Japan on tour in Japan 1980 by Alan Lewis
Originally published as "The Japan Syndrome" in Sounds April 19,1980. Photographs by Hiro Ohino, Koh Hasebe, Midori Tsukagoshi and the group.
I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so . . . I mean, this is weird, sitting here surrounded by 10,000 screaming girls, all aged about 15 or 16 and all of them, in the semi-darkness, looking mouth-wateringly cute with their uniformly , black hair and dark eyes racial purity being a big thing in Japan. "David-San! . . Lich! . . . Lob! . . .Meek! . . . Steve! . . . the desperate screams, the outstretched arms, the binoculars, the blizzard of paper streamers, are all for David Sylvian, Richard Barbieri, Rob Dean, Mick Karn and Steve Jansen . . . five tiny figures in the vastness of the Budokan, Tokyo's legendary 'Live At . . . venue. Nobody in Britain has seen anything like this since the Osmonds/Rollers heyday. But here's the really strange thing: the music being played is a million miles from teenybop. It's haunting, disturbing, frustrated sex, tortured emotions and urban paranoia. A thinking man's band that brings out the screamers? A paradox. But then Japan the band, like Japan country, is full of contradiction. And it likes it that way . . . .
My first contact with Japan, the band, was about two years ago when a wrestler called Kendo Nagasaki, dressed as a Samurai warrior with mask, cloak and sword, came into the office and wordlessly placed a bottle of sake and a copy of the band's first album, 'Adolescent Sex' on my desk, while a PR-person took photographs. Almost as embarrassing as the time two elderly dwarfs were used to deliver a Steeleye Span album, and about as pointless. I didn't enjoy the sake much (nobody told me you had to drink it warm) and I didn't quite share Geoff Barton's over-the-top (but prophetic) enthusiasm for the album. But it was, well, interesting, full of angular, awkward songs with obscure lyrics delivered in an arrogant snarl and played in a style which was modern without following any particular trend. Hard to define, in fact, and a bit unsettling.
If they'd worn short haircuts and skinny ties and come from America with a name like the Talking Heads, they'd have been instantly acclaimed. But they came from Lewisham, wore make-up and elaborately dyed and coiffeured hair and dressed in the kind of sleazy early-70s glamour personified by the New York Dolls (or even, less kindly, Sweet). They were immediately dismissed by almost everyone as posers/pooftahs/glamrock throwbacks, completely out of touch with what was happening on the streets, man. The New Wave was at full flood and down-to-earth working class credibility was the name of the game.
Their advertisements didn't help, either: an unzipped fly and an ambiguous hand was it male or female? - reaching into it beneath the crashingly subtle headline, 'Get Into Japan'. Together with the make-up and the clothes it attracted a gay following, which the band retain to this day, but most punters were either repelled or confused.
They toured with Blue Oyster Cult to a torrent of abuse and missiles. Their second album, 'Obscure Alternatives', while everyone else was wearing Oxfam jackets, Rock Against Racism badges and serious expressions again showed them perversely ; sticking with their lipstick and eyeliner. In fact the album was a powerful - if again slightly erratic - fusion of reggae, funk and even heavy metal, filtered through Sylvian's oblique songs, but with an image like that, few people wanted to know.
Disappointed with their lack of success in Britain, and frustrated by the quality of their albums (the first one they say they didn't want to put out at all but were rushed into it; the second one they say was produced in a way which completely missed the subtler qualities of their music), the band came close to breaking up. When they-made a one-off single called 'Life In Tokyo' with disco-wizard Giorgio Moroder, it looked to outsiders like a last desperate fling.
BUT SLOWLY the corner was turned. The band began to pick up good reviews in America and Europe. They played some successful dates in Canada. And the mood in Britain seemed to be changing, away from the almost puritan, revolutionary bigotry of the original New Wave towards a tolerant acceptance of rock as entertainment, after all. It was no Ionger a crime to look good; and when Japan played three nights at The Venue recently they got near-capacity audiences and applause, instead of cans. For the first time, their new album, 'Quiet Life' has received almost unanimous acclaim. It's a haunting, disturbing album, with a moody atmosphere hinted at by the final track on their last album, an instrumental called 'The Tenant'.
Unlike their previous LPs, which tended to sound quirky and fragmented, the view one has a dense unity of texture and sound which must owe a lot to the knob-twiddling of their new producer, John Punter. The band met him last year and he has fitted in so well that he has given up his other assignments to become virtually a sixth member of the band. Renowned for his work with Roxy Music, Punter has perhaps brought a whiff of Roxy to the band's sound, but more importantly has captured them with the class and. precision they were striving for, without smothering the wayward unique character of the songs or the playing. It's a stunning album which can't fail to impress anyone who likes their music on the more thoughtful side. Bowie, Roxy, Foxx, Gabriel . . . you can tick off the possible influences but it's unmistakably Japan.
I think they're going to be big. But the fact that they've survived at all is no thanks to the rock critics (with one exception, take a bow GB) but owes everything to their own determination - and to the little girls in the Land Of The Rising Sun.
BIG IN JAPAN. It's such a cliché such a PR-man's-last-resort when a band means nothing in Britain, that a Liverpool band (now defunct) even took it as their joke name. But for Japan it became a reality, and a lifeline.
David Sylvian, the band's singer, songwriter and guiding force, insists that it wasn't planned that way. They just liked the sound of the name, it was 'different'. But their record label, Ariola, certainly nudged it in that direction with the artwork for their debut album (which they hated) with it's Japanese-style lettering and Rising Sun motif.
Inevitably, the album caused a stir when it was released in Japan and when the first publicity shots of the band were published, the die was cast. The Japanese love bands with a strong image, a bit of make up, a bit of theatre. Japanese girls in particular love pretty European boys. Put the two together and you can't fail: Queen have always been big there, Gary Numan is tipped as the next big thing, and so are Girl.
It wasn't long before Japan were monopolising the teeny mags. They were voted the No. 2 most popular band, behind Queen, and David Sylvian was voted "the world's most handsome man". On the crest of all this they made their first Japanese tour a year ago - a screaming success and a security man's nightmare.
This out-of-the-blue adulation was flattering and it paid a lot of bills. But it's not really what Japan set out to achieve. So now they're back for a second tour and hoping to persuade the fans to take them a bit more seriously. Can they do it? Come and see . . .
Which is how I came to be standing at Tokyo's futuristic Narita Airport - or rather tottering slightly after 20 sleepless hours and six stomach-turning meals (chopsticks optional) on a DC 10. Don't expect any penetrating insights about Japanese life yet - I'm barely conscious as the car grinds through a two-hour continuous queue of traffic. and umpteen toll-gates into the centre of Tokyo. Did I say centre? God knows where the centre is, the city goes on for ever and ever in every direction from smoggy horizon to smoggy horizon, a suffocating confusion of factories, apartments, pylons and neon signs, with the occasional parched baseball pitch or golfing range providing the only 'open' space. But eventually the height of the skyscrapers arid the fact that the freeway has wound itself into several tiers - like dropping Spaghetti Junction into the middle of New York - indicates that this must be the centre of the biggest city in the world.
An hours sleep, a shower, a walk round, a glass of Asahi beer (v. good) and my paranoia has settled down. Everything seems clean, fast, efficient, friendly. I like it here.
I meet the band that night at a posh restaurant where they're being wined and dined by the top Japanese promoter, Serjuri Udo, who looks remarkably cheerful considering he has just lost a packet and a lot of powerful contacts on the aborted McCartney tour, which had taken him years of wheeling and dealing to organise.
Contrary to their image the band are not gay, neither are they narcissistic, effete, posey or all the other words that spring to mind. In as much as you can describe anyone with dyed hair and make-up as 'ordinary blokes', they are. Except that they are almost frighteningly serious about their music and amazingly self-controlled for a band whose average age is still only 21: But more of that later . . .
The first thing I noticed was that they have dropped the Glam-rock image in favour of a more modern, sleeker look, although it's still not exactly two-tone.
Leader David Sylvian, for instance, currently favours a powder-blue jacket, yellow waistcoat and checked bowtie. His hair is astonishing, an utterly immaculate bouffant job (I'm out of my depth here, enquiries to Mane Line of Savile Row, who cut the band's hair) which is blond at the front, auburn at the back, like Debbie Harry's (bitch!). His perfectly-formed features, accentuated by expertly-applied make-up (all his own work), combine with the clothes to create an effect which is theatrical rather than effeminate, although at times I was reminded of old film stills of Marlene dressed as a man. More echoes of Bowie . . . Sylvian says relatively little but radiates the aura of a man totally in charge of his own destiny, a man watching his masterplan slowly falling into place. For a self indulger like myself, his powers of self-discipline are shaming: I rarely saw him drink anything stronger than Perrier water, even in the most exotic restaurants he rarely ate anything but a piece of plain steak or fish, and usually his diet seemed to consist of small pieces of dry bread.
Sylvian may be the leader of the band, but Mick Karn, a brilliant bassist and sax player, is probably its most accomplished musician. He is also the most extrovert, the only one who really wallows in the hysteria which surrounds the band over here, as well as being, according to the rest of the band, a terrible hypochondriac. Mick is wearing a purple shot-silk jump suit and white baby-doll shoes, with his hair streaked purple and black and greased back, making him look like some kind of 30s matinee idol gone berserk. His hands are stained pink: seems that last night he'd been dying Jane Shorter's hair to match her jump-suit. Jane, until recently a full-time music student, has been hired as the band's saxophonist: Mick is too busy playing bass to reproduce on stage the sax parts which he plays on record. Considering the pressures of being the odd girl out knowing that all the adulation is for the five guys and not for you - she handles the job amazingly well.
Richard Barbieri (keyboards), Steve Jansen (drums) and Rob Dean (guitar) are dressed in slightly lower-key, Kings-Road-jacket-and-skinny-tie mode, and I get the impression that they are less into make-up than the other two. Even so, Richard's fringe is dyed electric blue to match his jacket, and Steve (who is Dave's younger brother: their real name is Batt) must be the best-looking man ever to sit behind a drumkit, an early Presley lookalike beneath a sulky quiff.
