Mad about the boy

Pop - Jason Cowley remembers the voice of a generation of alienated young men

In the autumn of 1982, Virgin Records announced that Japan, one of the most stylish and intelligent (and, increasingly, most successful) pop groups in the country, were splitting up. Japan comprised singer-songwriter David Sylvian; his younger brother, Steve Jansen, who played drums (the brothers from Catford had, in an unhappy late adolescence, changed their names from Batt); the multi-instrumentalist Mick Karn, with whom Sylvian had a competitive, sometimes destructive relationship; and the keyboard player Richard Barbieri. After meeting at school in south-east London, they started out in the late 1970s as a New York Dolls-inspired combo. But because of their raw lyrics, long hair, screaming guitars and general artlessness, they were marketed as a heavy metal band and sent out on tour - by their then record company, Hansa - as the support act to the crude rockers Blue Oyster Cult. The experience was one of complete humiliation: when they were not being pelted with coins and cans by ragged bikers, they were emphatically ignored, as were their gauche early albums, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives.

From such beginnings, there should have been no way back for Japan. But this band had something different about them: they wanted to improve, they had talent and a willingness to experiment with computers and synthesiser, technologies that would transform music for ever. And, in Sylvian, they had a fascinating frontman, a wan, withdrawn Narcissus who looked like a cross between the young David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975) and David Beckham on the night he was sent off for kicking an Argentinian during the 1998 World Cup finals in France. There was something fragile and exquisite about Sylvian that appealed to both men and women; he had the coldness and allure of a Hitchcock blonde.

It is hard to exaggerate the effect Sylvian had on a generation of neurotic boy outsiders, both in appearance and attitude. In interviews, he spoke of his desire to be alone. There was seldom any talk of the usual rock'n'roll excesses: the drugs, the girls, the trashed hotel rooms. He was, rather, interested in Japan, the country where the band had been received with early enthusiasm, in its art and literature, and in eastern belief systems. His lyrics reflected his wide reading and his overall sense of dislocation.

In 1979, Japan released their third album, Quiet Life. It was a fusion of rock and the new synthesised pop - "futurism" - and one of the most innovative records of the year. In many ways, it was too innovative. It certainly made little impact on the charts. Soon afterwards, Japan signed to Virgin and released two more albums, Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980), with its seductive mood of loneliness and longing, and the austere Tin Drum (1981), which was one of the best and most influential records of the early Eighties.

At around this time, Japan began, despite Sylvian's distaste for the conventions of the business, to sell enough records to make the charts. They were even on Top of the Pops and Sylvian became something of a pin-up. This was a time when flamboyance and dressing up served as a kind of rebellion against white, working-class conformity and aggression of the kind that Sylvian, and others like him, had experienced while growing up in the desolate suburbs of London.

Sylvian released his first solo album, Brilliant Trees, a mature elaboration of the old Japan sound, in 1984. This was followed by Gone to Earth (1986) and Secrets of the Beehive (1987), completing a loose trilogy of records that, though working within the form of the pop song, sought endlessly to subvert it. Since then, Sylvian - in collaboration with the likes of rock guitarist Robert Fripp, with the jazz pianist John Taylor, and with jazz composers Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham - has continued to experiment but without ever quite recapturing the precision and accomplishment of, say, Gone to Earth.

Today, more uncompromising than ever, he occupies a nebulous space somewhere between experimental pop and the avant-garde. His records sell poorly, but he has a loyal, cult-like following; now married and living in America, he has embraced a form of Hindu mysticism and seems content enough.

At the end of September, he returned to London to play for one night at the Royal Festival Hall. His hair was longer, his rich, timbrous voice was much deeper, and he was accompanied on stage by his brother, Steve. It was an oddly moving occasion, not least because Sylvian's audience had aged with him - all those neurotic boy outsiders heading towards middle age together! - and though they patiently endured the dense, free-form soundscapes of his latest album, Blemish, which Sylvian was showcasing, what they really wanted to hear were the old songs. Sylvian understood this, because he began the second half of the evening, once he had finished with Blemish, by singing "The Other Side of Life" from Quiet Life. You could have heard the cheer from the top of the Millennium Wheel.

Virgin Records has just remastered and reissued the entire Japan and David Sylvian back catalogue

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out