March 26, 2010

Hear Again: Quiet Life.

The undulating arpeggiated synth hook counterpointing the organ, the rolling snare crescendo leading into a thunderous kick, introducing spare percussion; the roving bass motif accentuated by muted than fully sounding guitar of the opening track on Japan's third album, combine to announce an almost complete metamorphosis. As adolescents attempting to prove they could competently compose and perform their own music — a singular blend of funk, progressive and glam rock — their first two albums were straightforward, no-nonsense affairs as far as production was concerned. On Quiet Life, released thirty years ago, the band suddenly sounded like adults who'd just discovered their own, true voice.

It was to be Japan's last album for Hansa (who released the band's recordings through their collaboration with Ariola in North America and the UK). The German label — though owners of the prominent studio in West Berlin where David Bowie partially recorded his "Berlin Trilogy" — was primarily concerned with releasing schlager and disco recordings by the likes of Amii Stewart, Boney M, and Giorgio Moroder. Hansa had signed Japan as part of their 1977 venture into the UK market, and struggled with marketing the band since. Despite Japan seemingly on the cusp of becoming marginally fashionable in Europe, dismal sales of Quiet Life everywhere except Japan (the island nation) were all the incentive Hansa needed for cutting their losses. (In the nation for which the band was whimsically named, they were quite successful and remained with JVC's Victor label throughout their career.)

Critical reception was mostly negative, likely contributing to the album barely scraping into the UK top 80, dismissing Japan as a garden-variety Roxy Music. Curiously though, that band's next album, Flesh + Blood, released some six months after Quiet Life, sounded surprisingly derivative of Japan. If anything, Japan could be accused of having created the amalgam of dandy debonair rock, funk, and electronic pop that Roxy, Bowie, T. Rex et al had inspired — and which later was copied by bands with much more mainstream success.

However, the comparison wasn't entirely unfair, given that Quiet Life was produced by John Punter, co-producer of one and engineer of two Roxy Music albums, as well as that band's vocalist and principal composer Bryan Ferry's first two solo efforts. Hansa had attempted to pair Japan up with their hot producer du jour, Girogio Moroder, but the resulting single (Life in Tokyo) merely convinced everyone involved of the poor fit. The comparison could've been even more unfavourable, had Japan got their wish and engaged Chris Thomas — who'd worked with Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, and subsequently helped unleash the Sex Pistols on an unsuspecting audience. But Thomas pointed to Punter instead. With Punter unavailable at the time, the band set about recording on their own in the meantime, producing a version of Lou Reed's All Tomorrow's Parties — included on Quiet Life in an alternative version, remixed by Punter.

Eventually free from commitments, Punter brought a sophistication to Japan's increasingly eclectic soundscape, expertly shaping its complex layers, processing David Sylvian's vocals to much greater extent than before. Combined with the remarkable growth in the band members' proficiencies, as well as their confidence, the resulting album is one dominated by synthesisers and saxophones, with Mick Karn's fretless bass emerging as a lead instrument — particularly on In Vogue — and Rob Dean's masterly guitar firmly relegated to a backing role, providing slick fills, EBow drones and recurring solos. Most startling is the change of Sylvian's vocal style, from a whiny rock howl to an affected croon — which, frankly, is the only aspect of Quiet Life that occasionally sounds contrived.

In yet another parallel to Roxy Music the orchestral arrangements were provided by Ann Odell, who also scored three of Bryan Ferry's solo albums. Closely following Karn's fluid, languidly uncoiling bass lines, the strings — performed by the Martyn Ford Orchestra — and Karn's elegant woodwind arrangements considerably expanded Japan's compositional style, with Fall In Love With Me practically the sole reminder of their previous, more coarse fusion of rock and funk. A contrasting example is Halloween, the track that rips open the album's second side. Another inimitable, smart bass line vies for the melody with the sax, over a backing of slow guitar strums with quick fills, and soaring — practically roaring — synths. With this track, Japan established a template for the next wave of "new romantic" pop and rock that would dominate the popular charts during the following years.

Why the band's management and label didn't consider Halloween - or even the slightly more angular yet measured Alien - for a single is difficult to grasp in hindsight. But mainstream labels (and managers) are frequently reticent to take chances on pioneering musical efforts, and much more comfortable encouraging relentless re-recordings of proven hits. Hence in Europe, the album was promoted by a competent yet unengaged cover of Al Cleveland's and Smokey Robinson's I Second That Emotion, a million-selling hit for The Miracles in 1967.

That said, the slick version of All Tomorrow's Parties, ultimately points toward the band's true sources of inspiration. Despite the superficial, Eurocentric dandyism with which Japan came to be associated, the band was far more inspired by the alternative New York scene of the late sixties and early seventies than anyone suspected at the time — something perfectly evident to anyone perceptive enough to discern David Sylvian's attempts to emulate the look of Andy Warhol.

