The Other Side of Life

‘a new high mark of maturity’

There were fundamental differences in band preparations for Japan’s third LP. The material for the first two albums, Steve Jansen explained, ‘was performed extensively live before we had the opportunity to record it. Therefore, those albums serve more as a document of what we’d learnt as a group performing together. There was very little recording craft involved, just a lot of energy and influences from an eclectic mix of styles, which were all a part of our early teenage years onwards.

‘By the time we were ready to record Quiet Life, when I was 19, we approached things a little differently. The material was developed in rehearsal rooms in preparation for recording, not as exhausted on any live circuit, so it remained fresh to bring to the studio.’

Rob Dean: ‘We had our rehearsal studio in Willesden and rehearsed some songs a lot, so we had a fair idea of what to do with them by the time we got to the studio. Not all of them, though. ‘The Other Side of Life’ and ‘In Vogue’ were almost left alone to see what we could achieve with them in the studio.’

Richard Barbieri has also pointed to the impact of a change in the approach to composition. ‘David started writing more and more on piano, which produced stronger songs. This lent itself towards more open and spacious sounding pieces and we started to understand how to build arrangements.’

Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean, through finger-printed glass, photograph by Fin Costello

Despite their inexperience and stumbling path as professional musicians to this point, somehow an assurance was emerging within the band. Steve Jansen again: ‘As musicians, we were becoming proficient enough to find our own voices through performance and arrangement, with more of an understanding of how things might translate in the process of recording. That experience provided a new motivation to experiment with in the process of overdubbing layers, to give the songs more sonic depth.’

The change in the producer’s chair was hugely significant. Ray Singer was gone, having done little more than facilitate the reproduction of Japan’s sound from the live circuit for their debut album. The band hadn’t been convinced he was the right person for the follow-up, Obscure Alternatives, and by now they were certain that a change was necessary if they were to express themselves as they wished. ‘The producer chosen for our third album, Quiet Life, was Chris Thomas, whose previous production work included Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Stranded and Country Life,’ explained Mick Karn. This selection reflected the latest listening habits of the band members and showed how they wished to develop their sound (see ‘In Vogue‘). ‘Chris was busy with a new band, The Pretenders,’ Mick continued, ‘and suggested that we try the engineer who’d worked with him on all the Roxy Music albums and had since become a producer in his own right. John Punter had co-produced These Foolish Things and Another Time, Another Place with Bryan Ferry and would produce our next two studio recordings and future live album.’

Mick Karn, photograph by Fin Costello

His presence was an evident relief, as Rob Dean confirmed: ‘When we met John Punter, we all hit it off straight away. His warmth and enthusiasm was infectious and from our first meeting, we had nothing but positive thoughts about the forthcoming album sessions. He made the entire experience a relaxed and enjoyable one for everyone involved, and I think that comes across in what was produced.’

It would be the band’s first experience of Air studios on London’s Oxford Circus, a creative space that would witness Japan’s evolution through the rest of their all-too-short existence. ‘Air had a wonderful atmosphere,’ said Dean, ‘The four studio complex meant there were always interesting artists to brush shoulders with and converse with upstairs in the café and pool table area. It was impeccably run and a very positive environment to work in. The studios themselves were all state-of-the art. Despite what you might think, there were not banks of musical equipment to be used other than grand pianos, though. Any instruments other than our own would be rented from outside.

‘It was cool to go to the nearby pub for a break and be sharing a pint with the likes of Chris Thomas [the originally selected producer who was working with The Pretenders in an adjoining studio], and John Cale… yes, even David Sylvian went to the pub! I think it helped that John Punter was so well-known and liked around Air.’

‘There was a professionalism at Air that we hadn’t seen before,’ said Mick. ‘Its assistant engineers were good enough to be engineers, its engineers good enough to be producers. The studio had its own canteen with cooks, twenty-four hour resident technical maintenance, pool tables, games machines for the really bored, and a secret staircase to the roof to clear one’s head with a stunning view overlooking London. We were in studio one, which itself was surrounded by huge windows towering over the incessant shoppers of Oxford and Regent Street.’

