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Class ?

Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Smart Pop, Funk/R'n'B, Synth Pop
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties



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Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

The ideal synthesis of glam, funk, and New Wave - the entire deckade in one package!


Track listing: 1) Transmission; 2) The Unconventional; 3) Wish You Were Black; 4) Performance; 5) Lovers On Main Street; 6) Don't Rain On My Parade; 7) Suburban Love; 8) Adolescent Sex; 9) Communist China; 10) Television.

Japan's debut album is so much different from their later career that not only the band's fanbase, but even David Sylvian himself issue constant warnings that this is not "true" Japan and that the band should only be taken seriously beginning with its second record. This may be fine and dandy, but, in my opinion, need not detract from seeing Adolescent Sex as a super-cool album in its own right. True, it is possible to throw it away as a piece of dated late Seventies' junk, especially upon one's first listen - but one man's dated junk is another man's timeless treasure.

First and foremost, Adolescent Sex lays out a completely unique, unprecedented style. In between 1970 and 1978, the world had gotten its overdose of progressive rock, glam rock, decadent rock, funk rock - evolving into disco, punk rock - evolving into New Wave, and was ready to move on to the commercial ca-taste-rophy of the Eighties. But not before someone would come up and intelligently and thoroughly summarise all of these achievements, at the same time pointing out how their legacy could be incorporated into the newly upcoming bunch of early Eighties' styles. Now, it would be overbearing on my part to say that Japan was that very band, but bear with me all the same.

The backbone of Adolescent Sex is funk. That much is clear. Funk, mind you, not disco; maybe the rhythm section of Steve Jansen and Mick Karn is a bit too stifled and uninventive to match the high achievements of 70s funk gods, but there's more than enough different rhythmic patterns explored on here for anybody to complain that Japan are, at any point, constrained by the suffocating chains of disco. However, unlike so many of their less smart European colleagues, they are fully aware of their instrumental limitations, and never try to work according to the "just set the groove and the rest will come to you all by itself" mentality. Not a single track on here is a 'groove' in the traditional sense - even the two lengthy compositions with extended instrumental workouts showcase individual skills of the players rather than a steady collective "lock-in" which they aren't capable of.

Instead, they compensate with pop hooks - mighty pop hooks - and, occasionally, memorable guitar riffs - mighty memorable guitar riffs. Every song has a serious vocal twist that is bound to get your attention (sometimes, due to subtlety, it might take a few listens), and every second song has a super-duper guitar melody which might actually not be funky all by itself, but, upon becoming intertwined with the funky rhythm section, becomes funky. On top of it all is David Sylvian, wailing, sighing, and panting in a world-weary, but also quite sexy wheeze that is quite different from his later patented trademark vocal style - and his lyrics, something of a cross between Bowie and Bryan Ferry with a pinch of typically late Seventies hedonism thrown in for good measure.

About the worst thing I can say about the album is that the hooks that I have mentioned often sound kinda hollow. Maybe take that to another dimension and say that the entire album sounds a little artificial and, what, emotionally dead, perhaps? Maybe this is how Kraftwerk would have sounded had somebody slapped them hard at one point for refusing to let the guitars in. But that's the point, after all, an emotionally dead album for an emotionally dead time. With disco slowly sucking out life and feelings out of commercial music, Adolescent Sex is something of a cruel in-joke on the times, swaggery, cynical, and merciless. Even Bryan Ferry and Bowie had their fair share of starry-eyed idealism - David Sylvian leaves no such hope for us. This is adolescent sex, after all, not adolescent romance. And let us not forget that the harshness of punk had already set in - and there's a big chunk of punk attitude in Sylvian's delivery.

