In 2024, it's 40 years since I first started buying records properly, so it seems as good a time as any to look back at the records that really shaped my tastes, such as they are. And as Moz said, "don't forget the songs that made you cry and the songs that saved your life..".
This blog focuses on an unexpected reunion between two ex-members of Japan, the glam-rockers, turned arty-New Romantics (though Japan would baulk at being associated with that particular oeuvre). Long-simmering differences among the band members came to a head in 1982, when bass player Mick Karn's girlfriend, photographer Yuka Fujii, moved in with singer and frontman David Sylvian. There was a tour to say goodbye, but the band split just as they were beginning to achieve major commercial success both in the UK and overseas,
Between 1982 and 1987, Sylvian released collaborations with the Yellow Magic Orchestra's Ryuichi Sakamoto, including the magnificent Forbidden Colours, plus two well received solo albums, and one album of instrumentals.
His new style was far more experimental. collaborating with Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, BJ Cole, Holger Czukay, Danny Thompson, to name a few. These stars of jazz, folk, Krautrock and more were a far cry from the new romantic and glam-rock roots of Japan. This was grown up, wilfully obscure music...then in early 1987, Buoy came out.
I was aware of Japan, but Sylvian's solo debut single Red Guitar (if you ignore the previous collaborations with Sakamoto) was my actual starting point. It was on Now That's What I Call Music Vol 3 (it completely blows my mind that songs like this made it to the Now series!). Looking back, it was a pretty odd and mature starting point.
I quickly went back and acquired Japan's Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids albums. Japan, along with Sylvian and Karn, became one of my earliest musical obsessions. Soon, my pocket money and the money I picked up caddying was blown buying the other albums by Japan, Dali's Car (Mick's collaboration with Peter Murphy from Bauhaus) and anything related I could find. The first two Japan albums were acquired on one of those cassettes with two albums on them - great value and a good job, as the first two Japan albums are pretty ropey attempts at glam rock punk. I remember being a bit baffled by them, and now find them pretty unlistenable).
But the songs of Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids were amazing. New Romantics (sorry David, but you were really), but slinky, arty, very cool. I found Sylvian's other music harder to click with, but I still love his first three solo albums proper (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive). Across them all, there were guest appearances by Japan's drummer Steve Jansen (also Sylvian's brother) and their keyboard player, Richard Barbieri, but never Karn. Their split was too acrimonious, too personal.
And then out of nowhere in early 1987, my copy of Smash Hits had an advert for a new single by Mick Karn, featuring David Sylvian. I was just in the process of graduating to NME, but Smash Hits was my first real source of musical information (and it was great fun).
It was a massive surprise to see their two names linked to the same song. It seemed their painful history had faded like the polaroids they championed previously. I headed down to Dartford's Our Price record shop and couldn't find it anywhere. I had to ask the guy behind the counter if they had a copy. He dug one out, whilst glaring at my 16 year old self (to be fair, probably glaring at my terrible hair, bleached at the front, a la Sylvian in 1981 - my ongoing obsession with copying pop star's hair continued...).
As he took my £1.99 for the 12 inch single, he asked was this for me? I said yes, and he smiled and said that was cool, I had great taste. I was a young 16, lacking the guidance or approval of an older sibling, so I was chuffed to bits. I headed home and played it on repeat. It was jazz-pop, Karn's fretless bass to the fore, his saxophone riff burying itself in my head. I studied the back cover of the single for the credits - Japan drummer Jansen was also playing, though sadly no Barbieri. But this was as near to new Japan material as I could have ever hoped for.
I went into school, and my new, hip taste in music still did not sit well with the cool kids - my sartorial taste and standing at school lagged somewhat behind my musical progression. But I was cornered by a few of them to be asked about the single (remember, no Spotify in those days, no internet and Mick Karn was not high on radio playlists - no one had heard it). A guy called Nick Huntley grilled me about the song - how much like Japan was the song? What did it sound like? I explained as best I could - it was hypnotic, the bass sounded like it was being played backwards, it was like Japan, but really it was more like something off Brilliant Trees. Assured it was good, Nick trotted off, as did his associates. I didn't get mocked, they just took my opinion and headed off to buy it.
Buoy was one of those moments when my little insecure self felt validated - a grown up had said I was cool and my peers didn't take the piss out of me as they grilled me for my views on music.
I still love it and still think it's amazing. Japan did reform, though not under that moniker - the band, at Sylvian's insistence, made one album as Rain Tree Crow, which was good, but not great. Nothing as good as Buoy. Sylvian's later albums left me behind - too arty, too experimental, at times unlistenable (though nothing like those first two dreadful Japan albums).
He made an album as Nine Horses with his brother Steve in 2005, which was jazzy and languid and cool - that was the last time I really loved him. I went and saw him with my friend Nikki (who has eternal cool to me, as she saw Japan on their farewell tour). Sylvian was great, though played songs I didn't recognise for most of the show. But it was good, and he played Japan's Ghosts, which was amazing.
I sold most of my vinyl in the 1990s, and the few records I kept hold of disappeared in a house move in 2005. One of the records that had been kept was Buoy, and I wish I still had it, though I have just ordered a 7 inch single for a couple of quid from eBay. I look forward to spinning it again soon. And I will think of the nice man at Our Price, who made my day.
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