David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

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Book Review: Steve Jansen’s Through A Quiet Window

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Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Stanhope Gardens, London, 1981

Ringo Starr was once asked: What do you remember about recording Sgt Pepper’s? His reply? ‘I learnt how to play chess on that album.’ Not to do Ringo down at all – he’s the reason this writer picked up the drum sticks – but the line does say something about the sometimes tedious nature of recording in the era of multi-tracking. The drummer may have laid down all his parts in the first week of a project, so he or she had better have a Plan B for when the rest of the band are tinkering endlessly.

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Japan drummer Steve Jansen didn’t learn chess but he did use his time very productively while the band recorded their masterpieces, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum; he developed his formidable photography skills, and now his work has been collected in a sumptuously-designed hardback book ‘Through A Quiet Window’.

To say that it will appease Japan fans is a total understatement – it makes a brilliant companion piece to Anthony Reynolds’ excellent recent biography ‘A Foreign Place’, and brings the band’s relatively short but very eventful story to life.

We see portraits of the band in all kinds of different locations, mainly between 1979 and 1981: Mick Karn laying down his bass parts at AIR Studios and mooching about Holland Park in West London; David Sylvian lounging in various hotel rooms and recording studios including the Townhouse and the Manor, Richard Barbieri sitting stone-faced at his keyboard or smirking on the tour bus.

There is also a memorably candid shot of Karn and Sylvian at the breakfast table in their Stanhope Gardens flat. We also see fleeting glimpses of producers Steve Nye and John Porter at various mixing desks, often flanked by either Karn or Sylvian. Jansen’s other musical projects of the time are also beautifully documented, including various Japanese sojourns featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya and Akiko Yano.

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Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn and David Sylvian, South Moulton Street, London 1981

While there are a lot of laughs about, the overall impression is of a very insular bunch of guys, extremely dedicated to their music but also their friendships. No real surprise there, then, but the intimate nature of many photos is very refreshing. Steve Jansen demonstrates the same precision and natural sense of timing behind the camera as he always does behind the kit. And there are some cracking hairstyles on show too. Highly recommended.

‘Through A Quiet Window’ is available from Artes Publishing.

Japan: A Foreign Place

japanIt’s been a bit quiet over here at movingtheriver.com recently, partly because I’ve been focusing on my (blatant plug) new site Sounds Of Surprise. But when I recently received Anthony Reynolds’ new book ‘Japan: A Foreign Place‘ in the post, I just had to drop everything and give it a read.

It’s only befitting that Japan – a band who put a big emphasis on surface and style – should be rewarded with such a glossy, beautifully-designed biography.

To paraphrase an old joke, when I got the book in my hand I didn’t know whether to read it or frame it. ‘Japan: A Foreign Place’ comes with a weighty, thick binding and a glorious cover featuring the band’s characteristic logo. It’s also packed with many fantastic photos, almost all of which were new to this correspondent. Many of them even appear to show David Sylvian smiling.

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Toronto, 24th November 1979

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Toronto, 24th November 1979

But what of the book’s content? Though it will satisfy the most information-starved Japan fan, with detailed commentaries on the band’s music and relationships, it also works very nicely as a portrait of the wider late-’70s/early-’80s music scene: Giorgio Moroder, Ryuichi Sakamato, Simon Napier-Bell, Gary Numan and David Bowie make regular appearances.

Though the band were, critically, a laughing stock up until the Quiet Life album in 1979, it’s often forgotten quite how out of place they always were in the UK pop firmament. From androgynous glam-rockers to glacial art-popsters, Japan resolutely stuck to their own guns and, by the time of their split in 1983, had become probably the most influential group of their era.

Sylvian and Barbieri, The Oxford Road Show, November 1981

Sylvian and Barbieri, The Oxford Road Show, November 1981

Reynolds expertly builds up a lucid picture of South-East London in the 1970s with its racial/cultural/class divisions and dodgy schoolmasters. The brothers Batt (soon to be rechristened David Sylvian and Steve Jansen) hooked up with schoolmate Andonis Michaelides (soon to become Mick Karn) to jam and write songs. Reynolds reveals some of Japan’s more outré musical influences (Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Aynsley Dunbar) and also that their early material was full of Sylvian guitar solos.

Jumping forward a bit, we get many gossipy revelations: Sylvian’s toe-curling audition for legendary manager Simon Napier-Bell, Gary Numan’s frequent stalking and also Japan’s early (and uniformly bad) experiences on the live scene of the late-’70s, supporting the likes of Blue Oyster Cult. Though the band were all resolutely straight, onstage they were subjected to constant homophobic comments and a barrage of missiles. Reynolds reveals that Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi had a real thing for Sylvian, pestering Napier-Bell for an introduction, not realising Sylvian wasn’t a ‘chick’. But this surely wasn’t the first time Sylvian had been mistaken for Brigitte Bardot.

Japan, November 1982

November 1982

Japan’s pop breakthrough is expertly handled, Reynolds spelling out in great musical detail how Sylvian’s emergence as a high-quality songwriter fused with Richard Barbieri’s canny synth programming and the stunning Karn/Jansen rhythm section to finally produce some music of worth. But success had come at a great cost; the band had completely grown apart, not helped by Karn’s girlfriend moving in with Sylvian on the eve of an important tour.

This Kickstarter project has clearly been a labour of love but ‘Japan: A Foreign Place’ punches way above its weight with in-depth interviews, sumptuous design and anecdotes aplenty. Occasionally, the text has a repetitious, ‘cut and paste’ quality, but this is a minor quibble. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will ever write a better book about one of the key bands of the ’80s. Highly recommended.

‘Japan: A Quiet Place’ is published by Burning Shed.