Japan's version of All Tomorrow's Parties is also notable for containing the only appearance of Mick Karn's violin in the band's back catalogue. Despite the similarity of a violin's neck to that of a fretless bass (of which Karn is an undisputed master) he'd spent two years of elementary school vainly trying to master the instrument, before moving on to the bassoon. The harsh scratches heard on Quiet Life perhaps a tad more cathartic than anyone suspected.

A touch of Europe had previously been present in Sylvian's lyrics, but only began to seep into Japan's music on their second album, 1978's Obscure Alternatives — particularly in that album's closer, The Tenant. An instrumental inspired by Roman Polański's 1976 film Le locataire, it revolved around a minimal motif somewhat reminiscent of modernist Érik Satie. This seeming fascination with Satie developed a step further on Quiet Life with Despair, a largely instrumental track also indebted to the wistful compositions of Ryūichi Sakamoto. Its brief French lyric — more English than French in its description of affected "artistes" — likely another nod toward Roxy Music, who "legitimised" British working class lads striking out of their monolingual culture in favour of a pan-European, cosmopolitan identity with their 1973 recording A Song for Europe.

The album's lyrics generally point to Roxy's Bryan Ferry as an influence, with their brief remarks on weather dispersed among various allusions to impending withdrawal into obscurity — a possibility which, despite Japan's success in Japan (the island nation), loomed large on the band's horizon practically throughout their entire career together. In fact, the overarching theme on Quiet Life seems to be one of slipping back into ordinary life, merely being "one of the boys again", its "Trans-European" refugees drifting across a backdrop of urban (Amsterdam, Berlin, New York) as well as distant, desolate destinations (Siberia, Texas) rather than locales traditionally considered tropic, exotic, and romantic.

Though allegedly conceived as a travelogue, Quiet Life is more a record of migration than tourism, the lyrics mostly concerned with David Sylvian's personal development and change of heart. Having already secured complete official authorship of the band's collective output (a move greatly encouraged by the band's management), despite the fact that his basic compositions relied heavily on arrangements created by the band — on Quiet Life particularly Richard Barbieri's imaginative use of synthesisers, and the rhythm tracks laid down by Mick Karn with drummer Steve Jansen — Sylvian's emergence as Japan's focal point was made crystal clear on the album's sleeve.

“... you're one of the boys again,
but is that all you want to be?

Now that you feel the weather,
was it all in vain?
Now that we're together,
we seem so alien.”

Fin Costello's portraits of the band, shot through a pane of clear glass as though outside looking in, not only strengthen the notion of dispossessed outsiders, languishing behind an invisible barrier, but also seem to suggest a crackling in the band's previously unified line-up. Having appeared alongside each other on their two previous albums, Sylvian has the front of Quiet Life to himself while Mick Karn, his former close friend and co-founder of the band, is relegated to the back. The original gatefold sleeve placed the remaining trio in the middle, almost symbolically between the increasingly antagonistic antipodes. (Later single sleeve re-issues of the album dispensed with the image of Barbieri, Dean, and Jansen altogether.)

With the exception of All Tomorrow's Parties, the album was recorded at legendary producer and Beatles éminence grise George Martin's and his partner John Burgess' AIR studios, which at the time still occupied their central London location on Oxford Circus. There, Japan rubbed shoulders with the likes of Michael Jackson, Elton John, Kate Bush, and Paul McCartney - the latter two of whom eavesdropped at the door to find out what the south London quintet was up to.

Among the tracks recorded at the time, that didn't make it onto the final version of the album, European Son (related to the Velvet Underground track in title only) and the instrumental A Foreign Place are particularly worth tracking down. The former, composed in 1978 and apparently inspired by the band's first visit to North America, at one point supposedly considered as a title track for the album (it's lyric containing the first mention of a "quiet life"). The latter a precursor of the fascination with "Oriental" sounds that would soon flourish not only among the recordings of Japan's followers and imitators, but also some of the artists who inspired the band — like Roxy Music and David Bowie.

Once Japan had become the toast of the town, Hansa likely recognised their mistake in letting the band go and attempted to recuperate their losses be re-releasing a string of singles (and a compilation, Assemblage) with which the band appeared to have little involvement. A re-issued Quiet Life became Japan's first UK top 20 single, reaching #19 in October 1981; an alternative version of European Son reached #31 in January 1982; I Second That Emotion reached #9 in July 1982; while yet another alternative version of All Tomorrow's Parties was issued as Japan's last single, reaching #38 in March 1983 — some three months after the band had officially performed together for the last time. The Quiet Life album itself was eventually certified "Gold" in March 1984, having sold in excess of 100,000 copies in the UK alone.

Mostly influenced by David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls, Japan had been hopelessly at odds with the fads raging in Britain. Quiet Life positioned them ahead of the curve, serving as a major influence on the emerging pop bands of the time. Duran Duran in particular, having unsuccessfully lobbied for a member of Japan to produce their 1981 debut, interpolated large chunks of Quiet Life on their 1982 album Rio — most notably on that album's title track. Though the running order of Quiet Life may at one point have been quite different, the eight tracks ultimately included, bookended by the title track and the resplendent orchestral ballad The Other Side of Life, provides a measured, dynamic experience — regardless of novelty — given what could've been a very quiet and languid album indeed.

With additional research by Mathias Luthi.

March 21, 2010

World Water Day.

March 22 is World Water Day, designated by the UN in 1993 to highlight the critical lack of safe, clean, easily accessible drinking water worldwide. Perhaps not yet a huge concern to those of us lucky enough to inhabit a part of the world where "designer" bottled water with no health benefits whatsoever abounds. But it's a different story in the rest of the world, where entire societies live with acute public health threats because their inhabitants are at times forced to drink water from drains.

Not that the problem is confined to a particular region of the world — overpopulation, misuse, and pollution are rapidly turning scarcity of water into a problem for all of us. The availability of drinking water is inadequate and shrinking, poising access to water as the next great source of global conflict. In 2001, the first UN World Water Development Report indicated that the quantity of water available to everyone would decrease 30% by 2020. With over 70% of the world's freshwater used in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production, more than trendy water bottles and swimming pools are at stake.

Water is a fundamental requirement for all known organisms on our planet; plants, fungi, micro-organisms, and animals (which mean us, humans) need it to stay alive. According the World Health Organization, each human being requires at least 20 litres of fresh water every day. Yet some 900 million people (almost 13% of the world's population) lack access to safe drinking water. Lack of clean water - essential to the treatment of diseases - coupled with lack of basic sanitation and hygiene education, is one of the largest obstacles to global progress and development.

Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from waterborne diseases. In much of the so called "developing" world, 90% of all wastewater enters local rivers and streams untreated, leaving over 2.6 billion people (almost 40% of the world's population) without access to adequate sanitation. All while a single flush of a toilet in the "developed" world consumes as much water as one person in a "developing" country uses to drink, wash, cook, and clean in one day.

Waterborne diseases are the world's leading cause of death, killing 6.000 people every day, two-thirds of them children. In a world of unprecedented wealth, a child dies roughly every twenty seconds from a disease that could've been prevented by something as basic, and comparatively inexpensive, as proper sanitation. Out of the 2.2 million deaths in 2004 caused by unsafe drinking water (4.1% of the total global disease burden), 90% were children under the age of five.

An estimated 443 million school days are lost each year because waterborne diseases keep children out of school, or affect their ability to learn when they attend. Poor health resulting from inadequate water and sanitation doesn't merely rob children of an education, but also impacts the earning power of adults. The costs associated with disease and productivity losses caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation amounts to 5% of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa alone – more than that region receives in aid.

Women and girls are particularly affected, as they are usually the ones responsible for collecting enough water for drinking, cooking, and basic hygiene. The daily chore of hauling heavy water containers from a distant source, further prevents women and children from pursuing an education or earning additional income. Some 40 billion hours are expended annually hauling water around – on average for three hours each day – equalling over 19 million full-time employees.

As water isn't a finite resource the actual amount that exists on Earth isn't the problem, but rather its distribution for drinking, sanitation, irrigation, industry, and energy generation. Since 1990, 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe sources of water, with the proportion of people in the "developing" world with access to safe water increasing from 30% in 1970 to 71% in 1990, 79% in 2000 and 84% in 2004. If this trend continues, the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 will likely be achieved in most regions (except Sub-Saharan Africa).

Because of the suffering, increased poverty, high child mortality rates, low levels of education, and political instability that lack of safe water sources contributes to, the urgency cannot be overstated. Even if the 2015 goal is achieved, almost 900 million people will still be left without water, while over 76 million people will have perished from waterborne diseases by 2020. Unless major changes occur, waterborne diseases could by then have killed as many people as the AIDS pandemic. In 2006, a UN report stated that "there is enough water for everyone" but access to it is hampered by incompetence and corruption.

Add to that the attempts to privatise water resources and companies by the unwashed neoliberal bastards at the IMF and the World Bank. Currently, more than 90% of the world’s water and sanitation systems are publicly owned and operated, with a mere 9% (or the services of roughly 545 million people in 2004) being operated privately. But the 142% increase in profit that followed the 1989 water privatisation in England and Wales has wet the appetite of the world's most short-sighted and unconscionable "business people", who have no scruples about giant multinational corporations controlling the necessities of life.

They conveniently ignore how in the England and Wales example, profits were valued over service, expensive centralised projects were undertaken at the expense and exclusion of smaller, decentralised projects (like wells, or rain water collection), tariffs were increased by 46% in the years that followed, and that quality and supply declined while much of the infrastructure was left to decay. As long as they can place a pricetag on every single object in the known universe, nothing else matters.

So, participate in events this coming World Water Day, take some time to consider where that stuff pouring out of your tap – or your fresh and trendy bottle – originates, how much you pay for it and to whom, and how you use your share of our water.

Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on March 20, 2009.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin