Japan was an English new wave band that released five albums between 1978 and 1981. They formed in 1974 when brothers David Sylvian and Steve Jansen teamed with their school friend Mick Karn, whose fretless basslines dominate the band’s later releases.

Musically, Japan’s output falls into three distinct phases: the subterranean buzz of their guitar-based 1978 albums Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives; the metropolitan chic of their synth-driven 1979–80 albums Quiet Life and Gentlemen Take Polaroids; and the otherworldly exotica of their 1981 release Tin Drum.

Members: David Sylvian (vocals, guitar), Steve Jansen (drums), Richard Barbieri (keyboards), Mick Karn (bass, woodwind), Rob Dean (guitar, 1974-80)


Japan sprung from a boyhood friendship between three aspiring south London musicians: singer/guitarist David Batt (b. 1958), his drumming brother Steve Batt (b. 1959), and Cyprus-born bassist Andonis Michaelide. The three were schoolmates at Catford Boys, Brownhill Road, when they started performing David’s songs in the early 1970s.

The brothers received their respective instruments from their father as gifts one Christmas. Michaelide was initially a bassoonist and performed in that capacity with the London School Symphony Orchestra on an October 1972 Radio 1 broadcast. After his bassoon was stolen, he switched to bass guitar.

In June 1974, the trio made their first public performance at the wedding reception for Michaelide’s brother. In search of a name, David dubbed the band Japan. It was only intended as a stopgap moniker but it ultimately stuck. The following year, they were joined by keyboardist Richard Barbieri and guitarist Rob Dean.

In 1976, Japan signed a management deal with record producer Simon Napier-Bell (Yardbirds, John’s Children, Ultravox, Candi Staton). Their early live shows included support slots for the Fabulous Poodles, Muscles, Rokoto, and ex-Traffic musician Jim Capaldi.

In the summer of 1977, Japan entered a talent contest sponsored by the German label Hansa-Ariola, which signed them and fellow up-and-comers Easy Cure (who rejected the contact terms and reappeared on Fiction Records as The Cure). David and Steve Batt assumed the respective surnames Sylvian and Jansen. Michaelide became Mick Karn. In January–February 1978, with their first album in the can, Japan opened several shows for a soon-to-pause Damned, including a Feb. 11 gig at Oxford’s College of Further Education.

1978: Adolescent Sex

Japan released their debut album, Adolescent Sex, on April 8, 1978, on Hansa. Side one contains four spiky rockers with swelling choruses and angular riffs, including “Transmission,” “The Unconventional,” and “Lovers On Main Street.” Their funk side emerges on “Performance” and the opening jam on side two, “Suburban Love.” They execute the Funny Girl cover “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in a jolly, harmonized fashion. The buzzing title-track, with its circular singalong riff and swirling bridge, is one of the few songs to merge the era’s two dominant trends, disco and punk. The album climaxes with the hard-hitting “Communist China” and the epic “Television,” which careens past nine minutes with a rising, irrepressible chorus.

Transmission” is a dark, lurching rocker with a sizzling, medium-slow riff (in G minor and B♭) and harmonized intro vocable. The raspy main vocal hook (“You got no ID, no identity”) is capped at each turn with an arching seven-note guitar refrain (G…G·D·C·B♭..F…F#…) that modulates to the third (B♭). The main riff transposes to B♭ for a break where Dean double-tracks with bending, rising leads amid a swooping siren synth sound.

The Unconventional” fades in with a tremolo-laden keyboard note (in A) that ushers a spiky nine-note guitar figure (in G minor) over a funky bass–clavinet pattern. Revelations like “No perversion in this unconventional love” careen toward the sighing, trebly chorus hook “Cause I’m dancing to your heart.”

Wish You Were Black” is a mid-tempo funk-rocker (in C minor) with clipped, sensitive leads against a locked rhythmic groove. Sylvian heralds the shrouded message with “Degradation takes a soul potential.” The chorus flares (in G minor) as David belts “ain’t no use singing gospel” amid Rob’s slashing chords. Barbieri plays two synth breaks (piping; oozing) over the unrelenting bass–drum pattern.

Performance” is a medium-slow funk jam (in B) with a circular bassline and cymbal-sprayed hi-hat rhythm. Barbieri oozes into the piece with blurred, gritty synth tones as Sylvian sighs and writhes through striking analogies (“Your hands are not clean from your fascist graffiti”), sexual innuendos (“inadequate bodies are waging a war… your mouth is open wide but your body’s too sore”), and vague revelations of porn-set drama (“The camera ejects from another location, take refuge in the city and move on down the line between the cradle of stations”). Dean restricts himself to clipped chords but lays a fuzzy solo in the final minute.

Lovers on Main Street” opens with a fuzzy funk-rock riff (in A minor) overlaid with a wheezing synth tone that triggers a sliding mid-tempo groove. Sylvian gives hints of a rocky urban love affair (“Argumentative, self-conceited, you console all the love I possess”). Midway, Dean and Karn play stop-start licks amid Jansen’s panoramic tom fills, followed by a swelling synth solo.

Don’t Rain on My Parade” rides in with an arching four-chord chromatic riff (based in C) on a medium-uptempo, sliding rhythmic pattern. Sylvian delivers the lyrics (“Maybe I’m just a rose of sheer perfection, a freckle on the nose of life’s complexion”) with sassy swagger. The song cuts to a closed-cadence, 10/8 middle-eight with a two-chord riff (A♭..F#..A♭A♭..F#..A♭A♭) that modulates amid oscillating synths and syncopated hand claps.

Suburban Love” (7:28) opens with clipped, jazzy chords that signal a medium-slow, eight-bar chordal pattern (Am…G…Bm…F…) with a thematic fuzz-tinged figure that Sylvian mimics on the sexually-charged verses (“So take your turn on the love carouse, your time will come and I wish you well”). The four-chord verse pattern runs through the chorus (“Earth, wind.. earth, wind and fire; cannot take me, take me much higher”), which indirectly references an apparent funk influence. The singing ends early (at 3:10) for a three-part jam sequence of 1) sizzling leads with oozing and oscillating keyboards; 2) a steam-laden wah-wah break; and 3) an ensemble passage where Barbieri (clavinet), Karn, and Jansen extend the four-chord pattern amid Dean’s scaling leads.

Adolescent Sex” opens with a medium-uptempo bassline (in B), overlaid with a spiky guitar figure that alternates six- and seven-note lines (A·B·D·B·A·B… A·B·D·B·A·E!D!), which Sylvian mimics vocally on the verses, which allude to band life and groupie culture. The harmonized refrain (“Get on up, take it much higher”) references the nightly gig-to-gig hustle. The main riff cuts to a bridge (in C minor), where David offers a simple cure for pent-up energy (“Whatever gets you through the night – just keep on dancing”). Barbieri engulfs the riff with a spiraling, spacey tone that steams up the sexualized later verses (“your body’s still damp from your one-room apartment”).

Communist China” breaks in with a scalloped stop-start riff (A minor tumbling to F) that, as the rhythm commences, takes full shape (A·A·A·B·C→B..D→C..F→E..). Jansen lays a perky uptempo pattern with fills on every eighth note. Sylvian belts images of social engineering and brute-force though control (“We’ll throw glass in your face, call it new propaganda”). Dean’s guitar figure breaks only for the chorus: a muted passage (hovering on F) with matted riffing and sparkling lab synths amid David’s ominous repetition of the title.

Television” (9:13) crash lands with smouldering, dissonant sustain (in E minor) that gets vacuumed into a mid-tempo funk-rock groove with a poking ten-note guitar figure (in G minor). Each verse unfolds as a sequence of domestic miscommunication (“The conversation drifts, in no general direction, and your oral love, is keeping me from bed”) and negation (“You don’t fool me, no surprises…antagonism rising, you know you try to categorize me”), which leads to the titular subject that drives two lovers apart: TV and its addictive cheap thrills. Sylvian swells with aggression on the recriminatory refrain (“‘Cause it’s all you want”) amid Dean’s pummeling, rising riffage (A♭A♭A♭A♭→ B♭B♭B♭B♭→ CCCC→ B♭B♭B♭B♭) — a sequence that bursts repeatedly from the main rhythmic pattern as the song pile-drives to an abrupt bleep-out.

Sessions took place in late 1977 at Audio International Studios with producer Ray Singer, a onetime sixties pop singer who recently produced the second Movies album and singles by Lene Lovich and Peter Sarstedt. He’s credited with additional backing vocals. The engineer, Pete Silver, worked on the debut albums by Be-Bop Deluxe (Axe Victim) and Heatwave (Too Hot to Handle).

Artist Dick Whitbread did the Adolescent Sex cover, which shows the member’s heads form a comment around the Japanese red sun (partially could-obscured) with their logo in stark red Japanese brush font against a pitch-black background. The back cover shows the tressed, painted members grouped on a white mattress, lined with a black border with red and green repetitions of the sun and brush logo theme. The photographer was Roger Daltrey‘s cousin, Graham Hughes, who took cover photographs for The Who (Quadrophenia), Roxy Music (Siren), Russ Ballard (Winning), Robert Palmer, Golden Earring, and Frankie Miller. Whitbread also designed album covers for Keith Tippett‘s Ark and fellow UK funk-rockers Bandit.

“Don’t Rain on My Parade” appeared as the lead-off single, backed with the non-album “Stateline,” an ominous rocker with a blurry play-pause riff (A minor with sliding thirds) over a slow, sparse, funky bassline. The cadence tightens after the first chorus (a harmonized upswing to C minor and D) with clavinet and Dean’s double-tracked slide over the picked, spiky guitar figure. The lyrics contain loaded fragments (“Just you and me and a Marxist gun… Persecution on your hands, observations of a refugee… your criminal connections start”) that suggest a dangerous affair behind the Iron Curtain.

In Germany, “The Unconventional” appeared as the second single, backed with “Adolescent Sex.” In select territories, “Adolescent Sex” appeared as an a-side with “Sometimes I Feel So Low,” a track from Japan’s second album. “Adolescent Sex” went Top 30 in Belgium and the Netherlands, where Japan mimed both songs on the music program TopPop.

In namesake Japan, Adolescent Sex reached No. 20 on the Oricon Albums Chart. Japanese copies mistranslate several tracks. In Australia and New Zealand, the album appeared on RCA Victor as Japan with a picture of the band huddled on foot under the brush logo (in white).

Japan promoted Adolsescent Sex with an April–June 1978 tour of the UK and Europe with Blue Oyster Cult, followed by a mid-summer London residency at Camden Music Machine. In August, Japan played the Belgian Bilzen Festival, a four-day event with sets by The Boomtown Rats, Fairport Convention, The Jam, James Brown, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Lou Reed, and Dutch rockers Partner. Japan appeared on the third day (8/12) along with Blondie, The Kinks, and Lindisfarne.

“Adolescent Sex” appears on the 1979 Dutch K-Tel comp Action Replay with cuts by The Babys (“Everytime I Think of You”), Blondie (“Hanging on the Telephone”), The Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), Chic, Duncan Browne (“The Wild Places”), Hot Chocolate, Pointer Sisters, Robert Palmer (“Bad Case of Lovin’ You (Doctor, Doctor)”), and the Tubeway Army (“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”). The Japan song also appears on the German K-Tel comp Disco Mania with cuts by Foreigner, Frankie Miller, Sally Oldfield (“Mirrors”), and Sylvester.

Obscure Alternatives

Japan released their second album, Obscure Alternatives, on October 27, 1978, on Hansa. The album retains the stylistic trappings of its predecessor (buzzing guitar, spiky riffs, raspy vocals) with added traces of boogie (“Automatic Gun”) and reggae (“Rhodesia,” “Suburban Berlin”). The final track is an ambient instrumental that foreshadows their later sound.

Automatic Gun” starts with an upslide riff (in E) that triggers a medium-uptempo pattern with boogie piano, smooth bass, and accented third beats. Sylvian, in a cascading vocal melody, delivers sexual innuendo (“I feel adrenaline ejecting”) and double entendre (“it’s so hard now, and it’s so hard now, beating on my brain”) in circumstances evocative of “Stateline” (“We pull the trigger, the cartridge empty but Marxists still reply”). The middle-break features echoing, chorused guitar and loose, harmonic bass amid faint mumbling between David and phoned-in foreign females.

… Rhodesia” is a mid-tempo reggae rocker (in G minor) with clavinet and clipped, choppy chords that graze against Karn’s plunging bass figure. Sylvian delivers snapshots of doomed love in the wartorn nation (then in the final throes of its existence). Midway, Mick plays an alternately slow–fast bass lick in a spacious ambience filled with Richard’s faint synth tones. Dean’s brief solo triggers the song’s modulation (to A minor), where a harmonized chant of “love blows through Rhodesia” gives way to a dub-like breakdown.

Love Is Infectious” is a medium-slow rocker (in A minor) with a climbing bassline overlaid with Dean’s biting guitar riff, which travels upward to a silvery bend (an octave seventh). Sylvian infuses the song’s sly nocturnal vibe with vignettes of a dominatrix (“She keeps her patience for the bedroom… appointments by the hour glass… carries love in a carrier bag”). Midway, Barbieri piano-accents the riff before Dean overtakes the break with vicious, winding leads.

Sometimes I Feel So Low” fades in with a booming, sliding, medium-uptempo beat; overlaid with counterpoint riffage between Sylvian (hammered fourths on a C bar-chord) and Dean (a buzzing upward figure from the low third in C). The lyrics concern a lovelorn night on the dance floor. Jansen carries the backbeat unabated through the harmonized, jovial chorus and whip-cracking guitar break. With its despair-defiant vibe and key center, the song mirrors “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

Obscure Alternatives” (6:47) is a reggae-rock jam (in D minor) that swells gradually from its dark, minimalist beginnings. Sylvian slips vague hints (“Love’s incentives understood, irregular thoughts comply”) in a drawn out, anguished tone. The hazy message begs the harmonized pre-chorus line (“Well you must know something ’cause we’re dying of admiration here”) against a deep chordal plunge (Gm→F). The song maintains its rhythmic groove (clipped chords; bobbing bass; air-pressurized beat) amid David’s rising intonations and Rob’s arching leads, which swell in volume amid Richard’s spacey synth steam.