This was a whole new environment. Yes, they had now secured themselves a rehearsal room, but it wasn’t exactly salubrious, Mick describing it as ‘little more than a windowless brick shed which smelled of damp. It had moss and mushrooms sprouting from the walls and flickering, bare light bulbs adding to the lack of any atmosphere.’

Last in Quiet Life‘s running order, ‘The Other Side of Life’ sets the seal on the advances Japan had made in their craft.

Well it’s been a long time
How should I feel?
What can I say?

With fantastic stories
You present yourself
In different ways

Musically, the opening exemplifies both Sylvian’s move towards keyboard-based writing and the band’s new confidence to leave an arrangement uncrowded, allowing space for more light and shade to be developed. An ominous, resounding drum and bass strike interjects as the music builds dramatically through the following passage, Jansen’s crisp drum-strikes dancing around an implied beat rather than laying down a rhythm.

Some particular places
Remembered so well
Are hard to forget

The first of Rob Dean’s gorgeous guitar motifs in this song launches from Sylvian’s enunciation of ‘forget‘, this one laden with a chorus delay that propels the notes shimmering into the breath between vocal lines. As the elements swell, we become conscious of strings emerging in a lower register, offsetting the growing contribution from the lead guitar.

The lyrics to ‘The Other Side of Life’ would later be the first printed in Sylvian’s career retrospective, Hypergraphia. The initial instalment in ‘Step One’, as the book styles it, hints that whilst ‘Ghosts’ has been oft mentioned as the first of Sylvian’s lyrics that he felt satisfied with, there was something he found of particular value in the words to this song. I love the way that, from the very first line, we are propelled into a situation laden with history and mystery. ‘It’s been a long time/How should I feel?/What can I say?’ leaves us intrigued as to what has gone before. And who is the mysterious subject of the song? ‘With fantastic stories/You present yourself/in different ways’ leaves plenty of room for the imagination.

We’ve travelled so far now
Then we were young
Hard to impress

Now everything releases into life for the chorus, the orchestra in full flow and Dean adding a delightfully thick lead sound which launches off from ‘and goes’ and ‘sheltering only’, ascending with the listener’s spirits. It’s interspersed with a sumptuous rhythmic riff that follows on from the song’s title; vocal and guitar working in perfect harmony.

But she comes and goes
The other side of life
Sheltering only the other side of life

A piano run brings everything back down, Karn’s bass emerging with a virtuoso line accompanied by the orchestra and Jansen’s restrained rhythmic perfection.

These single occasions
We seem to share
Stumble and fall

Describing the piano parts on this track and the earlier ‘Despair’, Richard Barbieri said, ‘Those parts are pretty simple. Neither David nor I were particularly proficient on the piano at the time. You can do multiple takes and divide up the bass notes, chords and melody into separate overdubs.’

Jansen executes a drum part that is full of variation, adding so much more than merely marking out time. ‘I would have created most parts during the writing/rehearsing stage of the songs,’ he said, ‘but once set up in the studio, and on hearing the kit balanced through the headphones…that would sometimes spark some new ideas on the day. Usually I had to play for a good hour or two while the sound was being worked on so that was a chance to make last minute improvements.’

Recording really tested the young man’s prowess. ‘Because drum-takes were all-in-one in those days I always felt a little pressure nearing the end of a five-minute song. The drum fills or pattern intricacies would become a test of nerve. ‘The Other Side of Life’ for example. You’ve just gotta go for it.’

Steve Jansen, photograph by Fin Costello

‘The drum fills were most certainly improvised and the aim was to create some suspense and to momentarily lose some of the momentum in the repeating four bar cycle. The strings added to the drama and in fact a couple of the string moves were written to follow the drum fills (approximately 6 minutes and 6m20s) and therefore give the impression that these small events were a coordinated effort between the orchestra and drums when actually it was an afterthought cunningly employed by Ann O’Dell.’ (2018)

The extended track duration allows for each of the musical elements – piano, bass, drums, guitar – to be showcased alongside the orchestra. The scoring stands out for the flourishes that occur through a rhythmic injection of strings or when the momentum is temporarily lulled before a subsequent release. It’s far from being simply an evocative string sound added only to bring a lushness to the sound stage: the orchestra injects both energy and panache to the song.

