JAPAN - Hurrahs - New York - 10th/11th November 1978
HIP - HIP HURRAH
JAPAN OUTPOSED IN NEW YORK CITY
The New York disco scene has moved underground. Studio 54, it seems, is no longer the place to prance and pose … it,s had too much publicity, these days too many tourists and, well, undesirables are to be found jammed within its warehouse walls.
So the Big Apple cognescenti have packed their boppin shoes, have forsaken the place and have began to occupy more obscure, less well known venues.
The Hurrah club is one such. Its entrance - to be found at 36 West 62nd Street - is an anonymous as they come. At the base of a tower block, two medium sized aluminium-framed glass doors open out on to a long, dusty corridor. Seeming all the world like some kind of tatty tradesmans entrance. It takes a panel hanging on the wall to dispel your doubts and reveal that the cab driver really has taken you to the right place : individual white letters pushed onto black pegboard indicate that the club is situated above shops, beneath apartments and amongst offices on the second floor.
Up a few flights of steep, slippery marble stairs and im greeted by Hurrah proprietor Henry. Short and stocky, long strands of blonde hair swept over his crown Bobby Charlton style, to hide his baldness, he drawls with a southern states accent : “Used to be a dance studio, all this,. We got the lease, brought in a bar, a stage, some cushions … and now its really beginning to take off. Really take off.”
As befits its previous status, Hurrahs dance floor is huge - varnished pine boards stretching for square yard upon square yard, by far and away the place,s most dominant feature. At the far end is the stage, a small, hastily constructed affair, cluttered with equipment and shrouded by a black binliner backdrop. Closer to the entrance is the mixing/disco desk, and closer still is the bar, adorned by an art-deco sign lit by tasteful orange and red lights that says simply `Hurrah`.
An intriguing place, for sure. Clean and stylish, a home for the New York elite, light years distant form the sleaze of Max`s, CBGBs … indeed the whole of the city itself. Intriuging, yes … but artificial. Most definitely not a place where you can forget your inhibitions and run wild (you`d get stared at), hardly a venue where a band can go onstage, let off steam and, shall I say, `kick ass` ( I betcha even the house PA is made up od Bang And Olufsen loudspeakers).
Tonight, Thursday, is the first of two dates British pretty boys (`Posers, it can be done`) Japan are playing at Hurrah. These gigs are part of a lightning-swift US tour that has already found them in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and that will later, after New York, take them to Boston and from there home for a series of UK dates.
New York audiences are notoriously narrow-minded and hard to please, especially where new bands are concerned, and to be quite honest I was beginning to have serious doubts about Japan managing to create much of an impression in such chic surroundings. Difficulties would be compounded, I surmised, by the fact that the band were playing just one early set (at 9:30) for the benefit of assorted American liggers/hangers-on as part of some sort of press reception.
But the truth was that, out of the pair of dates, the first was by far and away the finest. Somehow as the drinks flowed and canapés were passed around, an unexpectedly loose, free and easy atmosphere settled over the proceedings. Rick Derringer arrived, so did David Johansen (who didn’t seem in the least bit perturbed by Japans much publicised, much denied New York Dolls-style image, or the fact that group mentor David Sylvian has a name like Sylvain Sylvain, or indeed that the bands drummer Steve Jansen has a monicker similar to his own : Jansen/Johansen, geddit ?) and everyone seemed set to enjoy themselves and have what is commonly known as `a really good time`.
A too much drink/not enough sleep/non-notebook situation has clouded my memories of the rest of the evening somewhat, but putting events into order I seem to remember :
… Being right at the front of the stage and thinking how enjoyable it was to listen to the separate sounds coming from the monitors and stage speakers, rather than just hear a noise form the PA itself. Some people at the back were saying it was too loud anyway.
… Watching a thin trail of sweat trickle out from beneath David Sylvians shaggy blonde locks and continue its path down the parchment-pallor of his left cheekbone.
… Noticing how, out of Japans four distinctly different musical styles - the funky rhythm section, the generally straight ahead lead guitar, the largely unconventional keyboards and the chopping reggae sounds of the second guitar (Sylvians) - it is, of all things, reggae that’s gradually gaining the upper hand.
… Coming to the conclusion, about mid-way through the set, that this was the best id ever seen Japan play - and wondering in turn why they weren,t going down very well.
… Turning around to find, much to my surprise, that there was only a handful of other people gathered around the base of the stage. Disappointingly, the crowd at the front was only three or four deep - all the rest were huddled together at the back of the club, leaving a desolate, lifeless area of dance floor inbetween.
