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.'
on 4 February 2009
Very difficult to listen impartially to this album again. Things experienced repeatedly in the teenage bedroom tend to be far greater than the sum of their parts - but what fascinating parts.
Don't believe the clumsy pigeon-holing of the list obsessed B-listers; Japan were never a New Romantic band. Yes they had the make-up and the sharp clothes (although always more Bowie than their contemporary's pantomime), but the music was icy, austere, and too complex for the pop manifesto and good time aspirations of that gang. Representing a sometimes awkward step between the smoother Young Americans sound of Quiet Life's disco torch and the disquieting detailed atmosphere of Tin Drum's taught skittering rhythms and entirely alien palette, Gentlemen... will polarize all who hear it. Those who hate it however will never do so for a lack of imagination, on Japan's part at least.
Give it a try (its also very cheap!).
P.S. For the drummers and bass players amongst you, you will never hear another rhythm section quite like Mick Karn and Steve Jansen.
on 12 May 2007
As the synth led 80s genre goes this really is the yardstick by which all other such albums should be measured.
The Steve Nye production is silky smooth from start to finish, Sylvians writing and vocals are pure class and Mick Karns glorious bass should be listened to by bassists from all genres to teach them that it can be an instrument, not just a method of marking time.
Stand out tracks are the title track, Swing and Methods of Dance.
Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet would have loved to be this good!
on 19 February 2016
I've been re-visiting this album recently and felt compelled to write a few words about it. First off, I'm largely a rock and metal fan. How can someone who likes Mastodon, Deftones, Rush, and general thrash metal, appreciate something like this, I hear you ask?..
Well, I first discovered Japan via 'Ghosts' on Top of the Pops when I was about 8 years old, and I remembered how haunting and unusual it was to anything else out there, at the time. They soon disappeared after, and with it, my memory of them, but then around early 2000's, a lot of interesting synth and electro music started to come through- The Faint, Sneaker Pimps (with Splinter and then Bloodsport), Ladytron, and of course NIN, and some heavier artists such as Fear Factory, were already favourites of mine. I was attracted to this style, as I was finding music at the time quite dull, and this dark-wave synth-orientated style- conscious music was just the remedy at the time.
Re-discovering some major influences, I stumbled upon Japan again, remembering how amazing Ghosts was- and I realised they had a some fantastic songs. I bought 'Exorcising Ghosts', which was a collection of songs ranging from Quiet Life/Gentlemen take Polaroids and Tin Drum.
I absolutely fell in love with their sound. It's almost unbelievable to imagine that they were creating this music in 1980, after suddenly abandoning their punkier edge, just moments before.
I then bought Gentlemen Takes Polaroids a few years later, and this is their definitive album in my opinion. They craft a sound that is truly visionary for a band that created it over 36 years ago! It's precision is as sharp as a surgeons scalpel- The sounds of a distopyian future are intelligently produced through an amazing imagination of musicians- David Sylvian-Mick Karn-Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri. They looked effortlessly cool, suave and fashionable, but unlike anything else within the music scene.
I can think that, during this time, only a handful of artists where pushing the boundaries with similar futuristic visions- Gary Numan has an obvious connection, but where his music had a darker dystopian feel, Japan where more sophisticated in their approach.
Highlights for me are Methods of Dance, My New Career, Gentlemen take Polaroids, Ain't that Peculiar- which has such an unusual time signature and just mindboggling how they even designed this alternative cover to a standard Marvin Gaye song- something they would then attempt again with 'I second that emotion'.
There are a series of instrumentals which visually paint a landscape of a dark, almost apocalyptic, future- think Blade Runner, but more gritty than Vangelis, and more 'believable' toward of vision of conformity, class divide, and poverty, in a world gradually being controlled by systemised computerised soullessness...
To end, this was a band that pushed the benchmark of electronic music, but with a flare of musicianship within Mick Karn's swirling bass patterns, and Steve Jansens ultra complex drum rhythms, to Barbieri's amazing forward thinking towards sounds and effects that really hadn't been handled, atmospherically, by any other. Sylvian, of course, provided a benchmark in vocals at this time, creating a voice so unusual, like a hybrid of Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, but a uniqueness of it's own- a voice of loss and confusion during a dark start to an ever gloomier industrialist divided decade..
This particular album to me is timeless, and should never be forgotten. They were pioneers of the so called mainstream progression of the 'New -Romantic' scene, and no less debatably, paved the way for the success of Duran Duran and all the others.. Along with Adam Ant (the Ants), they were the originators of this scene, but ultimately were a band that no one would ever appreciate fully. I think the frustration of expectation towards the mainstream might have stole their ambition, but at the time, they created untouchable music.
