For the last two weeks, I’ve been under Japanese influence, and it would be an understatement to say what an absolutely brilliant adventure it’s been in this marvellous, mystical and mysterious island nation.
There have been fascinating excursions and diversions to Kyto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Itsukushima, but the biggest and best part of the trip has been spent in one particular intoxicating, awe-inspiring and at times overwhelming mega-metropolis, by most calculations the biggest city in the world*, keeping New York and its undesirables in its place.
One of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures and its capital city, Tokyo lies on the eastern coast of Honshu, the largest of the four islands that make up the country. The city was initially called Edo but renamed in 1868 when the Japanese imperial family relocated there from Kyoto.
Tokyo has an energy that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s not overt. It’s not in your face. But there’s an intangible fizzle and crackle in the air that makes this place breathe. It’s an integral part of the the Tokyo experience and it’s a feeling that many have said they share. Where does it come from? Partly from the vast numbers of people that share this small space with you. And partly from the fact that it is truly a 24/7 city. But it goes beyond that. It feels like it’s part of the DNA that binds this city together.
So, in 2019 I can finally say a little about what life in Tokyo is like without recourse to that song by Japan.
Ah yes, Japan. It doesn’t give me any sense of pride whatsoever to admit that David Sylvian is the only artist I’ve ever given up the opportunity to interview (more on that later), but today, as Life in Tokyo, their existential disaffected monument to Asian arpeggiated artificiality, celebrates its 40th anniversary, I’m more interested in whether his innovative and stylish band of the same name had ever been to this shining Oriental jewel before they adopted their culturally appropriated moniker? Apparently not.
It’s somewhat difficult to establish the exact truth surround the origin of the band’s name, though one thing is for certain, they didn’t physically go east until after their first album was out. Bowie’s line in Ziggy Stardust about a cat from Japan may well have been an influence, though according to the always informative Red Bull Academy, the name allegedly came from a travel brochure randomly found on the floor of the bus on the way to the band’s first gig at a family wedding in 1974. With the escapism from suburbia that was their trademark, these suburban South London lads called themselves Japan regardless. That was big a first step.
Whatever the origin of the band’s titlement, Sylvian later claimed he hates the name (it was apparently only supposed to be temporary), but, never one keen on looking back, he also airily dismisses their whole existence, that the entire experience of being in the band was a veil of deception, something worn to show the world to avoid revealing his true self. The singer extrapolated on this to MOJO’s Sylvie Simmons in a 1999 interview.
“It was a disguise, a mask to hide behind. It was never an expression of who I was. The mask was pretty dense in the early days and the whole life of Japan could be seen as a process of me stripping it away. But it’s very unhealthy – a means of survival only, which is no way to live. The music was a mask as well. It says nothing about how I was, other than I was hiding, trying desperately to be anything but myself. Just because I thought that was the only way I could survive.”
Forming the band at the tail end of glam rock in 1974, at Japan’s core was a pair of brothers, Sylvian and his younger sibling Steve Jansen (who happened to born on my father’s 12th birthday, natch), who hailed from Beckenham, an affluent if nondescript town on the Kent border with South London, and home of the Beckenham Arts Lab, a short-lived act of Sixties pretension by local resident David Bowie in 1969.
Sensing that you don’t get out of Beckenham with the same surname as the man who soundtracked The Wombles, the boys changed their names from David and Steve Batt to David Sylvian and Steve Jansen, after the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen, though it wouldn’t have escaped the young David’s notice that his local hero also referenced a Sylvian in his 1973 hit Drive-In Saturday, from the then recent album Aladdin Sane.
The two started the band at school in Catford, and had been through a variety of incarnations in the late 1970s before teaming up with the shrewd management of Simon Napier Bell (discoverer of Marc Bolan, lyric-writer for Dusty Springfield and future manager of George Michael and Wham!), arriving at a foppish mix of synthpop and Max Factor glamour which chimed with the New Romantic mood of the early Eighties, although Sylvian fought hard against associations with the androgynous, extravagant fashions of the era, even though he had helped popularise them.