… Consoling myself with the fact that at least each member of the stagefront throng (if `throng` it can truly be called) was enjoying Japans music. Every man, woman and jackanape.
… Denise Mercedes squawking at the end of the show :”Aww, they wuz great ! Rilly great ! But lookit this ! Lookit these people !” - referring to the NYC`ers and the cool reception they had given Japan - “These people are terrible ! They are shit !”
… Leaving the packed dressing room early, in the hope of catching Pere Ubu at CBGBs. I missed them however, and instead was unfortunate enough to see a set by a Talking Heads rip-off outfit called the Urban Verbs. They were predictably awful, but having dubious Big Apple credibility they were received with rather more enthusiasm than Japan had been.
… And going to bed far, far too late.
Twin tragedies the next morning : first Japan discover that they,ve only one hardryer between them that has a plug that fit’s the hotels sockets, consequently they arrive down in the lobby a little later than planned : second (and more serious) comes the news that last night bass player Mick Karn fell down the `steep, slippery marble stairs` of the Hurrah club, landed badly, and cracked a rib.
In the taxi taking us to Japans publicist`s office for a series of interviews, guitarist Rob Dean tells me of Karns bizarre experiences in the all-night emergency hospital where he had been treated. “Apparently there were people OD`ing all over the place,” he says, “ and the nurses were just ignoring them, letting them get on with it. And the fact that Micks got long pink hair didn,t exactly help any, either,. He got to see a doctor in the end though, and I don,t think its too serious …”
Arriving at the press office (staffed entirely by hard-bitten, business-minded, careerist women, by the way. That’s not to sound MCP-ish, its just that I found it very hard to come to terms with) each member of the band is immediately given a questionnaire to answer on behalf of 16 Magazine. The band baulk at the sheer sze of the thing : `What do you like to do on an evening out ? Can you briefly describe your dream lady ? Are you a worrier ? ` run the questions, 61 of em in all, the final one being a ridiculous ` is there anything you want to add ?`.
And after wading through all that, a Japanese journalist arrives to hit the band with the leading question : “Armost you rook velly velly serious about youl music … “ At this point I thought it would be wise for me to leave.
Later however, after a long walk through the city streets and a trip up to the top of the Empire State Building, I manage to have a few words with David Sylvian.
It may surprise you to hear that despite his appearance and confident onstage manner, Sylvian is neither effete not narcissistic. No, once you learn to ignore that mess of tousled hair, those bright red lips leaping out from his pipe clay coloured face (so far in NY he,s been mistaken for a transvestite and a `Scandinavian Chick`) you find that he,s an affable, unassuming character. Shy, even.
I was surprised to hear that the band had had some trouble in the studio, recording their second, recently released album, `Obscure Alternatives`. Seems that the eventual, uncluttered, carefully calculated sound came only after a lot of hurt and heartache.
“To put it bluntly,” says Sylvian, his eyes only just visible beneath his tumbling mop of hair, “ we just couldn’t get on with the engineer (the album sleeve lists one Chris Tsangarides) this time around. He had his ideas, we had ours and that was it, we couldn’t seem to be able to find any middle ground. And the strange thing was that producer Ray Singer, who was also at the boards for our first album, started taking sides with the engineer guy and we kind of felt left out in the cold, even though it was our album they were supposed to be recording.
“In the end we started doing things ourselves, just not involving the other two … it was the only way we could work. Partly as a result of all that we hope to be coming to America, probably New York, for the recording of the next LP. And we`re going to try to get Ken (David Bowie, Lou Reed) Scott to produce it “
I mention the ever-growing reggae influence in Japans music and Sylvian smiles, as if hes glad that I noticed : “Mick and Rich (Barbieri, band keyboardist) do listen to a lot of reggae, we all do to a certain extent. And the road crew are really into the music as well. I must admit, I don’t know a lot about it, although there is one Big Youth album, I forget its title, which I really do enjoy. Its like another facet to the band, it makes us sound even more unusual I suppose.”
Talking about `sounding unusual`, brings us to `The Tenant`, the closing track on the new album. Its totally unlike anything the band have ever done before, very bleak/mesmerising and reminiscent of (as I said in my LP review) `Low/Heroes` period Bowie.
“Its just a one-off thing really,” Sylvian reveals, its just something I wanted to see if we could do. Its inspired by the Roman Polanski film and its express intent is to disturb and distress … and judging by the reviews so far its been very successful in doing just that “
Will you ever play it onstage ??
