Old school: JapanNovember 26, 2008
Somehow, as a kid, I got my hands on a copy of the album Adolescent Sex by Japan (on vinyl, of course). Their 1978 debut, it was an excellent example of late glam-rock, in the vein of David Bowie and, especially, Roxy Music. However, while it did well in Japan (fittingly) and got some airplay in Canada, it never really broke into either the US or the UK markets.
Over the course of Japan’s next few albums, including 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids and 1981’s Tin Drum, they took a hard left turn into synthesizer-driven music that amalgamated both Western and Eastern sounds. You can hear the transition from the hard, punk-influenced “Adolescent Sex,” through the keyboard-driven “Gentlemen Take Polaroids,” to the startlingly minimalist “Ghosts” (I’m still astonished that it hit #5 on the UK charts). Japan was a bellwether, prefiguring the rise of the New Romantics; their shift was part of a larger cultural scene, where art-oriented bands moved from glam to synth-pop.
Sadly, Japan broke up after only a half-dozen years and five albums. While all the members continued on with musical projects, lead singer David Sylvian’s work is probably the best known. Of these, Secrets of the Beehive was the biggest commercial success, yielding the single “Orpheus.” He’s still active; his work is increasingly experimental, fusing jazz, electronica and other styles in conjunction with collaborators like Robert Fripp and Ryuichi Sakamoto. I had an amusing conversation once with a cabbie, on whose radio a David Sylvian track was playing – I asked after the song, and he dismissively replied, ‘oh, you won’t know it.’ But Sylvian’s baritone is distinctive (and beautiful), even in an unfamiliar context.
MP3: Japan – Ghosts