Strange Days Alan Merrill interview
Strange Days magazine issue #61 October 2004. In Japanese. Alan Merrill, Vodka Collins, circa 1972

This interview is written in Japanese. Click the images on the right to view different parts of the interview. The English translation is pending.

By Dave Thompson

[ Transcribed from the November 2004 issue of Goldmine magazine]

Think of '70s glam rock and you will inevitably find yourself transported to the United Kingdom and the brief but brilliant couple of years during which an entire generation took one line from the Kink's hit "Lola" ("boys will be girls and girls will be boys") and decided to arrange their entire lives around it - at least until something better came along. Men in make-up, ladies in leather, indeterminate species in high heels and earrings - it was an age in which societal boundaries weren't so much shaken up as tossed aside and laughed at. You thought The Beatles had long hair? At least they didn't get it teased and permed as well.
Glam was not a wholly British creation. Brett Smiley, The New York Dolls and Jobriath all flew the flag for the fad in the United States, and though all would wait some years before attaining their just rewards (Jobriath, in fact, is still waiting, although a new compilation on Morrisey's label should put an end to that), still their contributions have never been in doubt. Where would the punk scene have been withough The New York Dolls to slash some sassy attitude through the warmed up T. Rex and Gary Glitter licks, after all?

But the tentacles spread further still. Germany and France enjoyed thriving glam scenes, even if nobody can remember the names of the guilty parties, while Japan not only forged it's own glittering universe, it can actually lay claim to having co-authored the whole shebang in the first place. It was late 1970 when Marc Bolan, the accepted father of the movement, truly stated to spangle in public but another year before anybody else (Slade and Sweet) saw fit to join him, by which time Tokyo's Vodka Collins had been dazzling their audience for a couple of months already. The plot only thickens, even sickens...when you realize that one of the Vodkas was an American. Don't you hate it when history suddenly goes all askew?

"I eased into the glam scene organically", explained guitarist Alan Merrill. "At 18 I was already recording for Atlantic Records' Japanese wing, and I was the first male model to wear feminine make-up for a major Japanese TV commercial,in 1969, in a campaign for Nissan cars." Over the course of eight commercials in a two year period, Merrill was the gleeful center of a storm of controversy, as Japanese society tried to figure out "Is it a boy or is it a girl?"; a controversy that Merrill quickly adapted to his pop career. "I started to perform in make-up and frilly frocks. It got the girl fans excited, and that was good enough for me."

Vodka Collins came together in late 1971, as Merrill slipped out of his earlier pop persona and joined forces with two fellow giants of the Japanese pop scene. Tempters drummer Hiroshi Oguchi and Spiders guitarist Hiroshi "Monsieur" Kamayatsu; in fact the initial scenario saw merrill and Oguchi called in merely to acompany Kamayatsu as he prepared to play his first solo concerts, a set up that also included guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka, an founding member of the Sadistic Mika Band.

At the same time, Merrill and Oguchi were block-booking Tokyo's Yotsuya Studios to demo a batch of Merrill's new songs. Kamayatsu soon joined them, and with bassist Take Yokouchi following, Vodka Collins was born.

Immediately attracting attention as one of the first (if not the first) Japanese-based band ever to perform their original material in English, Vodka Collins' reknown swiftly grew - by mid 1972, the group was making three or four public apparances a day, as radio and TV piled into their concert schedule. Every record company in the country was hot on their trail, and the group even had their own fashion consultant. The young Koshino Junko designed Merrill's stage wear - in later years she would become one of Japan's foremost fashion designers. Right then she was still in high school.

"The early '70s glam scene in Japan was really amazing," Merrill recalled. "When Vodka Collins played Keio University's 1972 New Years Eve party, it was total mayhem. We played only four songs before the crowd went totally mad and we had to stop. Police and riot squads were called in. It was quite an experience. Not your usual demure Japanese audience!"

The band signed with EMI/Toshiba in spring of 1972 and set to work recording their debut album, "Tokyo-New York." The sessions were spectacular, reflected Merrill. "The Sadistic Mika Band and Vodka Collins had the same producer at EMI, a Mr. Hashiba. He let me do whatever I wanted, a nice luxury in the studio." (The Mika band's Kazuhiko Kato was among the backing vocalist on the sessions.) But public demand for a Vodka Collins album was so high that the group didn't have time to finish recording it before EMI insisted it be thrown in the stores.

Still, the resultant "Tokyo-New York" album is considered a milestone in the annals of Japanese rock, effortlessly establishing itself among the year's biggest hits. - so big, in fact, the band even rerecorded it in Japanese (CDs of both versions continue selling in Japan today). Three hit singles swung off the album, "Sands of Time," "Automatic Pilot" and "Billy Mars," while another cut, "Scratchin'," became the theme to a hit TV series, featuring singing actor Kenichi (Shoken) Hagiwara.

