JAPAN - A strange and wildly idiosyncratic strand of Pop’s history

JAPAN - A strange and wildly idiosyncratic strand of Pop’s history

Radiohead are often cited as the band with the most adventurous career arc and a tendency to taunt/stretch their fans, as they push their music into unfamiliar territory.  They refuse to rest on the tried-and-tested, kicking away their own crutches, and learning to walk afresh each time.  A slightly pedantic qualification to such allegations is to cite Talk Talk’s revenge on Pop and ascendance to a higher Jazz plain, but that really is doing David Sylvian and Japan a disservice.  Japan have slipped from the Accepted Critical Canon a little in recent years.  Unjustly so.  And they have a very weird backstory indeed.

At their inception, Japan were an averagely grim glam rock troupe, with a few good tunes.  Except that story is barely true at all, despite photographic evidence.  They may have looked a bit like Hanoi Rocks on their way to Court but they were a strange and unique band from the off.  I don’t recall Motley Crue writing reggae songs about Rhodesia.  If they did, then I am truly sorry, Tommy Lee - I have misjudged you.  Before it opens out into a weirdly anthemic and uplifting Broadway show tune, Suburban Berlin from Obscure Alternatives starts like a Middle Eastern refugee from Bowie’s woefully under-appreciated Lodger, which is particularly impressive given that Lodger came out a year later.  Adolescent Sex’s title track takes Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Through The Night, loses the celebrity status and turns up the heat, making something sweatier and way more fun.  Japan could be fun too.  At times.  

The first two albums, both released in 1978 are, broadly speaking, New Wave and, with the exception of XTC, most New Wave albums have a couple or three rubbish songs on them.  Generic might be a more accurate word for those misfires but let’s be uncharitable and stick to rubbish.  Japan might have been very broadly New Wave, and Communist China IS quite reminiscent of The Only Ones, but they were never generic ANYTHING.  So the lesser songs on the first couple of albums are perhaps more accurately described as indulgent or experimental.  Or deranged and misguided.  New Wave is supposedly Punk’s housebroken puppy but there is little here that was born of anarchy.   

More obvious on Adolescent Sex is a disco and funk undercurrent; which deep disco scholars may detect evidence of in Suburban Love’s chorus of, ahem, “Earth, wind and fire”.  Following the one-two of the ambitiously titled I Wish You Were Black and the lithe, handclapping codHerbie Hancock grooves’ of Performance, comes Lovers On Main Street, which channels the Stones’ exile in that postcode.  Such wrong footing could only be trumped by a Barbra Streissand cover.  Obviously.  Quite a howlingly bad New York Dolls-y style Streissand cover too.   

It really is no wonder that Japan caused a lot of head-scratching on arrival.    It feels as though there was a nutcase behind the wheel of the band or perhaps just several people navigating the band in completely opposing directions.   I don’t suppose it helped that Hansa, their label, seemed at a loss as to how to market the band either.  Among their many random tactics was paying a famous Japanese wrestler called, amazingly, Kendo Nagasaki, based on a warrior with psychic powers, to bust into the NME office in full dress, brandishing albums and saki.  That sort of thing is going to make the path to being taken seriously quite a bit less simple to navigate.   

You know when you see an advert for a foreign music festival and wonder why The Wildhearts, Vampire Weekend and Avicii are right alongside each other on a bill?  That is how the first two Japan albums feel to me.  Smack rock, reggae, disco and Barbra Streissand covers.  What The Flop?  Oddly enough or, completely obviously, depending on your perspective, they were an instant hit in Japan and the debut rapidly sold 100,000 copies.  Sylvian remains hugely popular in Japan to this day.

