Pop quiz: Name every song performed by non-American artists, singing entirely in a language other than English, to hit the The US Top Ten in the past 30 years. Here are a couple of hints: You can count them on one hand, even if you lost three fingers in an industrial accident, and both are novelty dance hits. Give up? “Macarena” and “Gangham Style.” That’s it. End of story. Go back a few more years and you can add Nena’s “99 Luft Balloons” to the list, but it’s worth noting that song was quickly re-recorded in English to help it along. Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” also sung in German, hit #1, but in an alternate version with English lyrics mixed in. We may be a nation of immigrants, but we tend to build a Trump-worthy wall around our pop charts. And so it remains that one of the most staggering omissions in most retellings of the history of pop music is the sheer amount of absolutely stunning, non-English music that has been produced, distributed . . . and then completely neglected by American audiences.
Artists who sing in English, of course, have no trouble in finding rapt audiences around the world, their music transcending linguistic and cultural barriers with ease, but that’s a one-way street. It’s a mathematical given that wonderful, transcendent, accessible music of all styles is made by people who don’t speak our language, yet we either ignore it, damn it to Public Radio programming as “world music” or, worse, simply reduce it to novelty. And, like all forms of bigotry, we ultimately suffer for it. Case in point – Japan’s Happy End – a short-lived group from the early ’70s whose best music calls to mind the harmonic complexities of Crosby, Stills and Nash mixed with the road-weary melancholy of the Grateful Dead, early Neil Young, and Surf’s Up-era Beach Boys. Theirs is the sort of highly melodic country-folk-rock that should have been an American FM-radio staple, sharing playlist space between “Desperado” and “Wild Horses,” if only folks were given the chance to hear it.
Let’s narrow the focus here a bit and point toward “Kaze wo Astumete” – a song which may strike a familiar chord if you saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and felt there was a bit more than mise en scene happening when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson shared a smoke in a karaoke hallway. First off – the warmth of the production on this particular track is pretty much untouchable. Every instrument sounds like it’s perfectly situated in a corner of your living room. The ideas behind getting it together and moving to the country may not have brought about a societal revolution, but they sure helped LPs sound good. The gurgling organ lines on the side lead a clear path for that vocal bridge which begs for an Almost Famous-style sing-along. It’s also a water-tight pop song with an actual bridge between choruses. It’s an amazingly out-of-time piece of music that fits well in a soundtrack that also features My Bloody Valentine, Phoenix and Roxy Music. But beyond that, more importantly, is the sense of melancholy that comes pouring out of the speakers. The humor, too – the small bits of joy you can hear creep in when it comes to the chorus. I’ve no clue what the lyrics mean – but the sounds make me feel amazing.
The album this track was taken from, Kazemachi Roman, was touted by Rolling Stone Japan in 1997 as the Best Japanese Rock Album EVER. Which is great, but it’s also part of the problem in that Happy End are rarely viewed out of the lens of “Japanese band” – which, to be sure, they are – but they inhabit a distinctly Western, bucolic sound that should lure anyone with a taste towards the peaceful, easy sounds of Laurel Canyon, Levon Helm’s Woodstock or Gram Parson’s cosmic American music.
In fact, for the recording of the band’s third album, they were able to secure Van Dyke Parks as a contributing producer and Little Feat’s Lowell George and Bill Payne to add in some downhome shuffling. The story goes that the band showed up in Hollywood while Parks was recording Discover America and forged a relationship with founding Happy End member Haruomi Hosono. Not that this boost of Western cred did anything for the group, stateside – the Parks collaboration would be their last studio album and they would never be distributed in the US. Hosono would do alright, though – he would later create one of the most brilliant early electronic pop albums, Cochin Moon, in 1978 and co-found the innovative Yellow Magic Orchestra (each deserving of their own Trunkworthy column, it should be said).
We wish we could close this article out by telling you that, like Brazil’s Tim Maia, Nigeria’s William Onyeabor or Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun, Happy End’s recordings are finally being released in America for a new generation of welcoming fans. But they’re not. In fact, as of this writing, Happy End are not available on any digital service, ala carte or streaming, and well, finding a copy of Kazemachi Roman on vinyl will set you back a few big bills. But that’s why the gods invented YouTube, where a few fans who can’t keep Happy End to themselves have done us all the favor of uploading their music.
But while you can “watch” Happy End’s music on YouTube, including the entire Kazemachi Roman album in all its first-track-to-last perfection, let’s pray that in this current age of expansive reissues and catalog remastering someone is able to make these golden-hued folk-pop gems available in the land that so clearly inspired them, to everyone who needs to hear them.