Rock’n’roll started as a medium in which the three-chord song reigned supreme — until, of course, some wise guys got the idea that four chords, then five (and so on) would make it even better. It took years of such high-falutin’ thought before a pair of Maryland-via- Michigan brothers emerged with just the opposite notion, paring rock’n’roll down to no chords — and promptly announcing their excitement over this development by issuing a three-record box set as their debut album. Jad Fair, America’s preeminent and enormously influential idiot savant of revealingly primitivist rock, built a professionally amateurish career on a uniquely honest and unselfconscious approach to music making, originally with his brother David. (What must mom and dad Fair have thought?)
In the decades since Half Japanese took shape, it’s still not entirely clear that “real” chords have ever really entered the picture. In fact, David Fair, who contributed sporadically to the band for many years, has been quoted as advising would-be guitarists not to feel encumbered by any rules at all, insisting, “It’s your guitar, after all.”
Half Japanese was indisputably at its most unsettling when the Fairs had no outside input. The 7-inch Calling All Girls EP crammed together nine id-bursts (like “Dream Date” and “Shy Around Girls”) that rank among rock’s most uninhibited expressions of sex as cause for terror, topped off with a title track that does pretty much what it promises — an extended salutation to Kate Smith, Ronee Blakely and Paloma Picasso (among dozens of others). But even the unfiltered nature of that fusillade was no preparation for 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts, a 50-song portrait of the artist as a young man clawing to get back into the womb. As he rolls around on the rickety post-Shaggs bed of guitar and drums that comprises “Hurt So Bad” and “No Direct Line From My Brain to My Heart,” Jad inflicts as much self-abuse as Iggy did with broken glass a decade before. Not that these are nihilistic manifestos. Quite the contrary: on songs like “I Love Oriental Girls” and “Ann Arbor, MI.,” Jad comes across as the archetypal man who loves too much, a trait he parlays into stalker-like obsession on the tenaciously bent “Patti Smith.” Although dotted with a goodly number of virtually unrecognizable covers (Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” Springsteen’s “10th Avenue Freeze Out”), 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts sounds absolutely like nothing that came before it — and little that’s come since.
Although incrementally less rudimentary (thanks in part to the aid of four additional musicians), Loud is in no way more conventional. The Albert Ayler-like sax squonking and discordant percussive splashes add an appropriately improvisational free-jazz vibe to stream-of-consciousness songs like “I Know How It Feels…Bad.” Loud also includes a dirgelike rendition of Jim Morrison’s “The Spy.”
Horrible a five-song 12-inch obsessed with ghouls and horror movies, makes a fine companion piece to Loud: Lana Zabko’s blurting saxophone (and wordless backing screams) help elevate psychodramas like “Thing With a Hook” (the tale of a one-handed insane man-beast “pulling heads off boy/girlfriends down in lover’s lane” put to truly distressing music) from horror-rock to just plain horror. Other tracks concern “Vampire” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Where the Cramps do this type of cinematic craziness for fun, Half Japanese sounds genuinely tormented.
Charmed Life, the release of which was delayed several years by Iridescence’s failure, is a guileless burst of optimism that mutes the shriller frequencies considerably, replacing them with an unaffected, exuberant guitar/harmonica backdrop played by a band, which at this point includes David Fair and Don Fleming of Washington DC’s Velvet Monkeys (with whom Half Japanese once shared a live cassette release). This solidly entertaining record finds a presentably casual form for Jad’s wonderful (and not at all creepy) way of looking at life. Gripped in the throes of romance (“I always thought love would change things / And now I know,” he sings in his tremulous quaver of a voice), Jad gushes about romance, poets and miracles with infectious conviction, making songs like “Penny in the Fountain,” “Miracles Happen Every Day” (with fine sax work by John Dreyfuss) and the mildly bitter “One Million Kisses” exemplary outpourings of informed naïveté. (The cassette and CD have ten bonus tracks, bringing the total to 31.)
David Fair doesn’t appear on Music to Strip By, which affords Jad the license to spiral even further inward. Surprisingly, he avoids the temptation and turns in somewhat emotionally restrained performances of party standards (“La Bamba”) and freshly penned originals (“My Sordid Past,” “Stripping for Cash,” the countryfied “Ouija Board Summons Satan”) that indicate he’s spent a bit too much time scouring supermarket tabloids. “Sex at Your Parents’ House” would be funnier if it weren’t being sung with apparent conviction by an adult. Produced (and played on) by Kramer (the Shimmy-Disc mogul who had been a mainstay of Shockabilly) and pressed on clear red vinyl, it’s a relatively sophisticated and appealing outing by a full-fledged band that might have actually rehearsed a few times. U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums expropriates the album’s best track (a preemptive strike on the incipient Gen-X mindset), adding three additional songs. The British CD reissue of Music to Strip By contains 36 songs — 14 more than on the original album.
