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In-depth Feature:  Japan: Video Profile and Interview
Enigmatic 80s band with a classic sound that stands the test of time
Sonic writes: .


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35:0 mins
Sons of Pioneers
If your not familiar with Japan's work, you may be under the impression that they were just a bunch of 80's effeminate futurists (in the words of Alan Partridge), but their musical talents are really quite something - trust me!

Glamour boys Dave and Steve
Starting out as Glam Rockers, taking influences from the New York Dolls and David Bowie, they met with limited success not having much of an impact on the charts, UK or otherwise. The best they could muster was a top 30 hit with the 1978 single Adolescent Sex (note: Sylvian sounds just like Bowie) from the album of the same title. Their biggest success was in the from the Dutch and Japanese (where they are still much revered) markets. The next album Obscure Alternatives (1979) left even less of a mark. They were considered to be out of step with the UK trend of New Wave and Punk and suffered accordingly. Their fortunes began to change when they hooked up with pop svengali manager Simon Napier-Bell (Wham, Marc Boland, Yardbirds) who persuaded them to do a cover - any cover. They rather bizarrely choose I Second that Emotion , by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles which as predicted by Napier-Bell, got them into the UK charts and started the ball rolling.

In 1979 Quiet Life marked a change into a more electronic mode – this was in part due to keyboard player Richard Barbieri’s discovery of synthesizers – it was a life changing experience. He says that he couldn't really play proper keyboards that well, but the new technology enabled him to create more interesting soundscapes and he blossomed. The single Life in Tokyo (produced and co-written by Giorgio Moroder), a dead ringer for Blondies disco pastiche saw the further development of the bands sound.

Their sound was refined again with Gentlemen Take Polarioids from 1980, with Mick Karn's bass beginning to come to the fore, which laid the way for the seminal album Tin Drum, where they embraced the New Romantic movement with enthusiasm as well as an oriental flavour. Although strangely, the titles of the tracks on the album have more to with China than Japan in geographical terms, what stood them apart from the pop crowd was it's pure concept, together with the unique instrumentation and production.

Produced by the band and Steve Nye (Penguin Café Orchestra, XTC, Brian Ferry, Clannad) Tin Drum still stands up to listening these days. The blend of Mick Karns melodic fretless Wal bass work, Steve Jansens outstanding drumming and Barbieri’s brilliant synthesizer textures give it a timeless quality that hasn’t dated like much 80’s music. By far their most successful work, they unfortunately split at the zenith of their career as Japan. The band members say it was the very success that lead to their downfall. All the outward pressure of pushing to achieve success removed, they turned in on each other and imploded. No doubt the fact that Sylvian and Jansen are brothers (changing their given name of Batt) must've increased the tensions.

The band members came together again under the name Rain Tree Crow for a single, critically acclaimed album in 1991 - Rain Tree Crow, then continued on their separate ways.

David Sylvian has had a busy and possibly the most successful solo career, working with many other unique musicians such as Holger Czukay, Robert Fripp, Riuchi Sakamoto. Much of his solo work has involved various members of the band, but not since the Rain Tree Crow project have they all worked together.

Mick Karn has continued with a succesful solo career continuing to play his trademark bass style with albums Titles (1987), Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters (1987), Bestial Cluster (1993), The Tooth Mother (1995), Each Eye a Path (2001), More Better Different (2004) and Loves Glove EP(2005).

Richard Barbieri has collaborated on a number of album projects since Japan with contributions to David Sylvians solo work. Forming the Medium Label with Karn and Jansen in 1993, they released thirteen albums over a ten year period. Also in 93, Barbieri joined Porcupine Tree - a progressive rock band which he recorded 6 studio albums and toured extensively. Th Dolphin Brothers saw him linking up with Steve Jansen once again. Also released are collaborations with Suzanne Barbieris (his wife) under the name Indigo Falls, and Tim Bowness as Flame.

Steve Jansen - mostly working as a collaborator on many of the the other band members projects, Steve does a lot of session work as a drummer (not surprisingly). There is also another album in the pipeline with brother David Sylvian.

Karn, Barbieri and Jansen continue to perform together as JBK.

More Resources              Articles - full listing
  • Comprehensive Japan fansite
  • Remember the 80's? (You might not want to!)

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       18 Comments...  
    Lunatique    Said...

    Japan's greatest influence was actually Yellow Magic Orchestra, the techno-pop band Sakamoto Ryuichi was a member of. Japan's use of synths was the result of their fondnes for YMO. (You absolutely need to do a feature on Yellow Magic Orchestra--they were Japan's answer to Kraftwerk, and is one of the most influential pioneers of electronic music.) David Sylvian continues to collaborate with Sakamoto to this day--they are very good friends.

    Japan should've made it big, but their art-pop bent prevented them from superstardom. Another band, who ripped off Japan and dumbed the whole sensibility down a notch to be more mainstream, became superstars. Who am I talking about?

    Duran Duran.

    I'm not joking, this is well-documented. Duran Duran ripped off the look, the sound, the arrangements, and even some melodies. The difference was, Duran Duran took that formula and went full-out pop, leaving out the artsy bent--and it worked. This isn't a knock on Duran Duran--I think they were great songwriters that had a sharp instinct for catchy pop tunes.

    www.ethereality.info

    26-Sep-06 02:55 PM


    Nick    Said...

    We just noticed that some of these vids are not allowed to stream outside of Youtube (due to the original posters preferences)

    If you want to get access to the full playlist, here it is:

    Here

    26-Sep-06 03:09 PM


    Dave    Said...

    Re: "some of these vids are not allowed to stream outside of Youtube (due to the original posters preferences)"

    I was the uploader for the 5 min documentary, I just updated the settings so the video will work properly within this feature.

    Thank you to SonicState for the awesome writeup/feature on this band! Its great to see something new about Japan.

    20-Nov-06 11:47 PM


    Paul    Said...

    Thankyou for the marvellous Japan profile and for including a link to my site. I will do the same in return. Looking forward to checking out the other artist profiles.

    10-Dec-06 04:53 AM


    Andy    Said...

    Bollocks Japan were just the poor mans Bryan Ferry & Roxy

    24-Dec-06 01:07 PM


    Nick    Said...

    David Sylvian got more talent in his little finger than that prancing poseur Ferry will ever have!

    19-Mar-07 04:00 PM


    Rikki X    Said...

    Japan has influenced (most notably) the Finnish Rock band hanoi Rocks with the Glam Look and sound...check em out!!!!

    12-Jul-07 11:57 AM


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    Japan has influenced Hanoi Rocks alot!!! I love the first 2 LP's

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