Excerpt from Japan : A Foreign Place. Chapter 8 : “The Tin Drum.”

Author’s note :  “I consider this to be the best chapter of any book I’ve written. Worthy of a stand alone release.  (A Kindle download?) This is because of the input I had from the two Steve’s – Nye and Jansen. They were kind enough to answer every nerdy question I could come up with and then some. Mr Jansen even dug into his diary from the time!  I did ask him to send me the whole thing so I could save him the trouble of transcribing but he declined for some reason…I also spoke to an engineer on the sessions as well as the stalwart Nick Huckle.  And I was honoured and blown away to sit with Mr Barbieri for an afternoon while he played me rehearsal tapes from the period.

Mr Jansen also supplied many photos from the sessions, which at the time were not widely seen. These appear in the book but not here.  You can of course view some of them at Steve’s site. Jansen Pics.

This excerpt starts at about a quarter of the way in and ends about a quarter before the end.  Buy the book : https://burningshed.com/anthony-reynolds_japan-a-foreign-place-expanded_book?filter_tag=anthony%20reynolds



Japan had rehearsed many but not all of the songs they were due to record. Rehearsal tapes from 10, 11, 15 and 16 June show Jansen and Karn in particular struggling to agree upon exit and entry points of songs like ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’ to the point of exasperation. Jansen: ‘That was six rounds, I come in on eight.’ Karn [sounding impatient]: ‘It’s four rounds, then six rounds.’ Jansen: ‘Rubbish!’ Such stresses were a part of any serious band’s make-up and such efforts were more than worth it. It was essential, especially with this innovative new material, that the groundwork was paved before entering the studio. As Jansen explained, ‘We usually have a certain amount of the songs arranged before we go into the studio and once we get in that’s usually the most spontaneous part.’ Nye: ‘There were no demos and we made no plans. The only remit for me was to get the album done as efficiently as possible since the budget was so tight. I believe we were allotted six weeks in total to get the album delivered. Had I known what was in store in terms of the complexity of the tracks, I may have been daunted by the prospect, but I was blissfully unaware and that was a blessing.’ Nye was not particularly familiar with Japan’s previous recordings and didn’t make any effort to listen to them in preparation. As a result, Nye ‘had not formed any opinions as to their strengths and weaknesses. As it turned out, I don’t think there would have been much to gain in this particular instance, since Tin Drum was such a unique album and not really comparable, which I’m sure was the way Japan wanted it anyway.’

Karn and Jansen. Rehearsals, London. 1981.

After a restful night in their variously tiered bedrooms, Japan awoke on Monday 22 June, to begin their chef-d’oeuvre. That first day mostly involved the setting up of drums, microphones and any other instruments that would be needed at this stage. ‘Most of their equipment came down in a van with one of the regular “man with a van” guys we used,’ remembers Huckle. ‘Other bits and pieces were hired in as required and usually delivered by the Maurice Plauquet company. I remember on this occasion we rented a marimba and various bits of percussion and a Prophet V.’ The setting up of equipment and sound levels on that initial day had exhausted all concerned, but they still attempted a start. ‘In the evening we tried to get into working, but for some reason we couldn’t quite get the song ‘Talking Drum’ worked out so we left it for the night,’ recalls Jansen.

By the Tuesday, some actual recording had been accomplished, with the drums and bass to ‘Talking Drum’ being completed. At this point the song was mooted to be Japan’s next single with ‘Canton as the B-side. Sylvian would always see ‘Talking Drum’ as a personal favourite and as the key track to the album. Jansen’s drums were vital in this respect. Throughout the album, Jansen’s drumming is more expressive and yet in some ways more deadpan than ever before. Each beat and each hit sound exquisitely thought-out as if the drummer had programmed himself before recording the track. Unlike ‘Talking Drum’, some of the drum tracks on the other songs on the album would combine a mix of real playing and programmed drum sounds. In addition, Nye would add FX to the drums as they went along. ‘On “Talking Drum”,’ he states, ‘a lot of the sound comes from the room it was recorded in. That big stone room at the Manor had a great ambience, a natural reverb. Then, when you feedback the harmoniser I added to it you get a weird, unnatural sound. But I would only use the harmoniser on the ambient drum mics. Then I added a noise gate, which cuts off the reverb and makes it sound even more unnatural and I’d add a harmoniser in stereo. So the left-hand side is pitched down and the right-hand side is pitched up. It adds a queasy feeling to the drum sound.’ Whatever the methods of drumming, Tin Drum is far from devoid of feeling; on ‘Talking Drum’ itself, Jansen is almost aggressive in his authority, even as the drum pattern seems to de-construct and reconstruct itself as the song moves forward in zigzags. Their actual sound suggests a slight vertigo; a disturbance of the inner ear. Usually the drums and bass for the whole album would be set in place first before attempting overdubs, but instead – perhaps because it was a planned single – Japan decided to complete ‘Talking Drum’ as soon as it was begun. Karn added his bass immediately after Jansen finished. ‘The rush to finish it as we went along,’ says Nye ‘could also have been down to Virgin wanting to know what they were getting as soon as possible.’ The resulting rhythm track was a proto-funk scaffolding strobed with odd-angled grooves and holes with plenty of space left for Barbieri and Sylvian to interject their meticulously programmed synth lines.

