During the Japanese "Band Boom" of the late 80's through the early 90's, idol pop no longer had a stranglehold on the industry and suddenly scores of talented new rock bands were emerging on an almost weekly basis. There were many great new bands, yet Unicorn's originality and fun-packed musical antics made them stand out in the midst of a minor musical revolution. While their contemporaries often owed their popularity to following trends and tried formulaic song styles or mimicing American artists, Unicorn gained popularity by doing their own thing. Just a group of regular guys from Hiroshima armed with a playful and unpretentious brand of rock that was daringly experimental. And while they liked to experiment with unusual music combinations, because of their powerful influences from 20th century western music fused with a strong Japanese sensibility it also had a sense of familiarity that people responded to. They gained their fan base the old fashioned way, becoming well known little by little from their legendary live shows. Even today, people still talk about how the audience would commonly get so involved with the show that everyone would dance and sing along through with a fervour rarely seen in Japanese concert venues (which tended to be somewhat reserved).
Long before I ever knew what Unicorn was, I discovered a fascinating folk-rock singer-songwriter by the name of Okuda Tamio. As I first saw him, a laid-back musical dynamo who seemed far more interested in the simple pleasures of life than chasing commercial success. Somehow two of his albums titled "29" and "30" were left in a pile of CDs that I borrowed from a friend. I gave him a try and was instantly caught by his cover of "Sunny". The more I listened to the wonderful classic rock sounds of his albums, the more I wanted to know about this man. It intrigued me how Tamio was able to create rock with such a varied mixture of western influences, and yet still be the quintessential Japanese musical experience. All of it held together with very solid song writing and Tamio's versatile vocal ability. It wasn't long after I got into Tamio's music that I discovered on top of everything, he was a producer for many fine acts including the then up-and-coming pop duo Puffy. As the mind behind Puffy, Tamio's particular sense of style shines through in everything they do. I found that the same things I loved about the man's solo work, I totally adored about Puffy. But nothing could have prepared me for the best discovery of all; that Tamio's claim to fame was neither as a producer nor a solo performer, but as the leader of the rock band Unicorn that enjoyed such popularity years ago.
This wasn't the first time I'd heard mention of the band Unicorn, but since the name sounded like it could belong to an all-girl idol pop group, I never made the connection between Okuda Tamio and Unicorn. Not until someone explicitly pointed out that it was his former band. Right after that revelation, I cursed my oversight and immediately set out to try them out for myself. As it turned out, Unicorn's music was every bit as good as Tamio's more recent endeavours...perhaps even better. Today I count them as one of the finest music acts I've ever heard. Sadly too few of my fellow non-Japanese J-pop enthusiasts have ever had the chance to hear their sound. But it's never too late to give them a try. Even though they made their mark around the turn of the 1990's, their sound is as fresh today as it was over a decade ago.
Unicorn, Japan's fab five was formed in 1985 in their hometown of Hiroshima and began their career upon moving to Tokyo in 1987. The group consisted of Teshima Isamu as the lead guitarist, Nishikawa Kohichi on drums, Abe Yoshiharu on keyboards, Horiuchi Kazushi on bass guitar/backup vocals and the leader Okuda Tamio as the band's main vocalist/secondary guitarist.
While Tamio was the frontman of the band, Kazushi (better known by his nickname "Ebi"), and later on Abe shared the stage with Tamio as the backing vocals. Ebi occasionally sang lead, but most often his deadpan, slightly nasal, crooning was used for backup providing the ideal foil to Tamio's wild and whimsical singing style. During Unicorn's peak as a band, Abe, a wild and funny guy himself became a far more prominent part of the group and became the secondary vocalist and an emcee of sorts. His singing is pretty similar to Tamio, although Tamio has more range. As for Tamio himself, his vocals are a bit harder to describe. I've always found tone of his voice is somewhat akin to Bob Marley, but singing style is another matter entirely. Okuda Tamio's improvisational ability and versatility his singing displays is quite astounding. From growling funk and shouting punk to harmonic pop and Japanese-style balladeering, this guy can really sing it all. Often he would do it all within the confines of a single song. He's one of the most entertaining singers I've come across and is probably my favourite aspect of the band. He can sing like a wild man, and make you laugh, yet when it comes to singing seriously, his voice is surprisingly moving.
diverse musical sense is something you will notice in all of Unicorn's
music. Unicorn are some of the best moments on your all-time favourite
records and while they're undeniably about their influences, there is
something entirely unique and fresh about their sound. This very same
comment was made in regards to Tamio's more recent venture Puffy, and
yet you could easily say the same thing about his former project Unicorn.
Tamio is profoundly erudite in just about every style of music since
the emergence of popular music so he is able to experiment heavily with
the entire musical spectrum in every song he writes. This roots-driven
approach to song writing is the underlying power behind Unicorn's music.
the beginning Unicorn was a very different band than they eventually
became. Their first album "Boom" saw them as a glam quintet
that might remind you of an early Duran Duran. Not only because of their
look, but also their music featured prominent use of synthesizers and
catchy pop hooks. However even at this stage in their career, Unicorn's
knack for whimsical musical experimentation and punk influences could
be heard behind the seemingly simple songs. While Unicorn hadn't yet
realized their potential, the album featured plenty of wonderful songs,
including one of their most catchy songs to date "Maybe Blue".
