There is a persistent stereotype in America that Japanese bands simply attempt to replicate American and British pop, and that the charm of the music is in how they get it wrong or unwittingly fall into the culture gap. At first listen, that may seem to be true of Pizzicato Five. But the Tokyo group, which was formed in 1984 by Yasuharu Konishi, a Tokyo college student consumed with ’50s, ’60s and ’70s pop, soul and television theme music, is much more than the sum of its kitschy Western influences. Its songs are rich nuggets of pop-art irony, created in the belief that mass-produced consumables have replaced art and, therefore, art can no longer be a serious pursuit.
Unlike other contemporary Japanese bands that have achieved some notoriety in America (like Shonen Knife), Pizzicato Five are practically superstars at home. And you’d have to scour the globe to find anyone who can challenge the prolific group’s productivity, which has yielded nearly two dozen cleverly designed and packaged albums in the first half of the ’90s alone.
Following two singles, “Audrey Hepburn Complex” and “In Action” (collected, along with other early tracks, on Non Standard Years) and an electro-pop album, Pizzicato Mania, the group made a surprisingly sophisticated major-label debut album. Full of syrupy Bacharach-style arrangements and song titles like “Odd Couple and the Others” and “The Apartment,” Couples often sounds like the soundtrack to a very corny ’70s TV series, complete with tinkling bells, punchy brass and, of course, pizzicato strings. Except for a few words in the chorus of the bossa nova “Magical Connection,” the album is sung entirely in Japanese by a soft-voiced male/female tag-team. An instrumental version of the album was later released as A Quiet Couple; Antique ’96 is a collection of the era’s odds and ends.
Bellissima!, which is dedicated to Albert Moravia and Smokey Robinson, takes a detour to Motown. Like a Japanese Style Council, the band plays mannered soul music, relying on falsetto harmonies, dinner-jazz rhythm sections, funky basslines, even steel drums to propel its songs. Though all the right ingredients are present and “Temptation Talk” and “World Standard” have their moments, the album is too methodical and mechanical to be effective. The vocals especially sound stiff.
The band returned to form on the fast-paced On Her Majesty’s Request, jumbling up spy music, mod rock, smoky jazz, synth-pop and sweeping orchestral arrangements. Each of the nineteen songs appropriates something different, from the Simon and Garfunkel parody of “Homesick Blues” to the frenetic chase music of “Feint Operation” to the funky turntable tricks of “Her Majesty au Go Go.”
Soft Landing on the Moon unveiled the tactic that makes P5’s discography so extensive and confusing: recycling and repetition. The album revisits songs from its three predecessors, updating the material with new arrangements, remixes, vocals by newcomer Maki Nomiya — even a poem or interview excerpt. Temporarily abandoning its string-and-brass lounge pop, Pizzicato Five relies on ’80s-styled synthesizers and drum machines.
With Hi Guys! Let Me Teach You, Pizzicato Five launched a series of five records released in consecutive months. Supposedly the soundtrack to a television show, Hi Guys! is composed mainly of slick instrumentals, like the hypnotic harmonica-meets-strings groove of “Memories of Schooldays” and the terrific electronic bachelor pad music of “Spacemen on the Schoolyard.” As on the band’s past recordings, Hi Guys! contains spoken-word sections that sound so tantalizing one longs for English translations.
Number two in the series, This Year’s Model elevated Nomiya to full band membership; her sweet, spoiled diva vocals and homemade costumes helped Pizzicato Five congeal its ironic retro-pop. With Nomiya writing lyrics in addition to Konishi, the band also increased the amount of Japanese singing and conversation in its songs, making them harder for the linguistically impaired to penetrate. For what it’s worth, most are either naïve hippie love songs or material-girl fashion songs, a fusion of selfless ’60s idealism and ’90s selfishness that adds yet another facetious layer to the band’s work.
This Year’s Model opens with the freewheeling, fast-paced “Brigitte Bardot T.N.T.,” followed by a question-and-answer session in Japanese (“This Year’s Girl #1”) in which Nomiya is grilled on her likes and dislikes. The following EPs — London-Paris-Tokyo and Readymade Recordings — contain less distinct versions of the same songs and more Japanese dialogue. At this point, developing into a multi-media performance group, Pizzicato Five began releasing videos, with Nomiya’s flamboyant homemade outfits and Konishi’s gift for film collages and slogans (like “very famous in Japan” and “beauty is only skin deep”) contributing to giddy spectacles that blur the line between tribute and parody.
With Nomiya’s voice unifying This Year’s Girl and dance beats running throughout the record (the fifth in the series), Pizzicato Five sounds for the first time like a band instead of a concept. “Twiggy Twiggy,” a blaring song full of samples from Hawaii 5-0 and Lalo Schifrin soundtracks, could easily fit into a cabaret scene in a James Bond film. The album’s highlight, however, is “Baby Love Child,” which mixes turntable scratching, soft acoustic guitar, Nomiya’s innocent vocals and a melody echoing “I Got You, Babe.”
