Asian chic in 80s pop – the influence of China and Japan

JapanIn another blog post, I talked about bands flirting with Germanic and even Nazi era imagery and words. Other bands looked to the East for inspiration.

They included China Crisis, Gang of Four, Japan and…Huang Chung. At the time, China was still emerging from the years under Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. While Japan had shaken off the legacy of the Second World War to become a mega economic power.

Like many young people, I had a T-shirt with a Japanese rising sun on it in the early 80s. I didn’t know that much about Japanese culture and had never watched a movie from that country. One band that used Japanese imagery in an unintentionally hilarious way was the German pop combo Alphaville with their hit single Big in Japan. I’ve posted the video made for that song below – try and keep a straight face.

Gang of Four, if your knowledge of 20th century Chinese history isn’t all that, were a group around Madame Mao put on trial after Mao’s death as China rejected his brand of communism. That band were heavily political and terribly serious, apparently influenced by the Frankfurt School of Marxism, don’t you know.

Chairman Mao pops up in the background on the album cover for Tin Drum, a massively successful LP from the band Japan. This was more of a tongue in cheek offering with very catchy tunes borrowing oriental sounds. I played it to death at college.

But Huang Chung is the band that made me laugh.  A kitsch notion of what Chinese rock music would sound like if it actually existed at the time.  The band were at pains to say they weren’t going to inflict ‘eastern scales’ on western ears. Huang Chung had some very un-Chinese band members – Hog Robinson, Jack Hues, Nick De Spig and Charles Darwin (sic).   They didn’t find the success they craved in the UK but did eventually break through in the US courtesy of Geffen Records – and a name change to Wang Chung.

This whole Chinese/Asian thing got to the extent that a club was planned in London called ‘The Great Wall’ to rival Blitz and Hell.

Bands that died (or nearly died) in 1983

Fun Boy ThreeFew remember but 1983 was a year of pop carnage.  Bands that were going to dominate the 1980s nosedived in to the ground like the Hindenburg.  Most shocking was the decision by Fun Boy Three to go their separate ways when it seemed they’d only left The Specials yesterday morning.

I wrote Neville Staple’s biography and for him, the phone call from Terry Hall was a bit of a surprise. Ultimately it let Neville return to the 2Tone sound and get away from the bouncy bubblegum pop of Fun Boy Three.  The demise of that trio was just the start of the year’s musical bloodshed.

ABBA’s demise was not so surprising – many of their later songs seemed to be about their divorce court proceedings in heavy code.  And thank God the Bay City Rollers pulled down the shutters – how on earth did they survive punk, let alone the 1970s? A few short years later, ABBA would enjoy a revival in popularity without reforming. Such good fortune didn’t come to the Rollers.

And then there was Roxy Music – when the LP Avalon was released, it seemed they were at the top of their game again, but all too soon they called it a day. One of the greatest combos of the 70s, a highly intelligent art school pop band, had gone. No more Pyjamarama! Not until they reformed in 2001.

DareThe Human League wobbled through 1983, nearly coming to an end then struggling past the end of the year to release Lebanon in 1984. Some reports thought they’d gone in 1983 but they held out. Shame as Dare was such a great album at the start of the 80s.

Scritti Politti had been hailed as the future in 1982 but became the past in 1983.  Off went Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Wah! – two bands I thought would have a longer lifespan. Dexy’s had toured with the 2Tone bus at the start of the decade.

Altered Images called it a day.  In fact, I remember seeing Clare Grogan hanging round the Cambridge pub in Liverpool one day but I didn’t buy her a drink. Yazoo – gone in May, 1983. Female vocalist Alison Moyet continued with a solo career.

Looking back now, you can see that an era was slowly coming to an end. The post-punk explosion of youth cults like mod, 2Tone, New Wave, futurist, etc, etc…would soon give way to new sounds and new bands.

80s bands that toyed with Nazi-era references – but weren’t Nazis

hitler youth
Hitler Youth – not New Romantics

Punk and its aftermath was all about transgression – embracing things that shocked or violated normal codes of behaviour.

And just three to four decades after World War II, you could always rely on employing Nazi references to shock and disgust public opinion.

Whether it was Sid Vicious wandering around off his head with a Nazi emblem or bands adopting names that related to the Third Reich – anything to do with Hitler still touched a very raw nerve.

There was also an embarrassed fascination for Nazi style and art. Far from being seen as vulgar, philistine and oppressive – the fascist aesthetic was viewed as stirring and provocative by people whose political views might actually be quite liberal or left-wing.

So, you had the band Joy Division – naming itself after the sex slavery wing of Hitlerite concentration camps. Heavy metal bands were never shy about using the Iron Cross or stylised eagles. Artists might casually praise the buildings or films of that era. And David Bowie’s wave to fans was characterised by some as a fascist salute – vehemently denied by the man himself.

When one New Romantic band decided to call itself Spandau Ballet, that sent a journalist at the Record Mirror into a spin:

Unfortunately, the element of this project which I find disturbing, threatening and worthy of debate lies not in the music itself, but in the premise upon which our young warriors have erected their grandiose musical/lyrical edifice.

The journo went on to note that the album was white-on-white with a muscular naked form.  And the scribbler was rattled by a quote inside the record sleeve – “…the soaring joy of immaculate rhythms, the sublime glow of music for heroes…stirring vision….journeys to glory…”

The Record Mirror fumed that this linked Spandau Ballet to an ‘Aryan Youth ideal’ reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.  The review then went on to make it clear there was no linkage to far right groups being suggested just a deep sense of unease.

The journalist suggested to readers that they play ‘Muscle Bound’ back to back with ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ from the movie Cabaret and observe how the ‘mood’ is the same.

“Tread very carefully for all our sakes,” the magazine warned the band.