A music promoter lifts the curtain on the antics of big stars behind the scenes
Impresario Yoshito Yamazaki knows a story or two about some of the world’s greatest artists to have graced Japanese stages over the past half-century, and finally he’s ready to reveal some secrets.
The music promoter is the chairman of Kyodo Tokyo Inc., which organized the Beatles’ historic 1966 tour that saw the group perform at Nippon Budokan hall, a venue in the capital that had until then been reserved for martial arts.
As Yamazaki was primarily involved in booking and coordinating shows, he accumulated many behind-the-scenes stories that shed new light on famous faces such as Paul McCartney, members of the Rolling Stones, and composer John Williams.
Williams, 90, who is also a conductor, has created scores for many acclaimed films, including ‘Star Wars’ and the ‘Harry Potter’ series, ‘ET: The Extra-Terrestrial’, ‘Jaws’, “Jurassic Park” and the “Indiana Jones” series.
Yamazaki was in charge of negotiating his first tour of Japan in 1987.
Because orchestras are booked several years in advance, Yamazaki often found himself traveling to the United States over a period of three or four years to continue negotiations.
“He never says no, but he also never says when he’s coming,” Yamazaki said.
Although he was able to successfully conclude this round of negotiations, Yamazaki then faced the difficulty of profiting from an orchestra performing film scores and pop music.
“It’s common to see a big difference in ticket prices for the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing classical music in Japan, which can sell for 25,000 yen ($206) and 12,000 yen for pop music, partly because of a difference in market size,” says Yamazaki. “I had a hard time figuring out how to make it work as a business because we were paying the same fees.”
Williams, who suffers from chronic lower back pain, insisted on a seat that could fold up during a trip to Japan so that he stretched out as much as possible.
Because such seats are not available on Shinkansen bullet trains, Yamazaki negotiated with a train conductor to lay a blanket on the floor of the large overhead compartment for Williams to lie on during his ride.
Yamazaki even once offered the composer to walk down the stairs at a train station.
“At the time, the barrier between classical music and pop music was much higher than it is today,” he added.
Yamazaki described Williams as having a strong rebellious spirit, which enabled him to create music that convinced and impressed classical music traditionalists. He noted that the American composer was exceptionally dedicated and uncompromising in everything he did.
SPIELBERG’S UNIQUE INTRODUCTION
Yamazaki also recalled the time he attended a John Williams concert in the United States and Steven Spielberg, many of whose films feature scores by the composer, presented a video message.
The director said he wanted to illustrate that his films would be boring and much less exciting without dramatic scores, and showed part of a film without music.
Audiences were baffled for about three minutes before the director said he was adding music by the maestro to the footage.
“That moment, the grandeur created by the combination of images and music stood out,” Yamazaki said. “We take it for granted that movies come with music, but it made me realize how boring movies can be without music.”
THE MACCA VISIT WITHOUT ACCOUNT
Yamazaki also helped organize concerts for Paul McCartney and his band after the Beatles broke up in 1970, eight years after the release of their first single.
Visiting Japan for the first time in 11 years in 2013, McCartney returned in 2015, 2017 and 2018 for more gigs.
Yamazaki noted that it was unusual for McCartney to return as he prefers to perform in places he has never visited. Macca fans around the world couldn’t understand why he was returning to Japan.
In an unusual start, it was decided to bring McCartney and his band in May 2014, even though only six months had passed since he performed in November.
Plans were made to operate before construction began to replace the old National Stadium in the capital’s Shinjuku district. Yamazaki came up with a grand plan for McCartney to perform at the old stadium and open the new stadium, and had negotiated with the musician.
The first show was scheduled to open at 5:30 p.m.
Usually, McCartney shows up at a venue no later than three hours before curtain time for an hour-long rehearsal.
Although Yamazaki and his team made security arrangements and other preparations to welcome the star, they waited for a call to let them know he was leaving the hotel.
As they waited anxiously, news came that the star couldn’t leave the hotel as he wasn’t feeling well, prompting the concert manager to rush back to his hotel.
The promoter decided to cancel the concert and both parties issued a press release to make the announcement.
