Book Review: JAPAN – A Foreign Place [The Biography 1974-1984] [part 2]

Anthnoy Reynolds - a foreign place book

The hardcover came and went too quickly for me, but the paperback is now in its third printing

[…continued from last post]

Writer Reynolds finally shed light on the curious happenstance of JAPAN being first feted in the country of their name. This was put down to the cultural tradition of young Japanese girls being drawn to androgynous “pretty” young boys and let it not be said that the group slacked on that front. The same look that had them decried as “poofters” and heckled on the streets of England saw them being mobbed, Beatlemania style, by hordes of young Japanese girls. Their label, JVC, didn’t care for their music, but signed them on the promise of music that “they would later make.” In the interim, their idol worship saw the band shifting units of their first two albums significantly in Japan, while the rest of the world couldn’t be bothered. Their only trek on North American soil was over by that time, leaving the “mature” JAPAN unknown on stages on this side of the Atlantic.

japan promo shot (c) 1980 fin costello

Photog Fin Costello found himself attached to the band as one of their primary lensmen

After “Adolescent Sex” and their sophomore album, “Obscure Alternatives,” were produced by manager Simon Napier-Bell’s partner, Ray Singer, the band decided that they were ready for their quantum leap, which would require outside help. They found one of their strongest advocates in John Punter; the veteran of many Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry sessions. For his part, Punter was so taken with the band that he not only produced their album, he was the soundman for their tours afterward! In 1980 the band dropped their formative chrysalis of hard and funky Glam Rock to emerge as peers to Roxy Music, with a warm, accomplished sound and a sleek gravitas as singer David Sylvian changed his tactics from Jagger emulation to something closer to Scott Walker.

More importantly, the songs on their third album, “Quiet Life,” seemed to be more honest expressions of the bandleader’s psyche than the scattershot posing on their first two albums. The sound and vibe were close to a manifestation of depression and anxiety. If the artist must “write what they know,” then somber works like “Alien” or “Despair” sounded every inch like songs written by a man who would wear elaborate makeup and then never leave his flat.

mick karn - japan and self existence book coverThough David Sylvian opted not to be interviewed specifically for this book, [he had consented to an earlier interview with writer Reynolds] the remaining members of JAPAN contributed interviews, as did most of the major players surrounding the band with their management company, labels, and producers and engineers. Friends and fans also chimed in and much of the archive photos of the early band came from this pool of people. Most of Sylvian’s quotes were from existing press on the band that Reynolds interpolated into his framework. Given his death almost a decade ago, Mick Karn’s quotes here were also a combination of press material as well as his own autobiography, “JAPAN + Self-Existence.” I appreciated that when press quotes from the band painted one picture, interviews with others on the scene who were party to the scenes described sometimes refuted the printed record with their own takes on what had happened; leaving the reader to parse between the two. Reynolds was not content to leave only one point of view and take on the truth of matters when there could often be other valid takes on things.

I was also impressed with how Reynolds reconstructed the story and timeline of events from a mixture of existing press and interviews with multiple individuals where possible. The resulting book was unauthorized, yet authoritative. Unafraid not to toe any official lines yet committed to conveying as full of a picture of the tale as possible. As someone who came into the story late, I appreciated how the writer explored how the five individuals who came together to form the band stayed true to themselves to the point of breaking up just when their number was called in the music biz lotto.

As much as I appreciate going in depth on the recording of certain, specific pieces of music that I love and respect, [and there are tantalizing glimpses of the thought and labor underneath the hood of certain songs, so to speak] the overall thrust of the book was geared to depicting how the people in the band and their orbit cooperated to effect the balance that was JAPAN for almost a decade before it lost its balance and collapsed in an artful heap. As usual, by the end of the line, money, or lack of it, became an issue. To the point where the backline of the band threatened a strike on their final tour unless they got something to show for it.

If this book had any key failing, I felt it was how both the reader as well as Mick Karn were blindsided when just as the band were finally breaking through with their “Tin Drum” album, Karn’s live-in girlfriend, Yuka Fujii, decided to move in with Sylvian. Given how no one was talking about this, even afterward, it remained the elephant in the room around the time of JAPAN’s split in 1983. While the book and key players won’t put the split down to the betrayal alone, the fact remained that Sylvian had already looked forward to leaving the band which he had devoted nearly a decade of his life to as his artistic methods were looking to move past pop stardom and rock music. If he’d left his flat, maybe he could have found a different woman to connect with, but one gets the notion that it was already over for the group just as they stood poised for their victory lap.

