December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1980s pop does Japan and China

4 min read
The sound, visuals and political aesthetic of Japan and China influenced western pop bands and culture in the 1980s

In the 1980s, Japan and China exerted a rather exotic influence on many western pop bands and fashion labels. Not always accurately reflecting those countries and their cultures. Rather a romantic idea and on occasions unintentionally reinforcing Victorian notions of western superiority. Today, all this might be seen as cultural appropriation and certainly a degree of stereotyping. Some of the borrowing of ideas, sounds and imagery from Japan and China was well-intentioned and even reverential. But on other occasions it could be crass and demeaning.

At the time, China was still emerging from decades of full-on Communist rule. I remember in 1976, aged 13, watching the news reports on TV of Communist leader Chairman Mao’s death. The body in the open casket with party functionaries doing their best to sob in front of it while jockeying for position. His widow, Jiang Qing (better known as Madam Mao) who would be arrested a month later by her opponents, already no doubt watching her back. She would be imprisoned and commit suicide in 1991.

The aesthetic of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966, was still appealing to some. Thousands of youthful Red Guards waving copies of Mao’s Little Red Book. The heroic poses on wall paintings and posters. The purging of ‘bourgeois’ elements from all levels of society. Despite all this apparent proletarian heroism, its human rights violations were by the 1980s very obvious. But the aesthetic made its mark in 80s music and fashion.

Japan was the economic powerhouse of Asia and the world’s second largest economy after the United States. For the older generation, there were memories of its involvement on Hitler’s side in World War Two. But for us youngsters, Japanese motifs in fashion and references in music were very welcome. Aside from westerners borrowing what they took to be the Japanese look – there were also designers from that country who broke through in the 1980s. Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto for example. They helped to dispel the notion that ‘made in Japan’ meant inferior – a common view through to the mid-1990s. Similar to the continuing downer some have towards ‘made in China’ today.

Western culture definitely looked eastwards in the 80s. Bands with Chinese/Japanese influenced names included China Crisis, Gang of Four, Japan and…Huang Chung. Gang of Four, if your knowledge of 20th century Chinese history isn’t all that, were a group of senior politicians around Madame Mao put on trial after Mao’s death as China rejected his brand of communism. That band were heavily political and terribly serious, apparently influenced by the Frankfurt School of Marxism, don’t you know. Chairman Mao pops up in the background on the album cover for Tin Drum, a massively successful LP from the band Japan. This was more of a tongue in cheek offering with very catchy tunes borrowing oriental sounds. I played it to death at college.

DISCOVER: NME pop quiz from 1981

But Huang Chung is the band that made me laugh.  A kitsch notion of what Chinese rock music might sound like.  The band were at pains to say they weren’t going to inflict ‘eastern scales’ on western ears. Huang Chung had some very un-Chinese band members – Hog Robinson, Jack Hues, Nick De Spig and Charles Darwin (sic).   They didn’t find the success they craved in the UK but did eventually break through in the US courtesy of Geffen Records – and a name change to Wang Chung.

The whole Chinese/Asian thing got to the extent that a club was planned in London called ‘The Great Wall’ to rival Blitz and Hell. But all this ignores the fact that Japan and China did of course have their own pop scenes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, City Pop was a massively popular genre in Japan that mixed disco and soft rock. Out of this movement came a band called Yellow Magic Orchestra, which actually enjoyed limited success in the United Kingdom in the early 80s. They were pioneers of electro-pop – a sort of Japanese Kraftwerk.

Meanwhile from the early 80s, a genre called Mandopop took hold in Taiwan and another genre termed Cantopop in what was still British-ruled Hong Kong. Long before Wham! toured China in 1985, Mandopop and Cantopop made inroads into mainland China after music restrictions were lifted by the authorities in 1978. You’ve probably guessed that Mandopop was Mandarin Chinese language and Cantopop was Cantonese Chinese. It might automatically be assumed by music fans in the west that these genres must have been imitating western acts. But you would be wrong. The roots of Mandopop and Cantopop were as much in the pre-war Shanghai jazz scene as anything going on in Europe and the US.

Anyway, I look back wistfully to that T-shirt with a Japanese rising sun that I wore to death in the early 80s. Thought it was the coolest thing ever! One band that used Japanese imagery in an unintentionally hilarious way was the German pop combo Alphaville with their hit single Big in Japan. I’ve posted the video made for that song below – try and keep a straight face.

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