Discover The Plastics, the Influential Japanese New Wave Band from the 1980s

Bri­an Eno famous­ly said of the Vel­vet Under­ground that, though their debut album did­n’t sell well, every­one who bought a copy start­ed a band. One could, per­haps, make a sim­i­lar remark about a new wave band called The Plas­tics, who formed a decade or so lat­er on the oth­er side of the Pacif­ic. They record­ed for only five years, from the mid-nine­teen-sev­en­ties to the ear­ly eight­ies, but wide swaths of all Japan­ese pop­u­lar music released since bear marks of their influ­ence. Accord­ing to Under­ground, co-founder Toshio Nakan­ishi, who sang and played gui­tar, is “now con­sid­ered one of the most well-known Japan­ese musi­cians of all time.”

“One day in 1976,” writes Neo­japon­is­me’s W. David Marx, the 20-year-old Nakan­ishi “gath­ered his friends at Harajuku’s most famous cafe, Leon, and decid­ed they need­ed to form a band. They did not own any instru­ments, but music seemed an obvi­ous means of expres­sion.” They began by cov­er­ing the likes of Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Par­ty” and Con­nie Fran­cis’ “Vaca­tion” at fash­ion par­ties, but were soon advised by the vis­it­ing David Bowie to write songs of their own; sub­se­quent well-timed encoun­ters with the work of bands like the Sex Pis­tols and Devo gave them an idea of how to do it.

“The Plas­tics’ reliance on the lat­est West­ern musi­cal trends was a com­mon prac­tice in the Tokyo music scene, but unlike their pre­de­ces­sors, the band was able to be in dia­logue with their favorite West­ern artists in real time.”

Marx quotes Nakan­ishi writ­ing in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that “YMO’s record label plot­ted to make them inter­na­tion­al, but we forged all of those devel­op­ments our­selves and the label just fol­lowed up.” Those devel­op­ments includ­ed the mem­bers’ asso­ci­a­tions with West­ern musi­cal fig­ures as var­i­ous as Mark Moth­ers­baugh, Bri­an Fer­ry, Bob Mar­ley, and Iggy Pop. When the group’s gui­tarist Hajime Tachibana, who also worked as a graph­ic design­er, cre­at­ed Japan­ese tour pro­grams for Talk­ing Heads, David Byrne end­ed up with a Plas­tics demo tape in hand, which he passed along to the B‑52s, who passed it along to their man­ag­er, who signed them. The height of their expo­sure to West­ern audi­ences came in 1982, when SCTV aired the music video for their song “Top Secret Man” on its “Mid­night Video Spe­cial.”

Clad in checker­board-and-neon retro fash­ions, singing non­sen­si­cal­ly catchy lyrics, and bust­ing extrav­a­gant­ly herky-jerky dance moves against void-like back­drops, the mem­bers of The Plas­tics come off in the “Top Secret Man” as near-par­o­d­ic embod­i­ments of the new wave musi­cal aes­thet­ic. That they also hap­pened to be Japan­ese sure­ly added, for West­ern view­ers those four decades ago, a cer­tain lay­er of cross-cul­tur­al absur­di­ty. “Indeed, is the dis­par­i­ty between the East and West which sets the Plas­tics apart from their con­tem­po­raries,” says Unde­ground, “their lyrics cit­ing Bauhaus and Russ­ian avant-garde, tech­nol­o­gy and Amer­i­can con­sumerism through their remote, Japan­ese lens.” (Marx quotes Byrne’s obser­va­tion that “the very name Plas­tics was a tip off: an iron­ic take on the com­mon West­ern per­cep­tion of Japan­ese prod­ucts being ‘plas­tic,’ and there­fore infe­ri­or copies of bet­ter made West­ern items.”)

Hav­ing spent the decade since the war both absorb­ing West­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture and achiev­ing an almost futur­is­ti­cal­ly advanced lev­el of devel­op­ment, the Japan of the ear­ly eight­ies had actu­al­ly become an ide­al place to devel­op new wave’s sig­na­ture incon­gruity of D.I.Y and high tech. Plas­tics Masahide Saku­ma even worked on the devel­op­ment of Roland’s TR-808, and before that drum machine went on to shape the sound of entire gen­res of music around the world, his band owned the very first mod­el. Alas, Saku­ma and Nakan­ishi both died in the twen­ty-tens, and with them the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a true Plas­tics reunion. But it would be a sur­prise if their three albums — Wel­come Plas­ticsOri­ga­to Plas­ti­co, and the West-ori­ent­ed set of remakes Wel­come Back — don’t still have more than a few new bands, East­ern or West­ern, to inspire.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Meet Les Ral­lizes Dénudés, the Mys­te­ri­ous Japan­ese Psych-Rock Band Whose Influ­ence Is Every­where

How Youtube’s Algo­rithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japan­ese Song Into an Enor­mous­ly Pop­u­lar Hit: Dis­cov­er Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plas­tic Love”

Ryuichi Sakamo­to, RIP: Watch Him Cre­ate Ground­break­ing Elec­tron­ic Music in 1984

The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music For­ev­er, Is Back! And It’s Now Afford­able & Com­pact

How Talk­ing Heads and Bri­an Eno Wrote “Once in a Life­time”: Cut­ting Edge, Strange & Utter­ly Bril­liant

The Clash Live in Tokyo, 1982: Watch the Com­plete Con­cert

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

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  • Mongo615 says:

    Awe­some band. I’ve been thru 3 copies of Wel­come Back. Peo­ple still don’t believe me about how they were the first band to use an 808. As a black kid in Detroit, I thought they were exot­ic, excit­ing and fun. Brings back great mem­o­ries

  • Mongo615 says:

    Espe­cial­ly Deli­cious and Dia­mond Head. Sound­ed like noth­ing else. Also love YMO

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