“You’ve never heard of Haruomi Hosono?”
With every music review I write, I try to learn something new. It can be anything–something about the artist, something that happened in history during the recording or even the sound of a musical instrument I’ve never heard until that moment.
I learned something quite spectacular while tackling these five remastered releases from Japanese pop/rock/electronica pioneer Haruomi “Harry” Hosono. That little morsel of trivia was buried deep in the liner notes, waiting to pounce on me as I sped through the text: “Rock music in Japan wasn’t considered authentic unless it was sung in English, no matter how much (or how little) the singers knew what they were singing about.”
That floored me when I read it. How limited were Japanese rock stars when it came to fluently expressing themselves in a way that would not only appeal to Japanese audiences, but perhaps cross over into other countries in the West where rock and roll dreams were created? Hosono was thinking about that when he co-founded his popular rock outfit Happy End, which is why he and his cohorts put out three decidedly Japanese rock albums back in the early ‘70s. When he decided to call it quits by the end of 1972, it was because he was looking for another new direction, another signpost to kick over.
He recorded an album, Hosono House, that also included rock music sung in Japanese. That album, while not quite revolutionary on its own, may have been a precursor to all sorts of sub-genres in rock, pop, electronica and even so-called “lounge” music.
From that point, the restraints on Hosono’s creativity vanished. He spent the next couple of decades in the studio with his plethora of ideas, all of them risky, all of them changing the pop landscape in one way or another. Jumping into these five CDs—Hosono House, 1978’s Paraiso and Cochin Moon, 1982’s Philharmony and 1989’s omni Sight Seeing—you get a sense of the leaps and bounds Hosono was taking in the studio. He forged a quick progressive arc with his music in a relatively short time, just like The Beatles did.
Taken out of historical context, Hosono’s music can sound very much like the stereotypes of Japanese pop culture—even though he also sings in English and French. The colors are bright, and the mood is whimsical to the point of being downright goofy. This is music that makes you laugh, or it makes you scratch your head. (I used to belong to a Facebook page called WTF Japan! which included thousands of media clips that dared you to make sense of them in a Western context. Some of his songs would be apt as a soundtrack for those videos.)
But once you finish listening to these five releases, preferably in order, you’ll start to notice a few small details such as how sophisticated his recording techniques were, or how an imagination that’s the aural equivalent of a Hayao Miyazaki film translates into the world of rock and roll. This strangeness eventually blooms into a music discussion that’s right up there with “Frank Zappa’s Use of Humor in His Songs” and “What Would Happen If Captain Beefheart was Born in the Minato Ward of Tokyo.”
Sounds intriguing, right? It did to me too, even though I had never heard of Harry Hosono before Light in the Attic Records decided to release this Archival Series late last year. I didn’t know Happy End, either, but I have heard of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. I also know something about Ryuichi Sakamoto, who co-founded YMO with Hasono back in the ‘70s. So Harry seemed like a person I should know, and I said yes to exploring this set.
LITA, by the way, is a consistently entertaining label that has broadened my musical horizons over the last decade or so. They excel at providing an incredible amount of material with their releases, and they always provide a fascinating story along with extensive liner notes and artwork and photos. Harry’s story here is well-documented, and it opens up a whole new world of music for me.
Before we plunge into the music, I should note that this Archival Series offers the following:
- Newly remastered versions of these five albums
- The first releases of the Haruomi Hosono catalog outside of Japan
- Translated interviews with Harry
- All of the artwork and packaging updated for English-speaking audiences, including lyrics
- Available in either CD or LP, at LITA’s remarkably low prices
Hosono’s first solo album, cut back in 1973, sounds nice. Other than the fact that it’s sung mostly in Japanese, it sounds just like some of the mellow, mid-tempo early-FM rock that was playing in the United States at the time from nice, easygoing bands. We’re talking Poco, The Eagles and thanks to occasional country touches such as a lap steel, maybe even the Dead. In fact, I hear the Grateful Dead all through Hosono House, especially in the interplay between the acoustic and electric guitars. After a while, Harry starts sounding just like Bob Weir—singing in Japanese, of course.
