rob dean – M.I.A.


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?

Richard, Mick, Rob at The Manor Studios. Tin Drum sessions. 1981
Richard, Mick, Rob at The Manor Studios. Tin Drum sessions. 1981

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.

Rob Dean. ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ photo shoot. Photo by Steve Jansen
Rob Dean. ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ photo shoot.

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.

Tin Drum sessions at Manor studios - contact sheet.
Tin Drum sessions at Manor studios – contact sheet.

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.

Rob Dean - soundcheck
Rob Dean – soundcheck

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/

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18 thoughts on “rob dean – M.I.A.

  1. Knowing that QUIET LIFE is considered by many fans to be their favourite Japan album, and also the band members favourite album too, this is more than testament to the skills of Mr Dean on guitar. In Vogue is probably my fave example of every member of the band pulling together. Robs playing is just lovely throughout.
    Thanks for reminding others of his prowess ( i don`t need reminding 🙂 )
    Its a shame there are not many more shots of Rob, taken by Steve, but what we have will suffice 🙂 Im sure we`d all agree, that Rob was an equal to the JAPAN sound as any of the others.
    Thanks Victoria x

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Vic – as you know I wouldn’t know the first thing about Japan. I don’t know who Rob Dean is (now I do!). I just wanted to tell you, I think your writing is brilliant. I read all your blog posts (even though I don’t understand most of them, not being a Japan fan) and this is the best one yet. Congratulations on being such a talented and accomplished writer. I’ll go back to my Squeeze albums now. 🙂 x

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  3. As the blogs progress, so does your writing, which was pretty bleedin good to begin with. My first foray into the world of Japan was the Ghosts single, purely because of SJ’s cover photograph, followed by Tin Drum. My next purchase, recommended by my first girlfriend, was Assemblage. I bought it for the incredible cover photograph by Fin Costello. Flipping the LP over and there was individual shots of the boys. Who’s the curly-mopped fella at the bottom? Was it some interloper? Putting the needle to the vinyl caused even more confusion. What the hell was I listening to? Then the guitar started to work its magic on me. “Ah!” Says I. “That’ll be the curly-mopped fella!” I went on to buy the albums that Assemblage referenced and immediately loved Rob’s contribution, especially on Quiet Life. In Vogue is incredible; Rob’s guitar sliding in and out, punctuating and lifting the song to heights that wouldn’t have been possible without his unique contribution. This holds true for the album as a whole but, on In Vogue, the boys are all on inspired form and it is still one of my favourite songs. Rob Dean, I salute you.

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    1. In Vogue is, without doubt, my favourite Japan song, and QL my favourite album. As both Craig and Shane say, Rob’s contribution to the sound cannot be under-estimated. It is a shame that there aren’t more shots of Rob from Steve’s lens (can’t believe he never took one of Rob eating spaghetti with his shirt off!) but at least we have the enduring sound of his guitar to keep us going……

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  4. Its funny I always saw Masami as a guest artist back in the day….. never a full member of Japan… I always considered Rob a major museo to the Japan sound. I loved Japan pre Tin Drum… that album was hardest for me to warm too… Loved it in the end. But Gentlemen was a biggy for me… Loved Swing live as it echoed across the auditorium of the Hammersmith time after time! I know I was so lucky to see them so many times being a poor Art Student! Well written Victoria x

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    1. Thanks Suzi, that’s lovely…..and I feel the same about Masami but it would appear that others believed he was a fully signed-up member…..never understood why he was on the cover of Exorcising Ghosts? He was a good fit for the last tour though.

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  5. Hi Vic, I have to agree with Cassie as a fellow ‘not known to be Japan fan’ love your writing and insights into each member as well as overview of them collectively, brilliant. Also great reflections on images and photography, really inspiring stuff xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m 29 and started listening to Japan around 2009. I’ve always been a Rob Dean fan. I like how he would use that guitar effect (the name escapes me right now- please write it if you know what I’m talking about) to great effect on most of the recordings. It’s really an essential part of his sound in Japan. I like his only composition Width of a Room. It’s a creepy tune. I used to search his name and the only thing that would come up would be the video where he talks about living in Costa Rica. I believe on the Very Best of Japan DVD and Instant Polaroids on screen credits his name is listed beneath Tsuchiya if that means anything. I definitely prefer the live stuff I’ve heard with him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nick, thanks so much your thoughts……I agree, Rob was essential to the Japan sound for so long but it feels as if he parted company with the band at the right time too. I love the fact he played the AoP tour with them, even though he had pretty much left the band by this time. 4 albums with RD and only one without…..he is a key part of the band as far as I am concerned.

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  7. Just catching up on the blogs following my exile! Loving them all and delighted to see so many involved and to share in these amazing photos, so thanks with all my heart to Steve and to Victoria for her devotion and excellence.
    It’s odd for most of us to question Rob’s part in Japan but a huge part of post-Ghosts mythology did seem to re-write history for a short while. As we stand back thirty years or so on the reality is in much better, ahem, focus. It’s a real shame both musically and in terms of this whole issue that Rob was not involved with Tin Drum. I wish he had been, I am sure we all do. Masami was fab, of course and he still is but to have had Rob on the last album and tour? A girl can dream but not re-write history. Hell, I was too young to go to that tour anyway.
    History will remember the real Japan and that would not exist without each one of the five. Hoorah for Victoria and the Blog and Hoorah for Robert Dean!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Rob Dean at least deserves to be in the same league as John McGeoch or Keith Levene. I began to listen Japan in 2006, and there are many underrated guitarists in the punk/post-punk era. However, McGeoch, Levene, Will Sergeant, Rowland S. Howard, Daniel Ash, Geordie Walker, Johnny Marr, even the Ultravox’s guitarists during the ’70s, among others sort of take the credit (It’s OK, but there are more). I think he somewhat is the link between glam rock and post-punk/new wave, a mix of Gary Moore and Mick Ronson, but with steroids.

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