Crystal Japan

Crystal Japan.
Crystal Jun Rock advert (starring D. Bowie).

A minor cultural oddity exposed by the all-seeing Internet is how various celebrities get a quick paycheck by doing TV ads in countries where they once assumed their primary fan base wouldn’t see them, touting everything from Polish banks to Japanese beers. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation captures a time when this type of sell-out was more discreet.

In early 1980, Bowie did a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer, Crystal Jun Rock, filming a spot at a Kyoto temple and licensing out an instrumental outtake called “Fuji Moto San” (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “Fuje San Moto”). “The money is a useful thing,” Bowie later said, also noting that he got more airplay via TV ads then he did with radio at the time.

Though often referred to as a Scary Monsters outtake, and originally intended to be the album’s closer (a Japanese counterpart to “It’s No Game (No. 1)”), it’s possible that at least some of “Crystal Japan” was recorded prior to those sessions, perhaps in Mountain Studios in Switzerland. (It’s established that Bowie filmed the ad in March 1980, in a break between Monsters‘ recording sessions.) “Japan” sounds unlike anything else from Scary Monsters, too—it’s far more in line with earlier ambient pieces like “Moss Garden.”

While it made sense to cut it from Scary Monsters, where “Japan” would have been an even more anomalous LP closer than “Secret Life of Arabia,” it’s a shame that “Crystal Japan” has been generally forgotten, as it has some of Bowie’s most gorgeous melodies of the period: the first childlike motif that begins at :25, the subsequent “choral” melody and development that follow it, and the resolution, with a rising-and-falling synthesized bass (almost gong-like), and the tiny three-note patterns that appear before the curtain falls. It’s “Warszawa” in miniature.

Recorded: Jan 1980?, Mountain Studios?, February 1980, Power Station, NYC. Released as a Japan-only single (RCA SS-3270) in spring 1980 (c/w “Alabama Song”) and then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” in March 1981. Later included on the Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters and All Saints. Trent Reznor (subconsciously) nicked the melody for Nine Inch Nails’ “A Warm Place” from it (confession to Bowie @2:00 in this interview).

Top: The Young Marble Giants, 1980.

29 Responses to Crystal Japan

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Sorry to be the pedant but I’m not sure that ‘Fuje moto san’ is possible in the Japanese language. It would have to be ‘Fuji moto san’.
    For anybody interested, the commercial says something like ‘When the times change, rock also changes.’ I guess it’s a pun on the word ‘rock’, which in Japanese can mean either ‘rock music’ or ‘drink with ice’.
    It’s a great tune,wasted here.
    (As I type Tommy Lee Jones – surely the model for Lost in Translation – is on television advertising coffee!)

  2. Jeremy Earl says:

    I love this track. I don’t mind, though, that is a somewhat hidden treasure; the fact that is makes it all the more alluring.

    Bowie looks great in the ad!

  3. giospurs says:

    I’ve always loved this one. It was definitely right to leave it off Scary Monsters but it is deserving of a place on the Berlin trilogy.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have to say, this forray into advertising is a lot better than the Tina Turner Pepsi duet. But then most things are.

  5. diamond dog says:

    Always thought this sounded like an outtake from the heroes era and would have gone well in there with moss garden. Such a great piece which was a great addition to the ryko release. Thankful they dug it up for the cd reissue otherwise it would have been lost.

  6. giospurs says:

    the ryko reissue may have had a big impact as it’s likely Reznor would have never heard it had it not been for the CD and his subconscious imbibing of the melody gave it a new life on the NIN track.

    • sekaer says:

      any big bowie fan would have owned “bowie rare” which this was on

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        Good point. Wonder how well that release sold? After all it came out during the Lets dance phase – should have done well. Lots of pubescent new fans listening to Velvet Goldmine and Crystal Japan

      • giospurs says:

        On the video linked above, Reznor mentions that he only realised his track had nicked the melody from Crystal Japan when the bonus tracks started playing on his Scary Monsters CD. Of course that doesn’t mean he hadn’t heard Crystal Japan before from a different source…

  7. col1234 says:

    just a note for accuracy—Stephen, our Japan-based correspondent, notes that the drink Ben Stiller is selling in the ad that I linked to isn’t really “beer,” it’s more a high-alcohol carbonated sugar-water concoction..

    also, Sean Connery’s Japanese yogurt ad is worth watching:

  8. sekaer says:

    Year Chart Position
    1983 UK Album Chart 34 [2]
    1983 Norway’s Album Charts 11

    That’s all I could find. I remember buying it at the time and just being so glad to find all these jewels. The one bootleg I got around that time was a double album called The Beat Goes On which had Arnold Corns singles and the 1980 Floor Show with really cool snippets of sound effects, Groucho Marx songs, etc between the tracks and at the beginning and end of each side, presumably to fool the anti-piracy forces. It has a picture of Bowie from Just a Gigolo (?) on the sleeve

  9. diamond dog says:

    Forgot this was on the vault dredging rare I’ll have to dig my copy out as I remember it being pretty disappointing at the time with material which was not quite so rare. Great cover shot on it though cashing in on the let’s dance image.

