In mere moments, cameras will capture a portrait of them as screaming fans, elbowing their way ahead of one another, hoping to reach the front ropes and welcome the exciting new cultural force that has just touched down.
Four young men have flown thousands of miles westward, crossing an ocean to land among the recently empowered youth in one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet.
Now they disembark, smiling, waving casually. They wear synchronized jackets and ties, sport matching haircuts, and carry unusual-looking guitars.
It’s the American invasion. Of Japan.
15 months after the Beatles landed in New York, The Ventures land in Tokyo. They had been one of the most popular acts in the U.S. for the first half of the sixties. Then, the arrival of The Beatles and everything they brought, knocked them off the charts almost overnight.
The new guard made them seem an unlikely old outfit. They were dedicated instrumentalists who could never match the visual appeal and personal charm of The Beatles. They were capable, they were inventive, but lacked a narrative – they had no revolution on their side.
The Ventures were just in their early thirties. And they were over in America.
In Japan, things were different. Even today, Japanese baby-boomers can hum dozens of Ventures tunes as readily as their western counterparts can sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.
When the Ventures landed in Tokyo they were still at the height of their powers. Locals dubbed them their “Beloved Invaders” and made a full-length feature film of the same name.
In footage from a concert that would become The Ventures: Live In Japan ’65 the band is at its best; its most raw, unrestrained and raucous.
The standout performer throughout is drummer Mel Taylor. He plays, unceasingly, like a man with something to prove.
Taylor plays so far ahead of the beat he may as well be playing the next song – but he does it consistently and with absolute precision. His drumming on this album is a like an I.V. of Jolt Cola: a madly caffeinated frenzy of rhythm that somehow remains steady and controlled.
At times, he gets so caught up in keeping a relentlessly driving groove that he makes unexpected choices. Like when he essentially forgets to take solo on “Wipe Out”. The effect is ballsy, casual, and something like a drum-kit equivalent of Neil Young’s infamous one-note guitar solo from “Cinnamon Girl”. (For fans of more intricate playing, the band’s encore of “Caravan” will be redeeming.)
The recording itself is surprisingly hi-fi and well-executed. There are few concert albums from the 60s, or any other era, that sound this good. Overall, the record is clear, punchy, and powerful, if perhaps erring just a bit on the thin side of the spectrum. (The sonics are definitely superior to the YouTube clips provide here for reference.)
What’s most surprising is the mix. The Ventures are a guitar band, and Taylor’s drums are ratcheted up to a level unheard of on any kind of 60’s record. It’s unexpected, unprecedented, perhaps inappropriate, and somehow, incredibly satisfying.
The band hired Taylor only two years earlier as a stand-in the critically injured Howie Johnson. Instantly amazed by his energy and signed him on as a full-time replacement as soon as they could.
On Japan ’65 Taylor’s minimal drum set is tuned fairly high giving the impression of a jazz kit during a surprisingly funky and hard-hitting drum solo. Onstage, he’s positioned alongside the rest of the band, where his mannerisms bring to mind a rock n’ roll Gene Krupa.
The rest of the band, in traditional Ventures style, are fairly reserved on stage. They’re musical showmen only, came up playing teenage dance halls where the focus was on the groove and the dance-floor. They wear the expressions of men checking their watches.
But the band is still adventurous on their instruments. Bob Bogle risks near-mistakes on high-powered ascending bass fills, and although Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson are expressive as ever on guitar parts that need no improvisation. They do well, but it’s the speed of the high-octane rhythm section casts their parts in a new light.
The album is a full 70-minutes that feels like it’s over before it’s even begun. It’s worth owning even (perhaps especially) for non-fans.
From the time they were uprooted by the British invasion, the Ventures would have to settle for sparking the lukewarm kind of fondness every kid who learns guitar inevitably feels for them.
Even though a few of their songs are lexicon, a teenager today is as likely to sit down and listen to a Ventures album as he is to listen to a Deep Purple album.
In some ways, that’s understandable. The majority of their catalog is creative, fun and at times, very, very tame. Hearing the original 1959 recording of “Walk Don’t Run” can make one wonder what all the fuss was about.
Listening to Live In Japan 1965 however, is a revelation. This is the Ventures at their most engaging, their most exciting, their most over-the-top. As an endearing bonus feature, a Japanese announcer makes appearances throughout, speaking to the audience in very emphatic Japanese. Occasionally a recognizable English word cuts through: “Een-tense-a!” “Diiii-nameek!” “Excite-a-ment!”.
Perhaps there’s something vaguely Eastern about The Ventures after all.
Rather than embrace American individualism, they borrowed compositions from across their own culture to create a unifying tradition.
They embodied spirit and diligence, making a daily practice out of performance, never tiring of their repertoire, working hard to color between the lines.
Or maybe they were just the perfect export. They took the popular songs contemporary western culture, stripped them to their bare essence, and then warped and exaggerated whatever was left.
In America, the land of the exalted pop star, there was something out of place about a band without a singer, without a soloist, without a message.
In Japan, we hear the band through fresh ears.
Read a Seattle Times article on The Ventures receiving a national award from The Emperor of Japan in June 2010.
Watch the original footage from “Slaughter On 10th Avenue“ Live in Japan ’65 (Embedded above)
Watch the trailer to “Beloved Invaders”. (Also embedded above)
Watch The Ventures play “Cruel Sea”, live in Japan.
Watch The Ventures play “Caravan”, also live in Japan.