Mick and Richard met Dave and Steve at school, about nine years ago. The band's publicity handout speaks pretentiously about them wearing makeup as a "technique of passive confrontation with school authority". Whatever, it's obvious that they wanted to be different and were prepared to pay the price for it: they got beaten up several times simply because of their appearance. The image came before the music, and was not they insist a hype concocted "I've never felt resentful about people's reaction to us," says Sylvian. "A bit, at the beginning, but then I always expected bad press because we weren't in keeping with people's idea of what a rock band should be . . it was all punk: "Also people had been cheated so many times in the past with bands that came along with exotic images that there was no reason why they should trust us. I understand that kind of prejudice. "But the way I look is just an extension of the way I think. The appearance is just another form of self-expression. People look at me and think I must be an extrovert, someone who's in love with the idea of being a glamorous star. But I've never felt like that, never, this is just me, my normal self." Aww, c'mon, I mean it must take so much sheer effort to keep up an image like that . . "No, because it's not an image. This is the way we are. This is as casual to me as it is for you to put on that jacket (indicates my somewhat crumpled rust-coloured Harry Fenton job, purchased as a low-rent Johnson's substitute). It requires no more effort for me to look like this because it's in my nature to want to look like this. I wouldn't expect to dress any other way . . until the day I find it boring, then I'll change."
Our four Max Factor revolutionaries bought themselves instruments and learned to play. Eventually they were joined by Rob Dean, another South Londoner, and began to rehearse intensively. They placed an ad in a music paper, looking for a manager, and were spotted by indefatigable talent scout Danny Morgan of Nomis Music. Although they'd had no performing experience he saw their potential and took them to his partner Slmon Napier-Bell, the manager whose track record stretches back to the Yardbirds. As managers go, Napier-Bell and Morgan are definitely at the more affable and cultured end of the spectrum, and they're round the restaurant table with us tonight. So is Neil Warnock, managing director of Bron Agency, who set up this tour. He was another early convert to the Japan cause but it seems his heart lies with heavy metal, and he has a nice line in Uriah Heep stories.
It's all so terribly civilised, as we wrestle with our chopsticks, that I'm beginning to wonder what's happened to the hysteria and mayhem that's supposed to surround them over here. I find out next day . . .
SUNDAY, and the first gig of the tour, at the Budokan. Fans are already prowling the hotel so it's into a tiny service lift and down to the underground carpark. We're in the hands of the ultraefficient Japanese road crew: unlike the traditionally scruffy and key-jangling Western counterparts; these guys look businesslike and functional in brown leather jackets and tote powerful two-way radios, costing several hundred pounds apiece, with which they stay in constant touch with one another - even in lifts.
We travel in an unostentatious minibus, completely obscured from onlookers (i.e. fans) by curtains. Mick finds this all a bit too dull and safe, and keeps twitching the curtains aside. David is not amused. I find it all a bit unnecessary - what are they scared of? until we pull up at the Budokan's stage door. Even though there are still six hours to go before the show; a posse of girls is waiting. They race up to the van, screaming; but the band is inside and up the stairs to the dressing room before they reach it. My first taste of the madness to come.
By UK standards the dressing room is pure luxury: a long table to seat 20, covered in bowls of nuts and fruit; lots of big armchairs; a huge icebox full of soft drinks (the band don't drink before a gig and I saw no evidence of any other stimulants); a coffee machine and a toaster, which is soon in use. The band go off to do the soundcheck with John Punter, Nick Huckle (who's in charge of their equipment) and Pip Robson, who does their lights.
I wander out and discover that the Budokan is a Wembley-sized venue set in one of Tokyo's few parks. Hundreds of girls are waiting outside, staring up at the balcony for European faces. Suddenly they surge forward with a mighty squeal: a couple of members of the band have appeared on the balcony, Buckingham Palace-style.
Back in the dressing-room, the table is piling up with gifts from fans: flowers, sweets, fruit, home-made dolls, paintings, fanzines, letters. "Some of the letters we get are critical, :. says Richard Barbieri. "They say 'You played a bum note in the middle of one number' or 'There were two extra bars at the beginning of a certain song'. They even write out the notes of the music to show us where we went wrong. "
Out in the auditorium the letter writers and their 10,000 compatriots bite their nails and cover their faces with their hands as. the first ominous, doomy piano notes of 'Despair' rumble around and the stage lights cast an eerie blue glow on the neat, black heads. It's a tape, but it provides one of the most effective tension-builders any band could wish for.
A huge scream ascends to the giant rising sun flag which hangs from the ceiling as the band take the stage and segue into 'Alien', a hard, jagged piece with particularly complex bass from Mick. The screaming reaches a new pitch as David Sylvian shimmers on, threading his way between the amps, a vision of cool elegance in powder blue. He's a romantic crooner in the Ferry tradition, but unlike Ferry there's no trace of self-parody. Sylvian is in deadly earnest (in fact the total lack of humour/fun is one of Japan's flaws) as he stands, feet planted slightly apart in their white slip-ons, arms , hanging limply at his sides, a slim, slightly hunched figure. A sway of the shoulders, a slight wiggle of the hips, is all he permits himself. He picks up a guitar for 'Rhodesia' with its crunching reggae rhythm and strange, snarling lyric about 'Heartaches from Amsterdam masturbated over jilted bouquets' and 'Nazis in full attack burning niggers in,a cotton field' and 'exchanging surgical appliances'. God knows what the Japanese make of all this . . .
