Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK 'new romantic' group formed in the early 1970s by brothers David (b 23 February 1958) and Steve Batt (b 1 December 1959), both from Beckenham, Kent; adopted names David Sylvian and Steve Jansen. Recruited bassist Mike Karn (b Andonis Michaelides, 24 July 1958, in Cyprus; d 4 January 2011 in London, of cancer) and drummer Richard Barbieri (b 30 November 1957). They began performing in earnest '77 with lead guitar Rob Dean, combining heavy metal flash and the influence of Motown, mixing US covers with David's originals; the classically-trained Karn was the only real musician in the group, whose make-up and 'glam' image led to resistance in the heyday of punk. Karn had played violin and bassoon, and removed the frets from his bass so could play the way he liked. Curiously, many of their proliferating side-projects and splinter groups later resembled New Age music.

They won a talent competition and were signed by Euro label Ariola; Adolescent Sex '79 was a rushed album of wildly varying styles, including a cover of Barbra Streisand's 'Don't Rain On My Parade'. A tour with Blue Oyster Cult was incongruous, but interest in Japan, where 'The Unconventional' was a hit single, was encouraging. Obscure Alternatives '79 revealed fascination with traditional Eastern music and the music of Erik Satie: instrumental 'The Tenant' stood out. A link with Roxy Music producer John Punter led to Quiet Life, criticized for Roxy influence, but their best yet, with Karn doubling on sax, including a cover of Velvet Underground's 'All Tomorrow's Parties'. Ex-Yardbirds manager Simon Napier Bell then signed the band, moved them to Virgin as their live following in the UK, Germany and Japan threatened to sell records; Gentlemen Take Polaroids '80 seemed not to suffer from the band not touring due to legal wrangling, its standout track 'Taking Islands In Africa' written by David and Yellow Magic Orchestra keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Dean left, the band's synth-oriented sound giving him little scope; he later backed Gary Numan. Ariola began compilations, cashing in on popularity: Assemblage '81 made no. 26 in UK charts and five retrospective singles notched top 40 places '81-3 (biggest was cover of Smokey Robinson's 'I Second That Emotion', no. 9 '82). Tin Drum '81 went gold; their most cohesive album to date had no. 5 hit UK in title track 'Ghosts'; an oriental motif followed in tracks like 'Cantonese Boy' (no. 24) and Mao-inspired cover artwork. But individual projects and antipathy between Sylvian and Karn caused a split.

Karn was also a sculptor and channelled energy into that as well as sessioning for Numan, Robert Palmer, releasing solo LP Titles '82; Sylvian teamed with Sakamoto, for no. 30 hit 'Bamboo Houses' '82, adding vocals to 'Forbidden Colours' from Japanese soundtrack to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence for no. 16 hit '83. Barbieri, the unsung hero of the band's synth sound, produced an LP for the Swedish group Lakejer, composed for Ballet Rambert. Japan ended with live LP/video Oil On Canvas '83 (but a re-formed quartet made an eponymous album on Venture/Virgin as Rain Tree Crow '91).

Karn recorded with Ultravox's Midge Ure (single 'After A Fashion' UK no. 39 '83); collaborated with Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) in duo Dali's Car (album The Waking Hour). Barbieri and Jansen worked together: album Worlds In A Small Room '85 released in Japan only; Stories Across Borders was later on a Venture/Caroline CD; as the Dolphin Brothers with additional personnel including Danny Thompson on bass they made album Catch The Fall '87 on Virgin. Sylvian issued well-received solo LP Brilliant Trees '84, video Steel Cathedrals, cassette Alchemy - - An Index Of Possibilities, two-disc Gone To Earth '86 with Jansen, Barbieri, Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson; Secrets Of The Beehive '87 was arranged by Sakamoto. Sylvian and Holger Czukay with other members of Can released Plight And Premonition '88, Flux And Mutability '89. Karn's Dreams Of Reason Produce Monsters '87 had Sylvian on single 'Buoy', Jansen on drums and co-producing, followed by Bestial Cluster '93 with Barbieri, Jansen and others. Original Japan albums and other bits and pieces were reissued on Caroline and Blue Plate CDs.