By: Bob Mersereau
Years before it became a rock cliche, thanks to live albums from the likes of Cheap Trick and Deep Purple, Montreal’s Mashmakhan were indeed the biggest thing in Japan. They set a record that lasted for decades on the Japanese charts, and helped change rock ‘n’ roll concerts in that country forever. But until the band set foot in Tokyo in July of 1971, they barely had an idea they were big stars abroad.
It started with the group’s iconic hit, “As The Years Go By.” Released in North America in June of 1970, the group’s first single was signed to Columbia Records of Canada (and Epic in the U.S.). The song was an immediate smash at home, breaking out in Montreal, and finishing at No. 10 on RPM’s year-end chart.
Things got going in the U.S. next, but in an odd way, winning over one market at a time. “That song went Top 20 on the West Coast first, then it climbed on the East Coast, somewhere in the Top 15 or so and died off,” remembers guitarist Rayburn Blake. “Then it picked up in the Mid-West. So overall it hovered at around number 30 for weeks on Cashbox, Billboard.” In total, the song spent 18 weeks on the charts, never peaking higher than #31 on Billboard, however, managing to be hugely popular at different times on different coasts.
“Any song that could do that, with a concentrated push, it might have been a different story,” says Blake. “But it just got scattered over two, three months. You’d think Columbia, which was about the biggest record company in the world could have seen that. But we were Canadian, small-fry, and on the periphery.”
Still, it sold a half-million copies in the States, a big success. And its impact at home was even more dramatic. “We single-handedly almost saved Columbia in Canada,” laughs Blake. “They were starting to circle the drain here until we came along. We were heroes, we got limousines at the airport.”
It was a big step up for the veteran group, which had previously been known as The Triangle, backing up R&B singer Trevor Payne through much of the ’60s. Made up of Blake, keyboard player Pierre Sénécal, drummer Jerry Mercer and bassist Brian Edwards, they had primarily played clubs and colleges. “I was just a kid from Montreal,” says Blake. “By the time I was 21, I hadn’t been more than 150 miles from my home, maybe Vermont. Then the first time I was on the road, it went to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to Acadia University, or the Arrow club in Halifax. Then it would be Mashmakhan opening for Tommy James and the Shondells, or the summer tours of the Maritimes with April Wine. Then suddenly we were in Japan.”
What happened next is one of the greatest musical stories to come out of Japan, a country usually overlooked in rock history. The phrase ‘big in Japan’ is usually meant as an insult, used to describe a band that does great there but can’t match up back in North America. The reality is that today Japan is the second-biggest music market in the world, and any band that does well there is doing very well indeed. Plus, the Japanese fans are not easily won over by Western celebrity. Only a handful of songs from foreign artists have ever managed to top the charts there, and one of them was “As The Years Go By.”
“There was a kid from CBS-Sony (Columbia’s Japanese counterpart), a marketing guy over there,” explains Blake. “He believed in this song so much that the rumour was he’d slept in the stairwell of a radio station for two days until they played it. He was a young guy too, about 18. He didn’t really speak English, but he loved that song so much, he was so convinced it was a hit, until someone finally went, ‘Okay, we’ll play it.'”
Maybe it was the simplicity of the “I will love you” chorus, or the eternally catchy minor key melody, but somehow the song caught on even with the language barrier. In Japanese, it was called “Kiri no Naka no Futari,” or “Two In The Fog.” For all the success the song had in Canada and the U.S., it couldn’t compare to the Japanese reception. Released towards the end of 1970, it hit No. 1 in January, staying there for two weeks, and selling 250,000 copies by the end of that month.
The band heard about the achievement but didn’t have any idea what they were in store for. They’d been slogging through the U.S., opening for the likes of John Sebastien, Three Dog Night and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, paying their dues. When the Japanese booking came through, it seemed exotic but ordinary enough, sharing the bill with Grand Funk Railroad. In Japan though, the live concert scene was radically and rapidly changing, and the band was about to be caught in the storm, literally and figuratively.
Things started getting strange when they hit the tarmac in Tokyo. “We knew we had a huge record, but what’s a huge record when you’re going to Japan?” says Blake. “We went to get off the airplane, and this big burly Japanese guy said, ‘No you guys sit down,’ keeping us seated. So I look out the window, and I see them rolling out a red carpet. There were a dozen little girls with banners on, holding flowers. I think it was 11 o’clock at night.”
