Why we love…BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad

BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is one of those rare feats of fiction that gets music. It’s not just about music or musicians, it doesn’t just feature great music; it gets music. The power it has; the power to move people, the power to bring them together, and inspire you to take over the world (not literally). It’s like an anime Almost Famous.

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The anime (and Manga but I’ll get to that) follows 14 year old Koyuki over the years, as he learns to play guitar, makes real friends, starts a band, and discovers who he really is…(it’s a coming of age anime, what do you expect). And unlike most shows/films about bands, this isn’t about them making it; for the majority of the show all they play in are dive bars and night clubs. The shows about the struggle, the struggle to learn, and to keep going against the odds, and about the bond Koyuki forms with the people he plays music with. It’s about the expression music can give you, as a global translator to reach everyone and anyone from any walk of life.

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Beyond Koyuki and his life, the show also follows Ryusuke, the lead guitarist and leader of the titular band BECK, who is the other heart of the show. He’s Koyuki’s main inspiration to grow and become more comfortable with himself, to mature to a teenager with a clear goal in his life. While Ryusuke tries to go beyond that, developing from a teenager with a goal to an adult with an outcome, and dealing with those good or bad. The bad mainly resolving around a mafia subplot…go figure.

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From left to right. Maho, Chiba (rapper), Saku (drummer), Koyuki (singer/rhythm guitar) , Flea I mean Taira (bass), and Ryusuke (lead guitar)

Outside of them, and with the exception of Koyuki’s love interest and Ryusuke’s sister, the passive aggressive badass Maho, the rest of the band don’t get much development. They’re presented to us as whole beings and they stay that way for the remainder of the anime (the mange is a different story, but I’ll get to that), hell the prototypical bully characters (it’s high school, they have to be there) gets some of the best development in the series. I wouldn’t call this so much a fault as just an occurrence, theres only so much time, so the focus needs to be where it needs to be. Nothing gained but nothing lost.

BECK is also one of those rare cases in anime that is….What’s the old saying? 40% of anime is better subbed, 30% it doesn’t matter either way, and only 10% of anime is better dubbed. BECK joins the ranks of Cowboy Bebop, Baccano, and Black Lagoon, which are just better dubbed, way better. This is thanks to a dubbing team who really gave a damn, and it clearly wasn’t a, ‘this is popular let’s put it in English’, it was a passion project for all involved, and it shows.

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It shows most clearly in the amazing music and genuinely awesome songs. Most English dubs of anime about music, dub everything but the music, like K-on and NANA (another pretty good music anime), as its hard work to get new singers in, and translate the songs beyond awkward engrish, but BECK did. And it needed to really, as the songs aren’t just window dressing between the melodrama. Like real music the songs are character driven, and reflect a lot of the later themes and messages of the series. And the music’s just plane awesome. I own the soundtrack.

The band sound like the love child of Rage Against the Machine and Oasis, with Flea on bass. This is because they have two vocalists, the awesome and funny Chiba as the rapper, and our protagonist Koyuki as the singer. His singing voice being one of the main pushes of the series.   It’s not just that the songs sound good, they work perfectly in the plot too, representing what they need, be it the progression of the character, a relationship, or the band itself. The climactic song ‘Slip Out’ not only works beautifully as a representation of Koyuki’s development from hapless teenager to musician, but it also sounds like a classic song, like a Smells Like Teen Spirit or Wonderwall, a song that could define a generation.

Another way the Dub is smart is in its copyright, as unlike in a the Japanese production, the English couldn’t name drop all the bands and use all of the music it once did, so the Sex Pistols become Love Gun, Anarchy in the UK becoming Anarchy Britannia. And a kinda random but awesome I’ve Got a feeling cover becomes an original song by the anime’s Nirvana- esque stand in The Dying Breed, the band that inspired Koyuki to pick up the guitar. It’s a smart, character driven dub.

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The quality ranging from simply pretty, to….that.

If I have to speak of some weakness for BECK, it’s slow to start. It takes its time introducing the characters, setting up the band, following Koyuki’s development as a guitar player, ect. All good stuff, but when I re-watch the series (and of course I don’t recommend this for new viewers) I skip the first 5ish episodes, just to jump into the build-up to Koyuki joining the band and the main plot getting underway. The animation is also pretty cheap a lot of the time but it was a cheap show, it’s rarely scene breaking, but for Anime fans used to their Madhouses, Studio Ghiblis, and what not, it may be a bit jarring.

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Now the manga is slightly different. As I said the Anime isn’t about the band making it, it’s more about them doing it. And the manga is about that too, but it’s just a hell of a lot longer and follows all the ups and downs as the band…make it…and they do by no easy means. If you can find it I highly recommend the manga, it lacks the audio aspect obviously (which to a music based story is important) but it keeps going with the great characters, ideas and story much further than in the anime.

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Leading to a lot more character development all around, Chiba (the rapper) especially gets focus as Koyuki writes more and more songs for his own voice, causing Chiba to have an existential crises about his place in the band, prompting an 8 Mile like arc of becoming an underground rapper.

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There is also a whole host of fun new characters, mainly in the form of other bands they meet along their way to the big leagues, who help redefine how BECK see themselves, and expands the size and reach of the BECK world.

