Though it was born in Chicago and inspired rave culture in the UK, acid house’s influence spread all around the world – and nowhere took to it better than Japan
The 80s was a divided time for Britain: for some it was an era of prosperity, but for almost everyone else it was an era of dismantled communities under Thatcherism. Towards the end of the era, however, the combination of the new drug ecstasy and the new dance music form of acid house ushered in a period of free-spirited hedonism. Acid house took its name from “Acid Tracks”, a 12-minute dance track released by the Chicago group Phuture in 1987. The track’s distinctive, psychedelic electronic sound came from the Roland TB-303, a bass synthesiser that would go on to be used by many artists within the Chicago scene before its sound was imported to the UK, leading to the birth of rave culture as we know it. While the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Aphex Twin and The Prodigy gave the UK its mainstream infatuation with the TB-303, Japan – the birthplace of the machine – would push it to its limits in a different direction and arguably use it in the most diverse of ways.
The TB-303 was originally created by a Japanese company, the Roland Corporation, as an accompaniment for live bands. Initially it was a flop, shifting only 10,000 units before its discontinuation in 1984 after just 18 months (when Phuture bought a 303 for “Acid Tracks”, they got it on the cheap from a second-hand shop – it didn’t even come with English-language instructions). Yet after acid house started to spread around the world, Japan readopted the instrument and experimented with the machine’s capabilities in different forms. Japan is home to a unique culture, where western influences are absorbed and reimagined in extraordinary ways, and their adoption of the 303 is an extension of that: the retro-futuristic sound of acid house almost perfectly represents the frenetic madness of Japanese culture, and from J-pop and anime to gaming and advertising, the broad cultural impact of the machine in Japan is arguably wider than our own.
THE SOUND OF FEUDAL FUTURISM
Both anime and the TB-303 share the characteristic of being both futuristic and otherworldly, yet embedded in the past. The plots behind some of anime’s biggest hits lie in Japanese history, but they’re fused with the present or future. Afro Samurai, for example, is a film and TV series set during a feudal alternate reality that follows the vengeance mission of a samurai voiced by Samuel L Jackson, while 2003’s Gin Tama revolves around an alien invasion during Japan’s Edo period. Mainstream hits like TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex pay homage to the TB-303 on a few occasions. Most notably, the show’s main theme “Inner Universe” (produced by Yoko Kanno) relies heavily on a distorted 303 bassline, but a more subtle reference exists, oddly, on the side of this pig in a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment from the series. But while the influence of the 303 within Ghost in the Shell is strong, it hasn’t been felt more strongly than in Eureka Seven.
Eureka Seven spanned 50 episodes of a TV show, six manga adaptations, a short novel, three video games, and a feature-length film, picking up a host of awards along the way. With Japanese electronic composers Denki Groove on soundtracking duties, this is far from the only acknowledgement of the 303 in Eureka Seven. In short – and with apologies to the fans who will undoubtedly be offended with this simplistic description – the plot revolves around a young boy who joins an outlawed group of renegades called Gekkostate who are fighting for control against the United Federation military. Battling across the galaxy, they pilot a band of otherworldly machines called LFOs, with the most powerful LFO in the universe being the Terminus B303 (or TB-303, for short), known by its nickname as ‘Devilfish’. Other LFOs in the universe were given the names R505, R606, R808 and R909 as an homage to Roland’s legendary line of drum machines, while ‘LFO’ itself could be a reference to both a synthesiser’s low-frequency oscillator or to the electronic act of the same name.
Devilfish is considered the most dangerous of the LFOs as its powers are unlimited, a direct reference to the popular Devilfish modification on the 303 that allows the instrument to operate far beyond its capabilities as a simple bass sequencer. Furthermore, a Devilfish pilot must take special drugs that enhance their minds to be able to control its capabilities, something which is more than an underlying reference to the LSD and ecstasy-driven days of the UK’s ‘second summer of love’.
