Excerpt from Chapter 5 of ‘Cries and Whispers’ (The Experience of Swimming.) The Making of ‘Buoy’ and ‘When Love walks in.’

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(Please note. The photos here do not appear in the book.)

With regards to Virgin’s stipulations, ahough Jansen was not truly a ‘name’ producer, the label were pleased that two ex-members of Japan were back in the studio together. However, Karn still needed a vocalist to meet Draper’s original stipulation for agreeing to the album. Apparently, Jansen suggested the obvious: his brother. ‘Such audacity to mention the ‘D word’ to my face!,’ recalls Karn in his autobiography, going on to add somewhat disingenuously that ‘I hadn’t actually spoken to or seen Dave since the split, and if there were any grudges being harboured, they should be mine and not his.’ Karn had in fact seen Sylvian occasionally since ’82, attending the Perspectives preview in ’84 and instigating a meeting in ’85 at his flat between all ex-members in order to propose a re-formation. Whatever the dynamics, real or otherwise, Karn allowed Jansen to put in the request to which Sylvian readily agreed. The base of operations moved to the Townhouse studios in London to ‘record instruments not easily found in Bury,’ and to save Sylvian a trip to Manchester. According to Karn, Sylvian had initially worked out a vocal to what would become ‘Buoy’. This track, originally demo’d by Karn, started off as a completely different song with lyrics and vocals by Karn himself; a breezy, near Poppy number with Karn’s typically angsty lyrics; ‘…every move is killing me.’ This song existed as a rough 8-track demo which at some point Karn reversed. The definitive ‘Buoy’ would be transformed by Sylvian’s stately vocal and melody, underpinned by Karn and Jansen’s exquisite musical bed which again featured a reversed bass line. ‘The environment was a little tense,’ Karn would recall of the session, ‘but Dave was very helpful with suggestions and the vocal to ‘Buoy’ is one of the best I’ve heard him deliver …I couldn’t have been more pleased.’ ‘It was certainly nice to be working with Mick again,’ Sylvian would state in a radio interview that year, also implying that Jansen’s presence helped facilitate the process, ‘it was a really nice experience to be doing that again, but it was under very different conditions [to working as Japan]. I was working for Mick and that was a very different circumstance. I had my own ideas about how it should sound but I gave the final say to Mick about everything. I’d push a point if I really thought it was right but I left it up to him …I recorded my vocal and then left it up to him to mix and edit it as he pleased, and that’s the way it has to be.’

1986 Alan Bangs interview.

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Sylvian was content to sit quietly in the studio once his vocal to ‘Buoy’ was completed and according to Karn it was then that Sylvian heard the music to what would become ‘When Love Walks In’ and jumped at the chance to put a vocal to it. Typically, Sylvian remembers the order of writing these two songs as the complete opposite. ‘When I went in to do the vocal for the first track, ‘When Love Walks In’,’ recalls Sylvian, ‘Mick played me some of the other tracks that he was working on and I heard what was to become ‘Buoy’. It wasn’t a track he’d planned to put a vocal on and when I heard it I said, “That’d be great with a vocal, have you thought about it?” He said, “No, but Steve had mentioned it,” and [asked] would I be interested in doing it? And that’s the way that worked.’ Whatever the timeline, the results spoke for themselves. Both vocal tracks were among the most accessible on the album, and ‘Buoy’ itself was a true jewel akin to Rupert Brooke crooning over a poppy Jaco Pastorius. Karn: ‘We were both incredibly nervous when we got to the studio, because we hadn’t been in a studio for longer than we hadn’t seen each other! But it went incredibly smoothly and turned out really well, because we both wanted to work together again.’ Sylvian would also contribute keyboards to ‘Land’. Another high profile guest was one time Manfred Mann main man, Paul Jones, who contributed searing harmonica to ‘First Impression’. ‘He was recommended to me by a company called Worlds End Management,’ explained Karn, ‘I just let him play what he felt and it was magic.’

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By May ’86, the recording of what was now known as Dreams Of Reason Produce Monsters (after Goya’s etching, The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters – ‘I know I’ll get slaughtered for that title,’ Karn admitted) was near complete. Karn, Jansen and Jiya then relocated to the Virgin owned Townhouse (studio 4) in London to mix the album throughout June. Dare (then Andy) Mason was the tape op at the sessions. ‘I’d been there about a year,’ he recalls, ‘and there’s a difference between working with big names and working with people you’re a fan of. I was definitely a Japan fan.’ Mason recalls the dynamic between the three as being ‘very relaxed. By then they had arrived at a very easeful level of communication. (Steve and Mick looked great, too. They were very handsome men and they came across as just old mates, really.) I wasn’t surprised that Mick didn’t hit it off with John Leckie. Leckie is undoubtedly a great producer but Mick was very, very fluid …he kind of made it up as he went along. It was a very relaxed session, one of my favourites in fact. Very clean sessions, no drink or drugs. You weren’t even allowed to smoke in the studio as I recall. The sessions ended late though …it was summer and I remember leaving the studio and walking home as it was getting light. When we first rolled the tape it struck me that it was quite an odd album, but then that would have been straight up my street. As I said, the dynamic was relaxed. Femi [Jiya] was one of the easiest-going men in the world and would never have inflicted his will on anything that Mick did. He understood how Mick’s thought processes worked. Mick definitely did need Steve there as a creative foil, and together they made a great team and I felt accepted by them all. We did only a few overdubs – some woodwind – and I don’t remember any disagreements at all, everything was very relaxed and smooth until …well, I think we all got a bit nervous when David came in to record his vocal.’

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Here the timeline of how and when Sylvian sang on Karn’s album warps once again. Mason remembers the tracks for ‘Buoy’ and ‘When Love Walks In’ as being set up and ready for Sylvian’s vocal overdubs, and that the vocals were one of the very last things done at Townhouse. This suggests that, if we believe Karn’s account, Sylvian must have sat in on an earlier session and at which point he may have contributed keyboards to the Jansen composition, ‘Land’. Whatever, Mason remembers Sylvian’s entrance. ‘He walked in and he looked immaculate, with this real charisma. And what’s more, he knew he had charisma. Inside I was like, “Fuckin’ ‘ell it’s David Sylvian!” He wasn’t chatty. We didn’t have a laugh. In fact I don’t think we exchanged one word – and I’ve worked with Paul McCartney and Prince – and they talked more than Sylvian did – so I just got to setting up his microphone. And I’ll never forget this – we were getting his vocal levels and ran the tape, and I was still fiddling around when I heard him sing. And it was like… “Wow! That sounds just like David Sylvian! Oh fuck. It IS David Sylvian!” And I don’t think I’ve ever had that in the studio before or since. He’s got such an iconic voice. A shiver ran through me…’ Far from being the perfectionist of Tin Drum, where Sylvian and Nye sometimes recorded vocals line by line, in this instance (and again, Mason’s account contradicts Karn’s) Sylvian was in and out of the booth in a day. ‘He did his vocals standing up and wasn’t being the archetypal fussy artist, he was there to serve Mick’s vision and was happy to do as asked. He offered suggestions, “what about this, maybe we could try that,” etc., but he went with what Mick wanted ultimately. It was done pretty quickly. I don’t recall us labouring over anything. He definitely came in prepared and then just refined the idea. I didn’t say one word to him, but then I was in awe and quite shy back then. And Sylvian isn’t a chatty person. It was all very business-like and we were all very happy he came in and did a great job.’

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‘Buoy’ had come and gone that January, peaking at 63 in the UK singles chart. Reviews were mostly good (it was single of the week in Melody Maker), and with Sylvian on board hopes were high – although not high enough to warrant a promotional video. Amongst charts dominated by Five Star, Nick Kamen and Madonna, ‘Buoy’, in all its out-of-time and other-worldly noble beauty, didn’t stand a chance of airplay. It was not Pop enough for daytime radio and not Indie enough for late night radio. Karn warranted enough space in the Pop press – it seemed almost everyone missed Japan – and the photographs of Sylvian and Karn together taken by Fujii were strangely touching considering their public history; but in retrospect this was the last time Karn would be given ‘the benefit of the doubt’ as it were. The album stiffed, peaking in the UK at 89 for just one week, a similar chart position for all of Karn’s solo releases proving that while he had a committed audience it was a niche one and one in decline, mostly made up of ageing Japan fans.

 

Buoy. (Single Mix.)

When Love walks in.

Buoy. (Extended mix.)

This is an excerpt from ‘Cries and Whispers : Sylvian/Jansen/Karn/Barbieri/Dean, 1983-1991.  Published by Burning Shed LTD. You can buy the book Here.

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EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE OF : ‘JAPAN : A FOREIGN PLACE’. A Biography of Japan, 1974-1984.

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.’)

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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.’

Bolan and Finn.

‘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.’

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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.’

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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.

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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.’

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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.’

Another influence on the name?

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).