Deviation” is a punchy uptempo rocker with a brisk mono-chord riff (in D), flanked with clipped sax and a searing four-note lead. Sylvian drops choice hints (“Engineering love on the autobahn, Germanic hands positioned by you”) of casual roadside hookups. The chorus makes light of the situation (“Deviation Step on your fingers”) amid beaming synth and abrupt chordal contours (B…D7m…F#). Dean claws the upper fretboard before the swooping final chorus, signed off by David’s “we go.”

Suburban Berlin” opens with glowing vibe-like notes on the Fender Rhodes electric piano, joined by snaky Meters-like guitar; injected with reggae chops. Sylvian offers snippets of Berlin’s repressive yet seedy climate (“love is churning out on factory lines… commuters converse in satirical signs… new indifferent industrial crimes”) over a muted, syncopated pattern (in A minor). After a lengthy double-verse, the song unfolds on the swelling chorus (in E), where David bellows “Welcome to suburban Berlin” in a Master of Ceremonies style. Midway, Karn lays a nimble, sliding bass lick amid choppy counter-chords and steamy synth strings.

The Tenant” (7:16) starts with glistening notes (in C) that summon a bass drone (in A). The instrumental takes shape with slow, descending bass notes and subtle mid-range piano; underscored with deep synth sustain. The three elements (in A minor) carry on amid Dean’s searing Fripp-like sustains, which wind to a howling (high C) tone. Barbieri intermixes the ongoing piano motif with glowing synthesizer on the second half, which Karn overlays with blaring saxophone. “The Tenant” lifts its structure from Brian Eno‘s 1977 piece “Through Hollow Lands” (on Before and After Science) with textural elements of David Bowie‘s “Neukoln” (on “Heroes”).

Sessions took place in the summer of 1978 with Singer, who produced this album in succession with UK Hansa popsters Child and retro-folksters the Bowles Bros Band. The engineer on Obscure Alternatives, Chris Tsangarides, worked the soundboards on 1975–78 albums by Barbara Thompson, Brand X (Moroccan Roll), Colosseum II (Electric Savage), Dave Greenslade, Gary Boyle (The Dancer), Gary Moore, Judas Priest (Sad Wings of Destiny), Quartz, and Wally.

Obscure Alternatives sports front and back cover images by rock photographer Fin Costello, who did multiple photoshoots of Japan. Both images show Sylvian seated lotus style at the fore with the others standing side-to-side under stage lights. European and Japanese pressings have a blue brush logo. North American and Oceanic pressings have the red logo with greater emphasis on the redness of Mick Karn’s hair. Costello also has visual credits on late-seventies albums by the Boomtown Rats (A Tonic for the Troops), Max Webster (A Million Vacations), Nazareth, The Only Ones, Rainbow, Rush (A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres), Trickster (Back to Zero), and Uriah Heep.

Obscure Alternatives nearly matched the prior album’s placement on the Japanese Oricon chart (No. 21). “Sometimes I Feel So Low” appeared as a single (b/w “Love Is Infectious”). The a-side appeared on the back of a re-recorded “Adolescent Sex” in the Netherlands, where “Deviation” appeared as a second single (b/w “Suburban Berlin”).

Japan promoted Obscure Alternatives with their only tour of the United States, where they performed in Los Angeles (11/6/78: Starwood), San Francisco (11/7: Old Waldorf), Chicago (11/9), Boston (11/12: Paradise Rock Club), and did a two-nighter in New York City (Nov. 10–11: Hurrahs). They followed with a twelve-date UK tour that included a Nov. 29 makeup show at the Sheffield Polytechnic.

1979: “Life In Tokyo”

On April 13, 1979, Japan released “Life In Tokyo,” a non-album single produced and co-written by Giorgio Moroder. It’s a medium-uptempo disco song with slick bass set to a motorik 4/4 beat. Barbieri layers tremolo ‘strobe-light’ textures; intermixed with foggy, swirling sustain. Dean restricts himself to channeled, echoing chords (heard intermittently). Sylvian’s lyrics lampoon the eminence of monied Japanese business culture with its “distant living… high society” and “sunset… buildings and houses.” This marks the first appearance of his smooth croon: a style reminiscent of Bryan Ferry.

“Life In Tokyo” is a double-a side with a long version (7:05) and short (3:30). In the US, the short version appeared as an a-side on Ariola America (b/w “Love Is Infectious”). In Japan, the single appeared in a picture sleeve that shows the band’s newfound wardrobe preference of jackets, button-ups, and ties.

Moroder produced the song in succession with 1979 titles by Suzi Lane, The Sylvers, The Three Degrees, and the elaborate double-album Bad Girls, the second four-sided studio release by Donna Summer. Along with his recent production of No. 1 in Heaven by Sparks, this was one of his earliest projects with a rock band. (Moroder, who would soon work with Blondie, had long avoided rock acts because of their creative autonomy.) Unlike most Moroder productions, which occurred at the Music Factory in Munich, the “Life In Tokyo” session took place at Rusk Sound Studios in Los Angeles.

“Life In Tokyo” appears on the 1979 German Hansa comp 24 All Time Super Disco Hits with cuts by Amii Stewart, Eruption, Space, and Voyage.

In mid-1979, Japan prepared material for their third album with Sylvian’s “European Son” (not the Velvet Underground song) as the intended title-track. They wanted to work with producer John Punter, a soundman on the fourth album by Roxy Music (Country Life) and the first two solo albums by Bryan Ferry, as well as titles by the Doctors of Madness (Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms), Judie Tzuke (Welcome to the Cruise), Sad Cafe, and the soundtrack to Rock Follies of ’77. However, Punter was busy producing the second album by Gloria Mundi.

Japan commenced work on a new album at London’s DJM Studios with Napier-Bell. After they completed an actual Velvets cover (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”), Punter became available for their project.

Quiet Life

Japan released their third album, Quiet Life, on November 17, 1979, on Hansa. The album marks a change of style, characterized by soft, layered keyboards; fretless bass; faint guitar (E-bow on several tracks); and select passages with piano and saxophone (by Karn). Sylvian extends his recently adopted smooth croon (first premiered on the Moroder single) with newfound range and assurance. The songs range from mid-tempo synth-laden dance numbers (“Quiet Life,” “Fall in Love with Me,” “In Vogue”) to dark ballads (“Despair,” “The Other Side of Life”).

Quiet Life” opens with a vibrating synth pattern (in A minor) over a soft woodwind tone. Jansen fades in with a martial fill that heralds an uptempo dance-floor rhythm with smooth fretless bass and echoing beats. Sylvian gathers his bandmates during a lean roadstop (“Here we are stranded, somehow it seems the same, beware”) in the heart of nowhere (“now the country’s only miles away from here; boys, do you recognise the signs?”). Rob intercuts David with searing breaks on the E-bow guitar. Richard caps each chorus with a peaking tremolo tone (in D).