Talking Drum. (Out of Phase).

Talking Drum. (Rare live version).

Gavin Harrison, a world-renowned drummer who would one day go on to play with Barbieri in the band Porcupine Tree explains the rhythm section thus: ‘[They] fascinated me. They broke all the rules; there was no sort of “follow-the-bass-drum-with-the-bass” Motown style or putting the snare drum on the 2 and 4. They just made up weird, quirky rhythmic patterns where Mick would play between Steve’s notes. Steve is a very stylistic drummer, but he’s very, very simple. I don’t think he’s ever played a hard fill in his life, and he would probably tell you that he can’t. He came at drumming like a photographer, or somebody who’s not a drummer. Pretty much any drummer I listen to, I can hear where they’re coming from; I can tell their historic path. Steve Jansen might as well have stepped off another planet. I couldn’t understand where he got any of this stuff.’ Jansen was never particularly keen on theorising his playing, but did at least attempt to explain some influence at the time. Jansen: ‘I’ve always admired [Yukihiro] Takahashi since I saw him in the Sadistic Mika Band [supporting Roxy Music] years ago, and he struck me then as being a really good drummer. Then when I heard he’d worked with YMO, I was convinced. He has influenced me – he’s about the only influence I can pick out.’ Takahashi and Jansen would go on to become firm friends and decades later Takahashi would return the compliment: ‘I did feel an immediate affinity with Steves drumming,’ he says. ‘This feeling grew stronger when he started playing in sync with the computer, but its hard to explain precisely why. What I can say with certainty is that his meticulously calculated and sophisticated drumming style felt very familiar to me.’ Karn and Jansen were the (drum and) base architecture of Tin Drum, but it was an architecture that showed its skeleton on the outside, an aural equivalent of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This was a startlingly unique basis for a pin-up pop band in their early 20s.


Working around the clock on Wednesday 24 June, Japan began recording the planned B-side to ‘Talking Drum’. ‘All was going well until we started work on “Canton”, Karn would remember, ‘and the Travis Bean bass began to let me down.’ The problem was that on this particular track the bass part required Karn to rub the aluminium neck ‘quite frantically, sliding notes continuously in one small area, and the heat generated from my hand was enough to bend the metal out of pitch.’ As a result, Karn would have to leave the bass to cool down mid-recording, which was interrupting the flow of the session and the tight schedule imposed upon them by Virgin. The ever-resourceful Huckle phoned round and had located a local bass manufacture, Wal Basses, who invited Karn into their workshop. Thus Karn, due to the pure luck of Wal having a workshop in Oxford, switched from Travis Bean to the bass that would become his signature. ‘The Wal worked perfectly on the first take,’ says Karn; it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Soon after, Wal would build Karn a custom-built bass with a Brazilian mahogany core and African tulip top, adding humbucking pickups and an active pre-amp. With this problem overcome, both the bass and drums to ‘Canton’ were soon completed. ‘Mick and I nailed it on the fourth take,’ says Jansen. An unusual looking instrument was found under some tarpaulin; constructed from bamboo and the height and width of several feet, the unknown instrument was an incredibly fortuitous find. The unique sound it produced by rattling peas within the bamboo suited the pentatonic Orientalism of ‘Canton’ perfectly. That Friday, Karn and Jansen recorded the ‘bamboo rattles’ that duplicate the piece’s main melody. It was a two-man job. ‘The two of us had to duck and dive in all directions to avoid hitting each other,’ recalled Karn of their playing of the instrument, ‘a synchronised choreography full of grunts and groans from stretching to reach the appropriate tubes.’ ‘Watching them play that,’ says Nye, ‘was comedy.’

With the foundations of two tracks laid down, the shape and direction of the album were beginning to reveal themselves. Sylvian: ‘We started with “Canton” which was the first thing we recorded along with “Talking Drum” and we just decided that they worked so well we’d arrange the rest of the album around the same ideas.’ Less than a week into recording, the two main men at Virgin – Branson and Draper – arrived to check on the progress. ‘We would visit them during recording,’ says Draper; ‘they were very self-contained and sure of who they were, but it wasn’t a closed set. They were very confident of who they were musically by now, but there was no sense of us or Virgin being cut off or alienated.’ Later that day on Thursday the 25th, Simon House, who had previously played violin on ‘My New Career’ and the unreleased ‘Some Kind of Fool’, arrived to add his arabesque contribution to ‘Talking Drum’. He would also double the melody part of ‘Canton’, but this remained buried in the final mix.

