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Cowboy Bebop #1: On Japanese Guitar Hero Char’s 1976 Self-Titled Debut

Funky guitarist Char (née Hisato Takenaka) was born in Tokyo in 1955 and first picked up his mighty axe at the age of eight, beginning a voyage that has seen him regarded as one of Japan’s greatest ever musicians to scorch the instrument. After serving as a session player when he was still in junior high school, Char formed the band Smoky Medicine in 1973 with Mari Kaneko. The endeavour was short lived and three years later, the then-21-year-old recorded a self-titled LP of AM radio rock, soul, and funk tunes—a classic debut album that we will be talking about today.

Char’s discography is huge and, having dropped his most recent record just last year, still expanding. Fans have their own taste picks—in 2007, Rolling Stone Japan named Psyche, an 1980s timepiece that sees Char nod to era legends like Prince and Huey Lewis and The News, the 36th greatest Japanese rock album of all time. Char, though, is my personal favourite. It’s a set full of sticky pop songwriting, cruise ship-pleasant instrumentation, and inventive guitar playing that will appeal to anybody who love their licks and solos. Char is one of those gorgeous on the ear albums you throw on when you don’t really know what you want to listen to.

Look at the album cover and bask in what a cool guy Char is. There he is, decked out in a full white suit way before Sonny Crocket was on the scene. And yet the lyrics on Char can be amusingly daft, probably a result of English not being the star’s first language. Opener “Shinin’ You, Shinin’ Day,” one of a number of English language cuts, would almost be too sappy if Char’s sincerity wasn’t so charming and infectious. “In my life I need you all the time/I’ve got to love, I’ve got to love, shining you,” he sings over the sprightly instrumentation. Then, about halfway through, the pleasantness gives way to a huge, rubbery bassline and white-hot guitar leads. Because being good-natured only gets you so far.

That’s the thing about these songs: whether it’s whipping a guitar lead into mix out of nowhere with supreme smoothness, or filling in gaps with some natty piano chords, Char always gives you something, and these splashes lift an album that typically stays in a soft rock space into something much more daring. At once Char is both a master of using his guitar to further the tunefulness of his songs and unleashing smouldering solos that avoid the corniness that fret fiddling can fall into.

Highlights are not hard to pick out. “Shisen” (視線) is reminiscent of a middle-era Beatles jam, “Navy” is a percolating ballad with an East Asian pop lilt, the more uptempo “Smoky” finds the band on fire and Char setting his guitar to “Face Melt.”

The best song is “Kagerou” (かげろう). Opening with a sweet “do do do” vocal pattern that mirrors Stevie Wonder’s “Too High,” Char’s voice emerges, his innate sense of melody a joy to behold as he swaggers through the number with cool-hand presence. Voice and guitar don’t follow the same patterns yet fit together like pieces in puzzle. It all sounds so natural to Char. He’s a man in a groove, taking the first step on a lengthy—and legendary—musical odyssey.

Cowboy Bebop is my regular series on Asian pop, rock, and jazz albums that appeal to western sensibilities.