UP TO VODKA COLLINS
By Dave Thompson
[ Transcribed from the November 2004
issue of Goldmine magazine]
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?
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?
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."
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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)
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
Collins play the Yokohama Jazz &
Blues festival 1997. Left to right -
Hiroshi Oguchi (drums) Alan Merrill
(guitar-vocal), Masayoshi "Mabo"