HOW ACID REACHED THE ARENA
J-pop is arguably the biggest musical export from Japan and is unlike any music scene found elsewhere in the world. From the metal leanings of Babymetal to the frenetic madness of the insanely popular Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the genre knows no bounds. Team Syachihoko are a part of that, formed of five schoolgirls who regularly sell out arena shows across Japan and kill old men with ping pong balls in their videos. Produced by Tetsuto Yoshida (himself a regular user of the 303 in his own productions), Team Syachihoko’s “E-Kurashi” has all the trademarks of a characteristic rave tune that you’d find yourself dancing to wide-eyed to in the late 80s: the squelching acid bassline, a classic piano chord progression taken straight from Inner City’s “Big Fun”, a sample of the ‘ACIIIIEEED’ chant from D-Mob’s banned-by-the-BBC 1988 hit “We Call It Acieed”... it’s all there.
You’ll even find more than a nod towards ecstasy culture, too: ‘Ii-Kurashi’ translates as ‘Good Living’, but the unnecessary use of the ‘Ii’ (pronounced E) in the lyric is to be portrayed as ‘E Living’. Given the song’s heavy referencing of the acid house era, and the similarities its title shares with one of techno’s biggest hits in Inner City’s “Good Life”, it’s hard to deny this was unintentional. And while it’s a little uneasy to watch a group of schoolgirls talk about living a life on ecstasy, it’s at least representative of what the British culture brought to Japan, for good or bad.
THE ACID HOUSE AD BREAKS
Don’t think that the 303 hasn’t been able to occupy the weird world of Japanese advertising – the insanity of the two things almost go hand-in-hand. Formed in 2003, Negicco were created as a sort of musical mascot who, according to their website, “currently serve as the Niigata tourist special envoy”. Their role as a band is to represent their native city of Niigata and promote a variety of green onion (that can only be found in and around the city, located in the northwest coast of Honshu in the Chūbu region) across Japan. Supported by the Sato Foods Co Ltd, who use the band to promote anything from raku poi containers to a type of sweet rice cake made for stews called mochi, even the name Negicco comes from, as you may have guessed, the green onion. The Japanese translation for ‘green onion’ is ‘negi’, with the band name ‘Negicco’ literally translating as ‘The Green Onion Girls’. Taken from their 2015 album Rice & Snow, Negicco’s adoption of the 303 came with “Space Nekojaracy”, a would-be big room, almost apocalyptic acid wobbler that in this case is used to promote a type of ham and cheese roll.
TB-303, FROM THE FIELDS TO YOUR FRONT ROOM
Since the 303’s initial release in 1982 to its eventual rediscovery in the mid 80s, the instrument has lent itself nicely to video games. This is perhaps unsurprising given they were born almost in tandem during the golden age of the arcade, and that both video gaming and house music were revolutionary for youth culture. The 303’s connection to the video-game world reached new heights with the rise of classic Japanese video gaming in the late 80s, an innovative decade both technologically and creatively.
While gaming became both more popular and more experimental, so did much of the music used to soundtrack it. 1988’s Streets of Rage soundtrack set a new benchmark for what music in gaming could sound like, seen one of the first games to take a direct influence from the 303 and the Roland drum machine series – something that composer Yuzo Koshiro emulated across his work, from The Revenge of Shinobi to Misty Blue. The man who Nintendo named ‘arguably the greatest game-music composer of the 16-bit age’ aimed to simulate the unique, piercing sounds of the Roland TB-303 in Streets of Rage, and while the 16-bit limit meant he couldn’t use an actual 303, it still brought the sound of the streets to your front room.
Later on, Dance Dance Revolution’s penchant for the rave (as well as happy hardcore, but that’s a different story) and Soichi Terada’s manic, almost seizure-inducing soundtrack to Ape Escape would soundtrack 90s gaming. Terada remains a respected figure in house music to this day, with tracks like “Do It Again”, released on his Far East Recording imprint, going on to set a benchmark for house music since the early 1990s. Whichever era you grew up in, you may be a child of acid house without even realising it.