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Japan And Back

May 2, 2011

Some time in late summer 1988 I received a sales statement from our record distributors. My band’s first album, Let’s Get Away From It All, had come out a few weeks earlier, and I was dreading a similar fate to the debut single which had stalled on 29 copies for nearly two years.

I opened the envelope and stared at its contents for several minutes. We’d sold nearly 1,000 copies in the first couple of months. How? We hadn’t advertised it, so who in the UK even knew about it? Which part of the country had developed a sudden and urgent taste for the music of Friends? The answers were quickly revealed as ‘no-one’ and ‘none’.

In a fit of curiosity I phoned Red Rhino and spoke to one of the sales team. I asked where all these records had gone, and wouldn’t we now need to press some more? ‘Mostly Japan’, he replied casually, and yes, we should, as quickly as possible.

Since then Japan has been the place where our music has been most popular, the place from where we’ve received the most – and most enthusiastic – fanmail (now mainly email), where two other labels have licensed seven of our records, and where we’ve never managed to play. Until now.

With the exception of a solo concert I played in Tokyo in 1995, our efforts to get ourselves transported to Japan for a few modest dates had proved fruitless. Late last year I was contacted by Tetsuya Nakatani, owner of one of the labels, Vinyl Japan, who have released our records there, asking whether we’d like to play three concerts with The Monochrome Set as an acoustic three-piece. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we agreed to go instead as an electric four-piece, and headed out to Tokyo in early April.

Apart from the concerts, the soundchecks, and the time hanging around the venues, the trip is a bit of a blur. But I made sure the musical part of it was etched on my mind as if it was going to be the last, and best, thing we ever did. I hope it’s not the last, but it was certainly the greatest experience of the band’s, and my, career. Even of my life.

Preparing and practising for the shows, my aim had been to deliver a set which made the same impression on the audience as concerts by Jonathan Kelly, The Chameleons, Steely Dan and a handful of others had made on me over the last 40 years. Something you look forward to as a fan, which fulfils all your hopes, and leaves you with a feeling on the night and in your mind afterwards that lasts for years.

For an experienced, tried and tested band who had been there before, maybe three shows in reasonable sized clubs wouldn’t be a big deal. For us they were a huge deal. Twice in the concerts I was suddenly hit by the enormity of what we were doing, and what it meant to be there, especially after a major earthquake, and was overcome by the emotion of it. Coming on to the stage in the dark at Shimokitazawa Garden, Tokyo, and seeing this packed sea of eager faces briefly choked me up in the first few lines of On A Day Like This. The culmination of 25 years’ waiting and hoping and preparing was suddenly too much. Singing while you’re crying might sound like a great idea in theory but actually just results in lousy singing, so I had to wrench back control of my voice and feelings. And introducing the last song at Muse Hall, Osaka, in our final night, again I cracked up, and only got through the slow introduction to You’ll Never See That Summertime Again thanks to the generous pauses built into the arrangement. Then the band came in, the song let rip and it was a joyous end to the tour.

We’d prepared an hour-long set, a mixture of old and new, with two songs from the new album The Zen House, and the balance of the set inclined towards the most familiar and popular records. We linked several of the songs to avoid too many mid-set pauses and chat, with intros to the next song emerging from the end of the previous one. It was a thrill to hear the ripple of familiarity as the start of old favourites like Far And Away emerged, and catching the eye of people in the audience singing the words with me.

So how was it for us? It’s impossible to judge from the stage, but I can safely say that it felt as though the three concerts were the best the band has played, and the best performances I’ve delivered. It’s been rare in our live career to be standing in front of a crowd that large and that enthusiastic, many of whom are there because they have known your music for years. After the first concert the promoter came up to me in the dressing room and said “William, come and meet your fans”. I’d been expecting to meet up with a couple of people I’ve got to know by email, but he meant something different. A queue of fans was lined up, armed with records and CDs, usually in immaculate condition, felt-tip pens and their names written on the back of their hands. Again, maybe routine for a bigger band than us, but for me moving, novel, flattering, and a rare chance to meet some of the people who have kept us going over the years.

The best advice I ever received about being in a band was ‘don’t split up’. Of course that’s exactly what bands should do when they feel their time’s up. But the advice came from someone who knew me, and knew that my music would keep coming as long as I had an outlet for it. I’m thankful for that advice, although I suspect we’d never have split up anyway. So what’s kept it going for 25 years, without knowing that a chance email would appear one day saying ‘how about Japan?’ A mixture of stubbornness, perversity, megalomania, faith in the music, quality control, a desire to connect with an audience, and the knowledge that there are people out there, an audience, to whom the music means something, even a great deal. And I’m more than ever convinced that most of those people live in Japan.

Friends’ new album

From → Friends

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