  10. sekaer says:

    I was too young at the time to know the backstory about vault dredging–hadn’t had access to those songs so I was damn psyched at the time!

  11. Jeremy Earl says:

    A curious thing about Crystal Japan is that if it wasn’t recorded during the Scary Monsters sessions but possibly Heroes or Lodger then why wasn’t it on the Ryko re-releases of either of those albums? Did they lose that information and it was easier to place it with SM because it came out during that era? Or was it actually recorded in 1980?

    As usual with Bowie small periods of only three years can seem like decades.

  12. ethan says:

    Such an odd mix of moods here–grand and dinky, somber and goofy. The low synths at the end always sound to me like silly-sad cartoon voices slowly saying “bye…bye,” which cracks me up.

  13. diamond dog says:

    Ryko were never very accurate with dates and info on the extras they included but they included it here as it was released in the period of scary monsters where Bowie is concerned it could be a recycle from the low/heroes period without a word from Bowie who knows it may have been an astronettes demo !!! All joking aside its about time Bowie wrote some memoirs and put an end to the guess work.
    It also could have been specially written for the commercial ?
    The other odd extra on the ryko cd is the reworking of panic in detroit which is very odd indeed and very unnecessary which I had never heard of at the time?

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      I think that version of PID was recorded at the same time as the stripped back version of Space Oddity, which was released at the time.

  14. diamond dog says:

    Mmmm yes I thought so , he must have considered it for the kenny everett show then shown on new years eve ? I remember the epic oddity being broadcast that evening just superb. I’ve still got the whole show on dvd !! God bless the internet and the generous folks who share this material.

  15. Carl H says:

    Never heard this one! Great song, thanks!

    Actually Bowie isn’t advertising sake, but Shochu which is a traditional Japanese liquor similar to vodka but with a a lower alcohol content. Vodka has normally about 40% but Shochu is almost always around 25-35% alcohol by volume.

  16. Joe the Lion says:

    I got into Bowie with the Ryko reissues, so for me Crystal Japan has been around as long as, say, Teenage Wildlife or Scream Like A Baby. The track always felt to me like it was sort of weightless, like the best ambient instrumentals.

    (Scary Monsters was the last of the reissues to collect – I remember reading a review on Teletext whilst on school holidays, realising it was out, asking my mum if I could borrow the money, and then getting the bus into town so I could buy it. They hadn’t even been put out – the guy had to go to the storeroom to get it for me. End of an era for me.)

  17. diamond dog says:

    At the time the ryko’s were the first time most fans had heard the albums in digital form as the previous rca issues had been withdrawn and pre internet were hard to find. The sounded great at the time and the packaging and extras were cool. Now I’m older and have been able to track down the rca cd’s and set up my old turntable ryko,s editions are soundwise a mixed bag. Scary monsters sounds superb on the german or uk vinyl. The ryko release of scary monsters is muddy and dull with the brightness missing.

  18. Jasper says:

    I love Crystal Japan, in my mind it fit perfectly with the instrumentals of Low and Heroes, some of my favorites works of Bowie.
    I have a question. I just got the US 12″ of Up The Hill Backwards that has Crystal Japan on the b-side, looking at the time of the song there and on my copy of Rare they are listed as running 3:10 and 3:07, but when i look at the Crystal Japan single on Bassman’s page it says 3:26, is it just down to different people timing them or are there two different versions? I think a 16 sec difference is quite a bit for timing differences.
    You talk of Lost in Translation, an other Bowie connection there is that there is no doubt Coppola have had a love for the soundtrack for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence when she had music composed for the movie, Ryuichi Sakamoto does a great job that.

  19. JB says:

    How ironic the most melodic song trent reznor ever wrote was ripped off by bowie… just like his entire schtick was ripped off by skinny puppy.

    That said… you could just ask Roger Powell about the song. He was in Switzerland recording w/ Bowie for Lodger and might know the answer.

  20. Bas says:

    Who are the studio musicans playing on this song? Were it the same session muscians who can be heard on Scary Monsters? Has someone got more specific information about the line up? Cheers

%d bloggers like this: