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.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Blog Widget by LinkWithin