Japan: A visitor’s guide to one of modern pop’s most influential but under-rated bands

Portrait by Mick Clarke

Words & curation by Fenner Pearson, cover art by Mick Clarke as ever.

Whilst swathes of the well-known bands of the late seventies and early eighties emerged one way or another from the brief explosion of British punk, one highly influential band took its primary influence from a slightly earlier punk movement from across the Atlantic, specifically in the form of the New York Dolls.

Enamoured by the “glam punks”, brothers David and Steve Batt, along with their friends Richard Barbieri and Andonis Michaelides, formed a band as an escape route from the south London suburb of Catford. Re-christening themselves as David Sylvian and Steve Jansen — loosely after the Dolls’ David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain — while Michaelides changed his name to Mick Karn, the four friends formed a band called Japan, recruited guitarist Rob Dean to fill out their sound, and in 1977 signed a deal with Hansa-Ariola.

Their first album, ‘Adolescent Sex’, is a fairly painful listen and is represented in this playlist only by its remixed title track. Despite having Simon Napier-Bell as a manager, the promotion of what was essentially a glam rock band into the aftermath of punk was always on a hiding to nothing and so it proved.

Undeterred, that same year, Japan returned with their sophomore album, which given the circumstances of their prior flop, is curiously more assured and certainly more interesting than its predecessor. ‘Suburban Berlin’ and the title track ‘Obscure Alternatives’ both demonstrate Sylvian’s rapidly maturing songwriting as well as better displaying the bands’ burgeoning musicianship. That said, the best compass to their future style came in the guise of ‘The Tenant’, a clear indication that Sylvian had purchased a copy of Bowie’s ‘Low’. Even so, the album was not a success and that is probably not an unreasonable outcome to be honest.

However, what happened next was a pivotal point in both Japan’s history and that of modern pop music, given that it ultimately led to the birth of the New Romantic movement: Japan joined forces with electronic producer Giorgio Moroder to record ‘Life In Tokyo’. Barbieri’s arpeggiating synthesisers combined with Sylvian’s emerging baritone to deliver an irresistible seven inches of electronic pop. Suddenly, we had a whole new Japan on our hands.

In an extraordinary artistic leap that would, stunningly, be matched by their subsequent two albums, Japan went on to record ‘Quiet Life’. Always third on my list of favourite Japan albums for the twenty years following its release, this beautiful album has, over the last two decades, become my all-time favourite Japan album. It opens with ‘Quiet Life’, which takes everything the band learned from Moroder and reframes that electronic sound in a new and more considered context.

Amazingly, the ‘Quiet Life’ single was not released in the UK at the time, but instead the label chose to promote the album by releasing Japan’s cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘I Second That Emotion’ — although this track didn’t even appear on the album itself — with the ‘Quiet Life’ track appearing only on the b-side.

Although satisfyingly varied, the album notably extends the atmosphere of the second side of ‘Low’, firstly with the bleak ‘Despair’ but also with the lush orchestration of ‘The Other Side Of Life’. The musical development of the band’s members is evident all the way through the album, particularly notable in both Karn’s increasingly imaginative basslines and Jansen’s precise and intricate drumming.

Listening to the fractured, aching, gently paced ‘Quite Life’ one would have been hard-pressed to anticipate the uber-confident, polished follow up that arrived in the form of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’. Following a move from Hansa to Virgin and anticipated by the title track’s release as a single, here was a band that had quite evidently found its feet, as can be seen from their contemporaneous appearance on The Old Whistle Test (which you can find on YouTube). There was clearly no self-doubt or self-consciousness with regards to both their sound and their look.

Tracks such as ‘Swing’ and ‘Methods Of Dance’ are innovative but Sylvian never loses his pop edge or keen sense of melody. There is another cover of a Smokey Robinson track — this time it’s ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ — as well as a collaboration with The Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, ‘Taking Islands In Africa’. The only misfire for me is the hugely popular ‘Nightporter’, in which Sylvian’s homage to Satie seems a little too obvious.

At this point, one could almost hear the sound of Hansa executives kicking themselves for setting free the turkey that turned out to be a golden egg laying goose and they attempted to cash in on Japan’s newfound success by releasing a tasty little e.p. that included a favourite of mine, ‘European Son’.

