Record Review: JAPAN – Gentlemen Take Polaroids UK 2×7″

JAPAN gentlemen take polaroids double 7" cover

Virgin ‎| UK | 2×7″ | 1980 | VS 379

JAPAN: Gentlemen Take Polaroids UK 2×7″ [1980]

  1. Gentlemen Take Polaroids [edit]
  2. The Experience Of Swimming
  3. The Width of A Room
  4. Burning Bridges [alt. ver. – David Sylvian prod.]

“Gentlemen Take Polaroids” will always be a standard bearer of my love of JAPAN. The surprisingly upbeat pop song was the closest that this chronically disconsolate band ever came to sounding euphoric. I still can’t believe that David Sylvian managed to craft a lyric like “breath life into me … spin me ’round,” and sound like he meant it here. It became something much more in its fully 7:00 album version, but the edited by half 7″ single was a pre-release ahead of the “Polaroids” album that followed a month later in November of 1980. It’s always best to experience the sublime glow of “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” in its purest LP form, with an extended coda to melt the staunchest of hearts even as it showcased the contrasting muscular fretless bass of Mick Karn against the delicate keys of Richard Barbieri, which descended on the song like a spring rain. I’m still happy to have it here, truncated into a mere pop song of considerable beauty.

We had to get our fill of the amazing Karn on the A-side, because he didn’t touch the bass on the other three songs here. The first two were completely Karn-free. First up was “The Experience Of Swimming,” an instrument of subtle delicacy. Richard Barbieri was composing alone here, for a change. Sylvian dominated the writing and publishing within the band, but B-sides are where a bone can get tossed to the other members and Barbieri had no problems crafting a beguiling and pensive instrumental based on an echoplexed synth riff that created a hypnotic dynamic with the oboe-like synth patches.

Elsewhere, soon-to-be-ex JAPAN guitarist Rob Dean rose to his occasion as well with “The Width Of A Room.” His Satie-like, synth-laden effort formed a seamless unit with much the same mood as Barbieri had explored on the previous track. It makes me wonder just how much Sylvian sought to control the writing because these tracks were slotted right in to the same place that Sylvian’s writing was heading. I can’t help but feel that Dean was ousted from the band on a bad decision as this shows him capable of the Satie feel that the band would continue to explore until it led them to the breakthrough of “Ghosts” on the next album.

JAPAN in 1980 photo

The inner gatefold of the “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” sleeve

Back in 1982 I had bought the Canadian 12″ of “The Art of Parties” which appended the two instro non-LP B-sides here as a four track EP and the one time I saw this single in the massive import 7″ bins of Record City Fern Park, I saw the three other songs and passed on it. At the time, I had no idea that the version of “Burning Bridges” here was decidedly different. That revelation would wait for the internet and a quarter century to pass.

The real prize here was the alternate version of “Burning Bridges.” The version on the 7″ D-side here was apparently a demo version produced by David Sylvian, instead of John Punter! Like the A-side, it’s shorter than the version on the “Polaroids” album. The long ambient intro that righteously battled vinyl surface noise [and lost] in its heyday was completely lopped off. The song rode in on its round wave synth patch that originally came 1:30 into the LP version. There was still no Mick Karn bass, just [presumably] Sylvian on the bass synths, but Karn still took a long,, soulful sax solo here. The vocal performance sounded very similar, but the EQ and mix was decidedly different than the album version.

I suspect that since “Burning Bridges” displaced “Some Kind Of Fool” at the 11th hour for inclusion on the final running order of “Gentlemen take Polaroids,” [early printings of the LP sleeve list this song instead with a sticker correcting for “Burning Bridges”] it may have been down to Sylvian producing a demo he liked and ceding control to Punter for the longer edit/ possible remix on the album. The balances are very different on the 7″ version but I can’t say the performances differed. Whatever the case, Sylvian was right to push for the inclusion of this song. When “Some Kind of Fool” surfaced [with a new vocal] 20 years later on David Sylvian’s “Everything + Nothing”compilation, it was great to hear, but no “Burning Bridges.”

– 30 –

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12 Responses to Record Review: JAPAN – Gentlemen Take Polaroids UK 2×7″

  1. James Pagan says:

    Good post, Mr. Monk! I adore both instrumentals, which I was delighted to acquire, at long last, on compact disc decades ago when I upgraded from the original Virgin UK CD to the Caroline Blue Plate reissue. Barbieri’s “The Experience of Swimming” is one of the most appropriately-titled musical compositions I’ve ever heard, and Dean’s “The Width of a Room” is the perfect soundtrack for GTP’s otherworldly album cover–my all-time favorite album cover, in fact. Happy 2020 to you and to all the commenters who make this blog so delightful!


    James Pagan


    • postpunkmonk says:

      James Pagan – Both the first Virgin CD and the US Caroline disc [with those must-have bonus tracks – clumsily – added to the running order] were a desecration of the original cover, which was never meant to be 4.75″ square, but at least the later DLX RMs have that ugly white border taken off, and the bonus tracks on a 2nd disc which might be for the best, but on the other hand, the alternate photo they have started using also bugs me! If they one day reissue GTP in the original cover art on CD, with a 2nd disc of bonus tracks [unlikely at this rate…] I may have to buy it.