Around this period
Unicorn had adopted a thrift store fashion style that harked back to
various psychobilly or punk bands of the early eighties. They were also
renowned for their punk rock performance style. Tamio for example would
hop and dance with the microphone like a hyper child. On stage he rarely
ever played the guitar and was concentrated totally on singing. Eventually
that would change as the band evolved, but Unicorn shows would always
be visual and interactive affairs.
Take the song "Daimeiwaku" which became their first single. It's a perfect example of the spirit of Unicorn's music. A speedy ska flavoured opus with gorgeous symphonic instrumentation and rapid drumbeat competing back and forth with happy carnival-like music, Persian flutes, and zippy guitar play. Holding it all together is a surprisingly lovely melody and Tamio's gritty yet harmonious singing. With its jarring transitions and unlikely musical combinations, it's the kind of song that few artists would even think to attempt. But Unicorn is able to pull it off with flying colours to create a one-of-a-kind gem. A song that is both beautifully moving and frantically fun. This kind of oddly compelling combination of unlikely musical elements is indicative of their body of music and explains much of their appeal.
Hattori sold twice as many copies as their previous album and helped make Unicorn into a household name. This album also marked the greatest change of Unicorn's vision. Not only were more experimental than ever before, they became more concentrated on the music and much less on appearances. So much so that they pretty much wore regular street clothes. So the odd wardrobe and hyper performance style became more subdued. The state-of-the-art synth sounds were eventually replaced with more vintage keyboards, and Tamio started playing the guitar a lot more often on stage. These changes would decide the path of their music for years to come. But if anything, these changes only served to help improve the overall quality of their music.
Their award-winning 1990 album, "Kedamono no Arashi" was possibly their most successful album. Slightly less experimental, and yet more focused than Hattori. Still it featured lots of odd musical experimentation and homage to various musical influences. Among these tracks are styles such as Hawaiian "hapa haole," thrash metal, a creepy "Ghostbusters"-inspired track with heavy sampling, a big band "Soul Man" type song, and a Jerry Lee Lewis type rockabilly song. My personal favourite song, the title track "Kedamono no Arashi" represents to me the first Unicorn song that foreshadows what would become Okuda Tamio's trademark sound. The lyrics and musical horseplay on this album also made it funnier than anything they've done before. All in all it was a great success for Unicorn. Shortly after this album, they also released two EPs, "Odoru Kame Yapushi" and "Have A Nice Day." (recently reissued as a single album) It was a highly productive time for the group.
Although it really started with Hattori, as the 90's were in full-swing Unicorn's sound became more artistically inclined, and increasingly Asian. Like with most J-pop their early works were a bit more neutral in nationality, but as the years went by their sound had become ethnically very Japanese. For example, Tamio began to sing with a traditional Japanese vibrato in certain songs. While some listeners may wonder why they went this direction, when their old schtick was working fine, I find it gave their music more soul and honesty. Also compared to their early career, they seemed more preoccupied by the roots of Western rock instead of going with the flow of recent pop trends. This musical direction followed through to their remaining releases, their solo work and everything they've come to produce since (such as Puffy).
Their fifth full album, "Hige to Boin" released in 1991, was quality album faithful to the sound Unicorn fans had come to expect. I do enjoy this album quite a bit, but not nearly as much as its predecessors. There's a vague sense of disappointment when I listen to it. Don't get me wrong, there are many truly wonderful songs on the album, but by this time, they seem to have become rather complacent with their music. There's still some interesting experimentation and memorable sing-along-songs, but it's slightly hit-or-miss.
Unicorn began to slow down and after a couple of years the members started to work on their solo careers and side projects. In 1993 they released their sixth and final studio album "Springman." It's a fine album, but like "Hige to Boin" showed signs of complacency and uneven composition. Many of the songs are straight ahead pop-rock songs with very little of the kind of innovation or humor that they had in their earlier albums. Yet the songs that are kind of funny feel a bit over-contrived. September 1993, just a few months after the release of "Springman," all five members decided unanimously that they were more interested in pursuing their own musical interests than keeping Unicorn going. So they broke up the band and have since moved on to individually influence the Japanese music industry each in their own way.
Years after the dissolution of Unicorn, their presence is still felt in the world of J-pop. Their entertaining live experiences combined with simply perfect song writing, satirical wit, and strong sense of Japanese pride has earned Unicorn a special place in the hearts and minds of Japanese music lovers everywhere. What's more, Okuda Tamio on his own has turned out to be one of the most prolific Japanese entertainers of his generation. Whether as a solo artist or by producing various artists his popularity continues to be as strong as ever.
To date few artists have been able to match the pure fun of Unicorn's music. Even with the number of worthy music acts on the J-pop scene having exploded in recent years, I feel Unicorn will always be one of Japan's greatest musical legacies.
Years after the breakup of Unicorn, the members seem to be doing pretty well.