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1980: Gentlemen Take Polaroids
They fall in love, they fall in love
Strange how potent cheap music can be. Like a whiff of Blue Stratos on the night air, all it takes is a few bars of a chirpy novelty hit and there we are, forty years ago, dripping extruded ice cream product on the vinyl seats of a Morris Marina while the rain falls on a pebbled beach. Year by year, these are the songs that have soundtracked our lives.
Japan’s 1980 album Gentlemen Take Polaroids, track by track.
1. Gentlemen Take Polaroids
I was, as a kid, deeply confused about the relationship between Japan the band and Japan the country. They don’t look Japanese, but surely you couldn’t just go around naming your band after someone else’s country. Do they have some kind of official sponsorship? A note from the Emperor? But they are at least massively popular in Japan; much more so than they were in the UK, to begin with. So maybe I could let them off.
Japan started out as a cross between New York Dolls and Roxy Music, but a combination of working with Giorgio Moroder on their single ‘Life in Tokyo’ and rubbing shoulders with pioneering musicians like The Yellow Magic Orchestra took them towards a much more interesting, novel sound. By the time they get to Gentlemen Take Polaroids, which was to be their penultimate studio album, their sound has become increasingly experimental: a weird meld of funk, electronic, world and European pop.
Take the opening track, the eponymous ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’. Somewhere underneath is a conventional pop song, but David Sylvian’s extraordinary sad, mellifluous voice catches you by surprise; Steve Jansen’s intricate drumming and Mick Karn’s melodic bass complicate it, pushing it off kilter, giving it a strange, unfamiliar edge.
1980 is a pretty good year for records. The actual pop charts are still very ‘70s, dominated by disco and mainstream new wave, but there’s also the nascent goth of The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds, Siouxsie’s Kaleidoscope and Bauhaus’s In The Flat Field; let’s throw in Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles, too. Punk is still going strong with X’s superb Los Angeles, The Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Birthday Party’s eponymous record, The Cramps’ Songs The Lord Taught Us and The Fall’s Grotesque. There are some ‘80s-defining releases like Adam and The Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier and David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. But what Gentlemen Take Polaroids reminds me of most are Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and The Residents’ Commercial Album.
Remain in Light is Talking Heads’ last collaboration with Brian Eno, folding Afrobeat into their New York City collage of disco, punk, new wave, hip hop and funk; a sound that is both inescapably art school metropolitan and global pop. It’s also brilliant. Remarkable as Steve Jansen and Mick Karn are as a rhythm section, there’s no one better than Weymouth and Frantz.
The Commercial Album, on the other hand, is one of the most frightening records I have ever listened to, a record I remain both awestruck by and terrified of. The Residents are a shadowy art collective, their faces hidden by the giant eyeballs they wear on their heads. The Commercial Album is 40 tracks long, all exactly one minute in duration. 40 tiny stabs of industrial electronic and distorted alien voices. It is, in other words, resolutely uncommercial, a cargo cult version of popular music; pop made by an artificial intelligence, a non-human art.
3. Burning Bridges
Remain in Light, The Commercial Album and Gentlemen Take Polaroids are all examples of music for an increasingly globalised and electronic moment, as the world shrinks under a tightening digital net. They look forward to a distinctly ‘80s future, which is both hopeful in its vision of an urban interconnectedness and dystopian in its environmental and psychological fallout. You could imagine ‘Burning Bridges’ taking a place among the epic synth washes of Vangelis’s Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack, or the music for Japanese anime like Akira (1988). It is, in many ways, cyberpunk music.
The term ‘cyberpunk’ first appeared in 1980 in the title of a short story by Bruce Bethke, but it came to refer to a whole movement in ‘80s sci-fi: stories set in a digital future where the virtual has edged out the real, and alienated characters struggle to survive in dystopian megacities, like William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. What’s neat about this is that cyberpunk - which was deeply influenced by the postwar Japanese economic miracle - envisioned a future shaped by Japanese cultural and corporate power. As the name for a band ‘Japan’ slotted into a specific ‘80s zeitgeist, as did their embrace of Japanese style and musicality.
4. My New Career
I doubt Japan ever thought of themselves as ‘cyberpunk’; they certainly didn’t think of themselves as New Romantics, of whom Sylvian said: ‘For them, fancy dress is a costume. But ours is a way of life. We look and dress this way every day.’ But, as that quote illustrates, Japan had one thing in common with the New Romantics: they were very, very pretentious indeed. (The cover of Tin Drum - an album named for Gunther Grass’s classic satire of fascism - shows Sylvian is sitting in a mock Chinese setting, eating rice under a peeling portrait of Mao.)