A nice reception committee no doubt, but once the band stepped outside, it really became apparent they were no longer at home in Montreal. “At that point, we’d be hard pressed to get 20 people to an airport here, mostly your family and whoever is going to get your luggage. But what did they do? Basically the Beatlemania treatment. There were about three or four thousand people there.”
If they thought Columbia was treating them well in Canada, it was nothing like what the Japanese company would treat them to. “The President of CBS-Sony took us to dinner, Kobe beef. We were living like kings,” says Blake. “It was a pleasant surprise, oh my goodness. We were asking, ‘What’s going on here?’ There were tons of groupies, I don’t know how they knew our schedule, but we’d see them at one corner, we’d go have lunch, drive for three blocks, and there they were on another corner. It was quite amazing.”
Meanwhile, the record label had some surprises in store for them as well. At a special ceremony, the group received a gold record for “As The Years Go By,” and what the executives called a “Hit Disc Award.” To their astonishment, it was for having the third-biggest selling song ever by a foreign artist in Japan.
There were just two shows in the country, but the band was there for 10 days, doing TV and press, and getting some sightseeing in. As usual, the group was asked about their strange name. In truth, it is a mispronunciation of the Mexican province of Michoacan and was suggested to them by the band’s dope dealer, as that’s where he got his supply.
“At the time, drugs in Japan were verboten, you didn’t talk about it,” says Blake. “So through a translator, Pierre answered, ‘Well you know, in Bermuda, there is a plant that grows where no two leaves are alike. And the children play a game where they try to find two leaves that are the same. The game is called Match Me If You Can, but because of the Bermudian accent, it sounds like Mashmakhan.’ I’m going, ‘Pierre, where did that come from?’”
The first of the two shows was in Tokyo. Big rock shows had started popping up across Japan in the wake of Woodstock and the festival craze in the West. A series called Rock Carnival had begun, featuring big-name bands such as Chicago and Led Zeppelin. This would be the sixth in that series, and Grand Funk Railroad also happened to be wildly popular in the country at that time. The famed Budokan in Tokyo was judged too small at 15,000 seats, so for the very first time, a rock show was being allowed in the near-sacred Korakuen Baseball Stadium, with its 40,000 capacity. With two hit bands, the show sold out.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yssSTJ12i6Q
What transpired was a legendary gig in that country and even in the West, hallowed by Grand Funk fans, and still a blur and a shock for the Canadians. It was by far the biggest crowd the members of Mashmakha had ever played to, and when they took the stage following a performance by a local Janis Joplin-esc artist, they became the first-ever Western group to usher in the stadium era in Japan.
And the crowd went wild. Really wild. Outside, there was a riot, as 2,000 fans who could not get tickets tried to break into the stadium. At one point, several tore down a telephone pole and tried to use it as a battering ram to bash in the locked doors. Inside was just as chaotic, as fans scrambled over the fences and ran across the baseball field, trying to get to the stage. Security guards ran them down, pinning them to the ground before ejecting them.
Mashmakhan’s set was almost a disaster but none other than Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad saved the day for Rayburn Blake. “Mark saved my ass in Japan,” he says. “We were setting up for soundcheck in Tokyo, and my amp is caving in, it was just gargling. I was told the voltage was the same in Japan, but it wasn’t, it was 25 percent lower, and I had an amp that was just struggling to make a sound at all. Mark Farner looks over, and said, ‘I know what your problem is, we’ve been here before.’ And he had a voltage regulator. ‘You’re welcome to use it.’ I don’t know what would have happened without him being so accommodating, he was great.”
After Mashmakhan’s set, the skies darkened and a huge gust of wind ripped a giant Grand Funk Railroad sign off the stage and into the field. The band took the stage as a torrential downpour began, yet somehow the crowd and group managed to get through the show, which has gone down in band and fan annals as one of their greatest. Consequentially, the second show, which took place five days later at Osaka’s baseball park, seemed tame by comparison, with a mere 15,000 packing that stadium.
Unfortunately for Mashmakhan, things weren’t going as well when they got back home. Follow-up singles had failed to break through, and the group’s second album, produced by Neil Young associate David Briggs tanked. The group soon called it quits. Blake and Edwards formed the short-lived Riverson, Mercer went on to April Wine’s drum chair, and Sénécal tried to revive Mashmakhan to little success a few years later in 1973.
As for Japan, the band’s achievements became more and more impressive as the years went by. In 2012, a Korean group by the name of CN Blue finally matched their achievement, becoming the first foreign group to top the weekly Oricon singles chart in 41 years.
In 2015, “As The Years Go By,” composed by Pierre Sénécal, was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.