Now That’s What I Call Orientalism!

Posted by in Culture, Music


This originally started life as a lecture but as my students weren’t interested in anything older than they are or more specifically Adele, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and ‘the soft music’ (e.g Westlife and The Carpenters) I’ll blog it instead. So, just what was it with the eighties and Orientalism?

For some reason the eighties were not just a great time for synth bands but it seemed something else was in the air; a steady influx of anything oriental. Typography, little synth flourishes, geisha girls (albeit from Scotland) singing about Japanese Boys, pictures of Mao Tse Tung you name it, if it emanated from anywhere east it was happening.

Now don’t quote me on this but it may have been 10cc who started it with their now very dated song Tokyo from 1978’s Bloody Tourists album. Following this were Siouxsie and the Banshees Hong Kong Garden, The Vapours Turning Japanese, Huang Chung’s China and Chinese Girls; the latter of which I played to my students amid much bemusement. It seemed the freshness of post-punk was perfect breeding ground for embracing the east.


Why the Orient? My guess is that when a decade changes the suits at record companies try and gauge audience standpoint or rather more disturbingly choose what they think the public wants thus effectively ‘engineering’ the time we, the consumer live in – very Big Brother.

In the late seventies and early eighties was a significant rise in electronic gadgets (Puck Man – later Pac-Man for example). Prehistoric by today’s standard but cutting edge then. The digital landscape of neon futurism as seen in 1982’s Bladerunner seemed to be where many hearts and minds were focused and who did digitopolis better than the Japanese?


Japan (the band) meanwhile took things to extremes with Life in Tokyo, Cantonese Boy, Visions of China and Canton as well as Mao imagery and oriental wails in Methods of Dance and Still Life in Mobile Homes not to mention Bamboo Houses.

It’s just a pity they put their foot in it by coming up with the novel idea of placing the band name JAPAN above a picture of China’s Mao Tse Tung – not a good idea in cultural terms. Perhaps the name ASIA would have suited them better if they’d thought about things prior to their career path, but then there was no game plan with Japan which surmounted to only one of their problems.

And speaking of ASIA, Steve Howe’s rock orientated band weren’t particularly oriental sounding at all save for Geoff Downes keyboard motif in the middle of Heat of the Moment, so why the name? It was as absurd as Japan calling themselves Japan. Nevertheless, both were pretty much on the money with regards to timing.


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The early eighties were a time of new romanticism (not just about the far east) but it didn’t stop there. The Human League hinted at an Eastern skyline with Toyota City and Gary Numan wasn’t slow to capitalise with his Slow Boat to China.

Greek legend Vangelis pitched his vision of ‘China’ – toward the Himalayas while iconic French synth wizard Jean-Michel Jarre’s Concerts in China paid homage to a Night in Shanghai, the beauty of Fishing Junks at Sunset and the sombre ‘Souvenir of China’ that closes. As I always say, there is nothing so sad about travel as saying goodbye.

Mid-decade saw a slew of acts continuing the trend. Fittingly were Australian band Geisha and New Zealand’s Peking Man. While the sassy disco of #1 Room That Echoes wasn’t especially evocative another Kiwi, Sharon O’Neill, had already painted the very beautiful canvas ‘Asian Paradise’ in which she recalls the tranquil serenity of an idyll where ‘the satay and beer paralyses me (her) here (there)’ if you get what I mean.

Meanwhile British songbird Kim Wilde issued her most haunting recording ‘Cambodia’ penned by her underrated lyricist brother Ricky. Again it’s a beauty but one suspects from its title alone is far from the paradise O’Neill speaks of.


Still with acts from these fair isles, the Thompson Twins’ Tokyo and no end of songs featuring the Shakuhachi flute: Berlin’s You Don’t Know, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, Tears For Fears b-side When in Love with a Blind Man and even RUSH, yes Canada’s finest rock trio on their genteel Tai Shan, which for some reason they dismiss, feature that bloody flute.

While the west was loving the east, the Japanese were loving us back by inventing Hello Kitty as British! Or rather ‘English’ always a bone of contention for those who happen to be Scottish or Welsh (albeit part English in my case).

Huang Chung now rechristened Wang Chung (for easier pronunciation) and members of the now defunct Japan weren’t done with their sonic love affair with the east either. Just check out Don’t Be My Enemy and of course their legendary line ‘Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight’ which became part of the pop culture landscape in mid-eighties America.

