P-Model – In a Model Room (1979)

In+a+Model+Room

As some of you have gathered, I’m a huge fan of the work of Susumu Hirasawa, both as a solo artist and as the frontman of P-Model, whose combined output is perhaps the most consistently impressive discography I’ve ever come across. Understandably it’s difficult to know where to start with him, but I felt it was appropriate to just go from the beginning, as it’s difficult to just single out one album for this and I plan to do many more along the way. So let’s start here, with the story of how I discovered this group (as I’ve told before – this article is going to repeat a lot of the same points).

I was in Milwaukee to see Polysics, who were the first of four groups on the bill. I hadn’t heard of any of the other three – I believe Say Anything and HelloGoodbye were in there – but none of them sounded a thing like Polysics, and to be honest I didn’t like any of them. Apparently being first on stage means you get to choose the pre-show music, and judging by some of the choices (particularly YMO’s “Cosmic Surfin”) this was clearly the Polysics’ mix. One of the songs was “Art Mania” by P-Model which I hadn’t heard before (in fact, it was the only song on the mix I didn’t know). After the show I wound up chatting with Hiro and asked him, “what was the song after..(whatever it was. I don’t remember)??”. He wrote on a flyer “P-MODEL”, along with “NITER EBB” (sic), another band he wanted me to check out. Luckily the blog Mutant Sounds had just posted the first two P-Model albums. And so it began.

In a Model Room is not exactly a masterpiece, but it was one of those albums that just fit in really well with a lot of what I was big into at the time – there are shades of White Music-era XTC, Devo, and bits of YMO. Polysics obviously took a page from this, quite literally (“The Great Brain”, one of my favorites from their 2007 album Karate House, is in fact a cover from this album). You can see why; the album is manic, unsettling, and a bit off-balance, but it’s a blast. It’s the kind of album that leaves you wanting more; it’s a little over 33 minutes long and gets a lot of things right. It helps that couple songs here are basically perfect (“Art Mania” which may still be the single most famous P-Model track, “Kameari Pop”, which I have on good authority is a favorite of Andy Partridge himself). In other words, it’s easy to get excited about.

One thing that is not all that surprising in retrospect is that P-Model used to be part of a progressive rock group named Mandrake. Mandrake never released an album though two discs of demos did eventually come out; by 1978 they realized they were late to the prog scene and decided to change direction. I’ve always felt like prog and New Wave had some sort of middle ground (sometimes called Zolo) and this album definitely has that. There are plenty of sudden shifts, well-hidden bits of complexity, and alternate time signatures – “Great Brain” shifts between 7/4 and 5/4, using a riff that in Mandrake was part of a 10-minute epic. But the sound is clean and stripped; intentionally thin, with space between the instruments. This emphasizes how odd some of these songs really are; there’s a lot of stop-and-go ping-pong rhythms, call-and-response vocals, and random-fire intensity. Many of the songs have dual rhythms, with a Roland CR-78 on top of an actual drummer, giving them a “dance” rhythm along with a rock-oriented one. Despite their prog-rock background there’s a lot of humor on this album; I don’t think songs like “Sunshine City” or “For Kids” were meant to be taken with a straight face. There are a few lines in English, which are rudimentary and kind of hilarious – “Kameari Pop” has a chorus of “Hey you/this song/is called/Kameari Pop” (and a hollowed-out coda of “echo, echo, echo”). The final line in “Sophisticated” is “Sophisticated, the foreign language song”. It’s half precision and half whimsy – like Pink Flag Wire crossed with Modern Dance Pere Ubu.

Originally, P-Model were part of the first real wave of Japanese technopop, along with Plastics and Hikashu. The Plastics’ keyboard player Masahide Sakuma even produced this album, which may explain why it sounds so much like the first Plastics release; those three bands were often seen together, and if you liked one you would probably like all three. This scene did not exactly last long, however. While Plastics are great, they lasted all of two albums, and they exhausted most of their ideas on the first. Hikashu sort of faded into obscurity; one semi-famous tune (“Pike”, which Polysics also covered) but no real acclaimed records from what I could tell. So who could predict just how far P-Model and Susumu Hirasawa would take this? When exactly did he go off the deep end? Oh sure, the change was gradual – the second P-Model album Landsale was just Model Room II, not quite as good song-for-song but pretty much the same. Things changed quickly though, thanks to a lineup that was constantly in flux. Like The Fall they’ve always had contributing members come in and out, but it was always Hirasawa running the show. Luckily, he never lost his gift of melody; even as his sound got bigger and bigger, there was still a sense of the guy who wrote the songs here.