Fall in Love with Me” enters with a heavy mid-paced beat and deep sliding bassline (in C minor), entangled in spiraling E-bow. Sylvian sings two stanzas per verse about winning over audiences in far apart places (Texas, Siberia, Amsterdam). The song lifts to a hi-hat sliding chorus (in D minor), where David delivers the chorus line, on Japan’s behalf, to the audience.

Despair” opens with a medium-slow, metronomic beat box pattern, which heralds a somber eight-note motif (in A minor) on the grand piano. Karn injects the figure with dark, remote sax. Sylvian enters (at 1:55) with four lines in French that translate to:

Take it easy, don’t disturb them
There are people who live like that
The artists of tomorrow
In pleasant despair

“Despair” is instrumental for the last 3.5 minutes, which carries the same pattern with added layers of synth (steamy, foggy).

In Vogue” (6:35) enters on a mid-tempo rhythmic pattern with sliding bass and faint ‘watery’ synth (in B minor); joined by a soft eight-note piano figure. Sylvian, in a sly tone, sings of waking up beside a new love with pangs of uncertainty. On the chorus, the pattern shifts upward (from D minor to A minor) with sultry saxophone as an omniscient voice tells David and the unnamed female (“Love’s in vogue again”). The final three minutes ride an instrumental groove, where Dean orbits the pattern with faint, searing E-bow.

Halloween” opens side two on a mid-tempo rhythm with swaying bass amid a sax-laden polychordal pattern (rooted in B minor). Sylvian sings from the point of view of a 1930s German escapee. The song tightens on the chorus, where David injects the vocable descent with “Somebody waits for me… far beyond our Halloween.” (Halloween apparently refers to the disguises refugees used to bypass Nazi patrolmen.) Midway, Barbieri counters Dean’s faint, wailing tones with searing, trebly sounds reminiscent of the break on “Quiet Men,” a single off the 1978 Ultravox album Systems of Romance. (The wavy, tumbling rhythmic feel of “Halloween” conjures the Systems track “When You Walk Through Me.”)

All Tomorrow’s Parties” is a cover of the 1967 Velvet Underground ballad: one of three songs on their debut album (The Velvet Underground & Nico) sung by German chanteuse Nico. Japan’s version fades in with keyboard counterpoint (in B), joined by faint, sliding bass and searing, trebly guitar sustain; set to a tapping mid-tempo beat. Sylvian croons Nico’s vocal melody from the original, which concerns a modern-day Cinderella who hasn’t found her Prince Charming. Midway, Rob swells upward with Fripp-tone E-bow amid cello strokes that appear and later reappear before the droning fadeout.

Alien” slow-walks in with blurry bass and droning synth (in B) with faint, matted arpeggios. The cadence tightens (at :32) as Dean’s echoing chords summon Sylvian, who sings of post-travel depression at the start of winter. Midway, Karn lays deep, murky tones (in E minor) that prompt David’s distant line: “The noise on the stairs disturbs me, somebody walks my way.”

The Other Side of Life” (7:27) opens with tender piano (in D minor), joined seconds in by Sylvian, who sings of a melancholy chance encounter with a one-time lover. After the second three-line stanza, Jansen enters with booming, spacious percussion; joined gradually by plucked guitar and dark strings, which swell on the epic chorus, where David (in a pained melodramatic tone) croons “But she comes and goes… the other side of life.” Dean caps each utterance of the chorus line with a fourteen-note pizzicato guitar figure, which reoccurs multiple times in the final stretch before parting for the endless string-laden piano motif.

The Porter sessions took place in September 1979 at London’s AIR Studios with engineer Colin Fairley, a onetime drummer (Beggars Opera, String Driven Thing) and recent soundman for Climax Blues Band, the Sensational Band, and Split Enz (Dizrythmia).

Karn plays saxophone and flute on Quiet Life, which features orchestral arrangements by Ann Odell on “The Other Side of Life.” Odell, a recent presence on the 1977–78 Ferry solo albums In Your Mind and The Bride Stripped Bare, did prior orchestration for Badfinger, Harvey Andrews, Murray Head (Say It Ain’t So), Sonny Worthing, and her own band Chopyn, a mid-seventies one-off with guitarist Ray Russell. The conductor, Martyn Ford, also led string ensembles on seventies albums by Baker Gurvitz Army (self-titled), Barclay James Harvest, Caravan (For Girls Who Grow Plump In the Night), Elf, Graeme Edge Band, Nasty Pop (Mistaken ID), Paul Brett, Racing Cars, Roger Glover, Shawn Phillips, and Three Man Army.

Quiet Life is the only Japan studio album housed in a gatefold sleeve. It features white-backdrop medium shots of Sylvian (front), Karn (back), and Barbieri, Dean, and Jansen (l–r, inner-gates). The cover reveals a new group image (shorter hair, ties) that marks Japan’s shift from glam to the burgeoning New Romantic scene. This would be the final appearance of their red brush logo.

Quiet Life first appeared in Canada, where it charted on the Top 100. Japan performed two shows on November 24, 1979, at Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre with featured saxophonist Jane Shorter, an early member of Thompson Twins. Quiet Life subsequently appeared in Europe and Japan, where it reached the Oricon Top 25. The album went unreleased in the US.

“Quiet Life” thrice appeared as a single, first in Japan (b/w “Halloween”). The video shows the suave group miming on a dark soundstage with upshots and zoom-ins on their instrumentation. In 1980, Hansa issued the single in Europe, backed with a new b-side (see below).

In 1981, Hansa capitalized on Japan’s commercial breakthrough on Virgin with a third release of “Quiet Life,” this time with the non-album Sylvian–Barbieri instrumental “A Foreign Place,” a barren piece with a light, simple piano motif (in G) adorned with faint synths and trickling, plucked guitar.

1980: “I Second That Emotion”

On March 22, 1980, Japan released a non-album cover of the Miracles classic “I Second That Emotion,” their first of two Motown covers. Japan render the song in a smooth, medium-slow arrangement akin to “In Vogue” with subtle fretless bass, refined sax, and crooning vocals over a rhythmic mix of soft drums and electonic beat box.

In the video, Japan mime inside a foyer, where Sylvian (clad in a black tuxedo with yellow vest) struts about; leans against the wall near Barbieri (blue leather jacket and tie); and stares across to a mirror, where Karn (pink hair, matching tie) mimes on bass. Later, Mick is seen in a zebra top miming on sax. He and Dean (red scarf, rolled leather jacket) both make stern looks directly into the panning lens. Each hairdo is now collar-length or shorter.

The single appeared on red vinyl in the UK, backed with an edit of “Quiet Life” (which wouldn’t appear as a UK a-side until 1981). German and Dutch pressings flip the two sides while Japanese copies dispense with “Quiet Life” (already an a-side in that territory) for “European Son,” the first release of that song in any nation.