Japan were further separated from the pack by Mick Karn’s very distinctive fretless bass playing, which is way less offensive than that sounds despite being both “fluid” and “rubbery”; and also by David Sylvian’s weird strangled, vibrato Bowie/Ferry tones.  It’s a shame that the focus-grouped musical mainstream these days has very few properly weird Marmite voices.  Sylvian, John Lydon, Robert Smith, Andrew Eldritch and Richard Butler, to mention a few, all deployed voices that were an acquired taste for most.  They made few concessions for a more palatable delivery.  This was part of the enduring legacy of punk – daring to be different.  Being boring was the worst sin of all.  Defiant and perverse, technically unruly and gratingly ugly when it was called for, their voices all followed the music to whatever odd places it fetched up, with a disregard for commerciality that served them incredibly well and gave each an instantly recognisable calling card.  There’s a lot to be said for artists that spend longer trying harder to be themselves, before they break cover.

It was customary, nay even obligatory, for bands to write about exotic or movie-mythologised foreign lands from Cairo to Berlin, Vienna to Tel Aviv.  There were no cheap air fares back then and, aside from driving into France or taking apackage break to Benidorm, most British people just did not travel abroad that much.  The internet has since revealed, or at least made available, all of the secrets of the world but back then my knowledge of Vienna was defined by Ultravox, The Third Man and half-remembered associations with Classical Music’s A Team.  I don’t suppose I was alone in this ignorance either.

Japan’s detractors, and they are many, label them as dim cultural tourists, who ignorantly lumped Japan and China together in a brightly coloured oriental puzzle box.  This is not entirely untrue but their twin obsessions remained and they stuck to their guns and it is perfectly possible to fascinated by both.  Despite a lot of rockisms on the first two records, the arc of the band represents a gradual excision of all Rock and western musical tropes, in favour of Eastern instruments and melodies.

Their next album would lose most of the guitars in favour of disco-based pop, further exotic meditations, and, oh my, go on to invent New Romanticism.  In 1979, album three’s title track, Quiet Life was quite the inspiration for Duran Duran’s whole aesthetic and Life In Tokyo was a brilliantly unexpected collaboration with Giorgio Moroder.  The album failed at the time, despite being rather great.  It also provided my entry point to The Velvet Underground with their transcendent, hungry cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties.  I wonder how many other people first got into the Velvets via a cover version?  Not only did everyone who bought the Velvets’ debut start a band, it seems they also all recorded cover versions.

Japan’s strong look, pin-up singer and extremely idiosyncratic ideas made them stand out a mile and ensured they always got press.  In the po-faced grey world of the late 70s music papers, this was, alas, mainly ridicule.  The thing is, all of these albums have some amazing and original tunes.  Japan took a few albums to figure out and get good at being Japan but they got there.  It then took them a little longer to write consistently well and ditch the musical red herrings that litter the first four albums.  They were birthing something wholly unique and, looking back, you can see the various facets falling into place from the very beginning.  Deviation’s muted Japanese horn stabs are about five times more effective and appropriate when they resurface of Tin Drum’s The Art Of Parties, for example, but you would be an exceptionally gifted seer to puzzle out the end of Japan’s path from its first few steps.

It seems clear that Japan didn’t really know what they had, or if people would like it but they knew it was something.  For example, around this time, future hit and Japan standard European Sun appeared as a lowly B-side for the Japanese market.  Simon Napier-Bell, Japan’s impresario music manager (T Rex, Wham etc) and jolly scoundrel, first met David Sylvian in 1975, seventeen years old with an acoustic guitar and long blonde hair slung over his back (can you imagine?) and could see that he had something.  Presumably, at first, that was cheekbones you could cut your fingers on, blue eyes that called across a room and a certain dignity.  Not for nothing would he subsequently be voted “the world’s most beautiful man”.  The rest of Japan were handsome and exotic too but David was a rare and beautiful creature, who appealed to boys and girls alike.

Their fourth album, and first for Virgin, was the luscious Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and the title track gave the band their first nearly hit (#60 in the UK).  Japan’s first wholly convincing album picked up some good reviews and peaked at #51 in the UK.   It’s a really luxurious and atmospheric album, with an average track length of well over five minutes and produced strikingly and patiently by John Punter, who also helmed Quiet Life.  After the epic and romantic sweep of the title track, Swing’s largely instrumental, vaguely Asian and slightly jazzy synthscape sets the tone and, in retrospect, announced where Japan were going.  It features another unexpected cover in Smokey and Marvin’s Ain’t That Peculiar and the truly mesmerising and devastating seven minute Nightporter, which draws on Erik Satie and Rachmaninov for tone and Cole Porter for heart.   