The first single from the album was the band's drastic rearrangement of Barbra Streisand's 'Don't Rain On My Parade' - loud, brassy, splattered in cocky guitars and with that sneering poisonous-sounding guy, too. But it's the original compositions, after all, that make up the backbone of the album, so let's concentrate on a few of them. If we're talking the ultimate in vocal plus instrumental hook combos, your best bet would be 'Lovers On Main Street'. Complex funk riffs usually pass me by, providing some entertainment but not enough of an impression; 'Lovers On Main Street' is a big fat exception, opening - and throughout based on - a riff of such splendid magnitude that I'm almost willing to reject the entire tendency. And there's no better accompaniment for that riff than Sylvian's consciously forced, painfully prolonged chanting of the refrain - 'lovers on main stre-e-e-e-e-et, lovers on main stre-e-e-e-e-et...'. Besides, love songs have never yet been like this. The way the lyrics are strung and the vocal attack is coordinated, you really get the idea of "love on Main Street" as something of a vicious curse imposed upon the lovers - and given Japan's intentional positioning themselves as "queens", visually serving as the obligatory link in the chain from the New York Dolls to Duran Duran, this becomes even scarier. This is no longer just hedonism and decadence - this is hedonism and decadence getting ready for the imminent fall. Thank God it's not Freddie Mercury singing the song.

Aggressive, but doomed sexuality of this kind runs through everything else as well. When, on 'Suburban Love', Sylvian squeezes the 'earth wind, earth wind and fire/Cannot take me, take me much higher' refrain through his half-closed teeth, you really get the impression that perhaps getting as high as the song protagonist positions himself is not necessarily such a good thing. The seven-minute performance is a total blast - even after David has shut up for good, Richard Barbieri continues piling up the mood with the creepy synthesizer runs, later passing on the baton to Rob Dean who cranks out a solo that's somewhere in between ecstasy and apocalypse, sometimes emulating both. Technically, they're picking up from where Bowie originally left off with 'Stay', but where 'Stay' was still very much alive and breathing, 'Suburban Love' is a plain terminal case. It's the logical conclusion to 'Stay', and there's nowhere to go from here except in a different direction. Not after Dean hits these ultra-high notes at 6:10 into the song, and for about forty seconds the song is transformed into the triumphant dance of the Angel of Death. During which the unsuspecting public can, of course, be happily dancing under the light of the crystal ball, rendering the effect complete.

Actually, there is hardly one track on the album to which you couldn't dance if you wanted (well, maybe 'Communist China' with its half-expected breaks in tempo would be a bit hard upon first attempt). Funk or disco, you're supposed to dance to it, after all. This may have ultimately been one of the two main reasons why Adolescent Sex wasn't commercially successful (the other one being the arrogant title, of course) - people were plain confused about the message; is this lightweight stuff to dance to or a serious art rock statement? To understand that this is both at the same time was probably just as hard as it was for the ancient dwellers of the Roman Empire to accept the Trinity doctrine. And even when the lyrics are understandable, they fuckin' bite. 'Dancing to your heart, oh what a way to start' ('The Unconventional State Line') may be a cool chorus to twirl your hips to, but the next lines that come out of his mouth are 'no perversion / in this unconventional love' - yikes! (Wouldn't be surprised to learn that the album was a big hit in gay bars, though). In between this, the album title, and other provocative song names like 'Wish You Were Black' (even if the lyrics betray the line as bearing an obviously metaphorical meaning - the complete lyrics go 'I know I wish you were black, but ain't no use singing gospel'), We The People must have been shy even by 1978 standards.

Also, there's just too much poison and punk for the disco-goers, just like there's too much smoothness and danceability for the punk crowds. Certainly a track like the closing nine-minute rave-up of 'Television' wouldn't do well in dance clubs, with its wild screaming and nasty guitar tone and messy, aggressive soloing. And the title track, with the intentionally dumbed down, repetitive 'get on up, get on up, take it much higher' refrain sounds like an open parody on the club-goers and their obsessions. The 'Whatever gets you through the night' line directly mocks the Lennon/Elton John dance hit, after which they add 'just keep on dancing' and add a little jab at the Bee Gees as well. In short, everybody and everything gets their due.