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AND there’s even a live action film, and it’s a Japanese one luckily, so their history of anime to live action adaption is a lot cleaner than most. But even so the prospect of condensing a 26 episode anime into a two and a half hour film is daunting. But I’m pleased to say they did it pretty well, far from my favorite telling of the BECK story, but they make some smart choices to condense it and its worth a watch if you’re a fan and want to see a different take on it.

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BECK isn’t just my favorite anime; it’s one of my favorite shows of any kind. And it could be yours too. So in the immortal words of Chiba… turn up that fucking guitar and keep on rocking!

Why We Love….London Calling

22nd December 2002 is possibly the most important day in my life from a music listening perspective. The day Joe Strummer died. Some of you may be aware that The Clash are one of my favourite bands, and I’m not alone in that respect, they were widely called The Only Band That Mattered and they’re good enough that that name doesn’t seem like hyperbole. Which makes me feel even more guilty about what I’m about to say, I didn’t know who The Clash were when Strummer died, in fact his death was what made me a fan of the band. Not in a hipster-ish “I only bands who were underground so I wait for members to die” kind of way, don’t worry. I was sitting at home one day flipping through the music channels when he died, I know this as London Calling played on Q (I think), and it was labeled “London Calling – The Clash. Joe Strummer R.I.P”. For some reason it was the first time I had paid much attention to that song, and something clicked in my head about how good it is. Then I went through to another channel and they played Should I Stay Or Should I Go? I was amazed. How can one band perform two songs that sounded so different? Then the triangle of triumph was complete when a channel played Rock The Casbah. It was at that point I knew I needed to find out more about this band, so, Boxing Day, 2002 I went to The Shop Formally Known As Sounds Perfect and brought what would turn out to be one of my favourite albums of all time: London Calling. To those of you who haven’t listened to this album: you’re less of a person and you should fix that immediately. Since then I’ve heard the other albums they’ve made, and whilst they’re all good, they’re no London Calling. I think part of that is because of the experimentation shown on this album. Very few albums have as many different genres on show here: almost every song sounds different from the next, with some punk, some ska, some lounge, some R&B, some reggae, some jazz etc. In terms of styles the album is just a hodgepodge of different styles and clashes that combine to form something truly wonderful, in much the same way as London (specifically, Camden). This album is, still today, the sound of London in much the same way that It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is the sound of New York. It’s not just the music, it’s also the lyrics. The album is not just good (in my opinion, whilst Sum41 may have named their album as such, this album is the true All Killer, No Filler album), lyrically this album is a masterpiece, covering the issues that needed to be covered right now. From unemployment through to racial conflict, drug use and the responsibilities of adulthood. Guns Of Brixton (a.k.a: the song that launched a thousand basslines, seriously, this has to be the most punk song which you could use as the backdrop for a hip hop song) has one of the intense opening lines of a song:

When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

The fact that such brutal lyrics were laid against one of the best bass backdrops in music history opened the casual listeners minds up to the situation. The trouble with a lot of punk music is it’s preaching to the already converted. If the Sex Pistols were singing to people who were punks, it was The Clash that turned these people punk in the first place. The Clash are like Bob Dylan in that they have influenced outside of their genre. The best way to gauge a bands influence is via tribute albums. Yes, The Ramones tribute album does seem to have a wide variety of bands (Metallica, RHCP, Rob Zombie etc) the only true completely strange one to see is U2. The Clash, however, on Burning London have not only the expected ones (No Doubt, Rancid, Mighty Mighty Bosstones) they also have some you’d never have expected (Ice Cube, Moby). If a band can lay claim to have influenced bands as diverse as that, they must truly be something special.

Now onto my favourite part of this album, how it was released. Now, the band had had trouble with their record label prior to this. CBS had refused to release the bands debut album in the US, released singles the band didn’t want, and asked them to clean up their sound. The issues for this album came from the band wanting to release a double album, the record label refused because they were assholes. They did, however, allow them to release a free single with the album. So the band put a free single with the album, it was just a single that contained a lot of B-sides, in fact, almost an entire albums worth of B-sides. Since the deal was that the single would be free with the album, this meant that the (now) double album would be released at the same price as a normal album. The band won as they got to release the album as it was intended, the fans won as they didn’t have to pay more, and the record company lost, which is exactly how it should be.

So yeah, that’s why I love this band, and why this album is one of the most important pieces of music I’ve ever heard. And why it makes me feel even worse that it took the death of the singer to realise how amazingly talented this band is. People can keep their 1959 plane crash, for me, 22nd December 2002 is the real day the music died, and the day it was reborn, out of the fire like a phoenix, into my head, and into my heart.

Like if you enjoy

  • Rancid
  • Green Day
  • Arctic Monkeys
  • Rage Against The Machine

After this, check out

  • Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years Of Amnesty International. A 4 disc tribute album to Bob Dylan, only one song is featured more than once, and every song was recorded specifically for the album. Dylan is one of the select few artists you could do this with, especially with the amount of talent on show: This is the only album where MCR, The Gaslight Anthem, Rise Against and Bad Religion sit alongside Mick Hucknall, Miley Cyrus, Bryan Ferry, Natasha Bedingfield, Sting and Adele.
  • Heartattack. I knew I had to put a modern punk compilation on here. Was going to put one of the Punk-O-Rama albums on here but then realised I listen to the songs from here a lot more. Featuring a bonus disc of new songs to celebrate Burning Heart records, this album features some truly fantastic songs.