“Back in Black,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Other Classic Rock Songs Played on Traditional Japanese Instruments

Name any classic rock band — or maybe any band, period — and you can rest assured that their biggest, most obsessive fan lives in Japan. Though it possesses a native musical culture of its own, with a rich history and a distinctive set of aesthetic sensibilities, that country has also cultivated great enthusiasm for the music of other lands. Just as 21st-century Japan continues to produce masters of such traditional instruments as the stringed koto, the bamboo shakuhachi flute, and the taiko drum, it also continues to produce increasingly all-knowing, all-collecting followers of bands like AC/DC, Guns N' Roses, and Led Zeppelin.

Seldom have those currents of Japan's music world had a venue to reliably meet — or at least it hadn't before the advent of NHK Blends. Produced by NHK World, the international channel of Japanese national broadcaster NHK, the show offers performances of well-known Western songs, usually rock and pop hits, interpreted with traditional Japanese instruments played in traditional settings by musicians in traditional dress.

Here we've embedded NHK Blends' renditions of "Back in Black," "Stairway to Heaven," and "Welcome to the Jungle," and on their videos page you can find many more: Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and "Beat It," Toto's "Africa," and the Beatles' "Let It Be."

Those all rank among NHK Blends' most popular videos, having racked up hundreds of thousands and even millions of views. This suggests that, no matter how many countless times we hear these songs on the car radio, at the gym, or while grocery-shopping, a sufficiently radical re-interpretation can still breathe new life into them. Some performances pull off extra dimensions of cultural transposition: the NHK Blends version of "Misirlou," for instance, takes a traditional piece of music from the Eastern Mediterranean and interprets it for the kokyo, a stringed instrument that originally came to Japan from China. Or rather, it interprets French guitarist Jean-Pierre Danel's interpretation of "surf guitar" king Dick Dale's famous version from 1961. Close your eyes and you can very nearly imagine the samurai picture Quentin Tarantino somehow hasn't yet made.

See the full list of songs here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Nirvana Plays an Angry Set & Refuses to Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ After the Crowd Hurls Sexist Insults at the Opening Act (Buenos Aires, 1992)

“Anger is an energy,” shouts John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, on Public Image Limited’s “Rise,” the 1986 single written in reaction to Apartheid South African and Northern Irish interrogation techniques. In typical fashion, Lydon succinctly sums up the motive force of punk, in a song, as he told MTV's Kevin Seal, about “all kinds of torture,” which “doesn’t really achieve anything. Violence doesn’t really achieve anything.”

Some angry energy creates, and some does nothing but destroy. A few years later, Nirvana brought the angry energy of punk back into mainstream consciousness, with a frontman who spoke out frequently against sexism and sexist violence. In 1992, the band—already a global phenomenon after the release of Nevermind and the explosive success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—performed a particularly pissed-off-yet-creative live set. They did so in reaction to a wave of abuse hurled at their opening act by a crowd of 50,000 in Buenos Aires.

“We brought this all-girl band over from Portland called Calamity Jane,” Kurt Cobain later remembered. “During their entire set, the whole audience… was throwing money and everything out of their pockets, mud and rocks, just pelting them. Eventually the girls stormed off crying. It was terrible, one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, such a mass of sexism all at once.”

Enraged, Cobain threatened to cancel, but was talked out of it by bassist Krist Novaselic. Instead, the band took the stage and “openly mocked the audience,” writes Alex Young at Consequence of Sound, “by playing mostly rarities and the backend of Nevermind.” Cobain at least managed to turn the ugly moment into a positive experience for his band.

We ended up having fun, laughing at them (the audience). Before every song, I’d play the intro to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then stop. They didn’t realize that we were protesting against what they’d done. We played for about forty minutes, and most of the songs were off Incesticide, so they didn’t recognize anything. We wound up playing the secret noise song (‘Endless, Nameless’) that’s at the end of Nevermind, and because we were so in a rage and were just so pissed off about this whole situation, that song and whole set were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.

The whole show was captured on film by a professional crew, and you can watch it above to see what the experience was like for the audience. The opening track, “Nobody Knows I’m New Wave,” is “one of only a handful of Nirvana songs,” notes Young, "never to be released. Nirvana archivists theorize the impromptu jam was made up on the spot.”

You’ll also see from the tracklist below that Cobain “was misremembering or embellishing a bit here and there,” writes Dangerous Minds. “While they did unearth a handful of rarities from their odds-n-ends collection Insesticide… as well as 'All Apologies' (it later turned up on In Utero)… they also played most of Nevermind.” Nonetheless, we can see the show, with its abrasive opening jam (“I promise to shit on your head”) as an attempt to both alienate obnoxious fans and turn rage into a creative force.

Nobody Knows I’m New Wave
Drain You
Spank Thru
Come as You Are
Lounge Act
About a Girl
In Bloom
Territorial Pissings
Been a Son
On a Plain
Negative Creep

All Apologies
Endless, Nameless

via Dangerous Minds

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Bowie Memorialized in Traditional Japanese Woodblock Prints

The East beckons me — Japan — but I’m a bit worried that I’ll get too Zen there and my writing will dry up. - David Bowie, 1980

David Bowie’s longstanding fascination with Japan pervaded his work, becoming the gateway through which many of his fans began to explore that country’s cultural traditions and aesthetics.

Perhaps the entry point is designer Kansai Yamamoto’s Ziggy Stardust togs, Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace from the Sea—one of Bowie’s top 100 books—or the 1000s of images photographer Masayoshi Sukita captured of the rocker over a period of four decades.

Maybe it was Aladdin Sane’s kabuki-like makeup or director Nagisa Oshima's World War II drama,  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which Bowie played a British officer in a Japanese POW camp.

The recent release of two modern ukiyo-e woodblock prints featuring the rocker has caused such mass swooning among legions of Japanophile Bowie fans, the reverberations may well be powerful enough to ring temple bells in Kyoto.

For each print, artist Masumi Ishikawa casts Bowie as both himself and an iconic Japanese figure.

In the image at the top of the page, Bowie’s Aladdin Sane assumes the pose of the central character in Edo Period artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Kidômaru and the Tengu, below.

The other print relocates the dashing Bowie from Terry O’Neill’s Diamond Dogs publicity photos to the realm of magician Takezawa Toji, whose spinning top performances had the power to summon dragons, at least as depicted by Kuniyoshi.

The prints were ordered by the Ukiyo-e Project, whose mission is to portray today’s artists and pop icons on traditional woodblock prints. (Bowie follows previous honorees Kiss and Iron Maiden.)

The prints and the blocks from which the impressions were made will be on display at BOOKMARC in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood from June 23 to July 1.

via Spoon and Tamago

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker, Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and Bowie fan.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight opens June 12 at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Battle-Scarred Heavy Metal Musicians Play Rock ‘n’ Roll Classics on Hello Kitty Instruments

When Sanrio—that megalithic maker of kawaii icon Hello Kitty—partnered with guitar companies to make pastel-colored six-strings bearing the mouthless kitten’s face, many a big-time musician found the ostensibly kid’s-oriented instruments irresistible. Hello Kitty guitars were “possibly the apex of Sanrio’s cross-media synergy-blitz,” wrote David McNamee in a cranky 2009 piece at The Guardian, “that has seen them slap the cold, vacant stare of their brand-leading cash cow… on to every conceivable kind of consumer merchandise including vibrators (sorry, massagers), assault rifles, tampons, condoms, urinal cakes, cars, computers, booze and pet costumes.”

The chirpy Lisa Loeb took to Hello Kitty guitars as part of a personal brand makeover, which doesn’t much surprise since she eventually moved to writing children's music. But “a scan of YouTube,” McNamee goes on, “reveals that Hello Kitty’s core audience is actually balding, middle-aged men, shredding out covers of Yngwie Malmsteen and Rush.”

I’m not sure how accurate this statement is in market research terms, but I can testify to knowing at least two middle-aged men who swear by pink Hello Kitty Stratocasters.

Go ahead, laugh it up, but you probably wouldn’t do so in front of certain Sanrio shredders, like former Ozzy Osbourne and current Black Label Society guitarist Zakk Wylde, who has made a side gig—as we noted in yesterday's post—playing covers of heavy rock tunes on tiny, cutesy Hello Kitty acoustic guitars. See for yourself in his Hello Kitty take on Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.” at the top and a version of his own original “Autumn Changes” further up. Would you laugh at seriously versatile Marilyn Manson guitarist John 5 and his Hello Kitty guitar? Maybe, but reserve your judgment until after you've seen him start his “new career” in Hello Kitty guitar marketing above.

Rising to the challenge, Mark Tremonti and Eric Friedman decided to take on Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” on a Hello Kitty guitar and ukulele, “refusing to skip the track’s various solos,” points out Loudwire. It’s ”a true jam on truly crappy instruments that the boys somehow made work.” What, exactly, is the appeal of these Hello Kitty sessions to people who aren’t, presumably, the usual Hello Kitty tween demographic?

Maybe it's just some good clean fun from people who might seem to take themselves a little too seriously sometimes. When rock stars show a sense of humor, it makes them more relatable, right? Hey, even the Beatles made their bones with musical comedy, so why shouldn’t Evanescence’s Amy Lee give us a moving, candlelit rendition of Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” as played on a Hello Kitty keyboard?

See all of these videos and more—including Bumblefoot’s soulful Hello Kitty metal classics covers and a potty-mouthed Mike Portnoy bashing away on a Hello Kitty drumkit—at Loudwire’s YouTube channel.

via Guitar World

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Bowie Sings ‘I Got You Babe’ with Marianne Faithfull in His Very Last Performance As Ziggy Stardust (1973)

Here's a wonderfully weird performance by David Bowie, dressed in drag for his last appearance as Ziggy Stardust, and Marianne Faithfull as a wayward nun, singing the mawkish Sonny & Cher tune, "I Got You Babe."

The duet was recorded for American television on October 19, 1973 at the Marquee Club in London. The producer Burt Sugarman had approached Bowie about appearing on his late-night NBC program The Midnight Special. According to the Ziggy Stardust Companion, Bowie agreed to appear on the show after being granted complete artistic control for a one-hour special. He put together a cabaret-style show featuring himself and a couple of acts from the 1960s, performing on a futuristic set. Bowie called it "The 1980 Floor Show," as a pun on the title of his song "1984," which was played during the opening title sequence.

Filming took place over two days. The audiences were composed of Bowie fan club members and other special guests. Due to the cramped quarters in the nightclub, the camera crew wasn't able to cover more than two angles at any moment, so Bowie and the others had to play the same songs over and over. On the day "I Got You Babe" was filmed, the musicians and crew worked for ten straight hours.

Faithfull was invited to appear on the show as one of the back-up acts, along with The Troggs and the "flamenco rock" group Carmen. At the very end of the evening, Bowie and Faithfull appeared onstage together--he in a red PVC outfit with black ostrich plumes (he called it his "Angel of Death" costume) and she in a nun's habit that was, by more than one account, open in the back. "This isn't anything serious," Bowie reportedly told the audience. "It's just a bit of fun. We've hardly even rehearsed it."

The Midnight Special appearance marked a momentary reunion of Bowie's band, The Spiders from Mars, which had dissolved three months earlier, after Bowie's surprise announcement that he was retiring. The lineup included Mick Ronson on lead guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mike Garson on piano, Mark Carr Pritchard on rhythm guitar and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. Backing vocals were provided by The Astronettes: Ava Cherry, Jason Guess and Geoffrey Maccormack. As the final performance of "The 1980 Floor Show," Bowie's duet with Faithfull turned out to be the very last appearance of Ziggy Stardust.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site back in March, 2013.