'Quiet Life' begins with a magnificent, juddering sequencer, like Giorgio Moroder on speed, and instantly the crowd are on their feet - but swiftly slapped down by the overkill quota of bouncers who crouch in the gangways. But the girls keep trying and the excitement builds through another nine songs, climaxing with 'Adolescent Sex', a brash, flash survivor from the first album with a hard, sneering vocal and its chorus of 'Get it up, get it up, take it much higher' which everybody seems to understand.
They encore with 'I Second That Emotion', a jumpy, fractured version of the Smokey Robinson classic, with a dreamy synthesiser hook. It's a bit too low-key, not a really the stuff of which encores are made, but then this is called Pushing The Latest Single. Wisely, they come back once more to do the job properly with the rousing 'Automatic Gun'.
I push my way through girls who try to press gifts and messages for the band onto me, asking "You Lodi" (they really do pronounce all their Rs as Ls, and vice versa), and try to sort out my impressions. Well I'm impressed by the musicianship and how close the music sounds to the recorded version, despite the acoustic problems of such a large hall. But the size of the venue somehow reduces and diminishes the impact of the songs: it all seems on one level, almost monotonous, with no real highs or lows. But most of all I'm completely thrown by the huge, jarring gap between the band's obviously serious musical ambitions and the ridiculously over-the-top, screamybopper audience. The pieces just don't seem to fit. Backstage the mutual congratulations are polite rather than heartfelt (I learned later that the band weren't very happy with the gig) , and I asked Sylvian if he isn't s bit, er, embarrassed by all this hysteria. "It was much worse last year. I never encourage it. In fact if you could read my interviews over here you'd see that I criticise it. But it doesn't worry me too much because at our gigs a lot of kids come through all that and are educated to accept a much higher standard of music. The same kids could go to a Bay City Rollers-type gig and just get lightweight pop.... at least with us they're getting something quite intellectual, musically."
But aren't you asking for a teenybopper following with your image. Creating a barrier between you and the kind of acceptance you're looking for?
"I don't think I'd want to reach the right sort of people who'd let my appearance put them off my music," he says dryly. And goes on, a little immodestly: "It's something I've had to live with: I look the way I look and I might have got all this reaction even if I didn't wear makeup or dress up the way I do. You're just born the way you look. I don't know how much of the reaction is based on makeup, or me as a person, or the music."
TIME TO GO. And since there are several thousand kids out there hoping to grab a piece of Dave, Mick, Steve, Rich or Rob as a souvenir, the band have to make their escape in an unmarked truck, standing up and clinging to the sides, while the rest of us act as decoys in the limo. As we sweep past the crowds and into the street we are pursued by five taxis full of fans. Our driver twists, turns and back-doubles to escape, even swooping down into the carpark of the Imperial Hotel to make them think the band are staying there and then zooming out again with tyres squealing. Eventually we shake off the last by driving up onto the elevated freeway and suddenly pulling over into the hard shoulder. The pursuing cars flash past us before they realise what's happening, and we dive down a slipway and back to the hotel.
We needn't have bothered: the word is out and the hotel lobby is packed with girls. I'm surprised the hotel allows them to stay - in Britain some jobsworth would have given them the bum's rush hours ago - until it's explained that these girls are so affluent that they've actually booked in as guests at this £40-a-night hotel (breakfast not included) to be close to David, Mick, Lick, Lob and Steve: What the hotel doesn't know - or rather, seems powerless to stop - is that each girl who books a room then smuggles in as many friends as she can, to split the cost.
But more of that later . . .
A few of the more upmarket fans had even infiltrated the hotel's expensive French restaurant, and sit at the bar staring yearningly at the band as they pick aristocratically at snails and lobster tails and sip imported wine at around £20 a bottle. Restaurants close early in Japan and when we ask for coffee we're told that it's too late, the kitchen is closed. In a typically expansive gesture Simon Napier Bell offers to pay the staff overtime to stay and give us coffee, but the waiter explains with slightly hurt dignity that's it's not the money, it's just that the staff want to get home to their families.
So we head for a cafe around the corner, assuming that most of the fans must have dispersed by now. But the girls are waiting and swoop like beautiful locusts on the band, gently but insistently asking for autographs, touching, giggling. Eventually the girls are persuaded to beat it by our ruthlessly efficient Japanese tour manager and we make it to the cafe, which turns out, to everyone's delight, to be equipped with Space Invaders tables. An hour or so later, we're back at the hotel. The band go to bed - alone - and some of us go to the bar for (another) night-cap.The bar is packed with groupies. They watch us as we leave, hoping for some clue as to which rooms The Band are staying in. The rest of that night is like a French farce, with doors all along our corridor opening and closing, doorbells and telephones ringing, lifts clanging, feet scurrying and giggles as the girls try desperately to locate The Band and dodge the security patrol. In fact the band are serenely asleep on another floor of the hotel, their anonymity intact and supremely aloof from the sordid scampering below. Alas, I have to report that certain members of the party are more accommodating. At about 4am, tossing fitfully in my sleepless bed, I put on one of the ridiculous floor-length kimonos which the hotels provide as bathrobes, and padded along the corridor to the cold drink machine. As I blearily fumble with change I hear a stifled giggle: two pretty girls are squeezed into the narrow gap between the machine and the wall, hiding from the security patrol. What can a poor boy do . . .