Initially, Japan’s sound was essentially Young Americans meets Dusty In Memphis-style blue-eyed funk. Ace percussionist Jensen focused on the drums, virtuoso bassoonist Andonis Michaelides (soon to become the slightly snappier sounding Mick Karn) slapped the bass, electronics enthusasist Richard Barbieri tinkered on the keyboards (and later, Rob Dean, an EastEnder played guitar, was recruited via na advert in Melody Maker), and Sylvian swanned around looking like a pair of cheekbones in search of a voice.
By the time they signed a deal in May 1977 with Berlin’s Hansa Records (not long after Bowie had finished off his Low collaboration with Brian Eno at the label’s studios in the divided city), an affection for the chunky hooks and gauche glam racket of the New York Dolls and T.Rex had kicked in.
Their first two albums, the artless Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives — both released in 1978 — were hit-and-miss collections of low budget post-punky jangle, alienated disco-funk, and slithery glitter rock. None of it should work, but occasionally it does, if you can forgive the clunky anti-Nazi lyrics about “burning niggers in a cotton field” on Rhodesia. Karn’s remarkable fretless bass work shone through the muddle, but for the most part, this was a band in search of an identity. Sylvian’s comments bear that out now, in retrospect.
And looks-wise, the band was improbable, The group dyed their hair, donned makeup, all self-taught and wearing their influences on their second-hand sleeves, like Hanoi Rocks in custom-fitted shark. A slightly nasal waif in Mao fatigues, a wet mop mane of luminescent bottle-blond hair, face slapped with foundation, Sylvian was yet to employ his trademark richer, more mannered vocal phrasing which would have been familiar to anyone who had heard Bryan Ferry.
Who’s that? Sounds like Tokyo Joe…
Alas, it wasn’t Roxy Musical vocal affectations but Sylvian’s tragic beauty was Japan’s initial calling card. While virtually ignored in their native England, Napier-Bell tried as many angles as he could to drive up the hype behind the group. A three-month campaign of mass publicity photobombing went east to the Orient, and against the singer’s wishes, Napier-Bell told the Japanese press that Sylvian had been voted “most beautiful man in the world” (he hadn’t).
That was really all they needed, Japan were stars in their namesake country at least, with a fan club 30,000 strong before the debut album was even released. As the cliche goes, they were big, no huge in Japan. It’s so easy when you’re huge in Japan.
“We thought up this terrible publicity stunt dubbing Sylvian as ‘The Most Beautiful Man In The World’, which David hated, but something has to be done. – Simon Napier-Bell
Through this nascent period, Sylvian had already shown a healthy flirtation with all things Asian. Early songs like Communist China and the Chairman Mao-referencing Stateline create a sort of chicken-or-the-egg scenario – was Sylvian writing to cater to his primarily Asian audience, either consciously or subconsciously, or was that Asian audience embracing him because he seemed to be in touch with their lives? Or was it all just about that name?
But none of it mattered, really. 1978 had other things on its mind. Bolan died in ‘77 after standing next to Bowie, and took glam rock with him. Now it was all about punk and disco and new-wave, and Japan’s stompy glitter-rock seemed anachronistic to most, including their American label, who dropped them. The boys were keen to restart their recording career following several rounds of press criticism and spiralling debts, and promptly changed musical direction for the first but definitely not the last time.
Japan’s sound was becoming more keyboard-based, and Sylvian was keen for the band to work with a producer who could develop this transition further. Impressed by his futuristic production of Donna Summer’s epochal I Feel Love, in early 1979 the band wholly embraced electronic music by arranging a collaboration with someone who turned out to be their saviour; Italian Eurodisco king Giorgio Moroder, who turned them on to dancier alternatives.
Sylvian knew that Moroder had a breadth of experience working with rock and pop acts and could perhaps be the catalyst for success they needed. Fresh from giving Sparks an aural makeover, Moroder masterminded the band’s gleaming ping-pong bass-driven single Life in Tokyo, and paved the way for their arty synth-pop makeover.
