The Barthes of Parties

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To celebrate my discovery of this, Japan’s Top of the Pops’ performance of ‘Ghosts’ in 1982, on youtube.com, I re-present below my observations on Tin Drum, from the old blogspot site. (I would just link, but, since the site has been hacked by corporate interests, that’s not straightforward….) This was one of the two or three TOTP performances which had most impact on me, one which I replayed in my memory (imperfectly, inevitably – I remembered Sylvian wearing a checked shirt) many times, but which, until a few days ago, I hadn’t seen since it was first broadcast. Watching it again now, the clip has an almost heartbreaking power, bringing a visceral recall of the time, before MTV and multi-channel and endless repeats and DVDs, when pop on TV was a rare commodity, when TOTP could produce moments of life-altering wonder. (I can’t remember if I saw the TOTP appearance before or after I bought the ‘Ghosts’ picture disc, for 99p. I do remember playing the single over and over after I bought it, and, it remains to this day almost certainly the pop track I have played most. Everything on Tin Drum possesses a wealth of detail that never quite seems to exhaust the capacity to surprise.) But it is also heartbreaking because of Sylvian’s beauty; a beauty that, evidently, was so fastidiously cultivated, so artificialized – check the way his eyeshadow gives his eyelids an almost opiated heaviness – but, at the same time, so painfully fragile; his face a Noh-mask, anaemic ultra-white, his body posture, ragdoll drained. Here he is, one of the last Glam princes, and perhaps the most magnificent – his face and body rare and delicate works of art, not extrinsic to, or lesser than, the music, but forming an integral component of the overall Concept.
Any way, the original piece, below:
Will pop ever get this exotic, this esoteric, this arty, again?
Japan’s Tin Drum: the moment when art pop went abstract. Tin Drum was, at one and the same time, the most popular and the most avant-garde Sylvian ever did. His subsequent retreat into Serious Artist and Wire Cover Star – is all very admirable, his solo albums are unquestionably Good Records, but there is nothing there to compete with this.
Tin Drum is possibly the most superficial album ever made. And if the Wire consensus is that Sylvian has matured, grown since then, it is because of a kneejerk rejection of the superficial. Sylvian, now, is Deep, and therefore, better. But as Deleuze says in The Logic of Sense, why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?
A superfluity of surface on Tin Drum.
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Take the cover, for instance: Sylvian, his heavily sprayed, peroxided fringe falling artfully over his 1981 Trevor Horn specs, sits in a simulation of a simple Chinese dwelling, chopsticks in hand, as a Mao poster peels picturesquely from the wall behind him. Everything is posed, every Sign selected with a fetishistic fastidiousness.
And, naturally, all (social, political, cultural) meaning is drained from these references. When Sylvian sings ‘Red Army needs you’ on ‘Cantonese Boy’, it is in the same spirit of semiotic orientalism: the Chinese and Japanese Empires of signs are reduced to images, exploited and coveted for their frission.
Gentlemen take polaroids, indeed. And, by the time of Tin Drum, Japan have perfected their transition from Dolls-trash-hounds to gentlemen connoisieurs. Tin Drum‘s superficiality is the superficiality of the (glossy) photograph, the group’s detachment that of the photographer. Images are decontextualised, then re-assembled to form an ‘Oriental’ panorama that is strangely abstract: a Far East as Roussel might have (re)imagined it. The words are little labyrinths, enigmas with no possible solution, false-fronted follies decorated with Chinese and Japanese motifs.
And what of Sylvian’s vocals? By now, all of the ersatz Amerikan swagger of Adolescent Sex is barely remembered, and Sylvian has long since perfected his Hong Kong-plastic mass-produced copy of Bryan Ferry.
Recall Ian Penman’s analysis of the Ferry voice – how its peculiar quality came from an only partly successful attempt to get his geordie accent to forge a classic, timeless Englishness. Sylvian’s voice is the faking of a fake. The almost whinnying quality of Ferry’s angst is retained, but transposed into a pure styling devoid of emotional content. It is culture(d), not natural at all; prissy, ultra-affected but lacking in affect. Even on ‘Ghosts’, it does not ask to be taken at face value. It is not a voice that reveals, or even pretends to reveal, it is a voice to hide behind, a mask, just like the make-up, the conspicuously-worn sino-signs.
