Japrocksampler, By Julian Cope

The Teardrop Explodes frontman extols glue-sniffing, plane-hijacking post-war Japanese rock 'n' rollers
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The Independent Culture

With the 1994 publication of Head-On, Julian Cope's unfeasibly amusing autobiography, it became instantly clear that the former Teardrop Explodes frontman's virtues as a writer could be the object of consensus in a way that his musical endeavours rarely had been. As well as a second set of memoirs and two suitably monumental studies of stone circles, Cope has also put his name to the voluminous and unusually authoritative Head Heritage website.

But his finest book to date was undoubtedly 1995's Krautrocksampler: a pithy yet intellectually expansive tribute to the long-haired Teutonic space-rockers of the 1970s whose unfettered Kosmiche music had illuminated his misspent youth. This new, much bulkier volume, subtitled "How The Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds On Rock '*' Roll" – expands on that template by attempting to impute similarly revelatory qualities to the music made by the children of Germany's Second World War allies.

It doesn't begin well. Whereas Krautrocksampler kicked off with the impassioned declaration "I wrote this short history because of how I feel about the music", the opening exchanges of this sequel abound with such ominous phrases as "duty-bound", and "the time had now come". Cope's introduction reads like a kind of acid-casualty's 1066 and All That. (Who knew, for example, that the main factor inhibiting the artistic advancement of the Japanese was the fact that they were " notoriously anti-hard drugs"?)

Happily, Cope's wigged-out interpretation of history makes much more sense once the music starts. It turns out that Japanese pop culture began where the British and American variants have ended up – with a 1950s Pop Idol plague of instant TV stars, or Idoru. And Cope's "Jap-rock" back-story (it's worth noting here that where "Krautrock" was wryly self-defining, in this case the nomenclatural nod to wartime hostilities is the author's own) deftly intertwines the mainstream and the avant-garde. He switches easily between the formative experiences of Yoko Ono's first husband Toshi Ichiyanagi, who studied under John Cage at the Juilliard School, and the tense moment on a live 1960s TV show when two leading practitioners of the nascent indigenous beat-group boom decided that, in response to the difficulties of pronuciation presented by the words "rock '*' roll", the music they made should henceforth be known as "Group Sounds".

Such is its subjects' endless capacity for putting their own twist on Western innovations, that this book effectively enables the reader to experience the whole glorious panoply of Sixties and Seventies rock history anew, reflected in the fairground mirror of Japanese socio-historic specificity. From the "Eleki" craze for Shadows-inspired guitar instrumentals, to a brief vogue for gloriously mis-matched super-groups; from drug abuse (much is made of the impact of Marusan Pro-Bond adhesive on the work of the superbly-named Speed, Glue & Shinki) to political extremism (Les Rallizes Denudés lost a bass-player when he helped hijack a Boeing 737); there was no sub-cultural alley so blind that Japanese rock '*' rollers wouldn't gladly follow their British and American role-models up it. Cope's kaleidoscopic prose is the perfect medium in which to experience the emotional and cultural chaos that ensued.

He is an especially astute observer of that unique equilibrium between idealistic rhetoric and brazen opportunism which is so often attained by the professional rock musician. In fact, Cope operates at a level of cynicism which it would be hard for someone who had not been there and done that to justify. But as with both his obvious literary forebears, the American rock sages Lester Bangs and Chuck Eddy, he is often at his tenderest when he seems most contemptuous. It is certainly hard to think of another environment in which the description "repulsively degraded" might be considered a compliment. Cope gleefully punctuates his endless hyphenated descriptive pile-ups ("sub-sub Bill Ward [Black Sabbath drummer] bibles-thrown-at-the-sofa drum-fills" is my particular favourite) with sardonic deflationary imprecations – "Er, don't hold your breath mate"; "Uh, look out".

He has an especially happy knack for complete capsule descriptions. Take Group Sounds ensemble the Free Lancers, for example, "who took both the look and the sound of Merseybeat into a strange, almost Maoist retro-folk area, with button-fronted serge land army outfits, Salvation Army wide-eyed exuberance, and Seeds-like 'Pushin' Too Hard' repeated choruses, all executed in a highly driven Beatlesesque acoustic yammer". It is not necessary to have the first idea of what Cope is talking about to enjoy the poetry of that sentence. Once you've read it, actually experiencing the Free Lancers' music would only be a bonus. *

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