From the East Village to Shibuya: A Tale of Two Record Stores

Martin Roberts, author of Cornelius’s Fantasma, on the central role that record stores played in his life.

Like so many other stories about pop music fandom, this one begins with a record store.

In 1995, a tiny record store opened on West 4th Street in Manhattan, literally across the street from Tower Records’ flagship megastore. Issuing a warning to its giant neighbor, Other Music, as it was pointedly named, specialized in musical genres not available at Tower Records, from Krautrock to free jazz to noise music. By the time I moved to New York, in 1997, Other Music had already established itself as what we would now call a “scene.” As soon as we were done with classes for the day, my friends and I would head over there in the late afternoon and run into one another browsing through the new releases. In those days everything was on CD other than a section of vinyl 12-inches along one wall, but there were no listening stations and the only way to preview a record was to get the guys to play it on the in-store sound system, an often intimidating task. Since iTunes, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Beatport didn’t exist, word-of-mouth recommendation—usually eaves-dropped from other conversations—was the best alternative to buying blind. Although the space was cramped, sometimes there would be in-store sets by musicians passing through: I remember watching Robin Rimbaud scanning mobile phone conversations from the surrounding neighborhood into a live set in the late 90s. Other Music had genres you didn’t even know existed, and sections with exotic names like Decadanse, a catch-all category which included lounge music (1990s club culture’s remix of 1960s easy listening), French yéyé, Brazilian bossa nova, Bollywood soundtracks, and Japanese pop—not mainstream J-pop but indie and club music with futuristic artwork. Other Music had Japanese music that you couldn’t get at Tower: it was here that I bought my first CDs by Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Minegawa Takako, Kahimi Karie, cult bands like Shonen Knife or Polysics—and, inevitably, Cornelius. And it was at Other Music that, in spring 1998, I bought my CD of Fantasma. I had no idea at the time that several decades later I would write a book about it.

Rather than exemplifying any single coherent style, the Japanese bands were eclectic, often combining multiple styles within the same song, from the acid jazz of Kyoto Jazz Massive to Yukari Fresh’s retro-pop homages to British footballers. They were cool not just because they were different, but because they were so sophisticated: the  French New Wave-influenced music videos of Pizzicato Five, fronted by the effortlessly elegant Maki Nomiya; Kahimi Karie’s kittenish pastiches of 1960s French pop divas like France Gall or Jane Birkin; the quirky Cassio-pop of Minegawa Takako; or the mash-ups of bossa nova and breakbeats of Cornelius. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that these musicians were part of a movement known as Shibuya-kei, because of its association with another record store: the giant Tower Records store in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo (the suffix -kei means “style”). Although the music of Shibuya-kei artists was promoted at the Tower Records and HMV megastores in Shibuya, it had originated outside them, in the teeming ecosystem of record stores of 1980s Tokyo from which the Shibuya sound emerged.

It wasn’t until I began visiting Tokyo regularly in the early 2000s and began visiting  Tower Records Shibuya, as well as vintage megastores like Disk Union, that I experienced this extraordinarily cosmopolitan music culture first hand. While mainstream J-pop and Anglo-American pop, rock, and hip-hop occupied entire floors, others included large sections devoted to indie artists, world music, or jazz. On every visit to Tokyo, we were like kids in a (pretty expensive) candy store: time stopped at the hundreds of listening stations at Tower, and after two or three hours of browsing the latest releases, each carefully annotated with details of recommended tracks, you could easily wonder where the afternoon or evening had gone. It was at these listening stations that fans of Cornelius would have first heard Fantasma after its release in the summer of 1997.

The musicians responsible for the Shibuya sound, like ourselves in New York in the late 1990s, were record collectors in search of new, interesting sounds outside their immediate cultural context. They prided themselves on their expansive musical tastes, from easy listening to Motown to the neopsychedelia of the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream. In New York we were listening to a heady cocktail of global pop and club music mixed by conspicuous cosmopolitans like Uwe Schmidt (aka Señor Coconut), Dimitri from Paris, Nicola Conte, Sunahara Yoshinori, Tanaka Toshiyuki, and Konishi Yasuharu. When we encountered the Shibuya-kei artists, it felt like meeting kindred spirits. This was music by hipsters, for hipsters, although the term has always had a much less negative resonance in Japan than it has acquired in the U.S.

We didn’t know it then, but Other Music both anticipated and lent momentum to the post-millennial rise of hipster culture, with its rejection of mass-market popular music. As Tower Records went the way of the dinosaurs with the advent of digital downloads, closing its doors in 2006, Other Music continued to prosper, even launching its own record label, until it too finally succumbed to the inevitability of digital downloads and streaming services in 2016. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, the Tower Records store in Shibuya has somehow managed to survive the digital age, although it has been transformed in the process. Not long ago, a friend visiting Tower Records in Shibuya posted a photo on Facebook of a display featuring a collage of vintage promotional flyers, crowned by the slogan “No Diggin’, No Life.” Tower hadn’t yet merged with Disk Union, but the slogan was an indication of how far record collecting has now itself become part of the musical mainstream. We are all record collectors now.

Can’t get enough Japanese pop music? You can buy Cornelius’s Fantasma here!

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