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The 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs: A Streamable Playlist Curated by Consequence of Sound

So Consequence of Sound has posted a list of The 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs, and before we dive in, we should point out that they’ve really tried to do their best in the face of history. I’m sure there are those out there who have been outraged some way or another at the arbitrary nature of the “one-hit wonder” designation over the years. I know I have thrown a fit to see Madness’ “Our House” called a one-hit-wonder in the States without mentioning their 30 or so Top 40 hits in the UK.

If American chart success is a judge, the CoS writers says, Beck would be a one-hit-wonder along with Radiohead. No, what we’re really gunning for are artists who really only have one bona fide hit to their name, and afterwards pretty much disappeared into the ether.

The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” is definitely one of those. Released in a flood of new wave/post-punk fervor, it’s a catchy earworm that would both define the band and then entrap them. They never had another hit and ironically had chosen this as their second single, worried that they might become a one-hit-wonder. Whoops!

And while the ‘70s and ‘80s are seen as the height of the one-hit-wonder, the 1990s sure are worth reconsidering. We didn’t know it then, but the music industry was just about to collapse with the arrival of Napster and the Internet, and the rise of electronica brought with it a cornucopia of one-off downtempo/triphop tracks, college-rock/post-grunge anthems, and this single from Toronto’s finest, Len:

(Ah, 1999. Just before the world imploded.)

You can listen to Consequence of Sound's list on Spotify, if you so choose:

So what happened to the one-hit-wonder? YouTube. Where else can you find novelty hits, parody songs, and pop cultural touchstones these days? The major labels certainly aren’t releasing them. That might be good for users, but it’s gonna be hell for pop historians attempting to assemble a comparable list in the future.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Discover the BlipBlox, a Kids’ Toy and Fully-Functional Synthesizer That Will Teach Toddlers to Play Electronic Music

A series of videos has been going around showing Zakk Wylde, former guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, playing classic rock and metal songs on diminutive Hello Kitty guitars. They're funny: seeing the burly, bearded legend rock out on a kid's guitar; but they're also pretty impressive, when he wrings real grit and feeling from these unlikely instruments.

I imagine it won’t be long before we’ll see a similar stunt with someone like Moby, for example, ripping out danceable grooves on the Blipblox, a kids' toy that is also a fully-functioning synthesizer (“actually, it’s both”!).

While the Blipblox may look like one of thousands of noisy console-like toddler toys, it’s one that won't tempt parents to do what many parents do (be honest)—pull out the batteries and hide them where they can't ever be found.

Apologies to Hello Kitty guitars, but by comparison with most instruments made for kids, the Blipblox is seriously sophisticated. “What sets this apart from other toys,” writes Mixmag, “is that it uses ‘a proprietary algorithm that synthesizes completely unique waveforms’ allowing users to create their own soundwave. The features include one low pass filter, two envelope generators, eight oscillator modulation schemes, two LFOs and MIDI, plus more.”

If those specs sound like an alien language to you, they won’t make any more sense to your 3-year-old, and they don’t need to. “The blipblox was made to have fun without fully understanding how it works,” says the toy synthesizer’s creator in an introductory video above. Turn it on and start hitting buttons, twisting dials, and pushing the two joystick-like controllers back and forth, and beats, bleeps, bloops, blurps, and other synth-y sounds spill out, at various tempos and pitches.

As kids (or parents who hijack the device) gain more control, they can start refining their technique and create original compositions, as you can see happening in the “studio sessions” video above. Then they can output their sounds to mom and dad’s home studio, or wherever—Blipblox is ready, as its Indiegogo campaign promises, for “a pro studio setup.” Or just lots of entertaining goofing around.

The Blipblox is a brilliant invention and has already won a 2018 award for “Best Teaching Tool for Pre-School Students” and made an appearance at the very grown-up 2018 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention—see below. Priced at $159, the Blipblox ships this summer. Sign up at Indiegogo for “early bird perks.”

via Mixmag

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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