Japan - Biography
By Charles Reece
There is this old myth about the ring of Gyges, the wearer of which turns invisible. Plato suggested one’s morality would erode without society’s ability to watch one’s actions. No lover of the arts, he probably would not have seen the aesthetic benefit inherent in glam’s use of rouge and powder for the public recreation of the self. As David Bowie demonstrated, wearing a mask can free the artist from the branding constraints placed on him by the vigilant eye of commercialism. With the labels, management and public distracted by its mask, Japan developed into one of the more adventurous and innovative bands of the early 1980s all the while becoming commercially successful. Rather than remaining imitative of earlier acts, caught up with surface details, the band demonstrated that glam has a good deal of potential for expanding the purview of rock music.
Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, on July 24, 1958, Anthony Michelides was 3 when his family sent him and his older siblings to London, England, for a chance at a better education. While his brother and sister excelled in school, Mick (as his schoolmates took to calling him in lieu of his unpronounceable Greek surname) took on the classic youngest child role, rebelling against the scholastic standards they had set. He was a chubby kid with a strange accent, becoming the class clown to make friends. His real talent lay in music, picking up one instrument after another from an early age. By his early teens, he had learned how to play the chromatic mouth harp, the violin, and the clarinet, finally settling on the bassoon for the school orchestra. It was the bassoon that got him into the London School Symphony Orchestra (LSSO). His time in the orchestra was stressful, since he could not read music, having to use his ear to bluff his way through. It was the stress that took off the excess weight. When some skinheads stole his instrument and the LSSO refused to buy him another one, Mick was relieved. He moved onto the bass guitar, which he bought from a friend for £5. What would become one of the most recognizable features of Japan’s sound, his fretless bass playing, began early on. Playing melodies on the bassoon taught him that the bass could handle lead, and wanting the string control he had experienced with the violin led to removing the frets.
One of 12-year-old Mick’s classmates was a sullen child named David Alan Batt (born in Kent, England, on February 23, 1958). David was one of those adolescents who mostly kept to himself and took pride in knowing about things his peers did not. After he proffered some psychoanalysis to Mick, suggesting the latter used humor to mask depression, the two became friends. It was around this time that David and his younger brother, Steve (born in Kent on December 1, 1959) were becoming interested in playing music. The two grew up listening to their older sister’s soul records (including Tamla Motown, Smokey Robinson and The Jackson Five) and were just discovering glam (e.g., David Bowie, Roxy Music), as well as the proto-punk, New York scene (e.g., The Velvet Underground, New York Dolls). Both brothers began playing guitar, but Steve switched to the bongos because of his left-handedness. Until Mick made them a trio, the plan was to follow in the footsteps of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn’s T. Rex. Combined with Mick’s background in classical music, an upbringing in Middle-Eastern music thanks to his mother, and a heavy funk inspiration, the trio was destined to not be just another glam band.
Their first audience was at Mick’s brother’s wedding. Initially, it was Mick who was handling the singing chores, but backstage jitters resulted in David taking over. He would never be too comfortable with the spotlight, either, so they eventually developed the routine of Mick moving around the stage to divert audience attention from David’s reserved stage presence. Their first performance as Japan came a month later in Lewisham, on June 1, 1974, when David provisionally suggested the name for their first professional outing. Only Mick liked it, but nothing better came along, so it remained. The show went so horribly that the trio took another year and half to rehearse before they tried playing live again. As they improved on their instruments and the songs became more textured, they decided to expand the group.
First to complete the lineup was Richard Barbieri (born November 30, 1957, in London, England), an amateur keyboard player and former schoolmate of Mick and David. When Mick happened to see him at a train station, he invited his old friend to a rehearsal. Richard loved what he heard, and wanted to join. That he had a steady job at a bank only helped his admission, since he was able to fund the band during its leanest years. His taste for prog-rock synthesizers would supply atmospheric melodrama to David’s vocals for Japan’s duration. Finally, after Richard came lead guitarist Robert Dean (born April 23, 1955 in England), who answered an ad the band had placed in a music magazine. The five-piece rehearsed for a few months, premiering on Valentine’s Day in 1976 as the support act for The Fabulous Poodles. It was during one of their performances later that year that they came to the attention of Danny Morgan.
