David Sylvain of Japan

David Sylvain of Japan - Gender-bending as high art.

Japan In Concert – Leiden City Hall, Netherlands – 1982 – Past Daily Soundbooth

David Sylvain of Japan
David Sylvain of Japan – Gender-bending as high art.

Japan – in concert at City Hall, Leiden, The Netherlands – October 7, 1982 – VPRO, Hilversum –

Japan in concert tonight. Recorded at Leiden City Hall in the Netherlands on October 7, 1982 and broadcast by VPRO.

The band began as a group of friends in the early 1970s. Brothers David Sylvian (guitar and vocals) and Steve Jansen (drums), and bassist Mick Karn studied at the same school, Catford Boys’, Brownhill Road, South London. As youngsters they played Sylvian’s two-chord numbers mainly as a means of escape; initially with Karn on lead vocals and Sylvian on guitar and backing vocals, Sylvian became lead vocalist in 1974. In June 1974 they made their first public performance at Karn’s brother’s wedding reception.

The band, who were initially nameless, opted to call themselves Japan. The name was intended by Sylvian to be temporary until they could think of something else, but ultimately became permanent. The following year they were joined by another school friend Richard Barbieri on keyboards and later by lead guitarist Rob Dean, and signed a management deal with Simon Napier-Bell in 1976. After winning a label-sponsored talent contest the band signed a recording contract with the German disco label Hansa-Ariola in 1977, becoming an alternative glam rock outfit in the mould of Lou Reed, David Bowie, T.Rex, Roxy Music, and New York Dolls although their initial material was guitar-based funk.

Shortly after signing the record deal Sylvian, Jansen and Karn adopted their stage names. Initially, the record company was horrified by the apparent similarity of Sylvian’s and Jansen’s names to the names of band members of The New York Dolls, but eventually accepted the name changes. In 1977 the band embarked on their first recording session for the record company with producer Ray Singer and performed as support band for Jim Capaldi and the Contenders on a UK tour.

In March 1978 the band released their first single, a cover version of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” followed a month later by their debut album Adolescent Sex. Advertising campaigns that focused on the band’s androgynous glam rock image failed to attract much interest for the band in the UK but was more successful in Japan where the band attracted a considerable fan following before a record had been released.

The debut album was followed by a UK tour supporting Blue Öyster Cult. Intended to promote the album Japan faced negative criticism and hostile audiences. The album itself sold poorly and in August 1978 their second single “The Unconventional” failed to chart. In November the band also made a short US tour, but although they were better accepted by American audiences it proved to be their last and only US tour. The follow-up album Obscure Alternatives showed musical progress and particularly the last track “The Tenant” – which has been described as a fusion of Low-era David Bowie and the piano works of Erik Satie – was a hint of the band’s future, but again the album was a commercial and critical flop.

Though influenced by artists such as Lou Reed, T. Rex, New York Dolls, Roxy Music and David Bowie, both albums were widely dismissed by the UK music press as being distinctly outmoded at a time when punk and new wave bands were in ascendance. Both albums, produced by Ray Singer, however sold well in Japan and the Netherlands, where the single “Adolescent Sex” was a Top 30 hit. They also gained some popularity in Canada. But in their native UK, those albums failed to garner public attention and did not chart.

While unsuccessful in their home country the band gained a huge popularity in Japan. In March 1979 they made their first visit to the country and sold out the 11,000 seat capacity Budokan Theatre three days in a row.

The band decided to split just as they were beginning to achieve major commercial success both in the UK and internationally, with Oil on Canvas becoming their highest charting UK album, reaching No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart, a rare feat for a live album. By this time, the band’s back catalogue had begun to sell steadily and both Hansa-Ariola and Virgin Records continued to release Japan singles into 1983, ultimately earning the band a total of nine Top 40 hits in the UK. In summer 1982 a Hansa re-release of “I Second That Emotion” became Japan’s second Top 10 hit, reaching number 9. A remixed version of “Life in Tokyo” and a Virgin Records release of “Nightporter” were subsequently both Top 30 hits on the UK Singles Chart.

In case you missed them the first time around, here’s a chance to listen to what you missed in 1982 during one of their wildly successful tours of the European continent.

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