Wednesday, July 22, 2009

David Sylvian Part 1 - The Japan Years 1978-1981


Japan started out as a sort of ropey glam-funk band, releasing 2 albums in that style, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives which had little in common with the punk/post-punk scene of 1978. David Sylvian showed definite signs of having listened to David Bowie in his vocals. There was one interesting track, The Tenant. A keyboard-led slow song, it has more in common with Low-era Bowie, and also signposts the future for Japan.

They completely retooled their sound for their 3rd album, the Quiet Life, drawing much more on Roxy Music with a dash of Bowie and providing the template for the new-romantics of the early 80s. The title track is very keyboard-based and poppy. On this album Sylvian's are a lot more recognisably him, though there is an awful moment during Despair when he sings it in French. Pretentious?! Totally. However this is a decent album, most of the tracks are very listenable if a bit samey. They reach out for alt-cred with a cover of All Tomorrow's Parties by the Velvet Underground which adds little to the original so it's hard to see the point. One of the better tracks is The Other Side of Life, the final track, which is a nice keyboard-based song.

Around this time David Sylvian was very much playing the pop-star game and had a very recognisable image. Indeed despite the fact that most of his work (and best work) is post-Japan, it is this era (early 80s) that he is probably best known for. Unfortunately it kind of overshadowed the music at this time.

Japan's next album was Gentlemen Take Polaroids, which was very much a product of its time, a lot of synthy, slightly funky intelligent pop. There were lots of examples of this on this album, such as the title track and Swing, though they peppered this with ambient moments such as the Experience of Swimming. Much of this stuff sounds somewhat dated now, and very much a product of its time. Night Porter is probably the best track here, a sparse keyboard-based piece and a fine example of Sylvian's balladry.

Japan reached their zenith with their next and last album, Tin Drum. Unmistakeably drawing on Far Eastern imagery, the cover featured David Sylvian with a bowl and chopsticks, it became their commercial breakthrough. Ghosts became their biggest hit and signature tune. Ironically it's their doomiest and least commercial song. It proceeds at a funereal pace, with minimal percussion and a strong Sylvian vocal and a haunting keyboard arrangement. Canton also features here, a strong instrumental evoking China. They could still do good pop songs with tracks like Visions of China with strong drumming from Steve Jansen and also Cantonese Boy (which had a distinctly offbeat time signature). Somebody in Duran Duran was definitely listening to this and Japan's previous album judging by Duran's early stuff. Sons of Pioneers was a slower paced track, again funeral-paced but this time featuring drums (not tin ones!).

A future post will look at David Sylvian's solo career which to my ears is far superior to Japan.