Japan (the group’s) drummer Steve Jansen & Yukihiro Takahashi’s ear freshener Stay Close came on like an oriental variation of Duran Duran’s Girls on Film. Ironic when you consider his former bandmates turned down the chance to produce that same song!

Clime Fisher’s b-side Far Across the Water could be Celtic if not for its long forgotten (to me) introductory synth motif and Wally Badarou’s Mt Fuji and the Mime simultaneously blurs the cute with a more darker tense atmosphere on his cinematic album Words of a Mountain.

Certainly as good as anything Ryuichi Sakamoto conjures up on his soundtrack work. And let’s not forget Badarou’s buddies Level 42’s The Chinese Way. Coincidentally the artwork to their Staring at the Sun album also alluded to the east. Not forgetting the nearly hit Distant Land by Radio Earth.


Speaking of musicians, no it wasn’t just imagery and titles, if you could coerce one from Japan (the country) to join you in your cultural quest then you too were quids in as a bonafide band of the contemporary musical landscape.

Sakamoto hooked up with Robin Scott and the aforementioned group Japan as well as its singer David Sylvian (on more than one occasion). Masami Tsychiya joined Japan and had varying members return the favour on his solo work ‘Rice Music’ before he collaborated with Duran offshoot Arcadia.

Masaki Tanazawa became the drummer for Australia’s ICEHOUSE at a time they also managed to rope in Japan drummer Steve Jansen (again) so double points there (before this came their 1984 instrumental Java). And then what happened? I’ll tell you what happened, New Kid on the Block and Seiko! Though things were slightly redeemed when the Cocteau Twins (well two of them) worked with China’s Faye Wong.

Speaking of Orientally instrumentals, I should give mention to Simple Minds Year of the Dragon which was tucked away on a b-side, well it was 1989 and you’ve got to feel sorry for Red Box who enlisted singer Jenny Tsao for their fine effort Train. Unfortunately in 1990 anything orientally was long past its sell by date.

Another change of decade, another set of ears for the record company execs to manipulate. The acid house had put paid to anything cultural though Manchester‘s 808 State came close with Pacific and Sunrise (both from their set 90).

The fascination with the eighties has ensured some of these songs are revisited and updated like Watergate’s Heart of Asia which samples Sylvian/Sakamoto’s Forbidden Colours. Now the romance associated with the early eighties artists has itself become nostalgia we are left to admire the merits of shiny buttocks and K-POP.

One can only hope that somewhere down the crazy river we see the likes of the more inventive musical minds of the past. As the Human League’s Phil Oakey once lamented, ‘these are things that dreams are made of’ and didn’t this used to be the future?


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Tokyo (from Bloody Tourists) – 10cc
Hong Kong Garden (single) – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Turning Japanese (single) – The Vapors
China (single) – Huang Chung
Life in Tokyo (single) – Japan
Visions of China (single) – Japan
Canton (from Tin Drum) – Japan
Bamboo Houses (single) – David Sylvian/Ryuichi Sakamoto
Toyota City (from Travelogue) – The Human League
Slow Boat to China (from Dance) – Gary Numan
China (album) – Vangelis
Fishing Junks at Sunset (from The Concerts in China) – Jean Michel Jarre
Souvenir of China (from The Concerts in China) – Jean Michel Jarre
Asian Paradise (single) – Sharon O’Neill
Cambodia (single) – Kim Wilde
Tokyo (from Here’s to Future Days) – Thompson Twins
Tai Shan (from Hold Your Fire) – RUSH
Don’t Be My Enemy (from Points on the Curve) – Wang Chung
Stay Close (single) – Steve Jansen & Yukihiro Takahashi
Mt Fuji and the Mime (from Words of a Mountain) – Wally Badarou
The Chinese Way (single) – Level 42
Distant Land (single) – Radio Earth
Rice Music (from Rice Music) – Masami Tsychiya
Java (from Sidewalk expanded) – Icehouse
Year of the Dragon (from This is Your Land single) – Simple Minds
Train (single) – Red Box
Sunrise (from 90) – 808 State
Heart of Asia (single) – Watergate
This Used to be the Future (from Etc.) – Pet Shop Boys feat. Phil Oakey

Photo credits:
Pac-Man from namco/midway games, wiki and Techno Orientalism book from amazon
Second Kitty image from, the rest from