Canton (out of Phase).

Tin Drum was a different recording experience from previous Japan albums, both in content and context. The Manor was a world unto itself and one Sylvian wouldn’t return to until 1986. ‘Virgin were always trying to get him to record at The Manor,’ says Huckle, ‘but after his initial experience with Tin Drum, he wasn’t into it for some reason.’ Sylvian was a self-confessed hermit and it was perhaps the communal living aspect of the studio that didn’t agree with him. Nye: ‘The Manor was residential, so we were together for meals and after work for a beer or two and a game of snooker, but usually tiredness would put you quickly to bed.’ Huckle: ‘Unlike all their other albums where I spent most of the time in the control room, at the Manor there was tons to do if you weren’t recording. Steve, Rich and I spent a lot of time playing snooker in the games room. They also had a great lounge with a VCR and loads of what was then the latest thing – videos! Dave barely left the studio as I remember, apart from mealtimes. There was a huge kitchen where everyone assembled for meals. We had home-cooking for a change unlike the McDonald’s fare we lived on at AIR.’

The Manor even came with its own menagerie. Barbieri: ‘There were two giant Irish Wolfhounds at the Manor, Willie and Bowser. They used to come inside the studio for biscuits, but couldn’t stay long because the warmth caused arthritic problems for them.’ Huckle: ‘Yes, I remember the giant Wolfhounds that just seemed to sleep all day. Then there were the swans. There was a hysterical moment when Mick, in his inevitable fashion, managed to upset the swans in the lake, and was chased across the expansive front lawn by a giant, irate swan flapping its wings wildly. I think Mick did claim he’d caught a nip on the bum. A few of us were watching, doubled up with hysterics, from the games room.’ Nye himself was a refreshing, down-to-earth presence. ‘He would seem to eat a vindaloo every day, which resulted in much breaking of wind,’ laughs Barbieri. Jansen: ‘He was proud of his flatulence. He’d do so and say, “right, now get out and walk!”’ Barbieri: ‘He would also pinch our arses as we went up the stairs, but he was incredibly sensitive and tasteful when it came to artistic matters. A great musician, with perfect pitch I think, and very open to our ideas, however abstract they might have seemed. I consider him the fifth band member on that album. He had the patience and creativity to cope with some quite demanding sessions. It was intense at times, but we still had fun. That’s the weird thing with making albums. You take it so seriously and put every creative ounce into it, knowing you’ll never be able to change anything once it’s completed. Yet on the other hand, at times you can be joking around so much, you’re nearly incapable of recording an overdub.’


Kate Bush with Willie and Bowser. {Or Bowser and Willie. I’m not sure.}

On Saturday 27 June, Japan awoke late and started final overdubbing on ‘Talking Drum’ at 2.00pm, which was mixed by midnight. They then did the rest of the overdubs on ‘Canton’ and finished mixing this it at 10.00am the following Sunday. This was the first Japan song to be co-credited to Jansen as a writer and, indeed, the drums on ‘Canton’ are a lead instrument, propelling the track forward before all else, almost dominating it. ‘Steve wasn’t a particularly loud drummer,’ says Nye. ‘He didn’t play hard, but didn’t play soft either. The sound of the room had a lot to do with it. His patterns were so unique, he would never play anything that was just “straight” and that was a relief to me, after years of recording straightforward drummers.’

There were no gigs booked that summer and any offers that came in were refused. The only focus was to write and record the new material. Japan’s approach was more meticulous and yet freer than on any previous album. For some this was down to a feeling of having nothing to lose; apparently Karn did not see much of a future for the band beyond the next year. ‘We started from the feeling that this would become our last album, so we only did what we felt like ourselves,’ he’d reason, ‘[it was] very spontaneous, and that put the frame for the whole album. That’s the strange thing about Tin Drum. It was made on instinct.’ Karn was hinting at the pressure exerted upon the group by label and management that if they did not secure a commercial breakthrough soon, then they would be dropped. Sylvian, seemingly aloof from such considerations, never saw this as a factor. ‘There were always worries that we would be dropped by our record company,’ he’d explain years later. ‘There was always that threat of being dropped, but I can’t ever say it affected my attitude to the writing of the music.’ Huckle says that, ‘I’m not sure whether Virgin actually could have just dropped them because they had a three album deal. But having lived under that threat almost since day one with Hansa, I don’t think the guys took too much notice of such threats by that time.’

