Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon: Nippon Rock'n'Roll (Big Beat/Border)

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Masaaki Hirao: Jailhouse Rock
Masaaki Hirao and His All Stars Wagon: Nippon Rock'n'Roll (Big Beat/Border)

How global was Fifties rock'n'roll?

In New Zealand we had Johnny Devlin, "the Wanganui Elvis" and within four months of Heartbreak Hotel and All Shook Up, Kazuya Kosaka and the Wagon Masters in Japan had covered them. 

Rock'n'roll went global very quickly.

Kosaka wasn't alone in Japan either. Or in his use of a band name with "wagon" in it.

This 23 song collection of live and studio songs by Masaaki Hirao is subtitled "The Birth of Japanese Rokabirii 1958-1960" and has our man covering the usual songs -- Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Jailhouse Rock, Lucille, Jenny Jenny -- but also offering a bunch of songs written for him by Japanese writers who got the idiom very quickly.

The excellent liner notes by compiler Howard Williams acknowledge the importance of Kosaka whose country style paved the way for the likes of Hirao who -- with Mickey Curtis and Kei-chan Yamashita -- shoved the country music towards rockabilly ("rokabirii") and learned his moves by looking at photos of American stars and trying to figure out what they were doing.

Williams also notes the role of Kyu Sakamoto and how even this far back the ground was being laid for subsequent "idol singers" who are still popular today.

All this is very interesting, rather more so than some of the music here it has to be said.

The studio songs are undeniably sound (not a patch on Elvis, Little Richard and others) but the live tracks -- nine of the 23 -- only highlight Hirao's shortcomings. What is interesting however is how the music was a strange variant of American rockabilly and rock'n'roll.

As in New Zealand where many of those on the earliest rock'n'roll recordings were jazz musicians (so would slip sideways into what they knew during solos), so too there can be strange tangents at times, notably from the sax players who sound like they'd be more at home on New Orleans jazz or small band swing.

The guitarists however knew how to burn. Or at least play very, very fast.

So here's an album of oddities (Jailhouse Rock and Lucille in Japanese), rock'n'roll era ballads (Little Darlin'), some real scorchers and a lot of songs you might be happy to have heard.

But maybe just once.

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