A brief history of Japanese rockabilly: Not just for your grandparents

A brief history of Japanese rockabilly: Not just for your grandparents

TOKYO —

The Japanese music world is as fascinating as it is occasionally bizarre. While groups like AKB48 might dominate the radio waves, there are myriad talented bands and underground genres to be explored. And, like anywhere in the world, genres and bands in Japan flow in and out of favor with the tide. The history of visual kei should be proof enough of that. But when it come to the ebbs and flows of popularity, one genre stands out among the others: Rockabilly.

Though you may not associate the country-tinged rock genre with Japan, you definitely should. Even before the Internet was born, rock music was making its way overseas and dominating the charts–and Japan was no exception. If you’re looking for a new take on classic rock or just appreciate a good bit of weirdness with you coffee, you’ll definitely enjoy our trip through the history of Japanese rockabilly.

The Early Days

Before we can talk about rockabilly in Japan, we have to (very briefly) discuss what rockabilly is.

Rock and roll was once the new kid on the block, but even in its infancy the genre was transforming constantly and producing numerous subgenres. One of those was, of course, rockabilly, which can be seen a fusion of rock and roll and country. It was originally popularized by artists like Bill Haley and the Comets, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. Carl Perkins, with a little help from Johnny Cash, is known for recording “Blue Suede Shoes” (later covered by Elvis Presley), which is considered one of the first rockabilly songs.

So, that’s rockabilly. It’s likely you know other songs like “Rock Around the Clock,” which popularized rock and roll in general and captured the attention of the youth of the day (likely the grandparents of many of readers now!) in the United States. In no time at all, the genre jumped across the Pacific Ocean and landed in Japan, followed closely by the introduction of rockabilly.

Of course, in 1955, when “Rock Around the Clock” first appeared in Japan as a cover by the multi-talented Chiemi Eri, people couldn’t just hop on iTunes and download the newest single or look up the original artist on Wikipedia. See her version on YouTube below.

As a teen in post-war Japan, your only choices were to catch your favorite songs on the radio, buy the record, or find a performer playing covers. This also led to an interesting development in Japanese rock music–since rock and roll and rockabilly appeared so closely to each other, Japanese labels didn’t bother clearly distinguishing the genres. While that might drive a music nerd (like me) crazy today, in the ’50s and ’60s record label executives didn’t have to worry about nitpicking tweets or Facebook rants – all they cared about was album sales (Some things never change…) But as a result, the delineation rock and roll and rockabilly in Japan in the middle of the 20th century could best be described as murky.

Nonetheless, there were numerous talented musicians performing both rock and roll and rockabilly, so when labels needed a genre for a new artists, they often chose rockabilly. The three biggest rockabilly stars of the time (and who did actually play real rockabilly) were the “Three Rockabilly Men,” Keijiro Yamashita, Masaki Hiraou, and Mickey Curtis, who all performed regularly at the Nichigeki Western Carnival. The Western Carnival, which also featured country western music, was a revelation for the youth of Japan–and put on some pretty exciting performances (for the time) as you can see in the clip below. While modern audiences might find screaming fans and paper streamers thrown from the audience a bit tame, we feel safe saying that this was the height of decadence for many of the young fans at the time.

Two of our favorite singers from the era are Keijiro Yamashita, who became popular covering “Diana” in Japan, and Michiko Hamamura, a model-turned-singer who produced a rocking, gritty rendition of “Jailhouse Rock.” Though men seem to have dominated the rockabilly scene, there was clearly still room for women shine.

The carnival, which roughly followed rockabilly’s original rise and fall, lasted for nearly 20 years, with its first show in 1958 and its final 56th show in 1977.

The Revival

Like in the United States, rockabilly eventually fell out of favor. And, like in the West, “oldies” saw a revival in the 1970s that lasted through the ’80s, and in the ’90s and early 21st century, rockabilly itself saw a great revival. Not only in music but also in extreme reimaginings of the fashion!

Two of the first bands to bring rockabilly back to popularity in Japan were Carol and the Cools. Dressed in black leather jackets, black leather gloves, and black leather boots, the bands slicked their hair back with oil and performed with motorcycles onstage. While we’re pretty sure that most of their forefathers from the ‘50s and ‘60s never dressed like extras from “Grease,” there’s no questioning the popularity of the bands! Though Carol last only a few years (from 1972 to 1975), the Cools still haven’t lost steam since they formed in 1977.

The ’80s saw even more rockabilly bands forming, including the Black Cats, who toured the United States with the Go-Go’s and gained popularity overseas as well as in Japan. Though the band broke up after only five years together in 1986 (and later reformed for another five years in the 1990s), their fashion took the greaser/biker look of the Cools and added the ducktail hairstyle that later rockabilly fans and bands would become famous for.

One of the best things about rockabilly, if you ask me, is the stand-up bass. That deep thumping groove is like a thunder in your chest. Who can resist its call to the dance floor? The song “Rockabilly Carnival” by Magic, a Shibuya-based rockabilly band that was active from 1988 to 1999, features one of my personal favorite bass sections in the genre.