Karn was also possibly considering a solo future, his confidence empowered by recent session work and the fawning reaction to his exhibitions. He and Sylvian were their least close during the recording of Tin Drum, with the bassist absenting the studio when he was not needed. Sylvian, on the other hand, never left Nye’s side and when he wasn’t contributing to a mix or recording vocals or guitar he was alongside Barbieri programming synths. Karn and Sylvian were fire and earth, the former with his outgoing, humorous personality, precocious sexuality and love of the hash pipe; the latter quieter, not given to demonstration, his humour rarer, dryer and more refined and his use of drugs confined to the occasional toot of coke to keep him focused and working long into early morning. In company, Karn invited you into his world and entertained you there, while Sylvian stood aloof but coldly charming, neither courting nor rejecting your friendship. When these two elements worked in harmony, as on stage, the effect was uniquely beguiling and dynamic; in day-to-day life, less so. ‘Making that album strained relations within the band considerably,’ Sylvian would recall. ‘We were beginning to close off from one another, which meant that we couldn’t give musically to one another. There were differing ambitions, and I was at odds with the band. They were also very dependent on me to write material.’


Sylvian. London. 1981.

Sylvian would often speak of the pressure he felt in having to come up with an album’s worth of material each year. The problem was, of course, a matter of qualitative not quantitative control. Sylvian was capable of bashing out songs at will but such songs rarely meant anything to him and consequently he was unable to muster enough enthusiasm to record them; he wasn’t in the habit of mustering enthusiasm for anything. Even wonderful pieces like ‘Some Kind of Fool’ had been abandoned because their author had not sufficiently believed in them. Possibly because of this, Tin Drum would be the first album to feature co-writers, with Karn and Jansen being officially recognised as composers on three of its songs. Unlike all the previous albums, there was no surplus material begun and abandoned, and no out-takes. The group used everything they had. Tin Drum was the first Japan album properly to use space and sometimes even silence as an instrument in itself. In fact if Rob Dean had been replaced by anything, it was silence. Guitar on the album was so minimal that Nye can’t even recall recording any. It does of course feature on ‘The Art of Parties’ and ‘Still Life’, but on the former, the guitar tracks were used from the previous Punter sessions.

With Dean now gone (although he did visit the Manor before leaving for America), the group were a more efficient and finely honed unit. ‘Although I do think they lost something when Rob left,’ says Punter. ‘He grounded them in a way and his more traditional playing allowed them to go further afield as it were.’ Relationships in the band were generally amiable, although as they were all much more confident in themselves and their instruments, they were also becoming more independent. ‘We’d learnt to stay out of each other’s way,’ opined Karn. ‘There was much more individual time allocated to working alone with Nye, instead of everyone passing judgement on each other’s work.’ ‘David tried to keep a very loose reign on Mick,’ Huckle would explain, ‘he didn’t want him doing too much outside of the band, but he would be pissed off when Mick had been smoking too much hash and turn up late for a session with his eyes all bloodshot.’ Although Sylvian would later remark that Karn’s role was that of ‘a session musician’ during the recording, Nye says that, ‘I don’t recall any palpable tensions in the studio and certainly no bickering that I noticed, so mediation was never required. Anyway, I don’t see being “schoolmaster” as part of my job description. If there were any conflicts going on, then the participants were certainly professional enough not to allow it to manifest in the work.’ Huckle: ‘It generally felt like there was a high level of creativity and confidence among the guys. There was a different atmosphere from the previous two albums – it was much more workmanlike, which was partly down to Steve Nye producing; there was less larking about and he had a drier sense of humour than previous producers.

Further rehearsals of the new material began on 10 July for a period of three days and then again during the last week of July into the first sunny days of August. Nye was present at the latter, taking notes. Between rehearsals, Sylvian would continue to work alone on material at home, presenting it to the group during the intensive rehearsal periods at Nomis. The Nomis studio complex in Hammersmith was by now a commercial concern; a melting pot of successful names and faces of the time. Japan, however, didn’t mix. ‘Everyone who was anyone was there during that period – Police, The Jam, Adam and his Ants, Haircut 100, Graham Parker, David Essex,’ remembers Huckle, ‘and they were always kind of mingling during breaks in the large reception/relaxation area over coffees. However, Japan would avoid them by using the back stairs to and from the SNB office on the second floor and slip in and out of the building almost unseen. Not out of arrogance or rudeness, but from shyness. Mick perhaps would have been an exception to this, but had he lagged behind to chat he’d have been chastised for holding everyone else up.’ Although down to a four piece, Japan were now at their most formidable and Karn alone would have been a key player in any group, continually expanding his arsenal of instruments and bringing something new to the sonic table. On 3 August, he and Jansen took a trip to Ray Man, a music shop in Chinatown, where he purchased a dida. ‘I kept hearing a shrill but melodic sound on some of the records in Chinatown that I guessed was probably a reed instrument; it doesn’t follow Western scales and a lot of the notes had to be found by squeezing the reed with my lips or blowing harder, instead of fingering alone.’ The early 80s pop scene in Britain was infused with cod Oriental musical flavourings and pseudo pentatonic piddling – the aural equivalent of soy sauce with fish and chips – but what other groups were seeking out the source and adding arcane, authentic Asian instruments to their work? And which groups would have someone as talented and versatile as Karn to play such instruments? Japan were now an utterly seductive anomaly, the most beautiful looking freak in the pop circus.


