‘Japan: Cries and Whispers 1983-1991’

Anthony Reynolds talks about his second book on the band Japan, covering the time following their split until 1991.

From the mid 1970s to early 1980s, the band Japan embodied, music, art, style and fashion to maximum effect.   Initially a glam rock band, they later represented the New Romantic era without the silly tartan robes, frilly shirts and exotic videos as sported by a number of their chart-bothering peers.  Instead, Japan brought their own avant-garde “too cool for school” attitude to the party whilst maintaining a sophisticated, urbane image.   Japan’s biggest UK album was Tin Drum (1981), which featured their hit singles The Art of Parties, Visions of China, Ghosts and Cantonese Boy.  They achieved nine UK Top 40 hits in the early 1980s, most notably the ethereal oddity Ghosts, which reached No. 5 in the charts in 1982, and scored a UK Top 5 album with the 1983 live release, Oil on Canvas.

Anthony Reynolds is to release a new book this Friday (5 April) which charts the life and times of the band in astonishing detail.  Cries and Whispers 1983-1991 via Burning Shed chronicles the life and work of the band Japan and is the follow up to A Foreign Place which covered the time period 1974-1984.

The first book received much critical acclaim citing such superlatives as “exemplary research” (The Wire), “Written with an enthusiasm that never flags” (Goldmine) and “A fascinating story” (Classic Pop).  A Foreign Place is indeed a wonderful thing and is filled with well-researched and knowledgeable text by a man who clearly has a passion for his subject and includes lots of stunning photographs of perhaps the most photogenic band to emerge from that era.  The members of Japan were beautiful men; David Sylvian perhaps the most of all.  His image happily adorned my teenage walls for many years throughout the ‘80s.  Both books include previously unpublished photographs, including many from the private archives of the band members themselves.

A Foreign Place was the first ‘serious’ book on Japan. It was translated into Japanese and published in Japan, where it held at number one on the Japanese Amazon Pop Music Biography chart for four weeks. It has sold over four thousand copies to date, including the Japanese edition, without any external distribution.

Cries and Whispers sets to continue the story of the band who split just as they were beginning to experience commercial success in the UK as well as abroad. They were unquestionably one of the most influential and innovative pop groups of the 1970s and 1980s.  The book explores Japan post-1984 at a time when they went their separate ways and undertook a number of musical projects, under their apprenticeship gained from their hugely successful period in Japan, including Rain Tree Crow and Sylvian’s own hugely avant-garde solo work which echoes of the dearly-departed Scott Walker, engaging in both pop music and self-exploratory experimental work to maximum effect.

The book is being made available as a limited deluxe and from the time following the band’s split in December 1982 until 1991, the book takes in David Sylvian’s work for his first three solo albums and more. The book also explores David Sylvian’s collaborations with Holger Czukay and Ryuichi Sakamoto, the latter of which resulted in their epic Forbidden Colours, which featured on the soundtrack album of the hit film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

Anthony Reynolds has written a number of other biographies including Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and Scott Walker and he has also published two collections of poetry.  To date, his books have been translated into 12 languages. We Are Cult’s Ange Chan caught up with Anthony and asked him a few questions about his books on Japan.

Anthony Reynolds (Photo: Cathy Boyce)

Anthony, what prompted you to write both books?  I’m very glad that you did, by the way…

I always liked what Leonard Cohen once said, “Get paid for your work, never work for your pay.”  I also once asked the English writer/philosopher Colin Wilson if he would have written so many books if he had a trust fund.  His reply:  “Would I fuck!”  Somewhere in there is the reason I write books.

I wrote these ones on Japan because I’m both in love and very familiar with their work.  Is it shameful to be fortysomething and still have a ‘favourite band’?  If so, colour me shamed. Japan are my favourite band and as a fan I wanted to write and publish books on them that would enrapture and delight the fan in me. I hope I’ve done so, matching style with
content, and mystery with beauty.

Did you always intend for the books to encompass two volumes?

