I have just recently realized that while I natter on about Simple Minds on a regular basis [to put it mildly], of all of the core collection groups that I could not live on the proverbial desert island without, I’ve been shamefully mum on Japan. Almost in inverse to the devotion that I carry for the group’s salad days. This may have to do with the fact that Japan ceased being a going concern in 1983 and barring a one-off reformation under a different name and difficult circumstances in 1991, have not reformed, though the individual members have collaborated over the years. With the death of bass player and secret weapon Mick Karn in 2010, we can rule out any future appearance of the band on strictly logistical reasons.
So the time has come for the band to go under the loupe for a Rock G.P.A. The aforementioned Rain Tree Crow project will not be included in this series for the eminently practical reason that I’ve never heard it! Just the canonical studio albums and their posthumous live recording will be grist for this particular editorial mill. I am on the fence about the “Assemblage” compilation, which rounded up several key non-LP sides, but since that featured almost half of its running time with LP cuts from the Hansa period of the band, I’m inclined to not concern myself with it. If you can convince me otherwise, feel free to have a go in the comments.
Japan – Adolescent Sex | 1978 – 1.5
It was only after being a fan of the, shall we say, mature period, of Japan’s development for over 20 years that I finally undertook the task of finally buying their first two critically divisive albums; both recorded in 1978. It was only after enjoying the 3rd wave glam rock of Suede in the late 90s that I mused that maybe then was the time to finally hear the first two Japan albums. After all, their 2nd wave glam sound that I was marginally familiar with after hearing the odd compilation over the years, seemed to only have the shortcoming of following immediately on the death throes of glam while not sounding anything like their imperial period. So I bought “Adolescent Sex” and was shocked at what I heard.
Yes, the glam rock attack of The New York Dolls in particular were a touchstone for the sounds on this album. But that’s only a part of the story. The album reeks of disco and funk in addition to the snotty glam raunch rock that its reputation largely radiates. When I listen to this album now, I’d almost say that one of the primary influences on it that I can say I’ve never seen mentioned in print would definitely be George Clinton’s funk-disco übergroup Parliament. In particular the keyboards and Crumar string synth patches betray a strong Bernie Worrell influence. On the closing “Television,” bassist Mick Karn is trying his best to replicate the Space Bass sound of Bootsy Collins, but the brash confidence of Worrell [the man simply bleeds music] is simply not there yet in the work of keyboardist Richard Barbieri. The vocabulary he’s manipulating lacks the sheer musicality that Worrell brought to similar sounds in Parliament’s salad days.
The tentative, wild eclecticism of the album, also limits its artistic reach, in spite of the musical foundations of the band being somewhat advanced for their years. Many of their class of ’78 peers undoubtedly wouldn’t have had the chops to play this freakish amalgamation of glam/disco/funk but perhaps they would have had the good sense not to try. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vocals and lyrics of David Sylvian. His attempt at snotty rock posturing only achieved petulance and the lyrics here are particularly dire. Grotesque is a word that comes to mind when faced with some of the groaners on display here.
“You programme love insatiable crime
Imprisons me with liberty
Your chauvinism’s a sensuous smile
Transmission of commercial love.” – Transmission
“You’ve got blasphemy with a smile
insomnia sleeps with you nights
You’ve got commercial sex appeal
In sterile black + white
You’ve got glorious colourless motion
From reel to reel your run
‘Cos it’s all you want” – Television
This is not the worst the album has to offer, either! The vibe of this album is astonishing in that it is redolent 1975 in the boldest way possible for an album that had the temerity to be released three years later. It was absolutely not only out of step with the prevailing winds of 1978 in the UK, but almost defiantly so in a way that approaches boldness in its resolute lack of trendiness. It could almost be admired for this stance, if the music were any good. Instead, it fascinates like a slow motion car wreck; floundering on the shores of Post-Punk and proffering only an obtuse revisiting of musical wounds that were too painful in their proximity for anyone else with a shred of sense to be investigating at this particular juncture.
The initial single release from this album was a monstrous re-imagining of the Tin Pan Alley standard “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” For a first release by the band, it was wrong-headed enough to have been a perfect harbinger of the next year in the band’s life. The title track as it is on the album, is the early take that only appeared here. Many ears might be used to the re-cut second version used for the B-Side to the second single, “The Unconventional,” which has subsequently appeared on every Japan compilation I’m aware of. The re-cut of the title track gained a lot of power from the re-think. The LP version sounded like a demo in comparison. It’s nothing approaching a Japan classic, but it manages a crass integrity of its own; not unlike what Van Halen were achieving in much the same time period.
The weakest song here is unfortunately the longest. “Television” began with a cacophony of noise that sounded like a bad attempt at a “jazz odyssey” by youngsters who didn’t know any better before coalescing into a Parliament pastiche by the time of the song’s middle eight. The song didn’t have enough of a foundation to support a running time of over nine minutes, but that didn’t stop them from trying. The end result was an album that is only interesting as a curio made by musicians who were destined for bigger and better things. But not just yet.
Next: …a marginal improvement