Japan, though, were already moving on, leaving the definitive New Romantic look and sound behind, as well as their guitarist, Rob Dean, and producer John Punter. Steve Nye — of The Penguin Café Orchestra — took over in the producer’s chair, and the band, incredibly, stepped up another notch across the board: Sylvian’s singing and songwriting; Barbieri’s extraordinary keyboard programming; Karn’s uniquely sinuous yet percussive bass; and Steve Jansen’s drumming, which was in turns powerful and delicate, driving and sympathetically collaborative.

All four of the album’s singles are noteworthy: ‘The Art Of Parties’, which closes the loop between the New York Dolls and ‘Remain In Light’ era Talking Heads (and is backed with the anthemic ‘Life Without Buildings’); ‘Cantonese Boy’, one of my very favourite basslines; Jansen’s powerhouse ‘Visions Of China’; and, of course, ‘Ghosts’, a terrible choice of single in so many respects, which defied any sensible prediction of its likely success and went on to be a huge hit.

If one puts Sylvian’s romance with Karn’s girlfriend to one side, it was this last single that rang time on Japan. In ‘Ghosts’ Japan’s frontman and songwriter saw a new path that he wanted to pursue, away from the band, and thus, abruptly, it was all over, at least unofficially. Five albums in three years, with three absolute showstoppers — ‘Quiet Life’, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, and ‘Tin Drum’ — released in 1979, 1980, and 1981. Unbelievable.

But it’s not over yet!

Before the split, the band carried on, going through the motions with a tour that resulted in a poorly mixed live album, ‘Oil On Canvas’, with its single, ‘Canton’. You can easily find better sounding bootlegs on the web. Hansa made a further cash-in by releasing the band’s intriguing cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ taken from the ‘Quiet Life’ album and backed with a corking live version of ‘Obscure Alternatives’, and Sylvian released his first (sort of) solo record: a double A side single with Ryuichi Sakamoto, ‘Bamboo Houses’ / ‘Bamboo Music’.

It will require a whole new post to cover Sylvian’s solo career but there are a handful more notable recordings.

In 1991, the band reformed for a new album. Sylvian refused to record as Japan and, to Karn’s chagrin, chose the name Rain Tree Crow for the project. Informed by his solo career to date, it was also more loosely structured and improvised, which, in fact, worked well for the band, all of whom were great musicians. When the recordings ran out of cash, Virgin stated that they would only stump up additional funds if the album could be released under the name Japan. Sylvian refused and took the recordings off to finish on his own, driving a final wedge between himself and Karn, a fracture that was never to be repaired before Karn passed away in 2011.

The album itself is a wonder. A journey through a creative landscape that totally belies the conditions under which it was recorded. There is the sumptuous single, ‘Blackwater’, the beautifully understated ‘Every Colour You Are’, the deceptively simple ‘Pocket Full Of Change’, and the deeply funky opener ‘Big Wheels In Shanty Town’. It is a fine post script for such an amazing and influential band.

While the band would never record again as four-piece — almost certainly because of Karn’s animosity towards Sylvian (which, unfortunately, soured his autobiography, too) — the various members inevitably did play together. Some highlights of those collaborations are: Karn’s ‘Bestial Cluster’, on which Jansen and Barbieri played; Jansen and Barbieri’s ‘Long Tales, Tall Shadows’ with Karn on bass; and Sylvian’s vocals on Jansen’s ‘Ballad Of A Deadman’.

The closest that any post-Japan collaboration ever came to matching the original, though, was Sylvian and Jansen’s Nine Horses, which only released one album and one e.p., the latter of which featured this cracker, ‘Get The Hell Out’.

It’s hard to summarise Japan and their influence in a couple of paragraphs. Whilst some of their early influences are clear, in that period from 1978 to 1981, they seem to have ploughed their own intense furrow, sparing barely a glance for what was going on around them. Constantly innovative, they never spent a moment sat on their laurels, a momentum that Sylvian would sustain right through his solo career.

While some of the bands influenced by Japan are obvious — for example, Talk Talk and Duran Duran — I believe their lasting impact is more subtle and, in forty years, I have yet to see a band that has matched their breath-taking creative burn.

Sketch by Mick Clarke

For the accompanying playlist visit https://www.songsommelier.com/japan

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