Morgan’s claim to fame was having discovered Urchin, the band that would become Iron Maiden. He introduced Japan to his boss, Simon Napier-Bell, a manager with an image first, music second approach to rock music (a previous client was Marc Bolan and, later, Wham!). He was smitten initially with David’s look, aptly describing it as a cross between Mick Jagger and a young Bridget Bardot. When David refused an offer to go solo, Napier-Bell signed the band. They signed with German label Hansa Records in 1977 after having entered a contest the label had to discover British bands. The Cure won, but when that band could not be molded into the disco-tinged rock in which the label specialized, Hansa went with Japan. Before the release of their first long-player, three of the members chose pseudonymous surnames: With a nod to The New York Dolls, David and Steve Batt became Sylvian (a variant of Sylvain) and Jansen (a shortening of Johansen), respectively, whereas Mick simply chose Karn from the phonebook.
Although Napier-Bell took the band’s image to a marketing reductio ad absurdum, they were always a very stylistically conscious bunch. In the spirit of his androgynous idols, Sylvian had started wearing makeup in his mid-teens, naively believing these years were a time to rebel, rather than conform. After a good number of beatings, Sylvian left school, feeling more isolated than ever. Japan was, in fact, started by a group of loners, who used cosmetics – just like pseudonyms – as a mask, a way around their intrinsic shyness. Karn took this symbolic alienation to the Ziggy Stardust level one day when dealing with his Greek-inherited hirsuteness. A slip of the wrist caused too much of his unibrow to be removed, so he kept going. His hairless brow became one of the band’s defining visual features, connoted the exotica that became their métier. Napier-Bell mistakenly focused too much on the façade in promoting the band (one ad had Sylvian with women’s breasts; a later one proclaimed him “The Most Beautiful Man in The World”). The British press reacted with derision, dismissing the band as an empty signifier of music that was no longer fashionable. Then de rigueur was the acne-ridden rebellion of punk.
Less encumbered by punk orthodox style, the Japanese took to the band immediately upon seeing the boys’ pictures in teen magazines before hearing any of their music. Released in March of 1978, the first single, a bubblegum-glam version of Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from the musical Funny Girl, proved fairly popular in Japan and the Netherlands, but dead on arrival back home. The song – both as a choice and the style in which it was delivered – was uncharacteristic of the band, who was closer to Roxy Music than Sweet. It suggests Japan was taking cues from management about what would lead to popularity. However, the lively single remains the best cover in the band’s oeuvre, a good deal better than the turgid delivery used on Smokey Robinson’s "I Second That Emotion" (recorded at the behest of Napier-Bell and a UK hit in 1979).
Released in 1978, the first two albums, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives (Ariola-Hansa Records), have never received their critical due for many reasons: music critics too often follow precedent, reiterating preceding opinion as if it were established law; they were released between the two popular subgenres (glam and New Romanticism) that would have undoubtedly given a more favorable response; and the aforementioned attempt to sell the band as teeny-bop idols. Furthermore, the band members themselves have, over the years, taken a largely dismissive attitude towards their earliest work as they grew more and more away from popular music. In lieu of the band’s more mature reflections, the two albums are better seen as expanding and even improving on the plastic soul of Bowie’s Young Americans. As would be the case with all the albums, the songs were written by Sylvian and arranged by the band. Befitting a young autodidact, his songs tended to borrow ideas from literature and arthouse cinema, often apposing lust to various political ideologies (e.g., “Communist China,” “Automatic Gun”). Though less experimental than later releases – the guitars being more dominant, the bass and keyboards a little more funk oriented – songs such as “Transmission,” “Performance” and “… Rhodesia” are as good as anything the band ever did.
Napier-Bell brought in an old partner of his, Ray Singer, to produce. The band was never happy with him, which led to increasing animosity in the studio, with Singer leaving before Obscure Alternatives was completed. His departure gave Japan a chance to produce the final song on the album, “The Tenant,” an instrumental written while Sylvian began to fall under the influence of Erik Satie, a composer who tended to focus on capturing moods. Consequently, the consensus among Japan’s members has been that the second album should have been the debut, as it better predicted the narrative soundscapes that would appear on the final two albums. It was, however, the synthesized pop sound of the third record that became the most influential.