Barbieri, Karn. 1981.

On 5 August the band met with Fin Costello to shoot the initial photos for the cover for the, as yet, only half-finished album. Karn’s version of events concerning the photo shoot for Tin Drum casts Sylvian in a questionable light. He recalls that the singer arrived at the shoot ahead of schedule, presumably to dominate proceedings. ‘He had, behind our backs, arranged an alternative time for the session to begin,’ reckoned Karn. Nevertheless, a full band photo session was duly shot which Sylvian would reject and, according to Karn, go so far as to put a needle through the negatives of any Barbieri pictures of which he didn’t approve. ‘I don’t remember that,’ says the keyboard player, ‘but I know that Dave didn’t like the suit I was wearing so we had to do them again.’


Initial Photo shoot for Tin Drum. Photo by Fin Costello.

Jansen’s diary notes that Sylvian didn’t like the look of either Barbieri or Karn in the photos and thus asked for a reshoot at a later date, but no one except Karn recalls the needle incident. Fin Costello: ‘I don’t want to get into a dispute over how the Tin Drum cover came together, but I will explain how it came about. I had a large number of books of photographs in the waiting area of the studio, one of which was Marc Riboud’s Visions of China, which was shot in China in the 1950s. There were several pictures that David saw in it, which we discussed. Coincidentally I had been building a set for an Ozzy Osbourne shoot, which looked like the Chinese peasant rooms in Riboud’s book, so I called David and suggested a test shoot. Mick and he came over that afternoon while the plaster on the set was still drying and we developed the shot there and then with them and my assistants Denise Richardson and Tony Harrison. The props in the picture are all from my kitchen except the poster of Mao, which we bought from Chinatown for 50p. Mick cooked the rice, which we ate while Tony developed the film (2 roll HP5) and made contacts. I still have the contacts and there are no pinholes in any of them, just chinagraph marks on the selected frames. The rest of the band were always going to be on the back cover in another shot based on an image from Riboud’s book [a photo of a divorce court]. Incidentally, technically it was a bit of film/chemical trickery to get the 1950s look in the texture of negative as the original type of film used by Riboud [orthochromatic film] was no longer available.’ Whatever the due process, the cover image would become a classic. It represented the music perfectly with Sylvian and the group as glam tourists in a contrived scene that was faked so sincerely it was almost more authentic than the real thing. The epitome of modern Western pop music. When he was later accused of Tin Drum being nothing more than ‘cultural tourism’, Sylvian, rather than take such an accusation as an insult, instead responded thus: ‘Of course it is. That’s obvious. But it led us to invent instrumentation. And that, as kids, is an exciting development.’


The next day the band reassembled at Odyssey Studios near Marble Arch in central London to resume recording. ‘It could be a bit of a drag setting everything up every time we moved,’ says Nye, ‘but then again it kept us out of our comfort zone, which was a good thing.’ The group rarely all turned up at the same time. Outside of the studio there were still the ongoing day-to-day duties of interviews and photo shoots to be getting on with, many of which increasingly involved Sylvian and Karn only. Sometimes the recording sessions seemed to operate on a shift system, with different members working on separate parts at different times that occasionally overlapped. Barbieri sometimes sat programming in the control room with headphones while the painstaking process of assembling the drum parts took place or while Sylvian did a vocal.

