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ROKABIRII - ロカビリー
(Japanese Rockabilly)
The Sound of Japanese Teen Rebellion for over 60 years...

Just like the Japanese Street Fashion scene, the Japanese Music Industry is as fascinating as it is occasionally bizarre.

While Idol groups like AKB48 might dominate the radio waves in Japan today, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of talented bands and underground genres to be explored.

And, like anywhere in the world, the popularity of genres and bands in Japan ebb and flow like the tide.   The history of Visual Kei should be proof enough of that.

But when it comes to the ebbs and flows of popularity, one genre, which in Japan has always been associated with Teenage Rebellion and Delinquency, stands out among the others: Rockabilly!

THE BIRTH OF A GENRE...

Before we can talk about Japanese Rockabilly, we need to (very briefly) discuss what Rockabilly actually is...

In the mid-late 1950s, Rock and Roll was the new kid on the block, but even in its infancy the genre was transforming constantly and producing numerous sub-genres.

One of those sub-genres was 'Rockabilly', which can be seen a fusion of Rock and Roll and Country music.   It was originally popularized by artists like Bill Haley and his Comets, Carl Perkins, and of course, 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 very first Rockabilly songs.

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First Recorded in 1955 by Carl Perkins, 'Blue Suede Shoes'
still makes you want to move your feet over 60 years later
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Well... 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, or great-grandparents, of many readers) in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere around the world!

In no time at all, the genre jumped across the Pacific Ocean and landed in Japan, followed closely by the introduction of Rockabilly.

Obviously, in 1955, when “Rock Around the Clock” first appeared in Japan as a cover version 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.

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Chiemi Eri's 1955 Japanese cover version of “Rock Around the Clock
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As a teen in post-war Japan, the only way you could hear your favourite songs were: on the radio, buy the record, or find a performer playing cover versions.

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Rokabirii Legend Keijiro Yamashita
(1958)
This also led to an interesting development peculiar to Japanese Rock music - since Rock and Roll and Rockabilly appeared so closely to each other, Japanese record labels did not bother to clearly distinguish between the two genres.

While that might drive a music nerd crazy today, in the 50s and 60s record label executives did not have to worry about nitpicking Tweets or Facebook rants - all they cared about was album sales (Some things never change... huh)

But as a result, the delineation between Rock and Roll and Rockabilly in Japan was non-existent for all practical intents and purposes... and it all became lumped together under the label "Rokabirii" (ロカビリー) - which was, essentially, a Japanese adaptation of both Rockabilly and Rock and Roll music to their own language and culture.

Rokabirī's big break really came though when Misa Watanabe (a promoter, daughter of a talent agent, and manager of Jazz Kissa Tennessee) saw marketable potential in this new music and rented the Nihon Gekijyo theater in Tokyo (2000+ capacity) to put on a week long show that came to be known as the Nichigeki Western Carnival

The three biggest Rokabirī stars of the time were the “Three Rockabilly Men”, Keijiro Yamashita, Masaki Hiraou, and Mickey Curtis, who all performed regularly at the Nichigeki Western Carnival.

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Scenes from the Nichigeki Western Carnival can be seen
in this Japanese News Report
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The Nichigeki Western Carnival was a revelation for the rebellious teenagers of Japan.

While modern audiences might find screaming fans and paper streamers thrown from the audience a bit tame, this was the height of decadence for many of the young fans at the time.

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Rokabirii Legend Masaaki Hirao
(1958)

At one concert an excited girl fan threw a frilly unmentionable at guitarist Masaaki Hirao... This practice caught on and became known as "pantie flyings".

Japanese newspapers went ballistic, calling for the music to be banned (not only because it was seen as an import from Japan's conquerors (there was MUCH ill feeling toward American troops due to their behaviour during the Occupation of Japan), and therefore the music was regarded by many as a serious affront to all things Japanese, but because they also claimed that Rokabirii music encouraged teens to be promiscuous, to join Rokabirī-zoku (rockabilly gangs)... and *shock and horror* drop out of school!

Now, we all all know that the fastest way to get a teenager to think something is 'cool' is to have their parents hate it... so, because of, rather than inspite of, all this unfavourable media attention, Japanese teens, weary of the deprivations and hardships of the US Occupation and feeling abandoned by their own government and society in general, latched onto Rokabirii as something they could possess of their own making - that their parents hated it was an added bonus - and Rokabirii music and fashion literally exploded across Japan - much to the disgust of the older generation!

