I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sugar Babe -- SONGS

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while may have noticed that I've got a number of articles on the veterans Tatsuro Yamashita(山下達郎) and Taeko Ohnuki(大貫妙子). I see them as these far-flowing rivers: in the early 80s, Ohnuki gently wound herself into France while Yamashita veered into California. However, the two seemingly disparate waterways of Japanese musical talent had a joint origin of sorts in a 70s mountain spring. That spring....or band....was known as Sugar Babe.

Over the years, bits and pieces of information flew in and out of my head about this legendary band that lasted only 3 years (1973-1976) and released only one studio album, "SONGS", near the end of their time together. J-Wiki has a very dense blow-by-blow account about how Sugar Babe got started, but suffice it to say, I will just provide a very quick Reader's Digest for Dummies account and say that the various members got together through the usual encounters of people in Tokyo via their music. By the time the band was ready for the recording of the album, the lineup was Yamashita, Ohnuki and Kunio Muramatsu(村松邦男) on vocals (and many instruments), Kikuo Wanikawa(鰐川己久男) on bass, and Akihiko Noguchi(野口明彦)on drums, although there were changes in the final year of Sugar Babe's existence, which included the inclusion of Ginji Ito(伊藤銀次)on guitar. nikala has written a fine profile for one of Ito's later solo albums on the blog right here.

"SONGS" was released in April 1975, and although it did not do all that well initially, its fame has grown to the point that the book "Japanese City Pop" had proclaimed it as an all-round classic. Sugar Babe's leader, Yamashita, had a grand love for American Pop sensibilities, and seeing that no other band in Japan was embracing Western pop styles, he decided to go for the gusto and make a magnum opus for a Japanese group following the American musical idiom. J-Wiki mentioned that Sugar Babe was perhaps the first Japanese band to use the Major 7th Chord. For a non-musicologist like me, I can't tell the difference between a Major 7th and a major headache, but all I know is that this is a very different album when compared to the kayo kyoku aidorus and enka singers that were far more highlighted during the 70s.

"SHOW" is the first track, and Yamashita takes the lead here. Written and composed by Yamashita in 1973 when he was doing his one-man concerts, he used the bright song to launch things off as in "The show is about to begin!"To me, it sounds as bracing as that first swig of OJ in the morning and as effervescent as sparkling soda. The first several bars of the song and Yamashita's wail have been used in the opening credits of a number of radio and TV programs, and why not? It has that clarion call impact. Of the two vocals of Yamashita and Ohnuki, I think the former stayed closer to his roots, but even so, it's interesting to hear a "rawer" version of Tats singing a style that's further inland from the beach.

 For the record (no pun intended), the A-side consists of:

3. Shinkirou no Machi (蜃気楼の街)
4. Kaze no Sekai (風の世界)
5. Tameiki Bakari (ためいきばかり)

The third track, "Shinkirou no Machi"(The Town of a Mirage) is where Ohnuki makes her debut. Another analogy coming up, but when I first heard the original version on "SONGS", it automatically set in my head that while Yamashita was the hip and happy-go-lucky older brother, Ohnuki was the somewhat shyer younger sister. But again, when comparing Ohnuki to her later technopop/French work in the early 80s, although there was more of a quaver in her voice back then, there was also more of a forcefulness in her delivery as well that would almost disappear when she made a change in musical style a few years later. Going back to the track, though, there is a lot in that song that reminds me of Carole King and Joni Mitchell.

(cover version)

"Ame wa Te no Hira ni Ippai"(The Rain Has Filled The Palms of My Hands) is the 3rd-last track on Side B. According to J-Wiki's account of the song, Yamashita had originally planned to give it a Southern Pop arrangement, but the album producer Eiichi Ohtaki (of Happy End) suggested giving it a more Phil Spector Wall of Sound. I'm not sure what the two of them thought when the song was done but when I hear it, I think there was a nice compromise in the melody. Yamashita is on the piano while Ohnuki pulls electric piano duty here.

