How do you describe a band like Frank Chickens? Led by performer/artist/musician/animator/singer/theater producer Kazuko Hohki and her sister-in-arms Kazumi Taguchi, Frank Chickens still remains unlike any band out there. Using Japanese kitsch and asian fetishization as a means to facilitate some truly subversive culture prodding and oddly imaginative musical explorations, Frank Chickens’ debut We Are Frank Chickens shows you a small glimmer of that fascinating year when they took England by storm. With hindsight, time allows us to see the wires in their parlor tricks but time also allows us to focus more intently on the meat of why we’re here: their jaw-dropping music.
Who were these Frank Chickens? Frank Chickens started as a duo of ex-patriated Tokyo performance artists who combined quasi-comedic stage musical performances with Japanese Engrish lyrics that poked fun at various Japanese tropes. They did so in such a way to expose certain biases on the part of Western audiences while equally highlighting commonalities with Japanese culture (some of which they’d skewer themselves to equal aplomb). Where their genius lay was in that ability to combine truly catchy, risk-taking music and setting it with visuals that made it hard to discern where the joke ended and when the seriousness began.
Not-so-hidden in the credits of their debut, lay the key to this success in meeting the popular with the artistic. Produced and arranged by the truly bright minds of David Toop and Steve Beresford, We Are Frank Chickens had all the sonic ideas you’d more likely hear in the leftfield, experimental work of these same musicians.
Who were David Toop and Steve Beresford? David Toop really needs little introduction in the UK, but if you’re not from the Isle, Mr. Toop holds the musical stature reserved for a few legends. Under his own name he was a prolific musician, producer, critic, archivist, and literary writer. David holds the distinction of writing the first, and truly one of the best, books on the history of Hip-Hop: Rap Attack that managed to contextualize, document, and promote authentically the importance of Hip-Hop in music/culture-at-large. Now we know him as equally observant music critic and writer for magazines like The Wire or treating us with totemic compilations like Ocean of Sound. As a musician, his own work either with The Flying Lizards (arguably a similar-minded band to Frank Chickens) or as a solo artist traversed all sorts of categories: Free Jazz, dub, ambient, new wave, avant garde, drone and many more because of that ability to remain open to worthwhile music. Prone to creating his own instruments, or using existing instruments in unconventional ways, usually it was David that could easily find ways to make things that were on paper “far out” instantly approachable. Even though he debuted as a musician on Eno’s Obscured Sound label, David never saw himself as an experimental artist, and his credits prove that fact.
Steve Beresford is an even slippier credit. One of the leading lights of the contemporary English Free Improv Jazz scene, Steve has been an ambassador to bridging the gap between pop music and experimental genres. A multi-instrumentalist, it’s Steve’s wide breadth of session work for the likes of The Slits, The Flying Lizards, The New Age Steppers, and with Frank Chicken, that allows him to feel comfortable simply trying cool shit out no matter the genre.
Entrusting these two to take care of matching polemic music with their own satiric visuals is exactly what saved Frank Chickens from being merely an answerable curio to a “one hit wonder” question. Although videos for “We Are Ninja” made for the unlikeliest of hits, it was their music that stuck as most intriguing. Was it electro? hip-hop? post-punk? dub? YMO-style Japanese technopop? Gallic Pop? Who knows? It certainly wasn’t New Wave, nor was it distinctly world music, or English Pop. If something warranted a “fourth world” designation, it was We Are Frank Chickens. When English record buyers managed to snag copies of their debut, you can imagine their stunned ears hearing the likes of songs like “Madam Fatal”, “We Are Frank Chickens”, or “Mothra”. Yep, Frank Chickens was given you the ironic pastiche you wanted more of, but they were completely using that gateway to hit you with much fiercer satire and music.
Serving as an introduction to other polemic music and ideas, it’s no wonder John Peel was a huge champion of this band, inviting them to perform even after they were deemed a joke/novelty band by the fine people of Edinburgh Comedy Awards. It’s true, like all great comedians know, sometimes the best jokes aren’t always the one that land right away. With that in mind, I dare you to resist the intelligent oddball charm in this…