Feature - Back Numbers

History Lesson - Eleki (2005.06.18)

While the Group Sounds period usually attracts the majority of attention when people talk about Japanese music from the 1960s, the GS movement was actually triggered by a short but significant wave of artists plugging in for the first time and playing instrumental surf music in the style of The Ventures, The Astronauts, and other western instrumental music counterparts. This boom was known as "eleki".

Through the early 1960s, mainstream Japanese pop music consisted mainly of "kayokyoku", which can be loosely translated as traditional Japanese pop music. Personified by the spunky megastar Hibari Misora, "kayokyoku" featured a distinctly Japanese melancholic tone, augmented by often weepy backing music in the minor pentatonic scale based on enka music.

Rockabilly music was also strongly entrenched at this time. Scores of domestic rockabilly bands, replete with pompadours and western-cut suits, had for years been entertaining Japanese listeners with the rockabilly sound, and there was even a music festival every year known as "Western Carnival" that featured rockabilly acts and drew fans from across the country.

This all changed when The Ventures hit town in 1962 on the first of what would turn into many tours of Japan. While the shows attracted very little media attention, many had already been exposed to this new reverb-drenched instrumental music through imported records and overseas radio broadcasts, and some of these fans formed their own bands that would become the genesis for a new trend in music that would temporarily leave rockabilly and kayokyoku in the dust. Progenitors of this new sound were tossing out their acoustic guitars in favor of more powerful electric ones, which prompted the name "eleki", taken from the Japanese for "electric guitar".

When The Ventures rolled back into town in 1965, a far different scene awaited them. By this time "eleki" was all the rage. Many established groups had by this time given up playing rockabilly, country, and even jazz to switch over to "eleki", and high school kids across the nation were rushing out to buy electric guitars and jump on the "eleki" bandwagon, demand for these guitars far outstripping domestic supply for several years running.

In addition to the radio and concerts, there were at least four television programs dedicated exclusively to "eleki" music including Eleki Tournament, Exciting Show, Eleki Tournament Show, and New Eleki Sounds Jumping into the World, and the establishment had begun to cast a wary eye on the "disturbing" trend. This had happened in the past with the rockabilly boom of the 50s, and would happen again with the Group Sounds bands later in the 60s, but regardless of the pressure, "eleki" continued to flourish.

One of the bands that was making it big on the "eleki" scene was The Tigers. Led by the dashing Kenji Sawada, The Tigers bashed out covers of surf hits like "Wipe Out" and "Dynamite", apparently against their will, at the behest of their record company, which was trying to cash in on The Boom. The band even opened up for The Ventures and The Astronauts when they toured Japan in 1965, also backing Peter and Gordon the same year and opening for The Beach Boys in 1966, but in retrospect "eleki" was only a small blip in their career.

In addition to the "me too" bands like The Tigers and other future GS bands, there were also more "pure" practicioners like The Spacemen, The Sharp Five, The Blue Jeans, The Bunnys, and The Launchers, to name a few, which created some of the most classic music to come out of Japan during the decade. From these groups emerged two musicians who are generally regarded to be the gods of Japanese "eleki" - Yuzo Kayama and Takeshi Terauchi.

Kayama grew up in show business as the son of two popular film stars from the 30s, and first became famous as the hunky star of Waka Daisho - a series of of youth films. After hearing The Ventures, Kayama formed The Launchers, recording "Black Sand Beach" and "Yozora no Hoshi," both of which were covered by The Ventures and are now recognized as classics of the "eleki" movement.

Terauchi launched what has become probably the longest running "eleki" band in Japan, The Blue Jeans, in 1964, releasing Japan's first surf album the same year. After a brief stint with a new band, The Bunnys, with whom he recorded the classic "Test Driver", Terauchi returned to The Bluejeans, and continues to tour and record. As a side note, Blue Jeans claim to have recorded and released over 300 albums to date.

But even the best efforts of these bands couldn't forestall the inevitable for long. A pop music phenomenon had been brewing in Liverpool for several years by this point, and once The Beatles hit Japan's shores in 1966, the short "eleki" boom was all but over. Many of the "eleki" bands brought on vocalists and transformed into beat bands, but the majority of them, with exceptions like The Blue Jeans, simply disappeared.

While it probably won't be topping the charts anytime soon, "eleki" and surf music never really died all the way in Japan, and continues to enjoy a strong (if small) fan base. The country remains a goldmine for The Ventures, who continue to tour frequently, and bands like The Surf Coasters and The Royal Fingers are keeping things fresh (the former as a straight surf music band and the latter as kind of a kitschy "eleki" remake) with their own updated takes the genre. There is even a magazine, New Eleki Dynamica, catering to fans of the genre.

Tags: tag itTag_red

Originally submitted by: bill | See Edit History | Edit Article