At the end of 1979, David Sylvian’s arty crew was born anew
The closest comparison to Japan’s wild transformation on 1979’s Quiet Life might be Jerry Lewis’s chemically induced evolution from lab coat-clad geek to slick-haired hipster in 1963’s The Nutty Professor.
Like Lewis’s Professor Kelp, the original incarnation of Japan was an unfashionable entity that could scarcely catch a break. But by adopting a drastically different identity, they became the epitome of all that was cool and forward-looking on the British music scene.
On their first two albums, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives (both released in 1978), Japan trotted out an awkward, abrasive update of the Bowie/Roxy glam rock template that was all the rage five years earlier, occasionally detouring into funk and reggae rhythms that didn’t do the band any further favors. During this period, suffice it to say Japan was unencumbered by the trappings of fame. The only place the band was embraced at the time was, in fact, in Japan, for no discernible reason beyond, perhaps, a hyperactive sense of national pride. But in 1979, everything changed.
VIDEO: Japan “Life In Tokyo”
The unexpected catalyst was Eurodisco godhead Giorgio Moroder, who had similarly affected the fortunes of Donna Summer a few years earlier with his production skills and electronic expertise. In April of ’79, Japan released the non-LP single “Life in Tokyo,” produced and co-written by Moroder. Apparently the Italian icon was able to provide the sonic cocoon the band required to evolve from a glam-damaged caterpillar into a gorgeously multicolored, airborne creature.
“Life in Tokyo” wasn’t a hit right away (that wouldn’t happen till it was reissued a couple of years later, in the wake of Japan’s U.K. fame). But it busted the band out into a whole new world. Gone were the guttural guitar riffs and frenzied yowling. In their place was a sleek, nuanced, danceable sound, filled with Moroder’s trademark Eurodisco electronics, bassist Mick Karn’s newly angular fretless (and funky) swoops and slurs, and David Sylvian’s purring baritone croon.
Though Japan didn’t enlist Moroder as the producer of their third album, Quiet Life, they capitalized on the lessons they learned during their brief time with him. Finally they were able to channel their Bowie and Roxy influences into a sound that wore them well, achieving the sophisticated archness of the latter’s more urbane moments and the funky experimentalism of the former’s late-’70s Berlin period.
But they didn’t stop there. On top of that foundation, they piled all manner of new elements. Keyboardist Richard Barbieri began exploring exotic new vistas with his synthesizer textures. Karn continued refining his distinctively aqueous style on fretless bass to simultaneously propel and color the arrangements, as well as adding his sleek saxophone licks to the mix. Sylvian’s brother, drummer Steve Jansen (their family name is actually Batt), committed himself to groove-minded beats and experimented with polyrhythmic syncopation. And Sylvian fashioned himself as the Bowie/Bryan Ferry for a new era, investigating his lower register further and approaching his vocals with an almost painterly feel.
Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, with Quiet Life, Japan were setting themselves up as the progenitors of the New Romantic movement that would dominate the early-’80s U.K. pop scene. For instance, the title track that opens the album is a clear-cut blueprint for the sound that would make millions of teens swoon when Duran Duran adopted it as their own a little over a year later. At the time of Quiet Life‘s release, even Ultravox — generally regarded as the big daddies of New Romantic — still had one foot in their John Foxx-fronted post-punk phase, before shifting gears with Foxx’s replacement Midge Ure on 1980’s game-changing Vienna.
VIDEO: Japan “Quiet Life”
Ever the singular sorts, Japan would ultimately reject the New Romantic tag themselves. But without Quiet Life, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Classix Nouveaux, et al (and by extension, British pop as a whole) might have gone down a distinctly different path. In 1979, though, they had the space all to themselves, so much so that Quiet Life didn’t really do much commercially until after Japan broke through with 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids.
But even though Japan would continue to develop and refine their sound over their next couple of records, especially in terms of the Asian flavor they’d soon incorporate, all the basic elements of their template were fully in place here. From the way Rob Dean’s Robert Fripp-like guitar crashes against Karn’s burbling bass lines on the bustling “Fall in Love With Me” to the artful deployment of languid sax and piano atop a minimalist electronic rhythm on the reflective, nearly instrumental “Despair,” Quiet Life is the sound of a band discovering itself and gamely exploring every corner of its capabilities.
AUDIO: Japan “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
Even when Japan casts a glance in the rearview mirror by covering the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” they invest the song with such a strikingly au courant sound that it could conceivably be mistaken for one of their own. In fact, the first single released in conjunction with the album was, for whatever reason, a similarly transformative, non-LP cover of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “I Second That Emotion.” “Quiet Life” was tacked on as the flip side, but both tunes met with apathy from a public not yet primed for such sounds. It wasn’t until 1981 that a re-released “Quiet Life” — this time unencumbered by postmodern soul moves — became Japan’s first visit to the U.K. Top 40.
Even if nobody else had ever followed Quiet Life‘s lead and Japan’s name never inspired anything but confused glances from their countrymen, the album would still have been a supreme sonic delicacy unto itself, and it remains one four decades later. Take a warm bath in Karn’s bass lines on “In Vogue.” Wrap yourself up in Sylvian’s velvet murmur on “The Other Side of Life.” And hear what happens when a pack of underdogs trade their bark for a deep, delicious bite.
VIDEO: Japan In Concert 1979-1980