TelevisionAdolescent Sex
The TenantObscure Alternatives
In VogueQuiet Life
Life In TokyoAssemblage
SwingGentlemen Take Polaroids
Ain't That PeculiarGentlemen Take Polaroids
The Art Of PartiesTin Drum
GhostsTin Drum
Visions Of ChinaTin Drum
BlackwaterRain Tree Crow
Bonus Tracks
Ghosts (solo acoustic)YouTube
Ghosts of My Life (Goldie)YouTube


Japan playlist



Contributor: David G. Shaw

I discovered Japan only after they had disappeared. A copy of Oil On Canvas crossed my desk when I was a music reviewer for the MIT student newspaper, so I dutifully gave it a listen. It was unlike any band I had heard before, so I searched out the rest of their recordings in what I would later discover was reverse chronological order. I won’t do that here, because Japan’s story is more interesting when told from the beginning.

The band was formed in 1974 by friends at Catford Boys’ School in South London. Brothers David and Steven Batt re-christened themselves David Sylvian (inspired by Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls) and Steve Jansen, with Sylvian as vocalist/guitarist and Jansen as drummer. They were joined by keyboardist Richard Barbieri and bassist Andonis Michaelides (better known as Mick Karn), and called themselves Japan before their first live gig, assuming that the temporary name would eventually be replaced. In 1976 they added guitarist Rob Dean, then signed a recording contract with Hansa-Ariola, a German disco label.

Their 1978 debut, Adolescent Sex, was a glam-influenced assault powered by Dean’s guitar and Sylvian’s snarling vocals. Wish You Were Black features Karn’s fretless bass playing (he is unique in being the only rock bassist to play fretless exclusively) and Jansen’s funky drumming. Don’t Rain On My Parade, a snotty cover of the Barbara Streisand classic, seems a bit forced, as if all punk bands were required to cover a classic to compete with Sid Vicious’ My Way. It all comes together in Television, a nine-minute groove workout that has aged much better than the other tracks. It also marks the appearance of Sylvian’s lower vocal register – a hint of things to come.

Obscure Alternatives, their second album, was released seven months after their debut failed to dent the British charts. Sylvian has stated in interviews that this should have been their debut album. It’s less powerful, less funky than their debut, but you can hear the band experimenting with a more atmospheric sound. Rhodesia and Suburban Berlin continue their fascination with oppressive regimes (Communist China from the debut, Life In Tokyo, Canton, Cantonese Boy, and Visions Of China still to come). The standout track here is The Tenant, a chilly atmospheric instrumental in the vein of Eno’s Through Hollow Lands. This track also notes the first appearance of Karn’s sax playing, which would become more prominent on later records.

Quiet Life, recorded in 1979, would be their last album for Hansa-Ariola. It’s fitting that it marked so many other obvious transitions. Sylvian switched to his baritone register for all his vocals, Karn’s sax had a larger role, and the overall sound moved from quirky glam-punk to funky synth-pop. Despite Sylvian’s appearance on the cover – suit, white coif, pale makeup – they were already too refined to be lumped in with the New Romantics crowd. (Sylvian: “For them [New Romantics], fancy dress is a costume. But ours is a way of life. We look and dress this way every day.”)

If the cover of Quiet Life was any indication, they were more Roxy Music than Visage. The title track, with its string synths, vocal harmonies, and chiming guitars, could, in retrospect, be cited as the blueprint for Duran Duran’s entire career. (Simon LeBon copped to stealing Duran’s look from a Japan album photo.) In Vogue stands out as the tune that pulled together past influences while also pointing the way forward. Dean’s guitar became less prominent, often overshadowed by Barbieri’s textures. Barbieri, a self-confessed “technically average” keyboard player, turned out to have a real talent for processing electronic sounds.

Assemblage collects various singles and B-sides from the Hansa catalog, including Japan’s first big hit, a cover of the Smokey Robinson Motown classic I Second That Emotion. Life In Tokyo, produced by Giorgio Moroder, is their first flirtation with Eurodisco.

Gentlemen Take Polaroids, their first album on Virgin and their last with Rob Dean, is when Japan finally found its real voice. Karn and Jansen’s locked-in rhythms dominate this record, particularly on Swing, with Barbieri’s textures filling in the gaps. The title track (in an alternate universe it’s a hit for Roxy Music) and Methods Of Dance are continuations of ideas first explored on Quiet Life, while Nightporter, influenced by Erik Satie and Dirk Bogarde, is a chilly piano ballad. Taking Islands In Africa, written in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, points to future work he’d do with Sylvian. While Ain’t That Peculiar might be an odd choice for a cover version, particularly after I Second That Emotion, it’s included here because the band made it their own, sharing only lyrics with the Marvin Gaye/Robinson original.

Most bands continue well past their artistic high water marks, but Japan would go out with Tin Drum, their undisputed masterpiece. Heavily influenced by Asian music and themes, it’s stylistically varied and ambitious in its reach. Throughout, Karn’s smeared notes match Sylvian’s melismatic singing, most notably on Visions Of China, which also highlights Jansen’s finest playing. The band moved effortlessly from the dancefloor rave-up of The Art Of Parties to the torch song crooning of Ghosts, with its minimal backing of Barbieri’s synth washes and Jansen’s marimba. (Both bonus tracks above are versions of the tune, the first performed on acoustic guitar by Sylvian, the second a sample used by Goldie, recording under the name Rufige Kru.)

On the basis of those three hits, the record was Japan’s highest-charting release, but that success wasn’t enough to soothe the tensions that had developed within the band, which revolved around Sylvian’s perfectionism and increasing control of the band’s musical direction (it was no coincidence that Sylvian was featured on the album covers with the band relegated to the back). Their final 1982 performance would be documented with Oil On Canvas, released as both record and film, which featured three new instrumental compositions by band members.

Sylvian released a series of singles with Sakamoto before embarking on his solo carer. Karn collaborated with Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy as Dali’s Car, Jansen and Barbieri worked together as The Dolphin Brothers, and Rob Dean toured with Gary Numan and Sinead O’Connor. But in 1990 the quartet reconvened in the studio to record a series of improvisations that would be released as Rain Tree Crow, indicating a break from Japan’s past. Blackwater, one of two pre-composed contributions from Sylvian, was the only track released as a single. The rest of the band suggested restoring the Japan name, but Sylvian’s control over the project relegated the other members to session player roles for what was effectively another solo record. And with that, Japan was well and truly done.

Mick Karn would go on the have a varied career both as a soloist and collaborator before his death in 2011. Richard Barbieri, in addition to recording projects with both Karn and Jansen, became the keyboardist for Porcupine Tree. Steve Jansen formed JBK (Jansen Barbieri Karn) with his former bandmates, and continues to play with his brother.

And what of David Sylvian? That’s a subject for my next post [see Toppermost #604 … Ed.].




Japan Archive & Discographies

Japan lyrics

Japan: 5 minute documentary on youtube

German VH-1 special: The Secrets of Japan part 1 (of 4)

Official David Sylvian website

Mick Karn (1958-2011) official website

Steve Jansen official website

Richard Barbieri official website

Complete Oil On Canvas on youtube

Japan biography (Apple Music)

David G. Shaw used to write about music a lot. Then he started cooking and blogging about cooking. Now it seems he’s writing about music again.

TopperPost #481

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