Sons of Pioneers

Collaboration in a band context

Recently I returned to Tin Drum after a long break. I’m not sure why I neglected it, maybe because David Sylvian has often spoken of his work implying that ‘Ghosts’ was the one Japan song truly reflective of his musical journey. Maybe because the literature and websites tend to differentiate between Japan and the solo period as different eras, and lately I’d given much more of my attention to the latter.

Listening to the album afresh has been an absolute joy, with all its qualities revealed like new. ‘Sons of Pioneers’ showcases the unique contributions that each band member makes to Japan’s triumphant final album. Mick Karn’s bass lead dominates the opening of the song: strong, sinuous and so distinctively him. As the track progresses we hear the resounding harmonics of his bass strings and his riff gives way to a just-off-the-beat pulsating throb that helps propel the song forward.

The drums of Steve Jansen pick out a strident yet intricate rhythm – and indeed a melody – as he glides across the kit. The Karn/Jansen bass/rhythm section is unlike any other I know. Evidently, finding the right parts for ‘…Pioneers’ was not straightforward. Mick recalls the initial sessions at The Manor studios in his autobiography: ‘we were only in Oxford for the first two weeks, recording the foundations to each piece and not all of them had gone to plan. ‘Sons of Pioneers’ was still only a bass line and proving extremely difficult for Steve to find a pattern he was personally happy with.’ Find it he did though, with Steve and Mick providing an architectural frame for the song with their complementary elements sparring with one another: separate voices on an equal footing, creating something perfectly whole.

‘The hardest track for me to settle on was ‘Sons Of Pioneers’ which was written around Mick’s bass line,’ remembers Steve. ‘It took me a while to come up with that pattern due to the fact that regular drum patterns that were based around the usual snare, bass drum and hi-hat were not doing it justice. I needed to find more of an ethnic, pulse-like quality that would allow the bass line to be free to do its thing and it wasn’t until we were actually in the studio that I found the pattern.’ (2017)

The Manor sessions took place in June 1981, with the band developing the arrangements in London over the following months. Odyssey Studios near Marble Arch was where Steve’s drum parts for ‘…Pioneers’ were worked up. As guest for one of Tim Burgess’s Twitter listening parties in 2021, Steve dug into his archive to confirm the precise details: ‘On 10th August we started to record the rhythm section but realised it would be so much better using beaters, however I had none and so picked some up on the way to work the next day. By the evening we had the rhythm section down.’

David Sylvian once said: ‘‘Sons of Pioneers’ is just a bass line over and over again with just a few things thrown on top. It will bore you if you don’t like the feel of it, if you don’t (for want of a better phrase) get into it, but that applies to all of our music’ (1981). The quote emphasises the importance of the atmosphere and groove in the arrangement but also drastically understates the craft of the musicianship on display.

I really enjoy listening to the track and concentrating purely on the synthesiser sounds. The more prominent rhythmic and vocal elements are truly seductive, but just listen closely to the keyboards sometime. We are treated to a range of beguiling and unique sounds demonstrating the care that Richard Barbieri took in programming and then placing them, with David Sylvian playing a key role alongside him. These effects often defy description but among them are long sustained notes that slowly decay, ghostly echoing sounds that seem to drift off reverberating into the distance, percussive echoing clangs…

I just can’t imagine how you begin to envision such an arrangement. Fortunately, I was able to ask Richard Barbieri recently about how the song came together: ‘The track is driven and dictated by the bass and drum patterns. My approach, in part, was to complement and enhance this by placing sounds and emphasis on the accents.’

Digging deeper into the track, Richard provides a fascinating ‘artist’s commentary’ into his synthesiser parts: ‘You can hear one of many atonal percussive synth hits around 3 seconds into the track and another at 1min 50secs with the introduction of the vocal line. And, always at the (false) end of Mick’s pattern, a detuned chord hit (like at 36 seconds) that has a slightly drifting eastern quality. At 1min 14 secs I introduce a voicy sound on the OBX played in a staccato style with lots of repeats (delays).’ It’s fascinating to listen back to the track with this insight into its creation.

‘The short solo at 3 minutes was one of my best lead sounds, I think,’ Richard continues. ‘Very airy and flute like.’ This part also provides another example of how ‘in synch’ with the musicians Steve Nye was as the album’s co-producer. ‘I had trouble finding (and playing) a good resolution for the end of the solo, so Steve Nye came up with an ending line and played it.’ This wouldn’t be the only time on Tin Drum that a track on the studio multi-tracks would be labelled ‘the end is Nye’!

Referring to my attempt to describe what I hear in the song, Richard adds, ‘The tailing off of sounds you mention is an important and subtle element to me and you can notice this more because we had become very aware of leaving space for things to drift off into the distance. The approach on Tin Drum was more minimal than on previous recordings and here each note, sound or accent was scrutinised.’

from the ‘Visions of China’ tour programme, 1981

I love the way Sylvian’s voice and the synthesiser share the melody, for instance on ‘sometimes alone’ and ‘every song I know’. I asked Richard about this: ‘I play in unison with David’s vocals starting at 2 mins with a ‘moog’ like eastern mono sound with lots of pitch bending…quite Arabic in melodic style and a new approach at the time from David, I think.’

Ask anyone to describe the signature sound of Tin Drum and they will almost certainly talk about the influence of Chinese music. On ‘Sons of Pioneers’, if it’s here then it is at its least explicit. Perhaps it’s present in the space between the musical elements, or could there be echoes of ceremonial drumming in the insistent percussive melody from Steve Jansen? Or maybe there is a tendency to generalise about the sound palette based on a few of the tracks and the cover art? I asked Richard about any Chinese aspect to the sound on ‘…Pioneers’: ‘I can’t hear that with this track which is clearly Middle Eastern in sound.’

