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Shinki Chen

Shinki Chen, 1970, Hibiya Yaon.
Perhaps the most legendary of all Japanese rock musicians, the Sino-Japanese Shinki Chen is certainly those islands’ most celebrated guitarist, and is nowadays discussed in hushed tones and regarded by many as their equivalent to Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, with his imposing 6’ 1” frame, perpetual cigarette dangling from his lips and long Afro hairstyle, Shinki at the height of his powers cut a dash remarkably reminiscent of Guns n’ Roses’ guitarist Slash. Shinki was born in Yokohama City, on May 30th 1949, and claims that he began to play guitar aged fourteen, “I guess because there was one around”. At that age singing and playing in a folk group, Shinki afterwards joined a Liverpool-styled beat group led by his friend Keibun Hayashi, before joining a Ventures-type surf group with a female vocalist. Gradually developing an obsession for The Kinks and The Yardbirds, in 1966, Shinki joined his friends’ band Midnight Express Blues Band as drummer. On guitar was Masayoshi Kabe, when went by the nickname Maboo. Kabe says of the Midnight Express’ repetoire: “Our repertoire was the Yardbirds, the Shadows of Night, Them, and stuff like that.” Kabe remembers his first meeting with Shinki thus:

“Shinki brought a girl… his girl… to my place and asked: ‘Maboo, will you be her boyfriend? (laughs)’ And I thought, what a guy. At first he came saying he wanted to teach me guitar. But later I found out he had another girl (laughs). And he just wanted to push this one on to me (laughs). Her name was Bella. So that’s how we met.”

But when Masayoshi Kabe left to join Group & I that December, Shinki turned to the position of guitarist. With future Golden Cups’ drummer Mamoru Manu now sitting in on drums, Midnight Express Blues Band continued to rehearse with Chiharu Hachou on guitar, Shinki’s old friend bassist Keibun Hayashi, and vocalist Eiji Takamura, who took the stage name Chibo. In 1967, the band re-named itself The Bebes after a cool shop of the same name in Yokohama City, owned by their new manager, who ran Towa Productions. The Bebes performed throughout 1968 at military bases, international schools, ABC in Yokohama and at the Nakagawa Saburo Discotheque, but ran into big problems because of Shinki and Chibo’s ever-lengthening hair. Sharing their management company was Masayoshi Kabe’s equally rebellious Group & I, and both bands were shuttled off to the suburbs around Tokyo to develop their showmanship, as neither band could find a booking at the more sober jazz kissas. Indeed, Shinki and Chibo prided themselves on having hair as long as that of their English heroes, and refused to sing in Japanese or wear the de rigeur Beatles-informed Group Sounds uniforms of the day. However, when Kabe’s Group & I followed The Bebes lead and re-named themselves Golden Cups after a chain of coffee houses, their popularity increased dramatically, and the Cups were offered a recording contract. Feeling themselves falling behind, and with musicians coming and going, The Bebes agreed to record their own version of The Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’, slowing it down to a crawl and recording for Toshiba Records the longest song ever to make it on to 7” single. And in the process, Shinki’s friend George Yanagi joined as bass player as the band changed its name yet again, this time to Powerhouse. Powerhouse played no original songs, but their cover versions were enormously long and unfolding things, their version of The Yardbirds’ ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ and the inevitable ‘Spoonful’ both clocking in at over a quarter of an hour each. With FX pedals still in their infancy and being the sole preserve of Western musicians, Powerhouse were forced to approximate fuzz boxes by punching holes in the cones of their speakers. However, as their sole LP, 1969’s A NEW KIND OF BLUES was neither Group Sounds nor original, the band folded, and Shinki went into studio session work and working in the theatre ensemble for the musical HAIR. Playing the HAIR songs with such future stars as Joe Yamanaka, Hiro Tsunoda and Hiro Yanagida, Shinki yearned for a new band. In April 1970, inspired by the success of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper’s SUPER SESSION LP, Hiro Yanagida suggested that they form a band called Food Brain. Two quick live Food Brain concerts took place on May 9th and 10th, featuring Hiro Tsunoda on drums, but none of the musicians were real songwriters, and everything was improvised. On May 29th and 30th, the sole Food Brain LP was hastily recorded, with Masayoshi Kabe playing a bass that just happened to be lying around in the studio. Nowadays, Food Brain is a horrible sounding thing, but its effect on the musicians involved was astounding and inspiring. However, when Hiro Tsunoda left for shows in Montreal, the band recruited D’Swooners drummer Eddie Fortuno to play at the THIRD WORLD HEAD ROCK festival, on July 23rd, with Blues Creation and Zuno Keisatsu. Thereafter, Shinki recorded the musical soundtrack for the movie SHINJUKU MAD, during which time he was bumming around Shinjuku itself and sleeping at the railway station.

Julian Cope
  • Shinki Chen, 1970, Hibiya Yaon.
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