Relax and Swing – a blog about 80s pop group Japan

I was mad into Japan 25-30 years ago. I had David Sylvian hair (well, kinda – and as my wife pointed out, “everyone had their hair like that”; but then she went to a girls’ school). I also had a Sylvian coat, but although I tried to get shoes like those he wore on the back of the Tin Drum cover, the best I could do was a pair of cheap espadrilles from Bacons. It was a fascination with the band I shared with a friend, who wore a similar coat and and had similar hair. We must have looked a right pair when we walked around Tamworth. Where are you now, Warren Garret?

Sometimes I’d have friends round to my house. Being an enthusiastic sort I’d make them sit cross-legged on my bedroom floor attempting to eat Chinese food with chopsticks while playing Japan albums on my Amstrad. When we went out we’d ask the DJ to play Quiet Life, with it’s helicopter sound, sweeping keyboards and wailing guitar. This is a great, powerful dance track that you’ll sing to without realising it, and which somehow sits comfortably between glam and disco and new wave. It’s got depth, too. At the end there are numerous vocal layers, including a very deep vocal that’s barely audible through anything but headphones.

Perspectives

Since hearing about Mick Karn’s premature death from cancer last week I’ve been listening to the band a lot. Back in the day I tended to focus on Sylvian’s voice. He always struck me as somewhat affected and pretentious even when I was 14; but that’s OK, because he was a pop star, and pop stars should always be out of the ordinary, right? Right.

The thing is, listening to Japan now what strikes me most from my older and more musically appreciative viewpoint is the innovation in the band’s music, and the quite incredible musicianship.

Japan got lumped in with the whole New Romantic thing that was developing at the beginning of the 1980s, but that wasn’t really what they were about. Yes, they wore make-up and had hair in spades, but this was more to do with their glam roots than anything. They were Avant-guard, more influential of the New Romantic scene, particularly Duran Duran, than part of it. Although let’s face it, being labelled “New Romantic” probably didn’t do the band any harm at the time.

Japan’s music is complex and carefully constructed. Although not a style the band is associated with, there’s considerable funk, and intricate rhythms with lots of percussion, drum machines and “real” drums from Steven Jansen, all usually happening at the same time without sounding a mess – not an easy trick to pull off. Then there’s the minimalist guitar work; often it doesn’t sound like a guitar at all, with great dive-bomb sounds or sitting just the right side of rock – more attitude than anything. Then there’s wonderfully warm and warbling sounds produced by Richard Barbieri’s keyboards, with everything underpinned by Karn’s fantastic bass playing.

Karn was probably the coolest member of Japan for my money. His bass playing was nothing short of phenomenal. He used a fretless bass, which has a unique, woody sound anyway, but this guy played bends and slides and vibrato in a very percussive and funky style. He was also responsible for the Bowie-esque chorused saxophone sound the band used such a lot, as well as more exotic instruments such as the ocarina.

Swing

The Smokey Robinson classic I Second That Emotion was a big hit for Japan, being very accessible to many people, and coming along as the New Romantic scene began to blossom. While this is a great track that the band covered in their own style very effectively, it’s not my favourite simply because it’s a cover. However, I could listen to Karn’s bass line all day, with that little slide down at the end of each phrase.

My all-time favourite Japan track is Swing, from the album Gentlemen Take Polaroids. Why do I like it so much? I understand now that what draws me to much of Japan’s music, and this track in particular, is the use of flat notes, semi-tone changes and minor chords. This is what makes many of the band’s tracks pretty dark, despite somehow managing to remain “pop”. This is something that also draws me to artists such as Nick Cave and Radiohead.

The vocal is pretty soulful. While I always liked Sylvian’s voice I thought it was somewhat over-croony at times, but respect to the man – he could really sing. Underneath it all, a drum machine and Jansen’s drumming perfectly compliment each other, supported by synth textures that are by turns powerful and beautiful, but often subtle enough to pass by the casual listener.

Ghosts

Ghosts is perhaps Japan’s most famous track, and possibly the one which encapsulates the band. Back in 1981, and even today, Ghosts as a pop song is pretty daring, with Barbieri’s wibbly-wobbly keyboard notes and fart noises reminiscent of the sounds generated by Louis and Bebe Baron for the beginning of the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet.

This is a dark song that draws you in gradually. The guitar complements the keyboards as Barbieri uses pitch bends and great warmth in the synth sounds to offset the tortured vocal. Everything grows gently as the song builds to Sylvian’s plea in the last chorus, beneath which is a beautiful, minimalist high keyboard line. It is pop genius in what is an otherwise very downbeat song.

Cantonese Boy was one of Japan’s biggest hits, with a more poppy sound than many of the band’s other songs. To be honest I never really liked the chorus on this one – the oriental thing’s just a tad overdone – but Karn’s bass is something really special, with wonderful percussion. There’s also a great instrumental bridge from the chorus back into the verse, with Barbieri’s synth whistles and chirps and percussive playing.

There are great dynamics and space in most of Japan’s tracks, and Cantonese Boy is no exception, despite sounding relatively full. There are also very subtle touches in terms of production, with shifts in the stereo field and changes of reverb. Huge kudos to Steve Nye here.

The first verse is a perfect example: the high synth lines switch from left in the stereo field to the right on alternate phrases, and act as a minimalist hook throughout the verse; the bass and drums are quite up front, the bass central and steady. When Sylvian’s voice comes in it is initially quite dry with little reverb, and central in the stereo field; it then separates, with more reverb, supported by multiple vocal overdubs, and alternates with the dryer, single vocal.

This is all within the first 45 seconds, kids.

The Art of Parties

Okay, so Japan’s eastern thing was perhaps a little overcooked, but it gave them unique positioning. Looking back, they were a band whose musicianship was perhaps not as appreciated as it should have been.

Does Japan’s music sound dated? I don’t know. I’d have to get a teenager to listen to it and gauge their reaction. To me, it’s a tremendously creative sound that’s way more than the sum of its component parts, and stands its ground in terms of creativity.  Play a few tracks, and take a listen beyond that which immediately presents itself – you might hear stuff you’ve never heard before.

All you’ve got to do is relax, man. Relax and swing.


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5 thoughts on “Relax and Swing – a blog about 80s pop group Japan

  1. I’ve been listening to Japan/ David Sylvian for 30 years and still love them as much as ever. In fact, David Sylvian continues to astonish me with his creativity. I can still remember the excitement of buying Tin Drum from Piccadilly Records at the age of 12 – only the second album I ever bought, the first beings Dare (still love that too).
    Like your description of your teenage days. Can really relate to it. I worked Saturdays in an alternative clothes shop in Manchester (the Cave) which employed 2 David Sylvian look a likes. We sold the shoes you wanted but (in case you ever go to an 80’s fancy dress party) you can get them from a dance shop. They’re called jazz shoes. I had them in 4 different colours. Surprisingly, I’m not gay!
    Keep up the blog. Good work.

  2. Used to go into The Cave on Saturdays. Totally forgot the name of it until I saw this. Loved Sylvian but had more of a Nick Rhodes look. Do remember 2 Sylvian lookalikes though – had forgotten them. Bought an electric blue Bowie suit from The Cave – I so loved it. There was another guy worked there….looked like Pete Murphy from what I remember. Am writing about that time in my life at the moment. Any info you can give me on The Cave would be great.
    This has made my day – thought my memories were a bit skewed so you’ve restored my faith 🙂

  3. Hi
    I enjoyed this article! I loved Japan, as a teenager, and still listen to the last two albums on a fairly regular basis. I agree, Mick Karn’s bass-lines added another dimension to Japan’s sound, but Jansen and Barbieri were also incredibly accomplished musicians, as you pointed out. I STILL play ‘air-drums’ to the drum-break in ‘Visions Of China’, it’s impossible not to!
    The group caught a lot of flack for David Sylvian’s obsession with China and Chairman Mao, and I remember reading reviews commenting how Sylvian wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the ‘cultural revolution’, which is obviously true, but it was clear from his lyrics he was interested in how the ‘cultural revolution’ affected people, for better or worse.
    Anyway, nice article, thanks!

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