On 6 August Jansen began building up the drums for ‘Cantonese Boy’ piece by piece, working solo in Karn’s absence until 4.00am. When the day’s studio session was over he continued to work back at Stanhope Gardens, programming a Linn drum part until 6.00am. He worked with headphones. ‘Steve also had a Simmons kit set up at home to practise on,’ says then flatmate Huckle, ‘and it’s fair to say the neighbours didn’t like it.’ The work ethic on Tin Drum would have impressed Chairman Mao himself. An excerpt from Jansen’s diary reveals the agonising attention to detail and the hours well spent:




Sessions continued at Odyssey for the next week, with more foundations being built for ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’ and ‘Sons of Pioneers’, the only Japan track ever to credit Karn as co-writer. After initial difficulty (Jansen had a problem finding a suitable pattern for the track which was solved when he switched to beaters instead of sticks), the bass and drums to ‘…Pioneers’ were quickly completed. This was one of the most original pieces of music Japan recorded. Aside from the title, which could be traced back to the name of a 1930s American country and western group (The Sons of Pioneers) it was hard to link this piece with any of Japan’s obvious musical influences. Although Karn would claim that he did not begin composing seriously until 1982, this was not the first time he had offered a bass line for consideration by the group. Huckle: ‘Mick would sometimes play something in rehearsals and if it was rejected he’d simply say, “OK! That’s another one for the solo album then.”’ ‘…Pioneers’ was unique sounding, hypnotic and trance-like. It laid out an unfamiliar sonic terrain for the listener and like the group itself you either got it or didn’t. Sylvian: ‘[You could say] “Sons of Pioneers” is just a bass line over and over again with just a few things thrown on top. It will bore you if you don’t like the feel of it or if you don’t, for want of a better phrase, get into it, but that applies to all of our music.’

On the 13th, Japan and Nye moved once again to the less expensive Regent’s Park Studios. (‘A distinct lack of home comforts,’ noted Jansen in his diary). A 24-year-old Phil Bodger was there to welcome them. ‘I was the house engineer, the tape op. Any band might bring in another engineer as well as producer, but I came with the studio. I’d invariably make tea. Regent’s Park was about half the price of AIR. It would have been classed as a budget studio. I got the impression that they were on a budget and had to do things fairly cheaply. There was talk about that. I remember them coming down for the very first time because they all turned up in full make-up. That was quite striking. I knew who they were vaguely, but I didn’t know much about them. I was really into YMO at the time, so there was a connection. They were impressive looking . . . their make-up was great, they looked great. The studio was in a basement, quite a small room. They came with Steve Nye who brought a quarter inch tape just to test the monitors. I remember Nye was a bit abrupt. I asked him if I should set the tape machine up – pretty dumb question, admittedly – and he didn’t say anything, just looked at me with a disdainful expression, kind of like “of course! Don’t ask, just do it.” It was an odd room; heavily carpeted and very dead sounding.’

The varying studios and their respective acoustic qualities would work in the album’s favour, adding subtle colours to the recording. Nye: ‘I liked the heavily carpeted rooms at Regent’s Park. You can hear that “dead sound” perfectly on some tracks.’ Bodger was impressed by the dedication and skill of a group who many still regarded as faux musicians simply because of their appearance. ‘Their commitment was obvious,’ he says. ‘They were completely focused. I’d get in about 10 o’clock and open the studio up, set up the desk. Steve Nye would come in after that and then the group would drift in. I’d fix them a coffee. We’d do a 12-hour day, breaking for lunch; I’d get a sandwich for us all from a shop across the road. Jansen and Sylvian weren’t the easiest people to get along with, although Steve was friendlier than David. David was a little bit odd, very detached. I think I barely spoke to him. They weren’t overly friendly. Rich was nice, but incredibly shy. Hardly said a word. Very quiet. Steve Nye was the same as David in that he was detached but also, as I’ve said he blew hot and cold. One day he’d be fine and another day very moody. But you know, aside from being a producer he was a fantastic engineer, trained at AIR. I remember him telling me about working with Frank Zappa, who was a huge hero of mine. And the idea of this very English engineer working with Franz Zappa, who only worked with the best, kind of proved Nye’s credentials to me. He was obviously a brilliant engineer and they were all well into it.’


Phil Bodger. Regent’s park studios. 1981.

Bodger was one of the few outsiders allowed a glimpse into Japan’s insular, workaholic world at this time. ‘The warmest one was Mick. He was lovely. Mick made the sessions fun. When he was doing his bass parts he cracked a lot of jokes, but apart from that it was hard work. Whatever David went on to say, Mick didn’t appear like a “session player” to me at all. He seemed very much a part of the band during those sessions. He was the most charismatic member too. He’d often play from the control room, straight into the desk rather than through an amp. And I’d be sat next to him operating the tape machine. That was an experience. He was unique and impressive and quirky.’ Bodger was obviously used to more traditionally rock and roll clients, but Japan had never fitted this archetype and were in the studio to work, not socialise.

