Japan took a chance on a new design, moving on ahead in leaps and bounds and catching their breath with the taste of country air like a whisper in the wind.
Brothers David Sylvian (David Alan Batt) and Steve Jansen (Stephen Batt) started the group with school chums Richard Barbieri and Mick Karn in 1974. Rob Dean joined the band a year later and they were signed to the German Hansa-Ariola label after winning a talent contest. Their first single in 1977 was "State Line" b/w "Don't Rain on My Parade". After recording two albums in 1978 with producer Ray Singer (Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives), they did their third album Quiet Life with former Roxy Music producer John Punter in 1979.
Jansen says that comparisons to Roxy Music were unavoidable: “We had the same producers, we were in the same field of electronics and so forth – and it wasn’t until “Gentlemen take polaroid’s” and the Tin Drum album we really started to push our boundaries into new directions”.
Mick Karn: ‘Certain bands were beginning to be classed together that had little to do with each other, such as Adam and the Ants, OMD, Spandau Ballet, collectively tied together by the slender threads of fashion…perhaps I was missing something, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to current trends’
It was at this point that Peter Meisel at Hansa told the band that they were being dropped. Their manager Simon Napier Bell arranged a deal with Simon Draper at Virgin Records; but by this point Peter's wife Trudi Meisel (who disagreed with his decision) had filed a suit against them leaving Hansa. The case was settled out of court. Richard Barbieri says: ‘The period between Hansa and Virgin didn’t feel fractious. We were quite confident and it didn't seem long before Virgin took us on. They had started to show an interest in the band because we were selling out residencies at (what was then) the Music Machine in Camden’.
Sessions for their next album took place in London, beginning at AIR Studios and continuing at Townhouse Studios when things got too tense. 'Gentlemen Take Polaroids' features David Sylvian on vocals, synthesizers (ARP Omni, Oberheim OB-X, Minimoog, Roland System 700), piano, and electric guitar; Mick Karn on fretless bass guitar, oboe, saxophone, and recorder; Steve Jansen on drums, synthesizer (Roland System 700, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5), and percussion; Richard Barbieri on synthesizers (Roland System 700, Micromoog, Polymoog, Prophet 5, Oberheim OB-X, Roland Jupiter 4), sequencer, and piano; and Rob Dean on guitar and ebow; with Ryuichi Sakamoto on synthesizers; Simon House on violin for "My New Career"; Cyo on vocals for "Methods of Dance"; Barry Guy on double bass; and Andrew Cauthery on oboe. John Punter handled production, mixing, recording, and engineering with additional recording and engineering by Colin Fairley, Nigel Walker, and Steve Prestage.
Rob Dean considers his diminishing role in the band: "It was true that I found less space to create on [Gentlemen Take Polaroids] and although I’m not sure how much I was aware of it, my own creative goals were drifting apart from the rest of the group, which in turn made it increasingly difficult to come up with parts that I was happy with. The band was moving more towards electronic music with YMO,Eno and Kraftwerk as perhaps the strongest influences and a distorted guitar was feeling more intrusive than complementary on a fair bit of the material...Guitar-wise during this period, the heaviest influence was Fripp's work which often sounded decidedly un-guitar-like and as a result I used a good deal of e bow,as I had on 'Quiet Life' but to me this felt quite limiting. I recall trying in vain to introduce an acoustic guitar part at one point...To be honest I wasn't entirely in love with the direction Japan was moving into and so naturally it became a struggle...The working process for [Gentlemen Take Polaroids] was somewhat different to the albums that preceded it, in that some of the material was created and constructed in the studio rather than in rehearsal, and David was probably more in charge than before. He wanted to move further away from the obvious Roxy Music influence which pervaded his writing on 'Quiet Life’, but ultimately I don't really think he succeeded. It may be that [Gentlemen Take Polaroids] was created a year too soon."
David Sylvian admits: "I tend to be too much of a perfectionist. I want everything to be that much in tune…and you know, I find that limiting in my music…I’ve never really been that strict about what they should and shouldn’t play. It caused a lot of problems in the studio, not just with the band but with the producer John Punter. I was getting involved in the production side of it as well...With Rob, the basic thing was that on Polaroid’s and even ‘Quiet Life’ I felt I was holding him back 'cause I had specific ideas for the guitar and I kept imposing them on him all the time…It would take hours in the studio because I'd be pushing him maybe a little against what he'd want to do.…It came to a peak on ‘Polaroid's’ as Rob only played on about four tracks...I find that more and more interesting, actually, to work with other people…it was really nice to get outside people working with us, to get their reaction to what we’re doing...I was going through many musical changes’ explained Sylvian. ‘I wanted to get away from ‘Quiet Life’ but still felt very attached to it… unusual for me…things were getting very strained halfway through ‘Polaroid's’. We had to take a break…I wrote on keyboards instead of guitar which caused difficulties...I don’t think it’s the best thing we’ve done…It was a very hard album to make because there was a lot of strain in the studio…feeling between members of the band wasn’t too good, because I was putting limitations on them, because I was after a certain sound. I’ve never done that before… I'm happy with how it sounds – the thing is that I was growing out of it before we'd finished it; we worked on it for too long. I'd already begun to pull away from ‘muzak’.’ Napier-Bell:’ I don’t consider it necessary to be a fan of the music the group made. I came to like it, but was not its biggest fan. But I was a fan of the group. I loved them - the best bunch of people I ever managed - sharp, funny, intelligent and very good to be with."
'Gentlemen Take Polaroids' became their first album to chart in the UK at number fifty-three. It also went to number twenty-four in Japan.
'Gentlemen Take Polaroids'
All tracks written by David Sylvian, except as noted.
1. "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" 7:08
2. "Swing" 6:23
3. "Burning Bridges" 5:23
4. "My New Career" 3:52
1. "Methods of Dance" 6:53
2. "Ain't That Peculiar" Smokey Robinson, Warren "Pete" Moore, Marvin Tarplin, Bobby Rogers 4:40
3. "Nightporter" 6:57
4. "Taking Islands in Africa" Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sylvian 5:12