Hansa managed to release a compilation album to cash in on the gradually rising star of Japan at the time of “Tin Drum’s” release, no doubt causing Virgin some dissonance. The “Assemblage” compilation was one of the nicer of such attempts by a former label to fill the coffers after a group fled for greener pastures. I recall first encountering this thanks to a British exchange student who lent me the LP after meeting and discussing music in college. The crucial material here are important transitional singles and their B-sides, which were non-LP… until they surfaced here.
The five tracks from the first three Japan albums were cherry picked to intrigue ears that had been engaged by their fertile later period. The impeccable title cut to “Quiet Life” was a classic already in all but sales, but it was the B-side to the 1980 UK 7″ of “I Second That Emotion!” It’s hard to believe now, but “Quiet Life” was only a UK A-side in re-release in 1981, to herald this compilation!
As for “I Second That Emotion,” it was a Smokey Robinson cover cut during the time of the “Quiet Life” sessions, but with “All Tomorrow’s Parties” already on the album, the decision was made to release it as a single instead. Manager Simon Napier-Bell had advised the band to cut cover versions in order to snatch a hit for his struggling combo, but salting the LP with two covers would have cut into the band’s royalties, so they used the even better Lou reed track on the album instead. Not that their take on “I Second That Emotion” is anything inferior. It’s an intriguingly dark-hued cover that hints at ambiguity in its long coda, where doubts and insecurity manifest.
Two early non-LP cuts are also here from the period of the first album. The B-side of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” was the funky reggae skank of “Stateline.” It was a lurching, sneering concoction that would have fit nicely on “Adolescent Sex” had it not already had the required ten cuts. More intriguing is the B-side of “The Unconventional” wherein a dramatically re-recorded title track to “Adolescent Sex” was given every ounce of polish by producer Ray Singer to strong effect. Amazingly, the track was only released as a A-side in European territories other than the UK in 1978, but its appearance on many Japan compilations, this being the first, marks it as possibly the most familiar version of the saucy track.
The importance of the “Life In Tokyo” single to japan’s artistic development cannot be overstated! That the almost glam-metal band maneuvered into Eurodisco territory and produced this song with the master, Moroder, was undoubtedly the spur that gave them the stylistic kick in the pants to dramatically reinvent themselves for their third album. “Life In Tokyo” rests on sequenced synth lines and squelchy bass synth, but also featured female backing vocals heretofore new to the band.
The hooky guitar chords by Rob Dean make this a mannered rock/disco hybrid that moved on from Moroder’s seminal “I Feel Love” sound. If anything, it may have been the gateway to Moroder’s legendary Blondie single. Vocally, David Sylvian still had one foot in the sneering glampunk delivery he was known for, while perhaps not pushing it so hard and learning to love his inner languor at the same time. It’s definitely a striking transitional record of the kind that few groups get to have in that they change everything going forward. The jaunty tone of the number in no way presaged the introspective, sombre tone of the “Quiet Life” album due on the horizon following this one-off single from 1979.
Finally, my favorite Japan song of all time reached a larger audience on “Assemblage.” “European Son” was originally the Japan-only B-side to “I Second That Emotion” in 1980, if one can wrap one’s head around that staggering concept! This was the third attempt by the band in working in the Moroder idiom following “Life In Tokyo” and “Quiet Life,” and it’s my personal favorite. The sublime chord sequence that Barbieri’s airbrushed synths added to the track as a counterpuntal melody is so attractive, I can’t fault INXS for lifting it outright for “I Send A Message” in 1984! Critically, this marked the first time that Japan was working in Moroder territory after Mick Karn had moved to fretless bass, and it makes a huge difference. This is simply a magical number for my ears.
Elsewhere, the inclusion of LP tracks like “Communist China” and particularly, the martial rhythms of “Suburban Berlin” [which show the influence of Roxy’s similarly goose-stepping “Bitter-Sweet”] suffice to make this an attractive package which might lead the curious to investigate the full albums; a valid goal for any cash-in compilation. If a group’s earlier label have to cash-in following a band moving to another label, at least “Assemblage” remained a textbook example of how to make that move without embarrassing either the label or the band. The tracks chosen reflect a good balance of LP deep cuts, singles, and non-LP rarities, which in this band’s case, were often one and the same. Ironically, the sound of 1982 would prove to be old Japan tracks reactivated as singles following their transition to top five band with the “Ghosts” single, but that’s a completely different series of posts outside of the purview of this Rock GPA.
Next: …The party’s over