by J. Vognsen
Takeshi Terauchi died at the age of 82 on June 18th, 2021. To pay tribute to this extraordinary guitar player, I wrote this essay after watching Terauchi perform in concert more than ten years ago. My comments debuted as an email to a couple of friends on November 17th, 2010, but were revised in 2012 and published in a small anthology edited by Andreas Fuhrer called Lille skrift om musik. This version has now been freshly translated into English. I've also added a couple retrospective thoughts at the end.
50 Years of Takeshi Terauchi
Takeshi Terauchi - premiere exponent of Japanese surf music - celebrated his fiftieth year as a professional musician in 2010. To mark the anniversary he embarked on a tour of Japan with his most popular backing band, Blue Jeans. I had the good fortune of seeing them on November 13th.
The concert is hosted at a larger-sized venue in a smaller-sized city, commonly used for classical concerts and with several floors' worth of balconies. In my estimation, around 1000 audience members gathered here this day and many queued up before the doors opened. I suspect the average age of attendees is somewhere above 60.
The stage looks promising with a couple of drum kits, keyboards, and plenty of amps. Some of this turns out to belong to a minor opening act that takes to the stage in bright yellow shirts (the lead guitarist in red) and a female singer in a perky white dress with red polka dots. It is a weird performance. About average, standardized surf with unconscionable slap bass and a bit of Japanese schlager, if you will. The sound is very low and unclear. Not downright bad, but bizarre, and the thought does cross my mind that this is a classic Machiavellian setup where Terauchi has positioned himself to show up later and benefit from liberating the audience from the experience with a crushing display of power.
When the opening warm-up is unequivocally over and the musicians are getting ready to leave the stage, a corpulent organizer-type sneaks in from the left and signals with a pointy index finger that the band needs to perform one more song. The imagination springs into action again: Is there a final line of coke to be taken care of in the green room, or is it perhaps the concluding scenes of The New York Ripper that remain unwatched backstage? Are the Blue Jeans burnt out on booze, ladies and VHS-tapes?
What condition are Takeshi Terauchi and his band actually in these days?
The opening act leaves the stage and during the break, the clock ticks past 18:30. Around the hall, some use the time to consume the rice balls and drinks they have brought along. Meanwhile, much of the equipment is cleared from the stage, which then appears almost barren. Two keyboards sit on podiums separated on either side of the stage, a large drum set with accompanying gong occupies the centre, but most of the stage is left empty to make room for a bass player, an extra guitarist and Terauchi himself.
All gear and all microphones are connected with bright red cables, so it looks as if most of the drum kit is covered in bloody cobwebs. The drummer is also working double bass drums, which later reveal themselves to reflect the stage lights in blinks every time they are struck.
It all looks damned good.
Soft and angelic muzak emerges and an authoritative voice delivers a lengthy introduction over the loud speakers. Everything is repeated in English afterwards, despite the fact that there couldn't have been many in attendance that didn't catch it the first time around. But Takeshi Terauchi is "very famous," we are told. He has been playing for 50 years, recorded more than 7000 songs and performed in several countries outside Japan. He is "the King of Electric Guitar."
The light goes down, Richard Strauss fades up...
Even without intimate knowledge of Terauchi's immense back catalogue, it's clear that his output follows a sadly familiar route. After a run of classic albums through the '60's, a sharp qualitative plunge appears through the '70's before reaching abysmal lows from the '80's and onwards. Anyone familiar with the music of James Brown has experienced this phenomenon. And herein lies the musical problem at the heart of the concert that was designed as a career overview. I'll try to describe it as well as memory and sparse notes permit.
On their first releases, the name of the group was listed as "Takeshi Terauchi & His Blue Jeans," but Terauchi would later cut it down to either "The Blue Jeans" or simply "Blue Jeans" (as it was advertised on this occasion). None of the musicians appearing with Terauchi this day could even have been born when the original group was put together. Most of them look like studio musicians. The bassist is wearing sunglasses.
The Ventures first visited Japan in 1962 and their example immediately spawned a flood of copies, including Blue Jeans. It is therefore quite natural that the concert takes its beginning here. The show opens with a quick run-through of a few classic American surf tunes and some others I don't recognize - probably belonging to the same category. Terauchi lets his guitar pick scratch up along the strings several times, probably just to demonstrate that he still can. Blue Jeans have set the PA in motion and the sound is massive in comparison to earlier. The heart skips several beats during the first bunch of songs: It sounded really great.
The show continues through a few pieces from the masterpiece Let's Go Eleki-Bushi (1965) where surf guitar meets older Japanese melodies, minyo. This is one of Terauchi's utmost works of genius, where the classic Ventures-formula is left behind and his originality shines through. Terauchi changes his guitar for these pieces. He uses a custom manufactured guitar, if I'm hearing this right. A sound engineer brings in the instrument. He looks like any other roadie, with long greasy hair and a heavy rock T-shirt. The guitars, however, are handled with white gloves.
