12 – Japan: The Art of Parties

mick karn japan

Compiling party playlists is such a bewildering experience. Who could have predicted twenty years ago that technology would create such an overabundance of possibilities, such a tail-chasing, head-scratching array of instantly accessible micro-genres to mine? It’s easily as stressful as constructing canapés or choosing an outfit. In fact, it’s worse. A playlist has to predict the party trajectory, to anticipate its undulations of mood: the quiet beginning, the first flush, the mid-evening lull, the second wave, the table-dancing and the tuneless singalongs, the bilious aftermath. And then some idiot always disconnects the I-Pod and plonks on an embarrassing CD that escaped the pre-party purge, completely invalidating hours and hours of hard work. At the last party I threw, technology actually failed me: the I-Pod decided to rebel against my demands, and refused to disconnect properly from my laptop. I whimpered at the thought of guests missing out on my lovingly crafted romp through the decades. As I threw musical caution to the wind and invited people to choose party CDs, other aspects of the evening became the focus of my anxieties: where previously I’d been fretting about how to pass from Ella Fitzgerald to T Rex, I now found myself having palpitations about the eggs mimosa. The only way to get through this kind of incident is to hit the sauce early, and with ruthless efficiency.

Not to cast aspersions about his alcohol intake, I nevertheless think David Sylvian is with me on this one. Nobody pitches disquiet with such panache. Reviewing Japan’s still-astonishing 1982 single ‘Ghosts’ (a no. 5 hit, no less), Julie Burchill infamously wrote that ‘David Sylvian has a bellyache and so we all have to hear about it’. There’s certainly something dyspeptic about ‘Ghosts’: those keyboards, ring-modulated into Martian gurgles or detuned into mournful moans, could soundtrack any sickie, though it would of course be pissing down outside, and you’d have to be reclining in a flimsy silk dressing gown and drinking green tea in a tiny cup with your pinkie up. For many, that was the problem with Japan during their brief time in the limelight: they were highly stylized and studied. Some mistakenly believed them to be New Romantic bandwagoneers, though there’s little credence to that: yes, the dramatic synth-disco of ‘Quiet Life’ is the best song Duran Duran never made (in fact, a good deal better than any they did make), but it was recorded in 1979, when Simon Le Bon was still a drama student at the University of Birmingham, and by the peak years of the Blitz club and frilly shirts, Japan were already wearing suits and investigating world music. For other detractors, they were just too arty. I always titter at the thought of Alan Partridge introducing ‘Life in Tokyo’ on his Radio Norwich graveyard shift, branding Japan ‘effeminate futurists’ before deflating their pomp by declaring that ‘life can be cruel in Tokyo. It’s certainly congested.’

It follows, then, that anyone who cherishes ‘authenticity’ in pop music will balk at the thought of a song entitled ‘The Art of Parties’. But anyone who regularly visits this blog has probably sensed by now that I have little time for so-called authenticity. It’s just a deluded pose: there’s always an act, a theatrical rejection of theatricality, an overdub (read Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker’s Faking It – it’s a fascinating thesis on how we apprehend the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ in popular music). Bravo Japan, for writing songs called ‘Methods of Dance’ and ‘Gentlemen take Polaroids’, for wearing your research on your froufrou sleeves. For not treating your listeners with contempt. For saying, ‘yes, we are visitors to this world. We are not rockists, nor are we Japanese, but we nevertheless believe in pop, which is too strange a thing to be tied to four chords and love songs’. You got away with it. At least two Smash Hits covers: result!

That’s 1981 for you. ‘The Art of Parties’ wouldn’t have sounded especially outré at even the most suburban of soirees back then. It charted in a year crammed with bonkers hit singles: anyone of ’81 vintage may well remember a bewildered cohort of Top of the Pops presenters trying to get their heads round Laurie Anderson’s answerphone epic ‘O Superman’, or the perversely-named ‘Flowers of Romance’, Public Image’s tribal drum-and-cello drone. ‘Parties’ parent album Tin Drum sat in the 1982 Top 20 amid a glut of art-pop gold – Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, The Associates’ Sulk – all manifest proof that while the dogma of individualism soon began to rip apart the country’s social fabric, its artistic equivalent made for a truly golden age of wilful, fearless music. In fact, Japan became so singular they had to split up as the Tin Drum singles were still being released. Meanwhile, the world was catching up with them. Gary Numan records began to sound like Japan. Fretless bass sneaked into records that should never have admitted it, in pale homage to the great (and sadly, now late) Mick Karn. Tin Drum knocks them all into a cocked douli. It has profound things to say about the vampirisms peculiar to pop music. It is an LP besotted with China, but it steers on the right side of fetishized Orientalism by acknowledging that its obsessions are a pose. One of its bigger hits, ‘Visions of China’, spells this out: it’s the East as pure illusion. By foregrounding non-occidental musical elements, and combining them with a dash of detached white-boy funk and European electronics, Japan were making a point about the cultural imperialism of the West, the relentless drive to collect the bric-a-brac of other civilizations.