Listening back to David singing the familar multi-syllable vocal phrases in the song, the Arabic styling that Richard mentions is so clear – it’s like listening to the track with a whole new perspective! How did this influence come to the surface, perhaps from Mick Karn? Richard explains, ‘We were listening to a lot of world music at the time and especially Mick. He played us Turkish pop music, Arabic classical, so that was definitely an influence. But generally in pop and rock since the sixties a Middle Eastern flavour is often present. An obvious example is ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zep. I would say David made the eastern voice scalings and I followed in that vein.’

It’s true that David Sylvian’s vocal delivery is more mannered here than on his subsequent trilogy of ’80s solo albums but it still draws the listener in, ranging from the rhythmic multi-tracked and chant-like:

‘I’m tired but we won’t sleep at all,
Even though the air is calm’

to that multi-syllable delivery, emphasising single words such as ‘tonight’ or ‘go’.

The lyrics are obscure in their imagery and hint towards meaning rather than communicate straight to the heart. It’s a mistake, however, to consign these to the category of immature and irrelevant in the context of his work. There are themes here to which Sylvian returns in later, more accessible, lyric writing. The sense of isolation in:

‘Sometimes we sense the doubt together,
Sometimes alone’

…the internal turmoil that ‘cuts and scars inside tonight’, the weather as analogy for internal mood and emotion… And the title line, delivered in the depths of his range, is evocative and striking:

‘Sons of pioneers are hungry men’

…I should imagine they are, something to do with inheriting the characteristics of the forefather, something to do with not being out-shone by the previous generation.

Intriguingly, Mick Karn said in 1982 that if in future Japan were to make another studio album, they would be ‘more likely to follow in the direction of, say, ‘Sons of Pioneers’ rather than the very clinical feeling of something like ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’.’ Richard’s perspective: ‘I feel ‘Sons of Pioneers’ is the most natural sounding piece [on Tin Drum] and at times feels almost like a jam or live recording. It certainly was a direction that I carried into the post Japan era. I think a lot of the JBK material has aspects of this sound and approach, especially ‘Beginning to Melt’…It’s an interesting point which direction the group would have followed after Tin Drum. Possibly we would’ve struggled to find a path we could all feel comfortable with at that time. David and I were interested in the ‘Ghosts’ abstract approach.’

When I play the track on my playlist I pair it with ‘Tribal Dawn’, the opening track from Mick Karn’s debut album Titles. I never attended a Japan live show, so didn’t experience the ‘Sons of Pioneers’ riff in that context. Later, though, I did see Mick play ‘Tribal Dawn’. I say ‘see’ rather than ‘hear’ because the abiding memory is of Mick’s elastic right-hand fingers dancing across the strings as those of his left hand plant upon, vibrate and stretch the notes. Truly entrancing.

On ‘Tribal Dawn’ the bass guitar is the starring instrument with the distinctive melody acting like the lead vocal. Accompanying this, Mick plays saxophone and one of his weird and wonderful collection of wind instruments, the ocarina. Steve Jansen plays congas and Richard Barbieri’s keyboard programming produces a gentle keyboard motif. There are chanting ethnic voices on tape, reminiscent of those used in many late era tracks by Japan.

Tin Drum is rediscovered for me, with fresh perspectives on ‘…Pioneers’ provided by Richard Barbieri opening up previously undiscovered aspects of the song. ‘Sons of Pioneers’, collaboration in a band context between the outstanding talents of Messrs Barbieri, Jansen, Karn and Sylvian.

‘Sons of Pioneers’

Richard Barbieri – keyboards, keyboard programming; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Mick Karn – fretless bass; David Sylvian – keyboards, keyboard programming, vocals
(specific track credits confirmed by Richard Barbieri)

Music by David Sylvian & Mick Karn. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced by Steve Nye & Japan. From Tin Drum, Virgin, 1981

Lyrics © samadhisound publishing

Download links: ‘Sons of Pioneers’ (iTunes), ‘Tribal Dawn’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: Tin Drum (Amazon), Titles (Amazon)

Thank you to Richard Barbieri for his contribution to this article. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here.

At Richard’s bandcamp page you can obtain his recent and on-going Variants series of releases – do check them out if you haven’t already –

‘I call ‘Sons of Pioneers’ a sonically deep track, very textural and moody and completely at odds with the rest of the album…Certainly my approach on this track and ‘Ghosts’ is still with me today.’ Richard Barbieri, 2018

5 thoughts on “Sons of Pioneers”

  1. I am privileged to have seen Japan live on the tour of tin drum. The live performance of sons of pioneers was breathtaking and from that moment on I was hooked. Sad that the band split very soon after but I followed their endeavours as solo artists after this.
    Still haven’t heard anyone play bass like MK.. May he rest in peace x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this piece of music and your blog. Well done. Richard’s comments made me sit and listen harder. Very enjoyable. “Sons of Pioneers” was for the longest time the least accessible track for me on “Tin Drum”. Of course now it’s my favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Carl. Lovely to know that the blog has promoted a relisten to the music. Makes it worthwhile! I’m very grateful to Richard Barbieri for his insights which opened the track up for me like new.


  3. Sons of Pioneers was always one of my favourite tracks on Tin Drum, still listen frequently to the album as I have it on my Ipod along with Gentleman Take Polaroids and Quiet Life albums.
    Good to hear how the track came together from Richard, would love to hear how Ghosts was made, one off track, so unique. I did a remix of Ghosts about 12 years ago keep meaning to upload it to you tube.

    Liked by 1 person

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