Tin Drum was my introduction to the music of Japan, and from there I explored the previous releases. These were my final years at school and it was an exciting time with a world of music opening up to me that I just hadn’t been aware of before. A friend encouraged me to listen, passing me C90 cassette tapes of his favourite music which I would lose myself in, then saving my Saturday job money so I could visit the local record shop to buy the vinyl. The skull-and-cross-bones symbols may have said that home taping was killing music, but it also helped to foster a life-long appreciation of some incredible recordings – many of which I now own in multiple copies: vinyl, cd, re-releases, remasters…
Principally we listened to Bowie and Japan. Most probably everyone has boxes that have been tucked away in a dusty corner for many years, moved unopened from home to home and yet containing memories too precious to let go. Moving house recently I was determined to properly sort everything out, repackaging things that I really wanted to keep. In a tatty cardboard box I found a note from my friend, neatly handwritten and folded so that it would slip inside a cassette box. It carries no date, but was most likely written early in 1982. The track listing and writing credits are carefully transcribed, with the following recommendation:
‘Dear Dave, I strongly advise you to buy this album – Quiet Life – as it is, in my opinion, the best album I’ve ever heard, not only by Japan but everyone else as well.. ..by the way, when you get a chance try it through headphones..’
I loved the fact that the LP embraced so many moods, from the innovative pulsating synth line of the title track, through the urgent guitar and drums drive of ‘Fall in Love with Me’, to the prominent acoustic instrumentation and atmospheres of ‘Despair’ and ‘The Other Side of Life’. Today as I look back, it’s a favourite because simultaneously Japan found their feet musically and delivered the album that was the pinnacle recording of the five-piece line up of the band. ‘It wasn’t until Japan’s third album, Quiet Life, when we began to settle down and realise our possibilities as musicians and just be able to put down our ideas positively on record for the first time. And from that period on it was a growing process. I think Quiet Life was the happiest album we ever made; it was the easiest album, most enjoyable album..
‘After Japan’s second album, when we knew that we had made two albums that we didn’t like at all – this was also due to outside pressure from management and record company – we decided, well we are either going to split up now or we are going to make amends and to try to find the direction we want to pursue. And fortunately we came across John Punter, the producer, who was sympathetic to what we wanted to do, which was the first time we worked with a producer who was enthusiastic about the work. My writing changed a great deal, I started writing on keyboards, and they became more melodic pieces, and more introspective pieces, and that was the beginning of me finding myself as a writer.’ (DS, 1987)
‘In Vogue’ closes the A-side on the original vinyl and we witness a band defining their own sound and developing real confidence. An assured drum beat kick-starts the song into an introduction with curious quivering electronics from Richard Barbieri and one of those front-and-centre Mick Karn bass lines that takes the melody rather than anchors the rhythm. Something fresh is evolving here. My friend was right about listening on headphones – the sound broadens out with more familiar keyboard sounds wide in the mix. Sylvian’s vocal starts at almost-strained high pitch but soon dives to the rich, deep tone first exhibited on this album. Next, Mick Karn’s saxophone enters like a chorus of woodwind backing singers. As Jansen’s drum fill runs down at the end of the first chorus, the string arrangement lends the song a restrained grandeur. This is art-pop, the constituent parts coalescing in an extended instrumental end-section, soaring with strings and another signature Quiet Life sound – Rob Dean’s e-bow guitar – lurking gloriously amongst the orchestra, staccato keyboards and Jansen’s restrained embellishments to the drum pattern. Finally we are back to the weird synth, drums and a Karn bass flourish before a final thunderous piano chord reverberates into silence.
The lyric is a portrait of a fractured relationship; the context is unknown but parting is imminent:
‘How bitter the morning feels
Exactly like it ought to do’
There’s irony in the refrain, it’s a separating of the ways but the protagonists seem unaware that they may mourn what they lose:
‘Did nobody warn you, boy?
