Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Land Of The Rising Sunsetz

Over the fifty plus year history of post rock explosion popular music, there have been countless high profile Western artists who have made a major impact on the Japanese music scene, but conversely few Japanese artists to have broken through into Western markets. During the mid 80s Japanese group Sandii & The Sunsetz managed to score a near top 10 single and two top 100 albums in Australia, and for a couple of years were a popular drawcard on the live pop-rock circuit. The career(s) of Sandii & The Sunsetz extended far before and beyond their flirtation with the Australian music scene.

Prior to their run of success together both Sandii and the Sunsetz had individual careers of some distinction in Japan. Vocalist Sandii (Suzuki) was born in Tokyo, Japan and spent her teen years in Hawaii (her father was in the U.S. Navy). The Hawaiian connection would be a strong influence on her post Sunsetz solo career. She returned to Japan in 1974 and worked for a time on the NHK TV network. Having already recorded the low key album ‘Sandi Ai’ as Sandi Ai, in 1976 Sandii released her debut single ‘Goodbye Morning’. The track earned her an award for ‘Grand Prix Best Vocal Performance’ at the 7th World Popular Song Festival. In 1978 she recorded an album of pop and disco covers titled ‘Mystery Nile’ under the name Sandy O’Neil. Her popularity in Japan was on the rise with her first solo album ‘Eating Pleasure’ (1980), recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, which received rave reviews. She toured Europe and the U.K. before she was invited to front the established pop outfit the Sunsetz with producer Makoto Kubota overseeing the project.

Makoto Kubota had previously fronted The Sunset Gang (Yuyaka Gakudan), who recorded a series of albums during the mid 70s, from 1973’s ‘Machiboke’ to 1977’s ‘Dixie Fever’, incorporating a range of musical styles from blues to West Coast rock. When Makoto decided to wind up The Sunset Gang, he took many of the same musicians with him to form the Sunsetz, among the line-up innovative guitarist Keni Inoue. The newly established Sandii & The Sunsetz opened for the Yellow Magic Orchestra at the famous Budokan venue in December 1980. They released their debut album ‘Heat Scale’ in 1981, then spent a lengthy period based in the U.K., recording with acclaimed singer/composer David Sylvian. David Jordan produced their 1982 album ‘Immigrants’ (OZ#100), and over the next eighteen months Sandii & The Sunsetz maintained a frenetic touring schedule, headlining at home and touring the U.K., Europe and Australia as a support to the calibre of INXS, Eurythmics, Talking Heads and David Bowie. They also supported Blondie, who were a major influence on the band’s style.

In late 1983 Sandii & The Sunsetz released the R&B influenced single ‘Sticky Music’. They arrived in Australia in early 1984 to undertake a promotional/concert tour, just as the single was starting to receive solid radio airplay and had entered the top 100 singles chart.

I recall seeing Sandii & The Sunsetz appear on the ABC’s ‘Countdown’ when ‘Sticky Music’ was still high on the charts here. Sandii was interviewed by Molly Meldrum, but I got the impression that she didn’t understand much of what Molly was saying. It had nothing to do with Sandii’s grasp of the English language, it was just that few people could understand what Molly used to say on ‘Countdown’. ‘Sticky Music’ peaked at #11 on the Australian charts during April ‘84, with its source album ‘Viva Lava Liva’ managing to crack the top 50 (#45). Due to logistical problems with distribution and promotion, ‘Sticky Music’ failed to attach itself to the U.S. or British charts. Sandii & The Sunsetz built up a considerable cult following in Australia and returned to tour a number of times over the next couple of years.

After shifting to the Toshiba-EMI label (probably in the hope of having greater resources at their disposal), Sandii & The Sunsetz released their 1986 album ‘La La La La Love’ (released outside Japan as ‘Banzai Baby’). A couple of singles, ‘Battery’ and ‘East Meets West’, were very promising pop songs but once again the support wasn’t there to crack the bigger music markets outside of Asia. Makota and Sandii then took firmer creative control of the band’s musical direction, and opted to explore areas of music beyond straight commercial pop for their final two albums ‘Rhythm Chemistry’ (1987) and ‘One Love’ (1988). Reggae was a major influence on their sound during this period, leading Sandii & The Sunsetz to take part in the tenth annual ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ alongside the likes of Maxi Priest and Ziggy Marley (see Sep post).

Sandii then became the sole face and name of the band into the 90s, but the Sunsetz continued for a time to back her live, and the creative partnership with Makoto Kubota was still firing on Sandii’s 1990 album ‘Mercy’. Sandii then fully re-engaged with her Asian and Hawaiian heritage on albums such as ‘Pacifica’ (1992) and ‘Airmata’ (1993), which achieved gold certification in Malaysia. 1994’s ‘Dream Catcher’ featured an array of languages and styles in the mix, and was recorded across three continents, whilst 1996‘s ‘Watashi’ had a distinctly Brazilian flavour. During the late 90s Sandii released a series of albums featuring traditional Hawaiian music, and it was during this period that the partnership with Makoto came to an end. In 1999 she collaborated with a backing band called The Coconut Cups, and followed this with the album ‘Sandii Sings Pacific Lounge Classics’ with Rene Paolo. In recent years she has a established a Hula dancing studio in Tokyo, continued to record albums, and toured regularly, including a performance at the 2004 Monterey Jazz Festival. There would be few vocalists in the world to have successfully forged a singing career that has spanned over thirty years, and encompassed everything from techno-pop, to rock, to traditional Asian and a myriad of ‘world’ music styles in between - Sandii has shone bright above and beyond her work with the Sunsetz.

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