TIME IS MONEY on a trip like this so the band are kept busy. Next morning finds them at one of many photo sessions. This one is for Music Life, the inch-thick glossy monthly which is Japan's leading music paper. They've already done umpteen such sessions for the mag, but you don't argue with a circulation like that. nevertheless, the session seems supremely unimaginative, just the band standing moodily against a white background, but we've told that the man behind the lens is the best in the game. Hmmm.
Boredom is relieved by the background music, featuring the B-52's, and a flick through the current issue of Music Life, which has big spreads on Japan (again), The Pretenders and The Police. The cover is a pose 'n' pout pic of Girl, who seem to be getting the next-big-thing treatment in Japan. In Britain, Girl and Japan seemed to have been tarred with the same ponce-rock brush, and Girl have even cited Japan as an influence. But Japan themselves seem at some pains to disassociate themselves from Don Arden's little lads, and I sense a certain amount of needle in there.
An hour later we sweep past the security guards and the obligatory screaming girls and into a huge TV studio where the band are due to video a live show later this afternoon. Japanese TV is as bad as American TV except that the picture quality is a million times better. Lots of channels, all of them eschewing an unrelieved diet of samurai films (the local equivalent of Westerns. with lots of serious men in silly hairdos and bathrobes doing improbable things with swords), old American and British movies, baseball, and, yes, chat shows, interspersed with ads for junk food and cameras and stuff. For the visitor, the only interesting thing is the sumo wrestling, the national sport which gets even more coverage than we give to football, and which involves gargantuan, artificially-fattened men in obscenely brief loincloths grappling with each other in accordance with ancient incomprehensible rules and much obscure ritual. For more jaded palates there's also an incredibly over-the-top version of our own professional wrestling, with much shedding of realistic-loaking blood and fights allowed to spill over into the audience and even involving the ref and the seconds. Hard to say if it's for real, but even Kent Walton would be shocked by some of the atrocities committed. Anyway, the overall impression of Japanese TV is one of unrelieved brutality an or mindless rubbish, destroying whatever notions one might have cherished about Japan being a haven of timeless good manners, taste and culture. So by local standards, the show that the band have come to record is something of a cultural feast, although to British eyes it looks like the kind of Cliff/Cilla/Val/Rolf pap that the BBC used to foist on those of us too lazy/poor/old/stupid to go out on Saturday nights.
But never mind the quality, vou have to hand it to the Japs for the sheer efficiency of it all. The studio is purpose-built for live TV shows, with seating for 4,000 and every facility provided right down to a huge Albert Hall-style pipe organ. God knows what kind of show uses that. Best of all, the whole of the stage is moveable. All the band have to do is set up their gear on one side of the stage and at the appointed moment a button will be pushed and the band will slide into view already playing, just like they used to on Ready Steady Go.
MEANWHILE they have to rehearse the Young Generation-style hoofers, child choir (!) and Cliff/Lulu lookalikes who make up the rest of the show, so it's back to the dressing room for a few hours. And here's a nice surprise: wafer-thin pocket radios and digital watches, presents for the band from the TV company in lieu of money which they can't pay due to some regulation or other. The watches are the sort which can tell you what time it is at 20 cities around the world, so 10 minutes of it are killed by getting manager Napier-Bell, a jet-setter if ever there was one, to guess what the time is in Honolulu or Leningrad. He gets it right every time, the swine.
The nuts and fresh strawberries are swiftly demolished and attention wanders to the TV monitor, on which the Young Genelation clones are cheerfully trilling (and I kid you not) 'Da Doo Lon Lon' . . . This is getting weirder. I mean, what are a nice band like you doing in a place like this?
Sylvian: "I'm not really sure what I want from this country..Before, I was quite happy to play up to the idea of the teen idol because it was a new experience for me. Now, I'm looking for a way out of that, to lead the kids a stage further because I've moved on."
But isn't the whole circus atmosphere that surrounds you over here hopelessly at odds with what you're music is all about? I mean, this TV show . . .
"Yeah, I know what you mean. But I don't think you should set yourself in one line. OK, our new album has been acclaimed artistically but I don't think you've got to follow that through and play that role to the end. I quite like the idea of doing a show like this. People would say it would ruin my credibility . . . but like I've done a thousand things to ruin my credibility and l don't see that this show will harm me.
"I'm not living my life according to someone's idea of how a band should develop. I'm just going through what I feel each moment, each day and I never plan anything."
