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Reissue CDs Weekly: Japan | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Japan

Reissue CDs Weekly: Japan

Significant sonic upgrades of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’

The 'Tin Drum'-era Japan: "gorgeously erotic and perfectly evanescent"

In May 1981, Japan played two nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.

For NME’s Paul Morley, the high-profile shows at the prestige venue were notable as “Japan can fill two nights at the Odeon and they're not yet a hit group.” Reviewing them, he said their frontman David Sylvian “advances, dances and freezes in motion so like Ferry it's debasing, it's like he is a surgically exalted version of the original Bryan. After ten minutes of Japan’s teenybop Simple Minds material – sumptuous in parts, dank most of the time – it was time to go. Not even a piece the liquid Sylvian wrote with the Great [Ryuichi] Sakamoto had any celebrative passion.”

Morley’s indifference was counterpointed six months later when he reviewed their new album Tin Drum. “What I felt about Japan was profoundly challenged by [the single] ‘Art of Parties’, a minor classic that coherently captured the tender textures of David Sylvian's melancholy worldview and suggested that Japan's potential was unexpectedly considerable. Something had given, and some bright and grievous things had broken through.”

Japan_remastered Gentlemen Take PolaroidsMicrocosmically, this represents how Japan were seen by those weaving rock’s rich tapestry. Not cool, they were a Roxy Music rip off which had latterly come up with the goods. When Morley saw them at Hammersmith, it was on the back of the release of the Gentlemen Take Polaroids album, which hit shops in October 1980. In a re-recorded form, “The Art of Parties” was the first track on side one of their subsequent and final album, November 1981’s Tin Drum. The band split in December 1982 after a series of farewell shows. Between the two albums, they slimmed from a five- to four-piece after the departure of guitarist Rob Dean. Each album is newly reissued.

Japan did not fit in. The band had formed in 1974 as a product of glam-rock and were inclined Roxy Music-wards. Like the similarly disposed mark one Ultravox!, they plugged away with what they doing as punk came and went but unlike John Foxx’s band, they did not change their look, speed their music up or push forward musically. In 1977, as support to the faster-evolving Ultravox!, they had long hair, shiny clothes, the fey glam stance and an incongruous hard rock edge. Once the post-punk New Romantic era came around, they were given a new context.

'Tin Drum' stands as the testament to Japan’s greatness

However, with little recognition, they would develop. Before signing with Virgin, who issued Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum, they were with the German label Hansa and, for them, issued the fabulous “Life in Tokyo” single in April 1979. A collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, it was – along with Simple Minds’ October 1980 single “I Travel” – one of the pivotal British art-rock electronic-disco crossover singles. But its pioneering nature was of little consequence as they were not fashionable. In NME, Tony Parsons said “Life in Tokyo” “stinks.”

Heard now, 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids feels transitional. The cover version of "Ain't That Peculiar” is about style rather than genuinely refashioning the song and is also, indeed, too akin to Ferry’s soul covers. The album closes with "Taking Islands in Africa", a Sakamoto and Sylvian co-write which may as well have been part of a non-Japan project. The album makes its case with its first two tracks, "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" and "Swing" which are coherent, cohesive and still effective.

Tin Drum was more confident and stands as the testament to Japan’s greatness. In his review the newly converted Morley caught it, saying the album was “gleaming, glinting, transferring thought to form with unhurried lucidity. The music (un)moves with caressing precision; gorgeously erotic, perfectly evanescent. The LP is also a triumph for David Sylvian, the sensitive individual, the deep-feeling loner, his voice stricken on the tensions between confidence and gloom, whose lyrics are a questing expression of love and loss, doubt and despondency.”

Japan_remastered Tin DrumBoth albums have been endlessly reissued and anyone who wants a copy of either must already have one. These new editions are different though. They are remastered at half speed, which results in a greater range of tonal presence. When cutting an album at 331/3, allowances have to be made for the effect of bass: too much cannot be accommodated. The same applies to high-end frequencies. At half speed, more is taken on board for capturing on the final vinyl. Also, each of the new albums plays back at 45rpm with the tracks spread across two discs. Consequently, when compared to a standard pressing more sound is picked up as the record plays.

Both new editions sound extraordinary. The difference from original pressings is immediately clear. There is a wider scope, greater presence and more dynamism. The change is not about an added big-ness – knobs have not been turned to add loudness, or turn up the bass or treble. Envelopment is amplified. Tin Drum used to sound fine but now, it seems, it did not. Nonetheless, there is no right or wrong. Each album was what it was and, now, they have become something else.

The asking price for each new something else is just under £30. First pressings of Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum sell for around £10 in decent shape with the original insert or poster. For fans whose budgets can stand it, these upgrades are worth going for.

  • Next Week: Try a Little Sunshine – box set dedicated to ”The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1969”

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