His intuition proved sort of right: the title alone guaranteed it hit status in Japan, but it flopped just about everywhere else. Ultimately, though, Life in Tokyo was the creative kiss of life the band needed. Moroder’s co-writing and production on the single was a considerable leap forward and heralded a radical new sound for the band. Not that the press evangelised their transition from trashy, glam rock to shimmering electro-disco overnight but reviews were far more favourable.
The subsequent third LP, Quiet Life, was certainly a vast improvement, a smart fusion of rock and the new synthesized pop – ‘futurism’ – that built on the pulsating dance rhythm to some critical acclaim, but hardly made a dent on the UK charts, originally peaking at No.72.
The album, however, saw Sylvian taking more artistic control of the band than ever before, influenced as he was by David Bowie and Brian Eno’s new soundscapes. Though, intriguingly, Quiet Life featured a cover of the Velvet Underground chestnut All Tomorrows Parties a good decade before Bowie attempted it with Tin Machine.
Japan was finally finding its voice, were experimenting with computers, sampling techniques and synthesizers, new technologies that would transform for ever the way music was made and recorded. The band were evolving musically into an elegant, electronically-enhanced sound that was at once modern and classically luxurious, and visually as well, with super-stylish modern suits, skinny ties, and hairstyles to die for.
And, in Sylvian, they had a fascinating frontman, a wan, withdrawn Narcissus with a shouty croon. Retrospectively, the late Seventies shows his vocals in transition from the catty aggression of earlier albums. There was something fragile, exquisite and enigmatic about Sylvian that appealed both to men and women; he had the mystery and allure of a Hitchcock blonde.
With his long, thick custard fringe, fine bone structure and wilful embrace of androgyny, he looked like a cross between Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Andy Warhol if he’d been young and good looking. In return, many people copped his style, from Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran to Lady Diana. Indeed, the Duranies dropped Sylvian’s name and asked him to produce them. He declined.
Nonetheless, Hansa finally lost its patience with the underperforming band, and so the group signed to Virgin and released what was to be their first Top 50 LP, 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids, helmed by Roxy Music’s former producer John Punter. Unquestionably the record in which Japan truly found its own unique voice and aesthetic approach, The Quietus wrote that the album “took the sound of Quiet Life and refined it into a series of oblique, almost cinematic avant-pop creations that exquisitely surround the frontman’s woozy post-Bryan Ferry croon in layers of pop textures that sounded like little else by Japan’s contemporaries.”
Buoyed by the (in)famous “Most Beautiful Man in the World” press campaign, the Polaroids album is still their biggest in Japan, perhaps because of the involvement of the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, (the first of many work projects with Sylvian), and being lumped in with the burgeoning Blitz Kid movement didn’t hurt either, despite the singer’s protestations.
Suddenly, Japan were hot outside of Japan too. Reissued and remixed tunes from the Hansa years finally started to chart, alternating with new Virgin releases to create an even more confused identity for the band. Guitarist Rob Dean departed, citing the old standby “musical differences,” which, given the changing instrumental approach of the group, may actually have been the case (only being replaced on tour by Masami Tsuchiya of Ippu Do). Regardless, Japan’s fifth and final studio album, 1981’s masterful Tin Drum was the culmination of all the promise held in those early albums, the point at which the band finally realised its true potential, and that they could nab Bowie’s former violin player Simon House if ad when they needed to.
The distinguished — and drumless — 1982 single Ghosts, a minimal and almost ambient ballad where spare rhythms and fleeting instrumentation lay under Sylvian’s moody, smouldering tenor, is one of the strangest, most unlikely hit records this side of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman.
“So far removed from conventional pop you’d imagine you’d have more chance of a chart entry with a haiku from the Balanescu Quartet” opined Record Collector’s current editor Paul Lester. More than that, such was Japan’s cultural cachet at the time that this remarkable slice of Oriental electronica proved to be their biggest commercial success, reaching No.5, and, with delicious irony, deprived Roxy Music of a last hurrah in the Top Five with More Than This.
