Big in Japan

Big in Japan was an English punk band from Liverpool that recorded ten songs, including “Society for Cutting Up Men” and the four-song 1978 EP From Y to Z and Never Again. Their lineup included two passing members of Deaf School and future stars Budgie (Slits, Siouxsie & The Banshees), Ian Broudie (Original Mirrors, Care), Jayne Casey (Pink Military), Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), Bill Drummond (KLF), and David Balfe (Teardrop Explodes).

Members: Bill Drummond (guitar, 1977-78), Phil Allen (drums, 1977-78), Kevin Ward (vocals, bass, 1977), Jayne Casey (vocals, 1977-78, 1979), Ian Broudie (guitar, 1977-78, 1979), Clive Langer (guitar, 1977), Ambrose Reynolds (bass, 1977), Holly Johnson (bass, 1977-78, 1979), Budgie (drums, 1978, 1979), Steve Lindsey (bass, 1978), David Balfe (bass, keyboards, 1978)


Formation

Big in Japan formed in May 1977 at the suggestion of Clive Langer, the guitarist–songwriter for Liverpool heavyweights Deaf School. The initial lineup featured bassist–singer Kevin Ward, drummer Phil Allen, and guitarist–singer Bill Drummond, a friend from the Scottish burgh Newton Stewart who attended the Liverpool Art and Design Academy.

Drummond (b. April 29, 1953) worked beforehand as a scene painter at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre. In 1976, experimental theatre director Ken Campbell hired Drummond as the set designer for the first stage production of The Illuminatus Trilogy, a series of three science fantasy novels (The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan) published in 1975 by American authors Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

Big In Japan premiered at Bretton Hall College and played three shows in its trio formation. In August, Langer joined between commitments with Deaf School, who recently toured their second album (Don’t Stop the World) in the US, where they landed in New York City in time for the blackout, as referenced on their third album, English Boys, Working Girls. With Langer, Big In Japan recorded a theme song. By September, he cleared for guitarist Ian Broudie.

Big In Japan became a quintet with singer Jayne Casey, a style extremist who shaved her head and eyebrows. In concerts, she wore thick under-eye makeup and adorned her head with cords and lampshades. Ward cleared for bassist Ambrose Reynolds, who spent two months in the band before they welcomed Holly Johnson, a teenage Bowie fan and Liverpool Collegiate alumnus. Like Casey, he shaved his head and eyebrows.

In November 1977, the Langer-lineup song “Big In Japan” appeared on a split single with “Do the Chud” by the Chuddie Nudes, the punk alter ego of retro-sixties Merseyside popsters Yachts. The single appeared in a yellow sleeve as the first release (0001) on Eric’s, the record branch of Liverpool’s famed Eric’s Club.

In January 1978, Allen cleared for drummer Peter Clarke (aka Budgie), recently of The Spitfire Boys, a Liverpool punk band with singer Paul Rutherford. Budgie drums on the October 1977 Spitfire’s single “British Refugee” (b/w “Mein Kampf”), released on RKO.

Big In Japan recorded six songs after the Eric’s side. However, the band became rivals with Liverpool hopefuls the Crucial Three, a trio composed of scenesters Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, and Peter Wylie. Cope launched a petition that called for the breakup of Big In Japan. He displayed the petition at Probe Records, a local music shop. Of the required 14,000 signatures, the petition garnered nine, mostly signed as a joke by BIJ members.

In June, Big In Japan replaced Johnson with bassist Steve Lindsey of the recently disbanded Deaf School. One month later, Lindsey cleared for David Balfe, a co-founder of local electro-pop pioneers Dalek I Love You.

After fourteen months and eight lineup changes, Big In Japan played their final show on August 26, 1978, at Eric’s. Drummond and Balfe initiated Zoo Records as an outlet for the local post-punk scene. In November, Zoo issued From Y to Z and Never Again, a Big In Japan EP with four songs:

A1. “Nothing Special”
A2. “Cindy and the Barbi Dolls”
B1. “Suicide A-Go-Go” (“for the ladies in Falkner Square”)
B2. “Taxi”

Big In Japan recorded the four group-written songs with producers Noddy Knowler (Side A) and Rob Dickens (Side B).

From Y to Z appeared in a blue, black, and yellow fold-out sleeve with a xerox collage of photos and press cutouts. The inside tagline reads “Big, like the rising sun.” The ‘Thanks’ section includes call-outs to “Robin for being a hippie,” to “Phil Ross for playing our tapes on the radio,” and to “the Eric’s matinee crows.” It also states “Nothing to Jet Records for messing us about and letting us down.” (Jet was ELO‘s label, which signed Trickster, Magnum, Quartz, and Violinski.)

From Y to Z was the inaugural Zoo release (CAGE 001), followed by a single from Those Naughty Lumps (“Iggy Pop’s Jacket”) and the vinyl debuts of Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen, the respective bands of Cope and McCulloch after Crucial Three’s breakup.

Meanwhile, Drummond and Balfe formed Lori & The Chameleons with Casey-lookalike Lori Lartey. Their single “Touch” (b/w “Love On the Ganges”) was Zoo’s sixth release. In 1980, they released “The Lonely Spy” (b/w “Peru”) on the Bunnymen’s subsequent label Korova. Balfe replaced Paul Simpson in Teardrops Explodes while Drummond became that band’s manager.

On February 12, 1979, a lineup of Casey, Broudie, Johnson, and Budgie cut a session as Big In Japan for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who’s March 6 broadcast aired three songs:

“Suicide High Life”
“Goodbye”
“Don’t Bomb China Now”

Also in 1979, the compilation Street To Street – A Liverpool Album appeared on Noddy Knowler’s Open Eye Records label. It features the missing Big In Japan song “Match of the Day” amid rarities by Modern Eon, The ID (the OMD forebear), and Tontrix (a parent to A Flock of Seagulls and Hambi & The Dance).

Casey formed Pink Military, a post-punk band whose revolving-door lineup included brief stints by ex-members of Deaf School (Tim Whittaker) and Yachts (Martin Dempsey). They cut two shortplayers and the 1980 Eric’s release Do Animals Believe In God? Casey then re-teamed with fleeting Big In Japan bassist Ambrose Reynolds in Pink Industry, an electro outfit that made three 1983–85 albums on self-press Zulu.

Broudie played in the Illuminations, the backing band of ex-Deaf School co-vocalist Bette Bright. He then teamed with Deaf School’s lead singer, Steve Allen (aka Enrico Cadillac) in the Original Mirrors, which cut two albums in 1980–81 on Mercury. In 1983, Broudie teamed with Paul Simpson in the neo-psych duo Care, which cut three Arista singles and an album’s worth of material. He followed Simpson into a reformed Wild Swans and later formed Lightning Seeds.

Johnson cut two solo singles and teamed with Spitfire Paul Rutherford in Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who shot to global fame with the singles “Relax” and “Two Tribes” from their 1984 album Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, produced by Art of Noise mastermind Trevor Horn on the ex-Buggles‘ ZTT label. “Relax” topped ten national charts, including Germany, where it was ousted from No. 1 by “Big In Japan,” a song by the Münster synthpop combo Alphaville. Their singer, Marian Gold, wrote the song five years earlier when he first heard Johnson’s band.

Budgie joined The Slits, where he replaced Palmolive (who joined the Raincoats) for their 1979 album Cut. His kinetic drumming helped them transform from their earlier punk style to the avant-garde reggae of the LP. He then took a permanent slot in Siouxsie & The Banshees and formed the side-project Creatures with Siouxsie Sioux.

Of the two Deaf School members with short stints in Big In Japan, Langer formed Clive Langer & The Boxes while Steve Allen cut two albums with The Planets. Langer formed a production partnership with Alan Wistanley. Their main client, Madness, shot to fame with their 1979 debut One Step Beyond…, a pivotal record in the ska/2 Tone craze.

In 1982, Zoo Records released To The Shores of Lake Placid, a label retrospective with the otherwise unissued Big In Japan song “Society for Cutting Up Men,” titled after the misandrist SCUM manifesto of Valerie Solanas, the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.


Discography:

  • From Y to Z and Never Again (Zoo, 1978)

Sources:

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