Japan’s seminal album, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, has turned forty. Louder Than War’s Gordon Rutherford states the case for a band who were criminally underrated and wholly misunderstood.
It was the panstick. Always, the panstick. Because of that, they were derided as the poor man’s New York Dolls when they launched themselves into the world. And because of that, at their denouement they ultimately found themselves lumped in with the talentless, bandwagon-jumping flock of poseurs who became the public personification of the new romantic movement. It is something of a tragedy that people never really saw beyond the eyeliner and lipgloss, for underneath lay one of the country’s most talented, innovative and influential bands of their era. And, in the end, one of the most misunderstood.
Sixteen-year-old me was obsessed with Japan. This image-centric phenomenon had become my primary source of inspiration, developing on from The Damned and the Pistols (as if the Pistols weren’t all about image). Sure, I confess, in the beginning it had less to do with the music than the look. Whilst everyone else was still going around in leather jackets and skinny jeans, I sought to model myself on the guy who was labelled the ‘world’s most beautiful man’, David Sylvian. Make up and all. My father, a great man, but the epitome of West of Scotland working class, insisted that I leave the house by the back door lest the neighbours see me.
I’m too old for all that now. The baggy trousers meticulously folded inside red leather tukka boots. The powder blue fitted blazer. The bleached blond quiff and copious amounts of Max Factor. But the music, which sounds as relevant and fresh today as it did in the late-seventies/early-eighties, remains a part of my life.
In choosing a Japan album to write a retrospective on, I suppose there are two immediately obvious choices. Firstly, there is the transformation album, Quiet Life, where they transmogrified from a band playing a commercialised form of glam-punk (to much critical disdain) into a sophisticated euro-tinged art-pop. This transition was announced to the world in the shape of a twelve-inch single produced by disco godfather, Giorgio Moroder. Life in Tokyo didn’t make it onto the album, but it announced a different Japan and stood the test of time sufficiently enough to still get airplay today. Secondly, we have Japan’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album, Tin Drum. I have gone for neither. Just call me The Unconventional.
Instead, the body of work most worthy of celebrating is the album that was sandwiched between Quiet Life and Tin Drum, Gentlemen Take Polaroids. It’s timely that we talk about it now, given that it celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its release (how can that be possible?) on 24th October 2020.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids was the band’s first album on Virgin, having allowed their contract to run down on Hansa, the Eurotrash pop label that gave them their break. Suddenly their stablemates were XTC and Public Image Ltd as opposed to the likes of Boney M. This appeared to bring a new-found confidence, a legitimacy of sorts. They were now credible and Polaroids is the result of their creative instincts being allowed to fully flourish. For the first time in their career, Japan could be true to themselves, on a label that trusted them to do so.
In the same way that Kid A was a Thom Yorke album, Gentlemen Take Polaroids is unquestionably Japan’s most Sylvian-esque album. Its predecessor undeniably felt like a fully collaborative all group affair and Tin Drum allowed the fluid, mellifluous fretless bass lines of Mick Karn and Steve Jansen’s warm percussion to come to the fore. Where Quiet Life invited you to dance and Tin Drum to sit and break bread together, Polaroids was icy and aloof, magisterial and grandiose. The musical equivalent of the Palace of Versailles.
The overall feel verges between cool, as in early Roxy Music cool, and glacially cold. “You can look, but for God’s sake don’t touch”, it cries. It’s the most enigmatic character at the party, standing alone in the corner smoking Gauloises and sipping an Old Fashioned. As Sylvian sings on Swing, “I’ll sit here and watch from afar”. Of course, this just provided their critics with another quiver of arrows. But isn’t fine art supposed to sit on a dais? Isn’t it supposed to possess a sense of detachment? Otherwise, what’s the point?
Brilliant as both Quiet Life and Tin Drum were, Gentlemen Take Polaroids proudly sits at the pinnacle of Japan’s glittering pantheon. Musically speaking, it is their nonpareil. There are only eight tracks on the album (although half of them clock in at over six minutes, which probably explains the absence of any hit singles), but each and every one is outstanding in its own right. Side one opens with the beautifully melodic title track which segues and flows like the Nile into the Mediterranean into their finest six and a half minutes. The magnificent Swing is simply flawless. It is fluidity on vinyl, like liquid gold slowly oozing out of your speakers and you will never hear a bass line like the one played by Mick Karn on this track again in your life.
The songs on Gentlemen Take Polaroids are a little bit like one’s children. It’s probably bad form to pick out favourites. But, after Swing, I must specifically reference the Erik Satie inspired Nightporter. Apart from being a slightly bizarre choice of single (it wasn’t a hit), Nightporter has to be one of the most mournful, beautifully composed seven minutes of music of the past forty years. Sylvian’s voice has never sounded better than it does here, the platform for it provided wonderfully by his elegant piano motif and Andrew Cauthery’s oboe.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids isn’t entirely distant in its feel. The fantastically pulsating Methods of Dance provides an outstanding bridge between Quiet Life and Gentlemen Take Polaroids and it is superbly augmented by Cyo’s faraway, atmospheric harmonies and Mick Karn’s driving saxophone.
Then, of course, we have the obligatory cover, on this occasion it’s Smoky Robinson’s Ain’t That Peculiar. I have always found it strange that a band who can create such wonderful songs have so frequently included covers on their albums. Perhaps they relish the challenge of stripping them down and reconstructing them, like restoring a classic car. Witness their versions of All Tomorrow’s Parties, I Second That Emotion and Don’t Rain On My Parade as evidence. As it happens, their version of Ain’t That Peculiar is particularly enjoyable. Bands should only cover songs if they can bring something fresh to the party and Japan always managed that.
Sometimes I get slightly saddened by Japan’s misunderstood legacy. They became one of those bands who popped up on those lame compilations of the period; Now That’s What I Call New Romanticism or The Very Best Of Synth Pop. Such lazy classification ultimately played an integral part in their decision to quit. Understandably, they despised being labelled in such a way because they were so much more. Whilst they never shifted as many units post-split, a conscious decision incidentally, the quality of their subsequent output cannot be denied. Collectively they reunited in all but name to create a fine album under the Rain Tree Crow moniker in 1991. But perhaps the most prominent legacy of the band has been the solo career of frontman David Sylvian, who, as we all knew, turned out to be much more than just a pretty face.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids closes with the sophisticated layers of Taking Islands In Africa, a track co-written by Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto. It is a piece of music and a collaboration that was to give a strong hint as to Sylvian’s future direction. Immediately following Japan’s break-up, he continued to collaborate with Sakamoto to create some beautiful works, including the theme to the David Bowie starring movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Over the years, Sylvian went on to join forces with such luminaries as Robert Fripp and Holger Czukay and made some superb albums such as Brilliant Trees and Blemish. And whilst, on the face of it, his solo work is far removed from the days of Japan, on reflection, the musical path he chose to go down should surprise no-one upon reprising Gentlemen Take Polaroids. It’s all foreshadowed.
Forty years on, Gentlemen Take Polaroids deserves to be regarded as a seminal album in pop history. It’s quality and uniqueness is unquestionable and its influence is well documented. It is one that extended into many forms of subsequent intelligent pop throughout the ensuing years and it remains as relevant, brilliant and super-cool as it did in 1980. Revisit it. Relax. And swing.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids can be bought at Sister Ray
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.