The pieces fall short of the versions on the old records. The sound is too dull, the performance a bit neat - as one might have expected. But I still feel a spark of happiness experiencing this music performed right in front of my own eyes.
The international perspective provided by Terauchi is next. Travel anecdotes are shared and "El Condor Pasa" is performed alongside other pieces supposedly picked up around the globe. The two keyboards begin unveiling sordid and unsympathetic aspects of themselves. It does not bode well and only gets worse when a short female singer in a wide dress decorated with twinkling stars enters to sing a few obvious standards: "When You Wish Upon A Star," "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and so on.
We've moved from delicious elevator music through the surf-historical breakthrough - both of which I adore - and are now touching down on schmaltzy wedding and restaurant territory. The performance is speckless and the audience receives it well, but privately I feel bitterness taking hold. It is all very predictable. There must be a better way to do this.
That being said, the atmosphere in the nearly packed hall is getting heady. The microphones placed on stage were mercifully not for singing, but for several minor comedy routines designed to wind up the audience. The musicians talk a lot, even by Japanese standards, and there's lots of clapping. It's either from spontaneous excitement or because of encouragement from the stage to keep the rhythm going. For whatever reason, there's clapping. And then there's clapping.
Some might mistake the actions on stage for sentimentality, but I reckon that pure professionalism is a more likely explanation. It is undoubtedly the same jokes that are repeated every night they perform and when the most well-known tunes are played, Terauchi throws open his hands, turns his eyes towards the ceiling and smiles as if a beautiful naked woman is going to drop into his arms.
The singer goes on to explain at some length that she has designed a bathing towel with "Takeshi Terauchi & Blue Jeans" imprinted and that it is available for purchase at the entrance. There's an audience member from the first row who - quite possibly by chance - has already invested in one. He stands up excitedly to show it to the rest of us. Had this been planned he would surely have been followed by a solo spotlight I speculate.
At the beginning of the second set, the hall is completely dark. The light opens on Terauchi wearing a chalk white suit. With his back to the audience, he conducts an orchestra that only exits in the loudspeakers, performing an old piece of Japanese soundtrack music. The band then sets in from the dark. Terauchi later turns around and picks up his guitar to deliver a sultry ballad. It works nicely, if a bit awkwardly. For once we get a taste of the original sound from the recording and Terauchi still sounds fantastic on his guitar.
The concert soon takes another most unfortunate turn. A couple of tunes that sound like classical compositions follow and yet another female singer takes part in an appalling opera piece. This approach - awful musical numbers and other unpleasantness - is pursued until the preliminary stages of an ending begin to unfold. At this point, the stage is covered in red light and in walks a suit - a local politician, perhaps? - with a bouquet of flowers. When a technician hands him a microphone halfway across the stage, he looks wholly unprepared. He was probably aiming for a photo of himself handing over the flowers and not much else. He produces a few bland generalities about nothing much in particular and finally blurts out that Terauchi is "eleki kami" - 'eleki' a reference to electric guitar, often synonymous with the surf genre, and 'kami' simply "god." In return he receives a guitar pick.
Thankfully, this is followed by an evening highlight, a performance of two of the most wicked pieces from Let's Go Eleki-Bushi.
Blue light covers the stage, revealing the silhouette of a landscape covered in snow. Wind is whistling through the PA and Terauchi speaks dramatically with a substantial amount of reverb on his voice until the music starts up again. There's several rounds of solos and individual spotlights until everyone points their synchronized guitar necks to the sky. An additional bassist has been brought in and one of the female singers from earlier re-appears in a very tight dress, rocking out on a tambourine.
Once again, it is doubtful whether the quality really matches that of the old recordings, but more force is applied than earlier in the evening and the effect is good. The audience goes bananas, yours truly included. Some rush to the stage with flowers. A group of organizers enter and hand out lime fruits (a local speciality) to all the musicians. Terauchi expresses his appreciation over and over until he launches his final song of the evening - a low-key ballad where his voice almost cracks.
Everyone claps, cheers.
Someone in less contact with the human spirit might have chosen to end the concert here, but not Takeshi Terauchi. With a microphone in hand and followed by a solo-spotlight, he moves to the edge of the stage to deliver a lengthy monologue about his mother, hand out a guitar pick to a handicapped boy on the first row and finishes the last verse of his song before leading the audience through the climactic round of communal clapping. Everyone gets out of their chairs and sends their clenched fists towards the ceiling in unison.
Professional showmanship has completely taken over. I admit a soft spot for this craft: A sleazy crooner engaging in sweet balladry and smiling at the ladies while his prescription drug abuse is only surpassed by an infinitude of past shame and regret. That kind of thing. There's a good deal of poetry and edification to be found in this: Perhaps things are a wreck at home, the accounts nowhere near in balance, it hasn't been the greatest of days, but one is still obliged to make the best possible effort. Isn't that what life is often like?
The effect is immediate and undeniable: The hall boils over with the joy of the audience. And the evening is near its conclusion.
