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Matt Kamen on the connections between music and cartoons

With the final volume of K-On! rocking its way onto your shelves, we thought it was time to dig out the vinyl from some of animation’s earlier musical collaborations. Brace your ears – the history of animated bands is rooted in an arms race between squeaky-voiced singing rodents. Alvin and the Chipmunks were the 1958 creation of American musician Ross Bagdasarian Sr, finding chart success with a variety of novelty songs, they were beaten to the small screen in 1960 by The Nutty Squirrels, a jazz-infused copycat. The 1961 premiere of The Alvin Show cemented the originals as the public’s favourite though, creating a legacy that persists to the present.

All of a sudden, what would come to be known as ‘Virtual Bands’ were all the rage. A 1962 episode of The Jetsons, ‘A Date With Jet Screamer’, featured one of mainstream television’s first animated music performances (another nonsense song called ‘Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah’ — below), while the characters of Archie comics formed ‘The Archies’ to release ‘Sugar, Sugar’ in 1969 – a song originally written for, but rejected by, The Monkees. Another spin-off from Archie comics would find fame as Josie and the Pussycats.

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However, while animated bands in the US veered towards the comedic or light-hearted, Japanese efforts were frequently deeper in content and featured more varied music. Paramount among these was the Macross franchise, which began with an idol singer used as a human weapon, belting out a love song to shame alien invaders into submission, and in later years would also include a virtual idol with… issues, and an entire rockband singing in space battles. Ever since the late 1970s, anime producers have leapt at the chance to incorporate an excuse for more spin-off albums, with many variants on the idol singer theme, including Fancy Lala, who is granted magic powers by talking dinosaur toys, and Key the Metal Idol, a robot singer who needs an audience’s love to survive.

For the boys, there’s Black Heaven, where an aging rocker facing a midlife crisis, questioning where his life has lead him, is offered one last chance to pick up his guitar – little realising his music governs the fate of the universe.

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Japan’s real life performers weren’t going to miss out either, and the Oricon music charts are littered with singles bolstered by gorgeously animated music videos. Two enduring favourites that took advantage of the medium are ‘Rusty Nail’, an apocalyptic short by rock-opera gods X-Japan, and  Fukuoka-bred duo Chage and Aska’s 1995 single ‘On Your Mark’ – perhaps best known for its accompanying Studio Ghibli short, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. But French dance act Daft Punk have arguably used the form to its best advantage – drafting in famed animator Leiji Matsumoto for character designs and directorial supervision, for the film Interstella 5555, which contains the band’s entire ‘Discovery’ album, in a dialogue-free yet wonderfully expressive sci-fi parable of the manufacturing, marketing and subsequent destruction of the music industry.

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Nowadays, the term virtual band has a very real meaning to it though, as one of Japan’s biggest musical stars is Hatsune Miku – a computer program. Far from a Skynet-style nightmare, Miku is the face of the Vocaloid software, a singing synthesiser allowing users to create their own tracks. Miku is by far the best known and most successful Vocaloid creation, a 16-year old blue-haired android with a predilection for singing energetic pop songs.

Whether the future holds more digital divas, tailor-made to meet audience expectations based on market research remains to be seen, though hopefully Vocaloid will instead lead to inventive users creating unique music with anime-styled avatars. Until then, the girls of K-On! will continue to rock out – manga creator Kakifly is still producing stories, so there’s plenty to look forward to from the girls!

K-On! volume four is out now in the UK from Manga Entertainment.

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