Pop Culture/Music/80s/New Romantic
Japan and the Birth of New Romantic
Lovers of the 80’s sound exemplified by Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet would be wise to track done the LP’s, CD’s or downloads of the group known simply as “Japan”. Actually formed in the mid-70s and defunct by 1983 Japan carved out a significant niche that remains unexplored by many music listeners of a certain age and disposition.
The 80s are generally remembered not so much by the music of that era but by the appearance of the musicians…it was MTV time and style meant just as much as substance and everyone was taken serious for their 15 minutes of fame. For Japan though that moment would be lomitied to a UK audience as they seemed to implode just at the moment when they could have become superstars. They handed off their success to Duran Duran who carried the ball over the course of 15 years or so with 6 Gold albums and a dozen hit singles. Japan by contrast had only 2 Top 20 albums and and 2 Top 10 hit singles in the UK. In the US they remained unknown never played or even acknowledged by MTV or FM radio.
Althought they did at time have a Japanese member Japan was essentially a UK outfit with a sentiment that pegged them as intellectuals despite their electronic sounds and bleach blond appearance. Consisting of David Sylvian (vocals, guitar), Steve Jansen (drums) (brothers whose originally surname was Batt), Mick Karn (a sort of Jac
o Pastorious of new wave bass player) and Richard Barbieri (an intelligent, atmospheric keyboardist), the group originally saw themselves as heirs to the glam-rock world of Bowie and the New York Dolls. By 1979, after 2 dismal albums for Hansa Records they heeded the call of pop culture and went for a livelier sound under the production of disco king Giorgio Moroder.
With an intellectual high brow like Sylvian writing the lyrics and possed with a a powerful sense of the dramatic Japan tread where few bands ever have. Their big UK hit ‘Ghosts’ is a stunningly simplistic song the broods along like an electronic poem. A celebrated TV appearance sealed the band as major players as the 80s emerged…countering the cartoon imagery of Adam & the Ants and Madness. Where other new wavers incorporated humor and over-the-top hijinks, Japan stole from Camus and Erik Satie to create perfect electronica. Scholarly over silly. Emo over haha….s
ubstance intertwined with style.
Japan’s best album was ‘Tin Drum’ (1981 on Virgin) which nicely encapsules all of the traits that we came to know a new romantic, at least as far as sound. Lyrically though ‘Tin Drum’ was like listening to a shortwave broadcast from inner Asia. Sylvian had become a Somerset Maughan as he managed to marry a pseudo-Asian image to the politics of Communism, colonialism and the imagery of a new Sony digital radio. Japan was international 15 years before the internet and transcultural at a time when conservatism was being embraced whole heartily in the US and the UK. Although Japan was finally starting to sell outside of the UK (namely in Europe, Canada and Japan, Sylvian decided to call it a day. After a final UK tour, chronicled on the fine double album ‘Oil on Canvas’ ( #5 in the UK) Japan vanished, relegated to the pages of New Wave encyclopedias and the dim memories of Uk DJ’s.
Sylvian went on powerfully and has carved out a rather stunning solo career that balances his intellectualism with varying diffe
rent world sounds. He has made significant collaborations with Ruiyichi Sakamoto, Rober Fripp and others that have stood the test of time and have a durable quality lacking in so much of the pop music of this era. The other members too have put out great music, Karn (who passed away a few years ago) issued a remarkable solo album circa 1987 and Jansen and Barbiers formed a band called the Dolphin Brothers -a stylish funky ensemble in the early 90s.
Japan bridged a gap between glam-punk and new wave and were the syle makers for the New Romantic sound of the 1980s. Their enigmatic sounds remain a rewarding discovery for those bold enough to indulge with their headphones…think Duran Duran meets Roxy Music…with a shortwave radio nearby.