Artists From Japan #4: An Introduction To Happy End

happy end

Who Are Happy End?

Claiming the top spot on Rolling Stone Japan’s list of best Japanese albums of all time, and holding the fourth most influential Japanese group of all time according to HMV Japan, Happy End are as entrenched in Japanese musical legacy as any band could be. Though often called “The Japanese Beatles”, Happy End were a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, one whose influence, and importance bears very little similarity to any western band, or any western musician. Primarily because Happy End served as a reaction to western music, and the Japanese people’s obsession with it in the 60s. However, much like how the Beatles were famous for popularizing, and perfecting underground trends, changing the pop landscape in the process, Happy End were also a massive turning point for Japan’s music, and solidified the country’s musical undercurrents. So the metaphor is in some sense, apt.

Their primary influence was in bringing the Japanese language to rock and roll, becoming the first big Japanese rock group to sing in only Japanese, and to refuse to do covers of western songs. As, at the time, most Japanese bands sang in English only, and at the very least, included a few western cover songs in each project. Despite personally loving American music, and American culture, Happy End made music that was for Japan, and Japan alone. And in making those staunch, against-the-grain choices, Happy End would mark the first time since WW2 that the country had their own strong musical identity.

But the music itself was also incredibly important to their status as visionaries. Equally inspired by early pop perfectionists like Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson as by America’s folk rock and singer-songwriter scene in the late 60’s, Happy End made an incredibly refined and subtle fusion of folk rock, jazz-rock, and psych rock. A blend they would develop into its own Japan-specific genre called “City Pop”. The minimal mix of guitars and bass were often folk on the surface, but underneath, hid a very jazz-like sensibility that lead to odd sonic detours, and musically dense interludes, like some sort of alternate reality Neil Young backed by Steely Dan.

Formed in the wreckage of the members many bands and solo projects, Happy End consisted of four members: Eiichi Otaki, Shigeru Suzuki, Haruomi Hosono, and Takashi Matsumoto. Their first work under the Happy End name was as the backing band for folk musician Nobuyasu Okabayashi on his album Miru Mae ni Tobe, a relationship which HMV Japan compared to Bob Dylan and The Band. After the success of that album, and after realizing the great musical chemistry between the four, Happy End headed into the studio to record their first album for the indie label Underground Record Club. What followed was a run of three albums that was nothing short of legendary, and in hind sight is seen as some of the most significant music to have ever come out of Japan.

1. はっぴいえんど (1970)

Happy End’s first album, which just translates to Happy End (as in self titled), was the band at their most in touch with American music. Staying pretty close to their work on Nobuyasu’s album, Happy End made songs and sounds that sat very close alongside what contemporary western artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were doing. Though not completely in line with those artists, as Happy End also brought in elements of hard rock, and tinges of eastern psych rock, like the vaguely Buddhist chant and studio reverb of closing track “続はっぴーいいえーんど“ or the explosive opener  “春よ来い”, which had harsh, almost Black Sabbath-esque psych rock guitars rising over a roots-rock base, and growly Neil Young-esque vocal performance. And it was those conflicting elements, and unique cultural  juxtaposition that proved Happy End as a distinct development of, as opposed to theft of, western music.

Perhaps it was due to their position in Japan, far away from the origination of these sounds, and styles, but Happy End had no hangs up about combining and altering their musical makeup. Or maybe it was just their drive to make music that was distinctly Japanese, blending formerly distinct genres into something that was more meditative, and exploratory. Without the expectations of pop success, due to singing in Japanese, and with their more lenient indie label backing, they revealed themselves from the get-go in their most experimental mindset. The album almost feels shapeless, leaping from hard rock numbers like “いらいら” to wintry folk like “朝“. But the sense of shapelessness extended even further, within the individual tracks themselves. Songs often switched tones and “genre” halfway through, or for short bridge sections just to swing right back to where they started. It’s an album as odd, and inconsistent as it is engrossing. However, it’s not the album that changed music in Japan forever, it did however, set the wheels in motion, and listening to it, you can just begin to hear why.

2. 風街ろまん (1971)

After the commercial success of their debut album, Happy End became involved in one of Japan’s biggest musical controversies, called the “Japanese-Language Rock Controversy”. A debate which saw Happy End and other Japanese singing rock bands arguing with, and being attacked by, other prominent Japanese rock bands, primarily the Flower Travellin’ Band, about what language rock and roll should be sung in. Many on the English side even suggested that the Japanese language would never work with rock and roll rhythms as well as the English language, and would prevent Japanese music from having a cultural impact outside Japan. A fear which was very real to the rapidly globalizing country. With the incredible pressure of the debate looming over Happy End’s heads, along with the mounting commercial pressure they were now under, they headed into the studio to record what would become Kazemachi Roman, or Wind City Romance. It would become their greatest commercial and critical success, and according to Rolling Stone Japan, the greatest Japanese album of all time.

The album was a concept project, one which captured Tokyo during the 1964 Summer Olympics, a moment which many Japanese people perceived as a turning point for Japan, as Japan re-entered the world stage after the tough post-WW2 years. A change which Happy End were deeply conflicted by. The music was warmer and less prone to experimentation and harsh detours than their debut, but the songwriting and musicianship had reached a level of refinement that shone through brighter than anything on their debut. The mix was sparser, with each instrument clearly sitting in their own space, playing barely there drum lines, and floaty guitar melodies that seem like they had drifted by on a cloud. On top of this Happy End began flirting with instruments outside their conventional rock wheelhouse. On the song “Gether The Wind” or “Kaze wo Atsumete”, which was notably on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, there’s even a lovely soul-inspired organ performance that sits at the very bottom of the mix, orbiting around the song, complementing the southern-soul/folk fusion of the song beautifully.

