David Sylvian

David Sylvian is an English musician, singer, and composer from Beckenham, Kent, best known as the frontman of art-rockers Japan, which he formed in 1974 with brother Steve Batt (Jansen). Between 1978 and 1983, they released five studio albums and a live double-LP. Upon their disbandment, Sylvian issued two singles in collaboration with YMO mastermind Ryuichi Sakamoto.

As a solo artist, Sylvian debuted with the 1984 Virgin release Brilliant Trees. followed by the 1985 cassette EP Alchemy and the 1986 double-album Gone to Earth, which features guest appearances from Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson. In 1987, he charted with “Orpheus” from his third solo album Secrets of the Beehive. He teamed with ex-Can bassist Holger Czukay on the 1988–89 albums Plight & Premonition and Flux + Mutability.

Early Life

Sylvian was born David Alan Batt on February 23, 1958, in Beckenham, Kent; the middle child of plasterer Bernard and housewife Sheila. The family lived in Lewisham, South London, where David took an early interest in music through his older sister’s collection of Stax and Motown records. He attended Catford Boys School and befriended fellow pupil Anthony Michaelides. One Christmas, Bernard gifted David an acoustic guitar and bought a drum kit for his younger brother Steve Batt (b. 1959).


The Batt brothers formed a trio with the Cyprus-born Michaelides, a bassoonist-turned-bassist. They picked the group name Japan as an afterthought before their first show. David adopted the stage surname Sylvian and the others followed suit as Steve Jansen and Mick Karn (Michaelides). With guitarist Rob Dean and keyboardist Richard Barbieri, Japan signed with Ariola and released the 1978 funk-punk albums Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives.

Sylvian, who initially sang with a snarly rasp, adopted a smooth croon on Japan’s 1979 third album Quiet Life, which forged an electro-metro sound advanced on their 1980 release Gentlemen Take Polaroids, their first album for Virgin. Japan achieved UK fame with Tin Drum, an expansion into ethno-pop exotica with the hits “Ghosts” and “Cantonese Boy.” They disbanded after the 1983 live double-album Oil On Canvass.

Singles With Ryuichi Sakamoto

In 1980, David Sylvian collaborated with Yellow Magic Orchestra keyboardist–composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on “Taking Islands In Africa,” the closing track on the fourth Japan album Gentlemen Take Polaroids. They re-connected for the July 1982 Virgin single “Bamboo Houses” (b/w “Bamboo Music”), both co-compositions joint-produced with Japan soundman Steve Nye.

A. “Bamboo Houses” ()
B. “Bamboo Music” ()

On July 30, 1983, Sylvian and Sakamoto released “Forbidden Colours,” a joint composition backed with the instrumental “The Seed and the Sower,” both culled from Ryuichi’s soundtrack to the WWII-period drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence starring David Bowie as Jack “Strafer” Celliers, an American Army major held captive in a Java prison camp overseen by Sakamoto’s character, the strict yet sympathetic Captain Yonoi.

A. “Forbidden Colours” ()

Brilliant Trees

David Sylvian released his debut solo album, Brilliant Trees, on June 25, 1984, on Virgin.

1. “Pulling Punches” (5:02)
2. “The Ink in the Well” (4:30)
3. “Nostalgia” (5:41)
4. “Red Guitar” (5:09)

5. “Weathered Wall” (5:44)
6. “Backwaters” (4:52)
7. “Brilliant Trees” (8:39)

Recorded 1983–1984
Studio Hansa Tonstudio (Berlin, Germany), The Church Studios (London, England)

David Sylvian – lead vocals, guitar, piano (treated), tapes, synthesizer, percussion instruments
Richard Barbieri – synthesizer (1, 5)
Wayne Brathwaite – bass guitar (1, 4)
Holger Czukay – French horn, voice, guitar, dictaphone.
Ronny Drayton – guitar (1, 4)
Jon Hassell – trumpet (5, 7)
Mark Isham – trumpet track (1, 4)
Steve Jansen – drums, synthesizer, percussion
Steve Nye – synthesizer (3, 4)
Phil Palmer – guitar (1, 4)
Ryuichi Sakamoto – synthesizer/piano (4, 5, 7)
Danny Thompson – double bass (2)
Kenny Wheeler – flugelhorn (2, 3)

