As Damon Albarn’s latest collaboration with Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, the opera of Monkey: Journey To The West, draws to a close at London’s O2 dome, and we await the release of the new Monkey Magic film on DVD, is there a better time to remember the soundtrack to show that started it all. Come on now, you all know the words: ‘Born from a rock on a mountain top…’
Long before Brit Pop supremo Damon Albarn decided to take his Gorillaz creation back to the source, the cult Nippon TV series inspired by Wu Cheng’en’s classic Chinese novel Journey To The West, the show itself Monkey, ruled UK Friday nights back in the late seventies.
From it’s opening disco theme to the hilarious characterisations of Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy (mistakenly attributed to the British redubbing by actors like Miriam Margoyles and Andrew Sachs, better known then for being the waiter in Faulty Towers than for the messages left on his phone by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross) the show captured the hearts of a generation now in their mid-30s: running around the playground, pretending to call clouds to fly on and beating each other up with a magical staff, all the while humming Monkey Magic under our breath.
(Not now, I mean. Back then. Though some of us never really left those days behind, creating websites devoted to all things Asian, ahem…)
Much of the appeal to that series was the soundtrack, provided by Japanese pop band Godiego, formed of Japanese and American musicians Mickie Yoshino, Takami Asano, Steve Fox, Yukihide Takekawa, and Tommy Snyder. They’d already enjoyed some success performing the English language version the the theme of the other great Nippon TV import of the decade, The Water Margin, which even squeaked into the UK top 40. Though singles from Monkey itself, issued by the BBC, surprisingly didn’t fair as well.
Magic Monkeywas released in Japan in 1979 (and subsequently as the Monkey soundtrack by the BBC). Fans of the series will recognise most of tracks used as music cues on the soundtrack throughout, though you may be unsettled by the vocals (or to be more exact, the lyrics)…
Aside from Monkey Magic and the closing theme Gandhara, there’s Havoc In Heaven (used for the fight scenes), Thank You, Baby (used for the romantic or contemplative sequences), A Fool (used for for, um, the more idiotic moments) and so on. The pop vocal style is typical of the period, sounding at best like a cut-price Steely Dan, but it’s the lyrics that often leave you squirming, as the guys try desperately to include the themes of the series – in English – often making you wish they’d left the tracks as instrumentals. There’s even a track called Asiatic Fever, for feck’s sake!
Despite this, it’s worth hearing just for the full length version of the theme (even with that dodgy second verse), a fantastically funky little disco tune with great riffs and instrumental breaks.
Strangely, getting hold of a copy outside of Japan – where Godiego are still massively popular having reunited in 1999 – is near impossible. (And if you’re thinking of picking up the BBC release, you are gonna have to search hard or keep your eyes on eBay!) Those looking to get hold of a copy best head towards Asian online retailers like YesAsia. Considering the enduring popularity of the series, it seems odd no one has licensed the album to reissue it in the UK and Australia.
At the very least it might put an end to the countless cover versions that do little than sully our fond memories.