Besides Fleming (guitar) and producer Kramer (organ, bass), The Band That Would Be King gets instrumental contributions from Fred Frith and John Zorn. (No David Fair this time.) Fortunately, all that talent doesn’t impede Jad’s ability to be himself — he just has to sing a little louder to be heard over the friendly hubbub. Taking on more varied subject matter (which now seems clearly fictionalized and not at all personal) than the rapturous Charmed Life, this 30-song collection visits “Daytona Beach,” reveals “My Most Embarrassing Moment,” delivers the “Curse of the Doll People” and attacks “Ventriloquism Made Easy.” A lot of the songs are fragmentary, and the music — a sloppy mess of guitars, harmonica and saxophones — sounds largely improvised, but a few tunes (“Some Things Last a Long Time,” “Postcard from Far Away,” etc.) are genuinely delightful. The UK CD issue adds 15 cuts to the album’s original vinyl incarnation. (The Band That Would Be King, a delightful, if overly earnest, 1993 documentary about Half Japanese’s career, was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig of Kickstand.)
At first listen, We Are They Who Ache With Amorous Love is muddled, but that old Fair spirit seems to have returned. Songs like Don Fleming’s “Everything Is Right” don’t tickle as playfully as they might have a few years back, yet reveal more of an emotional investment on the artist’s part. Still, some of the more impulsive tracks (mostly covers, like a transistor-radio quality recording of “Gloria”) should have stayed in the garage. With a rotating stack of fellow noisemakers, Jad manages to deliver some quietly cogent (if unexceptional) performances (“The Titanic,” “All of Me,” “Three Rings,” “Secret” and a few others), but a sizable chunk of the record is unlistenably indulgent nonsense, noisy improvs in the musical sandbox.
Even though the hit-to-miss ratio on the live-in-Europe Boo! (the touring group includes drummer Gilles Rieder and guitarists John Sluggett and Tim Foljahn) isn’t all that much better, the good songs — like the acrid “Big Mistake” — are among Jad’s best in years. Bizarro-world burlesque house grind segues into credible art-doo-wop with a precision rarely seen in the band’s past, but the simple-heartedness remains unblunted.
Fire in the Sky might be the closest thing to a rock record Half Japanese has yet produced. With the help of frequent collaborators like Fleming (the Gumball leader who’s been an ancillary Japanese since Charmed Life) and former Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker (who trades cameo appearances on Fair’s discs for his guest spots on hers), Jad works up a head of punk-rock steam that allows him to zoom manically through hi-energy blasts like “U.F.O. Expert” and “Tears Stupid Tears.” Yips, yaws and other emotional tics are still the rule — as evidenced by the devil-taunting “Eye of the Hurricane” and the Disney-fixated “Magic Kingdom” — but even thoroughly stable folk should be able to “get” the Tucker-enhanced cover of the Velvets’ “I Heard Her Call My Name.” At first it seems like Hot takes the approach one step too far — both “Dark Night” and the opening “Drum Straight” are pointless exercises in ugliness — but the five-piece lineup (including Rieder and Jason Willett, with whom Fair later cut a trio record) hits its stride on chugging rockers that approach normalcy. One bit of advice to Jad’s bandmates: wait until he’s not looking and then run over that silly megaphone with the van.
Laid end to end, the 69 (!) tracks compiled on Greatest Hits make it clear that, for all the lo-fi trappings, Half Japanese is first and foremost a good-time band. Its atmosphere is colored in bright, spangly hues by Jad’s eternal optimism — a commodity that’s all too rare in a cultural sub-underground where misery and irony are the currencies of choice. If not the ideal selection for diehards — Greatest Hits contains just four previously unreleased tracks, including a stuttering backwoodsy rendition of “T for Texas” — it’s an ideal introduction for the easily intimidated.
If anything, Jad’s solo records offer an even tighter close-up of the darker corners of his psyche. The Zombies of Mora Tau is a 7-inch EP with a Skull side and a Cross side: seven songs in the monster-movie vein (“Frankenstein Must Die,” “The Thing With the Atomic Brain”). The one-man Best Wishes, recorded between 1982 and 1985, is a collection of 42 brief instrumentals, all titled either “O.K.” or “A.O.K.” Listenable? Yes — in brief spurts, as long as you keep the volume down and don’t pay too close attention. Creatively significant? Er, no.