The tribal drums, on those songs that have drums, are loud and strong in the mix throughout and represent the final pillar in the band’s sound.   Eschewing rock rhythms and cherry picking musical influences from all around the world really made Japan stand out.  Giant kettle drums, fretless bass, oboe, sax and banks of synthesizers set to Traditional, Japanese would make a band stand out today as well, I think.

All the parts of Japan are now assembled.  They are finally a tight, original band with a unique song-writing style and a handsome singer with a weird emotive voice, albeit one with a fourth failed album to their credit.  Time to write the classic album, right?

And so they did.  Tin Drum was a proper hit album in November of 1981.  Its cover was everywhere and Japan started having hits.  Lots of hits.  If you have a band on your label and they are not successful and they leave your label and become successful elsewhere, then it is tempting/obligatory to reissue the records they made for you, to ride the wave of success and recoup your investment.  It’s frowned upon to re-release right in the middle of a successful campaign - but it happens - and this is what Hansa did to Virgin in 1981.  And 1982. 

After gaining traction with the frisky The Art Of Parties and getting great reviews for Tin Drum, Japan had hits during 1981 and 1982 with Hansa tracks; Quiet Life, Life In Tokyo, European Son and Smokey Robinson’s I Second That Emotion, on top of Tin Drum’s The Art Of Parties, Cantonese Boy, Visions of China and also Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ title track and Night Porter.  Many hits.

This was a bit confusing at the time. In 1982, Quiet Life was a snip at £2.99 in the Nice Price racks and seemed completely de jour with its recent titular hit and Giorgio’s New Romantic synthpads, yet was 3 years old.  It took me a while to notice that Assemblage was not an album per se and also had Quiet Life on it.   Boasting the pick of the first three albums, it was also completely brilliant, if bafflingly erratic stylewise.   There is nothing more exciting in life than discovering a band or author or director and then finding out that they have a treasure trove of a back catalogue.   

And then there is Ghosts.

Now these aforementioned tunes are all brilliant singles and it was amazing and exciting to see Japan feted as New Romantic pop stars and see Sylvian’s face looming out from magazine covers and the fecund band produced a hit every other month, or so it seemed, for a few years.  Really, it was.  I had not heard the older albums at this point, so this was a barrage of brilliant singles.

But Ghosts was something special.  It’s one of the weirdest singles ever to grace the Top Five.   It has no drums and is very, very quiet for the most part.  Whatever the various ticks in boxes required for a hit single are, Ghosts has none of them.  Except one; it is amazing.  Also exotic, beguiling, unusual, impassioned, beautiful and very, very memorable.  Oh and timeless.  It did have a chorus too, of sorts, so let’s make that two boxes ticked.  It still possesses all of those singular, but not single-y, characteristics today and is something you really do need to hear, if you have not.

Japan were a band that took time to find themselves and were pushing, if not forward, then at least always away from themselves, with a view to find what they could be.  Ghosts seems to be about that yearning and a desire to move on, hindered and held tightly by the past and, to me, always felt of-a-pair with This Mortal Coil’s take on Song To The Siren.  There are parallels sonically and thematically and both singles are glorious wild cards from the artists concerned.

I had never ever heard music like Ghosts before; never mind massive hit singles like Ghosts.  Hearing it for the first time, it felt like the world was whisked silently away as you were parachuted through the dark into someone else’s dream.  Waking, trapped in a secluded haunted house, the eerie silence interrupted only by floorboards creaking and half heard sounds that draw you into room after room and finally reveal themselves as your own thoughts.  The sickening gut punch of finally realising something you’ve half known for ever.   The dream is real and the person turning the key in the lock is you; always has been and always will be.

This is an extract from David Laurie's book DARE


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