Before Lewisham’s Batt brothers reinvented themselves as archly cosmetic Occidentals with a fascination for the Orient, they affected New York Dolls-style sleaze in slummy, vampish make-up and lizard rocker trews.
Japan’s early material is fronted by a slurry David Sylvian (a former Batt) and backed by a pointy-nosed guitarist Rob Dean. Mick Karn’s bass lines are more funky than bendy on The Unconventional, Suburban Berlin and Adolescent Sex, songs that made Sylvian squirm the moment he discovered Scott Walker.
It was obvious that Japan initially had bitten off more influences than they could chew. Visually they embraced a somewhat passé glitter: all flash clothes, makeup and strange hair. Musically, their extreme dependence on Roxy Music and David Bowie made them impossible to take seriously.
Their second phase sits uncomfortably alongside these early tracks, with the sonorously warbled European Son, Quiet Life and Alien eclipsing mannered cover versions of I Second That Emotion and All Tomorrow’s Parties.
With a pair of overlooked recordings under their belt, Japan were eager for attention by the time of their third Ariola LP, Quiet Life (1979).
Skirting on the edge of New Romanticism but too glam rock for actual scene membership, Japan gamely slogged against the prevailing musical tide with a stodgy and unattractive mish-mash of hijacked funk rhythms, second-generation glam and quasi-metal guitar riffs.
David Sylvian aped the mannered vocal stylings of Bowie and Steve Harley, whilst the band ground out their musical approximations of a showdown between Roxy Music and The Climax Blues Band. The group switched labels to Virgin and started gaining fans in earnest. Guitarist Rob Dean found himself out of a job.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981) made the group a commercial and critical success.
The name was not incidental, as they figured they could bring an Eastern poise into pop. Cue: song titles, Canton, Cantonese Boy, Visions Of China . . .
The danger was that the conceit could seem all too contrived, or ersatz, and was not helped by the mannered vocals of songwriter David Sylvian.
At other times, though, as on Ghosts, their self-importance almost made sense through the simple strategy of a good song, well performed.
Japan broke up in 1983 after releasing a double live album recorded on their last tour – Oil On Canvas.
David Sylvian (David Batt)
Vocals, guitar, keyboards
Mick Karn (Anthony Michaelides)
Bass, saxophone, clarinet, flute
Steve Jansen (Steve Batt)