In his very fine autobiographical book, Frank Zappa writes: "When rock and roll first appeared, adults were completely hostile towards it. Today, they aerobicize to it." One reading of this would be that rock music has outplayed its role and become utterly superfluous, its only function now to keep the pulse up when the body needs to shed a few excess kilos. Another reading would be the opposite: that the world has actually made progress and become a more refined place with a sense of the finer things in life, even when it's just time to exercise.
What about Takeshi Terauchi & Blue Jeans? In 1972, they released Rashomon, a near magical album of robust surf-rock with Japanese flutes, backwards keyboard solos and fuzz box guitar. Now, they entice pensioners out in obscure provincial towns. Has the surfboard gone dull or are the elderly Japanese just on to something? Both points of view could be defended, depending on what parts of the concert one chooses to highlight. But I still lean towards the latter, more optimistic interpretation. It's a bitter truth - tragic in fact - that the Japanese surf maestro hasn't produced much quality work recently, or in the decades leading up to recently either. Of course this represents a downfall, but let's be coolly realistic: Terauchi still presents his strongest material decently and is appreciated for it. That is still something, right?
Perhaps Takeshi Terauchi has moved the world just a little.
After the performance is over I walk into the foyer where there would be an audience with Terauchi himself. As it turns out, it's only open to those who shop at usurious prices in the makeshift merchandise stall. With so many in line, there's only time for a quick autograph, so I decide to give it a pass. But a T-shirt on sale with the following print did make a great impression: "FOREVER ELECTRIC GUITAR." In solidarity with this cry to arms I'd like to recommend Takeshi Terauchi & Blue Jeans to anyone that enjoys surf music. In addition to the already mentioned Let's Go Eleki Bushi and Rashomon, his This Is Terauchi Bushi (1967) recorded with The Bunnys is also indescribably good.
In the text above, I draw several connections between Takeshi Terauchi and surf music. I now think of this as pretty lazy. I think I placed too much emphasis here. Terauchi did record surf related material (case in point: the 1964 album Surfing) but as it was the case for his idols in The Ventures, the outlook was really much broader. I'd now rather characterize Terauchi simply as a master of the guitar instrumental.
I also make much of Terauchi's creative decline. The basic point still stands, but the details need revision. In 2010, I had been listening to Terauchi for about seven or eight years, mainly on CD re-issues of his older albums. During the ten years that followed, I was able to listen to quite a bit more. The most important discovery from this was that Terauchi's creative peak lasted longer than I had earlier suspected. Tsugaru Jongara from 1974, for example, features Terauchi in fine form, sounding like he had been checking out Deep Purple. There is also the Chisato Yamada album Suite Nihonkai (1981), composed by Terauchi. It's a striking and original work - it's B-side in particular - featuring the shamisen playing of Yamada against a surprisingly funky backdrop. Clearly, Terauchi was far from done at this point.
Finally, Del Halterman's book Walk Don't Run - The Story of The Ventures came out in 2009 and it contains a couple of mentions of Terauchi. I didn't read it until several years later, but had I read it at the time, I'd surely have found a way to work the following into my original text:"At age four or five, Takeshi was forced to practice Japan's three-stringed shamisen until his fingers bled and the bones of his fingertips became visible. As he grew older, he took up classical guitar and Japanese folk (known as minyo music), but to the horror of his wealthy father, the boy became obsessed with the electric guitar. Before he was ten years old, young Takeshi fashioned a pickup from a telephone receiver and played his guitar over a public address system. (...) Terauchi's father tried frantically to avert his son from taking up the 'eleki' guitar. In exchange for Takeshi's promise to stick to classical guitar, Terauchi senior went as far as to build a college nearby so the boy would not have to leave home for his education. When Takeshi finally broke the promise, the college was immediately bulldozed into the ground."That's from p. 120.
For helping refresh my memory, thanks to
For comments and corrections, thanks to
Martin Hoshi Vognsen
1. Takeshi Terauchi and The Bunnys: "Test Driver" (1966: Let's Go Terry!)
2. Takeshi Terauchi & Blue Jeans: "Tsugaru Jongara Bushi" (1966: Let's Go Eleki Bushi)
3. Takeshi Terauchi and The Bunnys: "Musume Dojoji" (1967: This Is Terauchi Bushi)
4. Takeshi Terauchi and The Bunnys: "Moanin'" (1967: The World Is Waiting For Terry)
5. Takeshi Terauchi: "Uskudara" (1969: Eleki Guitar No Subete)
6. Takeshi Terauchi & The Blue Jeans: "Dannoura (The Story of The Heishi)" (1972: Rashomon)
7. Takeshi Terauchi: "Superstition" (1973: The Brilliant Dimension of Terry)
8. Takeshi Terauchi and Blue Jeans: "Tsugaru Eleki Bushi (Tsugaru Jinku Yori)" (1974: Tsugaru Jongara)
9. Chisato Yamada: "Tsugaru Autumn Song" (1981: Suite Nihonkai)
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