Hence why I consider In a Model Room to be the ideal debut album. On the surface it’s a lot of fun, just another entry into a list of good, hyperactive New Wave. But with every debut album there is potential – for example the creepy, robo-stomp “Art Blind” which doesn’t quite fit here and makes you wonder exactly what these guys are up to – and Hirasawa just kept on plugging forward, trying new things and finding ways to get better. Even his vocal style, which here was mostly limited to yelps, screaming, semi-off-key warbling, would smooth out. I was bowled over by “Bandiria Travelers” from Hirasawa’s 1991 solo album Virtual Rabbit – not just because the vocal performance is so good, but also because listening to those first few P-Model albums, you really would never know he had it in him. That’s why it’s a whole lot of fun to listen to listen to this guy’s work from the start, despite a rather formidable discography – this is one of like 27 full-length albums of original material that he’s put out (depending on what you count, it could be even more), and every single one is worth hearing. So maybe it’s best to just start from the beginning.

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7 thoughts on “P-Model – In a Model Room (1979)

  1. chwet

    On this album there’s a lot of humor performance-wise (IIRC HIrasawa once said on Twitter that, since tea wasn’t served in studios at the time, he learned to appreciate coffee during the recording, wonder if he drank a bit too much…), but the lyrics are mostly straight faced. Hirasawa & co. were annoyed with the Japanese way of life and wanted to state it out loud. The only songs that aren’t addressing social issues directly are Art Mania (Hirasawa and his unusual concepts of love), Blind (a Kraftwerk-ish ode to the joys of new technology & kind of a counterpoint to the lyrical negativity of the rest of the album, which Hirasawa turned on its head for Totsu-Gen-Hen-I), Great Brain (super oblique, maybe a criticism of how proggers have their heads up their asses? idk) and Pinky Trick (SH’s brother going “why is movie blood pink?”). Sunshine City & For Kids are screeds against, respectively, the encroaching conformity pushed by society and the indifference/doublethink that mentor figures show to children (I think Landsale expands on this, but I don’t have the lyrics for that album & I don’t like it that much). Hirasawa going almost all-Japanese (minus Sophisticated and the heavily accented wasei-eigo spread throughout the album) drives the message even further (being the one tecchnopop band that doesn’t sing everything in English & all).

    I’ve considered Susumu to be the Japanese equivalent of Gary Numan (+ a few others), and I’d say the one key aspect that ties both men is that they clearly feel differently from other people in a “core” level and were lucky to be around when they could be acclaimed for being like that (not really related but SH saw a Telekon show back in the day & said that Numa ripping his jacket open at the encore ruined the whole thing to him. Personally I look at how his shows have progressed since ’92 & find that he’s always wanted to do that without ruining the image).

    Not particularly related to Model Room, but would you consider Karkador to be a “other side of YEN” album? Personally I haven’t heard much from that label (damn you lack of proper torrent!) but that album does carry a few traces of Naughty Boys in its sound to me (when it comes to 80 P-MODEL it’s important to pay attention to the engineer, and Karkador was engineered by Mitsuo Koike, who worked on every single YMO album up to that point) and given that YEN was shutting down around that time Alfa might have looked to P-MODEL as the band to keep the cash flowing.

    BTW will you do Landsale next? Or will it be “whichever one I feel like writing about at this point in time?”.

    Reply
  2. critterjams Post author

    Thanks for writing! I love that there’s so much information about the guy out there now – or at least that certain bilingual speakers are willing to figure things out 🙂

    When I first heard the album, I likened it a lot to XTC’s White Music and both discs by The Plastics, assuming that lyrically it was much the same. Actually I still think that’s kinda true, the Plastics at least were very much about conformity in a more direct way.

    I hadn’t considered the Numan comparison but I think that’s fairly accurate – it’s very cool to have such an introverted, borderline autistic (by his own admission) pop star. I like the idea of anti-swagger, guys like David Byrne or Mark Mothersbaugh, who treated their bands like art projects and stumbled upon fame in their own way. Hirasawa certainly doesn’t seem like someone I’d want to have a beer with (at least, if I didn’t like the dude’s music so much). Though, who knows what he’s like in real life.

    I can’t claim to know a whole lot about YEN records, a think a full torrent would be awesome considering how much rare/OOP stuff there is from artists who didn’t have much of a career otherwise. I can definitely see how Karkador was related to that sound. Though Hirasawa’s style changed in more or less a linear way, those 80’s P-Model albums fluctuate wildly in sound. But they were never on YMO’s label, were they?

    As for as which one I’ll do next..“whichever one I feel like writing about at this point in time” is probably right. I don’t have much to say about Landsale. Perspective I find quite interesting, kinda for the reason mentioned above – I’ve never heard an album produced that way, with such a loud snare drum. Makes me question someone’s sanity – though I sort of suspect that Hirasawa insisted on that, somehow.

    Reply
    1. chwet

      This reminds me: Your tweet to Andy (wonder what his reaction would be if he learned that the verses mention SH’s mom being seduced by a PTA rep…) went viral in Japanese fan circles back then; translations called you “fan”. Now if only Paul Weller had an account we’d ask him about Be in a Fix (P-MODEL opened for The Jam in ’82).

      Considering that most Japanese have a pretty marginal grasp of English (Susumu’s only a notch or two above most), I’d assume Model Room had more impact? Wish something about Hirasawa’s cultural impact existed (Japan mainstream press is mostly extended marketing). The Big 3 of Technopop (as they were known back in the day) and even YMO (+ the people in their circle) to an extent weren’t fond of were Japanese society was going but I’d say Hirasawa was the rawest one (I’d imagine the 5 years that Mandrake spent in the mud influenced his writing to an extent).