European Son” is an uptempo number (in B♭) with an electro-disco arrangement drawn from Moroder’s Munich Factory (produced by Napier-Bell). Karn pockets the song with fluid, fretless bass under Barbieri’s bright, luminous synth tones. Sylvian alludes to the band’s street encounters with fans overseas (“Somebody wants to know you, a standard polaroid”). Musically, “European Son” resembles the slick, dance-oriented remix of the recent Roxy Music song “Angel Eyes.”

Smokey Robinson wrote “I Second That Emotion” with Motown staffer Al Cleveland and scored a 1968 Billboard No. 4 hit with the Miracles original version. In 1969, a duet cover version by The Supremes and The Temptations reached No. 4 on the UK R&B Chart.

This was Hansa’s final release of new material by Japan, which signed to Virgin in mid-1980. Meanwhile, Japan embarked on their Quiet Life tour (with Shorter), which started with a March 4–5 engagement at London’s The Venue, followed by a six-city swing through namesake Japan, starting with a March 19–20 engagement at Tokyo’s Budokan. These concerts generated the Hansa International 12″ Live In Japan, issued in Germany and Benelux with four live numbers: “Deviation,” “Obscure Alternatives,” “In Vogue,” and “Sometimes I Feel So Low.”

Gentlemen Take Polaroids

Japan released their fourth album, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, on November 7, 1980, on Virgin. Musically, it expands upon the textures and arrangements of its predecessor with more developed rhythmic and sonic nuances. The tracklist strikes a similar balance between smooth, crooning dance numbers (“Swing,” “My New Career,” “Methods of Dance”) and forays into dark balladry (“Burning Bridges,” “Nightporter”). The closing track, “Taking Islands In Africa,” is a co-write between Sylvian and Yellow Magic Orchestra frontman Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Gentlemen Take Polaroids” (7:10) opens on a mid-tempo drum pattern, overlaid with faint, silvery guitar tones (in B) and peculating keyboard notes. Karn underscores the pattern with sliding, subtle bass, which heralds Sylvian, who sings of snapshot vignettes with a mystery girl in a foreign town. Midway, Dean overlays the misty drums and metronomic time-keeper with a searing E-bow drone. After the third chorus, the song enters a rhythmic coda (at 4:32) that slows the basic pattern amid dark vocalise.

Swing” fades in and out with faint, vibrating synth, which triggers a wavy rhythmic pattern (primarily in B) constructed of sliding bass and glowing keyboard notes. Amid the sway, Sylvian croons about missionary work in the global south and its momentary hazards. (The line “Taking Islands in Africa” — the title of a different song — refers to establishing safe havens for missionary work in the continent’s unstable areas.) The song maintains a steady pattern, colored midway by coiling, luminous synth tones and Karn’s punchy sax interjections.

Burning Bridges” (5:23) emerges faint and slowly with ambient sparks and propeller drone. Ninety-one seconds in, Barbieri enters solo with dark foggy synth chords, interspersed with glowing tones that form a long-resolving melody. Midway, Karn joins with dissonant, droning sax as the piece drops to lower key centers. Sylvian appears (at 4:10) with a single stanza, in which he pulls away his crew from a completed riverside mission, the nature of which is vaguely indicated by a stark visual: “The light of a distant fire burns.”

My New Career” rolls in on a medium-slow rhythmic pattern with slip-sliding bass and faint, sparkling key tones. Sylvian croons about a new vocation in life, which possibly references Japan’s rise from local unsigned band to international recording artists. The song’s swaying, steady pattern cuts to a jerky, syncopated chorus where David sings “they’re playing our song outside where no-one can hear,” as if referencing the first time he heard his band on the radio. Touches of sax and (later) violin add color to the piece.

Methods of Dance” (6:55) opens with a vibrating synth tone (in A minor) amid stop–start drums and blaring sax against a clicking rhythm track. Thirty-one seconds in, the song materializes as a medium-slow number with a modulating three-note melody (A→E→C). Sylvian croons about the ritual of dance and the process of synchronizing physically with a new partner. The song breaks three times to spotlight Jansen’s bubbling marimbas. Midway, the pattern loosens for a tom-laden jam, followed by repetitions of Karn’s arching sax riff.

Ain’t That Peculiar” is a cover of the Motown classic: originally a 1965 hit for Marvin Gaye, co-written by Smokey Robinson. Japan’s version is a medium-slow number (in A) with echoing, metal-free drums (tribalistic) against a crickety beat box rhythm; overlaid with blurred bass, winding E-bow, and Sylvian’s effete croon. Faint koto-like vibrato surfaces in the middle, followed by a woodwind solo.

Nightporter” (7:00) opens with a five-note piano motif (in Am and Em), overlaid seconds in by high-key counterpoint. The song is a slow, minimal keyboard–vocal number in which Sylvian croons about the solitary life of the title subject. Alone, his mind drifts back to a onetime affair and its setting (“The width of a room that can hold so much pleasure inside”). His vocals illuminate the piano melody; which he transcends (later in the song) with vocalise. Midway, faint oboe and droning synth enhance the stark ambience.

Taking Islands in Africa” starts with irregular rhythmic accents (electronic ‘pulse’ beats; ‘zooming’), overlaid with fragments of the song’s theme, which takes hold (at :35) as a shimmering, synthesized, six-note fanfare melody (in C), followed with glistening open cadences (which travel to the fifth and the diminished sixth of C). In this context, the title seems to reference a search for a tranquil island where the singer might take refuge from the pace of touring (possibly on the eastern mid-Atlantic). The song soars on the bridge (“Outside there’s a world waiting, I’ll take it all by storm”) amid layers of Richard’s swelling, frosty synths.

Sessions took place between July 2 and October 2, 1980, at three London studios (AIR, Townhouse, the Barge) with Porter, who produced and co-engineered the album in succession with titles by Melba Moore, John Wetton, and The Tourists.

In addition to Fairley, Gentleman Take Polaroids lists three co-engineers. AIR sessions were co-engineered by Nigel Walker, a soundman on 1979–80 albums by America, Chris de Burgh, UK (Danger Money), and UFO. Townhouse sessions were co-engineered by Steve Prestage, who worked on recent titles by Ann Steel, Bliss Band, Chas Jankel, Peter Gabriel (“melting face”), and fellow Virgin acts The Members, The Ruts, Skids, and XTC (Drums and Wires). German soundwoman Renate Blauel is credited as the assistant engineer, having also worked on recent albums by Mike Oldfield (Platinum), Stephen Bishop, and Sakamoto’s concurrent B-2 Unit.

Gentleman Take Polaroids features multiple synthesizers played by Sylvian (ARP Omni, Oberheim OB-X, Minimoog), Barbieri (Micromoog, Polymoog, Oberheim OB-X, Roland Jupiter 4), and Jansen (Sequential Circuits). The latter two are credited with the Prophet 5; all three with Roland System 700. Dean, who was less involved in these sessions, plays ebow on select passages. Karn cultivates his signature fretless bass on this album and also plays sax, oboe, and recorder.

Guest players include jazz contrabassist Barry Guy, oboist Andrew Cauthery, and a vocalist named Cyo (“Methods of Dance”). Violinist Simon House (High Tide, Hawkwind, Third Ear Band) plays on “My New Career.”

