James Jackson Toth on Japan – Tin Drum

The latest installment of Hidden Gems comes from a longtime RSTB favorite. I think it’s fair to say that without Wooden Wand, Raven wouldn’t have shaped up the way it did in those early years. When I happened on a great set by James, billed to open for Jack Rose in a cramped bar in Greenpoint back in 2005, Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg quickly became a fixture on the turntable and a desire to spread some of the WW gospel was born. Below Toth shares a record that’s made an impact in his own life and how it crept in and took hold.

James remembers, “I first heard Japan about ten years ago, while shopping at famous Nashville record store Grimey’s. When my friend Rollum — a Grimey’s employee- happened to notice a Thomas Dolby record in my pile, he recommended I give Japan a try. Rollum has never steered me wrong, so I went home with a strange-looking album called Tin Drum.”

“On paper, 1981’s Tin Drum is what you might call a tough sell: Japan’s fifth and final album marks the culmination of the aggressively English synth-pop group’s preoccupation with Asian culture, resulting, perhaps inevitably, in a concept album about China. To this dubious premise, add the following: a preening, foppish lead vocalist whose lyrics seem, on first impression, to consist mostly of existentialist refrigerator magnet poetry; Casio pre-set-sounding “tribal” percussion; and the distinct “hiccupping whale” sound usually associated with fretless electric bass. On first listen, Tin Drum sounds a bit like Roxy Music if Roxy Music crammed every poor, tasteless idea they ever had into one record.”


“But I kept listening,” Toth muses, “and soon found myself getting hung up on one track in particular: a lush evocation of despair called “Ghosts,” almost gloomier than goth. It begins with David Sylvian singing over some minimalist, ambient pads, along with some dissonant keyboard squiggles and hallucinatory stereo effects that wouldn’t sound out of place on Coil’s Ape of Naples. There are small stretches of silence throughout. Woozy, synthesized horns bend ever so slightly in and out of tune. Finally, a yearning, exhausted male voice reckons with the hellhounds on his trail, the ghosts that confront him with the failures he has not forgotten, cannot forget. Imagine The Cure’s Pornography as a watercolor painting that’s been stored for six decades in a damp attic, eventually curling into a faded, brittle cylindrical scroll; that’s “Ghosts.” Incredibly, this bleak, percussion-free song reached #5 in the UK charts, which must make it the strangest and most unlikely pop “hit” of all time.”

“As much as I was becoming addicted to “Ghosts,” I was still finding it difficult to reconcile this spooky, gorgeous track with the puffy, New Romantic art-pop of the rest of the record, but I kept listening, trying to hear around the corners. Eventually I grew to love even the more outwardly “accessible” tracks, locating in them just as much bold experimentation as I heard in “Ghosts:” “Sons of Pioneers” imagining Jaco and Joni gone city pop; “Canton” suggesting a sort of Ming dynasty Jon Hassell; “Still Life in Mobile Homes,” as conspicuously off-kilter and Ecstasy-damaged as Loveless.”


“I also began listening to Tim Drum compartmentally, first focusing only on the rhythm section of bassist Mick Karn and percussionist Steve Jansen, marveling at their tasteful, creative interplay, then honing in on keyboardist Richard Barbieri, who seemed capable of evoking entire spectrums of human feeling with little more than a Prophet V synthesizer. Still, Sylvian remained the main attraction: encompassing both the sexy glam-burnout vibe of Nikki Sudden as well as the hammy, brooding surrealism of Peters Hamill and Gabriel, Sylvian is a captivating presence and a born lead vocalist, able to convey with mere syllables what great painters convey in color or poets in verse. It is little wonder that the famously discerning Robert Fripp once begged Sylvian to join King Crimson.”

“I quickly acquired Japan’s back catalog and, while the band’s first two Bowie / Dolls-aping albums have always left me cold, I couldn’t imagine life without 1979’s Quiet Life or 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids. Tin Drum, however, remains the band’s pinnacle. It led, as great records often do, to the discovery of other things I soon grew to love, like Sylvian’s mostly brilliant solo career (an immeasurable influence on my own singing), Rain Tree Crow, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. It is a record I am very glad I made the effort to get to know. Thanks, Rollum.”

Couldn’t agree more with Toth that this is an indispensable album to have in a collection, though I, myself, have always been a bit more forgiving to the earlier works of Japan, I think I’m just a glutton for glam pomp. To be fair, though, if you’re going to dive into the band’s catalog, this is where to start. The album is currently available back on it’s native vinyl, though this is one you could find haunting the used bins if you’re intrepid for sure. As for Toth, his upcoming album Clipper Ship is out May 5th via Three Lobed. You’d do well to pick that one up as it’s shaping up to be one of his best.

Support the artist. Buy it HERE.

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