40 years ago this week, Japan played their last ever gig. It was on 16 December 1982 at Nagoyashi Kokaido, the last date of a brief Far East tour.
To the band, it seemed pretty much like any other concert until someone started firing a water pistol at Steve Jansen as he tried to play the marimba solo on ‘Ghosts’. Then, as they came out for their first encore (‘Life In Tokyo’), the ping pong balls arrived, as did someone in a Father Christmas suit.
David Sylvian’s partner Yuka Fujii (such an important documenter of his 1980s work) filmed from the balcony of the hall as Japanese support act Sandii & The Sunsetz joined the band plus various people in animal suits.
Sylvian’s grin when he notices live mixer John Punter mucking about at the side of the stage is priceless. Much-missed Mick Karn and Jansen amuse themselves with some booze, guitarist Masami Tsuchiya attempts some Mick-style stage shenanigans and it’s touching to see this so buttoned-up of bands letting their hair down as they play their last ever live track: ‘Fall In Love With Me’.
The gig was a bittersweet end for Japan. Sylvian and Karn had fallen out irreparably (but would make up soon after). Manager Simon Napier-Bell was furious about the split (though would initially go on to manage Sylvian as a solo artist) as they were poised to become massive and had never sounded better.
Upon hearing of the band’s decision to break up, he reportedly asked for his full (back-dated) commission, as was his contractual right, leaving everyone in the band except Sylvian basically penniless. But – pending a strike from Jansen and Barbieri – he eventually relented and gave each band member £6,000 for the tour.
But huge credit to Japan for splitting when they did – a host of inferior imitators would come along in their wake.
Keyboard player Tony Hymas had one of the weirder music careers of the 1980s.
He began the decade helping to make There And Back one of Jeff Beck’s best albums, then popped up in a supergroup called PHD with singer Jim Diamond and drummer Simon Phillips, getting a classic UK one-hit wonder ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ (#2 in 1982!), then played on/wrote arguably the best track from Beck’s pretty poor 1985 album Flash, and then…not a lot for a while.
But he was absolutely vital in Beck’s career comeback courtesy of Guitar Shop, released in October 1989. You might even call it Beck’s last great album, and arguably Bozzio’s too.
They recorded at Jimmy Page’s residential Sol Studios in leafy Cookham, Surrey (Beck later reported: ‘When we finished the album, I left me bike in his shed, so he got a bicycle out of it too…’!). The album ended up taking eight months to write and record because Hymas brought a chess board with him.
Beck took genres that he’d touched upon throughout his career – blues, reggae, rockabilly, metal, funk, fusion – and used them as a jumping-off points, working up material with Hymas and Bozzio in the studio.
And it’s very memorable material. On the title track Beck fondly mocks the gear obsession of guitar magazines, and goes through a range of tones and effects in the process, but…it all just sounds like Jeff. A Strat or Telecaster, distortion/delay pedals, and that’s it. It’s all in his fingers.
On the masterpiece that is ‘Where Were You’, he plays the lion’s share of the melody (reportedly very influenced by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir AKA Les Voix Bulgares) with harmonics and very judicious use of the whammy bar, bending in and out of notes with just the right amount of wrist tension.
Bozzio plays a blinder – mostly reining in his formidable technique at the expense of groove and presence – but unleashes some seriously quick double-bass playing on ‘Sling Shot’. Thrash drummers beware. And there’s THAT amazing fill at the end.
Hymas is a great accompanist – you hardly miss real bass and only very occasionally yearn for another instrumental foil for Beck. A couple of tracks on the album became live staples too, played in concert to this day – ‘Big Block’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Behind The Veil’.
Guitar Shop did OK in the States, making #49, but weirdly didn’t chart in the UK. But it did win a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy award in 1990. Their Hammersmith gig of 29 July that year was one of the loudest ever heard at the venue. Beck talked up the possibility of a second album and tour but it never happened. They did reform for Jeff’s birthday party at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 though. And El Becko got on ‘Rapido’: