By Ben Johnson
JAPAN. Close your eyes, sit back and empty your mind of the nonsense that is currently floating round in it. Ask yourself a question, this question (you might have to open your eyes for a minute to find out what the question is, soz), what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan? Don’t think about the answer just go with your intuitive minds suggestion.
What was your answer?
Sushi you say? You might want to put down whatever appliance you are reading this on and have some then because I don’t think this is for you. That green gear they give you with it, that’s not hot by the way, not in the slightest.
What’s that, Origami? Do me a favour, print this off and make a little figure of a man holding up two fingers to you out of the paper. You are not for me.
Mr Miyagi? Ok you can stay. Pat Morita’s portrayal of the wise old Japanese hardcase still brings me to tears now. That scene, where he tries to catch the fly but can’t catch the fly – sublime stuff, superbly acted. You want frustration portrayed on screen, look this up.
Anyway, the answer on the lips of every sane, fully rational being to read this is surely Karaoke. The wonderful giver of enjoyment, the equaliser. You see, for me it is possibly the single greatest way to spend your time. If you don’t like Karaoke you are either not doing it right or are beyond redemption. In fact, research would suggest that you are probably a Tory. Not convinced? Ok, let me set the scene.
It’s two hours after the final whistle, probably two hours forty five minutes after Gerrard’s slip. I walk in to the Lady of Mann with fifteen minutes left of City’s walk in the park against Crystal Palace to be met by utter desolation. Paul Johno has gone, gone to pieces. He can’t lift his head. Nobody talks for half an hour. When anyone does it is just to cry foul at Mourinho, or lady luck, or Pulis for having a cap on. Again. ‘Bastards’ is exhaled at the end or start of conversations. It’s one of them. I try to rally round, to get Paul Johno talking at least but there’s nothing doing. A meeting of minds suggests we need a change of environment. There is only one place on the agenda. The Saddle.
The Saddle in its quality of drink & aesthetic appeal is nothing special. It is a run of the mill pub which appears to be frequented by nice people who like Karaoke. We stumbled across it one day in March and went there to celebrate every victory afterwards in what was looking increasingly like a league winning campaign. It was obvious to everyone that we would be going to the Saddle after Chelsea. Now we were here, nobody knew what to do. People hugged and consoled each other like it was a wake. In a way it was. The atmosphere was flat, people were still discussing the match. Candi was belting out a musical number on the Karaoke but, to be fair, no one was paying any attention. Sorry Candi, sorry Karaoke.
Skip forward an hour. An hour of hearty drinking, increased laughter and Karaoke momentum that is just ending with Paul Johno setting the ceiling alight with one of the greatest, most uplifting Karaoke performances ever seen to man. People are on chairs, tables, anything they can use to get a better view. The regulars are hugging, the locals are dancing. What is Paul Johno doing? He is stood, with a stance that can only be described as Presidential, belting out the final bars of You Win Again by The Bee Gees. Our earlier woes are gone, we are still going to win the league and Brendan does indeed love Jordan more than he will ever know. Karaoke, the redeemer has struck again.
What I love about Karaoke more than anything else is its ability to change. To transform a run of the mill boozer to the greatest disco in town – to transform the collective mind set of a gang of people from devastated to delirious. That’s a serious power for good. More to the point it doesn’t really matter how talented you are. What makes Karaoke great is that all you need to do is perform to the crowd and take them with you. Read the atmosphere correctly and the crowd will respond. Pick the right song, in the right context and you will be loved. You Win Again isn’t a great song in my eyes, I don’t own a Bee Gees record and wouldn’t choose to listen to them. It was however, perfect for that time and that place. The message it delivered was one of hope and fight and never giving up. It was performed excellently but the real trick was in its selection. There were better songs sung, possibly better singers singing them, but nothing came close to this.
So what has this got to do with Japan and the world cup? Not a great deal on the surface. Not a great deal at all until I let you know that I am engaged by Japan as a sort of spiritual guide.
My official title is: The Music Sensei.
To all intents and purposes I am their Dr Steve. I’ve been working with some of the players for a number of months trying to instil the spirit of the Saddle throughout the squad. You see Karaoke is a big deal in Japan but it has lost its way in recent years. Attendances have dropped, bars have closed. What is the cause? They take it so seriously, too seriously. An over reliance on ballads, too many warbling voices, too many indie disco efforts, not enough pop, not enough dancing, not enough audience participation. One of the most popular Karaoke songs in Japan is Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”, for Christ’s sake. The impact has been felt not only throughout the country but within the national team set up.