Unlike adolescents, Tin Drum‘s gentlemen never talk about sex (nor about any of rock’s traditional preoccupations). In place of rock’s panting carnality, Tin Drum exudes a diffuse, almost asexual, sensuality. No love/ lust pains/ paeans then – only enigmatic references to doubt, regret, passing youth, which are (like everything else) sublimated into (all-but) meaningless signs. If rock’s emotional register has been superceded, so has its habitual sonic expression – all of rock’s jerks and spurts, its mad dashes and explosions, its tensions and releases, have been expertly smoothed away. As has rock’s abrasion : Tin Drum has a robust softness , a springy pliancy .
Sinuously undulating, lazily uncoiling like a serpent in the sun, Karn’s bass is the lead instrument, the album’s supple spine. In bearing the weight of holding the tracks together, Karn absolves the other sound-sources from any functional responsibility. Jansen’s drums – now loping tom-toms, now sin-snare cracks – don’t so much keep time as add rhythmic decoration. And most of the other sounds occupy some indeterminate position between percussion and synthetic sound effect. There’s a fullness that is never fussiness: sounds are splashed here and there with a pseudo-spontaneity that belies a painterly dexterity. Attention to detail is all. Tin Drum is a masterly exercise in pop as pure texture. Don’t look for depths, run your fingers along the surface. The bassless and beatless ‘Ghosts’, one of the greatest singles ever made, is an exercise in pure texture, mood music that has no ancestry in blues, jazz or any ‘authentic’ form at all.
Tin Drum‘s sinofunk is definitely (a) dance music. For all its density and detail, Tin Drum has the rhythmic spaciousness of Can, compressed into the format of a three-or-four minute pop song. Except on ‘Sons of Pioneers’, where Japan allow themselves to venture beyond pop’s (time) limitations to explore a desolately beautiful prairieland of sound, electronics twinkling like distant stars in a moonless sky.
And after this? Well, for Sylvian, there is the return to authenticity, which – as always – is connoted by two things: the turn away from rhythm and the embracing of ‘real’ instruments. The wiping away of the cosmetics, the quest for Meaning, the discovery of a Real Self….
I can’t be the only one who hungers for a pop – or a dance – music – that could re-discover the wondrous superficiality of Tin Drum.
Further notes added later in response to Simon’s comments:
The ‘Emotional’ Sylvian is certainly the exception rather than the rule on the Japan records. It’s not only the fixation on geography (‘Communist China’, ‘Taking Islands in Africa’) that makes Sylvian seem like a tourist, or should that be gentlemen-explorer? And a tourist, also, in his own ‘inner life’? It’s almost as if Sylvian – or at least the post-Dolls Sylvian – starts off where Ferry ends up, stranded in an ‘other world of pure atmosphere, autumn swirl of shrivelled or dying signs (that once were lustrous: ‘dance’ – ‘drug’ – ‘love’), making solemn play of an immensely empty escape in the facades of an eternal tone – windswept, misty, limpidly sensual, banal.’ (Penman) Like Ferry, Sylvian remains Subject as well as Object: not only the frozen, feminized Image, but also he who assembles images, not in any pathological, Peeping Tom -sense, but in a coolly detached way. ‘Gentlemen take polaroids/ they fall in love…’ Taking pictures of themselves as they do so?
Also on YouTube:
Sylvian and Sakamoto ‘Bamboo Music’
Japan Cantonese Boy and, sumptuously, The Art of Parties from Whistle Test. ‘The Art of Parties’ should have spawned a whole genre of hyper-abstract white funk.. check out the instrumental break at the end, like a speeded-up sino-ized Zapp… (Note here the end credits, which list the other bands that featured on the show… one cannot fail to notice mention of Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, whose earnest mediocrity was the very antipodes of Japan’s imperious, excessive anti-nature – but who, it seemed to me at the time, were on every single edition of Whistle Test, grim avatars of the reality principle, soon to lay waste to everything…)