Tuesday, February 05, 2013
BIG FROM JAPAN?
The other day, a tune came on shuffle on the i-pod that I'd never heard before. I knew the song well enough from the 60s original but this cover threw me completely:-
mp3 : The Plastics - Last Train To Clarksville
The tune was on the i-pod as one of 24 tracks featured on a 1981 NME cassette called Dancin' Master. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to find more, courtesy of what was a very fine but very short-lived blog called Excavating the 80s that was around from April - July 2011 with less than 10 posts in all. But it does seem to have the definitive words on The Plastics:-
Today’s Excavating the 80s pays tribute to Plastics, the highly innovative and eccentric Japanese New Wave band who aimed at the American market during their short career. Officially called simply Plastics (though often referred to as The Plastics), the band’s upbeat, quirky and eccentric sound, fusing art-pop with electronica, was highly reminiscent of early B-52s and Devo and still sounds fresh and innovative thirty years on.
Forming in 1976, the band consisted of Chica Sato (vocals), Toshio Nakanishi (vocals, guitar, percussion), Hajime Tachibana (vocals, guitar) Masahide Sakuma (keyboards, guitar, bass programming) and Takemi Shima (rhythm box). Possibly for the sake of easy pronunciation for their Western target audience, the band members often shortened their names to Chica, Toshi, Hajime, Ma-chan and Shima respectively. Chica, Toshi and Hajime’s background in fashion and design led the band to develop a distinctive image as important to them as their music, emphasizing their spiky, artistic edge. Early in their career, the Plastics set their sights on the burgeoning New Wave scene in New York, taking their influence from American kitsch culture of the 60s and fusing this with a preoccupation with Western ideals of technology and consumerism contemporary to the late 1970s. This would become the prime focus of their acerbic, satirical lyrics.
As the legend has it, the band achieved their US breakthrough in 1979 when Toshio Nakanishi was designing tour programs for Talking Heads’ Japanese tour and slipped David Byrne a copy of their demo tape. Byrne was impressed, and noticing the similarity to his peers The B-52s, passed the tape to the latter band’s manager, who subsequently signed up to manage the Plastics.
The band left a legacy of three studio albums during 1979-1981. Their debut, Welcome Plastics, is a fantastic collection of amusing, cartoony electro-punk tunes with jittery, staccato melodies much abound. It is a fine introduction to the fast, frenetic and neo-futuristic world inhabited by the Plastics. The opening track Top Secret Man gained exposure in the US when the band appeared on late night comedy show SCTV on NBC performing the song, and the band gained a strong following in New York, greatly respected by their peers The B-52s, Talking Heads and Devo, on whom they were to become a solid influence. The band’s tongue-in-cheek cover of The Monkees’ Last Train To Clarksville also gained them attention from the UK and US media.
Follow-up album Origato Plastico continued in the same vein, although the band now showed a firmer grip on their sound, upping the intensity on tracks such as the almost sinister Return To Wigtown and Interior, while lyrics became more dark and cynical in their critique of postmodern consumer culture, most evident in Diamond Head‘s dig at overly-serious artistic movements of the time, and Cards‘ satire of the Westerner’s value of the credit card, with the unforgettable refrain of “You got to get your card into her cunt”. The band’s sound remained predominantly fun and zany, and the potential controversy in the lyrics was overlooked by the US music press.
Third album Welcome Back Plastics in 1981 was exclusively tailored for the US and UK markets in an attempt to raise their Western profile, consisting of re-recordings of tracks from both the first two albums, improved with the band’s fuller, more refined sound. Commercial success eluded them however, and throughout 1981, musical differences arose within the band over their musical direction, Toshi keen to develop as a serious musician while Ma-Chanwanted to maintain the band’s image as a ‘party band’. This led to the band’s split at the end of that year.
Perhaps their style was just too individual for Western mainstream media to fully embrace them, but the Plastics had been so admired by their contemporaries in both Japan and the US during their career that there was never any doubt their influence would last. They were instrumental in changing the face of Japanese pop, as electronic J-Pop came to dominate the Japanese charts, and bands like Polysics based their image on the Plastics and took their influence to new levels. The band members, meanwhile, remained musically active following their break-up. Toshi and Chica, married and living in the UK, formed quirky pop band Melon, while Toshi went on to form the offshoot Water Melon, who continued into the 00s with various different line-ups. Tachibana ditched his guitar for sax and released several jazz-based solo releases, going on to work with members of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Buffalo Daughter. Sakuma, meanwhile, went on to produce the band Judy and Mary, and later formed the band Nina with Takemi Shima, as well as Kate Pierson of The B-52s and Yuki of Judy and Mary.
Plastics reunited briefly in 1989 for some 10th anniversary live shows, while their 20th anniversary in 1999 was celebrated with the release of the tribute album Welcome To Plastic World, featuring covers of Plastics songs by numerous contemporary Japanese artists and containing contributions from Toshi and Hajime. More recently, in 2010 Hajime reunited the band, minus Chica due to London-based commitments (she is now a successful stylist in London), for a string of Japanese live dates.
If you want proof of just how much they sounded like the B-52s, have a look and listen to this:-
Catchy as fuck......