Love’s in vogue again, my love
Did nobody tell you, girl?
Love’s in vogue again, my love’
Sylvian said of his Japan era songwriting that he often chose words because of the way the sounded. ‘In Vogue’ is a perfect phrase; it sounds delicious and exudes reflected glamour through the hinted reference to the fashion magazine of the same name.
There were undoubtedly influences for the changing sound exemplified by ‘In Vogue’. Asked in later years what might have been the catalyst for the feel of the song that he declared his favourite from Japan’s early years, Steve Jansen said, ‘There were probably a variety of different musical influences from each musician’s perspective, and obviously I didn’t write the song therefore I’m not in a position to say what influenced the compositional content, but for me personally the overriding association I have with that particular track is the album Manifesto by Roxy Music which was released in March 1979. Quiet Life was released in December 1979. Manifesto was something of a musical backdrop throughout the writing/recording of Quiet Life.’ (2017)
Listening back to Manifesto there are some interesting reference points, conscious or otherwise. Andy Mackay’s oboe and sax on ‘Angel Eyes’, for instance, and the clean, crisply recorded percussion sound of Paul Thompson. There are parallels too in ‘Stronger Through the Years’ – albeit with a slower lilt – adding burbling bass, and long synthesised lines alongside weird-and-wonderful electronics and traditional piano.
For Richard Barbieri, however, Roxy Music’s impact on his own approach came from an earlier incarnation of the band. Listing For Your Pleasure as one of his all time favourite albums, he said, ‘I like the debut album as much but here they seemed to bottle and perfect the experiments of the earlier work. It sounded like the past and the future combined. Great lyrics on this, and Eno’s approach with abstract sound was a massive influence for me.’ (2017)
In the early seventies Barbieri ‘became more attracted to the strange sounds and intriguing lyrics of Bowie and Ferry. The way Brian Eno incorporated electronics and abstract sound into Roxy’s songs was a huge influence on me. I used to listen to John Peel and Radio Caroline under the bedsheets into the early hours of the morning. The reception sometimes wasn’t great and there would be instances when two stations playing different music were audible at the same time and at certain points there would be the most wonderful combination of notes or sounds. Totally complementary, but abstract. That was what Eno was doing with Roxy I thought.’ (RB, 2017)
The significance of Rob Dean’s input to the sound of Quiet Life should never be understated. Whilst he lists Phil Manzanera amongst his references, to this listener his solos are quite different to the guitar-work on Manifesto. On the Roxy album Manzanera’s parts have a cleaner sound with less sustain in the solo breaks. Asked about his approach on Quiet Life, Dean cites a different primary influence, ‘Although there had been plenty of solos in my work in the past, I always felt that my playing was at its best when it was servicing the song rather than sticking out, in a similar way to that of most of George Harrison’s work in The Beatles. At that time due to his remarkably distinctive work with David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall and Blondie amongst others, Fripp was my biggest influence and possibly remains so even now. I was also influenced by Phil Manzanera, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Ricky Gardiner and John McGeoch during that album.’ (2019)
The way Rob puts his newly discovered e-bow to use hints at the uplifting vibe of Robert Fripp on the title track of Bowie’s Heroes, released just two years earlier. And there can be no more perfect example of Dean’s sensitivity than his work in the second half of ‘In Vogue’, eschewing centre stage in favour of enhancing the song, Harrison-like. He lays down extended textures that expand the film soundtrack feel; a perfect foil for the string arrangements of Ann O’Dell, a veteran of four Bryan Ferry solo LPs before working with Japan.
Of course the most common allusion to Roxy Music confronting the band noted a resemblance in vocal style between Sylvian’s evolving delivery and that of Bryan Ferry. Having come to Roxy Music after Japan, there seems to me to be a distinctive timbre to Sylvian’s voice that differentiates him from Ferry. There were undoubtedly some similarities in mannerism and Sylvian admitted as much describing how, after an initiation to popular music through his older sister’s Motown collection, he ‘started listening to people like Mark Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and I guess they were the lasting influences at that point – for some period I think. And I probably modelled myself far too much on those people at that time because again I didn’t have enough confidence in myself. I think not even until I had started my own solo career did I find a way of singing which was totally natural to me. It took a very long time. And it’s basically because of a kind of lack of confidence in myself.