Listening to Hosono House without any context, you might not think it’s that special. It was special in Japan at the time—Harry had gone solo, which was news, and he was still singing rock n’ roll in their language. In addition, Happy End fans thought that Eiichi Ohtaki, considered the “Paul McCartney of the group,” would be the break-out star. The record label execs wanted Ohtaki to cut a solo album first, not the quiet guy who played bass. After a visit to America to work with Van Dyke Parks and Lowell George, Happy End made and released their third and final album. Ohtani released his first solo album around the same time, with Harry contributing on a few tracks.
Hosono House was the result of Hosono relocating to America Mura after he returned from the US, which had once been a subdivision designed for American soldiers and their families stationed at nearby Johnson Air Base. Hosono used this “country” home setting to regroup and to be inspired by American country music, which is why so much of Hosono House is more country than rock. Harry went as far as to call the music on this album “virtual American country,” and in that lone context Hosono House may sound a bit short of extraordinary, especially compared to what was happening in America and Europe. But it’s interesting because Harry starts to show off his idiosyncrasies—his comedic approach to vocal phrasing, his willingness to dabble with synthesizers and his use of unusual instrumentation for pop music such as mandolins, melodions, kalimbas and more.
And wait, is that the sound of someone scratching vinyl? In 1973? I’m not sure, but I think that happens in a couple of places on this album. In other words, Hosono House is the coming out party for Hosono’s true vision, the announcement of everything that was still to come.
Five years had passed before Harry released his next solo album, Paraiso. He had been spending a lot of time experimenting with electronic music with both his “city pop” group Tin Pan Alley and while performing with others such as Inoue Yosui and Osamu Kitajima. In 1977, he invited Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi to work on Paraiso. Harry had been experimenting with exotica with Tin Pan Alley, which was inspired by Martin Denny’s “tropical” mood music that was popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Harry grabbed a couple of synthesizers, a Yamaha CS-80 and an ARP Odyssey, and recorded and released this album under “Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band.”
Comparing Paraiso to Hosono House is like comparing Trans to After the Gold Rush. Both albums are very much a product of their times, with Paraiso utilizing lots of synthesizers and dance beats. Harry’s voice sounds the same, a little wry and lackadaisical, but there’s more of a bubbly pop feel to these songs. The exotica influences can be heard throughout—you want steel drums and marimbas, you got ‘em.
While Hosono House sounded a little behind the times globally, Paraiso is at the vanguard of New Wave, sounding a lot like Talking Heads before Talking Heads had even released a second album. What’s most interesting is how Hosono mixes those Caribbean and South Pacific rhythms with musical touchstones from Japan—exemplified, of course, by the bouncy “Japanese Rhumba,” which is exactly as you imagine.
You can still trace that five-year-line between these first two albums—the instrumentation has changed, but Harry is still Harry, singing about silly things, but coming up with sounds that were well ahead of their time. Paraiso, originally considered as the final part of a tropical trilogy that included Tropical Dandy (1975) and Bon Voyage Co. (1976), is more of an introduction to the soon-to-debut Yellow Magic Orchestra than a true solo release.
Cochin Moon came out the same year as Paraiso, but it was originally intended as a side project, a collaboration with visual artist Tadanori Yokoo that was designed as a soundtrack to a Bollywood movie that didn’t exist. As a result, this isn’t really a pop album. It’s pure electronic music.
Hosono and Yokoo traveled to India with an entourage, and the two promptly had a “UFO encounter” that would both shake them up and inspire them to create a music that was based on sounds they had recorded in the streets. After that, Harry sort of lost his mind, and his fellow travelers learned to stay out of his way and let him carry on with his rather bizarre creative process. One member of his entourage described it like this: “It was impossible for us to even imagine how he spent his waking hours, how he ate, how he relieved himself, or what was going on in his mind. As we walked past him, our only concern was not to trip over him.”
