Monday, June 21st, 2010 | SMASH Pop Culture with

Traveling Without MovingFull disclosure: I was a pretty hardcore Jamiroquai fan back in the day. In the early 90s I was in Paris and inside the Virgin Megastore I heard a pretty amazing album, “Emergency on Planet Earth” on the headphones. Its eclectic mix of jazzy beats and funk on what was a paean to the horrors that we have caused to our environment made them noticeable to world audiences who also noticed the lanky lead singer, Jay Kay, the one that appeared in a furry buffalo hat.

They seemed to be very popular in Europe before they caught on here; in fact, the “Return of the Space Cowboy” US club tour in 1995 was played to small audience–they even performed at a tiny dive bar in the Rockridge district of Oakland, CA (which is now a lonely laundromat).

They eventually hit the big tine a couple of years later with the release of their disc, “Travelling without Moving, and what would be their best-known song, “Virtual Insanity”, a similar-themed jam that chastised us for how we have taken the reality of life and made it fake and synthetic. Their iconic video, directed by Jonathan Glazer, was a revelation in the summer of ’97, earning 10 MTV Video Music Award nominations and winning video of the year. And it was a breakthrough, for its special effects: in the vertigo-like clip, Jay appears to be moving around a room whose floor seems to be moving while the rest of the room stays still. It took me a while to figure out all the techniques, especially how all of the video was essentially done in one take, according to the director.

Nevertheless, 1997 was Jamiroquai’s year, and their show at SF’s Warfield Theatre that year was remarkable, and a sign that an “acid-jazz”, funk, R&B revival from England was indeed invading our shores.

Do we need to mention “Canned Heat”?, the neo-disco single from the 1999 “Synkronized” album that was revived years later in the climactic scene in “Napoleon Dynamite” when the lead character dances gawkily to it in the final scene?

The band enjoyed continued success with that disc, and, locally, they even took over SF’s Union Square for a free Fourth of July concert. (My butt still hurts from sitting on the concrete for a few hours.) The band sold a whole lot of albums, they were touring constantly and Jay was enjoying the sweet trappings of being a worldwide star, buying expensive sports cars (belying, apparently, his pro-environment message), dating and breaking up with supermodels, and eventually, smashing paparazzi’s cameras while on alcohol (and other substances) benders, etc., etc.

This video, from a well-publicized late night fight and humiliating headbutting at Jay’s expense because, well, he (and his $170,000 Bentley) was being a petulant dick. (For those eagle-eyed “Top Chef” viewers, you’ll notice the practically salivating Toby Jones joining in on the play-by-play with his fellow journalists; for those who just want the headbutt that was heard all over England, go to 03:30)

By 2001, and the ill-timed release of “A Funk Odyssey” on September 11, their fame had faded a bit, and so too did their trademark sound, with the replacement of some band members and Jay’s continued drunken battles with the press. The release of “Dynamite” in 2005 attempted to recapture some of their jazz-funk sound, with songs such as “Seven Days in Sunny June” but they were never to revisit the enormous world-wide success of “Virtual Insanity”.

FightIn recent years, the band has been up and down: in 2006, Jay announced that he would no longer make music, but eventually released a well-received greatest hits disc and compilation of all of his videos (a nifty collection, if you can find it, because it shows some almost never-before-seen clips –well, at least in the US). Lately, the hodgepodge band of sorts has been filling the halls in exciting locales such as Ljubljana, Skopje and Talinn, where “acid jazz” may still be percolating nowadays. Things may be looking up: on June 26, Jay and the band will be opening for Stevie Wonder, arguably Jay’s most well-known would-be sound-alike, at the Hard Rock Calling music festival in London’s Hyde Park.

So we want to know something: what, besides quick cash, could be the reason why Jay decided to take their most celebrated music video and song and allow it to be a vehicle for selling Nissin (of Japan) Cup of Noodles? Is this the ultimate sell-out? I know that a lot of top-level celebrities like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, or rare ones, like Woody Allen, ultimately surrender to the almighty Japanese yen for ads, but isn’t this just a bit over-the-top? How does a world of virtual reality, and a video that simulates claustrophobia help explain or sell an instant cup of monosodium glutamate-infused ramen noodles?

CostcoIt’s not so much the need for a little infusion of cash that has us flustered. With Jay’s lifestyle of late and apparent lack of record distributor or major hit lately, it would appear that getting a check from Nissin is something that benefits them both: Jay plays the nostalgia angle to those who remember the buffalo hat and what hijinks they were up to back in ’97, and Nissin, well, they want to wake up their audience in Japan (where Jamiroquai were also hugely popular) with an item they already purchase in mass quantities. Technically speaking, it’s pretty muddled and poorly dubbed. I mean, it’s not like the band went back into the studio and re-recorded the song, or better yet, had some wizards perform some magic on a computer or Auto-Tune system. We’re not asking for Jay to have taken Japanese lessons, though some famous people have gone to these lengths before.

We’re just confused: a song about how we’re destroying our world and a product that costs $.23 per unit at Costco and which is a salty mainstay of cheap eaters the world over.

At a time when it appears that everyone is out to make a buck, when the Human League’s 1982 synth-pop classic “Don’t You Want Me?” is used to sell Nabisco’s chocolate chip cookies, when even Annie Lennox, she of Eurythmics fame, noted social activist, can allow her 1995 Grammy-winning “No More I Love You’s” to be the main sample for the new Nikki Minaj song, “Your Love”, well, it seems like the need to earn a little extra in this troubled economy is worth all the sniping and groans of people like yours truly.

Finally, lest I leave you with totally unflattering impression of Jamiroquai, I’d like to close with a nifty clip we found on YouTube for what is my favorite song the band ever did –from their “Return of the Space Cowboy” disc. Pardon the moment of self-indulgence and yeah, it’s a little campy and lip-synched, but this performance of “Stillness in Time” on “Top of the Pops” must rank as one of their zippiest, good-natured turns. Note the great Stuart Zender on guitar, the absence of foppy buffalo hat, and oh yeah, no gimmicky didgeridoo.

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