/ LPs

1984 - Birth of Gel [Portrait, 1986?, LP]

In a previous post, I talked about the HMV in Shibuya and how a record in its J-Pop section caught my eye that was so arresting, so bizarre that I had to get it. You can see it in the header image of this post: open it in a new tab (it's not cropped), and really stare at it for a moment. It's incredible. A true classic collage. A girl playing with a dollhouse (perhaps from some toy catalog?), George Adamski's original UFO picture colorized, a boy that has clearly been enlarged from his original resolution many times over with a photocopier, and two large embossed pieces (yes - those look glued on top but it's embossing. Very clever printing work), one for 3D glasses and one for a chunk of Thai text I cannot decipher. The moment I saw this I was transfixed. Whatever music was on here had to be something interesting. I had no idea who these people were, or what I was getting into, but the cover sold me.

Sometimes you really should judge a book by its cover, and this is one of them: I expected weird new wave, and that's exactly what I got. The album is divided into the "Light Side" and "Dark Side", with the former sounding almost like corrupted surf rock in the vein of Moonriders, and the latter having the band really explore electronic landscapes, with some truly baffling tunes. Throughout the entire record, Shinya Oe's voice is run through very heavy distortion, making him sound like he's underwater. This is a deliberate choice - he had already been the frontman for other bands for years with no distortion, and it just stacks on the weirdness. You get the idea that the band was just having a lot of fun with this album and throwing whatever at the wall to see what stuck. All songs except 春霞 are in English (with two instrumentals: Space 1999 and Sorrow), but the lyrics sheet has Japanese translations for three of them: ゲルの生誕 - Birth of Gel, 鉄の柩 - Iron Coffins and 惡夢 - Bad Dreams). I've never seen anything like it.

Various pictures of the band in the studio; band members are unlabeled
The band, with no labels on any of the pictures other than to clarify some of them were not taken by Hiromi Fujita

It's a profoundly baffling package all the way through, but it's so captivating in the process. You have the punk of Birth of Gel and The Hunter Was Drowned, the very traditional-sounding 春霞 which looks structured like old Japanese poetry but I don't know the language well enough to know if it's serious or a parody, the sampler-driven Space 1999 that ends in a runout groove loop...it's just so cool, so fresh. Rebellious, majestic, you start to enjoy the ambient again in Sorrow, and then you get hit like a truck by the lyric "Pablo Picasso never got called asshole" [sic] on the "Dark Side". I'm genuinely surprised this hasn't been found or talked about by anyone before, when this is the kind of stuff that gets glossy reissues on Finders Keepers Records or someone of similar caliber. This is the kind of incredible stuff that showed up in independent Japanese levels during the Bubble Era, and I'm very happy to share it with you today. Take the advice of the back cover and...

Text from the back cover reading "Play it Loud! Listen with Headphone!!"

I went in to listen to this record with absolutely zero knowledge, so that nothing would cloud my experience with the music. Thing is, if I'd done research beforehand, I would have found...almost nothing about 1984 in specific. The frontman, Shinya Oe, was the original frontman for massively influential band "The Roosters", and he'd been a member of that band for at least 5 years before recording this album. He still performs, and he even has an Instagram! But why he decided to go for this project on Portrait records...nothing. Kazuhiko Sakuyama was at one time the bass player for The Roosters, but his tenure appears to have been so short that he didn't get credited on any of their albums. Tamotsu Tominaga and Tomone Kaburagi would follow Oe to his solo ventures, and then are never heard from since. They credit Fukuoka band D.O.B., who also recorded on Portrait, for use of their Kurzweil K250, which was massively expensive at the time (the best estimate I can get, from Sound on Sound is about £12,000 , so not quite an ARP 2500 but still up there), but I don't know a whole lot about D.O.B. either. They definitely loved their samplers as you can hear in Space 1999, and the QX-1 cited here cost ¥480,000 at the time, so this was quite an expensive record in terms of gear as well.

The producer is Shozo Kashiwagi, owner of Portrait Records, who went on to produce a lot of Oe's solo albums as well. The answer may be buried in the liner notes of one of the many compilations of Shinya Oe's work, but as it stands, the best theory I have is that this was a sort of prototype for the kinds of music Oe would pursue as he was growing distant from Roosters. I don't know the story well enough to tell it here, and if you have any idea, I'd love the help!

That said, one thing that caught my eye is that the label was in Shinjuku, and I have no reason to believe that the "Starship" recording studio was located anywhere other than the label office. I was staying nearby, but I couldn't locate the building...one day I kind of want to go check it out for myself.

Another strange thing about this particular copy, is that it has inside a flyer for shows at the Cotton Club, a prestigious jazz club...for tours in 2020. That means that this record most likely has been sitting on the shelf of HMV Shibuya since March 2020, and I'm the first to pay any mind to the sheer coolness on display. What a world we live in.

Finally, while most online sources claim that this was recorded in 1986, there is no specific evidence on the record that indicates this. So, I put a question mark on it, and if I find more concrete evidence I'll add more, but as it stands, I got nothing.

Usually for these obscurities I at least find something, or I get thrown a bone by the liner notes, but I'm frustratingly low on information this time around. Though, it does add to the mystique of a record bursting at the seams with creativity!

Image of a woman in a swimsuit crudely pasted on top of a clipping of a person's ear, above some Thai text
Another baffling image from this record

Liner Notes

[Editor's Note: Romanization of Japanese is different when produced for use inside Japan, versus "for export". Therefore, certain constructions are a little different like "Syo" where we would normally expect "Sho", but they're functionally equivalent. Similarly, l and r are treated as equivalent, and "k" sounds are often represented with "c" instead. These have been left unaltered below.]

Syozo Kashiwagi - Vocal, Keyboards
Tomone Kaburagi - Keyboards
Tamotsu Tominaga - Vocal, Guitar, QX-1
Kazuhiko Sakuyama - Bass
Shinya Oe - Vocal
D.O.B - Kurzweil 250 [sic]

Produced by: Syozo Kashiwagi
Arranged by: 1984
Engineered by: Yasuyuki Moriyama
Recorded at: Starship

Mixed at F.R.S by D.O.B

Cover Art: Yasuhilo Mulacami
Design: Tomone Kaburagi
Production Manager: Bun Sato
Artist Manager: Yuichi Kasamatsu

Portrait Records
Dai2 Koa building 301, 22-39,
Nishishinjuku 7-Chome, Shinjuku-ku,
Tokyo, Japan

Track List and Rip

Because there is "Light side" and "Dark side" instead of A and B on this record, I will refer to them as such.

Minor processing was applied using iZotope RX.

Light side

  1. Birth of Gel (Mary/Syozo)
  2. The Hunter was Drowned (Hell)
  3. 春霞 (Tomone/1984)
  4. Strange Days (The Doors)
  5. Space 1999 (1984)

Dark side

  1. Sorrow (Jun, 1984)
  2. Pablo Picasso (Richman)
  3. Bad Dreams (Mary/Syozo)
  4. Iron Coffins (Mary/Syozo)

Get the album here!