So this is one mean motherfucker of an album - sweeping almost all of the Seventies' values in one big heap and then brainstorming it like a supergiant vacuum cleaner. It's quite possible that I'm reading much more into these songs than was the original intention, but then isn't that what all of us are doing with records that strike us hard? Whatever the answer might be, to me, one thing is for certain: this is one of the most intelligent and superbly created dance-pop albums of the decade, and I'm certainly not responsible for all the pussies that slouched away from it upon reading the title and/or checking the length and colour of the band members' hairstyle.



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

Dude, no need to evolve that quickly. Slow down before you hit embarrassment!

Best song: RHODESIA

Track listing: 1) Automatic Gun; 2) Rhodesia; 3) Love Is Infectious; 4) Sometimes I Feel So Low; 5) Obscure Alternatives; 6) Deviation; 7) Suburban Berlin; 8) The Tenant.

Apparently one fine morning David Sylvian woke up and saw a big DISCO SUCKS piece of graffitti scribbled outside the window. The ominous flare of the inscription scared him so much that, right there and then, he took a solemn vow - never again would he engage in funk-related dance music sessions, regardless of whether the funk in his recordings was evolving into disco or wasn't. Who cares? "I saw the future, and its name was disco sucks. I gotta get out of this place before they put me and my blondiness in the trashbin along with Chic and Robin Gibb."

Okay, so I made it all up to make the story a little more vivid to your eyes, but you can just take it as a myth, the historical essence of which is still captured directly. The fact remains that up to this day Sylvian publicly disowns Adolescent Sex, and counts this record as Japan's true debut. That is not to say this album represents the quintessential Japan sound, though. It is still mostly guitar based and has very little in common with the Cold Keyboard Kingdom of Japan's commercially successful period. But it is a huge departure all the same, mostly because they have managed to "get the funk out" in the literal sense, and get back to basic guitar rock in the process. Progression? Regression? A little bit of both.

The Bowie connections are now as evident as never before. The straightforward rockers are those loud, flashy, glammy things that David mass-produced in the beginning of the decade; the lengthy "artsier" pieces are those loud, dreamy, stringy concoctions that he also used to feature from time to time. As if that wasn't enough, one of the tracks bears the name 'Suburban Berlin' (obvious link to the city in which Bowie was busy creating his "Berlin trilogy" at the time), and the album closing 'Tenant' is a mostly-ambient instrumental suite that would never have seen the light of day if not for similar prototypes that Bowie and Eno had yielded on the instrumental sides of Low and Heroes.

Unfortunately, even by late 1978 Japan seemed to lack the kind of professionalism - or maybe just attitude - that was necessary to make all this stuff work. So the melodies and styles are different, yes, but the instrumentation and arrangement techniques stay the same; and without the little wizard's brown bag of electronic secrets, the kind that Brian Eno used to lug around, it just doesn't work all that well. 'The Tenant', in particular, is quite a laughable matter, the way I see it. It's basically seven minutes of a minimalistic piano chord sequence, similar to the one used by Eno in 'By This River', on top of which the band piles lengthy ambient guitar drones. I guess it makes up for some semi-decent background music, it does. But it just isn't imaginative. All I see is a bunch of young boys ready to jump on yet another bandwagon, and doing it so bluntly that it will take a very brick-headed driver not to notice them and flick them off the carriage with the tip of his whip. Besides, it just doesn't fit. At least Bowie and Eno had this formal distinction between an album's first side ("dynamic") and second side ("static"), so that you could consider them as two different entities. Here, it's just extra seven minutes at the end - almost as if they didn't merely make a clumsy crashlanding on the bandwagon, they also caught up with it at the very last moment, short of breath, tongues blue and hanging out.