Buoyed by Top 20 placings for their reissue of Quiet Life’s evocative Bowiesque title track (No.19 in October 1981) and an immaculate cover of the old Motown classic I Second That Emotion (No.9 in July 1982), former label Hansa went on to re-release numerous versions of Life in Tokyo to capitalise on Japan’s newfound success.
None did particularly well until a ‘special remix’ finally became a hit in the UK — peaking at No.28 in October ’82 just as the band were imploding. The 45 came with a novelty flipside, Life In Tokyo Theme, a bizarre decelerated mix that could be enjoyed at the usual speed when played on a 78rpm turntable. But the trouble with Life in Tokyo didn’t quite end there. It was the slowed down ‘theme’ rather than the A-side that was mistakenly played a couple of times during BBC Radio 1’s weekly Top 40 countdown, perhaps losing the band significant sales.
Japan spent their final three years pioneering even more obscure and creatively enriching alternatives before unceremoniously breaking up mid-stride, just as they seemed poised for prolonged mainstream success. Sylvian may have been developing autocratic control freak tendencies (not to mention a cocaine habi and a fondness for snatching Mick Karn’s girlfriends) but they were in the best company…
For some reason, 1982 was the death knell to a whole host of top-draw bands — ABBA, Adam And The Ants, Blondie, The Jam, the Teardrop Explodes and, yes, Roxy Music among them — and Sylvian wasted no time in establishing himself as an artist in his own right with the release of two collaborative 45s with his Japanese chum Sakamoto, the shaky Bamboo Houses followed by the haunting, homoerotic Forbidden Colours, a magnificent, majestic ballad with ambient Asian flourishes. Central to the song is a delicate, circular piano riff and a slow, minimal lo-fi beat that only picks up in fidelity during the refrain
Forbidden Colours — the main theme for 1983’s David Bowie-starring prisoner of war film, Nagisha Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence – remains the biggest selling single of his post-Japan career, which isn’t too surprising when you remember that Let’s Dance-fueled Bowiemania was in full flow, and Sylvian was actually drafted in as the replacement for Bowie himself, who declined to contribute lyrics to Ryuichi’s score because of a short-lived attempt to keep his acting work separate from his music.
Sakamoto, who also played the closeted Captain Yonoi, had no such pretensions. Ironically, Bowie was no fan of Sylvian and tried to talk his co-star out of using the younger Beckenham boy during filming.
Boasting three new instrumental pieces (one of which, the bell-like Voices Raised In Welcome/Hands Held In Prayer seems to have been a sonic influence on Madonna’s Drowned World/Substitute For Love 15 years later) Sylvian offered no excuses, no explanation for Japan’s live requiem Oil On Canvas (1983), it just came out.
Not only that, but it sported cover art by the pre-eminent German-born painter Frank Auerbach that, although titled Head of JYM II, looked suspiciously like an abstract version of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s famously ubiquitous portrait of Chinese Girl/The Green Lady from 1952. Your gran probably had a Woolworths print of it in her living room. I know mine did.
Brilliant Trees, his first solo opus, soon followed, and by reaching No.4 in ’84 is actually the highest charting record of Sylvian’s entire career in his homeland. Before long he had stepped sideways into a murkier but intriguingly experimental world of ambient soundscapes, instrumentals and collaborations with the likes of Robert Fripp and Can’s Holger Czukay that, by rights, were never the realm of pop stars and yet to which he would frequently return.
An endlessly reflective and introspective artist, Sylvian’s self-absorption alone was cause for fascination, especially his approach to language, which was always carefully, almost obsessively, oblique.
Perhaps the most surprising of all his moves – for a musician as quintessentially English as Neil Tennant, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker – is the one that took Sylvian from Britain’s shores in the early 1990s. He did it for love (going on to marry Ingrid Chavez, one-time Prince** muse and co-writer of Madge’s Justify My Love), which is the only logical explanation for a singer who, like an actor in a Noël Coward production, delivers his lines in such a well spoken, carefully enunciated fashion. Now 61, for the last quarter century or so he’s made his home in various secluded environs across, not Japan but the USA, from Minnesota to California to New Hampshire. It seems that David Sylvian doesn’t like to be tied down, and the same could be said of his work.
