1991 must have been an exciting time to be a budding young musician. Things were still evolving at a rather rapid pace; acid house and electronica were starting to materialize, and grunge, Britpop, and the explosion of great alternative rock were right around the corner. It’s not exactly accurate to call any of this brand new, but if nothing else these were mostly new ways of doing old things. Think of what it would be like to be a teenager in ’91; there were still great albums coming out every week, but you’re in an era that’s both well post-Beatlemania and well pre-internet. Which means that it’s no longer a guarantee that your friends know much of the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, or even Led Zeppelin. Of course, nobody wanted to sound like any of these bands in the 80’s; but music trends are cylical and great music always seems to come around.
Enter Flipper’s Guitar, a duo out of Tokyo consisting of Keigo Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa. Their debut album, Three Cheers for Our Side! was a highly enjoyable collection of smiley guitar pop that made them proper stars before they’d really matured; Oyamada and Ozawa were only 21 and 20, respectively (there were three other members at that time too, but they were quickly jettisoned). Three Cheers is now seen as one of the earliest examples of Shibuya-kei (named after a famous shopping district in Tokyo), a genre which can generally be described as “if it sounds good, use it”. Although the album does not contain any direct samples, it is not shy about borrowing from their influences. Songs on that album and its follow-up, Camera Talk, would reference them directly – check out song titles like “The Colour Field”, “Haircut 100”, and “Goodbye, our Pastels Badges”. These albums feel less like artistic statements than they do love letters to their idols. But hey, when you’re 20, this is just what you do.
Whether they were aware of it or not, this sort of thing was happening all over the world. In 1989, the Beastie Boys teamed up with the Dust Brothers to bring us Paul’s Boutique, an album aimed at young people that consisted almost entirely of samples of things that would be found in their parents’ record collections. We got the Stone Roses, which were hyped up as maybe the best band to ever exist, even though they sound as though they came straight from the British Invasion. Happy Mondays had a hit with “Lazyitis”, which borrowed heavily from “Ticket to Ride”. And so on. Bands were not just taking from the past, but they were taking from each other; how many groups in the indie dance scene just lifted each others’ beats wholesale?
Broadly speaking, Japan didn’t really know of any of this. The members of Flipper’s Guitar probably did, but you can’t help but wonder how much their record collections expanded in the time that followed Camera Talk. While their first two albums were clearly indebted to their influences, Doctor Head’s World Tower is full-on reference-rock. It’s as though they got into Primal Scream and MBV and the entire Madchester scene at once, and decided to dedicate their next album to introducing their audience to those sounds. It seems to have worked; an awful lot of Japanese pop music throughout the entire decade takes after this. To those of us who live in English-speaking regions in the year 2014, an album like Doctor Head’s World Tower plays like a fun game of spot-the-reference; to a Japanese kid in 1991, this thing must’ve been mindblowing.
Maybe it goes without saying that this thing is full of samples; a clip from Pet Sounds kicks things off, and along the way we’re treated to everything from Sly & the Family Stone to Buffalo Springfield (and “Good Vibrations”, of course). More than that, what’s really cribbed here is a pastiche of early 90’s production techniques; the acid house drumbeats of Happy Mondays combined with the guitar pop of the Stone Roses and the trippy production of My Bloody Valentine. That last one shows up in several guises; both the woozy, dreamlike “Aquamarine” and the buzzsaw guitars of “Winnie-the-Pooh Mugcup Collection” borrow aspects of them. Still, it’s nothing compared to “The Quizmaster”, which is essentially an alternate universe version of Primal Scream’s “Loaded”, a song that already sounded like an alternate universe “Sympathy for the Devil”. “Quizmaster” fully bridges the gap between those two, slowly building over its seven-and-a-half minutes in much the same way (complete with snippets of movie dialogue!) It carefully toes the line between tribute and plagiarism, and the fact that most of their audience hadn’t yet heard of Primal Scream makes it all the more genius (or nefarious). If it sounds good, why not?
That’s really the philosophy of the entire album; they don’t win any points for originality, but there’s no doubt that this stuff just sounds good. The guitars are jangly and funky, the beats are brisk and danceable, and the voices are pleasant and personality-free. The hooks on this album are the same sort of 3- or 4-chord patterns that have made up the foundation of pop music since 1963. Every one of these nine songs has something to offer; if not for the collage at the end of “The World Tower”, every one of them could have a single. Despite the length of many of the tracks (9 over 57 minutes; quite a departure from a band that normally comes in around the three-minute mark), things keep rolling; some songs have multiple sections (“Dolphin Song”, “The Quizmaster”, “The World’s Tower”), while others just have lush, slow-burning grooves (“Aquamarine”, “(Spend Bubble Hour in Your) Sleep Machine”). It doesn’t get boring – the hooks on this are so good that they could almost stand to go longer (“Blue Shining Quick Star”).
Alas, this was about as far as the Flipper’s Guitar sound could go. The band broke up at the height of their popularity, before either member had turned 26. Kenji Ozawa continued on with a fairly successful solo career, while Keigo Oyamada became Cornelius, who wound up achieving crossover success in America with 1997’s Fantasma, an album of cut-n-paste reference-hopping that signaled the end of Shibuya-kei just as surely as Flipper’s Guitar signaled the beginning. But all the seeds were laid on this album, arguably the first great one the genre produced.