kid Creole.
Hosono was in a good place making this calm and floating music. He saw it as an improvement on Tropical Dandy and having heard both, I’d agree. Hosono speaks at the end of Paraiso, stating “Next time we will be more better”. In the sleevenotes, he admits that this was a reference to a definitive recognisable Yellow Magic future. Hosono was clearly casting his glance around, looking inward at the end of his trilogy, to the future with Sakamoto and Takahashi by his side.
There’s little to scare the horses here, but it might be perceived as a little too laidback for some. The likes of Shambhala Signal though provide a signpost for Hosono’s future explorations, the use of Gamelan percussion showing that Hosono had his ear to the World Music scene way before most others. Shimendoka is representative of the album and the gentle swell of keyboards take you to the Tiki bar. Harry’s waiting for you with a Hibiki highball in hand.
Next up is Cochin Moon, also from 1978. This is where things start getting a little strange. The album credits are shifting around and this is one is by Hosono and Yokoo. Tadanori Yokoo is a graphic artist who started work in the avant-garde theatre scene in Tokyo. He travelled to India in the late 60s (who didn’t?) and became obsessed with Indian mysticism.
Hosono has just finished reading a book by Yokoo and visited him at his house. Meeting for the first time, they decided they would go to India together. They were drawn together by diarrhoea (really!). Hosono picks up the story:
In that book he talks about having diarrhea in India, saying “This is purification.” So I thought, maybe I’ll go and have diarrhea too! I didn’t really want to go to India. In my mind it, it was a mysterious, surreal place in the middle of paradise., and the exoticism that I felt toward that place would have been dissipated.
I don’t even know how the album came to be. It was Yokoo-san who had been requested by the record company to make something for them.
The collaboration with Yokoo was fateful. He introduced Hosono to Kraftwerk and the electronic themes that were to be prevalent in the latter career are starting to emerge. Hosono admits to having no model for what he was creating. He had a Korg PS-3100 polyphonic synthesiser with an analogue synthesiser and took it from there.
Side one features a trip through the Malabar Hotel, from the ground floor lobby with the waves lapping against the shore, through the rooms on the upper floors up to the roof garden. We’ve got disembodied voices, animal noises (a mosquito buzzes in and out) and a helicoptering rhythm track arrives – and that is just the first two minutes.
The music on Cochin Moon is completely electronic, a huge departure from Hosono’s earlier work (we are still only three years on from the Band-like Hosono House). He is moving through styles and genres at a pace similar to that of David Bowie and Brian Eno. In fact, the comparison is particularly relevant as sound collage and synthesisers meld. Hear Cochin Moon and you hear My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, Before and After Science, Lodger as well as some of Can and Holger Czukay’s work.
All of Hosono’s YMO bandmates appear on Cochin Moon and the band’s future direction starts to become more apparent on side two with the poppy Hepatitis and the pulsing Madam Consul of General of Madras. Sandwiched between the two is the Indian song Hum Ghar Sajan. This track picks up the strands of non-Indian musicians taking the subcontinents forms that started in the last 60s with the Beatles and predates the fascination of Bhangra and Bollywood that has become evident in the last decade or so.
Of the first three albums in the reissue series, I have to confess it is the one that I’ve played the least and unless the sound of an electronic Indian sound collage album about a fictional hotel floats specifically floats your boat, then I’d go elsewhere in starting your Hosono collection.
Cochin Moon was Hosono’s last solo work of the 70s and he became more focused on his work with YMO. We’ll leave it there for now and be back shortly to pick up the final two LP’s in the series which takes us into the next decade.