David Sylvian would go one to have a moderately successful solo career, with his song writing going from strength to strength, and with a formidable output. And Richard Barbieri was included into Porcupine Tree, one of my favourite bands to come out of my generation. Obviously Steven Wilson, a talented musician and songwriter himself, knew the importance of Japan..
May they always make waves in influencing new talent..
on 15 August 2000
Forget the dodgy New Romantic-esque album cover (sorry lads, but it's terrible), Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) is a defining-moment in Japan's history, and one of the finest albums of the early-80's. A clear successor to their excellent Quiet Life (1979) experiment in semi-synthesised, multilayered sound, GTP is both beautiful, haunting and exciting.
The lengthy, eponymous title track is a brilliant and unlikely pop record in it's own right, whilst gems such as the breakneck Methods of Dance and the beautiful piano of Nightporter (a Top 30 hit) gel themselves into a rich piece of work which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Many listener's may find the album a tad plodding upon their first inspection (especially on Burning Bridges, which is perhaps just a little 'too' downbeat), but overall there is a great mix of styles and tempos, and the production is sublime. You won't find any songs here on your latest 'Greatest 80's Album Ever' compilations, as they're too good for that......
on 5 November 2006
With "Gentlemen Take Polaroids", Sylvian guided the band into a brand new area and brought them new success. Imagine a Bowie/Eno band with late period, smooth, Ferry-like vocal inflections, and throw in plenty of mystery and style, and you get "GTP".
This is a great work, a real grower. The title track is well-paced, with Sylvian's lower, soulful vocal particularly well-suited to the material, and the rest of the album is just as inventive - the eerie synth-dominated near-instrumental of "Burning Bridges", the cold funk workout on their cover of "Ain't That Peculiar", the beautiful piano-led ballad, "Nightporter" staking out future Sylvian territory, and Jansen and Karn's work generally is excellent. One to get.
on 12 August 2001
I have listened to this album a ridiculous number of times and I just keep discovering new depths to its musical strucures. It is a masterfully crafted piece of work from a group of gifted musicians that managed to weave their individual skills into a sublime musical tapestry. I can't say that I was instantly impressed with this album the first time I heard it (about 20 years ago!), but luckily I listened to it again (and again...) and it has rewarded me in proportion to the number of times I have listened to it. Anyone that hasn't taken the time to appreciate this recording is doing themselves a dis-service: it's a classic.
on 24 June 2015
Perhaps the best album that they have produced? The rhythm section is particularly classy, with Mick Karn on prime form. Sylvian's vocals are amongst his best, and the slower, more atmospheric numbers show what a tight, and talented lot they were. Modern bands cannot come anywhere near the musical talent of bands like this, back in "the day".
on 6 June 2013
I am slowly replacing some of my really old albums with the best (cost effective) CD recording I can find. This recording of the album is fine and maybe I am a little too critical, but why can't the quality be superb these days. I listen to my CDs ripped to LAME V2 lossless format through my Sony NWZ-A845 with LOD into a FiiO E07K then into my Sony headphones. Sonically it's fine, just not as good as I expected.
The album itself is a work of art, I saw Japan countless times in the late 70's / early 80's and this album brings back such great and enjoyable times.
on 27 December 2015
One of my favourite bands ever, and one of my favourite albums of all time - I wore out two vinyl copies playing and replaying tracks like 'Swing', 'My New Career', 'Taking Islands In Africa', and the utterly sublime 'Nightporter'. The delicious complexity of their music made the whole album tremendously rewarding to listen to. This is proper music, made by people who can actually play their instruments (in the case of bassist Mick Karn, I have a feeling he could probably have got a tune out of any instrument he picked up) in a recording studio, and equally as well live: listen to the album 'Oil On Canvas' for proof of this. What I particularly enjoy about 'Gentlemen Take Polaroids' (Sylvian and Jansen did: and created art installations with them), is it's melancholy nature - "They're playing our song/Outside where no-one can hear", for example. There's an aching sadness present, even in the delicious cover of 'Aint That Peculiar', but none more so than 'Nightporter', the immediate successor to the 'Quiet Life' track 'Despair'. It's simple, and beautifully played and sung. It was suggested by the controversial Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling movie 'The Night Porter'. Japan are a band whose music I always have time for, and who were a large part of my late teenage years, and in fact, I like better as time goes on. Mick Karn's death in 2011 was very sad, and one of the few deaths of people I did not actually know to make me cry. (The other two were Frank Tovey/Fad Gadget in 2002, and John Peel in 2004). Whatever, if you have not heard this album yet, I urge you to buy it, and it's follow-up, 1981's 'Tin Drum'. You won't regret it.