Japan Tin Drum

Japan’s Timeless ‘Tin Drum’ Turns 40

Japan’s Tin Drum serves as a lasting document of a band ahead of their time and one that rises far above the pretensions of their contemporaries.

Tin Drum
Virgin Records
13 November 1981

Some bands appear fully formed, with a debut album that will forever define their sound. Often, these same bands fail to evolve, and fans are left to lament the innovative impact of the early stuff. Other groups, if they’re lucky, keep refining their sound and growing into themselves with each new LP. Japan’s Tim Drum, released 40 years ago this week, is an example of the latter. A culmination of the band’s move toward inventive art-rock, it would also be their swan song. The group disbanded in late 1982, after a successful tour and live album release.

Put together in 1974 by brothers David Sylvian and Steve Jansen, along with Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, and Rob Dean rounding out the quintet, Japan at first sounded like a New York Dolls knockoff. Their first album, 1978’s Adolescent Sex, is a guitar-heavy mishmash of glam rock, disco, and funk, underneath Sylvian’s petulant vocals. It also includes a bizarre cover of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (yes, the Barbra Streisand number from Funny Girl). The debut failed to make waves or earn fans. The follow-up, Obscure Alternatives, released later that year, displays a broader range of influences, including Asian and Caribbean motifs. The sophomore effort contains glimpses of the synth-based art-rock that would become the band’s signature sound, particularly on the piano-based instrumental “The Tenant”. 

This more experimental direction would be further developed on Quiet Life at the end of 1979. Here, Sylvian’s vocals shift from a punky sneer to a suave, disaffected baritone in the manner of Bryan Ferry. Standout tracks are a hypnotic cover of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, and “Alien”, which brings Karn’s bass front and center. The title track, along with a Giorgio Moroder penned single from the same time, “Life in Tokyo”, still reveals a disco-era Roxy influence.

What really sets Quiet Life apart from its predecessors is the move away from Dean’s guitar toward Karn’s distinctive fretless bass and Jansen’s restrained but inventive percussion. The interplay between Karn and Jansen forms a kind of exoskeleton that surrounds and supports Barbieri’s atmospheric keyboards and Sylvian’s moody voice. 1980’s Gentleman Take Polaroids takes this structure even further and is the last album to include Dean and his guitars.

Visually, the band began to style themselves more like the Thin White Duke and less like Johnny Thunders. The androgyny was still there, but instead of tight t-shirts and trashy glam, they dressed in the tailored suits, eyeliner, and floppy hair that bands like Duran Duran would later adopt.

Tin Drum marks another sonic evolution for the band, which is evident in its opening track. On “The Art of Parties”, Japan’s influences are barely discernible, as are its instruments for that matter (the record’s sleeve lists “tapes” among the traditional instruments). Jansen’s drumming strays from the typical rock backbeat, and his simple fills are there to add texture, not to show off chops.

In this case, the term “parties” is more likely to refer to political affiliation than an all-night rave. Tin Drum, more than any other Japan album, is conceptually cohesive, and the concept here is the Chinese cultural revolution. One may wonder why a band called Japan would make an album about China, but the sweeping sociopolitical movement does make for a compelling narrative. Still, it’s worth re-evaluating this kind of cultural appropriation 40 years on. Four English lads in Zhongshan suits and Mandarin collars, posed beneath a portrait of Mao, is a bit cringe-y in hindsight, as is the romanticization of the Chinese Communist movement.

However, the group seemed to commit to it fully, styling their record sleeves and promotional materials with Asian calligraphy and embellishments. The adherence to the concept goes beyond the surface level. A sense of melancholic remorse pervades the album, which seems to acknowledge that all was not as it seemed behind the propaganda of Mao’s China.

Japan had also become friends with and increasingly influenced by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra. As a result, Tin Drum reflects a mosaic of Eastern proclivities while creating something utterly original.

After “The Art of Parties”, “Talking Drum” widens the scope, with Karn taking up the African flute to complement his syncopated bass. The song’s structure is unconventional, with a single verse followed by a pre-chorus, chorus, and refrain, each repeated over Yuka Fujii’s underwater-sounding background vocals.

“Ghosts” is an atmospheric and rueful ballad, though to call it a ballad belies its singular strangeness. Barbieri’s synths echo like supernatural bells throughout, while a marimba supplies the only rhythmic element and lends the song an ethereal, oriental feel. Surprisingly, it was the band’s most commercially successful single, reaching number five on the UK chart.

The instrumental “Canton” has a processional feel. Its motif is repeated throughout with varied instrumentation, all punctuated by Karn’s otherworldly bass, which sounds at times like a groaning human voice.

“Still Life in Mobile Homes,” despite the gimmicky title, percolates with Karn’s fretwork (fretless, actually), which oozes in and around Jansen’s unorthodox beat. A backward-masked woman’s voice forms a desperate interlude, which is reminiscent of Kate Bush’s “Watching Me Without You”, except it would be four years until that song appeared (on Hounds of Love). Drums, keyboards, and bass all seem to be doing their own thing on this track, yet it coheres in a heady, sonic swirl.

“Visions of China” so named for the Marc Riboud book of photographs, is an eminently danceable, laid-back funk groove. Its arabesque riffs border on kitsch (think of the Thompson Twins’ song “Lies”) but are quickly dismissed by beefy instrumentation, a Burundi drum break, and sing-along chorus in the vein of Shriekback. It’s a testament to the album’s originality that I keep referring to albums that followed it, rather than its antecedents.

The eerie “Sons of Pioneers” is propelled by Karn’s bass and Jansen’s percussion, which is overlaid by Barbieri’s atmospheric, 12-tone keyboard riff. Karn’s bass line got him co-writer credit on the song, his first. The plodding nature of the track is matched by its lyrics, which may allude to the Long March. “Sometimes I feel I’ve been here forever/ Sometimes we sense the doubt together.” “Cantonese Boy” rounds out the album, with a reedy synth riff giving way to a jaunty marimba pattern, accentuated by octobans and off-kilter percussion that keep the rhythm unpredictable and kinetic.

Some bands define an era; some exist outside it. While it’s possible to pick out some remnants of Roxy Music and Yellow Magic Orchestra, as well as David Bowie’s Lodger and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Tin Drum’s eight songs have a timeless quality. Barbieri’s synth programming creates sounds and textures unique to this album, making it impossible to align with the band’s peers. Any comparison to the early 1980s New Romantic movement, with which they are erroneously associated, is purely stylistic.  

It’s hard to resist a “great leap forward” quip when describing Tin Drum. But it is an apt one. Though a mere four years separate them, Tim Drum is about as far away from Adolescent Sex as London is from Beijing. But a year after the album’s release, just as they were on the cusp of major commercial success – but growing acrimony – the group disbanded.

Though Tin Drum would be the band’s last original studio recording, its members would continue to make music for decades. Jansen performed on a score of albums alone and with various collaborators, including his former bandmates Karn and Barbieri. Barbieri joined prog-metal Porcupine Trees in 1993. Karn formed Dalis Car with Peter Murphy and lent his distinctive bass to records by Kate Bush, Gary Numan, and many more. Karn died from late-stage cancer in 2011. In 1989, Sylvian, Jansen, Karn, and Barbieri reunited as Rain Tree Crow and put out one eponymous album. While it contains some of the feel and pathos of Tin Drum, it possesses none of its exuberance. Its mood ranges from melancholy to morose. After Rain Tree Crow, the band would once again go their separate ways.

Tin Drum, then, remains a worthy artifact of a band ahead of their time and one that rises far above the pretensions of their contemporaries.