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X Japan's Music Revolution

Written by Kitazawa Tell a Friend

To the average Japanese family, NHK's Kohaku Uta Gassen ("Red and White Song Battle") aired on the night of December 31, 1997 was just the 47th installment of the popular annual New Year's countdown music event. But for fans of Japanese pop and rock music, the night marked the final performance of a band representing the white team. The band bowed out with one last song titled Forever Love. That band was X Japan.

One of Japan's most representative and legendary bands, X Japan is a name of great interest for both music fans and academic scholars alike. The band's effect on Japanese music can be rightfully described as a series of revolutions. From their official major debut on April 21, 1989 with the album BLUE BLOOD to the announcement of their disbanding on September 22, 1997, X Japan forged a revolutionary path through Japanese popular music.

X Era - From Underground to Major Debut

Originally called X, X Japan is centered around drummer Yoshiki and lead vocalist Toshi. Friends since childhood, the two were greatly influenced by American rock band Kiss in their youth and formed a band together during their high school years. After graduating high school, they moved to Tokyo to pursue their musical dreams with their metal band X. In Tokyo, the band underwent quite a few changes in member lineup, but thanks to their talent and the considerable buzz they had built in their hometown, by 1985 X was making a name for itself in the Tokyo underground music scene.

In 1988, X released the album VANISHING VISION on their own independent label and topped the indies chart by selling 10,000 copies in a week. By 1980s standard, this number was comparable to the sales of many mainstream bands. Their success caught eyes at Sony, which signed the band in 1989. On April 21, bandleader Yoshiki, guitarists hide and Pata, bassist Taiji, and lead vocalist Toshi released their major debut album, BLUE BLOOD, which included some songs from VANISHING VISION like Kurenai and Unfinished. The album had the power rock numbers of their indies period, as well as tracks indicative of the band's later musical direction. BLUE BLOOD sold 600,000 copies during the height of idol pop, announcing the arrival of one of Japan's greatest bands and leading the way for the 90s wave of rock and visual kei.

In addition to the commercial success of BLUE BLOOD, X made a strong showing at the year-end awards, notably taking Best Newcomer at the Japan Gold Disc Awards. More important than the awards though were the performances; the power of Yoshiki's drums and the finesse of hide and Pata's dual guitars set new standards for Japanese rock. Soon after their debut, Yoshiki fainted during a concert at the Shibuya Public Hall (now C.C. Lemon Hall). The effect was much like that of the band's striking makeup and attire, leaving an unforgettable impression on Japan's music fans.

Japan's popular music scene accommodates many different styles and genres, but at the time X came out, visual kei bands were still in the fringe. X broke this barrier, turning a subculture into pop culture. This was the first revolution they brought to Japanese music.

Mainstream Success and the First Disbanding

After the conclusion of a nationwide tour that started in February 1990, X shocked the industry again by heading to Los Angeles to record their next album. Yoshiki, however, passed out during the recording of STAB ME IN THE BACK. He was diagnosed with fatigue and back problems and the release of their second album, Jealousy , was postponed. Eventually released on July 1, 1991, Jealousy topped the Oricon weekly chart with 1,113,000 copies sold. At this point, X's popularity was already being viewed as a social phenomenon. The album garnered the band both positive reviews and industry recognition, and on New Year's Eve of 1991, X took to the stage of Kohaku Uta Gassen for the first time. Public broadcaster NHK has always fallen on the side of conservative, and their selection criteria for Kohaku Uta Gassen participants is especially strict. Only the most successful artists reach the shortlist every year, making an invitation to the annual event a great honor for any Japanese artist. X's invitation signified that their music and popularity had already reached a national level; it was not only a confirmation for the band, but an important moment for visual rock.

In 1992, X pulled off another revolution. From January 5 to 7, they held their Tokyo Dome Live concerts at what was at the time the largest performance venue in Japan. They became the first local music act to hold three consecutive concerts at the Tokyo Dome. In just three short years since their major debut, X had reached the top of the Japanese music scene. Due to Yoshiki's health problems and high standards, however, after Jealousy X only managed two more releases, the single Standing Sex in October 1991 and Say Anything in December. In 1992 bassist Taiji left the band over musical differences. His departure compounded with the band's slow recording pace led to the end of X's contract with Sony.

X Japan Era

After leaving Sony, X signed with Warner and found new bassist Heath. What with their success in Japan and album production in the US, X resolved to become the first band to spread beyond Japan. With that in mind, the band changed names to X Japan, meaning "X from Japan". Their first album after the name change can be considered a notable achievement in world music. The album consisted of only one song, Art of Life, that lasted for 30 minutes; promotion material at the time dubbed the song the story of the first half of Yoshiki's life. Bridging the X and X Japan eras, Art of Life was not only Japanese rock's most revolutionary track, it was also the band's challenge to world music.

Sung completely in English, Art of Life featured both piano and string performances from Yoshiki, including a world-class piano solo that lasted almost ten minutes. The song was divided into multiple segments steeped in classical music and grand melodies to form a symphonic rock epic. The double guitars of hide and Pata and orchestral arrangement transcended perceptions of popular music at the time. Just Art of Life alone is enough to write X Japan's name in the pages of Japanese music history.

