We’ve all said it, ”oh yeah, cool” “or that’s cool”, but what does it mean ? In America it’s a commonly used thing, in “Happy Days” everything the Fonz did had to be cool, there’s a whole song in “West Side Story” about it, “Boy, boy, crazy boy, Get cool, boy”. The emergence of the likes of Miles Davis in the 1950’s has taken on the title of one of Miles’ albums “The Birth Of The Cool”. In 60’s Mod London the ultimate aim was to be “cool”, whether because you had the sharpest suit, the shoes everyone else needed, the best dance moves, the best record collection or the scooter all others envied…cool was it.
“Gentlemen Take Polaroids” is so cool there are icebergs that throw it frequent, envious glances.
Singer David Sylvian had morphed from some straggle haired Glam Rocker into the beautiful bastard offspring of Bowie, Bolan and Ferry, Mick Karn had no frets on his bass and looked like he may be, but almost certainly wasn’t, Japanese (he was,in reality, Greek-2Cypriot) and who knew, or cared, about the others (sorry Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean). “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” was a further development of the Berlin-Bowie/Euro art-rock style Japan had begun to develop on “Quiet Life”, this time cooler, with an atmosphere of smoky Jazz in 30’s Berlin clubs about it, albeit with added synthesisers.
“Swing” is my favourite track on this album. It’s so laid back it should be falling over. Mick Karn’s bass line is hypnotic and driving your hips to crazy gyrations all at the same time, while it stabs and glides and pops around the song. Sylvian’s voice is the most soothing thing you’ve ever heard and when he tells you to “Relax and swing” that’s exactly what you want to do. I was unjustly harsh in dismissing the rest of the band outside of Sylvian and Karn earlier. They are of course vital to the whole. Steve Jansen (David Sylvian’s brother for those who didn’t know) drums up a great performance here with dragging hi-hats and an incessant 4 beat drum fill, Richard Barbieri’s keyboards are vital to this song mainly filling in where Rob Dean’s guitars aren’t as they have been seriously stripped back since their earlier albums when he drove the band.
The title track runs “Swing” a close second in the cool-but-groovy hybrid stakes. With a look and a voice that tells you he could think he may the most beautiful human alive (look at that cover shot where he’s gazing out wistfully from beneath an umbrella in a thunderstorm, all white pan-face and cheekbones) it’s quite surprising to hear Sylvian sing “Now there's a girl about town, I’d like to know, I’d like to slip away with you”. It’s almost impossible to believe that a guy with the confidence and, well, cool to sing like this over these lush backing tracks hasn’t had this girl rushing up to him already. There’s also definitely an Oboe on this track, the only appearance of an Oboe on an album I own other than one by Julian Cope.
“Burning Bridges” is an almost instrumental, there’s a couple vocal lines near the end” but it’s a bit too “Side 2 of Bowie’s “Low”…” for comfort. “My New Career” is a little more uptempo but not too much. “Methods Of Dance” is absolutely pitched at the dancefloor. Mick Karn’s bass is a thing to behold, all elastic and twitchy, smoothing though some sections while punching itself right into the middle of others.
“Methods Of Dance” not only opens Side 2 but the title was borrowed for at least 2 volumes of a compilation series by Virgin showcasing 80’s dance music in their catalogue. I bought them at the time because of the Japan song title but then was introduced to a whole host of new artists like Can, Richard Strange, D.A.F and Cowboys International.
There then follows a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t The Peculiar” with Japan twisting and mangling Marvin’s Motown groover into an avant grade, almost African drum driven torch song. The penultimate song is “Nightporter”. Most casual observers of Japan would likely cite “Ghosts”, from their next album “Tin Drum”, as the song of the bands they know best, and it is a great one, a lush ballad beautifully sung by Sylvian. “Nightporter” knocks it over the trees and out of the park. Where “Ghosts” is great, “Nightporter” is stunning. A love song, a song of loss and longing (“I'll watch for a sign, And if I should ever again cross your mind, I’ll sit in my room and wait until nightlife begins”)masterfully sung by Sylvian with accompaniment by piano, synths and what sounds like a cello. The sound swells for the choruses but no more instruments, a full and lush arrangement. when that Oboe seems to return and the song gently comes to rest. It’s quite wonderful.
“Taking Islands In Africa” is a lyric from “Swing” here expanded into a full song for the final track. It’s important in that it features keyboards parts by Ryuichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra who Japan (the band) had met when they toured Japan (the country) earlier in 1980. The musical collaboration between Sylvian and Sakamoto continued and grew right up until Sakamoto’s passing in 2023, but it all started here.
The music on this record conjures vivid pictures of cool boys in immaculate baggy suits and skinny leather ties, dancing with beautiful girls in pencil skirts and stilettos, moving with the music but with a minimum of effort (sweating will ruin the make-up girls, and boys), all while smoking Gauloise in long cigarette holders and sipping champagne in dark basement clubs. Up on the stage in that club would either be Japan or Miles Davis playing “So What”. I close my eyes and I see it clearly. “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” could hold its own with “Kind Of Blue” in a competition to name the coolest record ever made.