Rob Dean: ‘I think the two orchestral tracks, ‘In Vogue’ and ‘The Other Side of Life’, were the last to be finished. I didn’t know anything about strings being used until we were in the taxi to meet John Punter for the first time, when David said he thought it would be a good idea to have an orchestra on a couple of tracks. It was a surprise, but not a negative one. The scope of the songs lent themselves towards strings. The feeling was “Why not go big?”’

‘It felt right, considering the songs that we were creating and their more epic scope. As far as general arrangements, we all knew when we were onto something that worked I’d say. We were all very positive about what we were doing and where the new material was going.’

John Punter recruited Ann O’Dell for the job, having worked with her previously on the projects with Bryan Ferry. Her skilled interpretation of the band’s material has led some to wonder whether the band was actually performing at the same time as the orchestra. In fact, Dean confirmed, for both ‘The Other Side of Life’ and ‘In Vogue’, ‘the band tracks were complete (except the finished vocal which would be added last). So it was not a case of us adapting to the orchestral arrangements but the exact reverse. Ann O’Dell was given a rough mix of both to write her score around.

‘So in the case of ‘The Other Side of Life’, for instance, I think the already recorded instruments would have influenced the feel and approach that Ann O’Dell took with the score. The orchestra played off the syncopation of the bass and drums in the long instrumental outro quite noticeably too.’

In his autobiography, Mick went so far as to claim that O’Dell had told the band that she ‘didn’t do very much except follow those basslines. Beautiful melodies, just crying out for an orchestra to play along with. Quite extraordinary!’ However, asked about this for Anthony Reynolds’ A Foreign Place, the arranger denied that things were that straightforward. ‘I would never base an arrangement on a bass guitar part…The idea is ridiculous!’

However the arrangement was inspired, it provided what Rob Dean stated was his favourite moment during the recording of the album. ‘I think it was actually standing in the studio while the orchestra were playing on ‘The Other Side of Life’. Listening to an orchestra playing live to the music you helped create is a real buzz, I can tell you. It took those tracks to an entirely other level…As a track it was a new high mark of maturity for us.’

‘The Other Side of Life’

Richard Barbieri – synthesisers, keyboards; Rob Dean – guitars; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Mick Karn – bass, saxophones; David Sylvian – vocals, occasional guitar.

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

Images are by photographer Fin Costello as featured in the accompanying booklet to the 2021 boxed-set edition of Quiet Life.

All quotes from Richard Barbieri, Robert Dean and Steve Jansen are taken from interviews in 2019 & 2021 unless stated. Mick Karn quotes are from his autobiography, Japan & Self Existence, 2009 (Lulu). Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

Anthony Reynolds’ biography of Japan, A Foreign Place, is available from burningshed.

Download links: ‘The Other Side of Life’ (Apple)

Physical media links: Quiet Life (Amazon). In 2021 the album was given a re-release with a boxed set, cd and coloured vinyl – view the options at burningshed.

‘It’s as if we discovered sophistication, subtlety and nuance overnight.’ Richard Barbieri, 2019

2 thoughts on “The Other Side of Life”

  1. Thank you VB/DJN, for me, a very enjoyable feature.

    Japan, Roxy, the Pretenders, all very much (still) on my ‘playlist’. Ann O’Dell’s best work with Bryan Ferry, in my view, was and is, on the ‘In Your Mind’ solo album of 1976/1977. I should say too, that if I secure the Diploma in health sciences that I have been studying (part time for the last four years), I have decided to treat myself to a bass guitar and amp (mainly because of the inspiration [still] delivered by the late, great, Mick Karn). Mick, (the late) John Entwistle, Bruce Foxton, Sting, (the late) John Wetton, John Porter (Roxy base on, ‘For Your Pleasure’, 1973), Sting, were/are, all inspirational virtuosos of that instrument. Just for fun and something else, new to learn.

    Japan became very proficient, always stylish, with strong melodies and delivery. All my best to the surviving three quarters of the original band (largely, my close contemporaries, viva!) I wished they’d have carried on longer. Today bands seem rarer. Glass Animals may be an exception, with a few others. Solo stars seem to dominate. Have the internet, social media, demise of TOTP and other factors (other cultural changes), all played a hand? Something to ponder maybe.

    Many thanks. Once again, an excellent read.

    Liked by 2 people

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