Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Cantonese Boy

Up until the age of 11, I’d happily inherited pop music from my older sister. Together we’d learn the words (via Disco 45) to all the top 40. Word perfect on Ay Ay Ay Moosey (Modern Romance)? Of course. Every vocal inflection on Eight Day (by proto Gaga Hazel O’Connor)? Oh yes. Perfect imitation of the sax solo on Baker Street - you betcha. This pop training had stood me in good stead in the playground, every Sunday night taping the charts onto my Binatone tape recorder (we didn't have direct recording then, so quite likely, half way through my recording of Night Boat To Cairo you'd hear my mum shouting up to me that my 'tea was ready') meant I was never too far away from recognising a peer's cultural reference. If I was asked who my favourite band was, I might say The Police, I might say The Specials, or even Dexy's, but they changed constantly, well, pretty much every Sunday at 5pm. Then everything changed.

I was round at a friend’s house and we'd sneaked into the front room where his 16 year old brother, was sat with his 'cool' friends, playing a record that sounded like it came from another world. I've heard people talking about their POP 'road to Damascus' moment' - seeing David Bowie leaning on Mick Ronson, or The Rolling Stones on Ready Steady Go, The Pistols swearing at Grundy, well this was mine. To some, the vocalist would sound like he was moaning that the music wasn't really music at all, more a disconcerting collection of chimes, noises and rhythm but to me, it was like a portal opened in the room. I was dumbstruck and yet very, very excited, and I wasn't sure why. The song was 'Ghosts' by Japan and my adolescence had just begun.

  It was almost a year before I bought a record by Japan (my how different things were then, these days I would've digested the whole back catalogue within a week), partly because I was 12 years old and had no ready cash, but also partly because I was sort of scared of them. Ha! Yes. These strange men, in their strange clothes, so unlike the other pop stars on my sister’s walls. Anyway, Christmas 1984 came and one of my presents was Exorcising Ghosts - a (beautifully packaged) compilation album and that evening I took it upstairs and began by playing 'Ghosts', before starting at side 1. During the first play it was a bit like my head was slowly re-arranging itself. This music wasn't going to yield to me; I'd have to come to it. By the third play, I was levitating. Seriously. Mick Karn's sinewy bass, Steve Jansen's non showy tribal percussion, Barbieri's Prophet 5 soundscapes and THAT voice were awakening something inside. Suddenly, 'playtime' at school was slightly more awkward. I'd dyed my hair, I wore a paisley scarf. I wanted to talk about Picasso, Jean Cocteau & Erik Satie (even though I knew sod all about them). I was a loner.

The next 6 years the obsession became silly. Trawling record fairs for vinyl bootlegs(I own over 10 unofficial live Japan bootlegs that cost me over £30 each and I’ve no idea where they are now), writing letters to the Bamboo fanzine on a weekly basis ("NO Mick Karn's best ever bass line was on the b-side to his first solo single Sensitive!!", Rest of the World "Yawn") and carrying the Quiet Life album under my arm as I walked around Blackpool town centre, hoping, praying I might bump into a kindred spirit. However like all teenage obsessions, slowly but surely Sylvian and his merry men began to lose importance to me, to the point where nowadays, if I hear that Sylv is playing live, I shudder at the thought of having to sit through two hours of plinky-plonky noises. But sometimes, when the kids are in bed and the wife's out, I slip Gentleman Take Polaroids on and if I concentrate hard enough I can remember the boy in front of his bedroom mirror trying to lower his voice an octave and sing along to Nightporter.


Anonymous said...

Lovely stuff! 'Ghosts' is such an epiphany of a track. It didn't sound like anything else back then, and it still doesn't really sound like anything else. I'm still really aghast that Japan don't get the credit for being one of Britain's most original bands, and that they're not name-checked more. Perhaps this means there are still many people yet to discover them for the first time.

I've just started collecting vinyl, and I got Gentlemen Take Polaroids in a charity shop for 1.99! Hearing 'Swing' on LP is a magical thing indeed...

PS: This is Andrew from Wow & Flutter - for some reason I couldn't submit the comment under my Wordpress ID!

Unknown said...

Hi Andrew and thanks!

Not sure entirely that i agree with Japan being one of Britain's most original bands, i kind of think in retrospect one of their most lovable qualities is what plagiarists they were! For example the first time i heard this song i felt very weird having been so convinced of Japan's pioneering qualities! However, i think the thing that made them special was the amazing chemistry between them as musicians. The interplay on the aforementioned 'Swing' is just magical as a great example, and as they grew as musicians, their ability to leave space in songs is something that most bands (with their individual egos) just don't do.

Still loving your blog btw.


Rin said...

Ahhh, what a great post.