JAPAN - Theatre Royal Drury Lane 21/22 - 12 - 81
Funny how things turn out. As `81 turns into `82, Japan can hear themselves talked about with unaccustomed respect. Last time I saw them, about three years ago, it was standard to write them off as spineless glam-rock failures. So why the change.?
Although you`ll hear it put down to the fickle whims of trendies, the alteration in Japans reputation is really due to themselves. They used to be rotten and they slowly got good. All the dry ice, the satin and tat, and the grinding NY Dolls heavy metal riffs - these, of course, are consigned to history. But ever since their move to elegantly subdued mood music, around “Quiet Life”, the group have made some solid improvements. There must be a moral behind all of this. With patience, pastiche makes perfect.
Against a stage set that resembles a high-tech Chinese take-away, complete with TV screen in the corner, Japan emerge with what amounts to a signature tune for their interest in things oriental: `Canton` from the current `Tin Drum` LP. The same piece provides the show`s formal close as well. Stately and inscruable, `Canton is an impressive context for the inventive bass of Mick karn, virtually a lead instrument, punctuating the smooth washes of sound from Richard Barbieris keyboards.
Apart from `Visions Of China` - accompanied by slides depicting stirring scenes of the Peoples Republic - nothing else is so explicitly Chinese … no soulful ballads about the tractor factories of Kwan Tang province exceeding all previous productivity targets, no attempt to emulate Formby`s seminal `Mr Wu`s A Window Cleaner Now`. However, theres little doubt that David Sylvians fetchingly decadent pastel blue Mao suit would draw sharp comment at any self-criticism meeting of the local cadres. As might the giesha-like praying hands way that he holds his microphone ( a gesture I soon see being copied among the more mobile members of the audience). Visually, the real focal point is Karn, who`s perfected a sort of sideways scuttle, like a rickshaw driver doing a three-point turn.
It’s the new song `Ghosts` which finally puts these image distractions out of mind ; its definitely their most substantial achievement to date. The only complaint I would still make is the similarity of Sylvians singing to Ferry`s - the point is so old as to be clichéd now, but I can`t get past it, and it’s a perpetual irritation. For the rest of the material, taken mainly from Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Japan cruise beautifully. Often, their music has to be beautiful - because, with occasional exceptions like `Ghosts`, it just isn`t much else besides.
Yet, superficial as it frequently seems, Japans music bears the signs of a group who`ve slowly learned to assert their own identity more, and who`ve very nearly perfected its appeal. It would be ironic if they chose this moment to dissolve.
Paul Du Noyer
New Musical Express 9th January 1982
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