Excerpt from Chapter One : ‘Back in the beginning’.
Author’s note : ‘Despite having a dislike of the ‘Origins’ sections of books, both as a reader and writer I eventually got into this chapter. The grim atmosphere of Catford in the early 70’s reminded me of my own experiences growing up in Splott and Tremorfa in Cardiff during the 70’s and ’80’s – Bereft of culture and heavy with fear. More than that, I was lucky enough to track down both a friend (Nick Huckle) and a Catford Boys teacher (William Newton-Norton) of Mick, David et al who were there at the time. Invaluable! (You’ll have to get the book for William’s recollections). This segment begins at just over halfway in to this first chapter and ends at about three quarters through and deals with the brief period in which Japan were a trio, prior to the addition of Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean. (The Chapter title, is of course, a Mick Karn song from his fine album Bestial Cluster.’)
Photo : Andonis Michaelides, unknown photographer and David Alan Batt, taken in Andonis’ brothers bedroom 1974. David wears a badge bearing the logo of the Soul magazine, ‘Black Music’.
Catford, South East London, 1973/1974.
If the peerless glam pop of this era – made by working-class London boys just like themselves – provided a view on to a whole new vista, then maybe playing music seriously would provide an entry into that world. ‘It was the only open door on the horizon,’ says David, ‘I knew that I had to get out of that environment and that creating music was my only means of escape. Which is no good reason for making music. There aren’t that many noble ideas in a young boy’s mind, but at that time it didn’t matter.’ Looking the part would also help. ‘I remember when we were like 13 or 14,’ says David, ‘and Mick and I were getting our ears pierced at that time, and oh! the grief we got for it, you know, from everyone! The traditional, usual places, building sites and what have you.’ Changing their appearance was an important step towards self-sufficiency for David, and Mick in particular. ‘I would say there was a survivalist element to a lot of it,’ says David of the gradual manipulation of his appearance. ‘It was like putting on a spacesuit to walk on the moon. If you didn’t have it, you wouldn’t survive. That’s the only way it made sense to me.’
Around this time Stephen gave up his instrument of first choice – the guitar: ‘Being left-handed I couldn’t keep up with the learning curve of chord shapes – everything upside down, with certain chord changes tough to implement because of having to use the wrong fingers – so unless I restrung the guitar it was too tricky.’ Steve ‘Playing’ guitar, 1987. ‘I then started to play an electronic organ for a while but it was too drab and limited the energy we were feeling and expressing. So I then got a set of bongos which were much more akin to the Bolan/Finn set-up, and things progressed from there.’
‘Steve was a pretty atypical younger brother,’ says Huckle. ‘He was in the same class as my brother who was two years younger than me. And my brother then was an embarrassment to me, but Dave and Steve hung out together.’ There was a moment when Huckle himself could have joined the trio, but he had already realised that while he loved music he wasn’t particularly musical. ‘Mick, of course, was learning the bassoon then,’ he remembers, ‘and I did try and join in musically. I took guitar lessons from an old granny down the road but I wasn’t very good – I didn’t have any talent! Unlike the other Catford boys, we weren’t into playing football at lunchtime . . . we used to go down to Dave’s house and listen to records. Either that, or hang out in a corner just talking music. It was literally just music, music, music.’ Mick, the most musically talented of all, struggled to find a place within Stephen and David’s musical activities. ‘I tried numerous ways to join David and Steve,’ he’d recall, ‘like taking up the Rosedale organ Dad had bought me a few years back, but it meant getting to know what chords are and all those black and white keys are terribly testing. I gave up on that and tried vocals next. David didn’t want to sing, so it would be easy once I’d learnt the words.’
With little money between them, finding their musical feet was an effort, mostly enabled by the kind of good luck that blesses the young. In a school corridor Mick had bought a battered bass guitar seemingly on a whim from Jack Stafford. In a seemingly random moment, Mick had found his calling. ‘It didn’t feel right until I got a bass,’ he’d say. At this point Mick was still concentrating on being a singer. Still, he reasoned that it wasn’t unheard of that a bass player could also be a vocalist. Although still nameless, Japan had begun. ‘In 1973, we formed the band and began to practise,’ confirms Steve. A few years later David would sum up their almost nonchalant formation: ‘We got together right, and I could only play a little bit of rhythm guitar right, and Steve could play a few percussion instruments. We said, “Mick, why don’t you try bass?” and that’s how it came about. None of us has been taught, none of us knows a technique. We only know exactly what we do now. That’s why we’ll be progressing for a long time.’ Now that Mick had an actual electric instrument, things were looking up. But this also posed a stumbling block. ‘I had no amplifier,’ says Mick, ‘so at the Batt household on Saturday evenings we used their hi-fi system, which enabled me to be just about heard against the acoustic guitar.’
Photo: Steve with first drum kit. A rare occasion in a rehearsal room, 1974.
