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Sandii & the Sunsetz were a Japanese synthpop band that collaborated from 1979 until the 1990s. The Sunsetz, led by Makoto Kubota, and Sandii started as separate artists, and each have a separate discography. However, their collaboration provided a particular body of work that is representative of the period, and which successfully blended Eastern, Western and pop influences.
Sandii (サンディー) - born Sandra O'Neale - was born in Japan to an American father of Irish and Spanish ancestry and a Japanese mother. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, and she spent her early life in Japan, but moved to Hawaii in her early teens and began to study hula and Pacific dance. After becoming accomplished as a singer and dancer, Sandii released her first record "Perusha Neko" under the name Sandi Ai. Returning to Japan in 1975 she was befriended by Kyu Sakamoto, who helped her to get a job as a DJ on NHK TV in Japan. Sandii performed during the interval of the "World Popular Song Festival" in late 1975, and secured a record deal with Toho. Sandii's debut album, "Sandi Ai", is a mix of Japanese originals and covers of well-known songs by John Lennon and Olivia Newton-John. The album was not a great success, and Sandii left Toho for Discomate Records.
In 1976 Sandii performed at the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival as a non-competitor interval act, and the next year she won the prestigious “Grand Prix Best Vocal Performance” award with the single Goodbye Morning, her best selling record to date.
Sandii met Makoto Kubota in 1976, when he was a guest on her NHK TV show and afterward joined his band Yuyake Gakudan ("Sunset Gang") as a backup singer. Makoto was an accomplished musician with broad influences, and the collaboration went on to be critically acclaimed, though never quite achieving the popular success expected. The music of The Sunset Gang was very influenced by blues, Southern and West Coast rock, but later they became increasingly interested in Hawaiian and Okinawan music. At this time Sandii also became friends with the future members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, frequent collaborators with the Sunset Gang; Haruomi Hosono naming her "Sandii" because of the connection with Hawaii. However, until 1980 Sandii used a variety of names for different session work e.g. "Sandra Hohn", "Sandi A. Hohn", even "Sandy Ayako".
In 1978 Sandii sang the end title theme for the Japanese release of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, which became a top 20 hit in Japan. This gave Sandii and Makoto the opportunity to record a follow-up album. With limited time and budget, the album "Mystery Nile" consists of disco and pop cover versions including "Dancing Queen" by ABBA. Sandii and Makoto used fake English names on the record - "Sandy O'Neil" and "Theo Layer".
Other guest appearances include the albums "Dead End" and "Monkey Magic" by Godiego plus "Melting Pot" by Yamamoto Sho, whose backing band became Ippu-Do (including future Japan member Masami Tsuchiya.
In 1979, again using the name "Sandy O'Neil", Sandii released the disco track "Hey! King Kong", which failed to become a hit. The same year saw Sandii's first guest appearance with the Yellow Magic Orchestra on their album Solid State Survivor. Right at the end of '79 the Y.M.O. and Sandii began to record her debut for Alfa Records, "Eating Pleasure", featuring lyrics by Yellow Magic Orchestra lyricist, Chris Mosdell, who, as he had done for YMO's Solid State Survivor also wrote the bulk of the lyrics for "Eating Pleasure". At this point Makoto also wound up the Sunset Gang and Sandii & The Sunsetz were born. The two groups had the same members, but Sandii became lead vocalist. The collaboration with Mosdell would go on to produce some of the band's biggest hits over the next four years. Sandii and Makoto are on record as saying they were influenced by the sound and success of Blondie and later became friends with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.
Their first show as Sandii & The Sunsetz was opening for Yellow Magic Orchestra at Budokan in December 1980. In 1981 their next album Heat Scale, again featuring lyrics by Chris Mosdell, was released in 17 countries - most international releases adding tunes from "Eating Pleasure". From the release of "Heat Scale" until the next album release "Immigrants" (with a title song penned once more by lyricist Chris Mosdell) The Sunsetz spent a lot of time in the UK, recording with David Sylvian and Fun Boy Three producer Dave Jordan. Sounds, NME and Melody Maker gave The Sunsetz extensive coverage which gave the group a lot of credibility in Japan, leading to increased record sales. Their live act gained many fans in the international music industry following their support slot on the final Japan world tour. The Sunsetz went on to tour and play festivals with Eurythmics, Inxs, Blondie and David Bowie. Their extensive touring and TV appearances in Australia in 1983 allowed them to achieve the #11 charting hit single "Sticky Music" (lyrics by Chris Mosdell). Sandii & the Sunsetz also wrote songs for pop idol Akina Nakamori, including her hit "Babylon". Sadly, the group had problems with international distribution and promotion and were unable to replicate that success worldwide, but had an avid cult following.
In 1985 Sandii & The Sunsetz left Alfa Records for Toshiba-EMI, whose greater financial muscle gave the group a better budget to work with. Following a collaboration with Stephen Duffy ("Something Special") the group released the rock influenced "La La La La Love", released as "Banzai Baby" outside Japan. Although a strong album musically the group were disappointed that it was not promoted internationally, despite following the guidance of the record company, and opted to follow their own creative vision for subsequent releases. This led them to reggae, dancehall and other Jamaican styles which heavily influenced the final Sunsetz albums "Rhythm Chemistry" and "One Love".
In 1990, the group had another re-invention, just using the name Sandii, although they would carry on using "& The Sunsetz" for live appearances well into the 1990s. Sandii and Makoto decided to concentrate on the Asian market and subsequent releases sold in greater numbers, helped by Sandii recording key songs in up to four languages. In 1996 Sandii recorded the first of her "Hawaii" albums and became increasingly involved in Hula culture. Sandii now runs two Hula schools, in Harajuku, Tokyo and Yokohama and has a TV series on NHK, contributing to the popularity of Hula dance in Japan and allowing Sandii to release roughly two albums a year of Hawaiian and other Pacific style music. In late 2005 Sandii achieved the rank of Kumu Hula and celebrated with an event at a shrine in Ise, with old friend Haruomi Hosono providing the music.
Makoto Kubota is still a major music producer in Japan, always exploring new directions in world music.
(Sandii & The Sunsetz)
- "Sticky Music" (Alfa Records/WEA, 1983; lyrics: Chris Mosdell)
- 'Babes in the Woods" (Eastworld/Toshiba EMI, 1985)
- Heat Scale (Alfa Records, 1981; title track lyrics by Chris Mosdell)
- Immigrants (Alfa Records, 1982; title track lyrics by Chris Mosdell)
- La La La La Love~Banzai Baby (Eastworld/Toshiba EMI, 1986)
- Rhythm Chemistry (Toshiba EMI, 1987)
- One Love (Toshiba EMI, 1988)
- Viva Lava Liva: 1980–1983 (Alfa Records, 1984; a different version was released in Australia)
- Orientation (Best of 1985–1988) (Toshiba EMI, 1990)
- East Meets West (A&M, US/Canada, 1989; compilation of material from 1980 to 1988)
- Twins – Super Best of Sandii and Sunsetz (Alfa Records, 1996)
- "The Bomb the Bass Remix" (Alfa Records, 1991)
- "The Sunset Gang" (Dixie Fever, 1977; also several other albums by Sunset Gang during the 1970s with Makoto on lead vocals)
- (as Sandi Ai) "Sandi Ai" (Toho Records, 1975) (included the singles "Ai No Melody" and "Kuzitsuke no yurushite")
- (as Sandi Ai) "Perusha Neko" (Pineapple Records Hawaii, USA, 1975)
- (as Sandy) "Goodbye Morning" (Discomate Records, 1976)
- (as Sandra Hohn) "Love Squall" (Vap Records, 1978)
- (as Sandy O'Neil) "Mystery Nile" (Toshiba-EMI, 1978)
- (as Sandy O'Neil) "Hey! King Kong" (Toshiba-EMI, 1979)
- "Drip Dry Eyes" (Alfa Records, 1980; lyrics: Chris Mosdell)
- (with Stephen Duffy) "Something Special" (Ten Records/Virgin, 1985)
- Eating Pleasure (Alfa Records, 1980; title track lyrics by Chris Mosdell)
- Pacifica (EMI/Eastworld, 1991)
- Come Again – Remixes and Rare Tracks (Eastworld, 1991)