No… I don’t think so.  I had no idea that the first book would do as well as it did.  Apparently, most books that are published make no money whatsoever, but A Foreign Place did alright and so a sequel seemed obvious.  I mean, there was an interesting story to be told about many albums I loved, but if no one had bought A Foreign Place it would have been impossible to follow it up.

Do the books have the backing of the living band members?  Have they commented on the end result?

Sylvian remains out of reach for mere earthbound mortals such as I and perhaps that’s the way it should be. (Although once upon a summertime, I did interview him)

For the first book, Barbieri, Jansen and Dean were all on board.  They helped to a lesser degree on the second.  They all told me they liked the books.

Did Mick Karn know you were planning this project before he sadly passed away?  What were his views?

 Mick Karn died in 2011 and I didn’t even consider writing A Foreign Place until around 2014 so no, he had no idea.

In many ways Japan epitomise the alternative side of the 80s; do you agree that they were pioneers without realising it/promoting themselves as such?

 I think the UK 80s music alternative had many ‘sides’.  I guess Japan looked a certain, mainstream ‘pop’ way and sounded different enough from that image to differentiate them from Duran Duran etc,  I’m not sure they were that pioneering until Tin Drum but their influencers (Bowie, Roxy, Eno, etc.) were pioneers and in a sense Japan were their sons.

Anthony Reynolds (Photo: Cathy Boyce)

Did you uncover any information that was shocking or changed your perception of the band’s image? 

 I didn’t.  Well, nowt I’m likely to repeat here!

Do you think Rain Tree Crow and Sylvian’s solo work were a natural progression at the time? 

Yes, I do.  If you consider that Brilliant Trees was everyone from Japan but Karn plus added players… and a bit more mature, obviously. It sounded like a step forward to me. As Sylvian was the main songwriter in Japan his solo albums were bound to sound similar to what had gone before but they embody a progression nevertheless.  Sylvian was kind of like a filmmaker with a new script dealing in the same familiar themes but with a more expansive cast, and he was much more experienced and confident than ever before.

What is your personal view of Japan vs RTC vs Sylvian’s solo work? 

I don’t see them in that way, as competing with each other. To me they are all points on the map of a fascinating journey.   I love them all for different reasons, although I liked it best when Sylvian was still exploring a ‘pop’ sensibility through more experimental arrangements. I liked the resulting ‘friction’, but then I love Quiet Life because that’s my idea of pop music at its best.

For me, the ’80s ended in 1984; after that it all seem to get very “hits machine” thanks to Stock, Aitken & Waterman, and it became a difficult environment to produce the kind of alternative music that Japan were all about… Would you agree?

I agree.  Something in pop music died with Live Aid, at the end of ’84.  Yet I can think of lots of ‘alternative’ music that was reasonably successful after that:  New Order, The The, The Bunnymen… but overall, that narcissistic, indulgent, ‘pretentious’, preening pop music that I particularly loved became extinct in any populist sense after Live Aid.  Social mores change, people get old, the young move in.  For someone born in 1998, today is their 1982.

❉ ‘Cries And Whispers’ is available as a limited deluxe hardback first edition from Burning Shed. Order link: https://burningshed.com/anthony-reynolds_cries-and-whispers_hardback.

❉ Keep up with Anthony Reynolds: Website | Blog | Twitter | Facebook

Burning Shed is an online record label/store since 2001 specialising in progressive and art rock music. Burning Shed hosts the official online shops for Jansen, Barbieri and Karn, Porcupine Tree and King Crimson, among many others. Both ‘Cries & Whispers’ and ‘A Foreign Place’ are available exclusively through Burning Shed: click here. Keep up with Burning Shed: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Ange Chan is a poet and novelist as well as a regular contributor to We Are Cult.  Her latest collection of poetry “Songs of Sorrow and Heartbreak” was published in in October 2017.  Her third novel “Champagned Flutes and Pixie Boots” is a work in progress.


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