Right on cue, Steve got his first drum kit. At 13 he acquired it for £30 (the equivalent of over £200 in 2015). ‘I was very pleased when I got them; they were delivered at night and I sat in front of them smiling until morning,’ Steve says. The gift was from his parents, the wisdom of which they would question. ‘My parents were kind enough to buy it for me; it didn’t seem like such a lot at the time,’ remembers the drummer. ‘My mum saw it advertised on the noticeboard where she worked. She could have easily kept quiet about it, bless her. I can only wonder how many days they spent regretting that decision when we turned electric in the upstairs bedroom. I remember constantly being asked to go light on the floor tom.’ Thus another problem hovered into view. ‘At first we had a difficult time finding places to rehearse,’ continues Steve, ‘so for the first six months we played in our house and for the next six months in Mick’s house. We played for two hours every day. It was very noisy and my sister got angry, especially with the sound of the drums. After that, we practised on the third floor of Mick’s father’s butcher’s shop. Huckle: ‘The Batt parents were good people. They didn’t have any money but they didn’t put up any barriers between Dave and his musical ambition. One of my favourite memories is when I went round their house to listen to music in the evenings and you’d always get beans on toast.’ Thus the legendary rhythm section of Jansen and Karn was born. It was pivotal that they began playing seriously at the same time. Mick: ‘A lot of it [the rhythm section’s unique chemistry] has to do with the fact that Steve Jansen got his drum kit at exactly the same time as I got my first bass guitar, which was a very cheap and nasty instrument. It only cost me £5 at school and the action [distance between strings and fretboard] was very high, which meant I had to use a lot of strength to press down the notes. Because we were learning our instruments at the same time, we were both constantly pushing each other forward, constantly showing off to each other going “I can do this, what can you do?” and trying to keep up with each other. We’d also insist the other person progressed all the time.’
Photo : Stephen Batt, Andonis Michaelides and David Batt rehearsing for the wedding gig. As evidenced by Steve’s bass drum they had now decided on the name. Photos again taken in Andonis’ brother’s bedroom. 1974. Note Bowie Pic on Fireplace and the steering wheel of MGC car owned by Andonis’ brother, most likely placed on door frame to avoid theft. (He still drives the car today). Nick Huckle : ‘Yeah I’m almost certain that’s Mick’s room. The door behind Steve is a cupboard, and whoever is taking the photo is sitting/standing on Mick’s bed. Unlike Dave’s or Steve’s rooms there are no posters on the wall. Micks parents wouldn’t allow the aesthetic of the flock wallpaper to be ruined by such things.’
In the spring of 1974, having given up on academia, David and Mick took to walking the streets of Lewisham when they played truant, dreaming out loud to one another. They would have looked an incongruous pair: the exotic looking Mick, still slightly overweight, brown eyes and skin gleaming beside the rail-thin, paper-white David. They often attracted aggressive unwanted attention and, even without make-up, were already labelled ‘weirdos’ and ‘poofs’. On one such wander, abetted by a recent photo of Bowie, they found a hairdresser who would give them a lookalike haircut. The crude mullets they now sported would have further alienated them from both skinheads and bus drivers alike.
Pic : Japan in the Catford Gazette, summer 1974.
In late May 1974, Mick’s older brother offered them a spot at his wedding with only weeks to prepare. The trio were still rehearsing half an hour before the gig when the hired PA arrived. Barbieri was not involved at this point: Mick: ‘June 1st was Japan’s first ever concert. It must have sounded dreadful, but up to that point we had been writing music based around songs that David had written. We were only 14 [Mick was actually 15, David 16 and Steve 14] and I was the vocalist but it was only moments before the curtain went up that I froze and said, “David, I can’t do this – you should do it as they’re your songs and you know the vocals off by heart.” I was so nervous, I couldn’t even remember half of the lyrics. He reluctantly became the vocalist there and then.’
Photo : David Batt in Bedroom, 1974. Taken from Mick Karn’s autobiography. You can buy it here – Mick’s book.
Such was the panic in preparing for their debut ‘concert’ that the trio had forgotten to call themselves anything. When asked who they wanted to be introduced as, a hurried discussion followed. David’s suggestion, apparently plucked from the ether, was agreed upon. Thus the trio were instantly christened ‘Japan.’ Mick recalls that they performed covers of songs by Bowie (‘The Jean Genie’ was the opener), The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, as well as original material with some pieces as long as twenty minutes. Other songs included ‘The Man Who Sold The World,’ ‘Queen Bitch,’ ‘I’m So Free,’ ‘Sweet Jane’, and a Batt original ‘Tongues of China.’ The trio played heads down until the wedding guests wandered off to the buffet. And then they played some more. ‘How I wish somebody had recorded the event,’ Mick would say, ‘it must have been awful.’ (In fact an ad for a reel-to-reel recording of the gig did surface in the mid 1990s). The name ‘Japan’ would be dropped and taken up again over the coming months. It held no particular meaning for any of its members. David: ‘The name? No reason whatsoever. We just needed a name because we were about to do our first show and I came up with the name. I didn’t know anything about the East – it was a temporary name because no one particularly liked it and it stayed; you just get attached to things and think “why bother changing it?” so it stayed.’ Mick: ‘It came from a fascination with the country itself. We planned to use the name only once.’ Steve: ‘The name was chosen out of innocence, we had no knowledge of Japan at all. It may have come from a lyric or something. I often think that the influence might have all come from one of Bowie’s lyrics, maybe even “Ziggy Stardust” [‘Like some cat from Japan’]. This was about 1974, and so we named ourselves Japan. In those days we listened to Bowie and Roxy Music and things like that, and I think that might have triggered some imagery – I think Bowie had some costumes and things like that and it all just filtered through, but our actual knowledge of it [the country] was very little.’
Taken from ‘Japan. A Foreign Place. 1974-1984’. Published by Burning Shed Ltd.
You can buy the softcover version here – Japan biography
And here – Japan Biography/Ebay
There’s also a typically gorgeous Japanese version featuring expanded content and additional photos. Buy it here – A Foreign Place. (Japanese version).