And that ain't all there is to it. 'The Tenant', at worst, may be just boring, but parts of the album are downright ugly. Intentional "ugliness" marked some layers of Adolescent Sex as well, but it was carefully smoothed through dance rhythms anyway. Now, though, when all you get is mid-tempo art-rock rhythms, it's often a real matter of "firmness of your taste" whether you'll be able to stand some of the sounds you get. Case in point: 'Love Is Infectious', all jarred, sharp-as-a-knife punchy guitar chords, stuttering time signatures and nasty Sylvian vocals. I don't deny the song has its own peculiar masochistic catchiness (especially in the light of these berserkish 'WHAT'S NEW?' battle cries), but to me it just looks like going against the grain without any particular need, being audaciously unlistenable for the bare sake of being unlistenable. Crossing Mott the Hoople with Pere Ubu, if you wish. Believe you me, it's far from an ideal cocktail recipe.

Another case in point: the title track. Almost as slow and dronish as 'The Tenant', but ten times louder and actually trying to make a point - yeah, you make it out, and I'll just give you the chorus to work on it: 'Zero down to zero, submerging in every man, zero down to zero, catch me as best you can'. For the record, it takes him exactly thirty seconds to get that chorus through, and considering that he gets to repeat it much more than twice, you can only imagine my feelings. Yes, there's a lot of suppressed depression injected in the track, but it's lethal depression - murky, bitter stuff. Not subtle at all. Not even the gradual crescendo towards the end works. Nothing does. Not even the simplistic scraping riff, which seems sort of cute and intriguing at first but eventually just reveals itself as a hitherto undisclosed medieval torture weapon. "Obscure alternatives" indeed.

Fortunately for me, most of the rest of the album is firmly occupied by basic guitar rock. These aren't special songs - but they're likable. Big fat guitar riffs. Convoluted, often undecipherable, but most always interesting lyrics. Vocal hooks - at least one, in the chorus, sometimes more. Guitar solos. In short, everything you expect from a slightly pretentious, non-rootsy rock song. 'Automatic Gun' and 'Sometimes I Feel So Low' are the best of these; the second, in particular, looks oddly mistitled to me, because they really should have reserved that title for the title track. In reality, 'Sometimes I Feel So Low' is easily the most upbeat song on the album. Talk about unpredictable.

Little bits and pieces of the band's funky past still crop up occasionally in memento mode, particularly on 'Suburban Berlin' (verses only - the chorus, on the other hand, is as close to synth pop as they ever got on this record). But overall, there's an obvious tendency to avoid syncopation; and, what's even more puzzling considering the band's evolution on the next few albums, is that the keyboards are extremely subdued. Even when they're on, it's mostly acoustic or electric piano; but way too often, there's next to no keyboard presence, which makes Obscure Alternatives hands down the most guitar-heavy album these guys ever issued - not to mention makes me wonder how the hell did they manage to waste their guitarist's talents so utterly.

One extended groove on here that does work - I mean really really does work - I mean, it actually saves the album from going down in the first place - is the slightly reggae-tinged 'Rhodesia'. All the other tunes are either too happy and poppy, sacrificing gloominess, or too gloomy and ugly, sacrificing listenability; 'Rhodesia', however, manages to combine both qualities. You can do a mindless slow dance to it if you wish, or you can just close your eyes and slowly rock to its cradling rhythm - or actually check the lyrics and assess the bitter irony of it all. 'And love blows through Rhodesia' - with just a whiff of gunfire, no doubt, since in 1978 the country was still burning up. Okay, so the lyrics are a bit clumsy (imagery like 'Nazis in full atack / burning niggers in a cotton field' probably wouldn't satisfy neither the white supremacists nor the black resistance), but overall, it's still an artistic statement that succeeds. No wonder it was one of the few early Japan songs that survived the band's transition and remained a trusty staple of their live show even in the Tin Drum era.

Still, the crucial irony of it all is that by discarding dance elements and pretending to concentrate on more serious stuff, Japan actually made a step backwards. Adolescent Sex fit the times to a tee; Obscure Alternatives is friggin' retro, and not even the band's tepid electronica experimentation can remedy the state of things. Pop rock, hard rock, art rock, all these things were frantically reinventing themselves in 1978 - Japan, on the other hand, seem to have stalled in confusion, then misguidedly pedalled in the wrong direction, and then it took them almost two years of releasing nothing at all to put on a new face and finally catch up with changing expectations.


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