With no time to waste, the McCartney side wanted to say the gig was “postponed” or a cancellation fee would be levied.
But Kyodo Tokyo and other organizers wanted to say it had been ‘cancelled’ on the grounds that they could not say it had been postponed when they were unable to announce another date. .
Eventually, just before the venue opened, it was announced that the show was “cancelled” in Japanese, while the English language website said it was “postponed”.
McCartney was admitted to a Tokyo hospital recommended by the British Embassy for surgery and returned home without performing.
Although the organizers took out cancellation insurance for the concert, they encountered difficulties in negotiations with the insurance company to find out if they would receive cover.
They could not provide the insurance company with the name of the illness that resulted in McCartney’s hospitalization as the reason for the cancellation, as it was withheld from them.
In the event, the coverage was approved and 90% of concert costs were covered by insurance, Yamazaki said.
“It was so awkward, but when we did the makeup gig the following year (in 2015), Paul looked like he was like, ‘We did it!'”
RIDING BY BIKE TO BUDOKAN
Once offstage, McCartney comes across as unassuming and friendly.
“He casually strolled to Mitsukoshi (department store) in the Ginza district,” Yamazaki said.
The former Beatle asked sellers if they knew who he was when paying for the items he wanted, and was amused to learn that they didn’t, Yamazaki added.
The Kyodo Tokyo president noted that McCartney also likes to ride a bike.
The musician cycled to the Nippon Budokan to take photos of the indoor arena the day after his performance there in 2015.
McCartney still comes to Japan with an entourage of around 120 staff.
Being vegetarian, his band goes on tour with a chef.
But he sometimes frequents vegetarian and Chinese restaurants.
A well-known anecdote involves the time McCartney scoffed at a bowl of soba noodles at Mount Takaosan on the outskirts of Tokyo during one of his visits.
Yamazaki also cherishes the memory of watching the Kyushu Grand Sumo tournament with the rock star in Fukuoka when he came to Japan in 2013.
They walked into the room early at McCartney’s request, only to see sumo wrestlers competing in the second-tier juryo division.
But contrary to what Yamazaki expected, McCartney stayed until the last fight.
Intrigued by the “kenshoki” banners with the names of the sponsors parading around the dohyo ring before each fight, the rocker declared that he wanted to sponsor a match.
Yamazaki told him that sponsors must request banners two weeks before each tournament and must sponsor at least 15 fights, which would take time to sort out, given the elaborate embroidery required.
But McCartney was adamant, asking for help to make it happen.
The Japan Sumo Association granted him a special favor, allowing paper streamers bearing his name to appear in the ring.
McCartney was delighted with the arrangement.
He seems to have developed a particular fondness for sumo and often mentions the sport. On stage, McCartney liked to do the “shiko” foot-striking move when performing in Japan.
THE DISCIPLINED STYLE OF MICK JAGGER
Kyodo Tokyo also handled the Rolling Stones Japan Tour in 2014.
“Each member was supported by a lot of staff, and it felt like they were a group of four big stars,” Yamazaki recalled, adding that frontman Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were in a whole different class.
Unlike McCartney, each band member was surrounded by staff members well versed in Japanese customs and how to run things. And because they took control of the broadcasts, the members of Kyodo Tokyo had little chance to communicate with the Stones.
Yamazaki got the impression that Richards and Charlie Watts were in good spirits and calm.
Although Jagger is generally seen as disciplined and pissed off, the singer has never been seen giving instructions or complaining about anything in public.
However, his disciplined style was evident in his contract, which required a backstage training room.
A dressing room equipped with a treadmill and weightlifting machines was set up at the Tokyo Dome on the day of the concert.
Jagger went through basic training and other drills with an instructor after a rehearsal, according to Yamazaki.
“I think the public looked to the Beatles as role models and the Rolling Stones as delinquents, and it’s true that Paul is humble and friendly and indeed comes across as a role model,” Yamazaki said. “But the Stones retain an impression of juvenile delinquents. There is a saying that goes, “The child is the father of the man”, and I couldn’t help but think that humans are interesting creatures.