Image from the-raft.com
In their late teens, David Batt and his brother Steve stole some eyeliner from Bowie’s dressing room, some new last names from the New York Dolls, and sounds from both to create Japan. In a dyslexic homage to guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, Dave took up singing and became David Sylvian, while Steve dropped a few letters from “Johansen” to become Steve Jansen. Synthesizing the look and sound of glam rock with a touch of the emerging disco sound, Japan was soon signed to Hansa and released Adolescent Sex in 1978. While a minor hit in Japan, of all places, their look and sound were staggeringly out of touch with the post-punk times in the UK, where they were largely ignored. After an equally spotty 2nd album, in 1980 they hit upon the idea of incorporating elements of the emerging Moroder Euro disco sounds, all shimmering synths and backbeat, into pop songs performed in a rock band setting. This time their timing was perfect, and Quiet Life is one of the first classics of the post-Bowie New Romantic era.
Japan, “Life In Tokyo” (Youtube clip)
Having jettisoned most of the sonic aspects of glam for this Japan 2.0, the band’s only real remaining debt to that movement was sartorial. But while continuing down the trail blazed by Eno and Bolan, Sylvian took androgyny to a new place by dialing it back and making it less cartoonlike, and thus more accessible. Ziggy was outrageous, alien and somewhat threatening to the masses. But Sylvian cloaked his gorgeous, pancaked visage with the suave, sophisticated suit – and vocal stylings – of the aggressively hetero Bryan Ferry. Amazingly, this “gay but straight” look became pretty mainstream, and indeed still encapsulates what it means to be “totally 80’s.”
(Left: David. Right: Nick. Or is it vice versa?)
Just as their sound was taking hold, Japan took an abrupt left turn and started to take more and more out of the music. By their last hit “Ghosts” all that was remained was a droning synth and a vocal. Abandoning Japan at the height of its glory, Sylvian left to pursue a solo career further in that minimalist direction. In the mean time, Nick Rhodes copped Japan’s 16th note sequencers and mascara brushes wholesale and brought the whole package to a level of unprecedented global domination.
While Duran Duran’s debt to Japan is undeniable (and to a degree embarrassing: Nick, dude, don’t you even want to *try* and hide your influences?), somehow it seems like an appropriate passing of the baton, from one gazza ladra to another.