Two tracks rehearsed during the Gentlemen sessions, “Some Kind of Fool” and “Angel in Furs,” were not brought to fruition. (The former was later finished by Sylvian and released on his 2000 comp Everything and Nothing.)

Gentleman Take Polaroids is housed in a black-framed single sleeve with cover photography by Stuart McLeod (front) and Nicola Tyson (back). The front shows Sylvian, made-up Blitz style with his now-trademark platinum wave hairdo; shielded from downpour with a neon lightning bolt in the background. The back has a small group photo of the suited quintet with a now short-haired Karn sporting sky blue sharkskin. Tyson documented London’s Blitz scene and captured many candid images of Julia Fodor (Princess Julia), Peter Robinson (Marilyn), and George O’Dowd (Boy George) in their pre-fame club glory.

Virgin lifted “Gentleman Take Polaroids” as a single, backed by the non-album Barbieri instrumental “The Experience of Swimming” (UK, Australia). In Germany, the song was backed with the non-album Dean instrumental “The Width of a Room.” Japanese copies feature the album track “Burning Bridges” as the b-side. Virgin UK also issued a double-single (VS 379) with all four tracks.

“Gentleman” featured in the playlists of Rusty Egan, the Blitz DJ and Visage drummer who spearheaded the London New Romantic scene with bandmate Steve Strange. In Birmingham, denizens of the NuRo haunt Rum Runner heard the song spun regularly by DJ and keyboardist Nick Rhodes, a Sylvian lookalike whose band, Duran Duran, signed with EMI in late 1980 after rocketing to fame as the opening act for Breaking Glass star Hazel O’Connor.

Gentleman Take Polaroids reached the Canadian Top 40 and went Gold in the UK. Japan launched the album with a November 27, 1980, show at London’s Lyceum. On December 20, they performed on the BBC music program The Old Grey Whistle Test. They did one exclusive showcase on February 7, 1981, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, followed by a seven-date Japanese tour that culminated with a Feb. 27 show at Tokyo’s Budokan.

1981: “The Art of Parties”

On May 1, 1981, Japan released “The Art of Parties,” a quasi-tribal track recorded with a three-piece brass section: saxist Mel Collins (Camel, King Crimson), trumpeter Martin Drover (Gonzalez, Keef Hartley), and trombonist Cliff Hardy (Trinity, Hungry Wolf).

“The Art of Parties” (6:48) is a percussive number (rooted in B minor) with layered drums, swaying bass, faint howling synth, and clipped sax (punching seconds, thirds). Sylvian adds staccato, trebly guitar chords (faint) and sings with twitching consonants and curled, elongated vowels. The lyrics concern his newfound modesty (“I’m living my life”) and rejection of his younger ideals (“Once I was young, once I was smart”). Reflecting on his onetime friends, he concludes that “the things we said weren’t quite so tough.” As he copes with losing his ideals (“I’m burning buildings”), he faces the consequent dissilusionment (“Now I’m living on the edge of my nerves”). The song’s title could mean the ritual of young people discussing and formulating ideals in social settings.

Sylvian’s backing singers on “Art of Parties” include Olympic Runners participant Pearly Gates and the ubiquitous Ruby James, a prior sessionist for Kin Ping Meh, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and Stomu Yamashta’s Go. Japan cut the single in March 1981 at Basing St (Island) Studios with Punter, who subsequently moved to Canada and produced the Ontarian synthpop band Spoons.

The exclusive b-side, “Life Without Buildings” (6:49) is a medium-slow, quasi-tribal Sylvian cut. Jansen layers the track with a booming, echoing mix of electric and acoustic (metal free) drums. The selective metal is courtesy of Karn, who adds finger cymbals. His waving fretless basslines meld with Barbieri’s subdued synths, which form an ambiguous tonality (blurred between B minor and D). David adds synthetic brass to the piece, which is instrumental apart from moments of distant vocalise. “Life Without Buildings” later appeared on a blue flexi-disc in the March 1982 issue of Trouser Press.

Hansa surrounded this release with two singles in the UK market: a re-released “Life In Tokyo” (b/w the long-unavailable “European Son”) and the first domestic a-side issue of “Quiet Life” (b/w the instrumental rarity “A Foreign Place”).

Japan embarked on the Art of Parties tour, a nine-date UK jaunt with shows in Manchester (5/9/81: Apollo), Liverpool (5/13: Royal Court Theatre), Birmingham (5/14: Odeon), and Edinburgh, Scotland (5/12: Odeon). Their May 17 show at the Hammersmith Odeon was their last appearance with Rob Dean, who left the group that month. His first post-Japan credit is on the 1981 Gary Numan album Dance, where he plays on the track “Boys Like Me” alongside Karn, who also plays fretless on “Slowcar to China,” “A Subway Called ‘You’,” “She’s Got Claws,” “My Brother’s Time” — the last three also feature Mick on sax.

Japan were slated to headline the second day of Daze of Future Past, a new wave festival on September 26–27, 1981, at Queens Hall in Leeds. Killing Joke also reneged on the event, which featured sets by Altered Images, Bauhaus, B-Movie, Echo and the Bunnymen, Gang of Four, Inner City Unit, The Revillos, Wall of Voodoo, and Thompson Twins (plugging A Product Of…).

Tin Drum

Japan released their fifth album, Tin Drum, on November 13, 1981, on Virgin. Musically, it ranges from percussive art songs (“Talking Drum,” “Cantonese Boy”) to moody atmospheric numbers (“Ghosts”). The album opens with a new version of their prior single (“The Art of Parties”). Sylvian composed the album’s eight tracks with select writing contributions by Jansen (“Canton,” “Visions of China”) and Karn (“Sons of Pioneers”). 

The Art of Parties” (4:13) is a re-recording of the May 1981 single. This version springboards from the original key (B minor) to a tonal center of D minor. Sylvian enters twenty seconds sooner this time. The album version retains the quasi-ethnic percussive feel with a tightened arrangement that contains more prominent use of the E-bow, which sears between vocal passages. The backing vocalist, Yuka Fujii, was a member of Japan’s visual team.

Talking Drum” opens with layered, off-kilter drums over an up-sliding bassline (in E). Decorative keyboard tones and marimba add faint color to this mostly percussive song, which uses the ‘earworm’ phenomenon (“I hear a voice I hear a sound, but nothing plays on my mind”) as a metaphor for general dislocation (“What do you do when things go wrong? I’m winning, in the heart of the bushland”). Sylvian rides an angular, wobbling key twist (B→C→G→F→E) while crooning the chorus lines “But now I’m scared, Now I’m lost in love,” in build-up to another use of the phrase “burning bridge.”

Ghosts” fades in and out with echoing sounds that herald the song (at :25). It’s a slow, rhythmless number that spotlights Sylvian’s intense, wavering baritone. Barbieri’s dark, droning keyboard layers dominate the arrangement, which Jansen accents with sparse marimba on the chorus. Lyrically, “Ghosts” grapples with isolation and solitude in the wake of uncertainty and disillusionment (possibly a reflection of David’s feelings about his loss of anonymity). The words “I’m winning” (a non-sequitar line in “Talking Drum”) are negated here.