There were few visitors during recording and little inclination to party afterwards, as Nye explains: ‘While we were in London I had an hour’s journey straight home after the sessions and an hour back on the train in the morning, so there was little time for anything but work, travel and sleep. There was not much in the way of socialising apart from the odd sake-lubricated visit to a Japanese restaurant. The levels of concentration for me were intense during the sessions. I always strove to do my best, as I believe I owed it to whoever I was working with to match their level of commitment and professionalism in order to achieve the desired result. That is not to say it was a chore, just the opposite. Itt is a joy when you love the music and admire and respect the musicians.’ The minimalism of this new material Japan were recording actually called for more effort. Sylvian: ‘We worked much harder on these arrangements simply because they’re so sparse; everything had to have the perfect sound for this or that line and it had to do just the right amount and no more because we wanted to leave it as barren as possible. We didn’t want to clutter it up like Polaroids where there were so many underlying things you don’t actually hear those that just work as texture.’

Such was the nature of this stripped down music that it was difficult for the ordinary listener or even other musicians to work out exactly where these songs on Tin Drum came from. It was hard to imagine any of them, with the exception of ‘Ghosts’, being written on an acoustic guitar. This would form part of its appeal. Japan themselves were discovering the album as they created it. It was even hard to hear a traditional triad chord played anywhere on the album; they were there, but far from obvious. Nye: ‘There are many chords on Tin Drum. Rich happened to mention that he and David used to tune their second oscillators to a fourth or fifth interval, thus providing a harmony of sorts, just played monophonically.’ Of course, Karn would sometimes play chords and Jansen’s drums were uncommonly musical, but this new music was as far away from ‘Adolescent Sex’ in its arrangement as London is from Bali. ‘Despite their glam image, I wasn’t surprised that they could play,’ says Bodger. ‘Steve and Mick stood out, but they were all good. Rich basically sat in a corner with a synth and headphones on. The genius of his programming to me was that the sounds he created sounded like real instruments. From my point of view – as someone who worked with loads of different bands in a short space of time – it was very impressive and it was very different.’

If Tin Drum was pop music, then the phrases, parts and the sounds used were shockingly unconventional. Sometimes it seemed as if Karn in particular would overstep some unwritten musical boundary – but he never did and neither did Nye have to curb his playing. ‘I never heard any bass parts prior to actually recording them,’ says Nye, ‘I remember spending time with Mick one-on-one recording some of the bass parts and they are treasured memories. Mick was always fun to be with and working with him was no exception. We all know what a great, innovative player he was. Technically and musically he was of the highest order and, although he took his playing seriously, it was always undertaken with such joyous panache and freedom of expression. It doesn’t get any better than witnessing Mick Karn transform a track with his trademark sinuous creations so effortlessly executed.’


On 14 August work began on a song called ‘Ghosts’. It would take a while for this track to take shape, but it was instantly apparent that it was something special. Time was used efficiently, however, and another song, ‘Visions of China’, was attempted simultaneously with Jansen and Karn struggling to find a working rhythm part in an ante-studio. Meanwhile, in the control room, Sylvian, Barbieri and Nye began building the foundations for what would become, for many, Japan’s greatest song. Various synths (although no more than three at any time) were set up around the room, some anointed with an ashtray or, for the sugar-hungry Nye, chocolate digestives. Sylvian and Barbieri had spent hours programming these keyboards, laboriously searching for the correct sound for each phrase for each part of the song. Sylvian: ‘Tin Drum was a wonderful challenge to work on. Richard and I were stretching ourselves enormously in terms of programming new sounds. We only used a Prophet 5 and an OBX and tried to emulate fictitious musical instruments. It was really hard work, but it was worth it.’ Despite the incredibly rich variety of synth colours, Barbieri and Sylvian used only the aforementioned Prophet 5 and OBX, and some Roland System 700. Barbieri remembers: ‘We took such care over each individual sound that we got quite paranoid about all sounds being new and different. My big influence on that album was Stockhausen, especially the abstract electronic things he was doing in the late ’50s. Listen to a track like “Ghosts”, for example, and you’ll hear all these metal-like sounds that hardly have a pitch, yet subconsciously suggest a melody.’

There was no fanfare or announcement heralding this new ballad. It was introduced to the sessions as simply one more track to be recorded, as Nye recalls. ‘I knew absolutely nothing about the song until we started recording it. I imagine we started with some SMPTE time code and a rhythm box [later removed] of some description. Obviously without bass guitar and drums it was always going to be a bit different.’ It would be a cruel irony that the song which would go on to be Japan’s most respected and successful song in terms of chart placing would not even feature Karn. But no one was thinking of that then. Nye continues: ‘The first musical part we recorded was the synth-bass drone part of Dave’s. We had to leave plenty of space on the tape before the bass notes began to allow room for Rich’s intro sounds. The long sustained bass note in the bridge before the second verse was a bit of a mystery to me at the time, but it was early days.’