If Vodka Collins had one dissapointment, it was that their fame had not, and probably never would, spread beyond Japan's borders - bands from their neck of the woods seldom traveled out of country at that time, never braved Europe or America. If the Western world was to hear them, it would have to come to them....and it did. When T. Rex visited Japan that summer of 1972, Bolan became an instant convert to "Tokyo-New York, while David Bowie employed another of Vodka Collins' designers and friends, Kansai, to conjure up his own stage wear. "A young pre-David Bailey Marie Helvin was one of our entourage, along with Tina Chow and her sister Bonnie (Adele), the Lutz sisters. Bonnie eventually married David Byrne."

There appeared to be no limit to Vodka Collins ascent. Behind the scenes, however, the group's alchemy was being strangled by the manipulations of management. Hitherto, merrill had ranked among Japan's most in-demand session players, regulary guesting on recordings by producers Yuya Uchida and Miki Curtis and performers Garo., Too Much, Yamashita Keijiro, Hirao Massaki. That steady source of income wascut off now, as Vodka Collins' schedule took precendence over anything so mundane as spare time or moonlighting. And the fact was, there was no money coming in. No matter that Vodka Collins were one of the most successful groups Japan had ever seen. They weren't exactly seeing any of their earnings.

"The glam rock scene was very healthy, but the country had yet to "boom" fiscally speaking, so the pay was still very low," Merrill explained. Factor in a few sharks feeding off the Yen that were available,and life was becoming extremely difficult. Finally, in the winter of 1973, Merrill had had enough.

"We were headlining over The Sadistic Mika Band. We were very popular, and, this one occasion we were supposed to do a Budokan show, headlining the 10,000 seat arena. It was completely sold out... and the day before the show, I left the band. The manager was cheating me out of my money, so I wanted to teach him a lesson. The story is legendary in Japan. A one-of-a-kind situation. No one had ever done anything like that before.. In fact, he didn't simply leave the band. He left the country as well, flying to London, linking up with an old friend from New York, Jake Hooker, and forming a new band, Arrows. Within six months of leaving Vodka Collins, the group was high in the British top 10. Whe I got to London, I was still in high camp glam mode. Jake and (bandmate) Paul Varley had been in a glam punkish band with Ben Brierly, called Streak, so we teamed up, signed to Mickie Most and RAK records..." and that was the end of Vodka Collins. Oguchi moved to Africa to study drum techniques; Kamayatsu finally launched his solo career, and Yokouchi formed a new band, Tensaw, and enjoyed a major hit with a new version of the old Vodka Collins favorite "Automatic Pilot."

New generations arose who never saw the group in its original incarnation, who were forced to rely on scratchy old records and the awestruck words of their elders if they wanted to recapture the magic of Vodka Collins. Finally, in 1995, EMI announced a CD reissue for "Tokyo-New York" -- and all concerned were astonished by the response, as the country as a whole, it seemed, rose up to reclain the group for itself. Weeks later, the founding trio of Merrill, Oguchi and Kamayastsu realized they had no choice but to re-form... with new management, of course. With bassist Masayoshi "Mabo" Kabe completing the lineup, the next three years saw the reborn band cut three albums, "Chemical Reaction," "Pink Soup," and "Boys Life." -- records that retained only a taste of the original band's hard glam edge ("Chemical Reaction" includes two remakes, "Automatic Pilot" and "Sands Of Time") but which championed their makers' reputations regardless. Indeed, this month sees the Japanese Polystar label release a 16-track compilation CD, "Boys In The Band," drawn from those three album, while Merrill is currently visiting Japan (his home is back in New York) to promote the release; he had, in fact, just finished a four hour interview when Goldmine tracked him down. He is also putting the finishing touches to his own autobiography, a tome that will not only thrill his Japanese audience, but will also plug a vast gulf in the Anglo-American bookself. We all know about the Japanese market's insatiable appetite for Wesern rock bands; we've all spent a fortune (or wished we could) on some fabulous-looking Japanese import by whatever US or Brit bands we collect. But the country's domestic scene has passed us all by and will doubtless continue to do so, unless someone does something about it. "Boys In The Band" is a sart; Merrill's book will do the rest. Oh, and next time you're surfing online, a word of warning. Put quote marks around "Vodka Collins." Otherwise you get some really strange results.

Vodka Collins play the Yokohama Jazz & Blues festival 1997. Left to right - Hiroshi Oguchi (drums) Alan Merrill (guitar-vocal), Masayoshi "Mabo" Kabe (bass).

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