Gentleman Take Polaroids – Japan (1980)

Gentleman Take Polaroids album cover
Gentleman Take Polaroids album cover

Once Gary Numan had captured the public (and my) imagination with “Cars”, I was immediately interested in other “new wave” artists. In particular a sub genre called new romanticism. Of the bands who pioneered this movement, one of its creators actually, was about to implode, just as they were beginning to catch on. The echos from this implosion would last through the first half of the ’80s as more and more artists were embracing the message of alienation and gloom of the new romantics. Despite all the new disciples, no one did it with quite as much style as Japan.

Japan was led by David Sylvian, who today is one of the most respected high art musicians in the business. In the ’70s he fronted Japan, a rapidly evolving post glam outfit that at their best sounded like Roxy Music. The band had minor hits with covers when on the small Hansa label. They would strike it big with their debut on the then new and hip Virgin music label.

Chalk it up to being in the company of XTC, Simple Minds and Magazine, but whatever it was, the bands ambitions changed and their musical skills improved in the process. Japan was always influenced by glam era bands like Roxy Music. They even had an ex Roxy Music member produce their last two studio albums Quiet Life and Gentleman Take Polaroids. Sylvian’s croon evolved further to land somewhere between the sound of David Bowie and Brian Ferry with just as much sophistication.

The latter album’s title suggested a high degree of conceptualization, something the new romantic movement would be known for. In the process of going all artsy, the band created modern styled conceptual music videos in a time when they were few and far between. In addition to the new outlook, the band’s ability to play complicated funk like arrangements improved. This was likely due to the budding perfectionism of David Sylvian and to an extent producer John Punter.

Various members would play instrumental tracks until the best ones were laid down to songs in the studio. It was a grueling process, but yielded a collection of structured, yet flowing songs that suggested a spontaneity almost like jazz. All the tracks with the exception of “My New Career” and “Taking Islands in Africa” were written this way.

Polaroids was also where bassist Mick Karn’s playing would figure predominantly in the band’s Robert Fripp influenced sound. While each member rose to the occasion of studio perfection, Sylvian still wanted to bring in guest musicians in an ever exotic cast to achieve the direction he imagined the band going. This heightened tensions between band members in the process. It was the beginning of the end for Japan.

Interestingly when this album was recorded, it was said that Duran Duran was recording their debut across the hall. The two bands had a similar aesthetic, with Japan being the musician’s band while Duran Duran would go on to make MTV history as a teen girl dream.

The tensions from recording Gentleman Take Polaroids would eventually undo Japan. Sadly just as they were taking England by storm, they never achieved critical mass in the States. It has become in vouge for many contemporary electronic bands credit Japan as an inspiration. I learned of them completly by accident. The new romantic movement had come and gone  by the time MTV had been playing music from David Sylvians solo career. That was the mid ’80s, years after Japan had disbanded.  Even though Japan was gone, various members would continue on with solo projects, most notebally David Sylvian and Mick Karn. Members came together for a reunion, but decided to call their one off project Rain Tree Crow instead of Japan.


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