At last, time for the band to do their stuff for the TV cameras. They play their new single, 'I Second That Emotion'. They hit all the right notes, the sound balance (Mr Punter again) is good and the audience goes mad on cue. But it doesn't do much for me. I dislike cover versions on principle, unless they're real hatchet jobs, and this one seems unnecessary. But then I've been buying Smokey Robinson records since 1962 (cont. Great Bores Of Our Time) . . .
ANOTHER ZIG-ZAGGING car ride back to the hotel to escape taxi-loads of fans, a wash in the tiny modular bathroom (the whole unit - bath; washbasin, loo - seems to be extruded from one piece of plastic and simply plugged into a corner of the room: very clever bit of hi-tech but claustrophobic for anyone over five foot) and we're off to a reception in the band's honour organised by the promoter, Mr Udo, at one of his, own restaurants. As such ligs go it's a small and intimate affair, and we sip our drinks and help ourselves to an endless supply of hot, exotic seafood. But glancing up, I become aware that we are Not Alone. Pressed against the restaurant windows are several dozen female faces, the vanguard of hundreds of fans who wait patiently on the pavement outside in the chilly night air, hoping for a glimpse of the band while we stand inside, expensive food and booze in our complacent mitts, chatting to the guys they would give anything to meet. The last time I felt so guilty elitist was in the press enclosure at Knebworth . . .
Our consciences are saved in a nice way. The band agree to go out and sign autographs if the girls form an orderly line. It works: one by one the girls shake hands, get their autographs and move off, although some are so overcome that all they can do is cover their faces and giggle. It's rather touching, almost like a religious service, and I feel very much like a voyeur. Or, as the man said, a spare prick at a wedding.
NEXT MORNING we're down in the hotel lobby, bags packed and ready to leave for the next city on the tour, Osaka.
Last year the band travelled on the legendary 125 mph Bullet Train, and there was chaos: the fans took almost every other seat on the train and there was a near-riot as they raced up and down the train trying for a glimpse of David, Lob, Lich and co. This time they are taking no chances and we're going by plane. The hotel lobby is crowded with girls, all watching, waiting for the band to make a move, but the boys have already left in secret. .
These girls are not so easily outwitted. When we board the All Nippon Airways Tristar I recognise at least six girls from the hotel in the seats behind us, bobbing up and down for a glimpse of etc etc. Jesus, how much is this costing them? (Incidentally, nervous flyers like me will be appalled by an All Nippon innovation: the plane has a TV camera in the nose, so that you get a pilot's-eye view of what's ahead projected onto the plane's movie screen. The horrors of take-off and landing are wonderfully enhanced, as you peer through the clouds ahead waiting for that Airport-style mid-air collision. At one point I dozed off and woke up to find the screen full of fish and seaweed: thought we'd plunged into the sea until I realised it was just a travelogue they were showing.)
As with Narita and almost every airport the world, Osaka's airport has been thoughtfully built at the most inconvenient distance from the city centre. The long, low crawl in revealed the city, Japan's second largest, in all its horror (Dave McCullough would love it). Our hotel was in the heart of the city, a big island in the middle of a river, and the view from my window was like one of those kids paintings where they try to cram too much in: a river with barges on it, above that a bridge with hundreds of people scurrying across, above that an elevated motorway buzzing with traffic, above that the skyscrapers and higher still, the plane: coming into land at the airport. Metropolis: packed and overpowering.
Compared to our previous hotel, this one although huge, had clearly seen better days decor-wise. Which was just as well in view of the invasion it was about to endure. The band had warned me that the fan hysteria would hot up when we reached Osaka, and they were right. Once again they had to be smuggled up to their rooms via the back entrance and a tiny service lift reeking, inexplicably, of dry-cleaning fluid.
There's no gig that night, so after dinner in a rare burst of self-indulgence, the band decide to go for a drink at a nearby bar. It's only a few blocks away, but for security's sake they go in a car. A crowd of girls spy them leaving and chase the car all the way
The bar turns out to be a ritzy rooftop cocktail room with a panoramic view. The band tell me it's one of those revolving ones, and glancing down at the city's twinkling lights as they swim slowly round believe their little joke: Japan know all about boozy journalists, although in self defence say that just about anyone would seem Iike an alcoholic compared to this abstemious band. It's decided to risk walking back to the hotel: the band want some fresh air and anyway it's late, there won't be anybody about. Wrong. The fans who chased then earlier are still waiting outside and harry them all the way back to the hotel, demanding autographs. Thought for the day - stardom has its price.
NEXT MORNING, another picture session. The photographer wants to take some shots of them 'in the countryside' and after a lengthy car ride they find themselves in a scrubby patch of grass dotted with wrecked cars. Ih an overcrowded city like Osaka, this is the countryside.
