By Dave Thompson
Japan are one of those groups that people seem either to love or to hate. Spin Cycle falls into the former category… always has, ever since a first sighting of the band around 1977 inspired hopes of a wholesale glam rock revival. Which, in truth, Japan themselves swiftly disavowed. But Quiet Life, their 1979 third album, quite possibly remains the dusty old genre’s final glorious fling, at the same time as signposting the directions in which Japan were set to move.
You can hear ambition straining its sinews, not only in their own material, but also across their cover of the Velvets’ “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” probing electronics and keyboards echoing out around a building beat and defying any chance of recognition until finally, almost a minute in, David Sylvian gives the game away with the familiar first line. And, all the while, there’s guitarist Rob Dean all but playing Frippertronics behind him. It’s a phenomenal version, one of the best, and yet it’s not even the best track on the album.
Quiet Life has just turned 40 years old. The Canadian release came first, in 1979; the U.K. and U.S. received it the following year. So, while this isn’t quite an anniversary album, it’s close enough to merit some very special treatment — a 12-inch slipcase into which are enfolded a heavyweight half speed remaster of the original LP, on vinyl and CD; a disc recorded live at the Budokan in March, 1980; and, maybe best of all, an 18-song collection of alternative mixes and rarities (BMG).
We say “maybe” best… the caveat is the fact that the last four songs on the disc are repeated during the live show. True, they did see release at the time as the Live in Japan EP, so that should keep completists happy. But it’s still devouring space that — well, who knows what else could have been put on there?
Unheard pleasures, there are none. The non-album “A Foreign Place” was the B-side of 1981’s “Quiet Life” single, released after the band had fled to a different label and the archive was thus ripe for plundering; likewise, “European Son” and a cover of “I Second That Emotion” made it out on 45 the following year. And Giorgio Moroder’s 1979 production of “Life in Tokyo (Theme)” was a Japanese single in 1980.
What we do get are a slew of 7-inch and 12-inch mixes, and do not lose heart when you realize that it’s basically the same six songs being mixed and remixed up to three times apiece. Of all the “new wave”/“post punk” acts who found themselves cutting shapes on the dance floor of the era, Japan really did have the best sounding singles — and all the more so, strangely, once they left the label and doubtless had no say in anything being released in their name. More than half the remixes here are dated 1982/83, but they were executed with the band’s full cooperation (remixer Steve Nye was the band’s then-current producer, the musicians contributed a few overdubs) and all concerned did a wonderful job.
There are some chinks in Japan’s armor. Period criticisms of Sylvian’s voice as effectively an echo of Bryan Ferry’s remain valid, and while one would never go so far as the U.K. critic who compared their catalog to outtakes from Roxy Music’s Flesh and Blood album, the aforementioned “I Second That Emotion” really doesn’t go out of its way to disagree. Beautifully recorded and immaculately performed, it’s probably the weakest moment in the entire package. So let us dwell no longer upon it, and instead run down all the highlights. Which are, beginning with side one of the vinyl, track one, track two, track three…