Just when I think I’m winning
When I’ve broken every door
The ghosts of my life
Blow wilder than before

The imagery (haunted solitude) would reflect in Japan’s contemporary record sleeves, which depict Sylvian as a shadowy lone figure.

Canton” is a medium-slow instrumental (in E) with a four-bar woodwind theme over faint synth textures. Percussion enters (at :24) and overlays the piece with booming, tribalistic flavors. The woodwind theme, doubled on synthesizer, assumes a quasi-Middle Eastern vibe. Midway, percussive metal elements add a Southeast Asian flavor. Karn underscores each bar with a blurred fretless note.

Still Life in Mobile Homes” is a medium-uptempo number (in A minor) with a syncopated rhythmic pattern of multi-layered, programmed drums; set to a rubbery, punctual bassline; overlaid with a nine-note harmonic theme. Sylvian sings of privacy and simple comforts in a humble country abode. The chorus takes things on a chordal twist (Bm… Cmaj7… Gmaj7… Dm… Am…) as David conflates his life with “plant life” ahead of the titular line. Midway, the bassline pauses for a dense, percussive break with foreign ad libs, Oriental sounds, and ‘machine-gun’ fills; followed by a searing E-bow solo.

Visions of China” is a mid-tempo number (primarily in A minor) with martial drumming intermixed with echoing percussion over a slithering fretless bassline. The lyrics concern a young man’s search for his purpose in life, which leads him to embrace party ideals during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Sons of Pioneers” is a medium-slow number (in E minor) with a roaming, sliding, play–pause bassline; overlaid with tribal drums, foggy synth drones, and select metals. Sylvian enters (at 1:50) from the perspective of an intrepid pioneer and everything the life entails (mystery, suspense, boredom, loneliness, discomfort). Fatigued in the calm air, he knows his crew can’t sleep because “Something cuts the scars inside tonight.” The final 2.5 minutes (instrumental) color the ongoing pattern with booming fills and faint, flashing, luminous tones.

Cantonese Boy” opens with a quasi-Asian key-tone fugue (in B minor), which triggers a wavy mid-tempo pattern in compound time (3+3+2), composed of prominent metal-free drums, mallet arpeggios, sampled handclaps, and the transposed fugue against a slithering, neck-spanning bassline. The lyrics concern a Southern Chinese youth and his call of duty in the Red Army. The chorus plunges things into a jagged, syncopated chordal twist (F#… A… Em…) as Sylvian tells the subject “Bang your tin drum.” Karn’s suona (or dida: a Chinese double-reed horn) is heard mid-section.

Sessions took place between June and September 1981 at three London studios (AIR, Odyssey, Regents Park) and the Manor, an Oxfordshire mansion studio owned by Virgin head Richard Branson. Nye produced and engineered Tin Drum in succession with albums by YMO drummer Yukihiro Takahashi and French new wavers Marquis de Sade. He also worked with Icehouse on “Love In Motion” (b/w “Goodnight, Mr. Matthews”), a stopgap single later included on international versions of their 1982 album Primitive Man. The assistant engineer on Tin Drum, Phil Bodger, also worked on the 1981 debut album by Classix Nouveaux and the singular release by Scottish sophisti-popsters Albania.

Sylvian assumes guitar duties on Tin Drum, which features Karn on African flute and dida. Jansen does Linn LM-1 drum machine programming on “Still Life In Mobile Homes” and “Cantonese Boy.” House, who returns as guest violinist, plays on concurrent titles by Bruce Woolley and Robert Calvert.

Sylvian designed the Tin Drum cover with UK broadcast DJ Steve Joule, who designed recent sleeves for Ozzy Osbourne. The grayscale cover shows a bespectacled Sylvian seated alone under a dangling bulb beside a bowl of rice with chopsticks in hand before a wall tacked with a 1959 photo of Mao Zedong. The back cover has a small monochrome pic of the band seated side-to-side on four-legged chairs in an otherwise unfurnished white narrow room with a framed photo of Chairman Mao. Returning photographer Fin Costello also has visual credits on Duran Duran as well as 1980–81 titles by Judas Priest (British Steel), Nazareth, Rush (Permanent Waves), Steve Winwood, and Toyah Willcox.

Tin Drum spawned three singles: “Visions of China” (Oct. 1981), “Ghosts” (UK No. 5, March 1982), an “Cantonese Boy” (UK No. 24, May 1982). The video to “Visions of China” extends on themes of the album cover: Sylvian (grayscale) alone in a sparsely furnished room, seated lotus style before a television on which an image of Chairman Mao cuts to assorted footage — Chinese sword duels, dragon dances, chess games (all color), and Communist Chinese military rituals — as David strokes his hair in bemusement.

Japan embarked on the fifteen-date Visions of China tour, which started on December 12, 1981, at Cornwall Coliseum in St. Austell and wrapped with a show on the 27th at the Hammersmith Odeon. Random Hold guitarist David Rhodes (a Peter Gabriel sideman) filled out Japan’s lineup for these shows and subsequently recorded with the opening act Blancmange.

Tin Drum reached No. 12 in the UK, No. 16 in Norway, and also went Top 40 in Japan and Sweden. To capitalize on their newfound fame on Virgin, Hansa issued Assemblage, a compilation of the Japan’s pre-Polaroids output with an emphasis on rarities. Side one focuses on 1978 with “Communist China,” the re-recorded “Adolescent Sex,” the non-album “Stateline,” and the Obscure Alternatives cuts “…Rhodesia” and “Suburban Berlin.” Side two bookends with the non-album 1979–80 a-sides (“Life in Tokyo,” “I Second That Emotion”) and also includes “European Son,” an edit of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and the title-track from Quiet Life. The compilation reached No. 24 in the UK Albums Chart, where it lingered for two years, fueled by multiple singles.

1982: Sons of Pioneers Tour

Japan mimed “Ghosts” on the March 18, 1982, broadcast of Top of the Pops, where a seated Sylvian enacted the words with solemn facial expressions amid the fog-laden setting of his somber bandmates. They returned to TotP for the May 27 broadcast, where guest hosts Debbie Harry and Roger Taylor (Queen) announced Japan, which mimed “Cantonese Boy” on a dry-iced, lavender-lighted stage with slanted cross-bars.

With Japan at peak-profile, Sylvian’s photogenic looks featured on numerous UK and European magazine covers, including issues of Sounds, Smash Hits, Noise!, rockin’ on, and the Japanese publications ONGAKU and Music Life. However, Japan’s newer 7″ picture sleeves featured photographs by Jansen that de-emphasized the band in favor of titular subjects (like the Asian youth pictured on “Cantonese Boy”). Those that do show the singer (“Ghosts”) present him in a shaded, withdrawn manner.