“Maybe, maybe. We might try and get it together for our Japanese tour in March. Because we,ve been so successful there (the bands debut album `Adolescent Sex` was bought by 48000 Nips in just two days recently) we,re having to assemble a really big stage show for when we go over there. Id like to have some kind of gloomy film to go with it as well, to be projected onto a backdrop while we,re playing, just to make things look really depressing.”
Friday night, and its business as usual for the Hurrah club, with the `New York cognescenti` flooding in, replacing the liggers of the previous evening.
Strangely enough however, the atmosphere isn’t half as friendly. There are lots of swanky, swaggering men, dozens of expensively decadent women, a fair sprinkling of hyper-tacky groupies … and its all just one great big pose.
And the strange thing is that when the band take to the stage, the guy running the disco doesn,t even notice. “Hey everybody,” he shouts inanely, after a ubiquitous Blondie record has come to an end, “ we got a band comin` up here in a few minutes at Hurrah and - “
Sylvian shakes his head in despair and without waiting for the DJ to finish speaking the band launch into a rousing version of `Don’t Rain On My Parade`. Stage lights on, the groupies clustered around the stage look about in amazement and fumble for their lipsticks and compacts as if they think the band are threatening their livelihood or something.
And yes, Japan certainly do look - uh - attractive tonight. From the left, Rich Barbieri on keyboards, resplendent in white surgeons jacket, blue hair and a face kind of like you might imagine Paul Stanley’s to appear without the makeup; bass player Mick Karn, not moving about as much as usual because of that cracked rib, but looking well groomed with his- red barnet, glittering earring and white t-shirt, his arms covered in black fishnet stocking sleeves ; ,in the background drummer Steve Jansen, arguably the prettiest of the bunch (although this is not immediately evident tonight behind the kit) dressed in an X-Ray Spex promo shirt and wearing a baseball cap with a big peak; singer/ guitarist David Sylvian, looking fragile, shuffling around the stage like a puppet with strings only attached to its shoulder blades, en grande tenue with his black suit, the jacket short (what those in the tailoring trade rather in-elegantly refer to as a ‘bumtickler’ I believe) and acres.of white cuff cascading over his hands like a magician whose trick flowers are on the verge of falling out from his sleeves; and finally corkscrew-haired guitarist Rob Dean, looking subdued in comparison to the rest with his plain shirt and pencil-thin black tie.
The colour of the lights changes to pure white and the deep, rolling rhythms of `Obscure Alternatives` follow, with Sylvian excelling on the ‘Zero down to zero — arrrgh! ’ bits. At the end of ‘Love Is Infectious’ comes the first Sylvian announcement of the evening, a clipped, contemptuous drawl: "Disisatrackofa-
Next we have the two suburbans, ‘Love’ and ‘Berlin’. On the latter the reggae influence gains the upper hand over metallic funk, this holding true for a twitching rendition of `Rhodesia` as well, the lyrics stark and uncompromising ‘Oh, Nazis in full attack/ Burning niggers in a cotton field . . . `
Sometimes I Feel So Low’ brings the intensity level down a little and ‘Adolescent Sex’. (squeals,from the girls in the audience as Sylvian announces the song, presumably because of the mention of the word ‘sex’), is ia hard-hitting funk attack. To the chant of ‘Get it up, get it `up` Sylvian wheels and reels about the stage, eventually unstrapping his guitar and sending it crashing, squeal-ing on to the stage floor. ‘TheUnconventional’ is the final number and, set finished, the band make the 15 second or so dash from the stage across the dancefloor to the dressing room. By the time they reach it, the applause has all but died away and thedorkish DJ is announcing a dancing competition. . . needless to say, there’s no encore. So it’s the same story as the night before: fine set, zilch reaction. And indeed it’s an all too familiar tale— Japan have always had great difficulty in breaking down the barrier, the crowds they play to seldom being enthusiastic, more often than not cool and subdued, sometimes completely negative.
Japan’s glamorous image, their enigmatic stage presence, their unique music . . . each and every mainstay of their character seems to be working against them at the moment.
I hope they don’t change. Although I seem to be in a minority, I think they’re the finest just the way they are. I’d even go so far as to say that they’re the most startlingly, stunningly original band the UK has produced in many, many years.
Believe me, their performance is that good.
SOUNDS November 25th 1978. Thankyou to Craig for the scans and for transcribing the article.
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