By the time post-punk’s dressed-down urban anxiety began to define the late 1970s zeitgeist, Japan had already taken a couple of unsuccessful shakes of the musical dice. It seemed almost impossible for them to find a footing in the unstable pop culture shale of the time.
To the all-powerful UK music press, Japan, with their hair and their make-up and their fancy duds, seemed faded and out of time, indifferent and aloof from the monochrome grind of reality in late 70s Britain. Almost as if they were inhabiting Bowie’s character from the ‘Be My Wife’ video while everyone else was on strike, wearing donkey jackets and standing around burning braziers.
Paul Morley, in a ‘Quiet Life’-era NME interview, can’t quite commit. He thinks they’re inadequate and pretentious, but he can’t look away. “As Numan is to Bowie, so Sylvian is to Ferry” he wrote, yet he recognises they are genuinely alien. They’re puffed-up plagiarists and full of themselves, but also “self-conscious idealists”. They weren’t Joy Division, that’s for sure.
Sylvian wasn’t too sure about his group either. He disowned the first two albums – arguably way too hastily and harshly – and was ready to disband when the second, ‘Obscure Alternatives’, bombed. But with ‘Quiet Life’ there was a brief break in the clouds. It was their first album to chart, the first with sequenced synthesisers and – if we’re to take Sylvian at his word – their first album proper.
The essay in this tasty boxset reissue, by Japan biographer Anthony Reynolds, contextualises the band’s fortunes as 1979 turned to 1980. They launched the album in Canada of all places, where they scandalised the old ladies in a suburban Toronto deli with their made-up faces and weird dress sense. They sold a lot of copies of ‘Quiet Life’ in Canada, but in the UK they were still faltering. Number 72 in the UK charts was a career best but, let’s face it, not exactly a grand return for the record company’s investment.
So where does ‘Quiet Life’ sit in this doomed, romantic trajectory? Gone are the transgressive experiments with psychedelic new wave reggae (‘…Rhodesia’), the angular dissonance (‘Love Is Infectious’) and the cheerful Bowie-inspired irony (‘Sometimes I Feel So Low’) of ‘Obscure Alternatives’.
In their place are tight electronics, sharper more spacious arrangements, and – in the title track – a template that gifted Duran Duran their career. Mick Karn’s fluid fretless bass is starting to take its lead role too. On ‘In Vogue’, a mysterious tale of soured nocturnal love, the bass dominates as the song slithers around its subject matter, and it similarly preens throughout the ornate ‘Halloween’, an odd evocation of post-war Germany.
Sylvian singing in French, accompanied by the suitably miserable piano and cello of drum machine-driven torch song ‘Despair’, did nothing to dispel accusations that Japan were pretentious and derivative. But their version of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is a surprisingly successful cover. Sylvian’s crooning is well-suited to Lou Reed’s lament for the sadness of a life spent dressing up for Saturday night, only to become Sunday’s clown. His heavily-modulated voice replaces Nico’s dour tones with an anguished frailty.
The electronic atmospheres that billow around this interpretation modernised the song for a generation of troubled youth who couldn’t give a fuck about the Velvet Underground, mainly because they’d never heard of them. The 1980s were imminent.
There are also hints of the band Japan were on their way to becoming. ‘Alien’ hits its stride when it drops the attempt to be a proper song: a short burst in the middle where Sylvian sounds like he’s singing on the communal stairs and Mick Karn is playing bass in the kitchen. By contrast, all seven-and-a-half minutes of closing track, ‘The Other Side Of Life’, are an exercise in misdirection. Its orchestral production suggests yet another potential route for Japan, into Scott Walker-inspired avant-garde baroque pop. But, as was often the case, the band toyed with the idea before dropping it.
The ‘A Quieter Life’ disc, which gathers the Steve Nye mixes and other bits and bobs of the era, provokes a constant feeling of deja vu, featuring several versions each of ‘Life In Tokyo’, ‘European Son’ (mystifyingly left off the album at the time) and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. Nice to have them all in one place, though. The live album is fun for the piercing shrieks of several thousand young Japanese fans, unable to clap in time with the sequenced intro of ‘Quiet Life’, though its bootleg sonics are not, it has to be said, easy on the ear.
While the remastering has both rounded out and sharpened the sound, this album, 40 years on, still creates a unique mood of electronic romantic dissolution, a kind of epic flatness, a celebration of enervation. It’s the musical equivalent of a long sigh, loaded with ennui and disappointment. Anything for a quiet life.