Adolescent Sex as seen by James Paton
Adolescent Sex Between the years of 1978 and 1981, the hugely successful British band Japan released five studio albums that would see the group evolve from funk influenced rockers to minimalist electro pioneers, before internal strife eventually drove the band apart. The first of these, Adolescent Sex, was recorded when lead vocalist and principal songwriter David Sylvian was still just a teenager, and in most circles, his inaugural effort is regarded with little more than disdain. Yet, for those who venture to discover this record for themselves, what is actually waiting for them is not an album worthy of contempt, but instead a brilliant, mature and surprisingly complex collection of ten compositions that still hold up rather well today.
Japan formed in South London in 1974, recording their debut release just three years later, with all but one song on the album being written by Sylvian himself, who would present the bare bones of his compositions to the band on acoustic guitar, before the arrangements themselves were worked out with the whole group. As such, the tracks all feel as though they are real collective efforts, with each band member finding an opportunity to shine, particularly on the longer numbers that eschew the pop sensibilities that drive the bulk of the material for flashier instrumentation and lengthy instrumental passages.
Sylvian and company stood apart from the musical landscape that dominated the airwaves at the time, away from the New Romantics that seemed to mimic Japan’s penchant for preposterous outfits and layers of makeup, and within a minute or so of the first track, it’s made abundantly obvious that they weren’t a subscriber to the New Wave movement either. Heavily distorted guitars, driving drums and some sublime bass playing from Mick Korn lead the charge of a band that sound akin to a younger, fresher Cheap Trick, with a heavy partiality for funk. The opener, “Transmission,” punctuated with its siren-like synths and Rob Dean’s all too short guitar solo displays the band’s multifaceted style in less than five minutes, and it does it with aplomb. For someone going back to Adolescent Sex after hearing Sylvian’s later work first, both the pitch and style of his vocals come as something of a shock, greeted as we are by a teenager still struggling to find his voice, yet his delivery, whilst not as rich and warm as the voice that we now know, is still as highly emotive and utterly assured.
“The Unconventional” is an undeniably funky, power pop track about love, sort of, whilst “Wish You Were Black” presents a façade of a love song that covers an attack on British right-wing political party National Front. The song is powered along by Steve Jansen’s brilliant syncopated rhythms and some squelching bass lines. “Performance” is a gorgeous little number that seems to mock society’s celebrity culture and the pressures that it can put on those in front of the camera lens, it lyrics are remarkably mature and insightful for someone of such a young age, while musically, it remains light throughout, with some fine backing vocals provided by producer Ray Singer. What then follows this though is the first of two songs that form the core foundation of the album, compositions that complement one another lyrically and musically, lending the album as a whole a certain immediacy, yet contrarily, these two (the latter in particular), also provide the necessary complexity that makes Adolescent Sex such a wonderful album.
“Lover on Main Street” opens the core set with the finest riff on the album, it’s lyrically straightforward, but it’s the drumming of Jansen, as much as the guitar riffing that grabs listeners by the scruff of the neck and forces them to pay attention to the warbled vocals of Sylvian as he belts out his one line chorus, supported by a question and answer style vocal arrangement that brings the track towards an anti-climactic finish. The band take a break with a sleazy cover of the Barbara Streisand hit “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” which was written by Bob Merrill and June Styne for the 1964 musical, Funny Girl. The song has seen several cover versions made of it from the likes of Shirley Bassey, Bobby Darin (whose version was used on the American Beauty soundtrack) and even the late, great Robin Williams, who sings a section of the song in Mrs. Doubtfire. Yet no one has yet recorded a version of the song quite like Japan.
The album’s standout track, “Suburban Love,” is the companion piece to “Lovers on Main Street,” and at almost seven and a half minutes long, is the first, and sadly only track to feature some extended instrumental passages, but they were more than worth the wait. It’s a funky track, with a cracking guitar riff, superb synth work and some marvellous drumming from Jansen that really sets it apart from the rest, with Sylvian’s meticulously judged vocals and garbled lyrics forming only the appetizer to the musical delicacy that follows. Richard Barbieri launches into a haunting synth solo that recalls to me Herbie Hancock’s magnificent work on the Simple Minds classic “Hunter and the Hunted,” though this breaks down before leading up to a ferocious, gorgeous and completely mesmerising guitar solo from Dean, marking this as one of the most dangerously addictive pieces of music to hit the market to date. It really is that good.
The album’s title track follows, seeing Sylvian regurgitate his mainstay lyrics of love and dancing, twisting them into some punky song about prostitution that marks the return of the siren synth, with Barbieri lending the composition a certain creepiness with his keys that prevents it from falling flat on its face. “Communist China” is the probably the least funky track on the album, with Dean throwing out a fine, double stop based intro, a stellar riff and a remarkably reserved chorus to back up Sylvian as he hisses “we’ll throw glass in your face, call it new propaganda” over the top. It’s brilliant stuff.
Adolescent Sex is brought to a close with the nine minute marathon “Television,” a sleazy, sexy look at the changing face of society, that as much as the rest of the album serves to highlight the obvious influence that Japan’s early work had on Paul Draper and his band, Mansun. Despite its length, “Television” lacks any substantial instrumental passages, there are no eerie refrains, no prog-rock leanings and no epic guitar solos, yet it still feels as though it is a sufficient conclusion to a solid rock album. It’s just a pity that it isn’t a “Yo Mama” (Zappa), but then again, what is?
This debut album was later joined by Obscure Alternatives in the same year, and then 1979’s Quiet Life on the Hansa label, the latter marking the band’s change in direction towards more of an electro pop sound, and the new found commercial success that would see them switch to Virgin Records for the last two albums of their all too short lifespan, 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroid’s and 1981’s Tin Drum. During this period of change, Sylvian would find his stunning, iconic voice, while the band would start to produce far more stripped back, synth-based arrangements, such as the oriental themed “Visions of China”, or the enormously popular single “Ghosts,” which contained a far more ethereal soundscape within its four and a half minute running time. The band would later reform without Rob Dean as Rain Tree Crow in 1990, releasing an eponymously titled record the following year (also on Virgin), though despite being rather well received by both the public and the critics, the band dissolved for the final time. This final album represented another substantial change in the band’s sound, seeing them collaborate fully in the writing process, with the bulk of the material coming from jams as opposed to Sylvian, though he would eventually attempt to assume complete creative control over the project, and that, one can assume, is what eventually led to its demise.
Regardless, Adolescent Sex is an album that seems to capture the very essence of the seventies music scene, every aspect of it is succinctly featured in some way on the album, making it a truly essential purchase for music lovers, both at the time of its release as much as today-and a truly brilliant debut from a wonderful, eclectic and enormously influential band. It’s saddening that it has received so little acclaim, or perhaps even worse is, its treatment by members of the very band that created it, for it has surely deterred many from discovering this quintessentially ‘70’s, funk rock masterpiece. So heed my words, go out and find yourselves a copy, and if you’re anything like me, it will have exactly what you have been looking for.
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