Adding a bit of a punk influence, similar to the psychobilly bands that rose to international prominence in the 1990s, the Hillbilly Bops were highly influential on Japanese the rockabilly scene in the 1980s until they broke up in 1990. Though their original singer died in 1988, they went on for another two years with a new singer before finally calling it quits. But that’s not the end of the story for this band–they later reformed in 2004, and still performing to this day, though in a much more limited fashion. Just because you grew up and got a job doesn’t mean you stopped rocking. It just means you can’t rock quite as often.

Following the first break-up of the Hillbilly Bops, Tsuyoshi Kawakami, the band’s bassist, went on to form the Vincents, who performed as the opening act for the Stray Cats when the American rockabilly band came to Japan. Though the Vincents found considerable success, they broke up after only four years. Nonetheless, they left behind a number of albums–and this live cover of “I Fought the Law.”

By now you’re probably starting wonder what happened to the women singers. Even in the 1950s, there were women on stage cutting it up with their male peers. Well, they’re still around! Take Blue Angel (not to be confused with the band featuring Cyndi Lauper), for example, a band that features the dynamite vocals of Akiko Urae. They’re still active and performing around Japan, so if you get a chance to see them, you’ll want to take it.

Another active band is The Mackshow, a Tokyo-based, three-piece band, that even released a new album this March. Though their music is a bit closer to traditional rock and roll, many of their songs have the deep thumping bass of rockabilly. And they look great in black leather jackets.

Our final band for you is Peppermint Jam, a straight-up rockabilly band complete with stand-up bass, melodic gang choruses, and leather jackets. Though the band hasn’t released an album since 2008, they’re still active and will be playing a show in Tochigi Prefecture with Blue Angel and the most legendary of Japanese rock bands Guitar Wolf on July 12.

Dancing and fans

Normally, this would be the end of the article–we’re really just here to talk about the music–but rockabilly is more than just music, isn’t it? Though we doubt anyone actually wears black leather or combs their hair into a ducktail (called “regent” in Japan) every day, there’s no doubt that the style played an important role in the culture. And in Japan, the dancing also played a significant role!

Just as it would be hard to imagine the genesis of hip-hop without breakdancing, it’s impossible to ignore the surprisingly acrobatic and enthusiastic dancing that has evolved in the Japanese rockabilly scene. Equal parts impressive and silly, it’s something that simply needs to be seen to be believed. So, here are two videos of the Tokyo Rockabilly Club – the first is from a TV interview where the group of spry men swing their hips, legs, and arms like mad men, and the second is from a practice session in Yoyogi Park. If you didn’t know better, you could almost mistake it for a rock and roll take on capoeira.

We have to admit, we’ve never seen anyone do a back flip in tight jeans and a leather jacket!

This is hardly the end of the rockabilly scene in Japan! The history is a long one filled with music from 60 years, and we’re sure the genre will continue to draw fans for decades to come. At this point in time, though, it does seem to quieted down a bit, but it’s not hard to find a good rockabilly band playing on the weekend–especially if you’re in a major city. And, of course, we haven’t even touched on psychobilly! But that’ll have to wait for another time. Right now, we’re going to go get some leather jackets, a bucket of grease, and rock all night long.

A huge thank you to Naoko for her invaluable assistance and recommendations! If you’re looking for some good live music be sure to check out her bands The Time Bombs and Satoru!

References: Wikipedia, All About, Rockabeat, The Mackshow, The Peppermint Jam, The Cools (Wikipedia), Carol (Wikipedia), The Hillbilly Bops (Wikipedia), Magic (Wikipedia)

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  • 0

    paulinusa

    I was wondering around the backstreets of Harajuku one summer afternoon and stumbled onto a tribute to Elvis (he died Aug 16th) by a Japanese band who's vocalist gave a flawless English rendition of Presley's singing. At the time there was a rock and roll museum and even a large Elvis statue but I believe both are now gone.

  • 0

    CrazyJoe

    After the big sensation that Masaaki Hirao, Mickey Curtis and company caused at the Nichigeki Theater's two "Western Carnivals," arguments have raged over rockabilly's effect on the younger set. (At one theater an excited girl fan threw a frilly unmentionable at Hirao. This practice caught on and was later ^dubbed "pantie flyings.")

  • -2

    Wakarimasen

    While groups like AKB48 might dominate the radio waves, there are myriad talented bands and underground genres to be explored.

    but none of them as good as AKB 48.....

  • 0

    Moby Grape

    great article, thanks for providing. wish it had a few more links

  • 0

    Hosa Thomas

    You doubt anyone combs their hair into a ducktail everyday? In Japan? Have you actually been there? I can assure you their are.

  • 0

    hatsoff

    A lot of the rockabilly scene has blended with the kustom kulture and greaser lifestyle. Mooneyes in Yokohama has a lot going on. The Chop Sticks car club regularly hosts hot rod nights. The Street Car Nationals in Odaiba and the annual Hot Rod Custom Show in Yokohama are two big annual events. Rockabilly, psychobilly, punk and garage. It's all good.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNA2Wgt7td0

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