I have a theory that has been slowly forming in the farthest reaches of my mind for the last few months; nothing scientific or particularly mind-blowing, but just an idea that has grown to the point that I want to test it out with you all here. Here goes…….I believe that you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what they think of Rob Dean. Ta-da! That’s it. Obviously, I don’t just mean walk up to anyone in the street and ask them, as that would be rather odd and most folks wouldn’t have a clue who you were talking about; (in fact, ask the handful of ornithologists I call my friends the same question, and they will start talking about what a fantastic illustrator he is, but that’s another story for a totally different blog……) but in the virtual world of the collective Japan fan, ask about Rob and people’s responses generally give an indication to their age and when they first heard the band.
Rob Dean is a man beloved by many. Generally, the older you are, the more you will ‘love’ Rob. That seems to be the way. Those of us who are now approaching, or have valiantly sailed past, the half century mark tend to get a little wistful when we talk of Rob and his searing guitar. Oh, the sheer beauty of the ‘wolf-whistle’ call and response on ‘Halloween’……..cue misty eyes all round……grown men sobbing into their pints etc etc. But, it is true. His input into the early Japan sound cannot be over-stated. If you were a fan of the band prior to Tin Drum, then in all likelihood, you will hold all that he played and contributed in high esteem. However, something I have noticed and been intrigued by, in the last year or so, is how some younger and/or newer fans view Rob – and his place within the history of the band.
Let me say something here and now before I go any further; I bloody LOVE the fact that Japan – and the individual members’ post-band material – continues to resonate with people. I find it incredible that so many are as passionate about them now, as I was 35 years ago. Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram are a hotbed of images and discussions, people sharing really quite rare (and not immediately accessible) music with equally passionate strangers across the world. It is like one big, beautiful melting pot of Japan-related fandom and I applaud it with gusto.
However, with this comes a strange sort of revisionism of the band’s history. And, in some places I have seen Rob almost written out of this history; demoted to some kind of session musician with claims that he was ‘replaced’ by Masami Tsuchiya.
And, if you look at the photos Steve took of his friends and fellow band members, you could almost be forgiven for thinking this is not far off the mark.
I think it is fair to say that as a bunch of individuals, Japan were a pretty astounding looking bunch of young men. Sylvian & Karn, always vying for attention, with David’s perfectly coiffed hair and make-up being constantly upstaged by Mick’s technicolour glory. Steve, hands thrust into jacket pockets, smouldering away like Elvis’ younger, hipper brother. Richard, all sulky pout and insolent, beneath-the-fringe gaze. And there was Rob, in the early days looking like the real missing New York Doll – the one who got away – with masses of curly hair and attitude to match. No wonder they created such a stir when their pictures where first printed in those Japanese magazines.
So, where are all the photos of Rob?
If you look at the photos which Steve has published of the band members over the years, the vast majority are from 80-82, so whilst Rob was still a fully-fledged member of the band for some of this time, his absence from any photos from early 1981 onwards can be explained away easily enough by simple physics. You can’t photograph someone who isn’t actually there, can you? Couple this with the fact that Steve shared flats with both Mick & Rich during this time, and therefore spent a lot more time with them, then the lack of Rob images in comparison becomes more easily explained. But there is possibly another, more subtle, reason…….
Go back and look at any photos of Japan from 1977 – 80 and take a good look at Rob. How comfortable does he appear, posing in all of his finery? There is an obvious lack of engagement with the camera, an almost reluctant acceptance that he has to be there, standing awkwardly and staring into the lens (or more often than not away from the lens) with no real commitment to the vision being created. In a band which had its fair share of seemingly recalcitrant poster-boys, Rob appears to be even less enamoured of the whole ‘make love to the camera’ vibe that was being bandied around. Compare this with his confident and attitude-laden live performances from early Japan gigs, and it would seem that Mr Dean was just not a fan of posing for the camera. And as modest as Steve may be about his photographic skills, he was more than aware that Rob was not a ‘natural’ subject and so there just aren’t that many photos of him in the Jansen archive, which is a great shame but not entirely unexpected.
Last year Steve posted some previously unseen pictures from the photo-session for the Gentlemen Take Polaroids cover. The pictures showed the band in amazingly OTT make-up, courtesy of creative make-up artist ‘Regis’, who was given free rein to go with his ideas…..whatever the outcome. And the outcome appeared to be some kind of weird hybrid of Kabuki meets Marcel Marceau with a touch of Pierrot thrown in for good measure. To be fair, none of them look that happy with the results – as Steve noted: “what some make-up artists failed to realise was that there was a fine line between appearing androgynous and looking like drag queens.” – and so, thankfully the pictures didn’t make it onto the cover of the album. The whole band look pretty uncomfortable in their individual shots but Rob looks like he just wants to leg it straight into the bathroom with a tub of cold cream and a damp flannel.
Ironically, one of the best pictures of Rob, where he seems more relaxed and less aware of the camera pointing at him, was taken by Steve at Manor Studios during the recording of Tin Drum – some months after Rob had left the band. Yeah, so he isn’t actually looking at the camera and he has his arms folded across his chest but there isn’t quite the same sense of “get me out of here” urgency as previously…….no longer in the band, he doesn’t have to be ‘on show’ any more.
It’s quite difficult to write a piece on a photography-based blog when there aren’t really any photos to discuss, but I wanted to do something to acknowledge Rob and his contribution to Japan. My comments at the opening of this piece were slightly tongue-in-cheek and I don’t really believe that anyone who ‘discovered’ Japan after GTP has no idea who Rob is. But there are posts about Mick, Rich & David on here and so, for balance, here is Rob’s post. He may be many things to many people; accomplished musician, talented illustrator, passionate ornithologist, dear & loyal friend…….and reluctant teen idol. (Fortunately for him, the latter no longer applies – fortunately for everyone else, the rest still do.) So, despite the lack of a bevy of beautifully crafted images from the lens of Mr Jansen, here is the only picture of Rob you will ever really need; one which shows him in his natural habitat, looking confident and comfortable – on stage during a sound check.
All photos by Steve Jansen.
Steve periodically publishes photographs on his sleepyard tumblr – all of these images can be found on there http://sleepyard.tumblr.com/