By Jonathan Clements
It’s 24 April 2072 and you’re listening to Radio Free Mars, a pirate radio station broadcasting in ten languages to independent operatives all over the red planet. Our mad European-accented DJ Mr Martian is at the ready with traffic reports, complaints about the chair-warmers at city hall, some old-time tunes and handy public announcements. He’ll keep going until the police arrive – which is, in case you’re wondering, just under 45 minutes – and that makes just enough time for a bit of chat and eight tracks of golden oldies by the 21st century band Seatbelts.
Seatbelts, of course, is the jazz band put together by composer Yoko Kanno to produce songs for Cowboy Bebop, and this slice of late 21st century life is part concept album, part radio drama – a true obscurity for the Cowboy Bebop completist. Mr Martian’s script was penned by Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe and scenarist Dai Sato, who also works with the London-based localisation troubleshooters Frognation. And that ought to explain a lot, because Frognation seem to have called in favours all over the UK club scene to get remixes of Bebop tracks from the likes of Fila Brazillia, Ian O’Brien, and Mr Scruff.
Through the middle of it all, Mr Martian witters on, building an enchantingly well-realised picture of life on Mars during the events of the Cowboy Bebop series, taking time out for gags at the expense of the movie business (“Man, I wish they’d unfreeze Lucas”) and Mars’ rising crime rate. He takes several potshots at corporate life – not only the Frognation crew but also director Watanabe are freelancers, and make a point of dedicating ‘Forever Broke’ to themselves. Radio Free Mars also pokes loving fun at original composer Yoko Kanno, describing her as “a former pro wrestler and a stellar babe.”
There’s little effort on the part of the sleeve notes to link the DJs with the show itself. The Russian-born DJ Vadim had some of his music used in the casino theme in episode three, and Luke Vibert once confessed a penchant for Star Trek, but Music for Freelance wisely eschews the desperate barrel-scraping of sound-bite product endorsements that have characterised similar multimedia alliances. This is an intercultural curio, seemingly designed to promote UK DJs in Japan and to throw Cowboy Bebop into the consciousness of the club scene. It wasn’t much of a success in either area, since the tunes here were hardly the respective artistes’ best work, nor do the underlying themes reflect the best of Cowboy Bebop itself. The music here is variable – you can’t go wrong with the show’s opener ‘Tank’, but other mix-masters have found themselves lumbered with some pretty duff tracks to begin with. Most plump for rather mellow fillers for the chill-out room, and while Ian Pooley’s cut of ‘Fantasie Sign’ does a pretty good job, for example, it still sounds like an artificial imposition. 4 Hero, best known for the new Fist of the North Star soundtrack, put their own spin on ‘Space Lion’, but it’s hardly a patch on the original.
Music for Freelance was always something of an also-ran in the Cowboy Bebop music stakes, over-shadowed by several Seatbelts albums that remain fan favourites to this day. It’s something for the Cowboy Bebop collector, but also for the eccentric millionaire, since buying a copy from Amazon today will set you back almost fifty quid!
But for all these cavils, Music for Freelance is something quite intriguing – an English-language spin-off from a Japanese animation, made before the anime version was even been released abroad. It’s yet another example of the anime business’s growing interest in foreign sales and foreign involvement – and long-time Akira fans can listen out for the blatant sampling when the cops finally show up.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.