I’ve had a post about The Plastics half in the can for nearly a year now, but the sudden death of Toshio Nakanishi inspired me to get off my ass and finish it. For those not in the know, Toshio (also known as Tycoon To$h) was one of the most important figures in the Japanese hip-hop and electronic scene, having fronted half a dozen different projects and collectives which brought the sounds of the west to the east. Granted much of that is difficult to find in the States, outside of compilations and one-off projects by artists like Cornelius where he’ll suddenly appear. This scattershot approach is understandable, as Toshio always seemed to be splitting his time between music and graphic design, which is what wound up giving him his big break. He did designs for a Talking Heads book during one of their Japan tours, and slipped David Byrne a Plastics demo tape, which he promptly sent off to the B-52’s manager, thinking they sounded somewhat alike. Eventually this leads to a deal with Island Records, which allowed them to tour in the US.
“Japanese B-52’s” is a label that seems to follow The Plastics around, even to this day. It’s overly reductionist of course, but like all “[country]’s [band]” labels it probably got a number of people listening to them, perhaps wondering what the hell a Japanese take on the B-52’s would sound like. Indeed they’ve got the jumpiness down, with lead singers Toshi and Chica yelping and shrieking a lot of the vocal lines, plus Hajime’s guitar often veers into surf-rock territory. Also, their music is very immediate and catchy, which I think above all was what made them successful, for a short time at least.
Welcome Plastics, released in 1980, is the band’s first LP. It’s one of those albums you can tell is going to be a classic 15 seconds in. Fans of Polysics and early P-Model need to get this immediately, since it encapsulates that crisp New Wave sound with a heavy side of Zolo madness. For the most part what they do is sort of a mechanized version of mid-60’s invasion pop, with the same sort of vocal harmonies and sunny guitar lines, but with dinky little drum machines and keyboards. In a way this presages the whole Shibuya-kei movement by over a decade, with the same sort of kitsch and out-of-sorts feeling to it, combined with an almost overwhelming hookiness. I’m not exaggerating when I say that song-for-song this is one of the catchiest albums I’ve ever heard, full of tunes that’ll burrow themselves deeply into your brain for years to come. This is a result of the band’s inexperience and limited skill; since none of the members of the band were very accomplished musicians (with perhaps the exception of Masahide Sakuma, the synth guy), they had to rely on their ability to find simple, addictive melodies. Just listen to the one-finger solo on “Digital Watch” – is that perfect or what?
As a whole the thing comes off like the Young Marble Giants playing the Ramones catalogue; there’s a punk sensibility about the whole thing, but the instrumentation is all New Wave. No real drums or bass, with all the rhythms coming out of those CR-78 Rolands that you hear all over the place in 80’s New Wave (I’m guessing that P-Model used the exact same machine). Lots of twangy guitars and blippy synths, and then of course the vocals, which drive the whole thing. Toshio’s lines warble all over the place, while Chica sings like a cheerleader, mostly one- or two-word phrases with exclamation points at the end. Toshio is usually the lead, with one notable exception – “I Love You Oh No!”, which by the way is sort of the perfect Plastics song title. Most of the lyrics are in English; entertaining though generally incomprehensible (sample lyric: “Fall in love with elevator/Fall in love with escalator/Fall in love with elevator/See you later, refrigerator”). One questions how much English the band actually knew at the time; there’s something off in the pronunciation and phrasing. I imagine Toshio was somewhat fluent, but Chica seems to have no idea what she’s singing. If you’ve ever heard a foreign band try to cover a song in English, you know what I’m talking about.
Ultimately this dichotomy was the central theme of their work – though they signed with the London-based Rough Trade, sung in English, and toured the States, they still were very much outsiders – some would say a cheap knockoff, which almost certainly was why the band chose the name “Plastics”. It’s all laid out on “Copy” – “Originality, no no no no/copy, PEOPLE!/C-O-P-Y/copy this, and a-copy, that”, an indictment of not just the band, but 80’s Japanese culture in general. They stole their image from punk and glam, with an androgynous look and massively spiked hair (it was rumored that Chica used floor wax to achieve her mile-high ‘do). Their musical style borrowed equally from British Invasion and New Wave, sometimes quite literally (see the excellent technopop cover of “Last Train to Clarksville”). Perhaps the most brilliant expression of this is on the final track on Side A, “Welcome Plastics”, a cover of a song written by a Japanese Beatles fan in 1966, which was played to introduce the Fab Four to the stage in Budokan. A copy of a copy of a copy.