6. Itsumo Doori (いつも通り)
7. Suteki na Melody (すてきなメロディー)
8. Kyou wa Nan daka (今日はなんだか)
9. Ame wa Te no Hira ni Ippai (雨は手のひらにいっぱい)
10. Sugi Sarishi Hibi "60's Dream"(過ぎ去りし日々"60's Dream")

"Itsumo Doori"(As Usual) was probably the first song that I heard that was connected with this album. And it was just by going through YouTube during my initial infatuation with Ohnuki's material that I came across a 1984 self-cover. That version had that somewhat technopoppy feel but the original version on "SONGS" had a certain funkiness combined with another recurrence of Spector. Ohnuki had written this during a time when Sugar Babe was on a roll getting plenty of work at the live houses. She may have been referring to this actual groove-settling although the lyrics seem to cheerfully hint at getting into a rut. Although it's difficult to pick an absolute favourite on this album, I would put "Itsumo Doori" and Yamashita's "Downtown" up there. Both songs did get placed on opposite sides of a 45". The other interesting point about the song was that it apparently was influenced by the late singer Syreeta Wright, according to J-Wiki.

Track No. 7, "Suteki na Melody"(A Wonderful Melody), is the duet tune that was thought to have been needed to complete the album. The shortest track on "SONGS", this was also a collaborative effort between Yamashita and Ohnuki in the writing and composing department along with Ginji Ito. It's very much a short-but-sweet song which has the two singing together throughout the 2 minutes and 36 seconds without any solo turns, and it's the equivalent of a short hop down the block to buy that beloved ice cream. It also has its appealingly silly side as well with some good-natured shrieking (including what sounds like a cameo from a goat) and a bit of ragtime piano. I can almost picture that old tie-dyed Volkswagen van.

I could write down information on the other tracks, too, but I'll hold onto those for separate articles since by this point, the skin on your index finger may be peeling off scrolling down with the mouse. As for Kunio Muramatsu, I will also come to him soon enough. "Downtown" already has its own entry.

In my last several months in Japan, I mentally thought about what my last CD purchases should be. "SONGS" wasn't at the top of my list but it was in there. I was able to find it at a used CD shop called RecoFAN in Shibuya. In fact, I found two versions. One was an original version with those 11 tracks which cost close to 8,000 yen while the one that I eventually got was a reissue with an extra 9 tracks of demo and live versions and a price tag of 2,000 yen. Let's say I like my past in music cheap and a buffet.

Obviously, I'm not sure whether Yamashita treated the whole "SONGS"experience as the Great Experiment in New Music. He did want to push the envelope, though, and bring something novel into Japanese popular music. I mean, when I think about my memories of 70s kayo kyoku, they are usually filled with images of Candies, Pink Lady, Hiromi Go, Harumi Miyako and The Cool Five. But Sugar Babe's "SONGS"now pierces through those images like a bolt of lightning. It truly stands out as something unique (and is up there with any of Yumi Arai's early albums), despite its initial status as something for the niche rock crowd. And although both Yamashita and Ohnuki had already been well into their careers, I think their lone joint album was the catalyst (oh, good heavens...a chemical analogy now) for what would become their amazing solo careers.

PS There is also a writeup about the band at Nippop.


  1. After Downtown it was fun to check out Ippu Do's Moonlight Magic for similarities and differences:

  2. Hi, jari.

    I gave "Moonlight Magic" a listen, and it was pretty fun. I read under the video that the song "...did surprisingly poorly in sales". Perhaps so, but I liked it just fine. I think Yukihiro Takahashi of YMO would've done a pretty good cover version of it.

  3. I really like Sugar Babe. It's always there on my playlist. There's a certain nostalgic feeling of early Japanese "westernized" pop music in their song. Also the "urban life" theme is quite strong in this album (hence the City Pop label and song titles?). Too bad there's not much I can get except SONGS and DOWN TOWN single. No live shows videos (maybe they were only play gigs in live houses, not in big stage) and only several photos available on the internet.

    Somehow I prefer them as a band than going solo. I wish they could make a reunion live/tour or some work together again aside from their nostalgic comments on the anniversary edition of the CD :)

    1. Hi, Azam. There is indeed that nostalgic feeling for me as well when it comes to a lot of music from the 70s: the aidorus of that era, enka and yes, the City Pop/New Music of that time.

      As for concert videos, I tried looking on YouTube but I could only find videos of audio-only when Sugar Babe had performed in those small venues. I'm not sure if they ever played in any of the big halls; I got the impression that Yamashita, Onuki and the rest of them preferred more intimate settings.

      It would be nice if they could all get together for a reunion concert, but I'm just wondering, especially when it comes to Onuki, if they all feel that their musical directions have just gotten a little too distant from each other.


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