Let’s bury our sorrows in Japanese covers of forgotten 70s tracks.
You’re Friend To Me
This is a cover of the Sister Sledge song “You’re A Friend To Me.” Note that the absence of an “A” is not a typo on my part, that’s how the song is listed on the official album liner notes.
Hey, articles are hard.
Anyways, this track is from Sakamoto’s 1979 album Summer Nerves, which is a strange record. Mostly because it’s not all that strange.
The album before this was one was his 1978 debut, A Thousand Knives Of. That record is a revolutionary recording that in many ways set the groundwork for what electronic music was in the 1980s. The album after it is 1980’s B-2 Unit, an uncompromising masterpiece that combines industrial music, electro, classical and undefinable experimental elements wrapped in a pop sheen, all while sounding strangely ominous (in case you can’t tell, it’s a really hard record to actually describe). It’s probably one of the strangest and bravest albums ever released.
But between those two albums we got Summer Nerves, and it’s a stupid disco record with some jazz overtones.
I’m willing to bet that album wasn’t planned as a Sakamoto solo release, and that his name only got pushed to the forefront thanks to his breakout solo success a year prior. In fact, something called “The Kakutougi Session” shares top billing with him, leading me to believe that was how the album was supposed to be billed in the first place.
So who is the Kakutougi Session? Well, it’s mostly names that should be familiar to any Sakmoto or YMO fan. Yukihiro Takahashi is here on drums, and he’s joined by former YMO guitarists Kazumi Watanabe and Kenji Omura. While Hosono is MIA, his bandmate from Happy End, Shigeru Suzuki, shows up for a bit, as does Akiko Yano on backup vocals.
But again, while the YMO regulars are present and this is supposedly a Sakamoto solo album, don’t go into this track expecting much that would signal these people would later go onto to perform on some of the most influential and important synthpop tracks of all-time. About the only thing that makes this even the least bit representative of Sakmoto’s later work is the heavy use of vocoder effects on the verses, and that’s it (and even that’s a stretch).
But hey, you know what’s a great song? “You’re A Friend To Me.” And this version is good.
Not a bad cover, but it’s still a cover of a Steely Dan song, so don’t get your hopes up. The real gem of the two tacks I’m posting tonight is the second one, “Gaijin Heaven,” which served as the cover track to his great 1983 solo record. For those of you who are unaware, “Gaijin” is Japanese for “foreigner.” Some people consider it almost a racial slur, but in my experience as a gaijin, it’s really not the word itself that’s racist, but how it’s said. If someone mutter “gaijin” at me under their breath, then I know they’re a motherfucker.
The song is great, and one of the only pieces of Japanese pop culture I’ve ever come across that attempts to convey what it’s like to be a foreigner in Japan, even going as far as covering issues with immigration and the fact that no matter how long you’re here you’re never “one of them.” It’s also incredibly catchy and features some damn good guitar work and vocals by the late, great Omura-san. Dig it.