Brian Eno famously said of the Velvet Underground that, though their debut album didn’t sell well, everyone who bought a copy started a band. One could, perhaps, make a similar remark about a new wave band called The Plastics, who formed a decade or so later on the other side of the Pacific. They recorded for only five years, from the mid-nineteen-seventies to the early eighties, but wide swaths of all Japanese popular music released since bear marks of their influence. According to Underground, co-founder Toshio Nakanishi, who sang and played guitar, is “now considered one of the most well-known Japanese musicians of all time.”
“One day in 1976,” writes Neojaponisme’s W. David Marx, the 20-year-old Nakanishi “gathered his friends at Harajuku’s most famous cafe, Leon, and decided they needed to form a band. They did not own any instruments, but music seemed an obvious means of expression.” They began by covering the likes of Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and Connie Francis’ “Vacation” at fashion parties, but were soon advised by the visiting David Bowie to write songs of their own; subsequent well-timed encounters with the work of bands like the Sex Pistols and Devo gave them an idea of how to do it.
“The Plastics’ reliance on the latest Western musical trends was a common practice in the Tokyo music scene, but unlike their predecessors, the band was able to be in dialogue with their favorite Western artists in real time.”
Marx quotes Nakanishi writing in his autobiography that “YMO’s record label plotted to make them international, but we forged all of those developments ourselves and the label just followed up.” Those developments included the members’ associations with Western musical figures as various as Mark Mothersbaugh, Brian Ferry, Bob Marley, and Iggy Pop. When the group’s guitarist Hajime Tachibana, who also worked as a graphic designer, created Japanese tour programs for Talking Heads, David Byrne ended up with a Plastics demo tape in hand, which he passed along to the B-52s, who passed it along to their manager, who signed them. The height of their exposure to Western audiences came in 1982, when SCTV aired the music video for their song “Top Secret Man” on its “Midnight Video Special.”
Clad in checkerboard-and-neon retro fashions, singing nonsensically catchy lyrics, and busting extravagantly herky-jerky dance moves against void-like backdrops, the members of The Plastics come off in the “Top Secret Man” as near-parodic embodiments of the new wave musical aesthetic. That they also happened to be Japanese surely added, for Western viewers those four decades ago, a certain layer of cross-cultural absurdity. “Indeed, is the disparity between the East and West which sets the Plastics apart from their contemporaries,” says Undeground, “their lyrics citing Bauhaus and Russian avant-garde, technology and American consumerism through their remote, Japanese lens.” (Marx quotes Byrne’s observation that “the very name Plastics was a tip off: an ironic take on the common Western perception of Japanese products being ‘plastic,’ and therefore inferior copies of better made Western items.”)
Having spent the decade since the war both absorbing Western popular culture and achieving an almost futuristically advanced level of development, the Japan of the early eighties had actually become an ideal place to develop new wave’s signature incongruity of D.I.Y and high tech. Plastics Masahide Sakuma even worked on the development of Roland’s TR-808, and before that drum machine went on to shape the sound of entire genres of music around the world, his band owned the very first model. Alas, Sakuma and Nakanishi both died in the twenty-tens, and with them the possibility of a true Plastics reunion. But it would be a surprise if their three albums — Welcome Plastics, Origato Plastico, and the West-oriented set of remakes Welcome Back — don’t still have more than a few new bands, Eastern or Western, to inspire.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.