Liverpool group Big in Japan were a bit like a music academy in the post-punk era of the late 1970s.
Nearly everyone who played for them found fame with other groups – including Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds.
Drummer Budgie joined Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dave Balfe played keyboards with the Teardrop Explodes and Bill Drummond founded electronic band the KLF.
In truth, Big in Japan were not really big at all. They were named after a phrase used to describe Wirral group Buster, who topped the charts in Japan but failed to make any real impact on the UK market.
Big in Japan lasted just over a year and recorded only seven songs. They broke up in August 1978, but played again for a John Peel radio session in February 1979.
Big in Japan’s musical adventure started in May 1977 when the band was formed by guitarist and vocalist Bill Drummond, bass guitarist Kevin Ward and drummer Phil Allen.
Later additions were Jayne Casey on vocals and Ian Broudie on guitar. The group’s first song, entitled Big in Japan, formed part of the seven-inch compilation single Brutality, Religion and a Dance Beat.
At this stage the group’s line-up was more like a revolving door as Langer and Ward both left. Bass player Ambrose Reynolds arrived in October and left two months later to be replaced by Holly Johnson.
Former Spitfire Boys’ drummer Budgie, whose real name was Peter Clarke, joined the band in January 1978.
Big in Japan certainly cultivated an intriguing stage presence at their gigs around Merseyside, including Eric’s Club. Drummond played in a kilt and Casey sang with a lampshade over her shaved head!
It was later described as more performance art than music with Johnson honing the stage persona that would later become a hallmark of Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The personnel changes persisted as Johnson left to be replaced by former Deaf School member Steve Lindsey, who was in turn replaced by Dave Balfe, formerly in Dalek I Love You.
In an extraordinary development, Julian Cope (later of the Teardrop Explodes) launched a petition demanding that Big in Japan should split up. It ended up being signed by the band themselves!
The seemingly inevitable break-up came in August 1978 after the band performed a final gig at Eric’s Club. But the band’s impact continued to be felt on the Merseyside music scene.
Their EP From Y to Z and Never Again, released to settle debts, was the debut record on the new Zoo label set up by Drummond and Balfe.
Zoo would in turn be responsible for releasing early work by Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes.
Big in Japan’s swansong was a session recorded on February 12th 1979 for Liverpool DJ John Peel. In the line-up were Broudie, Casey, Budgie and Johnson.
Drummond and Balfe then formed the new-wave band Lori and the Chameleons with singer Lori Lartey. Two singles resulted – Touch which featured Deaf School drummer Tim Whitaker and The Lonely Spy which included Gary Dwyer of the Teardrop Explodes.
Lartey went to art school when the Chameleons split up in 1980. Balfe played keyboards with the Teardrop Explodes and Drummond became the group’s manager.
Johnson turned to lead vocals when he teamed up with Peter Gill on drums, Mark O’Toole (bass) and Jed O’Toole to form Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1980.
The band admired the approachability of fellow Liverpool groups like Echo & the Bunnymen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) – and aimed to be the same.
Their debut single Relax reached the top of the UK charts in January 1984, almost three months after its initial release. The catalyst was the BBC banning the record from all of its TV and radio outlets. It went to Number One the very next day!
Budgie, another former Big in Japan musician, was the drummer with Siouxsie and the Banshees from 1979 to 1996. He also performed with Siouxsie Sue in the duo the Creatures from 1981 to 2004.
Stewart Copeland of the Police was an admirer of Budgie’s ‘economical and offbeat’ style, as was Ari Up of the Slits who called him a very sensitive drummer.
Five of Big in Japan’s recorded songs are still available on the compilation album The Zoo: Uncaged 1978-1982 along with tracks from Merseyside bands the Wild Swans, Expelaires and Those Naughty Lumps.
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