The 27 originals (accompanied by two James Brown covers) on Everyone Knew…But Me allow Jad (accompanying himself on what sound like pots, pans and guitar) to vent about about 27 girls who won’t give him the time of day. Or maybe it’s 27 rants about one girl — either way, it’s tough to slog through. Best Wishes dispenses with the existential angst by eliminating vocals altogether on a compendium of 42 songs, alternately titled “O.K.” or “A.O.K.” Some of the spasmodic guitar emissions are gripping, but most are off-putting. Dyed-in-the-wool fans probably can’t live without it.
To call Jad’s non-solo/non-band efforts “collaborations” would be misleading. He simply proceeds, blinders on, to do his thing while his partner du jour scurries to keep up. For his part, Kramer contributes plenty of atmosphere but little needed direction to Roll Out the Barrel. Its 24 tracks take in steep peaks and deep valleys, with many of the former coming in the form of condensed covers like a rendition of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as B-movie jungle hunt score. Several years later, Fair and Kramer recorded a follow-up, The Sound of Music, which fell victim to what Kramer describes as “problems having to do with a woman” and was shelved until 1998. The Daniel Johnston disc (which really ought to be subtitled Dueling Neuroses but was renamed It’s Spooky in the UK) is actually quite gripping, if occasionally painful to endure. The instrumentation on Fair’s earlier work may have been amateurish, but the toy piano and detuned guitar here is positively novitiate. Johnston bubbles over with the album’s best, most hyperactively excited moment (“I Met Roky Erickson”), but the handful of co-written pieces (like the squalling “Frankenstein Conquers the World”) occasionally deliver. Most moving though, is the duo’s take on Phil Ochs’ “Chords of Fame,” which has rarely rung truer.
Oh No I Just Knocked Over a Cup of Coffee, credited to Between Meals — the one-off name fixes its recording span in a Cambridge studio after breakfast and before lunch one 1981 day — was recorded by Jad with Erik Lindgren (Birdsongs of the Mesozoic), David Greenberger (Duplex Planet), Phil Milstein and Andy Paley. (Maureen Tucker dubbed drum parts on afterward.) Among the eight numbers chewed over are covers (“Route 66,” “Matchbox,” “What’d I Say?”) and originals (including Jad’s “Do You Have a Friend” and “How Will I Know.”)
More recently, Fair has looked internationally for people to play with. Teaming with Scottish popsters the Pastels and their friends on a pair of three-song EPs may have sounded nifty in theory, but brought to fruition the partnership is all but fruitless. Nominally, both parties appreciate life’s unsophisticated pleasures, but Stephen Pastel’s artless pop and Jad’s popless art mix like oil and water. Closer to home, the Phono-Comb album involves ex-members of Canada’s Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.
Oh No Not Another Mosquito My House Is Full of Them! by Mosquito (Jad, Half Japanese guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley) is extraordinarily arduous. The record is a seven-song thirteen-minute sub-fi weenie roast of one-handed traps, trace guitar and incomprehensibly distorted (but appropriately buzzing!) screeches from Sir Fair. Ouch! Although the liner-note information is less than encouraging (“Shat out at snacktime in Hoboken”), the 22-song Cupid’s Fist is a different insect, a sometimes listener-friendly escapade that stops screwing around often enough to perform a handful of folk and folk-rock numbers. When he’s not shrieking wildly, Jad sings over acoustic guitar, banjo and percussion, sounding distinctly like Peter Stampfel. There’s another singer (check the electric cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Kathleen”), but the absence of last names and credits leaves the identity question open. Mosquito has other records out as well, and Foljahn and Shelley also play behind singer Chan Marshall in her group, Cat Power, which has released CDs on Smells Like and Matador.
Declaring himself the King of Coo Coo Rockin Time, David Fair takes his solo band out for a spin on Coo Coo Party Time, a casual and kooky rock’n’roll record with one foot in the ’50s and the other in a typically Fairian can of ’80s whimsy. With John Dreyfuss’ sax blaring in the foreground, Fair (who wrote all the lyrics and painted the creepy cover) sings about such vintage subjects as “All-Night Drive-In Movie Party,” “Rock Me Daddy-O” and “Oldsmobile Girl Magnet 88” and agitates for more good music in “Plenty of Room on the Radio,” the anti-CD “Put Records Back in the Record Store” (ironic, considering) and “Coo Coo Record Party Time,” which offers this great suggestion: “If you buy a record that you don’t like / Don’t be upset by that / Just get an iron and heat it up / And iron the record flat / Iron out all the old songs / Until it’s smooth again / Then scratch in a new line round and round / With a knife or the point of a pin.”
In 1996, the Fair brothers made an album together, which they sweetly titled Best Friends.