Hosono returned to Japan, assembled his ideas into a musical whole, and came up with Cochin Moon. While this odd, mostly instrumental album doesn’t seem to strange within the context of today’s electronica, it must have been a hell of a mind trip back in 1978. The album is made up of four extended tracks, mostly utilizing synthesizers and programming, and lacks any sort of song structure. And yet it’s more than listenable—it’s weird and fun and strange and constantly evolving into new landscapes full of UFOs and the bustling sounds of India.
This 1982 release is considered Haruomi Hosono’s masterpiece, another pure synthesizer recording that benefits from technologies available through new tools such as the Prophet 5 and the E-mu Emulator, both billed here as “guest performers.” This is where Harry started experimenting with ambient programming, adding strange new vibrations to a variation of “Funiculi, Funicula” and other familiar pieces. Let’s go! Let’s go! To the top we’ll go!
By this time Hosono was more than fascinated with Krautrock such as Kraftwerk, and you can hear the slowly evolving landscapes where Klaus Schulze once strolled. I can imagine the impact this record made in 1982—it’s weird, and a lot of us were into weird back then. It’s no surprise that it was such a breakthrough hit for Hosono—it’s merely a Japanese take on all those whimsical synth-pop hits we adored in the US at the time.
Philharmony is also the home to what I consider to be the most intriguing track from Hosono—a haunting machine-borne meditation called “Air-Condition” that sounds like it was recorded in the world’s largest ventilation shaft. Giant whirling blades create the cadences, icy and stretching out to the artificial horizons, thoroughly hypnotic and captivating. This is where I suddenly decided that I was a fan—I’ve heard a lot of electronica in my life and nothing has quite captured the vivid imagery of this one-of-a-kind track. If you’re unsure of your shared journey with Harry, this is a great spot to test the waters.
omni Sight Seeing
That brings us to 1989, and an album that sounds like it could have been made today. In many ways, omni Sight Seeing is Harry’s most realized album of the bunch, sophisticated in structure but still adhering to grander ideas of composition. It starts off with a couple of winners—the opening instrumental “Esashi” begins with a lush, synthesized orchestra with an operatic chorus, punctuated by the delightful sounds of—and I’m guessing here—a very young boy practicing martial arts in the next room. “Andadura” is an exquisite journey of a song, starting off with a happy, joyful synth-pop opening and slowly devolving into dark and mysterious Middle eastern themes. It’s a joy to listen to the shift, if you can pinpoint where it happens.
The rest of the album reminds me of one of my favorite new releases this year, Somesh Mathur’s Time Stood Still, with the way it plays entertaining games with exotic touchstones. We even get yet another version of “Caravan,” but this one is so wacky and off-the-cuff that you’ll happily throw it recklessly into your list of top ten versions of that now over-played jazz classic. The eleven minute plus “Laugh-Gas” is pure dance music with a manic beat—you start to think it’s worn out its welcome until it casts its spell and you lose all track of time.
After the gorgeous and intricate final numbers, “Korendor” and “Pleocene,” omni Sight Seeing seems like an astute summarization of everything that has come before. This is the mature Haruomi Hosono, the one who seems to have found what he is looking for, even though he knows the fun is in the continued search. It’s my favorite of the five.
That brings up the question of where Hosono is now, and what he’s doing. There have been about a dozen albums since omni Sight Seeing, so this series is more about capturing the epiphanies than providing a survey of sorts over the years. Harry is now 71, and last year he started performing live in the UK as both a solo artist and with members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Now that I “know” Harry, I’m wondering if he will return to America any time soon. That’s why Light in the Attic Records is such a valuable resource for music lovers—you learn things for the first time, things you should have already known. I’m glad to have met Harry, and I hope he finds something new in 2019 to inspire him to continue on his weird, amazing journey.