      SH could very well be diagnosed with some sort of disorders (both mental & physical given his body being unable to handle meat & alcohol). From what I’ve heard he’s not a sociable guy but is very assured of himself, which kinda explains his discography having a quality more consistent that your Numans/Byrnes/Mothersbaughs. OTOH he can probably be very cuckoo for cocoa puffs: His writing has been pretty disconnected from reality (except for Vistoron, from what i can tell about that album) ever since he took up Jungian Therapy/New Age ideals in the mid 80s & his dealings with WWII related themes in the late 90s are nigh unreadable. In a ’78 interview he said the only prog guy he still listened to was Fripp, and your reading of him in the Listology page I think also fits Susumu (“a nice but introverted guy who’s wrapped up pretty tightly in his own world”).

      They were in Alfa under a sublabel called EDGE Records, which was all obscure bands. Outside of P-MODEL & Soft Ballet it’s all people with very niche Japan-only followings. If P-MODEL was under YEN (or the Non-Standard/Monad labels under Teichiku that had many of the same people as YEN) either HH or YT would have a hand in the music, and Hirasawa would hate that. It’s kinda interesting seeing people who were part of both the YMO/YEN & Hirasawa circles (Shinobu Narita, Jun Togawa, etc.) and see how played off each big creative force.

      Perspective was a battle that Hirasawa won (I think there was a struggle on every 80s album, if you look at the Wikipedia pages most of them list a clash between Hirasawa and whoever). Unfortunately I haven’t found anything about Potpourri’s recording (imagine being the director of Warner-Pioneer and getting that album from your cash cow of the season…). Landsale I’d say is his weakest if not for Shun IV existing (but who counts it as its own thing?). One thing I try to do is search for albums that were made by the same label around the same time as P-MODEL stuff to see how much was Hirasawa & how much was the engineer.

      BTW have you searched around for 4-D (+ members’ side-projects)? I’d say they’re crucial listening for P-MODEL fanatics who loved Karkador and the Revised lineup’s trilogy.

      Reply
      1. chwet

        One thing I forgot: The funniest thing in Model Room is probably the cover. Look at who’s in the center block and where their black circle is.

      2. critterjams Post author

        So did P-Model and XTC play the same bill or not? What a fuckin’ awesome double bill that would’ve been! (or..was??)

        I can’t see Hirasawa collaborate with Hosono or Takahashi either. I think their styles are incompatible. Hirasawa always struck me as someone who very much needs to be in control. Maybe a bit like Andy Partridge in that regard? Certainly there’s some overlap in those scenes, but Japan is a pretty small country. I figure everyone in that scene crosses paths at some time!

        Agreed that Landsale is probably the weakest (I don’t really rate the SHUN stuff) – kinda felt the band was lost until they did Another Game. It would be interesting to see some of the albums around that scene – what do you recommend? I have one by 4-D (History of Building?) but not much else.

  3. chwet

    P-Model opened for XTC for 2 shows in August ’79. The only other well known band they opened for was Van Halen (7 shows, September ’79), apparently SH and Eddie became friends (wonder if they kept contact…). Besides that he met (but didn’t gig with) Bowie (he had free time during the Crystal Japan shoot and even signed Hirasaswa’s guitar) & Eno (there’s a photo of them together in a 1990 magazine but the scan’s too small for me to read the text…), I think there was somebody else but I can’t recall now.

    Music magazines (especially in ’79-’80) occasionally ask around “what do you think of so-and-so album by so-and-so?” (I once found a non-review by Sadatoshi Tainaka of Multiplies) so they probably end up being aware of each other. Given Hirasawa’s way of doing things I imagine he’s met HH & YT maybe once and they probably didn’t gel. Another thing music magazines do is make a feature out of 2 figures meeting each other: There was the Eno one, ones with Kitaro, Syoko (New Wave singer of G-Schmitt), Togawa (a bunch with her) and Kenji Eno (musician/video game director who’s best remembered in the West for the 3DO/Saturn game D) that I can rattle from the top of my head.

    Funnily enough Another Game was when Hirasawa lost himself (I think). I like it but outside of Landsale It’s the one I feel least inclined to listen to in any given time (Potpourri too but it’s more because of it being exhaustive). With 4-D I’d say try finding Die Rekonstruktion, it’s a comp of all their 80s work (including A Style of Building). The big Hirasawa torrent with some extra stuff by P-Model members has most of what that album has but misses the really good stuff (the original After Dinner Party and Life Plan, which I consider their best song). Other bands are harder to get in part because of their obscurity, in part because of their names (Miura & Nakano were part of a band called Sonic Sky, all Google searches end up in videos of the hedgehog). After a certain threshold the only way to listen to this stuff is buying it unfortunately.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Susumu Hirasawa – The Man Climbing the Hologram (2015) | Critter Jams

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