Following a 1978 tour of Japan and North America (the band had a decent sized cult following in Canada), Sylvian teamed up with famed producer Giorgio Moroder to write the single, “Life In Tokyo.” Moroder is most notable for his disco work with Donna Summers and helping to define film music in the 1980s through his electro-pop scores. The British press dismissed the single as a lame attempt to ride on Moroder’s coattails, but Japan was already heading in his direction with a demo of “European Son,” featuring spindly electronics over Karn’s slithering bass licks. It was this new sound – sort of abstract disco – that dominated Quiet Life (1979 Ariola-Hansa). Produced by John Punter (e.g., Roxy Music), the album did not do much business upon release (except, of course, in Japan), leading to Hansa dropping the band. Even manager Napier-Bell was beginning to have serious doubts about his estimated six-figure investment, but he had become too close to them to jump ship.
Fortunately, the financial outlook began to change when Japan signed with Virgin Records.
In 1980, “Quiet Life” and “Life In Tokyo” began receiving regular rotation in British dance clubs just when the New Romantic trend (e.g., Spandau Ballet, Visage) was being heavily promoted in the music press. It was on Quiet Life’s cover that Japan began its transformation into a version of a Patrick Nagel print, a style that Duran Duran copied and much more successfully marketed to a mainstream audience (keyboardist Nick Rhodes became a photocopy of Sylvian’s appearance on the next album). Barbieri and Karn turned down the offer to produce Duran Duran’s self-titled debut due to the music’s baldly imitative qualities (cf. the vocals and bass on “Girls On Film”). Nevertheless, the success of such bands began to call attention to Japan’s influence, garnering the band more favorable mention in the press. It was then that Hansa had second thoughts about letting the band go. After an expensive lawsuit in which the label tried to maintain control over the band, Napier-Bell kindly erased their financial debt, and the band was free to release the next album on Virgin.
The band’s aesthetic was completed on Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980 Virgin): Jansen relied on a combination of percussion and drum programming, Dean’s use of the ebow made his guitar another layer to Barbieri’s synthesized soundscapes, and Sylvian’s recognizable baritone crooning became more prominent – all around the constantly contorting spine of Karn’s bass. Punter’s stolid production, the use of various wind instruments (mainly by Karn) and double bass (jazz great Barry Guy) make for a fairly robust sound – a somewhat surprising feat, given the fragile artifice of most synth-pop records from the period. The album is also the first to feature a collaboration with composer and ex-Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto (who co-wrote and contributed synthesizers on “Taking Islands In Africa"). Over the next few years, he and Sylvian wrote “Bamboo Houses” and “Forbidden Colours” together (the latter for Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence).
Just when it was looking like Napier-Bell might start making back some of his investment (Gentlemen … made it to #51 on UK chart upon release), Japan began to fracture. Sylvian was assuming more control on all aspects of the sound, which was not sitting well with the rest of the band. Perhaps as a peace offering, instrumentals from both Barbieri ("The Experience of Swimming") and Dean (“Width of a Room”) were recorded for the Gentlemen Take Polaroids EP. However, Dean was dissatisfied with the diminished role for his guitar playing, and decided to leave after one last tour in the spring of 1981. (His subsequent projects include studio work for Gary Numan and Sinéad O’Connor, as well as stints in the bands Vivabeat and Illustrated Man.) Karn, too, was drifting away from the band, spending time sculpting and working on his own compositions. Despite all of this, the band returned to the studio as a four-piece to record what became its most celebrated album.
Peaking at #12 in the UK and certified gold, 1981’s Tin Drum (Virgin) became Japan’s best selling album at the time, producing its biggest hit, “Ghost” (#5). The song has Sylvian pining introspectively over electronic atmospherics, making for an improbable hit single. The album was produced by Steve Nye (Bryan Ferry, Frank Zappa), who would go on to produce Sylvian’s first three solo albums. Before non-Western music became commodified under the rubric of ‘world beat,’ the album’s combination of African, Middle- and Far-Eastern music was daring, if not experimental. These influences are fairly well integrated, but there remains a touch of exotica in certain melodies (e.g., “Visions Of China”) and, particularly, the album art featuring Sylvian eating with chopsticks under a portrait of Mao. Undoubtedly helping the sales was Hansa’s collection of older material called Assemblage (#25), released earlier in 1981. Rather than fight it, Japan and Nye remixed the material, even re-recording some of the tracks. “Quiet Life” proved much more popular the second time around, peaking at #19. Between the two albums, Japan stayed on the charts for a full year.