Even if the band was just looking to the West and cheaply parroting back what they found (a trend common in Japanese fashion, technology, and television, at least back then), that didn’t stop their promoters from marketing them as something exotic and fascinating; in other words, a novelty for Western listeners, a fun, accessible token of a culture so very far removed from their own. In reality, the band’s lyrics were often critical of this very thing, particularly the last song “Complex”, which was sort of their manifesto (“he can’t speak English/forget the complex”). That growing discomfort and uncertainty about their place in the Western world starts to take hold on their second album Origato Plastico, which largely drops the ultra-friendly and fun sound in favor of something a bit more angry and strange. The songs are still very memorable, but they’re a lot wackier. The first track (“Ignore”) is very nearly The Chicken Dance (minus the clapping…sadly), while the second (“Diamond Head”) at one point features Chica screaming, “oh, fuck off baby, don’t be serious”, then veering into an atonal sax solo, followed by wild synth stabs. Hard to believe this came out only eight months after their debut. The sarcasm drips through “Good”, a twinkly, sparkling tune consisting of aggressively delivered pleasantries (“How are you?/I’m fine!/What are you doing?/I’m singing”) – a song which would later be covered both by Pizzicato Five and Polysics.
For the most part the basic elements of The Plastics are there, though clearly something is a bit amiss here. If Welcome Plastics was the band “just trying to fit in” as Freshman, Origato is their “the world is fucked” Sophomore year. Not only are the hooks a lot more topsy-turvy (“Back to Wigtown”, “Dance in the Metal”, “Interior”), but there are some pretty twisted themes here – “Cards” is a great slab of James Brown-type funk that’s stopped dead in its tracks by some odd lyrical choices; not sure if something got garbled in translation here or if the song was really intended to be this vulgar. It’s not as fun or catchy as Welcome (then again, what is?), but it is more fascinating – sometimes the starkness and distortion on the vocals and synths even manage to obscure the tune, which is odd for a band like this. Even the poppier tunes like “Peace” and “Park” (which ends as a Beatles cover) have this feeling of resignation to them, as though they’ve accepted their permanent “fish out of water” status.
Neither of these albums were issued in the U.S. – in fact as far as I can tell their only non-Japan release to this point was the “Copy/Robot” single on Rough Trade. Their deal with Island resulted in the album Welcome Back in 1981, their only international release, and thus far, the only Plastics LP I’ve ever seen in person. No new material, but rather re-recorded versions of tunes from their first two albums. Ten tracks in all, though some copies come with a bonus 7 inch with “Last Train to Clarksville”, presumably separated out for royalty purposes. The arrangements are a bit fuller and more uptempo, with an upgraded drum machine and a new bank of synths. Perhaps they lose a bit of the charm of the original recordings, though I’d imagine if you heard this one first you’d consider the originals inferior. Even if you have the first two LPs you’ll probably want to hear this – some of the songs from Welcome Plastics are totally transformed, with “Top Secret Man” getting entirely new lyrics, “Copy” sporting a totally different rhythm than the original, and the vocals on “Robot” getting transformed. As such it’s hard to recommend Welcome Back as a replacement for their back catalog, though I wouldn’t blame you if you took it that way.
The band collapsed soon after, breaking up that same year due to (as I’ve heard) some interpersonal conflicts. It’s just as well – Origato very much sounded like a band that didn’t want to be The Plastics anymore, and if you listen closely you can hear the seeds of what would become Melon, which was Tosh and Chica’s next band. Melon are also well worth writing about, but this article is getting long enough already. Even though Plastics are his most well-known project in America, Toshio Nakanishi had quite a varied and prolific career in Japan, often acting as a sort of ambassador between the East and the West, bringing over stuff like hip-hop and breakbeats before the Japanese really started to embrace them, similar to what Flipper’s Guitar would later do with Britpop. It’s difficult to get a straight discography of his work, given how many odd projects he was a part of, and the fact that a lot of his stuff seems to be presented in compilation form. The relative unavailability of any of this outside of Japan doesn’t help either. As far as Plastics go they eventually reformed in 1989 for a brief while, and I believe Toshio was touring as The Plastics as recently as 2010, with a totally rejiggered lineup of course (something he also did with Melon). None of this produced any new recordings, though in 2005 he did an album called Plastic Sex with a member of Pizzicato Five; Cornelius remixed a track from it, but I haven’t been able to hear any of it otherwise. Alas, many of his projects after The Plastics are similarly elusive here in the states, though I can think of at least one I plan on writing about later in this space. As for now, these two albums are highly recommended.