In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Hot 100 launched in 1958, just 13 years after the end of World War II. The war was still well within living memory, and I have to imagine that it left deep psychic wounds all across the globe. And yet, within five years, the Hot 100 had #1 hits sung in Italian, Japanese, and (partially, anyway) German. That’s an Axis powers hat trick! And maybe it’s also a statement about the way popular culture in general, and popular music in particular, can transcend languages and borders and still-fresh resentments.
It’s probably dumb to use Mad Men as a barometer for the historical national mood of the time, but I always remember the scene of Roger Sterling refusing to do business with Honda because he was still angry about all the friends he’d lost in the Pacific theater. Lots of people must’ve felt that way, on both sides of the war. But in 1963, a Japanese-language song found its way to #1 in America.
The Italian and German songs came first. Domenico Modugno’s Italian song “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” only the second #1 in Hot 100 history, had a popularity at least partially driven by America’s Italian immigrant population. That was probably also a factor in the success of Joe Dowell’s half-in-German “Wooden Heart (Muss I Den),” which also had the Elvis factor working for it. (Presley had sung the song in one of his movies, but he didn’t release it as a single in America, so this Dowell kid swept in and sang it instead.) But Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” easily the best of those three songs, didn’t have a huge immigrant population or a massive American star to thank for its success. It was just a pretty song that people liked hearing.
Before hitting play on “Sukiyaki” for the purposes of this column, I assumed it would be quasi-racist Orientalist kitsch. It’s not, though maybe its marketing was. Instead, it’s a piece of genuine Japanese pop music. The song, which hit #1 in Japan in 1961, was originally called “Ue O Muite Aruko.” An English record exec, who’d heard the song during a Japanese visit, renamed it when he released it over there, naming it after a beef hotpot dish and figuring that English speakers would have an easier time remembering that title. It’s not a song about food. Instead, the original title translated to “I Look Up When I Walk,” and it’s about optimism in the face of heartbreak, about looking up into the air so that your tears won’t fall.
It seems like it’s a breakup song, and the lyrics are vague enough that they could be that. But lyricist Rokusukay Ey was reportedly writing about the postwar protest movement in Japan. Students all around Japan were demonstrating against the American military presence there, even occupying the Japanese parliament, but the government still signed a security treaty with the US. So here we have a song that, however obliquely, is against American imperialism, and it still became the most popular song in imperialist America.
The American audiences wouldn’t have known about all of that, of course. The song is a warm, graceful piece of orchestral jazz-informed pop with a whole lot of whistling. It probably sounded a bit anachronistic at the time. Sakamoto, who was just 19 when he first released the song and who would die young in a massive 1985 airliner crash, sings it with a lilting sweetness, conveying the bittersweet feeling at the song’s center even to millions of people who couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That’s some kind of achievement.
BONUS BEATS: In 1981, the American duo A Taste Of Honey got to #3 with a lush quiet-storm cover of “Sukiyaki” that really was quasi-racist Orientalist kitsch, at least on some level. (They dressed like geishas on the single cover, and someone plays kota on the song.) A Taste Of Honey sang newly written English lyrics, and their version, thankfully, isn’t about beef hotpots either. Here’s their version:
And here’s Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s 1985 beatbox classic “La Di Da Di,” which features Rick interpolating A Taste Of Honey’s version of “Sukiyaki” and, thus, singing the melody that Sakamoto had sung 22 years earlier:
Finally, here’s Mary J. Blige’s 1997 single “Everyday,” which also interpolates the “Sukiyaki” cover: