Rock GPA: Japan [part 1]

japan-rock-GPA-headerI 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

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
Nocturnal television
Internal sanctum
‘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

 

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30 Responses to Rock GPA: Japan [part 1]

  1. Tim says:

    You’ve.
    Never.
    Heard.
    Rain Tree Crow
    ???????

    I hated this the first dozen times that I listened to it. It is my second favorite Sylvian related album now following Gone to Earth. Dude…..go forth and buy RTC ASAP!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – The single did nothing for me. What can I say? Plus, I never saw it used. Yes… I’m so cheap I squeak.

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      • Tim says:

        There’s a bunch on Amazon used right now that the shipping is more than the cd.
        The single didn’t do a whole lot for me. Bought it for the b-side if you can call a track that is something like 1’12” a b-side. And what was the deal with the weird unfolds into a cross cd single sleeve that it came in? Poor PR, great album.

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  2. Echorich says:

    Ok, I’ll get the RTC issue out of the way. You need it. It is Sylvian’s imagining of what Japan would be in 1991 with the other three members along for the ride. Yes it started out as a group effort, but Sylvian and Nye did so much post production that is really is a Sylvian project in all but name. This is not to say it isn’t a WONDERFUL, FULLY REALIZED WORK OF ART, it’s just heavy handed in the way it ended up being released.
    Now as for Assemblage, it’s pretty important as a compendium of the period leading up to the band’s Imperial era. I’d include it if just to discuss Hansa/Ariola’s cash grab and the highlights of All Tomorrow’s Parties and I Second That Emotion (recorded by Simon Napier-Bell!)
    So on to Adolescent Sex. It’s ship set adrift in an ever changing musical sea. Yes the lyric are naive, almost school boy musings. Yes the music fights against itself and the band member’s ability to pull it off, but there’s still a level of excitement for me. Sylvian sneers and whines with a real seriousness. Mick’s bass and Steve’s percussion are beginning to really flower. Sure there are lots of “spot the glam influence” moment – NY Dolls, Queen, Roxy, Bowie, but the band definitely leaned toward Europe on a lot of the album. Suburban Love is FULL ON BOWIE! I think the funk and disco has a very German feel. I go back and forth here, but I think either Unconventional or Communist China are my favorites here.
    Finally, and I’m fully prepared for a pick up truck worth of empty beer cans and bottles to be thrown my way, but there’s some moments on Adolescent Sex that remind me of early Magazine – that’s meant to be a comparison, but both bands were working with similar influences – yes to very different degrees or success.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – That is a cogent assessment re: Magazine vs Japan. The funk is there on both bands, ’tis true! Magazine didn’t cover Sly Stone’s finest hour for shock value. Point scored, sir!

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  3. Taffy says:

    uh oh, here comes Taffy being contrary again. far from monstrous, I find “Don’t Rain On My Parade” fascinating and hilarious for the effete punkiness of it all. yeah, i kinda love it.
    as for Assemblage. it was the first Japan (vinyl) I owned and you can’t possibly ignore “Life in Tokyo,” so you’re obligated to include it in your round-up!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – You and Echorich have convinced me to include “Assemblage.” I just looked at it again, and there are only four of ten tracks from their first three albums, making it ostensibly a collection of rarities instead of a typical “greatest hits.” Besides, I simply can’t ignore “European Son,” my all-time favorite Japan track!

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  4. The reason I liked “Adolescent Sex” (and still like it) is because it tried to mix the NY Dolls and Bowie with Parliament! It is, as Brian Eno might say, a “hot mess.”

    I like RTC but always thought of it as a Sylvian solo album that happened to have lots of former Japan members on board, kind of like Eno’s early solo albums. The name change was the tip-off, because if it had been made harmoniously or as a Japan album they would shirley have cashed in on the brand name!

    I can’t comment on Assemblage, as I’ve never heard it, but assuming it was released with the appropriate legal blessings it probably ought to be considered.

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  5. JT says:

    Yeah.
    RTC.
    The great forgotten Sylvian solo record.
    Half follow-up to the stunning Secrets of the Beehive, half continuation of his ambient records with Holger Czukay, and half Japan reunion (make a Venn diagram).

    I hated it for years, since it wasn’t Tin Drum 2.0 enough for me, and since half of the record are weird inaccessible ambient doodles (see above, re: Czukay).
    Then one day it clicked, and I now find it to be among Sylvian’s finest moments.
    Even the weird inaccessible ambient doodles.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – By 1991 you should have known that “Tin Drum II” was just not in the works! Only “Brilliant Trees” had a touch of that sauce. Ever so slightly. Obviously, I need to add RTC to my want list since all of the comments are judging me and finding me wanting. I hope the shame is not too much to bear! What I wonder, is if I will ever be able to get nourishment out of “Blemish.” That was where I finally crossed the Rubicon for Sylvian. I’ve given it a handful of plays in the years that I’ve owned it, but it’s telling that my Sylvian-loving wife asked me to turn it off the first time we were listening to it [admittedly, in the car].

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      • Echorich says:

        Blemish is one of the most difficult albums I have ever listened to. Not because of the music/artistry, but because it is an aural catharsis of a love gone bad. It is almost too personal an album to bear coming on the heels of Sylvian marital break up with the artistically wonderful Ingrid Chavez (I can go on and on about how much I love this woman’s work). It’s fraught with fragile emotions and anger which definitely takes the listener unaware upon first listen.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – The catharsis was apparently valuable for Sylvian, but I can’t help but think that it was far too personal a process to have been made public. His fragile health following this divorce speaks volumes.

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  6. Simon H says:

    Have you made it to the end of Blemish? Fire in the Forest is pretty lovely. Agree the rest is tough though! Manafon even more so. I respect these albums but don’t enjoy them sadly. The Nine Horses album is excellent though.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – I can say that I’ve given it three listenings in the few years that I’ve owned it. Including the aborted first playing. I can recall the title cut gaining some traction by the third play.

      Like

    • Echorich says:

      I simply love Manafon and the remixed/remodelled Died In The Wool project which it gave birth to. No song cycle here, no beautiful pop sounds, but tremendous, intuitive exploration and artistry abounds.

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    • Echorich says:

      Oh and Nine Horses is brilliant!!

      Like

  7. JT says:

    Yeah, I have spun Blemish, Manafon, and both of their respective remix albums a few dozen times each, and I just can’t get behind them. I have tried. I’m not one of the legion Sylvian fans who want him to keep remaking Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive; I welcome new directions from the man, even if (nay, *especially* if) they’re less and less pop-oriented. But this particular direction isn’t something that I can get behind, for several diverse reasons.

    Heck, even Dead Bees on a Cake, the last remotely pop record he did (Nine Horses aside), was kind of bland… perhaps it isn’t the change of direction then, but rather that he’s just running out of steam and searching for new inspiration along avenues that few of us can follow.

    RTC and the record he did with Fripp – 20 years ago now – are where the love ends for me and gives way to mere tolerance.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – I have to disagree on “Dead Bees.” It immediately became my favorite, which made the following album all the more shocking to my ears. With his much publicized health issues (he’s almost the next completion bond posterboy, ala Morrissey) I wonder if I’ll be a part of his audience going forward. I’ve heard -nothing- after “Blemish,” remixed or otherwise. He looks like an Oakie hermit these days.

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      • Tim says:

        I find most of his last several albums to be disappointing. Dead Bees has a good album in it between the best cuts of it and the better b-sides and it’s downhill from there. I know people who go nuts about Blemish and Manafon and I just don’t get it. They remind me of an essay that Nick Hornby wrote for the Guardian years ago about Radiohead where he said basically “I am an adult and I just don’t have the time to listen to your new album seven times a day with headphones on to get every nuance of it.” Maybe these albums are growers for me when/if I retire.

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    • Echorich says:

      I think Dead Bees On A Cake is a brilliant Sylvian album – possibly his most accomplished. Think is I’ve always enjoyed Sylvian, as a solo artist, for the body of his work as a whole. I guess it’s a bit of a cop out not to pick a favorite. My favorite Sylvian solo song is Before The Bullfight from Gone To Earth but that’s almost equalled by Thalheim and Darkest Dreaming from Dead Bees On A Cake. I always travel with a Sylvian playlist on my iPod or iPad and it never has less than 40 tracks from a dozen or more of his released solo work.

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  8. Simon H says:

    Loved Dead Bees…once nearly bumped into him at Heathrow Airport HMV shop! Decided it was best to leave him in peace:)
    Clearly this is the music he wants to make now and I respect his integrity, it’s just not meant for me, I’ve not quite given up hope yet though.

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  9. Rob C says:

    I thought I would love Japan’s LPs, but find that their compilation, Very Best Of, serves the purpose for me. I have the big three studio CD remasters, Tin Drum/Gentlemen Take Polaroids/Quiet Life but have put these up for sale due to lack of listening.

    As for Rain Tree Crow, I have this and will admit that it’s not my cup of tea…too ambient for my tastes.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Rob C – What exactly led you to believe that you would be a Japan fan, and why exactly did it not work out that way, if I may ask?

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      • Rob C says:

        I love the era of music spanning 76-84 primarily and as a big fan of the New Romantic movement in general, I really believed I would enjoy Japan’s LPs as much as I enjoyed the tracks selected for their best of. Interestingly enough, I was never greatly exposed to them growing up – they weren’t played regularly on KROQ in LA for example – any only discovered them through self-discovery. I had many of their tracks on comps, seen their videos but never took the plunge on purchasing their LPs back in the day. It’s interesting as they have some really great tracks but I never thought their albums flowed for me – too much filler? I actually enjoy Mick Karn’s work with Dalis Car much better to be honest, but this is just a preference…I wouldn’t say I’m not a Japan fan, just not a big fan of their albums as a body of work, if that makes sense.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Rob C – So no Japan in SoCal? I’m shocked by this. Having grown up in Central Florida, Japan didn’t exist in the public sphere. I came across them on Virgin’s “Cash Cows” compilation that a friend bought. And after that it was a matter of buying the albums and taking the ride. And it was a ride for life.

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  10. zoo says:

    Monk, get RTC. It’s not great, but if you’re a Sylvian fan, you need to hear it. I have no comment on Adolescent Sex.

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  11. Daryl says:

    Three of my favourite bands are Japan Magazine and Parliament. Strange forces at work here.

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