Quiet Life (Deluxe Edition)
For a band that had consistently been out of step with prevailing musical trends, Japan’s arrival in the public consciousness one Thursday night in October 1981 could not have been timelier.
Their performance of 'Quiet Life' on primetime TV show Top of the Pops came at a time when formerly avant-garde artists were remaking and remodelling themselves for mainstream success. However unintentionally it may have been, Japan were now part of the musical zeitgeist.
Although, that TV appearance did seem like a peculiar move. The band had just finished making their fifth and final album (‘Tin Drum’), yet there they were, miming to a song that was over two years old, one that been recorded for a label that they were no longer signed to and were no longer on the best of terms with. Furthermore, having recently dismissed their guitarist (Rob Dean), there was a peculiar instance during the performance when his solo began and he wasn’t there to mime along with it...
But against all of the odds, they excelled. Visually, it may have been singer David Sylvian’s Ferry-like croon, suave mannerisms, and elegant dress sense (Ferry again) that drew the attention. But Mick Karn’s fluidity with his fretless bass was remarkable (a style which allowed him to guest on a number of other musicians' records before his untimely death in 2011), as was Steve Jansen’s driving drums. However, it was keyboardist Richard Barbieri whose pulsating Moroderesque synthesizer sound that added the electronic sheen that was integral to their distinct blend of art-pop.
The following year would see an irrational parade of re-releases from their old label (Hansa) alongside newfound critical acclaim for their sophisticated swansong ‘Tin Drum' (Virgin). It's intriguing that their biggest hits were a rather pallid take on Smokey Robinson's 'I Second That Emotion' (from the 'Quiet Life' era) and 'Ghosts' a quiet and angsty moment of lonely dread from 'Tin Drum'. To the casual observer, it may have appeared to be just a tad confusing.
Forty years on from Hansa’s fevered attempts to recoup what they may have lost, this meticulously assembled reissue (a half-speed remastering of the original album as well as all singles, b-sides, remixes, and an entire 'lost' live album), allows for a reappraisal of the record.
After the two ill-judged long players that preceded it, the bands one-off single with producer Giorgio Moroder (‘Life In Tokyo’), seemed to change everything. Barbieri’s keyboards moved to the fore and Sylvian loses the unconvincing sneer of earlier recordings in favour of a sombre and more reflective tone. It’s as if all the New York Dolls albums had been removed from the communal stereo in favour of some Eno and Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.
By the time it came to record the album Japan have been reborn, Mick Karn added saxophone to his repertoire on the lonely and lovely ‘Despair’ (Sylvian even gets away with singing in French), and they’re confident enough to compose the cinematic ‘The Other Side of Life,’ with a sublime orchestral arrangement playing alongside Barbieri's melancholy piano. They even turned in a genuinely brilliant cover with the VU’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’.
In a little over a year from that first appearance on Top of the Pops, Japan disbanded. They didn’t stay around long enough to be out of step again and, despite the personal fall out (another article, some other time), there is something rare and dignified about that. Furthermore, they never succumbed to exhuming their hits on the nostalgia circuit. What remained though was a handful of exquisite and experimental albums that have maintained their allure over time, ‘Quiet Life’ is the pioneering moment that it started to make brilliant sense.