Tuesday, 17 April 2007


Regular readers will know that I did not choose my moniker because of Japan,'s 1982 album Tin Drum, but I love it nonetheless, and Ian has challenged me to write a post about them because he hasn't heard of them.

Alright. Japan are basically New Romantics but they are not twats. They take, from 1979's Quiet Life album onwards, the meme of the old-but-young man which has always been a Romantic idea going back to Thomas Chatterton but which also surfaced in that chaotic period of the dying consensus between 1976-79. I've always found that fascinating, as a 20 year old who felt 70 ten years ago and who found, in the lyrics of David Sylvian a similar soul. Sylvian may have been self obsessed but I don't think any of Japan's lyrics are personal. He creates narrators and voices in his songs, which are inspired by films, novels and experience: these voices dance, walk and locate emotions in various places in order better to explain what he, Sylvian, thought about the process of living and growing up in a world divided by ideology and hidebound by the worst kind of history anyone could ever imagine. Japan embraced the New Romantic style in order to give a non-stereotyped but bending idea of gender, and synths to give a broken up, digital version of rhythm which went way beyond disco into something that tried to resurrect a fragmented music of dancing and love. There is no way I could imagine dancing to any of, say Gentlemen Take Polaroids or Tin Drum - it attempts to replace movable rhythm with something you think you should move to, but can't. It's too on/off. Too hyphenated. Too unreal. In that, I think, Japan, in a far more convinced way than other New Romantics, and with all due respect to their influences such as Roxy Music, were trying to show that we were moving from an industrial world in which you were a small moving cog in a permanently shifting machine, into a digital world in which you were either on or you were off. I tend to think that their cover of Smokey Robinson's "Ain't That Peculiar" demonstrates this perfectly. You expect to move; you want to move; you stand still in the reciprocating silences and fake sounds.

All of this comes to a head in Tin Drum, and David Sylvian launches off into a number of post-Japan ideas as he outgrows the format (actually I don't think he does; I think there was plenty of mileage in this extremely talented band, but that's the impression I get from the album): in the final song, "Cantonese Boy" you have the whole set of ideas: political ideology; movement; travel; growing up; destiny - in one 3-odd minute song with an extraordinary Mick Karn bassline and the apotheosis of Japan's wholly serious take on synth pop. In 2007, as we know, we're so clever and muscially intelligent that tracks based entirely on synth within an old style pop song are rubbish - they're limited and sound dated. I can't help thinking the Japan period represents David Sylvian telling anyone who will listen that he doesn't give a toss about that; indeed, that having his music crystallised in a very locateable time and in a marble-solid style means something after all, whatever people in 2007 think about it.

They might not be rated; the style may be abhorred; but I stick to my view that their music was brilliantly original and trying to make a set of serious points.

Now you can take the piss out of me.


james higham said...

I don't recall you ever telling us where the 'Tin Drummer' came from. I'd be intrigued.

Little clue on the Who post now.

Ian Appleby said...

I'll buy that, at least as soon as I get my favourite online music store up and running on Linux... I won't be taking the piss - despite what Pete Postlethwaite said in Brassed Off, which was then immortalised by Chumbawamba in the number one hit that I still have to pinch myself to believe they had, music is important.