On the rest of the album, Happy End continue their exploration and reinterpretation of every American genre, incorporating elements of country, blues, rockabilly, and southern soul. Genres which they mixed amongst themselves, and worked into their classic folk-rock, and roots-rock style. The entire album feels like being taken on a tour through America’s musical history, watching it be pulled apart and dissected by curious strangers. Of course beyond all those surface curiosities, the music itself is incredible, with incredibly well mixed rock and roll ballads that display an incredible emotional maturity. As a portrait of the 1964 Olympics it’s hopefully and wide-eyed, but also deeply melancholic, as Happy End gives a final goodbye to the more simple Japan they knew. While it is deeply rooted in the history of the time, it stands as a musical exploration that is timeless.

3. Happy End (1973)

In response to the mounting frustrations the band felt from recording in Japan, Happy End set off to America to record what would be their final album, with the legendary Van Dyke Parks as producer. Having been obsessed with American music and culture for most of their lives, Happy End were finally headed to the country they spent their career both idealizing and fighting. Unfortunately, nothing ever lives up to it’s expectations, and the very tense recording sessions would cause the group to become disillusioned with America. As a send off to the country they once loved, they named their final song “Goodbye Japan, Goodbye America”, an admission that their brand of American rock made for the Japanese people really had no national identity.

The tenseness of the recording sessions where in part due to the band itself, but also from Van Dyke, who was apparently frequently drunk and attempted to bring up Pearl Harbor and WW2 during the sessions. There was also an overbearing language barrier as Happy End tried to communicate with the many American session musicians involved with the recording. The session musicians however, were some of the best America had to offer, including Tom Scott, Bill Payne, Slyde Hyde, Chuck Findley, and Lowell George. They turned Happy End’s formally minimalistic brand of folk-rock into something orchestral and lush. Horns and piano filled the space on tracks like “It Will Surely Be Spring Tomorrow”, transforming simple and somber ballads into flowery Beach Boys-esque baroque pop. Even the more simplistic country music songs like “Sharing An Umbrella” were over flowing with a rich mix of guitars and mandolin. The album was no great reinvention of their sound on the fundamental level, but the refinement of the sound into something more expansive made it an incredibly powerful finale for one of Japan’s greatest bands. Similar to The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Happy End hunkered down in the studio, probably with the expectation of breaking up, and came back with an album that reaffirmed everything people had loved about the group.

4. After Happy End

Haruomi Hosono is perhaps the most illustrious name to come out of Happy End. He has had a very fruitful solo career, ranking at #44 on HMV Japan’s most influential pop acts himself, but much more importantly than even his own fantastic solo career, is that he would to go onto form one of the very few other Japanese groups with as much influence as Happy End. Yellow Magic Orchestra, who took #2 on HMV Japan’s most influential pop acts, and #4 on Rolling Stone Japan’s best japanese albums of all time, was formed almost five years after Happy End’s split. Together with Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi started YMO as a side project to explore electronic music, but it quickly became one of the most influential electronic acts of all time, in both Japan and abroad. As part of YMO he would go on to essentially define the genre of synth-pop and release more than a few classic albums that kept up with cutting edge electronic sounds for over a decade. He would also release a wealth of incredible solo albums that explored folk rock, jazz fusion, synth-pop, ambient, and Polynesian music. High points include YMO’s Technodelic and Solid State Survivor, as well as his 1973 solo album Hosono House.

Eiichi Ohtaki continued on with a solo career that was perhaps equally as illustrious as Haruomi’s, grabbing #9 on HMV’s list of most influential artists, and #7 on Rolling Stone Japan’s list of greatest albums. Following Happy End’s breakup, Eiichi would release albums pretty steadily, developing the sound of “City Pop” until 1981 when he released A Long Vacation, which would become his best-selling, and most critically acclaimed album. An album which perfected the bright, and genre leaping sound of “City Pop”. Along with albums like Eiichi Yazawa’s Goldrush, it reflected the absolute pinnacle of “City Pop”, a genre which would eat itself alive for almost a decade of absolutely awful music until it would morph into the genre of Shibuya-kei in the late 80s. However, during this moment of incredible artistic success, Eiichi would pull away, releasing only one more album, 1984’s much quieter, and forlorn Each Time, before retiring as solo artist to focus on his career as a producer. A career which he pursued until his death on December 30th of 2013 from choking on an apple.

Takashi Matsumoto, who wrote much of Happy End’s lyrics, went on to become one of Japan’s best-selling songwriters, writing over 2000 songs for other musicians which collectively sold over 50 million copies. Writing credits which often included projects by his former fellow band mates, like for Haruomi’s YMO and for Eiichi Ohtaki’s solo output. Much of his work is hard to recommend as it’s pretty dated pop music from the 70’s and 80s, but his pop influence, and incredible number of top 100 hits in Japan speaks to a different dimension of Japan’s musical history, one that the other members of the band didn’t reach.

Shigeru Suzuki would have a short solo career of his own that saw him releasing albums sporadically throughout the 70’s. During this time, he primarily worked as a session musician, playing on a wealth of albums throughout the decade, including many by his former band mates. Eventually he would release his final solo work, Sei Do Ya, in 1985, leaving behind solo ventures to further commit himself to a career as one of Japan’s most prolific session musicians, playing with hundreds of artists to this day.

Check out the rest of our articles in our ‘Artists From’ series.

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