Then on to hi-fi heaven: the Sony Centre, a ten storey white plastic structure with a cunning line in customer relations: you get in a glass lift that whisks you up the outside and deposits you on the top floor, then you make your own leisurely way down, past floor after floor of mouthwatering electronic goodies, all available to be listened to and fiddled with (none of that 'Don't touch' stuff herel. You can even shoot your own little TV programme with the video equipment. And all at prices less than half what we pay in Britain. By the time you get to the ground floor where they actually sell the stuff, you're itching to buy: But the affluence is deceptive: the trend in all the gear on show was towards miniaturisation. This is not just because the micro-chip makes it possible, but because the Japanese need small units to fit into their tiny, cramped homes. One of the Japanese roadies told me that the average family of five or six lives in an 'apartment' no bigger than the single hotel room I was occupying. Japan is so crowded that the almost overwhelming politeness and orderliness an efficiency you notice everywhere is not just desirable but essential if the place is not to become a barbaric concrete jungle. But you don't have to look very hard to discover that there are stronger passions beneath that neat exterior. Browsing throutgh the mags in the local equivalent of W H Smith I picked up what appeared to be a : glossy teeny mag and discovered (it looked like Honey) that it was a sex mag of the more sadistic variety. Then I noticed a young guy next to me (20 or so) flicking casually through a lavishly produced but well over-the-top book of child pornography, one of several of display. The middle-aged lady next to him was looking through one on flower-arranging. A magazine with the no nonsense title How To Sex was rubbing shoulders, or something, with others on motor-racing and hi-fi. It all seemed to demonstrate a completely open, not to say naive, acceptance of sex in all its forms as just a normal bodily function (writes Our Medical Correspondent). Or does it? Rather more sinister were the thick cartoon books, which appeared to be aimed at kids but were a strange mixture of sex and sadism, full of stabbings and slicings, impalings and dismemberings.
Still reeling slightly from these somewhat confused insights into the Japanese psyche, I got back to the hotel at about 2pm and wandered into the enormous hotel lobby to be greeted by another amazing sight. Wall-to-wall crumpet! Sorry, women's lib, but what else can you say when confronted with literally hundreds of mostly very pretty girls in styles ranging from split-skirt chic to upmarket punk to - yes, already - twotone, a fashion which seems tailor-made for the Japanese, with their uniformly black hair and dark eyes.
There's still nearly five hours to go before the concert, which is in a hall adjoining the hotel, and already there you can feel the expectant tension in the air. Girls are perched or draped across every stool, chair or table, they fill every inch of floorspace, blocking stairs and doorways, talking, laughing, posing and occasionally rushing about as a rumour (always false) goes about someone or other being spotted. The management, to their credit, are mostly tolerant and gentle. None of your British jobsworths here. But then of course, most of these girls are paying guests of the hotel, so there ain't much they can do about it even if they wanted to. I squeeze through to the bar and am accosted by the first of a whole stream of girls who want to know if I'm with the band and do I know which room David is staying in, etc. In true British stiff upper-something tradition I resolve to give nothing away, no matter how persuasive they become (I hope). Unaccustomed as I am to so much attention from young girls I am ashamed to discover myself becoming a bit of a Poser - or at least as far as my advanced years and meagre wardrobe will allow.
BROUGHT BACK to reality by a glance in the mirror I head towards the concert hall for the band's soundcheck. Still a couple of hours to go, but already the sharks are at work outside the hall selling pirated Japan badges, T-shirts and other 'souvenirs'. There's nothing the band can do to stop them, not if they want to stay healthy, that is. There's very little petty crime in Japan - it's all in the hands of the big-time syndicates, including the pirating of rock spin-offs like this, and they are very, very heavy indeed.
Showtime. As the dying strains of local support band Alexander's Ragtime Band (definitely not Japan's choice) fade away, our heroes prepare to parade their genius before Osaka's screaming hordes. Actually there's not a whiff of prima-donna-ishness about them and contrary to what you''d expect they do not spend hours preening in front of the mirror. Their pictures make them look like clothes-conscious peacocks; but it slowly dawns on me that they're still wearing almost the same outfits they've been wearing night and day for the past five days.
Rob and Dave are next door, tuning their guitars, Steve does a few paradiddles on a seat-cushion; Jane essays a few notes on her sax; Mick touches up his make-up and then panics because it won't dry; it's almost time to go. John Punter departs for the mixing desk, uttering what has become his catchphrase for the tour: "Be mega".
The tape of 'Despair' begins to roll and I head out into the auditorium. It's a much more compact place, about the size of the Hammersmith Odeon, and immediately I get a much better feeling than I had at the Budokan. The audience seems a bit older, and there are far more boys. Much more of a rock audience.
'Despair' is a lonely walk down a dark, wet street in Paris or Berlin . . . the images conjured up by the yearning, desolate sax and sad French vocal. It's a daring, strikingly original opener and it works perfectly. By the time Steve strikes the first thunderous drumbeat of 'Alien' the audience is spellbound. 'Alien', 'Rhodesia' . . . and again it's 'Quiet Life' with that sequencer, Rob's spiralling guitar and the urgent drums, which really gets the audience moving. The audience reaction is all the more amazing because the band's own stage movements are almost non-existent. Apart from the occasional sway and wiggle, Sylvian is rooted to the spot. Although he does risk the occasional walk to the edge of the stage and even - gasp - removes his jacket for the bouncy 'Deviation'. Rob Dean hunches over his guitar, Richard Barbieri mans his battery of keyboards like some thoughtful railway signalman and Steve Jansen is aimost invisible behind his turquoise Tama kit. Oniy Mick Karn does the traditional rock and roll hero bit, flashing smiles at the girls in the front row and teasing them by doing his tunny little tippy-toe balletic run to the furthest corner of the stage: it's not much, but then have you ever felt the weight of a Travis Bean bass?
