Highest recommendation for this double LP Floor Et Satie (EM RECORDS 1114DLP) by Saboten, a compilation of the best recorded work by this Japanese all-girl band who were active in the 1980s. They went from avant-garde pop guitar music to a unique form of contemporary sound-art in just ten years. Saboten’s first LP was released in 1982 on Floor Records, and it’s reissued here in entirety as sides A and B of the record, divided into Songs on the A side and Instrumentals on the other. All of these songs and tunes are charming, daring, starkly brilliant…a simplified and more efficient form of pop music beamed from the future…they are not really “punk rock” however, nor “post-punk”, much as we would like to label everything and file Saboten’s splendid work alongside that of The Raincoats, This Heat, Scritti Politti, Kleenex, or The Slits. Saboten lack the anger and grit of those disaffected Brits 1, and after all what was there for them to be angry about? Instead they made drawings in the air with their guitars and drum kit, etching and sketching minimal lines to make gorgeous images…true, here and there we can detect a trace of dub influence (making us reach for Family Fodder comparisons), but Saboten aren’t exactly “heavy” in the way of of Dennis Bovell, and retain only the minimalism and drop-outs of dub instrumentals. Then we might hear the ghost of a Link Wray instrumental on other tracks, but this could be a hangover from the band’s modest art-school origins, when they began as an R and B covers band. They have their own sound, sometimes enhanced with Korg analogue synth, but it’s a traditional gtr-bass-drum setup and not especially “different” in the way that some UK bands in the 1980s worked overtime to strive for a radically new sound. It is, in short, very hard to pin down the alien charm and grace of this music, but it’s simply gorgeous and quite clearly 99% of it is down to the people who are playing it.
Guitarist Satomi Matsumoto tells the story of how the band began with her and the drummer Atsuko Tanabe. “It was the punk era”, she recounts, describing that she felt an exciting urgency to get something done, make a statement while there was still time, that made her leave her studies at art school and buy an electric guitar. They started out playing bad cover versions of The Kinks, The Beatles, and The Yardbirds. The turning point seems to have been when bass player Izumi Miyakawa joined them (she played the synth too), and suggested they start playing Erik Satie’s music. No problem for these talented girls, who could all sight-read and play the piano. The suggestion was welcomed. In no time they found a way to deconstruct the sheet music of Satie, rebuild it as electric guitar music, and Saboten were pretty much on their way. Satomi was convinced this “would be a much more powerful way of conveying the intention behind [Satie’s] works,” and that their plan would “set the music free”. We haven’t got to the Satie “cover versions” yet, but I think this liberating approach to music-making – it set Saboten free as well as Satie – has fed into the first 1982 album, with its songs written by all four members. Second guitarist Masae Fuma had joined the band by this point, and they played their debut gig in Christmas 1981.
The first LP was hard work. Their conventional rock setup was used innovatively, with both guitars, bass and drums all playing melodies. No riffing, in other words; no power chords, no blues-based jamming, none of the other lazy tricks that 99% of lesser bands fall back on when they run out of ideas. “I don’t think we could have made things any harder for ourselves!” laments Satomi in 2013. But this effort paid off, and it shows in every crystalline note on the album, the hard-edged and labour-intensive sounds forming simple but weird and unforgettable shapes. With lyrics coming direct from Satomi’s “interior dream world”, it would be hard to imagine a more personal and near-perfect debut record.
The second vinyl in this release compiles the 1992 cassette Let’s Satie! along with an EP and various compilation tracks from 1984, 1992 and 2002. With the five cuts from Let’s Satie!, you can hear Saboten’s unique take on Satie’s music, which after the minimalism of the first LP emerges as a rather dense and complex noise. Bassist Izumi Miyakawa gives a somewhat more nuanced account of how they realised this music, which was achieved through a combination of following the Satire score, some improvisation, and most importantly lots of practice. By her reckoning, they usually got it about right after three attempts. In her view Saboten were privately very keen on free improvisation, just not very good at it, and unsatisfied with their results; whatever they were striving for, the repeated replayings of the tunes helped them nail it down. The presence of saxophonist Lol Coxhill, guest player on Let’s Satie!, can’t have hurt matters, but even he could only keep up with them after hearing take number three. Miyakawa is also aware that Satie would probably have disapproved of their radical attempts to remake his music, but she is adamant that they “embodied the music in a much more real way” than a classical pianist following the score note-for-note. If asked for my vote on the matter, I would put five crosses next to Saboten’s name in the ballot box. These tunes – including their versions of ‘In a Swing’, ‘Sea Bathing’, ‘Race’, and ‘Tango’ – are truly unearthly music, and Miyakawa’s comparison with a Xenakis “sound-cloud” stands. It’s a shame that this also represents something quite fleeting and hard-to-repeat, as it’s not clear if Saboten could have (or ever did) managed to recreate this glorious music outside of this studio session.
EM Records have once again found buried treasure, obscure but fantastic music, and reissued and remastered it in the best possible way – this time on vinyl, and with superb images and informative notes on the printed inners. “Theirs is a high form of pop music,” declare Shunji Tsutaki and Totsuzen Danball in their notes. “They were a female band unlike any other in the world”.
- Except that Kleenex were of course from Switzerland, but they were still fairly spiky and abrasive. ↩