Sweet Pizzicato Five pushes the band’s tacky love songs closer to disco, with live instruments and ’50s/’60s influences fading to the background. Instead, there are stronger, simpler beats, techno keyboards and cheesy choruses (like the Beatles-borrowed “beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah” in “Tout Va Bien”). Though “Catchy” isn’t so catchy, most of the album is, particularly “Funky Lovechild,” a sitar-enhanced rewrite of “Baby Love Child.”
Further conditioning its audience not to expect too much originality from an organization that sees pop as a process of duplication and mass production, Pizzicato Five began what it called a “world series of remixes.” Pizzicato Free Soul, a double-album available only on vinyl, is a danced-up remix of the entire Sweet Pizzicato Five. The rawer live album, Instant Replay, is something of a joke, given the group’s heavy concert reliance on backing tapes. Though the versions of “Action Painting,” “Twiggy Twiggy” and “Brigitte Bardot T.N.T.” aren’t great, Instant Replay is the first Pizzicato Five album where, in some songs, electric guitar is a dominant presence.
Pizzicato Five outdoes itself with kitsch culture on Bossa Nova 2001. Nomiya delivers a “hare hare” chant in the light, bouncy “Hallelujah Hare Krishna,” riffs on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” in “Sweet Soul Revue” and adds a “cha-cha-cha” to “Magic Carpet Ride.” (As with many Pizzicato Five songs, “Magic Carpet Ride” borrows only its title from an American hit.) Though songs like “Groovy Is My Name” are sickeningly sweet, Bossa Nova 2001 is a career highlight. The band reaches back to its first records for the Bacharach arrangements without ever losing sight of the dance drive of its later records. It also hits new heights in irony with “Sophisticated Catchy,” a song which includes only the lyric “catchy” — repeated often.
Expo 2001 (and its double-album vinyl equivalent, Free Soul 2001) also ranks among P5’s best, with extended dance remixes of past songs (most from Sweet Pizzicato Five and Bossa Nova 2001) by Saint Etienne, Towa Tei of Deee-Lite, Telex and others. Though nearly identical, the albums are just different enough to force hardcore collectors to get both. (Free Soul has three songs Expo doesn’t; the CD has one song the vinyl doesn’t.)
It must be a lot of work for Pizzicato Five to prove that it can crank out disposable pop the same way Andy Warhol manufactured serigraphs. Though the band’s songs sometimes veer towards homogeneity, its musical and production standards and its gift for appropriating cultural styles regardless of popular meaning rarely falter. A Children’s Workshop EP (the cassette edition of A Television Workshop), ostensibly the soundtrack to a Japanese television show (Ugo Ugo-Ihuga), features light, jovial dance-pop numbers like “The Night Is Still Young” and Bacharach/David’s “Me, Japanese Boy.”
For all that, Pizzicato Five was still all but unknown in the United States, but the Five by Five EP remedied that. Culled from the band’s albums with Nomiya, it includes an “English Mix” of “Baby Love Child” and an English-language version of “This Year’s Girl.” It’s well worth the wait to find out what Nomiya is actually saying in the long, endearing interview: “What food don’t you like?” “Food that makes me fat.” “What do you wear when you sleep?” “Pajamas.”
The Japanese-language version of “This Year’s Girl” appears on the band’s second American album, Made in USA, half of which comes from Bossa Nova 2001 (“Magic Carpet Ride,” “Sweet Soul Revue,” “Go Go Dancer,” “Peace Music”) and the rest from previous P5 albums, with a focus on tracks that include words in English. (Selections from the album, extended and remixed, comprise the four-song Quickie EP.) As a “greatest hits” package, the only advantages the Japanese equivalent, Big Hits and Jet Lags 1991-1995, has over Made in USA are the Pizzicato Five luggage tags included with the album and the adorable “We Love Pizzicato Five” song chanted by American schoolchildren — both evidence of Pizzicato Five’s megalomania and global ambitions, prerequisites for any band lampooning the star-making machinery of the ’90s.
Pizzicato Five gets even more international on Overdose, with vocals in French, a cover photo taken from the Brooklyn Bridge and mastermind Konishi being taught how to say “a new stereophonic sound spectacular” by an American woman. Overdose is a lush, slick album that gracefully combines the band’s glossy orchestrations with its high-energy disco. In all but a few songs, Pizzicato Five shines with pop polish, particularly in the upbeat dance gem “Happy Sad” and “If I Were a Groupie,” with its English and Japanese soundbites of conversations with groupies.
These songs are included on both of Pizzicato’s following American releases, the Unzipped EP (named after the documentary film about designer Isaac Mizrahi which incorporates “Happy Sad”) and The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five. On both CDs, a running translation of the Japanese “Groupie” soundbites are provided in the right channel of the mix. The Sound of Music includes an AmEx-styled plastic fan club card, the Beatles-echoing “We Love Pizzicato Five” chant (“When you’re not mean to us we’re blue/Oh, P5 we love you”), six more songs from Bossa Nova 2001 and four from Overdose. In addition, there’s an English remake of Sweet Pizzicato Five‘s house-music love song to a disc jockey, “CDJ,” but, tellingly, the American vocalist is unable to capture Nomiya’s pampered sense of detachment.