Book Review: JAPAN – A Foreign Place [The Biography 1974-1984] [part 1]

anthony reynolds japan a foreign place the biography [1974-1984]

Burning Shed | UK | 2015 | 212 pp.

I finally bought copies of this book from the UK last summer for gift giving purposes. I knew several friends who should have copies of this in their library and I piggybacked my purchase with one of the others to cut myself a break on shipping charges. Thirty years ago, the notion of a cult band like JAPAN having a biographical book was the stuff of madness, but as I’ve seen far lesser groups crowd out the shelves of bookstores with multiple volumes, I’ve come to expect that sooner or later, almost every band I like may have a book dedicated to their story. Whether it’s a self-published memoir by one of the artists involved, or like this one, an old fashioned book with a mixture of research and interviews forming its basis.

This story may be more compelling than most given how JAPAN began as schoolboys besotted with Glam Rock a few years past the genre’s sell-by date, only to end up on a rarefied plane as art rockers of a Crimsonoid stripe with a following that straddled the disparate worlds of Rock, New Romantic, and Prog. Any book that could lend insights as to how one could possibly go from “Adolescent Sex” to “Quiet Life,” [much less “Tin Drum” later on…] had its work cut out for the author.

Anthony Reynolds told the story of the band with a breeze through their developmental years to finally begin honing in on their school days, where the Batt brothers, and their friends Richard Barbieri, and Cypriot Andonis Michaelides  gravitated together in Catford Boys’ School bound by their love of music. None of the band had any musical training in school; only their enthusiasm and determination to make something of their love of Bowie and T-Rex. It was at this point worth noting that the band’s unschooled nature was perhaps their critical pathway to the later musical breakthroughs they evinced several years down the road. Steve Jansen [Née Batt] and Mick Karn [Née Michaelides] grew together as an organic rhythm section where each one was developing from point zero at much the same time. They interlaced their playing styles together in ways that knowledgable musicians simply wouldn’t think to do, having come from that perspective.

None of the boys were particularly adept at scholastics, so music was their sole outlet and escape. As the coalesced int a fledgeling band, it was Mick Karn, who exhibited the biggest growth spurt, gaining mastery of bass, then sax and oboe, and ultimately whatever he picked up in a similar fashion to Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. Barbieri settled on keys even though he was no piano player, but he had a job and brought some of the necessary cash to the table. David Batt had become Sylvian; a moniker with both Bowie and New York Dolls connotations. The latter played guitar and ostensibly wrote the songs though the whole band would work them into shape.

By the time of their first gig, they hastily grabbed the placeholder name JAPAN with the thought of replacing it later down the road, but that never came. Then they advertised for a lead guitarist in the music papers of the day, and quickly settled on Rob Dean, an older guy who was past his teenaged years who brought some rock moxie to the combo. In short order by 1976, the band attained a manager in the classic British mold in Simon Napier-Bell, who’d made his name with The Yardbirds and Marc Bolan previously under his wing. Napier-Bell handed out contracts after a little convincing and perhaps sowed the first seeds of the band’s destruction by only offering Sylvian a publishing contract.

japan adolescent sex album coverWith the band’s Glam sound out of synch with the Punk/Disco axis of the time, the band was a hard sell to labels. After signing, Sylvian became a heavy makeup abuser and the rest of the band followed suit to the best of their ability, but only Mick Karn could ever go “full-Bowie” and lose his eyebrows at one point. Napier-Bell mused that to become a star, one must look the part as Sylvian would not leave his home unless glammed out to the max. But the introverted Sylvian was typical of his band mates in that they were all basically shy, retiring types. Which compounded the hard sell for labels, with only the German Hansa label taking the bait via a talent contest advertised with posters throughout London that The Cure actually won.  Hansa thought enough of JAPAN to extend them an offer as well so Napier-Bell put them in the studio with his production partner Ray Singer producing and “Adolescent Sex” was the result.

The irony of the title was that this was an introverted band with little in common with the rock excess of the mid-70s. Reading how Sylvian would get elaborately made up and dressed to the nines, only to sit inside his flat alone begins to get at the heart of the paradox that this band represented. Their schoolmate, Nick Huckle was their right hand man throughout the ten year period that this book covered. He painted a picture of subdued activity by a group of shy people who occasionally got onstage and played rock music. We often find the paradox of introverts leaping around onstage in defiance of their reticence, but this was a band that carried this incongruity to extremes. Maybe this was yet another seed of doom, or maybe it was what made the magic of the band’s development possible.

Next: …Obscurity Beckoned


About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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5 Responses to Book Review: JAPAN – A Foreign Place [The Biography 1974-1984] [part 1]

  1. Really looking forward to the rest of this review!


  2. Gavin says:

    This book is an absolute joy to read.I was very late to the party,but eventually bought it from the Burning Shed sale early last year.Not picked up the ‘sequel’ as yet but am sure to in the future.
    It is so well researched and written,with great photos throughout.Highly recommended.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – I’m so happy that in this buy-now-or-regret-later world that the book is out there, selling well enough to have had three printings by now. And also that it sells for less than a king’s ransom. May it continue to see print for a long time.


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