‘If you are influenced by people when you are young it’s part of your education, you can’t get away from it, it’s not a bad thing. It happens in all worlds, in all the arts. Painters have the same problem. The people who you are first influenced by are a lasting influence and it’s a positive thing, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It’s unfortunate, in the pop world I think, especially when you are talking about young bands when they are still learning, when they are still discovering themselves, critics are too quick to point out the influences and it’s a negative thing to do that.. ..it’s not that relevant to point out all their influences and make them aware of it and say it’s a negative thing, because it isn’t necessarily so. I think it happens probably more so in this business than in any other.’ (DS 1987)
Were the key figures ever asked to directly contribute to the music of the band? ‘A collaboration with Eno would’ve been pertinent in relation to the group Japan when his potential involvement as producer would’ve truly made a qualitative difference both sonically and compositionally. I don’t recall asking Eno to produce us at any point although his musical influence was never in question. I do remember asking Robert Fripp to take control at the helm on one occasion. For Quiet Life I believe it was.’ (DS, 2002)
As it happened, there was a strong early Roxy Music connection in the production of Japan’s 1979 release. John Punter, whose positive impact on proceedings Sylvian referenced so fondly, had taken the reins for both Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry solo recordings. Japan were new to him though, and he sensed something special in the music they were making. Interviewed for Anthony Reynolds’ biography of the band, A Foreign Place, Punter recalls, ‘The first time I heard them play, I was struck by how unusual they were; the most traditional player was Rob.. ..Rich was like a hybrid. I mean, he was more musical than Eno. Rich had a musical foundation of chords and melody but he also excelled at putting together the sequential stuff, which was so archaic at that time, practically steam-powered.. ..The rhythm section was so unconventional in their craft, being self taught, and trying things a different way to other taught musicians. It meant that the rhythm section was such a part of that band’s make-up and how they crafted stuff.. ..It was outstanding, it really was.’ (2015)
Mick Karn agreed that his and Steve Jansen’s lack of tuition contributed to their distinctiveness as a pairing, although the bass-line for ‘In Vogue’ may have been born from what little musical education he had received. ‘My style was something that slowly developed. I always thought the early training with the bassoon really had a lot to do with the way I played bass. To me, bass was one of those instruments that was never really noticed, and I wanted to get it noticed. I got my first bass guitar at exactly the same time as Steve Jansen got his drums, so we learned to play together. It was never a case of playing along to records. There was no bass playing that struck me as worth listening to, so my playing evolved from a rhythm point of view, bass and drums, and what they can both do together, which took quite a while.’ (1994)
Ultimately John Punter was best placed to identify where the common ground stood between the bands he worked with. ‘I had the same feeling when I met Roxy.. ..The feeling I got from Roxy was the same feeling I got from Japan. It’s difficult because people said Japan were Roxy clones and Dave was a Bryan clone and this, that and the other, which I don’t agree with at all. It was the feeling of excitement, that was the same’ (1986). As the producer identified, within a melting point of musical reference points there was something unique in the skills and sound of Japan, a band now flourishing even if wider recognition of their craft was still some time away.
Orchestral arrangement by Ann O’Dell.
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian. Arranged by Japan.
Produced by John Punter. From Quiet Life, Hansa, 1979.
Recorded at Air Studios, London
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
Download links: ‘In Vogue’ (iTunes)
Physical media links: Quiet Life (Amazon)
A Foreign Place by Anthony Reynolds is published by burning shed (link here).
‘Quiet Life… That was the best time we went through while actually recording, so it means a lot to us.’ Mick Karn, 1984