The band's lack of stagecraft is their chief weakness, one that will probably have to be worked on if they want to be big in Britain. And yet . . . the fact that they can evoke this kind of reaction by (more or less) just standing there and playing, speaks volumes for the music itself.
'All Tomorrow's Parties', for example, features perhaps the most effective use of sequencer I've heard. Together with the other keyboards (David as well as Richard playing), they build -up a plangent, multilayered, utterly hypnotic version of this song from the very first Velvet Underground album. A haunting masterpiece.
But it is 'Life fn Tokyo' which strikes the biggest chord so far with this audience. A surging, majestic, epic of disco synthesiser, slogging drums and growling sax, iis chorus of 'Oh, oh, oh, life carr be cruel, life in Tokyo' has obviously become something of an anthem for this audience. Overcrowded, ruthlessly competitive, hidebound by rigid ideas of class and tradition yet bombarded by seductive modern images . . . life can be cruel in Japan, and maybe these young girls feel it more than most. I think of the sadistic magazines we'd seen earlier that day, and the fact that despite the superficial 'liberation' of Japanese girls, they face a married life of almost slave-like subservience. Suddenly I see how Japan's music, with its mixture of romance and despair, of high technology and old-fashioned glamour, is completely right for this audience. 1'd underrated these girls: it isn't just the band's visual appeal, they connect with them on a much deeper level lan idea confirmed when the band show me some of the fanzines which girls had produced, full of disturbing sex-and-blood images. Rock critics? these girls are way ahead of us all.
'Halloween' brings me down to earth: one of their fastest songs, with slashing guitar and shrilling synth, it bounds along bringing the boppers leaping out of their seats. The pressure builds through 'Sometimes 1 Feel So Low', 'Communist China' and 'Adolescent Sex'. This time the encore's not just a formality, it's screamed for. They positively erupt into 'Automatic Gun', perhaps their most overtly rock and roll track, a little bit HM, a little bit Mott, areal roaring anthem with Sylvian strutting his stuff more obviously than usual and with a tantalising middle eight that holds back the momentum and suddenly releases it in a great shout of energy that got the kids punching their air and jumping out of their seats. Memories of many a classic gig at Hammersmith Odeon flood through my mind and I am so full of the sheer joy of it all that I almost run back to the dressing room to tell the band how good it was. They hardly need telling. Spirits are high that night. Even so, the band go to bed fairly early and once again to sleep soundly incognito while mayhem goes on all night on the floor everyone thinks they are on. A German symphony orchestra are on that floor also and there are amazing scenes as these elderly paunchy bassoon players find themselves blessed with the windfall atterrtions of girls desperate to get their hands on any European to get one step nearer their heroes.
l remember asking David in my usual disgustingly prurient way, why they didn't, er, take advantage of what was on offer. And why they seemed to survive without recourse to drink, drugs, throwing TV sets out of windows and all the other wacky pursuits which make up the rock'n'roll life.
David: "We're all quite introvert, as people we're so close that there's no need to talk much, we know what each other is thinking. As personalities we're very stable, none of this stuff affects us. Besides if one of us did start taking advantage of it it would bring the rest of us down too much."
Richard: "The whole 'Quiet life' album, really, is about our lives. We are quiet people. We don't go out much and we're not that much in touch with what's happening."
So what are Japan about. What's the vision?
David: "Just the traditional idea of the artist, a form of self expression. Seeing the things we see, living the life we do and finding a way to express it in music. I see what we do as being closer to a novellist's approach . . . someone who observes and picks up facts and then writes a story around those facts. That's the way we work and music is only one aspect of what we want to do.
"That's why it feels funny being thought of purely as a rock band. We don't lead the life of a rock band, if there is such a thing, as people we're very different from all that."
THEY PLAYED Altother gig at the same hall the next night. It was even better, generating so much energy that this time the audience succeeded in rushing the stage, despite the ruthless bouncers. For the first time ever they played a third encore, choosing probably the best song from their remaining repertoire (and one I was surprised they hadn't included in their set, 'Suburban Berlin', which crashed and swelled and swept everyone up and over the top, taking with it my original image of Japan as languid poseurs. Back in the dressing room, David complained that a paper streamer, only half unrolled, had hit him smack in the balls. Mick reminded him that in the early days he'd been hit by a brick in St Albans, so things must be getting better.
Next morning the band left for another gig in another city, Kyoto, hotly pursued by scores of fans in taxis. It looked like a bird migration. For me, it was the start of the long journey home. The little girls understand ~and now, finally, so do the big boys.
|Don't rain on my parade: web design and content © 1996 -2011 Paul Rymer unless stated otherwise. All rights reserved. This is a fan appreciation site and is not affiliated to any of the record companies who have released material by Japan. It has not always been possible to establish who the copyright owner is for all of the material on this website. Please feel free to contact the webmaster with any questions.|