Yet, unlike the more gregarious Karn, who was described by most of the people in the book who came into contact with the band as their most warm and approachable member, Sylvian and the other members of JAPAN were depicted as reticent, introverted individuals. Flings with women were barely mentioned in the book. Commensurately, almost no chemicals were consumed in the making of the book either. Karn liked a spliff or hashish, and Sylvian used some Peruvian marching powder in the studio for the occasional long hours, but the usual rock periphery is largely absent from the narrative here. By the end of the book the singer seemed to have made his mind up to crash the plane in whatever way he saw fit. The strong clashes over the band’s set design for their last two tours seemed to be a cover for deeper subconscious feelings at work to upend the band. Perhaps the band’s inability to confront their true desires and communicate them doomed the band to break up just as they had found a substantial audience, this time in their home country and beyond as well as their namesake nation.

By the end of the book, as set in 1984, the band have bowed out with “Oil On Canvas,” an elaborate “live” album where only the drums on it could be said to have documented the actual performance. Mick Karn had a long-simmering solo album in his field of vision that was long an irritant to Sylvian, who had determined that there would be no solo work while the band was a going concern. But the rest of the band were at a loss. The band had sacked guitarist Rob Dean following the fourth album “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” as they had [prematurely] deemed guitar surplus to to their needs, so he had hooked up with Gary Numan for his “Dance” album and tour before joining Los Angeles band Vivabeat afterward. Mick Karn had also played the sessions for JAPAN fan Numan’s 1981 album, and had found himself feted by numerous musicians and bands who wanted to put his talents to use. Not the least of which were Midge Ure and Peter Murphy.

anthony reynolds - cries and whispers book coverProspects were tougher for Jansen and Barbieri. Because of their lack of a musical education and naive approach to their instruments, [Barbieri would be the first to admit he’s not really a keyboard player but more of a programmer] their talents did not readily translate to the bang-it-down-fast-and-efficient world of session work. One needs to read music to prosper in that sort of field. But it was telling that every member of JAPAN, save for Karn, were asked to contribute to David Sylvian’s first solo album. But that tale would continue in Reynolds, next volume, “Cries + Whispers,” which moves from 1984 through 1991 and the ill-fated “Raintree Crow” project that saw all of JAPAN regroup under a different name after numerous solo efforts where they played together [including Sylvian and Karn, significantly], only to fall apart anew before the project was ultimately finished by Sylvian on his own. I’m pleased that the bulk of the story of this fascinating band has finally been committed to the page by Reynolds, who has felt compelled to act on his long-simmering fandom after penning bios earlier on Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen.

communist purchase button

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About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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3 Responses to Book Review: JAPAN – A Foreign Place [The Biography 1974-1984] [part 2]

  1. Gerald McBoing-Boing says:

    I’ve been looking for a hardcover version of the first volume to no avail.

    You’re such a curious monk. I looked up our discussion about Mick Karn’s work last January and it appears that you’re reluctant to just order stuff on the internet (in this case Mick’s debut solo LP, “Titles”). Do I have that right, you’re all about finding things in a store?

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gerald McBoing-Boing – Curious? More like neurotic! Actually I’ve had a copy of “Titles” for a few months! I got it last fall at a record show for $3.00!! I am reluctant to order things online because I am poor! And almost everything I want is only for sale from other nations at great shipping cost. There are at least 400 things I could be ordering at any given moment and the thought of deciding what gets my $10 a week (if the budget even allows for that – often it doesn’t) is potentially crippling. If I go to a place where music is sold I have likely brass in pocket and can act on anything I may see there at that time. So in that way it came down to the luck of the draw on getting that Karn album. Finally! Don’t even mention the direct orders I have to buy from the artist these days. I’m so far behind where I’d like to be there much less on the other stuff on the Infinite Want List®.

      My wife doesn’t have this baggage! There are only a handful of titles she wants and when she’s had enough waiting, she simply orders it. For example, she [and I] have been pining for The Coup’s “Sorry To Bother You album ever since the movie was coming out. Any of my friends who have been in record stores across America with me have gasped to the unusual spectacle of seeing me rooting through the “hip-hop – C” bins looking fruitlessly for everything by The Coup. I only managed to find two used CDs in Los Angeles in July 2018. And there was no music by The Coup in Amoeba L.A. at all! East coast? Zero sightings and I have looked in every place that sells CDs for that band. She finally asked for the Discogs login and bought one of the two copies on Discogs for sale last week, but it was only $12.99 with postage. It’ll be here on Monday.

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  2. Mel Creighton says:

    I love Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids. I remember every time I used to look at them I used to think, “Good Lord! Someone take them outside to get some sun and exercise! And get them some cheeseburgers. They are too frail.” I am sure that was my inner Southern Redneck speaking to me. You tend to think these thoughts when you are from a small Southern town.

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