Though the guys seem to have dominated the Rokabirii scene, there was clearly still room for women shine. Michiko Hamamura, a model-turned-singer, produced a rocking, throaty and gritty rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” that truly must have been killer to have seen live back in the day!

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Michiko Hamamura, a model-turned-singer, produced
a throaty and gritty rendition of “Jailhouse Rock
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The Nichigeki Western Carnival, which roughly followed Rokabirii’s original rise and fall, lasted for nearly 20 years, with its first show in 1958 and its final 56th show in 1977.

Nothing is as stale to a new upcoming generation as the music of just a few years before, and so Rokabirii eventually fell out of favour... for a time.

REVIVAL OF A GENRE...

Golden Oldies” saw a strong revival in the 1970s that lasted through the 80s, and into the 90s and early 21st century, and Rokabirii was no exception to this revival.   Not only in music but also in extreme re-imaginings of the Rokabirii fashions!

Two of the first bands to bring Rokabirii back to the centre stage in Japan were Carol and the Cools.

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Just as in the first boom of Rokabirii, cover versions were indispensable.
Here’s Carol playing “Johnny B. Goode
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In 1972, musician Eikichi Yazawa formed the back-to-basics Rock band Carol inspired by the Beatles’ days as a workhorse R&B band on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.

The band dressed in menacing black leather jackets and leather pants — as well as hair in greasy long Regents, in the vein of their British Teddy Boy-revival counterparts.

Carol used a similarly-attired biker gang called the Cools as security at their concerts, who later formed their own Rokabirii group.

They became the main fashion inspiration for the early teenaged Bōsōzoku biker gangs. (The best visual reference I know of for this early Bōsōzoku-look is the documentary GOD SPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR)

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The Cools who started out as an early Bosozoku gang that worked
as Security at Carol's concerts before deciding to pick up guitars
and form their own Rokabirii band in 1977
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While most of their forefathers from the 50s and 60s never dressed like extras from Grease, there’s no questioning the popularity of these bands - and if a film maker of this era wanted to ensure the success of their latest Pinku Violence movie about Sukeban or Bōsōzoku gangs they pretty much HAD to have either Carol or the Cools in the movie or performing on the soundtrack!

Though Carol only lasted a few years (from 1972 to 1975) as a band, the Cools still haven’t lost steam since they formed in 1977, and the energetic front man of Carol, Eikichi Yazawa, was still performing live and recording as of last year.

The 80s saw even more Rokabirii bands forming, such as the Black Cats, who toured the United States 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 duck's ass hairstyle that later Rokabirii fans and bands would become famous for.

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The Black Cats’ - “Tokyo Street Rocker
Nothing has ever looked so 80s while being so 50s
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One of the best (and unique) things about Rockabilly and Rokabirii is the stand-up double bass. That deep thumping groove is like a thunder in your chest.

The song “Rockabilly Carnival” by Magic, a Shibuya-based Rokabirii band that was active from 1988 to 1999, features arguably one the best ever bass sections in the genre!   Who can resist its call to the dance floor?

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Magic’ - ““Rockabilly Carnival
Who can resist its call to the dance floor?
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Influenced by the Psychobilly bands that rose to international prominence in the 1990s, the Hillbilly Bops were highly influential in the Rokabirii 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.

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The Hillbilly Bops - still rockin'.... though not as often as they used to!
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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 cool clip.... 'Hellcats' (Live)!

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The Vincents - Hellcats (Live Version)
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Another Rokabirii band that is still very much active is The Mackshow, a Tokyo-based, three-piece band, that released a new album in March 2014...

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The Machshow - Love those sideburns... Cooler than Cool!
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As any visitor to Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, and who as seen the Tokyo Rockabilly Club strut their stuff on a Sunday afternoon, will tell you, this is hardly the end of the story when it comes to Rockabilly scene in Japan!

The history is a long one filled with music that has inspired teen rebels for six decades, and I'm sure the genre will continue to draw fans for decades to come...

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Rock and Roll is not dead....
though it may have gotten a little confused in the translation....
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SEE ALSO:
ZOKU (Tribe)





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