The fan interest surrounding the pop group Japan has always been a bit unusual, and unwavering since they split up in 1982. The vast majority of people who got into the band did so either shortly before (as in my case) or after they split up. Collecting Japan’s music has always been a finite exercise – they only recorded five albums and released one compilation during the lifetime of the group – as well as the posthumous “live” album “Oil On Canvas”. Aside from collecting singles for the few non-album b-sides that was your lot. In the whole discography however there is very little filler, and literally no “deep cuts” with the exception perhaps of “Some Kind Of Fool” that eventually came out in 2001, with a vocal overdub, on David Sylvian’s “Everything And Nothing”.
So why the enduring interest? Perhaps it is because the group’s work and images exist in a time-capsule of 1978 to 1982. Initally sustained by fanzines (Bamboo being the principal one), interest in the group was nurtured in the early days of the internet by the formation of email disciussion groups and then from 1996 with the advent of websites dedicated to sharing the story of the group. I started one site that has endured, Assemblage, later renamed as Nightporter. To my shame I have not updated it recently, but intend to this year as I am re-learning web coding so that the site can operate properly in the 21st century! It is from the Nightporter site that Stephen Holden found his way to the two largest facebook groups, the Nightporter website group and Japan (Sylvian/Karn/Jansen/Barbieri/Dean) which is run by friends of mine. We try to make the groups different and largely succeed. Social media has also enabled direct interaction between fans and the former members of Japan, who are often on hand to help answer questions, dispel myths and share anecdotes. The late Mick Karn was also involved in social media, although not always directly, and I like to think he would have enjoyed the interaction.
(You may point out that I have forgotten the “Rain Tree Crow” album – I haven’t – I regard that as separate and a meeting of the four existing members on something new. The solo work of all five former members of Japan helped keep fandom engaged, especially through the Medium label after Sylvian was effectively on hiatus while raising his daughters).
So now it’s 2020 and crazy as it sounds there have now been more *books* released in the last decade than Japan ever recorded albums or released compilations. First out of the gate was Mick Karn himself with “Japan And Self-Existence”, published a year or so before he discovered he was ill with cancer. In the book Mick shares anecdotes and pictures from throughout his life, and is extremely open and honest. In typical Mick fashion the book is non-chronological, and as he says himself omits several aspects of his work, such as the collaborations with the late Masahide Sakuma. It’s sad that he did not live longer to give us a second volume, or perhaps cover additional parts of his life through blogging.
The next few books came out in quite a flurry – the two biographies of Japan by Anthony Reynolds (“A Foreign Place”, “Cries And Whispers”), both featuring contributions from group members aside from David Sylvian. Music Life in Japan put together a hardback collection of their articles published on the group. David Sylvian published a collection of his lyrics and poems, and later supported Yuka Fujii to release “Like Planets”, a book of photography covering the later Japan and early solo years. Further volumes of Yuka’s photography are mooted. Finally, starting with blogging, Steve Jansen was encouraged by a healthy fan response and the support of Yukihiro Takahashi to publish the book “Through A Quiet Window”. This is really a visual companion to the biographies, saying so much with few words, really a glimpse into the lives of the band members on the road, in the studio, and working on their visual imagery. In 2019 Steve published an updated version of the book in collaboration with The Flood Gallery.
So, to my mind, only one thing was missing – which ironically is the main thing we had between 1983 and the early 2010s – the sharing of fan experiences, feelings and thoughts about the group and their music.
It was a revelation to me when thanks to the Nightporter site and FB, we started to see new photos and stories being shared by Stephen Holden, of his and friends travels to see Japan as early as Spring 1978. Stephen was sharing so much, as were others new to the groups, that there was a risk that some of this gold could be lost somewhat amid the numerous other discusson points, YouTube clips and pictures. So I was delighted when I found out that Stephen with the help of others planned to pull all of his memories together into a book, with relevant accompanying visuals.
“Adolescent Alternatives” focuses in on the early years of the band, and allows us to witness the exremely pivotal period from 1979 to 1980 when the group reinvented themselves and achieved greater success. The book really does celebrate the early years up to “Quiet Life”, explaining well the appeal of the group’s early material, and expressing the drive and ambition that they shared on stage. Stephen’s story is an engaging one, and will resonate with many readers who have ever followed a band that they enjoy seeing play live. It is also revealing about the band and the changes surrounding them. There is one particular incident which is a good representation of the change. Stephen and friends had got used to being able to meet the band after shows, and were treated sociably. However by 1980 Stephen had a door slammed in his face by David Sylvian. From Sylvian’s perspective this was probably understandable – he wasn’t expecting a fan to be there, and following the tours of Japan (the country) was maybe over any desire for fan interation that wasn’t organised. From Stephen’s perspective, at a time when the group were still not selling out venues in the UK, it may have seemed shocking.
I rushed ahead a bit – the main selling point of this book for me is the descriptions of early live shows, and of meetings with the band when they were first interacting with people who were genuinely enjoying their music. As a huge bonus you get to read the early fan club letters, often including titbits of information on plans that never came to be, offering a glimpse into a potential alternative direction. For me, 1979 is a particularly fascinating period, where the band changed as a consequence of recording “Life In Tokyo” with Giorgio Moroder. The band also changed their look, from post-punk mixed with glam outfits to a more sophisticated image, that better fitted the music. It’s quite surprising to note that the “Quiet Life” album sleeve was shot in the Spring of 1979, as revealed in the fan club correspondence.
Another aspect of the book that makes it a must-buy in my opinion are the photographs, many of which have never been published before, and images of other items from the time that I don’t want to spoil. If you love poring over images of the band this book certainly does not disappoint.
The paperback book is in a square format, 142 pages, with colour photos throughout. In addition to the main text by Stephen there is a foreword from former Japan lead guitarist Rob Dean, as well as additional articles by Anthony Reynolds and Nick Huckle, who worked for the band. Overall, as it also includes the fan club material, ticket stubs and many images this book is extremely good value. It also offers something unique in the growing catalogue of books covering the work and lives of the group.
“Adolescent Alternatives” can be ordered directly from the author Stephen Holden.
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Price: £27.50 plus UK£5.00 postage within the UK, UK£12.00 postage to Europe, UK£16.00 to the rest of the world. All packages sent tracked and insured. Any enquiries please email Stephen