Sometimes a genre just clicks as the missing link in your personal puzzle of music discovery, leaping between continents and time periods and immediately grabbing your attention. For me, eurobeat is definitely one of those genres. It connects, in a way which is really fascinating, the eighties dance genre of italo disco with the latest ringtones and video game sounds. And what's more, its existence raises many more questions than it answers.
Eurobeat is a genre of music produced entirely in one country, Italy, and consumed entirely in another, way on the other side of the earth: Japan. It's been running as a genre more or less constantly for twenty years now, without slowing down much. And it's got its own huge subculture, which involves one of the strangest looks to appear in the part decade, in any country: the blackface Ganguro girls.
As good a place as any to start exploring the genre is the Swedish eurobeat site eurobeat.se. Iocc, the site's owner, claims to have 71 Gb of the stuff, collected from strange and esoteric FTP servers in Chile and Finland starting eight years ago. Apparently, he says, one guy in the US claims to have more music, but he's at least #2 in the world. The obsession in foreign countries with this phenomenon is perhaps natural seeing as to the Japan fascination that's been sweeping Europe in the past few years, but this stuff is truly marketed only to Japan. Iocc keeps returning to this irksome fact during our interview.
What does eurobeat sound like? Well, Iocc's favourite track might give a hint as to what sort of thing is on offer. "Go Go Dance" by the Go Go Girls (a completely fabricated group whose members switch constantly) is fast, carelessly happy, rhythmically quite complex and insanely energetic, constantly switching portions of its content around.
Eurobeat has its roots in a familiar story from the history of music: fashions changed in Europe with the arrival of house music in the late eighties. Japan, however, had grown attached to the older music and its crazy lyrics and image, and wanted more. Enterprising producers gave it to them, and the earliest eurobeat from the late eighties sounds distinctly like just more italo. But then, slowly, it began to evolve - new instruments and musical styles emerged, and the tempo accelerated to upwards of 155 BPM circa 1995 before dropping somewhat again. The typical style and image emerged: more or less anonymous rent-a-face artists always singing in (bad) english, tracks who borrowed the names (but not any of the music!) from major hits...
Just how this evolution took place is one of the great mysteries of the genre for me. Practically the entire musical output of the Italian studios who produce eurobeat is distributed and owned by a Japanese company called Avex Trax, and there's no direct feedback from any of the marketing. Also, most of the tracks are sold in compilation form (like the famous Super Eurobeat series) and it must hard from the vantage point of Italy to tell just how well an individual track has done. And yet, the music evolved and changed with the times and is now thriving in its third decade. One music studio I talked to, out of about six or seven still in business, produces around half a dozen tracks every month. How it's worked? The cryptic answer I got was that they sense what their customers want, but that's just mystical ESP bullshit, isn't it?
Well, part of the longevity is probably due to its subcultural moorings. Besides the fantastical (and from a racial point of view eminently analysable) ganguro girls, there's a huge scene centred around the arm-based dancing style para para, including at the now-closed mega club Velfarre where eurobeat was often the main genre of the dance floor. Here's another Go Go Girls track (with more post-colonial goodness to analyse) with some para para dance stylings:
There's something about eurobeat that's immediately familiar to your ears even though you've never heard it before. Part of it is probably its immediately noticeable influence on other Japanese culture: you can hear eurobeat (or something like it) in video games, in anime, on television. But Iocc also points out that it might well be the other way around: a lot of the familiarity might be from the old disco styles in europe in the eighties it's based on, and not least from older video games. That bright, two-oscillator synth that you hear in a lot of this stuff, for instance, is basically lifted as an idea entirely from one of the typical sounds of the classic SID chip on the C64.
So with over fifteen thousand songs in this breakneck genre's history, where would you get started if you're interested in the genre? Iocc recommends the "Euro Mach" series of compilation albums (should be pretty easy to find online), which were released during the ganguro craze's commercial high point around 1999-2001. Supposedly, they're even happier and more upbeat than the average eurobeat tracks...