Friday 12 February 2010

The Candies and why no Japanese pop group will ever be as good as them again

(Cross-posted from my Myspace)

Looking at the Japanese pop charts nowadays, with the ugly, airbrushed tedium of Avex Trax and the waxy creepiness of Johnny's Jimusho, it might seem hard to believe, but for a brief period in the 1970s Japan was home to some of the greatest pop music ever made. With its roots in the 60s Showa Pop scene, the 1970s was dominated by a succession of brilliant female idols, from the ambiguous charm of the glorious Yamaguchi Momoe to the spicy, saucy, and outright sexy Yamamoto Linda.

It wasn't just solo stars though. Before the embarrassment of their early 80s U.S. TV series, Pink Lady were laying waste to the Japanese pop charts of the late 70s using a combination of eye-mounted laser beams and goofy yet insanely catchy pop music, and for a period of five short years the Candies were releasing a string of the most extraordinary pop singles Japan has ever seen.

Back in those days the ideal size for an all-girl pop group was two or three members rather than the absurd idol inflation that came to characterise the industry from the late 80s when Onyanko Club went through more than 50 members in the space of about two years, and now leaves us in the dizzying position of seeing behemoth clone armies like the slick, horrifying AKB48 with their cold, dead, fishlike eyes battle it out with the forthcoming, and frankly terrifying sounding, HRJK96. Where nowadays you need a degree in advanced life-avoidance to memorise the names of every member of an idol group, back in the 70s everybody in Japan could name Ran (the romantic one), Miki (a little bit boyish) and Sue (slightly sentimental). Not only that, but every member of your family, from baby sister who's just learned to speak to grandma who's rapidly going deaf, could sing along to songs like Haru Ichiban and Shochū Omimai Mōshiagemasu.

The 1970s was a strange time in Japanese postwar cultural history. The excesses of left wing radical group the United Red Army culminating in the 1972 Asama-Sansō Incident marked the end of ideological student radicalism in Japan, and the initial airing of Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 helped kick off the explosion of otaku culture that in many ways replaced the unifying narrative and lifestyle offered by radical politics with a safer, fictional narrative and associated lifestyle among awkward, alienated youth. Into the hole dividing these two social movements came the explosion of 1970s pop culture, filling the ideological void with superficialities, confections, and, most importantly, Candies.

With a career lasting from 1973 to 1978 the Candies could almost have been designed to ford this particular Rubicon on Japan's journey into postmodernity, and their combination of innocent charm, simple yet affecting lyrics, and
sweet, sweet melodies was the perfect antidote to the turmoil of the dying days of the student movement. They were also the product of an era before pop culture became the Balkanised mishmash of subcultures that we have today, all hiding in their niches, eyeing each other suspiciously, communicating only to shout over the Web at the aliens in the cave next door. This was an age where pop music was a uniting cultural force, not a divisive one.

The group released 18 singles including the posthumous Tsubasa, although only the farewell hit
Hohoemi Gaeshi reached number one in the charts. Nevertheless, every one of them is a stark naked, face-melting classic. A few highlights of the highlights (and I can't express strongly enough, every song is a highlight):

Debut single Anata ni Muchū (above).

Sono Ki ni Sasenaide (above)

Heart no Ace ga Detekonai complete with extended intro (above).

Through my label, Call And Response Records, I've been gradually over the last couple of months collecting a number of cover versions of Candies songs by Japanese underground musicians for release on a limited edition compilation CD/R. The results have been fascinating, with fourteen songs now in, from technopop to garage rock to avant-garde electronic music to guitar pop to noise, reflecting the fractured musical times we live in, but also joined in a fierce appreciation of the frivolous-yet-unifying power of pure pop.

V/A 「Valentine's Candies」 Call And Response Records (CAR-91)

01. その気にさせないで / Yamaco
02. 春一番 / TE☆SY (From Cand☆es)
03. ハートのエースが出てこない / Umbrella-X
04. 春一番 / 春風堂
05. 年下の男の子 / cottonioo
06. ハートのエースが出てこない / Trinitron (N'toko+Ian Martin+friends)
07. あなたに夢中 / Puffy Shoes
08. 危い土曜日 / 地盤沈下
09. 二人だけの夜明け / うるせぇよ
10. 春9000 (「春一番」のカバー) / やまのいゆずる
11. A muk aihsa say (plaque translation therapy) (「やさしい悪魔」のカバー) - snip n` zener
12. 年下の男の子 / Jahiliyyah
13. 暑中お見舞い申し上げます / ruruxu/sinn
14. 微笑がえし / Killer Condors

A release party will be held at Koenji Roots today (February 12th) from 6:00 P.M. until 10:00 P.M.


  1. Great article. I was thinking while I was watching the videos that so much of not only current Japanese pop, but American pop as well, is still trying to rip this stuff off, and failing. I'd like to hear the CD, too bad I got chased out of Japan before I could come to the release party...

  2. Part of the reason why it seems people are trying to rip them off is that this was the period where a lot of the standard industry tropes were codified, for instance the perpetual motion machine production line of one single every three months, where possible themed on the season it's being released in (forget haiku -- just look at a list of the Candies' singles and B-sides and there are frequently references to the seasons in the titles).