Regardless of their success, the band members had already decided to go their respective ways before Tin Drum was released. Primarily, Sylvian wanted complete control over his music, not having to compromise with others. Additionally, he and Karn were constantly squabbling over various matters – one being the amount of time the latter was spending on his solo record, Titles (1982 Virgin), and another being the fact that Karn’s ex-girlfriend, photographer Yuka Fujii, was now with Sylvian. Using financial security, management convinced them to keep it together for a tour promoting their back catalogue and the last album. The band’s last UK performance was a six-night stay at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in November, 1982. Selections from these performances became the live album, Oil On Canvas (1983 Virgin), the band’s biggest hit, peaking at #5. Japan’s final show was on December 16, 1982, in Nagoya, Japan.
For the remainder of the 1980s, each of the ex-members maintained a productive career. Expanding on what he began with “Ghosts,” Sylvian released a series of solo records (e.g., 1984’s Brilliant Trees, 1986’s Gone to Earth; all for Virgin) and ambient works with ex-Can member Holger Czukay (1988’s Plight and Premonition, 1989’s Flux and Mutability; both on Venture). Karn formed the short-lived Dali’s Car with Peter Murphy, did some studio work (e.g., Kate Bush, Midge Ure) and released another solo album, Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters (1987 Virgin). Jansen and Barbieri released albums under their own name (Worlds in A Small Room; 1985 Pan East) and as The Dolphin Brothers (Catch The Fall; 1987 Virgin), in addition to contributing to some of Sylvian’s and Karn’s records. A reunion became possible when Sylvian contributed to Karn’s album in 1987.
Tin Drum’s lineup reunited in 1989 as Rain Tree Crow, a name derived from Sylvian’s Buddhism, suggesting rebirth. Instead of his bringing songs to the band as he had in the past, the music here would be the result of collaborative improvisation, with Sylvian supplying lyrics after the fact. For that reason, the band felt a new name was appropriate. Virgin was not keen on the idea, but readily funded the potentially lucrative reunion. Initial recording went so well that the members had planned on future collaborations under the name. Unfortunately, old rifts soon returned. Karn wanted to use Mick Torn for additional guitar work, but Sylvian refused. Because Karn and Torn had been regularly playing on each other’s solo records, the bassist saw Sylvian’s refusal as an unwillingness to relinquish some of his control (that is, a fear of two against one). The main trouble, though, came with the record’s over-extended production, lasting for more than a year. Despite having the most generous budget the band had heretofore seen, Sylvian obsessively worked on the production until he had depleted the band’s coffers. When the band had to ask for more cash, Virgin agreed only under the provision that the name ‘Japan’ be used. Everyone but Sylvian agreed. Instead, Sylvian chose to fund the remaining production out of his own pockets.
According to the rest of the band, Sylvian had taken this collaborative effort and turned it into another solo record. When it came time to make a video for the album’s only single, “Blackwater,” Sylvian’s part had to taped on a different day from the others. Jansen refused to speak to his brother for five years afterwards. Released in 1991, Rain Tree Crow was not the hit Virgin had hoped, but it was critically lauded and managed to break the Top 25 UK album chart. Depending on how one looks at it, the record is one of Japan’s best, or one of Sylvian’s.
Since 1991, Sylvian has remained focused on his solo career (e.g., Dead Bees on a Cake, 1999 Virgin), including forming his own label, Samidhisound (on which he released Blemish in 2003). Additionally, he has been increasingly drawn to improvisation and the avant garde, collaborating with Robert Fripp, Derek Bailey, and Christian Fennesz, among others. Jansen continued to collaborate with Barbieri and Karn throughout the 1990s. Having reconciled with his brother, the two formed Nine Horses with Burnt Friedman in the early 2000s. Jansen is currently pursuing a solo career on Sylvian’s label. Along with collaborating with his erstwhile bandmates, Karn has continued to perform and record with Torn while pursuing a solo career. Barbieri has found the most commercial success with the jazz-oriented jam band Porcupine Tree. As for Dean, he remains mostly retired from the music industry, living in Monteverde, Costa Rica, where he is an expert in the ornithology of that region.