You don’t believe me no? Ok, no bother. Take Shinzi Kagawa (Kags) as a prime example of the work I have been doing. Now the simplest of research conducted on any search engine will tell you that Karaoke means ‘the song of the mind’ in Japanese. It is common practice for Japanese businessmen to sing their Karaoke song of choice whilst undertaking their daily duties. This is also the case for Japanese footballers. Kags, for the last year, has had The Smiths playing around in his head whenever he steps out to play. Not just any Smiths song, but ‘I know it’s over’. As a consequence I think it is fair to say he has struggled. Isolated in games, almost invisible at times, he has been driven by the sombre tone and dreary doom laden voice and confidence shattering lyrics. Adopted as his official Karaoke number upon signing for United to win over the dressing room it has taken over his soul and corrupted his mind.
“As I climb into an empty bed, oh well, enough said”
That brutally isolated deep bass, zapping any strength left.
“And if you are so clever, then why are you on your own tonight and if you are so very entertaining”….
Heart breaking but ultimately understandable that he has been a shadow of his former self. Couple that with the sombre tone and dreary doom laden voice of Big Davy Moyes splitting his ears every minute of every day and, well you can imagine what I was dealing with at the outset.
So what was the answer? What have we been working on? How have I changed him from a withdrawn, washed up hermit to World Cup winning captain elect? Well, the replacement song of choice needed to have a bit of rhythm to it, a bit of a foot tapper was called for. I thought he would reject it out of hand, what with the Scottish accent and the like but the first time I introduced it to him he was all over it from the first line.
“I’m on my way, from misery to happiness today”
His lovely little face lit up. A look of awe and wonder spread across it, a grin from ear to ear. I pulled out a pair of thick rimmed, non-prescription clear glasses for him (twenty twenty vision, could have been a pilot) and he was away. “The Proclaimers, no way” he yelled. At one point he was insistent on wearing the glasses on the pitch like Edgar Davids but I’ve managed to pull him away from that now. We’ve worked long and hard in the studio over the last few weeks and months and I’m glad to say the song has taken over his body and his natural game is back. Gone is the hesitant, questionable little character that had looked lost for the last year and in his place is a marauding, fluid animal of a player. The spirit of the Saddle is evident in his every touch. Expect big things this summer. In fact load on him for player of the tournament. Whilst you are at it, look closely enough and you will see his lips moving ever so slightly – words forming in his mouth – “I’m on my way to all I want in this world”. Marvellous.
With the star player sorted and leading by example Big Tony Zacc asked me to concentrate my efforts on the team as a whole. It was a tricky affair. Honda wouldn’t engage. Too busy bouncing round in shades calling me a wool to even listen to the benefits of my teachings. He loves ballads apparently so I’m not surprised. The rest of the lads were great but big Tony is asking a lot. There are tactical issues that he wants me to try and address. They are poor at the back, susceptible to high balls and make defensive errors and individual mistakes. I’ve tried to tell him that I’m not a miracle worker and that he needs to do a bit but he was having none of it. As a consequence we had to come up with a track to provide tempo, fluidity and an urgency to overcome this defensive weakness. One with flair, openness and full to the brim with risk and attacking intent. One which would require absolute aggression to get through it, right on the edge of reason.
What did we come up?
I WOULD DIE 4 U – PRINCE
I know it was a stroke of genius, wasn’t it? You can’t do anything other than commit to this track wholeheartedly. You are either in or you are out, but once you are in you are in up to your neck. From the opening slide base note that is it. The change in performance has been remarkable. The intensity of our training has gone through the roof. This is now a team set to take on the world. There is a cold hearted belief coursing through the lads veins.
“Ivory Coast have got Drogba and The Big Bone himself? So what, we have got Prince”.
“If we get through we might play who? England? Are you messing? We’ve got Prince doing our team talk and they have got The Hodge? Do me a favour and jib it.
If you could see the changing room before a game it is a site to behold. Prince blasting out, 21 Japanese lads going berserk, twirling, doing the splits and doing an awful lot of pointing. Kags with his gigs on and his Beats by DRE listening to I’m on my way over and over and Honda, sitting there, fuming. No need for team talks, no need for tactics. The course has been set. Other teams may have better players, they may actually be better teams but none of them will have a better collective spirit and mind set come kick off. The spirit of Karaoke, Saddle Karaoke will be coursing through their veins. I expect nothing less than Victory but then why wouldn’t I?
Karaoke, the great equaliser has struck again.