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Japan's first classic album
on 28 May 2006
The first two albums from Japan, `Adolescent Sex' and `Obscure Alternatives', were less than great - this might have been due to the New York Dolls-direction of those records and their unhappy tenure on Ariola-Hansa, whom they left for Virgin in 1980. Their third album `Quiet Life' and singles like `European Son' and the Moroder-collaboration `Life in Tokyo' showed a change in direction. The band took a sound influenced by Bowie (the Berlin era, including the Iggy Pop records) and Roxy Music (notably `Both Ends Burning'). Other influences were becoming apparent - Eno's `pop' albums of the early & mid Seventies, Talking Heads Eno-produced material & the work of Electronic pioneers, Yellow Magic Orchestra. `Quiet Life' was a transitional album, within a year the original Japan line-up of David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen & Rob Dean would record their first classic with `Gentlemen Take Polaroids.'
Produced by John Punter (though Sylvian was rumoured to have made his presence felt), the album was largely written by Sylvian; though this mid price reissue contains b sides `The Experience of Swimming' and `The Width of a Room' that were written respectively by Barbieri and Dean. Originally side two would have included `Some Kind of Fool', which is listed on some old vinyl versions of the record. For reasons unknown, this was replaced at the last minute by a version of Smokey Robinson's `Ain't That Peculiar' - in line with their previous cover of `I Second That Emotion' (though this is much closer in style to YMO). `Some Kind of Fool' finally got released in a remixed/re-recorded form on the Sylvian-compilation `Everything and Nothing' (2000).
The songwriting had improved since `Quiet Life', while the sound of the five-piece Japan was perfected here on the opening title track, `Swing', and `Methods of Dance.' GTP is a more varied collection and displays Sylvian's dominance of the band - Dean and Karn guested on Gary Numan's `Dance' album and Barbieri worked with the Penguin Café Orchestra, so maybe this dominance wasn't an issue? (the cover of `Ain't That Peculiar' was intended to give the band more a contribution). Tellingly, Dean would leave the band not long after. The title track remains a perfect pop song, going much further than Roxy Music, who would probably return the influence with 1982's `Avalon'! `Swing' brings Japan's distinctive rhythm to the fore, Sylvian inotining the title of the closing track (`Taking Islands...'), while `Methods of Dance' is one of their greatest moments, using an Oriental female vocal on the chorus - pre-figuring the sound of 1981's `Talking Drum.'
`My New Career' is a change of direction for the band, a mellower affair featuring Karn on Dida/Clarinet and a guest violinist - it feels like Roxy-gone-ambient and showcases Sylvian's pop sensibilities that he would drop a few years later. `Burning Bridges' feels like a precursor of their biggest hit, the minimal `Ghosts' (which memorably didn't feature Karn's idiosyncratic fretless bass); `Burning...' feels influenced by the second, largely instrumental side of Bowie's `Low', though has a sound not far from the soundtracks to `Apocalypse Now' and `Midnight Express.' `Burning Bridges' is largely instrumental, concluding with Sylvian's slight vocal - this track was particularly effective on the `Oil on Canvas' video where `Burning Bridges' was the first track leading into `Sons of Pioneers.'
The most interesting track from their Ariola-tenure was `The Tenant', an instrumental that was inspired by Erik Satie; this lead in turn to 1979's `Despair' - another example of the Satie-influence (& another work taking its name from European cinema or literature!). The Penguin Café work and instrumental `A Foreign Place' suggested these directions, which fed into one of Japan's greatest songs `Nightporter.' This is essentially a Sylvian solo track, predicting the approach taken on solo material in 1986/87, such as `Laughter and Forgetting', `September', and `Waterfront.' The atmosphere and sound of Satie's `Gymnopedie'-sequence is apparent here, though Sylvian's trademark croon turns avant classical into a conventional song - the feel is close to that of Scott Walker. `Nightporter' is the kind of record that many wish Walker would make, rather than the difficult material found on his infrequent solo albums.
The album concludes with the stunning `Taking Islands in Africa', which again doesn't feature the full band and features a guest performance by YMO's Ryuichi Sakamoto. A lush ambient work that uses Sylvian's divine vocals as a lush (maybe too lush?) lead through an electronic symphony; the Steve Nye remix is pleasant enough, but doesn't really add to perfection.
`Gentlemen Take Polaroids' was Japan's first classic album and one that left the comparisons to Roxy Music in the dust, it's my favourite album of theirs, though 1981's `Tin Drum' is almost as great. Its influence would be felt over the next few years, especially in the form of the commercially successful Duran Duran, who would fuse its sound with a more conventional rock sound. `Gentlemen Take Polaroids' was the first album Sylvian was content with - it was great to see him encoring with a jazzy version of `Nightporter' a few years ago at the Hammersmith Apollo. It would be even nicer to see the four or five of them play this material one last time...One of the albums of a certain era, and one to file alongside such titles as `The Correct Use of Soap', `Empires and Dance', `Fourth Drawer Down', `The Garden', `Organisation', `Remain In Light', `Technodelic', `Travelogue' and `Vienna.'