Number Two: Judy and Mary – The Power Source, 1997
Almost a decade before the “Harajuku Girls” were exploitative fodder for washed-up American singers, they were an vibrantly colored and unique fashion phenomenon on the Japanese scene. Whether it was the magazine CUTiE that started the look, I don’t know, but a million high school girls swamped Laforet, Super Lovers, and Betty Blue every weekend to purchase the necessary multi-hued baubles and layers necessary to put together the ergot-infested look. If an SAT from the future asks the following analogy:
Swinging London:Twiggy::Harajuku Cutie Fashion:?
the only acceptable answer would be Judy and Mary‘s YUKI.
With her chaotic teeth and pouty upper lip, the diminutive singer had a stunning charisma, unique voice, and massive stage presence. She gave hope to a bunch of tiny, unpopular high school girls. Yuki and guitarist Takuya were in their early 20s when they started the band with the two over-30 year-olds, bassist Onda and drummer Igarashi. Yuki did the Cutie-punk thing, Takuya looked Sporty, Onda went for Visual-kei-style, and Igarashi dressed in classic heavy metal leather.
Okay, so they looked awful, but Judy and Mary’s music did not sound like anything else the world over — a melodically-complex bubblegum punk with high-pitched singing. Those with hearts un-open to things approaching “cute” should probably avoid, but with no exaggeration, Judy and Mary absolutely wrote the best melodies of 1990s J-Pop if not the entire world. While U.S. Alternative acts tried to figure out how many songs they could write where the chorus was just the verse FASTER and LOUDER, Judy and Mary resurrected melodic songwriting and took it to rococo extremes: notes ran over two whole octaves, falling, rising, doing crazy twists in the most catchy way possible. Also of note: Each of the backing members did songwriting for the band and everyone’s contributions were of equal merit.
JAM had become household names with their 1994 album Orange Sunshine (a LSD reference? Probably not.) and the follow-up Miracle Diving. For The Power Source, they traveled to London to record, and the British engineering and mixing ended up doing great wonders for their sound. The opening track “Birthday Song” is huge crashing rock with a sentimental heart. “Lovely Baby” is just madness, riding from massive noise rock breaks on a perfect punk bass line to the gigantic chorus. The single “Sobakasu” was unfortunately an old recording and doesn’t fit perfectly with the other songs but is insanely catchy (and got them on NHK’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen.)
“Kujira 12gou” is the shining moment, however. The chorus melody sounds like a submarine breaking through Artic ice: crisp, powerful, from seafloor to tip of the iceberg. (I used to have a poster in my room with Yuki’s picture and the lyrics to this song poorly translated into English — one of my prize possessions at a young age.)
Overall, the album stands as the pinnacle of the JAM sound and perfectly encapsulates the Harajuku aesthetic in the mid-’90s. The Power Source was also a huge commercial smash, selling more than 2 million copies. Their next batch of singles went way far-out — the jazz-parsed-with-punk rock of “Music Fighter” and the cascading melodic fantasy of “Iro toridori no sekai” — but the albums just didn’t hold together in the same way. Their last singles in 2000 or so started to get structurally insane, and they soon split. YUKI has become a fashionable indie idol for the post-Harajuku set, and the rest of the members have faded into obscurity.
For the kind of sweet-tooth sweetheart J-rock that still exists today and will probably exist forever, Judy and Mary are far and away the high-water mark, if not the only respectable crew in the bunch. Most of you are afraid of cavities and will stay away, but I urge the young-at-heart — “all the wild judy and all glamour punks,” to steal their slogan — to plunge in.