It's hard to imagine, but there was once a time when karaoke didn't exist.
Sure, there have long been singalongs and pianomen. And people have made drunken fools of themselves at bars since there were bars. (And before: Alcibiades at Plato's Symposium? Awkward!)
But this particular fixture of the festive landscape, the karaoke bar and the machine(s) that enable it: This had a discrete moment of creation. And then, like a big bang of joyous, off-key mewling, it blasted out into the universe, expanding and cooling into the formations that you see today. Like The Mint in San Francisco. Or The Alibi in Portland. Or Winnie's in New York.
They are legion.
It turns out that the inventor of karaoke is a man named Daisuke Inoue, who was born in a small Japanese town in 1940. He was a drummer, by trade and sensibility, which means he ended up returning home "almost penniless" to live with his parents at the age of 28. He started playing the keyboard in particular bars called "snacks."
And that's where the story of karaoke really begins.
Inoue recounted his adventures in 2005 to Topic Magazine, which allowed the Atlantic-favorite history site The Appendix to reprint his first person account of creating a modern sensation.
One day, the president of a small company came to the club where I was playing to ask a favor. He was meeting business clients in another town and knew they would all end up at a drinking establishment and that he would be called on to sing. “Daisuke, your keyboard playing is the only music that I can sing to! You know how my voice is and what it needs to sound good.”
So at his request I taped a number of his favorite songs onto an open-reel tape recorder in the keys that would best suit his voice. A few days later he came back full of smiles and asked if I could record some more songs. At that moment the idea for the Juke 8 dawned on me: You would put money into a machine with a microphone, speaker and amplifier, and it would play the music people wanted to sing.
As I had attended a Denko (or Electric Industry) High School, you’d think I could have built the machine myself. But I was always scared of electricity and so graduated without much of an ability to put things together. A member of my band introduced me to a friend of his who had an electronics shop. I took my idea to him, and he understood exactly what I’d envisioned. With my instruction, he built eleven Juke 8s. Each machine consisted of an amplifier, a microphone, a coin box and an eight-track car stereo. Putting the machines together took about two months and cost around $425 per unit.
That was in 1969, but the machines did not actually hit the market until 1971. At first, people weren't all that interested, but once they figured out how they worked, they started to take off with an Atari-like speed.