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Japan's Disco Scene in the 70's

Text : Takashi Ishihara

I first joined Nippon Victor in 1970. Starting off in sales, I joined the A&R department in 1974. I love music, especially International music. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be able to work as for the A&R department, which had always been my goal. My experience as A&R was overseeing the disco repertoire from RCA records. At a time when rock was the only genre that mattered you could say that this role was a challenge for a new face A&R as disco was certainly not mainstream at the time.

Within the soul disco category, chart toppers such as Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting, The Three Degrees and MFB's Soultrain Theme, George McCrae's Rock Your Baby. Love Unlimited Orchestra's Love's Theme and The Hues Corporation's Rock The Boat were somewhat different from the soul music that had been previously released from labels such as Motown, Stax and Atlantic. These tracks can be seen as the beginning of the very clear transition from a focus on listening to a focus on dancing. These new formats began to chart evenly with titles such as Motown act Stevie Wonder's You Haven't Done Nothin', Eddie Kendricks' Boogie Down, The Stylistics' (abkco) You Make The World Go Round and B.T. Express' (Roadshow) Do it and soon became one of the primary genres within the record labels. This was the beginning of the disco sound age.

The very first venue to catch on to this new trend was a disco called Soultrain, located right next to Shinjuku Station. When we hear the name Shinjuku, images of a dangerous red light district come to mind but back in the day Shinjuku was the birthplace and forefront of young people's new trends; always full to the brim with young people. Big name actress A and pop singers S and H were known to be regulars of this disco. Discos went on to become the primary play spot for junior and high school kids (which is of course illegal and the reason why there were so many police raids at the time) but when discos first started they were the play spots for savvy adults. There was a wide range of American music available through imports and so the music played at Japanese discos was an accurate representation of the trends in the US at the time.

In no time at all the disco boom hit Tokyo. Dozens of discos began to appear all over Tokyo. The music and the appearance of the discos varied by venue and just like the DJ's of today, the disco DJ's were very serious about the music selection and how to keep the crowds dancing. It could be said that their sense of the new disco trends were sharper than that of a disco A&R at a record company.

When I was in charge of the RCA disco repertoire the biggest selling item that I was responsible for was came through a distribution deal with the TKK Label. It was KC & The Sunshine Band's That's The Way. The single sold approximately 1 million copies and charted No 1 on the overall National chart (this counts both domestic and international titles). The album containing this single sold almost a million copies. On the flipside, the international music stations on FM radio would not play disco music, regardless of how well it sold. I have a very clear recollection of how hard it was to push disco music to the media at the time. TV directors, magazine editors, music critics and other areas of the media had an attitude that disco wasn't music, resulting in a kind of musical discrimination. It is probably hard for the DJ's of present to believe, but when I would take artist photos of KC to a famous rock magazine, the handling and treatment was horrendous.

I am not aware of whether this unique phenomena exists now, but during the disco boom the music styles varied by area and thus within the Tokyo districts the music that was popular in Shinjuku, Roppongi, Akasaka and Shibuya were different. In terms of records sales, it was known that the Shinjuku style was the most influential, while the Akasaka style had a larger adult fan base. This could be why Disco music by Caucasian artists weren't played very often. On the other hand, the Shinjuku crowds were a lot more sensitive to the latest sounds and thus had no preference with regards to whether the music was latin, caucasian or black artist disco music. The Shinjuku DJ's were comparatively young and sensitive to the crowd reactions. Thus this could be the primary reason why the Shinjuku area DJ's contributed to the most number of disco tunes.

With regards to the other regions of Japan, like the districts Tokyo, they too had their own characteristics. For Osaka, the home ground for disco was not Kita but Minami. Here, Japanese disco was accepted and it was common to hear Japanese artists' tracks played in sets mixed with overseas disco music. It was not strange to hear Tatsuro Yamashita's Bomber or a track by Anne Luis in between overseas disco tracks. Sapporo, on the other hand, had a large majority of discos that preferred to play the US charts.

I distinctly recall this was an era of very different and distinct scenes within Japan. And so this is how disco music grew into a popular genre in Japan, not through the media, but very grass roots style going from one DJ to another. Disco had now become an established genre of it's own and from there the creation of numerous transformed styles of disco are what we now know as the club music of present. Thus when we look at the historical connection of disco music and current club music it can be said that everything started from this era.

Takashi Ishihara Profile
Born in 1948. Takashi Ishihara joined Nippon Victor in 1970 and was the Disco/Soul A&R for the RCA Label. Takashi Ishihara was personally responsible for making KC & The Sunshine Band into a million hit. Furthermore, he was A&R for the Flying Dutchman label, home to greats such as Gil Scott Heron, Gato Barbieri, Lonnie Liston Smith and more. In the 80's Takashi Ishihara participated in the establishment of Alpha Moon. Takashi Ishihara is presently an Executive Director at Warner Music Japan and is A&R for the Moon label, home to the hit artists Tatsuro Yamashita and Mariya Takeuchi. Takashi Ishihara is also well known to be an avid vinyl collector. According to Takashi Ishihara "I have about 100,000 vinyls". It Takashi Ishihara is a music freak and a true maverick of the music industry.

Part 02