East Goes West: Lovin' Mighty Fire
Rhythm and Blues and music by black artists have taken on various contingents throughout the years, including the still familiar styles of smooth soul ballads and energetic funk and disco produced by artists like Teddy Pendergrass, P-Funk, and Donna Summer in the 1970s and early '80s. Such sounds, so familiar to Western audiences, also happened to make their way to Japan, where they were distilled into an unusual form of R&B that incorporated the stylings of Japanese pop and traditional music. The scene for such music burgeoned as the nation’s postwar economic boom led to an era of glitz and glamour among the decadent youth who inhabited the then new phenomenon of discotheques that started popping up in the country. Ace Records subsidiary Beat Goes Public has just released Lovin’ Mighty Fire: Nippon Funk Soul Disco 1973-1983, the first compilation to be released in the West that specifically examines the fascinating Japanese R&B music of the 1970s to the early '80s.
The compilation was assembled by Howard Williams, an expert on Western-tinged Japanese music who has also worked on compilations of Japanese surf guitarist Takeshi Terauchi, Rock n Roller Masaaki Hirao, and Japanese girl group '60s pop. Throughout the album, American musical influence is evident; however, much of the music is more reminiscent of the electronic, synth-laden Euro-Disco of producers like Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone or of the sultry, breathy girl vocals on songs like “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” by Baccara.
Lovin’ Mighty Fire draws in its Western listeners by opening with a rapid, funky take on something close to the stereotypical “Asian riff” in the 1973 song “By By Session Band,” by Lily, a Japanese American singer whose backing band at the time gave the song its title. The song features some jazz lines on electric keyboard along with break-beat drums. Being that the song is from the earlier part of the '70s it certainly falls within the categorization of funk, but might also be better understood as jazz fusion, similar to music recorded contemporaneously by artists like Reuben Wilson for labels like Groove Merchant. Jazz fusion was often just jazz fused with rock so “By By Session Band” might also legitimately fit on a compilation of progressive rock. Worth noting is another “Asian style” riff on Masayoshi Takanaka’s pleasant 1981 instrumental (minus brief electronic vocals) “Rainbow Paradise.”
Another track from 1973 is Japanese journeyman musician Haruomi Hosono’s “Barato Yajuu”. It is pulled off an album that marked a somewhat revolutionary divergence from the norm of Japanese record production at the time. Hosono recorded 1973’s Hosono House at his home when typically record companies had total control over the recording process for musicians and required them to record on booked studio dates. The unique way the song was recorded gives it a somewhat ghostly ambience as Hosono’s calm vocals pour over a laid back hi-hat driven slow funk. Keeping with the laid back funk, Mari Natsuki’s “Uragiri” from 1976 is what the “soul” in the compilation’s title is referring to as a keyboard styling similar to the one from “Use Me” by Bill Withers provides the backdrop for Natsuki’s sensual, breathy vocal.
There are a few moments of English on Lovin’ Mighty Fire, with the irresistible cover of Roberta Flack’s “Why Don’t You Move In With Me” by Yasuko Agawa from 1980 perhaps being the brightest. Agawa’s sweet, high vocals in semi-broken English juxtapose the eponymous question with the catchy phrase “we could be so happy,” as the two simple lines work like a fishing hook to the listener’s consciousness. The song is upbeat disco, complete with thumping elastic bass and bass drum complemented by slick guitar riffs and horns. While thoroughly of its time, the song is timeless in its simplicity and hook, if not necessarily the most cerebral piece.
The album also features a few moments of intense disco inferno. Pink Lady’s “Jiken Ga Okitara Bel Ga Naru” from 1979 reaches an urgent pace as a fast, funky riff spurs the flamboyant, sexy girl duo’s fluid, in fact almost rapped, Japanese brings to mind sirens and car chases. Another particularly intense moment is the impressive electro-funk representing the end of the album’s chronology in 1983, “Dancin’” by Junko Ohashi, another English language song. The song kicks off with about 10 seconds of synthesizer orchestration before the beat kicks in — and boy does it ever — with a quintessential early '80s funk bass line like those of Rick James, filled with synth punches as the bass rests. The compilation’s title track “Lovin’ Mighty Fire” by Naoya Matsuoka and Minako Yoshida from 1979 is another English language disco rager that, as its name suggests, catches fire. The song begins with a slow funk that builds to mid-tempo as sultry female vocals glide over before coming to a sudden solo guitar riff joined by a synthesizer crescendo that leads into an upbeat disco groove with synthesizer key strikes that jump out like the sonic equivalent of lasers in addition to the punch of slick horns.
In the '70s a number of American acts played Japan including momentous tours by R&B artists like James Brown and The Commodores. An obscure black band called Ebonee Webb that was signed to the legendary Hi Records in Memphis, home of Al Green, also sought success in the land of the rising sun. After a successful club tour, the band linked up with a local Japanese producer in 1979 to record an album of soul styled Japanese folk songs in Japanese. “Yashow Macashow” is a real oddity in that it provides an inverse to the rest of Lovin’ Mighty Fire as it is what a “genuine” American R&B act sounds like singing in Japanese, rather than Japanese acts trying to sound like an American R&B act.
The lines between funk, soul, and disco are often blurred to say the least. We often think of different cultures as isolated or as developing in some kind of vacuum, but Lovin’ Mighty Fire makes it crystal clear that the transition that occurs between cultures blurs the lines of these genres even further. Frequently, in funk and R&B, West goes East, but with the release of this album East goes back West. This album provides just a taste, and hopefully it will not be the last we hear, of funky Japan in the West.