Barbieri and Sylvian sometimes played the same keyboard simultaneously, hip to hip, while a Gitane-smoking Nye looked over his shoulder at them to cue the track on tape. ‘Next were the three rhythmic “stab” chords at the beginning of the chorus part of the song [Dave again] and the answering “churchy” organ chords from Rich,’ explains Nye. ‘That’s the first familiar sound we hear on the track, somehow warm and comforting amidst the unnerving strangeness. Steve’s marimba part was added at a later date. I think this is when the melody and lyrics made their first appearance.’ Working tapes of the song – recordings made in the studio as the piece was developed – reveal different lyrics from the final version. Sylvian originally sings, ‘When the room is quiet/The day is dead and gone/And I feel like walking’. However, even while the lyrics are in flux the structure of the song is already firmly in place and there is absolute conviction in the voice. It’s as if Sylvian knows that in ‘Ghosts’ he has finally found the voice he has been working towards since ‘The Tenant’. It would also point a way forward for him personally and thus chime as the keynote in Japan’s demise. All of this lay in the future. Such notions were not yet an issue at Regent’s Park Studios in the summer of 1981.

Even hardened professionals like Nye, who had previously worked with many ‘highly esteemed’ artists, couldn’t help but be taken aback by the power of such material. ‘That vocal,’ says Nye, ‘when David first sang it as a guide . . . There are times when the first time you hear a singer put the vocal onto a track it is a moment of complete transformation. A revelation. Unexpected and instantly recognisable as something special. I remember recording Bryan Ferry singing “Love Is The Drug” for the first time on a completed backing track to which we had hitherto all sung “pirate tunes”. Suddenly it was a different track altogether. “Ghosts” was one of those occasions. Spine-chilling. Not a scary spine-chilling, despite the ghostly connotation, but an emotional one. A beautifully constructed melody and a lyric that touched something deep inside. I remember thinking, “Bloody ’ell, this is really something.”’ It wasn’t in Nye’s nature to be awestruck and, after this initial jolt, through a fug of coffee and cigarette smoke, work continued apace. ‘OK, that’s the song,’ says Nye, ‘now it’s time for the decorators to move in. So then we go to Steve with his hands full of marimba mallets, well two in each hand to be more precise. I don’t remember if he played them like that, but it looked good anyway and, as we know, Steve always looked good. It’s a tricky thing to have to play musical notes when you’re used to just hitting things, but Steve came up with a great part for the solo and after a while he mastered the instrument and also played, for him, the slightly easier rhythmic parts in the choruses. To be fair, Steve was not a stranger to the piano, but although the keys are laid out the same on a marimba, they’re huge and you have to play each note separately with a mallet so it’s a bit tricky at first. The way Steve played it, with a slight feeling of awkwardness, gave the part a kind of fragility and demented, childlike quality which, to me, greatly enhanced the unsettling atmosphere.’


Jansen no doubt appreciated working with such an open-minded producer, one who did not baulk at the drummer effortlessly moving from drum stool to keyboards and onto marimba, (although it should be noted that this was the case since the band began working with Punter). ‘Working with Steve Nye you got the sense you were in some sort of boot camp together,’ says Jansen. ‘By this I don’t mean to imply he was strict and bound by routine; on the contrary he was quite laid back despite the constant filter-less Gitanes and strong black coffees. I mean that he had expectations. There was a standard of musicianship that needed to be maintained. He would mock any shoddy playing, much to the amusement of those not playing. He was very focused and serious about the discipline of getting things right, but not in a regimented way, more with the attitude of “well, you’re the musician, you really think that’s good enough?” And when inspired moments arose he would genuinely enthuse, by his standards. He was a real musician’s musician and loved to explore all possibilities as though there were better things being overlooked by leaving efforts unchallenged. I think Steve showed us that. I can recall that when I came up with the marimba solo on “Ghosts”, he was really engaged with where I’d stumbled to with the melody, but I just couldn’t figure out where the ending ought to go, so he was making suggestions from the control room through the headphones, until I said, “Please come out and show me what you mean,” which he did. That solo was subsequently tagged with the moniker, “the end is Nye”. I reckon he was in it for those moments and that’s where he really came into his own. Being a musician, his input on that level can not be overstated.’

Outtakes of the Tin Drum cover. Photos by Steve Jansen.

Ghosts. TOTP. March 1982.

This an excerpt from Japan : ‘A Foreign Place’.  Published by Burning Shed LTD.

You can buy the softcover here –  Book

The sumptuous Japanese edition can be found here. Shinko Edition

The latest reissue of Tin Drum can be bought here. Tin Drum 2018 edition.

You can also read my account of the making of Gentlemen take Polaroids Here

Or Here



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