David Sylvian – producer for Klangfarben Productions, mixing assistant
Steve Nye – record producer for Klangfarben Productions, sound engineer, audio mixing (1, 3–5, 7)
Peter Williams – sound engineer, mixing assistant
Nigel Walker – mixing (2, 6)
Matt Butler – assistant mixing (2, 6)
Yuka Fujii – photography

“Red Guitar”
Released: 21 May 1984

“The Ink in the Well”
Released: 6 August 1984

“Pulling Punches”
Released: 22 October 1984

UK Albums (OCC) 4
Dutch Albums (Album Top 100) 7
Japanese Albums (Oricon) 16

Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities

David Sylvian released the cassette-only title Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities on December 9, 1985, on Virgin. Despite its standard-album length (36:41), Alchemy is not a proper album.

Alchemy gathers three separate projects. Side A contains a 1984 self-produced solo recording (“Preparations for a Journey”) and a three-part collaboration with Steve Jansen and Jon Hassell (“Words with the Shaman”). Side B consists of “Steel Cathedrals,” a 19-minute collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto.

1. “Words with the Shaman: Pt. 1 Ancient Evening” (5:11)
2. “Words with the Shaman: Pt.2 Incantation” (3:30)
3. “Words with the Shaman: Pt.3 Awakening – Songs from the Treetops” (5:21)

Recorded in London 1985
Produced by David Sylvian and Nigel Walker
David Sylvian – keyboards, guitars, tapes
Steve Jansen – drums, percussion, additional keyboards
Jon Hassell – trumpet
Holger Czukay – radio, dictaphone
Percy Jones – fretless bass

4. “Preparations for a Journey” (3:40)

5. “Steel Cathedrals” (18:55) is the soundtrack piece to a short film by Sylvian and Y. Yamaguchi.

Recorded in Tokyo 1984 and London 1985.
David Sylvian – keyboards, tapes, digital percussion
Ryuichi Sakamoto – piano, strings
Steve Jansen – percussion
Kenny Wheeler – flugelhorn
Robert Fripp – guitar
Holger Czukay – dictaphone
Masami Tsuchiya – “guitar abstractions”

Gone to Earth

David Sylvian released his second solo album, Gone to Earth, on September 1, 1986, on Virgin. The eighty-minute double album contains one record of dark vocal material and a second comprised of ambient instrumentals.

Gone to Earth features eleven backing players, including guitarists Robert Fripp (seven tracks) and Bill Nelson (six). Sylvian’s brother and former Japan bandmate, drummer Steve Jansen, plays on “Taking the Veil,” “Before the Bullfight,” and all of Side Two, which opens with the nine-minute “Wave,” one of two tracks (along with the lengthier “Bullfight”) with erstwhile Japan keyboardist (and Jansen’s current Dolphin Brothers partner) Richard Barbieri.

Side One
1. “Taking the Veil” (4:40)
2. “Laughter and Forgetting” (2:40)
3. “Before the Bullfight” (9:45)
4. “Gone to Earth” (3:06)
Fripp, Sylvian

Side Two
5. “Wave” (9:11)
6. “River Man” (4:54)
7. “Silver Moon” (6:19)

Side Three
8. “The Healing Place” (5:34)
9. “Answered Prayers” (3:10) Nelson, Sylvian
10. “Where the Railroad Meets the Sea” (2:52)
11. “The Wooden Cross” (5:04)
12. “Silver Moon Over Sleeping Steeples” (2:22)

Side Four
13. “Camp Fire : Coyote Country” (3:51) Fripp, Sylvian
14. “A Bird of Prey Vanishes into a Bright Blue Cloudless Sky” (3:16)
15. “Home” (4:33)
16. “Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees” (3:02)
17. “Upon This Earth” (6:30) Fripp, Sylvian

Recorded 1985–1986
Studio London, Oxfordshire
Producer Steve Nye David Sylvian

David Sylvian – lead vocals, keyboards (A1, A3, B1, B2, B3), guitar (A1, A3, A4, B2) electronics (A1, A2)
Robert Fripp – guitar (A1, A4, B1, B2, B3, D1, D5), Frippertronics (A4, B1, B2, B3)
Steve Jansen – drums (A1, A3, B1, B2, B3)
Phil Palmer – acoustic guitar (A1)
Jennifer Maidman – bass (A1, B2, B3)
Kenny Wheeler – flugelhorn (A2, A3)
John Taylor – piano (A2)
Bill Nelson – guitar (A3, B1, B3, C1, C2, D4)
Richard Barbieri – electronics (A3, B1)
Harry Beckett – flugelhorn (B1)
Mel Collins – soprano saxophone (B2, B3)
B.J. Cole – pedal steel (B3, C5)
Joseph Beuys – voice (C1)
John G. Bennett – voice (A4)
Robert Graves – voice (D5)

Russell Mills – design
David Buckland – photography
Steve Nye – engineer, piano (C3)
Nick Blundell- assistant engineer
Julian Wheatley assistant engineer
Noel Haris – assistant engineer
Catherine Wilson – assistant engineer
Yuka Fujii – special thanks

“Taking the Veil”
Released: 28 July 1986

“Silver Moon”
Released: 22 September 1986

Dutch Albums (Album Top 100) 6
UK Albums (OCC) 24 

Secrets of the Beehive

David Sylvian released his debut solo album, Secrets of the Beehive, on October 19, 1987, on Virgin.

1. “September” (1:17)
2. “The Boy With the Gun” (5:19)
3. “Maria” (2:49)
4. “Orpheus” (4:51)
5. “The Devil’s Own” (3:12)
6. “When Poets Dreamed of Angels” (4:51)
7. “Mother and Child” (3:15)
8. “Let the Happiness In” (5:37)
9. “Waterfront” (3:23)

Studio London and Bath, England; Chateau Miraval, Le Val, France; Wisseloord Studios, Hilversum, The Netherlands

David Sylvian – vocals, piano (1), acoustic guitar (2, 4, 6), organ (2, 8), synths (2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10), tapes (3, 5), treated piano (5)
Ryuichi Sakamoto – string arrangement (1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10), organ (2, 3, 5, 7, 8), synths (2, 4, 8), piano (4, 5, 7, 9, 10), treated piano (3), woodwind arrangement (5), brass arrangement (8)
Steve Jansen – drums (4, 8, 10)
David Torn – electric guitar (2, 7), guitar loop (3)
Danny Thompson – double bass (2, 4, 7)
Danny Cummings – percussion (2, 6, 7, 8)
Phil Palmer – slide guitar (4), acoustic guitars (6)
Mark Isham – flugelhorn (4,8), trumpet (6, 8)
Brian Gascoigne – orchestral arrangement (4), string arrangement (8)
Ann O’Dell – string arrangement (10)

Technical personnel
Steve Nye – producer, mixing, engineer
David Sylvian – assistant producer, assistant mixing
Peter Williams – co-engineer (10)
Richard Moakes – second engineer
Steve Parker – second engineer
John Timperley – second engineer
Jean-Jacques Lemoine – assistant engineer
Roland Prent – assistant engineer
Steve Williams – assistant engineer
Richard Chadwick – recording co-ordinating
Catherine Wilson – assistant in recording
Vaughan Oliver (23 Envelope) – design, typography
Nigel Grierson (23 Envelope) – still life photography
Yuka Fujii – portrait photography

“Let the Happiness In”
Released: September 1987

Released: May 1988

Albums with Holger Czukay

Plight & Premonition (1988 • David Sylvian & Holger Czukay)

Flux + Mutability (1989 • David Sylvian & Holger Czukay)


  • “Bamboo Houses” / “Bamboo Music” (1982 • Sylvian – Sakamoto)
  • “Forbidden Colours” / “The Seed and the Sower” (1983 • David Sylvian & Riuichi Sakamoto)
  • Brilliant Trees (1984)
  • Words With the Shaman (EP, 1985)
  • Gone to Earth (2LP, 1986)
  • Secrets of the Beehive (1987)
  • Plight & Premonition (1988 • David Sylvian & Holger Czukay)
  • Flux + Mutability (1989 • David Sylvian & Holger Czukay)


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