Well, this explains ‘Cantonese Boy’ and ‘Sons of Pioneers’ at least. But to my ears, ‘The Art of Parties’ really comes out of a vacuum. No matter which version you listen to – the more hectic 45RPM, the slinkier album track, or one of the band’s classic Whistle Test performances – Steve Jansen’s octopus drumming, Mick Karn’s rubber-band bass and the jabbing pin-pricks of brass are almost stomach-churning (and that’s before Sylvian vents his bellyache, Ms Burchill!) These verses remind me of the very first time I heard Ravel’s Bolero. When we finally came to the climax, I exclaimed, ‘Dad, the record’s stuck!’, while simultaneously realising that this little subversive trick was the main thrill of the music. Similarly, my virgin outing with ‘The Art of Parties’ made me queasy in one bar only to be delighted in the next. It actually sounds as if three songs are playing backwards at the same time. No wonder David’s ‘living on the edge of [his] nerves’: I’d be calling for the cold compress and the cucumber. In the middle eight, however, he announces he is ‘burning buildings’, before ‘building’ anew: he’s deconstructing pop in order to reconstruct it. And lo and behold, an almost hummable chorus: the groove settles, the dissonance dissolves, fizzing into funk. Well, fucked-up funk, anyway. Danced on a bed of nails, to the point of pins and needles.

Add a snatch here and there of cow-in-pain guitar and you have something that sounds a little like Talking Heads, but a lot more like nothing before or since. It’s closer in spirit to Stockhausen than Spandau Ballet. Perhaps Japan knew they were going to be lumped with the New Romantics, and decided to pull the rug from under their pirate boots, satirising the whole ‘scene’ by putting the art back into parties. That’s one interpretation. There will be a thousand others, and I would like to hear some of them if you’ve time to suggest any, because ultimately I don’t have the foggiest what David Sylvian is singing about. For all I know, he might actually be having a vol-au-vent crisis. He might well be fretting over his playlist. One thing’s for sure, though: he’ll always be on mine. Even in 2011, it cheers me to think of the tinkle of wine glasses and the plash of the refill, accompanied by this glorious paranoid clatter. Party on.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “12 – Japan: The Art of Parties

  1. As somebody who came to Japan just a little too late (i was 14 when Exorcising Ghosts came out – suffice to say it changed my life) to be able to see them, or indeed share with someone/anyone my obsession with them (everybody else my age or older, had moved on to The Smiths) – i used to spend hours pouring over old Smash Hits (either my older sisters, or bought at Record Fairs) looking for Japan lyrics. I never found ‘The Art Of Parties’, so had to make do with my own interpretation of them. However,

    I still have no clue what David is on about, and I’m not sure that he does either!

    Absolutely loved this post ” closer in spirit to Stockhausen than Spandau Ballet” – yowzer!

    Been wanting to write a post about Japan on my own blog for the last three years (http://magicalexdjs.blogspot.com/) but, if i’m honest, i know that if i’m ever going to write a book, it will be based around my ridiculous teenage obsession of all things Sylvian…

    Looking forward to reading more…

  2. Hey there – I hope you do write that book! Perhaps you will have an epiphany about those lyrics. I’m comforted to hear I’m not the only one scratching my head. Most of The Associates’ stuff leaves me baffled (and overawed) to about the same degree, particularly ‘Nude Spoons’. This obscurity is a big part of the appeal, though (in a way it really isn’t for me with, say, Bob Dylan).

    Thanks for reading my blog, and I look forward to reading yours too!

  3. Nerina

    Perhaps David is musing on the rainy English BBQ (‘the art of parties / under heavy weather) with memories only of childhood’s scorching summers and cook-outs (‘once I was young / I’d shelter from the sun?)

    • Interesting theory, Nerina! I’ve thought about the gastronomic implications. I’ve noticed that if you take the art out of parties you end up with pies. Hopefully not barbecued though…

  4. Ellibin

    Loved this piece! As a teenage futurist, I loved Japan, and still listen to ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, and ‘Tin Drum’ regularly. It was so sad to hear the news about Mick Karn. In true ‘Partridge’ style, I just can’t resist playing ‘air-bass’ whenever listening to a Japan track, though if it’s ‘Visions Of China’, only ‘air-drums’ will do!

    • It’s always great to hear that there are other air-drums and air-bass players out there. ‘Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ just get better and better, don’t they? Music that exists outside of time, I think, despite the ‘visuals’!

  5. Well i finally wrote a little piece about my love of those ‘effeminate futurists from the eighties’

    http://magicalexdjs.blogspot.com/2012/02/cantonese-boy.html

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