This is only my second article regarding Japan. A favorite band ever since I saw Adolescent Sex on Dutch television pop show Toppop. Gradually I lost sight of them, other things came along, but was re-introduced around the time of Tin Drum‘s release. Soon after, news broke of the band’s demise. From 1978 onwards a lot of hard work was put into an ever growing fanbase and suddenly it was all over. A goodbye album was in the works. On June 18th, 1983, six months after the band’s last show ever, Oil On Canvas, the album and the video, was released.
Japan was at the height of its popularity. The song Ghosts was a hit in England. A very improbable one, but somehow it struck a nerve. All kinds of (music) magazines featured singer David Sylvian as ‘beautiful man’, also those targeted at teen audiences. It must have been torture for him.
The album Tin Drum was a success, especially in circles of ‘people with good taste’. After years of denial, under-appreciation and rightout ridicule for the glam band, followed by the mocking of ‘the posing’ of the tortured and yet o so sensitive men, the band was (finally) taken seriously as musicians and, maybe even more importantly, artists.
Japan had always distinguished themselves from their peers by their incredible great sense of melody, rhythm and delicacy. The Japan albums Quiet Life, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum were from another planet, genius but clearly not part of the current popclimate.
Frontman David Sylvian has a voice you either love or hate, but he was the most important man within the band, as he was its main composer. Bass player Mick Karn had a very distinctive sound, he used his fretless bass as a separate instrument with its own melody scales that transcended regular bass playing. Drummer Steve Jansen (Sylvian’s brother) was (and still is) one of the most original drummers I have ever heard. His rhythms were unique: avant-garde, yet funky. Simple and effective and rich, all at once. Richard Barbieri was the man responsible for the sound image and greatly defined the mood. Guitar player Rob Dean left the band after Gentlemen Take Polaroids seeing that his role was trivialized ever more. This had nothing to do with inability to play (even though he was the most straight player), but more because of the way the band was developing.
Japan was made up of four individuals, all with their own distinctive sound. When they came together magic happened and the Japan sound emerged. Even though Sylvian later claimed he didn’t want to be remembered of Japan (except for Ghosts), it is a vital link in his musical career, just as much as it is for the other three members.
Assemblage and Quiet Life single
After the album Quiet Life Japan had left Hansa and signed with Virgin Records. Hansa owned the rights to all of the band’s recorded music up to and including Quiet Life. During the recording sessions for Tin Drum, Hansa decided to release a compilation album. The band chose to be actively involved with the process of putting the album together. A clever choice. The band could have its say in the look and feel (cover) and the songs that were going to be used. The album was interesting because of the re-recorded version of Adolescent Sex, which sounds a lot richer than the original, and the Giorgio Moroder produced songs, Life In Tokyo and European Son.
To promote the album, which was named Assemblage and was released on September 11th, 1981, Hansa wanted to release Quiet Life as a single. The band was persuaded to perform on the English music program Top Of The Pops on September 23rd, 1981. The single was an unexpected success. As a result the band got more and more press coverage with a lot of emphasis on Sylvian who was regarded as the ‘most beautiful man in popmusic’.
During the recording of Tin Drum it was apparent that the dynamics between the bandmembers had started to shift. Sylvian was very aware of the band’s dependence on him for writing songs. The pressure of writing new songs year after year began to take its toll. Mick Karn frequently, and openly, hinted at recording a solo-album.
Visions Of China Tour
To promote the new album Tin Drum a tour of England was organized: the Visions Of China Tour. Together with the band a new stage was designed. As was manifested during the Tin Drum sessions, Sylvian was acting as the sole ruler within the band. As he did now.
Days before the band had to go out on tour, Sylvian started to make changes to the set. Ultimately, he refused to do the tour with the set, which the whole band had signed off on (including Sylvian). The day before the tour was to start Sylvian gave an ultimatum: either the set was out or there was no tour. After heated arguments, the band caved; the tour was already booked, all tickets were sold.
After the fight Mick Karn went home to pack for the journey to the first tour stop. Upon arrival his girlfriend Yuka Fujii told him she was leaving him immediately and that she was moving in with… David Sylvian. Karn was shocked. Even though the relationship with Fujii was already over, this was more than Karn could bear. During the tour Sylvian and Karn avoided each other. The other bandmembers gradually found out what was going on and why the former friends were willingly and actively staying out of each other’s way.
During the tour the set was expanded show after show, until the original set design was back in place. How that’s even possible, without Sylvian noticing it, is beyond me (maybe he laid low because of the Karn-Fujii issue). It’s funny that the English press often praised the beautiful set in their reviews.
Miraculously, and to everyone’s relief, the end of the tour, called the Shit Tour by those involved in it, came quickly. Karn collapsed and fell into a depression. He had not only lost his girlfriend and best friend in a short time, he also knew his band could not go on much longer.
On March 12th, 1982, the second single of the Tin Drum album was released. After the lead single Visions Of China had had almost no impact at all, Ghosts was selected. A remarkable choice, because this was not the type of song and/or music that usually generated large sales numbers.
After a rather uncomfortable recording session at English pop show Top Of The Pops, at which the audience clearly showed its disinterest in the song, the single started, slowly but gradually, to climb the charts. It was successful. One of the most improbable hits in the entire English (pop)history had arrived.
The first solo outings were made available also. In August of 1982 the fabulous double A-side single and (particularly) 12-inch: Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music was released, one of the very best 12-inches of all time, in my opninion. Both songs were composed and performed by David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto (at the time known from his work with the influential Yellow Magic Orchesta).
Three months later Mick Karn released his stunning first solo album. For the story behind that album and the rest of Karn’s career, read the article on Titles.
Both Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri played on the solo releases.
In the media rumors were starting to get printed about problems with the band. A breakup was a serious option.
Sons Of Pioneers Tour
At the end of 1982 another tour was organized, the Sons Of Pioneers Tour, which would start October 1st and would end on December 16th. This time Europe and Japan were visited. Management hoped that the band would stay together, seeing that the success of the band was growing. At the same time, money had to be made, due to the band’s inactivity during the course of 1982.
For this tour Masami Tsuchiya was added to the line-up, who provided not only manic guitar parts, but also played keyboards and started the tapes (containing Karn’s saxophone parts for instance). After a tour of Europe the band went off to Japan. On December 16th the band played at Nagoya’s Shi Kohkaido. It was to be the last Japan show ever.
The set list during this tour was impressive: Burning Bridges, Sons Of Pioneers, Alien, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Swing, Cantonese Boy, Visions Of China, Nightporter, Canton, Ghosts, Still Life In Mobile Homes, Methods Of Dance, Quiet Life, European Son, The Art Of Parties, Life In Tokyo and Fall In Love With Me. I would have loved to see this tour.
While on tour the end result became inescapable: the band had run its course. The announcement was made while the band was still underway. No comments were made on the reasoning behind the split.
One more album was going to be released and then it would be all over for one of the important and influential English new wave bands, who quit at their peak. Their big success was just around the corner.
In early 1983, immediately following the end of the Sons Of Pioneers Tour, work on the last Japan project started: live album Oil On Canvas.
A favorite and highly appreciated album (by me anyway), which began the very day I purchased it: it’s number 25 in my album top 50 of all time.
Oil On Canvas
The last Japan album was marketed as a live album. During the closing Sons Of Pioneers tour the shows that were staged at the Hammersmith Odeon in November of 1982, were recorded. The base recordings were used for this album. But what does ‘base’ mean in this case? It literally means base: in fact, only the drums are live. Some sounds that bled into the drum tracks were also part of the recordings used on the album. The rest was re-played and re-recorded in the studio.
Besides`the live songs, the album contains 4 studio recordings. Three are new (instrumental) compositions. The fourth, Nightporter, is a re-recording of the original that is part of the Gentlemen Take Polaroids album. The new recording is mixed into the album making it sound like a concert recording.
The three new songs are beautiful pieces of music. The opening song Oil On Canvas sets the tone for the album and has a Twin Peaks avant-la-lettre feel. Temple Of Dawn not only closes the album, but says goodbye to the Japan era as well. Voices Raised In Welcome, Hands Held In Prayer has a gamelan like rhythm and seems to have some kind of ‘holy’ background. The notes that are sung by human voices give the idea of a mantra, but they might just as well be random samples.
Of all the regular Japan songs, the emphasis lies with their last studio album Tin Drum. That album is almost fully present on Oil On Canvas (only Talking Drum is not part of the live set). The album Gentlemen Take Polaroids is represented by four songs. Of all three Hansa albums, only the song Quiet Life is included.
Even though the songs are not really live, the album still feels that way. It oozes the same atmosphere, both instrumentally and vocally. The Tin Drum songs are more alive than before. Sylvian’s voice sounds warm and human. What stands out also, is the fact that the band seems very capable of reproducing the complex music, originally recorded in the studio, on stage. Bootlegs recorded during the last tour (like Leidenese Boy, recorded in Leiden, Holland on October 7th, 1982) prove that irrefutably.
Jansen’s impressive drumming is a joy in itself. He alone provides Japan with that robotic like new wave feeling, but with a twist. He moulds it into an intense swing. Japan has always sounded funky to me. The absolute highlight, of course, is the 1981 12-inch The Art Of Parties, but it is also recognizable and audible on this album.
Besides being remarkable, Karn’s bass playing is also pretty inventive. Jansen and Karn were a unique rhythm section, that left behind a very impressive discography. No-one has been able to match their work, let alone improve on it.
In part due to Karn and Jansen, Japan turned out the way that it did. An important link in the early 1980’s music scene and an important source of inspiration for the new-romantics movement that soon developed, which would generate lots, and lots of money.
Guest guitar player Masami Tsuchiya gets ample room to let his guitar roar and he does so with a vengeance. Good musician.
Highlights abound on this album. The first 6 songs are all truly astounding. The live-setting gives the songs room to breathe and have a perfect flow. Should anyone want to start listening to Japan, I highly recommend those 6 songs as an introduction.
I didn’t know that the title of the song Temple Of Dawn came from the novel The Temple Of Dawn by Japanese author Yukio Mishima, one of my favorite writers.
Ironically, Oil On Canvas was Japan’s greatest album hit. It reached the gold status in England. A single (Canton) was culled from it, but it did little to nothing on the singles charts.
Coinciding with the album’s release was the release of a VHS video with the same name. Concert recordings were interspersed with images from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The video was released on DVD in 2006, when it was added to the release of The Very Best Of Japan.
All songs written by David Sylvian, except noted otherwise.
- Oil On Canvas
- Sons Of Pioneers *
- Gentlemen Take Polaroids
- Cantonese Boy
- Visions Of China **
- Voices Raised In Welcome, Hands Held In Prayer **
- Still Life In Mobile Homes
- Methods Of Dance
- Quiet Life
- The Art Of Parties
- Canton **
- Temple Of Dawn ***
|*||Mick Karn, David Sylvian|
|**||Steve Jansen, David Sylvian|
- David Sylvian – vocals, keyboards
- Mick Karn – fretless bass, background vocals, clarinet, saxophone
- Steve Jansen – drums, marimba
- Richard Barbieri – keyboards/synthesizers
- (guest) Masami Tsuchiya – electric guitar, keyboards, tapes
As is abundantly clear: I love this album. I clearly remember buying it. A double album was relatively expensive, but I knew I’d like it. The cover alone was proof enough. The bandmembers’ photos (see the beginning of this article) pleased me even more. I wanted to be Sylvian, well, in looks anyway…
I also remember my parents’ relief, particularly my mother’s, very well. After a period of time that mainly contained racket and (anarcho)punk (Crass, Discharge, Conflict, etc.), melodic music came from my room. Introspected, beautiful music. My mother was so pleased that she let me play Japan at her own birthday party at home. It was liked by the older generation.
I was Japan / Sylvian minded for quite some time. After Prince’s When Doves Cry it all changed, but until that time Japan and Sylvian received a considerable amount of airplay. I also remember the releases of Sylvian’s first solo album Brilliant Trees very well. The week prior to its release the title track was played on Dutch radio. I was very impressed. But, Oil On Canvas remains the album I keep turning back to. Tin Drum may be the better album, but the live album has a warmth that deeply appeals to me.
After Oil On Canvas
In 1984 the compilation album Exorcising Ghosts was released, that not only contained the most important Quiet Life, Gentleman Take Polaroids and Tin Drum songs, but also contained B sides (A Foreign Place and Life Without Buildings) and the superior The Art Of parties 12-inch mix from 1981. A great collection.
It came as a big surprise when in 1989 an announcement was made public that Japan would reconvene and release a new album. But, Sylvian was still Sylvian. He demanded that the name Japan was not used and that the name of the band and the album was to be Rain Tree Crow. The endresult is really beautiful at times. But internal difficulties and a soundmix only Sylvian condoned, ensured that the reunion was a one-time deal only.
Just as Japan was about to reap the rewards for their hard work and finally got the recognition it deserved and had developed a totally unique own sound, the band was laid to rest.
Every former Japan member has had some kind of success in their following career. However, the link to Japan has never disappeared, which goes for all four of them. To this day, over 35 years after the disbanding of the band, they are still introduced as an ex-Japan member in many articles. That even goes for David Sylvian, who had a reasonably successful solo career and made some great albums like Brilliant Trees and Gone To Earth. His teaming up with the likes of Holger Czukay and Robert Fripp are really good.
Should you want to know more on the band Japan and its history: read the biography Japan: A Foreign Place by Anthony Reynolds. At the time the book was written and published using funding through pledges. I was one of those pledgers (and am named as such in the book as well). I never regretted it. It’s a great, well written book. For this article the goings-on in the period between the releases of Tin Drum and Oil On Canvas that are described in the book, were extremely helpful.
What do you think of Japan? And Oil On Canvas? Let me know!
Japan – Tin Drum image: 991.com
Japan – Hammersmith Odeon 1982 image: gettyimages.fnl
Japan – Assemblage image: tidal.com
Japan – Visions Of China – Tour program and Japan – Sons Of Pioneers – Tour program images: nightporter.co.uk
Japan – Live 1982 image: gramunion.com
Japan – Ghosts – single, David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto – Bamboo Houses / Bamboo Music, Japan – Oil On Canvas and Japan – Exorcising Ghosts images: discogs.com
Mick Karn – Titles image: junodownload.com
Japan – Smash Hits – 25-11 tot en met 08-12 1982 image: shanemarais.net
Japan 1982 (photo door Fin Costello) image: movingtheriver.com
Japan – Steve Jansen image: jansenphotographyblog.wordpress.com
Japan – Oil On Canvas ad June 1983 image: totp80s.blogspot.com
Japan – Oil On Canvas – 2007 remaster image: youtube.com
Japan – The Art Of Parties image: eil.com
Japan – Anthony Reynolds – A Foreign Place image: aforeignplace.com