Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Music Box: Japan

While I'd like to say that the books that had the most profound effect on me in high school were of the historical variety, or the classics -- a little Dickens, Steinbeck or Twain -- the truth of the matter is nothing from the world of publishing captivated, or should I say consumed me quite the way the "Rock Yearbook" series did. Published each fall between 1980 and 1988 by St. Martin’s Press, this pop music year-in-review WAS my bible, only I didn't have to wait 400 years between installments. Each yearbook was divided into sections, featuring the Acts of the Year -- Kim Wilde, Haircut 100, Joan Jett and the Go-Go's made the list in '83, need I say more? -- plus the Quotes of the Year, Best and Worst Album Covers, and the snarky "Thanks ... but No Thanks" section. The record reviews -- dished out with a healthy dose of attitude from critics at British rock rags New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Record Mirror and Smash Hits -- were utterly hilarious:

Howard Jones’ Humans Lib: “I can think only of a kid who’s been given a Rolf Harris Stylophone for Christmas and thinks he’s Gandhi.” -- Melody Maker

Roxy Music’s Avalon: “What does it all mean? I haven’t the faintest fucking idea.” -- NME

Spandau Ballet’s Diamond: “Not so much pretentious as unlistenable. At least we can all stop pretending to hate Spandaus and start really hating them.” -- Sounds

But the week-by-week singles and album charts -- U.S. AND U.K. editions!!!! -- were THE BEST, read so often by me and my friend Greg -- in lieu of homework -- that we can still tell you where Kim Wilde's "Cambodia" peaked back in '82 (a rather disappointing No. 12).

While lacking any sense of cool of my own, it was in the pages of these yearbooks that I could anticipate what was coming our way next via the British Invasion, giving myself a minor edge in the cut-throat New Wave scene at Dobson High School. There were countless discoveries -- Bucks Fizz, Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy, Haysi Fantayzee and Scritti Politti pop into my head -- but the band that captivated me most on the pages of the Rock Yearbook was one that never landed on the American radar -- not even a late-night video on MTV, as far as I can recall -- the British group Japan.

Still, the moment I saw the band's "Tin Drum" album sleeve in the Best Album Covers section, featuring singer David Sylvian with his fluffy bleach-blond bangs and big round eyeglasses, eating rice from a bowl in a stark room, while a peeling poster of Chairman Mao looked on from the corner, I knew I'd found my new favorite band. (KajaWhoWho???) Having seen all the pictures of the band -- looking very New Romantic, only WAY cooler than Duran Duran (Nick Rhodes, what a David Sylvian wannabe!) and Spandau Ballet who'd both become way too popular in America, I smugly thought to myself -- I felt like I already knew what they sounded like. So when I finally got my hands on a very expensive import copy of "Tin Drum" down at Zia Records on Mill Avenue, actually listening to their music was merely a formality. So on to my Price Club Yorx stereo the record went, and out came these bizarre-sounding instruments and even weirder vocals. Although I was somewhat mortified (had I really just spent 20 bucks on THIS???) I was determined to like it -- they're COOL, damn it! -- so I forged ahead, finishing side one and flipping it over to side two. But even when it was over -- a rather compact eight songs -- I honestly wasn't entirely sure the vinyl hadn't gotten warped on the 112-degree ride home from Tempe. I played it a few more times, but I was still pretty sure it was damaged somehow. I eventually set the album to the side for a while -- I still LOOKED cool for owning it, right? -- but later found I couldn't get one particularly odd song, "Still Life in Mobile Homes," out of my head.

Plant life
My life
Still life in mobile homes

So I kept listening to the album again and again, telling myself that it was supposed to sound like that.

As I became more convinced, I stumbled upon a used 12-inch single of the band's cover of "All Tomorrow's Parties" by the Velvet Underground, and snatched it up. The arrangement was straightforward and easy to like, and the b-sides, live versions of "Deviation" and "Obscure Alternatives," were surprisingly good, too. I wanted to know more. Having read about the band's 1982 single with Giorgio Moroder, "Life in Tokyo," in the Rock Yearbook, I decided to buy their compilation album, "Assemblage," next. It featured songs from their early days -- now I was learning they used to be GLAM rockers before New Romantics! -- plus some rare singles, including "Life in Tokyo" and "I Second That Emotion." Little by little, I was getting hooked, foregoing my Limahl and Howard Jones' love child image for a more sophisticated David Sylvian look, complete with Asian gal pal.

And while the Roxy Music-influenced "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" -- another Best Album Cover and wonderfully pretentious title! -- became another favorite, my love for later purchases of "Adolescent Sex," "Obscure Alternatives" and "Quiet Life" had me wondering if critics who dismiss their early glam period for their more polished synth days aren't a little off-base. Sure, "The Art of Parties" and "Ghosts" are great, but can they really stand up to the snotty punk delivery of "Automatic Gun" or Caribbean cool of "Rhodesia"?

It's been more than 25 years since I discovered the music of Japan, and even now my opinion continues to fluctuate. (Pretentious idiots or gifted artists?) I still have the CDs to help me decide, but sadly my Rock Yearbooks didn't survive my last move. They had a few of them for sale at last year's WFMU Record Fair, but I was in "downsizing" mode at the time, so didn't buy any of them. I see the 2009 fair is next month, and you can be sure I will be there scouring the piles of books, looking for one of the classics. (Hat tip to Jon Cummings at Pop Dose, who wrote a great piece about the Rock Yearbooks in 2008 over HERE.)


Decades later I finally got the 1981 edition, which was rife with Blondie, but somehow it wasn't the same.

1 comment:

nojarama said...

Those Rock yearbooks were awesome!!! I never owned a copy of any of them myself, but a couple of my friends had them (and I borrowed them quite often). And yes, Japan was just a wonderful band all around.