Right from the beginning, when Catford brothers David and Stephen Batt rechristened themselves David Sylvian and Steve Jansen, they were pretending to be something else (in this case, Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen of The New York Dolls.) But pretending is practising. Pretending is trying. Without pretension you’re stuck with the same orthodoxies, the same approaches and outcomes. Pretension offers something you haven’t thought of yet, which can be dynamite for an impressionable young music fan.
Of course, it also leads to you dressing like a complete prat, but this was London in ‘80s; lots of people were dressing like complete prats. And lots of people were pointing and laughing at them.
5. Methods of Dance
Gentlemen Take Polaroids is a very London-in-the-‘80s record. A night-time ‘80s London, in fact. The cover appears to show lead singer David Sylvian caught in a rainstorm at night, in full Blitz Club make-up and black leather raincoat. On ‘Methods of Dance’, Steve Jansen’s polyrhythmic drumming rattles like trains and crates and gates, Mick Karn’s bass slides and growls like traffic, and Richard Barbieri’s keyboards glisten like neon reflected in rain-slicked streets. This is the sort of vision of metropolitan night-life for which every suburban adolescent yearns.
6. Ain’t That Peculiar
And they did yearn. It’s easy to forget that Japan were actually popular. It helped that they were all spectacularly beautiful young men; they graced the cover of Smash Hits several times and many were genuinely shocked when they split in 1982 on the verge, it seemed, of proper fame.
Japan’s weird pop music didn’t sound quite so weird in the context of some of the other things in the charts. ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ - an appropriately odd setting of a Marvin Gaye track - is of a piece with Soft Cell’s re-invention of ‘Tainted Love’. Electronic bands were reaching back to soul and funk to distinguish themselves from ‘70s punk and rock and establish themselves in a new pop tradition. The melding of glam stylings, punk do-it-yourself attitude and electronica felt like a new sound for a new decade.
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The first single room I had at boarding school was on the third floor of a Victorian house on top of a hill that looked west over Metroland suburbs, across the serried streets of Ruislip and Ickenham to the distant Chilterns. As the year lengthened the sun would take a long time to die, the sky deepening purple, the last blaze flickering an inscrutable Morse off the windows of a disappearing train. The light would thicken, becoming grainy, the dusk visibly collecting under trees and in unlit rooms. Directly below my window, in the housemaster’s garden, there was a may tree, and the blooms would hoard the light, glowing in the twilight with an ice-cream whiteness.
On those long evenings, when I was supposed to be doing ‘prep’, I would, instead, sit in my darkening room, watching the night unfold across the London suburbs and listening to music. And the music I listened to was, invariably, Gentlemen Take Polaroids. Japan’s aching, self-consciously romantic reworking of Satie in ‘Nightporter’ is the perfect soundtrack for a dimming summer evening, as streetlights flick on down distant streets and the city disappears into darkness.
I was a dark, melancholic youth; my suburban, muscularly Christian boarding school was very much not where I wanted to be. Gentleman Take Polaroids offered an alternative world; a sophisticated, international world, a place where lonely, sensitive young men wandered city streets, thinking big, inchoate thoughts and enduring big, inchoate sorrows. It offered a vision of a kind of young adulthood just about to roll in, like the night, full of promise and strangeness.
8. Taking Islands in Africa
I’m not quite so dark and melancholic these days, but I’m back in the suburbs. The sun has set over the semis and I’m sitting in my shed listening to Japan, and still nothing else sounds so much like night-time London, with all its lure and horror and mystery, as Gentlemen Take Polaroids.
Actually, nothing else sounds like it at all. Japan were an evolutionary dead end: no one was influenced by them, no one has tried to revive them. (When they briefly reunited in the late ‘80s they adopted the name ‘Rain Tree Crow’ rather than have to be themselves again.) Marooned on this insulated Madagascar of pop, they have avoided all nostalgic associations and genre hang-ups. I discovered them in the mid-‘80s, after they had split up, but they didn’t sound dated then, and they don’t sound dated now. Their music may conjure an image of a fantasy ‘80s, but it remains extraordinary and unexpected, full of promise and aching with a nostalgia for a future that will ever recede into the west, golden in the setting sun:
Outside there's a world waiting
I'll take it all by storm
And when the sunset finds me
I'm coming home
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