On Wednesday, July 7, 1982, Mick Karn partook in the Princes Trust Rock Gala at Dominion Theatre, where he played in a super-group with Pete Townshend, Phil Collins, and Ultravox frontman Midge Ure. They performed “Let My Love Open the Door” (from Townshend’s 1980 solo album Empty Glass) and the Walker Brothers‘ “No Regrets,” which Ure recently covered as his debut solo single. That month, Karn recorded his first solo album at AIR Studios.

Hansa continued to milk Japan’s back catalog with a UK 7″ release of “I Second That Emotion,” backed with the Quiet Life track “Halloween.” This time, the Miracles cover reached No. 9 on the UK Singles Chart. Months later, Hansa reissued the single with “Quiet Life.”

On October 1, Japan launched their Sons of Pioneers tour at Koncert Haus in Stockholm. For this tour, they added guitarist–keyboardist Masami Tsuchiya of the Japanese new wave band Ippu-do. The Continental leg touched down in Hamburg, Munich, Leiden, and Brussels before wrapping on the 11th at Le Palace in Paris, France.

They commenced their final UK tour with an October 18–19 engagement at the Brixton Fair Deal; the first night filmed for the 10/22 TOGWT broadcast. The UK leg totaled thirty shows with two-nighters in Manchester, Bristol (Colston Hall), and a three-nighter at Birmingham’s Odeon. On November 17, Japan played their first of six sold-out nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. Their show on the 22nd would be their last ever UK performance.

That month, Virgin lifted the Polaroids tracks “Nightporter” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” as a new single. It went Top 20 in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Karn issued Titles, his debut solo album with backing on select tracks by Barbieri, Jansen, Rhodes, and guitarists Hugh Burns (a Gerry Rafferty sideman) and Ricky Wilde (Kim‘s brother). Musically, the album further explores the percussive exotica of Tin Drum with a greater emphasis on instrumentals that spotlight Karn’s fretless bass. Virgin issued “Sensitive,” a reworked version of “À Distância” by Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos, as the album’s single.

On November 29, Japan played the Youth Welfare Centre in Bangkok. In a rare act for a Western band, they stopped in Hong Kong for two shows at AC Halls in the village of Kowloon.

In December 1982, Japan wrapped their career in namesake Japan. On the 8th, they played Budokan with YMO members, followed by two shows each at Tokyo’s Nakano Sun Plaza (12/9–10) and Koesi Nemkin Hall (12/12). After shows in Osaka (12/14: Festival Hall) and Kyoto (12/15: Kaikan Daiichi Hall), Japan gave their final concert on December 16, 1982, at Shi Kohkaido in Nagoya.

Final Releases

Japan disbanded at the height of their fame. In April 1983, Hansa released a single of the Quiet Life tracks “All Tomorrows Parties” and “In Vogue” from the Live In Japan EP. It reached the UK Top 40.

In June 1983, Virgin released Oil On Canvass, a live double-album culled from Japan’s November 1982 shows at the Hammersmith Odeon. It features “Quiet Life,” half of Polaroids (“Gentlemen Take Polaroids,” “Swing,” “Night Porter,” “Methods of Dance”), and nearly all of Tin Drum (everything but “Talking Drum”). The album also features three new studio instrumentals: two solo miniatures (Sylvian’s “Oil on Canvas” and Barbieri’s “Temple of Dawn”) and the Sylvian–Jansen collaboration “Voices Raised In Welcome, Hands Held In Prayer.”

Oil On Canvass is housed in an olive-framed gatefold with an expressionist oil finger-painting by Yvette Anna, who also did cover art for Adam Ant and Fad Gadget. The inner-gates feature enhanced headshots of each member (including Tsuchiya) by Anton Corbijn, who also took the snow-set photo of U2 for the inner-gate of their 1983 release War.

To promote the album, Virgin released a single of two live Tin Drum numbers: “Canton” and the earlier a-side “Visions of China.” The single went Top 50 while Oil On Canvass reached No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart.

After Japan

David Sylvian teamed with Ryuichi Sakamoto for the 1983 single “Forbidden Colours,” the vocal version to the instrumental theme of the period war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring Sakamoto and David Bowie. Sylvian’s debut solo album, Brilliant Trees, appeared in 1984. It reached No. 4 on the UK Albums Chart and spawned a hit with “Red Guitar.” He then released the 1986 double-album Gone to Earth, a mix of dark vocal tracks and ambient instrumentals with musical guests Bill Nelson and Robert Fripp. In 1987, Sylvian released Secrets of the Beehive, an acoustic set with backing by Jansen and Sakamoto. He then teamed with ex-Can bassist Holger Czukay for the 1988–89 albums Plight & Premonition and Flux + Mutability. They collaborated earlier (with Jansen and Jon Hassell) on the Virgin EP Words With the Shaman.

Mick Karn plays bass on Tsuchiya’s 1982 debut solo album Rice Music. He also plays on 1982 releases by Akiko Yano, Marie Léonor, and the third album by Swedish new wavers Lustans Lakejer (En Plats I Solen). In 1983, he collaborated with Ure on the one-off single “After a Fashion” (b/w “Textures”) and added fretless bass to “Glow World,” a track on Bill Nelson’s Chimera EP. Karn then teamed with ex-Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy in Dalis Car, which issued the 1984 album The Waking Hour. His second solo album, Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters, appeared in 1987 on Virgin. In the late eighties, Karn played on albums by Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, and trumpeter Mark Isham (Group 87, Sons of Champlin).

Steve Jansen backed his brother on select recordings and played on mid-eighties titles by Ippu-do and Icehouse. He collaborated with Yukihiro Takahashi on the 1986 single “Stay Close.” Jansen and Richard Barbieri teamed as Jansen–Barbieri for the 1985 Victor release Worlds In a Small Room. Under the moniker Dolphin Brothers, they made the 1987 Virgin release Catch the Fall. The pair also back ex-Real Fish saxist Hiroyasu Yaguchi on his 1988 release Gastronomic and Italian singer Alice on her 1989 album Il Sole Nella Pioggia.

Rob Dean formed Illustrated Man with drummer Hugo Burnham (Gang of Four) and two Australian musicians: bassist Philip Foxman (Supernaut) and keyboardist Roger Mason (Models, The Reels). In 1984, they issued a self-titled EP on Capitol. Dean then backed Sinead O’Connor on her debut album The Lion and the Cobra and co-wrote the hit “I Want Your (Hands On Me).” He’s one of multiple guests (along with Bill Nelson and Mel Collins) on the Nye-produced 1987 Chrysalis release Still Looking for Heaven on Earth by Crazy House. In 1989, Dean supplemented ABC (by then a duo) on their fifth album Up. Dean then moved to Australia and formed The Slow Club, which charted locally with the 1990 Virgin album World of Wonders and its hit “Shout Me Down.”

Sylvian reteamed with Jansen, Barbieri, and Karn in late 1989. Under the moniker Rain Tree Crow, they released a self-titled CD in April 1991 on Virgin with select backing by Nelson and guitarist Phil Palmer (Bliss Band, Dire Straits). Sylvian resumed his solo career and cut a collaborative disc with Fripp. The others released three discs as Jansen–Barbieri–Karn. Barbieri joined Porcupine Tree for a lengthy run. Karn died in 2011.



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