In 2000, he collated the retrospective Everything & Nothing. Exhibiting a rare foray into nostalgia, the double disc set spanning two decades of material even featured an unreleased Japan track (albeit one with a newly recorded vocal) Some Kind of Fool, that was pulled off of Gentlemen Take Polaroids at the last minute.
At the time I was working in-house at MOJO magazine in London, and was asked by Pat Gilbert, the newly appointed deputy editor, if I’d like to review it.
“Virgin have said Sylvian’s available for interview,” assured Pat. And then I did something slightly stupid but ultimately charitable. I said No.
There were many reasons why I didn’t think I could do the piece justice. For start, there was only one other Japan song on the album, Ghosts, also with an updated vocal, and I didn’t feel I was sufficiently knowledgable about Sylvian’s solo work to make a good enough job of it and come across to him as a well researched interviewer.
There were no such things as smartphones in the first years of the new millennium, in fact I didn’t even own a mobile until a friend gifted me one that Christmas. I usually only accessed the internet at work, and that was before most people had heard of a search engine called Google.
On top of that, I was bogged down in the task of being project manager on a MOJO Lennon spin-off issue, and, amazingly, was also acting editor of MOJO magazine proper for all of a week while Paul Trynka was on paternity leave due to the birth of his son Otis.
Remembering my old Bowie buddy Spencer Kansa, who’d written for my self-published fan magazine Crankin’ Out in the Nineties, was a something of a Sylvian devotee and due to financial considerations had been forced out of London, I put his name forward instead. With a slight reluctance on Pat’s part (purely because he was unknown to him), Spencer got the assignment.
As was the case with my first Adam Ant interview around the same time, the magazine only used a small extract to run with the review, though my diary notes that Spencer breezed into the office (which in those days was above HMV’s flagship store on Oxford Street) late one Friday afternoon with his floppy, telling me he’d tried his best to get Sylvian to talk about Bowie, but he appeared reluctant, except to divulge that not only was Mick Karn that much of a committed Bowiephile that he shaved off his eyebrows to look like his hero but that his obsession went as far as having a torrid affair with the ex Mrs Bowie, Angela. Fancy.
The last time Karn and Sylvian worked together was the brief time when Japan reconvened (save Rob Dean), under the moniker Rain Tree Crow in 1991. A wonderfully late night listening experience, their eponymous album is atmospheric, spiritual and communicates a transcendental calmness. It also bears distinct parallels with the textural jazz and post-rock leanings of latter period Talk Talk, though the fleetingness of the project seemed to pose more questions than it answered, leaving the faithful wondering what could have been.
Making assumptions about David Sylvian has always been ill advised, though, but one thing he has never wavered on is how much he has a blatant disregard for much of Japan’s output. To him, it seems so artificial, but, alas, why should he care?
“I couldn’t relate to any of the albums as a whole. Certainly nothing from the first two releases… as far as memory serves me. I can relate to Ghosts, Nightporter, and one or two others that I have performed live over recent years.” — David Sylvian talking to Rodeo, 2005
Life can indeed be cruel.
Steve Pafford, Tokyo
stevepafford.com would like to extend its thanks to the hospitality of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Shinjuku, Korean Airlines for the flights and to Reiko Hiramitsu for her constant source of ideas and support.
*By population, Tokyo is ranked as the largest city in the world if the entire metro area is included, with a total of more than 38 million residents.
**Ingrid Chavez was rather accessible on Facebook a few years back and after she posted something to the effect of ‘Oh Prince worshipped Japan and David!’, I asked her to elaborate. She said that Prince was in awe of Sylvian and was too scared to invite him to Paisley Park.
Quiet Life c/w Life in Tokyo is released as a limited edition red vinyl 10” single for Record Store Day 2019 tomorrow, available through BMG