      I do recall seeing GTP in the import bins when it came out and thinking it was a woman on the cover. Then I bought it after hearing “Ain’t That Peculiar” on “Cash Cows” and saw that it was actually the singer. Then I noticed his hair!! The bleach damage made it look like STRAW. It’s a wonder Sylvian has any hair left! Of course, now he looks like a grizzled Oakie dirt farmer!
      David Sylvian in 21st century


  2. Gerald McBoing-Boing says:

    Are you sure the 7″ version of “Burning Bridges” isn’t just an edit? There’s a bunch of other 7″ versions (The Art Of Parties, Quiet Life, Nightporter, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Swing) that I also thought were just edits.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gerald McBoing-Boing – Not 100% reference headphones certain, but the mixes sound quite different which might be down to mastering. I have to check it out when I have the time. Like I said it may be the Sylvian demo tarted up by Punter [it sure sounds better] and with the intro not edited. That is my suspicion.


  3. Echorich says:

    I’m pretty sure the version of Burning Bridges has always been described as the Sylvian version to differentiate it from the album. It, along with The Width Of A Room, were produced by Sylvian rather than Punter. The fact that The Experience of Swimming was a Punter production has always led me to believe it was meant to be included on the album.
    I feel a good deal of credit for the “joy” heard on Polaroids has to be given to John Punter. I feel he always championed a brightness, maybe even a Pop sensibility, in the Japan sound. The last single credited to Punter would be The Art Of Parties. This version has a clipped bright production. By the time it gets to Tin Drum, Nye (with what I now believe to be a heavy influence of Sylvian) expanded the sound and gave it a Funky/Asian feel. When Steve Nye came on the scene, the production became more mannered, dense. I don’t dislike this at all, in fact there’s a coming of age to the Japan sound on Tin Drum that I have always appreciated. Nye’s hands at the helm allowed the band to explore areas of ambient and world music that was important to all of the remaining members of Japan. Still, having said that, my favorite track on Tin Drum is it’s Pop-iest – Still Life In Mobile Homes. Hell, it even has a guitar solo from another era and Yuka Fuji channeling her inner Yoko Ono.


  4. Andy B says:

    Nice review Monk. I’ve never owned this single so haven’t heard the alternative version of ‘Burning Bridges’. I own the 2003 reissue of the album which contains ‘The Experience Of Swimming’ and ‘The Width Of A Room’. Both excellent tracks. Has the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ 7” edit ever been available on CD? Yes we need thorough reissues of the Japan albums but I doubt David is too bothered about looking back.


  5. Gavin says:

    I love all of those b-sides too,but I have to disagree about “Some kind of Fool”-for me it is the pinnacle of pre-Tin Drum Japan and when I first heard it I could not believe that it was excluded from GTP.It is still the song I play the most by the Duchess of Batt and cohorts.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – Truth be told. it’s been long years since I busted out my copy of “Everything + Nothing” to play it, and I can’t remember it. Must find time to listen to music!


  6. SimonH says:

    Everything and Nothing is such a brilliant compilation, some of the unreleased stuff is so good! Nice mastering as well.


  7. Richard Anvil says:

    It was hearing Burning Bridges for the first time (in fact the album version as the b side to Cantonese Boy) that made me a lifelong fan of Japan and all the subsequent solo albums. I got the 2×7” of Cantonese Boy which also included The Experience Of Swimming and the edit of GTP. The story as I am aware is that Burning Bridges was originally written to be a d side but when Sylvian decided to drop Some Kind Of Fool because it sounded to much like The Other Side Of Love he decided to re-record Burning Bridges to replace it. With him being such a perfectionist I would doubt very much if he would have just had Punter remix the demo. The Experience Of Swimming was never considered as an album track, always a b side. Back then it was not unusual for the b side for the first single to be recorded at the same time as the album and therefore produced by the album producer (e.g. all the first single b sides of Ultravox). By the way its not an oboe synth it is Karn playing the oboe on this track. As to the possibility of a 2CD set it’s very unlikely as there aren’t enough extra studio recordings. As well as the album you have Some Kind Of Fool (original recording which is unreleased), the three instrumentals mentioned here, GTP edit, Ain’t That Peculiar (Cash Cows version which just has a different intro to the album version), and the Steve Nye remixes of Nightporter (7” & 12” versions) and Taking Islands In Africa. There is the 1981 BBC concert recording though which has never had an official release which has interesting updated versions of European Son and Rhodesia. And the edit of GTP has been released as a remaster on this recent compilation along with the original mix of Karns Sensitive as is still available as a digital download.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Richard Anvil – I was listening in my car and the synth/VS oboe thing was not cut-and-dried do I hedged my bets. That 1981 BBC concert is gold!
      JAPAN live @ hammersmith 1981 BBC
      I prefer it to “Oil On Canvas” and would pay dearly to have it out on CD in full quality; especially with the unaired material that was also recorded [Obscure Alternatives, Sometimes I Feel So Low, Life In Tokyo, Adolescent Sex and Automatic Gun (with Burning Bridges reprise)]. The segues between songs were a real highlight as it made the flow of the show rather gripping. The older material being revised with new arrangements was also exciting. Given how far JAPAN had come in a short while, it was pretty de riguer. Now that I have finally started to read “In A Foreign Place,” it was a revelation to read that John Punter thought so much of the band that he not only produced their albums, but also mixed their live sound in concert! Talk about dedication!


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