The biggest differences between X Japan's music in comparison to the earlier X years are Yoshiki's complete embracing of his classical roots and the growth and variations in hide and Pata's guitars. Released after Art of Life, Tears, the band's highest-selling single, followed in the lyrical ballad style of Endless Rain and Say Anything with dramatic string accompaniment and touching lyrics. Ten years later, Tears would become the theme song to the Korean film Windstruck, a testament to the song's lasting power and representative status.

X Japan's ensuing string of hit singles including Forever Love, Longing, Crucify My Love, and The Last Song basically continued the style of Tears, from the serious production values to the long track lengths, often twice that of the typical song. For a songwriter, just creating a few seconds worthy of recording is no simple task, but X Japan was producing eight-minute pieces like Longing with complex arrangements and accompaniments. The tag team of hide and Pata also grew and evolved. In tracks like Rusty Nail and Dahlia, the guitar portions maintained the tempo of the X era, but the rhythm and melody variations and coordination and instrumental arrangement were different from their earlier years.

The majority of X Japan's releases during this time became Oricon bestsellers. Because of the band's musical style and structure, however, their record sales were not especially outstanding in the commercial music boom of the 90s (X Japan never released a million-selling single), but both their ballad and hard rock numbers found support not just in Japan, but throughout Asia. X Japan inspired many bands that took pride in covering Yoshiki's compositions and imitating hide and Pata's guitar playing. This type of acclaim and adulation exceeded that of even million-selling bands like B'z, Mr. Children, and Southern All Stars.

Farewell X Japan, Farewell hide

Although X Japan did all their recording overseas, they still kept a tight schedule of concert and television performances in Japan. Their annual year-end concert at the Tokyo Dome, nationwide tours, and appearances on Kohaku Uta Gassen brought the audience and music scene fresh surprises every time. However, the same problems - conflicts over musical differences and delayed releases due to Yoshiki's health issues and perfectionism - returned to plague the band.

In late 1996, soon after X Japan released their one and only full-length album, DAHLIA, Toshi decided to leave the band, bidding farewell to his longtime friend and musical partner Yoshiki. Because the lead vocalist could not be easily replaced, news of Toshi's impending departure in April was shortly followed with the official announcement of X Japan's disbanding on September 22, 1997. Despite officially splitting in September, X Japan did not immediately cease activities. Due to fan request and hide's urging, on December 31, 1997, X Japan held one last concert at Tokyo Dome, The Last Live. At the concert's conclusion, they rushed to Kohaku Uta Gassen and performed their last song for worldwide fans - Forever Love.

After disbanding, the members of X Japan pursued new musical endeavors separately. Guitarist hide, who already had a solo career prior to disbanding, teamed up with other musicians to form the band hide with Spread Beaver, releasing the debut single ROCKET DIVE on January 1, 1998. On May 2 of that same year, hide suddenly passed away. The news of his death shocked the whole of Japan, and robbed Japanese music of one of its brightest lights. hide's departure also effectively put an end to any hope of a complete X Japan reunion.

Although the guitar portions in X Japan's music were not especially complicated or prominent, the band's musical style and arrangements rendered hide's role as important as that of Yoshiki and Toshi. GLAY, Janna Da Arc, Dir en grey, and other visual kei bands that rose to mainstream fame in the late 1990s were all to some extent helped by X Japan and particularly hide. Because Yoshiki was often overseas or ill, hide's prominence and affable personality was a key component in X Japan's image and status in Japanese music.

Bandleader Yoshiki has remained active in the music scene through various roles and projects. In addition to composing and producing for other artists, he created the solo project VIOLET UK, joined globe in 2002, and formed superband S.K.I.N. with Gackt, LUNA SEA's Sugizo, and Miyavi in 2006. Also memorable in this period are his piano performance at the tenth anniversary celebration of Emperor Akihito's enthronement in 1999, his theme song for the 2005 Japan World Expo, and his collaborations with the London and Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestras. Toshi, Pata, and Heath also pursued solo careers after X Japan's disbanding, but none of their projects were long-lived. Starting in 1999, the R&B wave led by Utada Hikaru and MISIA and the rise of girl pop drove rock music into decline, and not even the members of X Japan could carry on the baton of the band's success.

The Rebirth of X Japan

Starting in early 2007, rumors of an X Japan reunion began circulating, but the news remained unconfirmed until October 22 when the band appeared at Tokyo's Odaiba to shoot the music video for their new song I.V., officially announcing the rebirth of X Japan. In March 28 to 30, 2008, X Japan returned to their revolutionary site of choice - the Tokyo Dome - for their reunion concerts. At the same time, they also unleashed a series of releases: albums, concert DVDs, and two photo albums, X ROSE & BLOOD TOUR LIVE PHOTOGRAPHY and X JAPAN Memorial Photo Album.

Looking back at X Japan's achievements today, we can see that the band produced one masterful song after another and pushed one revolution after another, influencing an entire generation of musicians and music fans. A pioneering force in visual rock and Japan's popular music movement, X Japan did not release that many works, but every single and album they produced attracted attention and acclaim. In 2008, X Japan takes to the stage again to write a new page in the band's glorious history. A decade after their disbanding, X Japan is starting another music revolution.

Translated by Sanwei

Published March 31, 2008

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