Japan – The Art of Parties
1981 was undoubtedly a landmark year for the pop fans of Britain. As BBC4’s on-going transmission of 35 year-old Top of the Pops episodes continues apace – with two episodes airing each week at the moment – it’s clear a ‘changing of the guard’ was underway and many of the artists who’d scored some of the best-selling singles of the previous ten years – including Boney M, Showaddywaddy and Village People – would struggle to make much of an impact in the decade which followed. Even Abba, arguably the decade’s most consistently successful pop act, would call it a day in 1982 after their final pair of singles – The Day Before You Came and Under Attack – peaked outside the UK top 20, pushing the previously infallible hit-makers perilously close to the edge of The Popvoid.
Punk had matured into New Wave and, in the UK at least, Disco had been surpassed by a shift to the mainstream for a host of home-grown Brit-funk, Soul and Dance acts – including Linx, Imagination, Shakatak, Level 42 and Freeez. However, it was the growing influence of electronic music and a plethora of ‘new to the market’ affordable synthesisers and drum machines which were causing the most significant ripples on the UK charts since John, Paul, George and Ringo hopped on a plane back from Hamburg and bashed out a few tunes.
For me, 1981 was just as significant. It was a year in which my own tastes in music, and thus the singles I ended up spending my pocket money on, started to diversify. Now, I was close to writing ‘mature’ at the end of that sentence, but when I admit that on the same day I bought Soft Cell’s Tainted Love – an undeniable classic and a perfect example of the newly emerging electro-pop which was making an indelible impact on the UK charts – I also took home a copy of Japanese Boy by Aneka – the arguably racist and extremely cheesy collaboration between two Scottish musicians, songwriter Bob Heatlie (who also wrote Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone) and a traditional folk singer, Mary Sandeman – it’s clear that, for me at least, there wasn’t going to be an overnight revolution, but the seeds had been sown.
1981 was the year I started to actually choose the records I wanted to spend my money on, rather than just following the pack and simply buying the songs I’d heard on the Top 40 rundown or saw being performed on Top of the Pops. I started to collect records, many of which hadn’t reached the top 40 yet, some by new artists who’d never had a hit record before. There were bands most of my school friends had never heard of and a select few who would remain a mystery to virtually every record buyer in the country. With this came the realisation that it was possible to love a record that nobody else liked – or at least not enough who actually bought it and sent it into the top 40. For the first time, I was embracing the concept of The Popvoid – It’s just a shame I had to wait nearly 35 years for Niall McMurray to finally give it a name!
One of the first ‘flop’ records I remember obsessing over was The Art of Parties by Japan. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I never actually bought a copy myself, it simply appeared in the bedroom I shared with my elder brother amidst a pile of his other purchases – including similarly, seemingly otherworldly, offerings from Siouxsie and the Banshees, John Foxx and Bauhaus.
For the first few months of that year, my personal musical landscape had been well and truly blown apart by the likes of Visage, Ultravox and, um, Classix Nouveaux, so by the time The Art of Parties came along, I was more or less open to anything.
As Japan, David Sylvian, his brother Steve Jansen, Mick Karn and Richard Barbieri, were hardly novices. This classic four-piece line-up had formed the core of the band back in the mid 1970s, and they’d grown a sizeable, but decidedly cultish, following as glam-inflected rockers who looked more like a hair metal band than the coolest faction of the growing New Romantic cult. Then, a one-off single with Giorgio Moroder at the helm – Life In Tokyo – signalled a dramatic change in direction and an inevitable, if leisurely, shift towards the mainstream. By the time they’d signed to Virgin Records and released 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids, they’d finally achieved a degree of commercial success, albeit more by accident than design. Far from courting the kind of mass market appeal which had instantly catapulted the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet onto the cover of Smash Hits, pop culture had merely caught up with the evolution of Japan’s unique sense of style and the band’s, suddenly more fashionable than ever, Bowie/Roxy hybrid sound. Rather like two trains, which may have started their respective journeys on very different paths, eventually converging and running alongside each other, Japan and The Blitz Kids became inextricably linked.
Virgin released The Art of Parties in the late spring of 1981, acting as a perfect stop-gap single to help fill the six months until their next album, Tin Drum, which was due to be released in early November. It’s safe to assume everyone involved was expecting this single to finally break the band, taking full advantage of their perfectly timed, but wholly inadvertent, association with the New Romantic movement and deliver their first UK Top 40 hit.
Further developing the band’s already long-gestating experimentation with keyboards and electronics, The Art of Parties was supplemented by their desire to utilise even more exotic, traditional instruments and demonstrate a growing enthusiasm for the musical flavours of the Far East. It’s an exhilarating, heady mix. Sonically, it’s considerably more sophisticated than the average pop record and it has more in common with David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes than much of their pre-Virgin output. But it appears to have been a little too strange for most of the general record buying public and it stalled just shy of the top 40. Ironically, it was the band’s former label, Hansa, and the re-release of the title track from 1979’s Quiet Life which finally saw Japan score a ‘proper’ hit and kick-start an impressive run of nine consecutive top 40 singles. Over the next two years, as their ‘official’ Virgin releases were supplemented by a handful of ‘cash in’ re-issues, the band would avoid any further visits to The Popvoid…well until Virgin decided it was a good idea to schedule Canton, a live instrumental, as the band’s farewell single release. Who says record labels don’t have a sense of humour?
Entered chart: 09/05/81
Chart peak: 48
Weeks on chart: 5
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Judging by their recent transformation into an 80’s tribute act, having already paid homage to Duran Duran, INXS and Prince on their last couple of singles, maybe The 1975 could turn this into the top 10 single it deserves to be.