Japan – A Foreign Place – The Biography (1974-1984) is a new in-depth look at one of the most influential (and often neglected) bands of the late 70s / early 80s.
Published exclusively by Burning Shed in deluxe hardback edition, the book features contributions from former band members Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean, with archive material from David Sylvian (who did not contribute directly to the book) and the late Mick Karn.
Anthony Reynolds 212 page book starts with the early years of the band, and provides a fascinating insight into the musicians formative years in South-East London (Catford and Lewisham).
Along with the obvious 70s musical and cultural starting points, such as Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed and Roxy Music, other surprising influences such as Motown and New York’s Television crop up as feeding into the mix of what was to become Japan.
The influence of Simon Napier-Bell and the lack of money making its way to the band, even during their most successful Tin Drum period, is well-documented in the book. In these days of a reduced and weakened music industry, you often hear about the golden era of the 70s and 80s when artists sold millions of albums, so its easy to forget that not everyone reaped the financial rewards during this bygone era.
The most interesting part of the book for me was the pre-fame years – especially stories about the early gigs, where Japan shared the stage with acts as diverse as Blue Öyster Cult and The Damned. The often negative audience reaction seemed to give the band the strength to ride the criticism that was to come their way over the next few years.
As well as talking to the band members, Anthony Reynolds also gives a voice to key-collaborators such as guitarist David Rhodes, along with school teachers and friends of the band. This helps to frame the time-scale of the story, as the band moved from being a guitar-heavy, new wave inspired band to the more electronic, layered experimental outfit that eventually found chart success and critical acclaim.
The Tin Drum album and the farewell tour are covered in depth in the book. Listening today to the bands most famous song Ghosts reinforces that its as moving now as it was when originally released all those years ago – late 1981 to be precise. The songs stark arrangement has certainly helped the song age gracefully.
The role of producers – particularly John Punter and Steve Nye (who worked with David Sylvian on several of his post-Japan solo albums) is explored and the sections on the recording of the later albums makes for fascinating reading.
Some awkward moments are also touched on in the book – including the falling out between Karn and Sylvian that led to the band’s disintegration, and the Gary Numan misunderstanding on a Japanese tour.
Reading Japan – A Foreign Place made me listen again to the bands catalogue with renewed enthusiasm. I rediscovered songs that had passed me by at the time, such as Fall In Love With Me and Alien. I also fell back in love with the Tin Drum album, especially the percussion work of Steve Jansen (Visions of China has such a unique drum pattern).
Japan – A Foreign Place is well-paced, and clearly written by a fellow musician who is a lifelong fan. The words and (many) pictures give a flavour of the various stages in the bands short but colourful career. It is also pretty fair in the amount of time devoted to individual members – its not the David Sylvian story, and its good to hear more about the contribution and personalities of Richard Barbieri, Steve Jansen and Rob Dean.
My only criticism is that the period covered by the book ends in 1984. I would have liked to have read about Rain Tree Crow, the post-Japan collaboration from 1991 that remains one of my favourite 90s albums, and is a period that is not really well-documented. Also, because of the timescale, there was no opportunity to discuss the time Jansen, Barbieri and Karn spent working with no-man in 1992. Maybe Anthony Reynolds will consider writing a post-Japan book?
Ok, I’m off to listen to Quiet Life and Tin Drum, followed by Gary Numan’s Mick Karn infused Dance. Why don’t you join me?
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