❉ An appreciation of Japan’s elegant, avant-garde synthpop album.
Unbelievably, the fourth album of Japan’s career, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, sees its fortieth anniversary this month. Released 24 October 1980, it was also the penultimate studio release by the band and was released on Virgin Records having ended their association with Hansa/Ariola, the disco-orientated German record label who had released their first three albums.
Of the label change, guitarist Rob Dean later recalled in the pages of Classic Pop magazine, “The transition from Hansa to Virgin wasn’t at all stressful. Here was a label that understood more than just commerciality. On Hansa we were stable mates with Amii Stewart and Boney M. At Virgin our peers were Magazine, XTC and Simple Minds. We felt more confident”.
The single Gentlemen Take Polaroids was the forerunner to the release of the album and scraped number 60 in the UK singles charts. The album did moderately better, peaking at number 51 in the album chart, gaining a Gold Disc in the process by virtue of the 100,000 copies it sold. However, this mattered not a jot for fans of the band’s particular brand of elegant, avant-garde synthpop.
Japan at the time consisted of ‘the most fanciable man in pop’, David Sylvian, accompanied by Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Rob Dean. As a five-piece, Gentleman Take Polaroids was the last album that Rob Dean was to perform on with the band.
The album is generally recognised as Quiet Life (Part 2) – that is, a continuation of their previous album released the year before. That thought process was backed up by the similar lyrical content, elegant arrangements, backing vocals and use of samples on both Quiet Life and Gentlemen Take Polaroids.
Pop culture webzine The Quietus have said of Gentlemen Take Polaroids that “it took the sound of Quiet Life and refined it into a series of oblique, almost cinematic avant-garde creations that exquisitely surround the frontman’s woozy post-(Bryan)Ferry croon in layers on pop textures that sounded little else by Japan’s contemporaries”.
They make a valid point; Japan were head and shoulders apart from their New Wave/New Romantic contemporaries such as Visage, ABC and Duran Duran, and this was both part of Japan’s appeal and contradictorily, their ridicule. NME were particularly scathing and this was largely in part because the band took themselves so seriously.
Amid a backdrop of their aforementioned contemporaries, who were recording pop videos frolicking the sea, and in lame suits in shimmering nightclubs having a jolly old time, Japan’s videos were introspective and moody and it didn’t always sit well with the majority of the music press at the time, quite possibly because they didn’t understand or relate to them.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids song themes still tackled the art of travelling and escape to exotic foreign climes such as Taking Islands in Africa which cross-references a line on their song Swing, also on this album. Taking Islands in Africa was also Sylvian’s first collaboration with musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom Sylvian would go on to work with at various junctures in his career, most famously on 1983 single Forbidden Colors from Sakamoto’s score for POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) in which the Yellow Magic Orchestra leader starred alongside one of Sylvian’s formative influences, David Bowie.
The last single to be drawn from this album was Nightporter which was released in 1982 just as the band had announced that it was splitting up. Inspired by Liliana Cavani’s notorious ‘Nazisploitation’ film The Night Porter which starred Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling and Philippe Leroy, the single peaked at number 29 and both the 7″ and full-length 12″ versions remain unreleased on CD.
After forty years the album still has respectful credibility and despite their introspective nature, the songs have stood the test of time to make them into nostalgic classics. Japan would later re-form in the late 1980s under the guise of Rain Tree Crow to release just one album. It was the first and last time the band were to reunite since they last performed together in 1982. After their last album, 1981’s critically acclaimed Tin Drum, David Sylvian went on to forge a solo career. Richard Barbieri joined prog rock group Porcupine Tree and Steve Jansen (brother of Sylvian) went on to produce music as well as various musical joint ventures, and a solo album released in 2007. Sadly Mick Karn passed away aged just 52, in 2011.
Gentlemen Take Polaroids was later re-issued twice; firstly on CD in 2003 with slight nuances to both the album artwork and the contents with the addition of three bonus tracks, and again in 2018 as a new half-speed master spread across four sides of vinyl. This was mastered at Abbey Road Studios by Miles Showell and for the first time the lyrics were printed on the inner gatefold of the deluxe version.
There has never been another band like Japan. Their smooth sophistication was pure class and Gentlemen Take Polaroids is the epitome of their modus operandi. It remains a classic album of its time, and if not a ‘pure’ diamond, then surely it’s at least a shimmering ruby gem to reflect its forty years anniversary.
❉ Japan: ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ was originally released 24 October 1980 on LP & cassette by Virgin Records, 1980 (Virgin V2180) and made its CD debut in 1984 (Virgin CDV2180) with a mid-price reissue in 1988 (Virgin OVED138). A remastered, digipak CD with three bonus tracks was released in 2003 (Virgin/UMC CDVX 2180/7243 5 91016 2 0). An SHM-CD high-definition remaster in a miniature replica LP sleeve was available as a Japanese import from 2017. A Half Speed Master was released on double vinyl as part of the Mastered At Abbey Road Studios Series in a gatefold sleeve with download code on 24 August 2018 (Virgin/UMC 671 041-2).
❉ Ange Chan is a freelance writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry. She was also prolific contributor in the anthology collection Me and the Starman, (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and is a lifelong lover of music, having first been published in the 1980s music press. As well as being a frequent contributor to the pop culture website We Are Cult, she is working on her long-standing third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots.
Header image: Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns.