The Tin Drum

In which one drum is beaten against another.

The Tin Drum is a 1959 book by German author Günter Grass about a Polish dwarf in Danzig before, during, and after the second world war. Oskar Matzerath is born fully conscious of the world around him, and seems to have an adult mind at the moment of his birth – or perfect self-awareness, or something like that. He’s an unreliable narrator and I’ve only read it once so it’s hard to tell exactly. In any case, because of a conversation between his parents, he becomes obsessed with toy tin drums, lacquered red and white (the colours of the Polish flag, by the way). The novel is the twentieth century in 500 pages.

Tin Drum is the final official release (1981) from new wave/synthpop band Japan, featuring David Sylvian’s vocals, Steve Jansen on drums, Mick Karn on bass, and Richard Barbieri on keyboards. It’s their last album under the name ‘Japan’ and best musical effort. In keeping with the theme of communist China, traditional Chinese instruments are strongly featured, as well as bizarre non-Western rhythms. Songs are about youthful enthusiasm, sacrifices for ideology, and the restoration of old Chinese glory. Despite sounding unique, it’s a great example of English new wave.

Oskar Matzerath is a good example of Freudian psychology in action. He seems to purposely dissociate himself from emotions. Whenever Oskar remembers an action that he took, it’s related in the first person, but emotions are related in third person. He characterises his body as feeling differently about various things to his mind. This creates a weird effect, where Oskar’s attempts to seemingly separate his id and ego make the work read as though there were two separate characters. Oskar may be a twentieth-century schizoid man.

Strains of King Crimson, however, are not to be found on Tin Drum. The whole album has a very consistent sound – Tin Drum drips with impersonal 1980s malaise. It’s new wave – it’s sexless. Androgynous in style and substance. Like most British pop of the 80s, it has that typical emotionally dead electronic sound, mixed with oddly sensual traditional instrumentation. The instrumentation on Tin Drum is analogous, in my mind, to Oskar’s psychology in its duality, in the way the various drums and flutes clash with Barbieri’s synthesisers. The album also shies away from excessively personal topics, with the exception of ‘Ghosts’. Sylvian prefers to wax poetic on the journeys of young pioneers and the spirit of revolutionary China.

There is a sole exception to Oskar’s depersonalisation. He admits that he likes Gertrude’s uniform (and implies that that’s the only reason he likes her at all) in the first person. Oskar may have a nurse fetish. I thought of Oskar’s mind, after some time, as a character controlled by a demon – then revised that to his id and ego – then revised that again, as I continued to read. His body rebels against his mind too often for me not to make that association. I began to see Oskar’s mind as the spirit of the 20th century.

There aren’t many literal references to China in Tin Drum‘s lyrics. Only ‘Visions of China’ has any. Everything else is about mobile homes and humid weather and bushland and so on. Most of the time, it relies on instrumentation to give it a sense of place. So too does Grass’ novel, which paints the entire century in three words ‘barbaric, mystical, bored.’

There’s not much to say about the drumming itself. Other characters are intent on making Oskar’s tin drum into a symbol. It’s a revolutionary fervour. A symbol of nationalism. A symbol of communism. A call to disciples, and a test for Jesus in Oskar’s eyes, all throughout different parts of the book. He stops drumming after the war ends, and only restarts when a friend questions his authority on music. But Oskar’s opinions are hidden, mentioned only occasionally in a throwaway sentence – and he doesn’t want to make his tin drum more than what it is.

Steve Jansen, David Sylvian’s brother, was Japan’s drummer. He’s an energetic player – I’m listening to the album right now – and seems to fill as much of the space as he can with sound. It’s a busy style, but somehow he’s managing to keep things interesting. But then, what’s a 20th century representation supposed to do other than fill a great empty space? It’s exactly like Lankes’ description of the time. Barbaric, mystical, bored.

Oskar’s drumming and the single ‘Ghosts’ are the same – they’re the singular moments when Tin Drum allows itself a hint of emotional release. Sure, the book has plenty of carnal content – it’s sexually charged in a few places and not afraid of any topics, really – but it’s rarely emotional except when Oskar’s drumming. Even then there’s a kind of awkward restraint in Grass’ prose. And the album has lots of catchy moments and poppy hooks, but none of it’s strictly emotionally powerful. ‘Ghosts’ is the only song where Sylvian seemingly makes a candid confession of his own problems, rather than the problems with restoring communist China.

Speaking of candid confessions, Oskar’s continual narration made me increasingly suspicious as the book continued. I won’t reveal too many details of the ‘plot’, aimless as it is, because I understand many people don’t like that, but I will say there are plenty of things he’s skimming over and twisting into meaningless prose.

As portraits of a particular time and place, the Tin Drums work incredibly well. I’ve chosen to pair them together, even though that’s the obvious thing to do, because there’s really no other option for me. Sylvian was inspired by the book, so it feels uninspired for me to lump the two together, but the album’s such a work of art that it’s excusable this time. More on this later? I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that you can describe the two pieces with many of the same terms, and it makes perfect sense.

They’re very much different sides of the same coin. I suppose the idea of Sylvian making Tin Drum as a response to Günter Grass only makes sense, since I did waffle on last week about things being defined in opposition to one another. Oh, since this could technically count as a pair of reviews, I highly recommend that you listen to both Tin Drums. Simultaneously, if possible.


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