Rock GPA: Japan [part 8]

japan - oiloncanvasUKLPAJapan – Oil On Canvas | 1983 – 3

Virgin Records convinced the band to soldier on through 1982 to reap the commercial whirlwind that had finally begun to coalesce around the group with the “Ghosts” single making them stars. But the clock was ticking. Fractious relations between Sylvian and Karn [involving a woman] ensured that at the end of the ‘Sons Of Pioneers” tour in 1982, where five nights were book at the Hammersmith Odeon, would be the last time the band trod the boards as a unit. These shows were filmed and recorded for the inevitable posthumous live album and video. The band once again secured the talents of John Punter to get it all down on tape. I found that a strange decision, considering that “Tin Drum” producer Steve Nye would go on to work with David Sylvian on his solo recordings to come.

Speaking of tape, that is the achilles heel of this live recording. The reliance of the band on backing tapes is considerable here, with sax and bass being employed simultaneously. You, I and the lamppost know that Mick Karn was not a four armed mutant, so this fall back to tape robs this set of much of its potential for excitement. What surprises that do occur are largely down to the stylings of Masami Tsuchiya [Ippu-Do] drafted in on guitar. His solo on “Still Life In Mobile Homes” cuts a fine form on the Fripp side of the metal line.

The band perform the single version of “The Art Of Parties,” making the LP recording/arrangement the rare bird anywhere but on “Tin Drum.” Other than that, most of this program is made of eerily faithful recreations of Japan music of high familiarity. “Sons Of Pioneers” was cut two minutes for length, but that incredible loping rhythm still enchants, even with a five minute running time. Mick Karn may only be playing sax live on “Ghosts” but elsewhere his fretless bass prowess gives this album its frissons of pleasure.

japan - cantonliveUK7A

Surprisingly, there was a single pulled form this for Japan’s swan song on the charts. Not surprisingly, the live instrumental, “Canton” b/w “Visions Of China” stopped its chart climb just shy of the UK top 40. That doesn’t diminish the allure of Karn’s supple bass line that proves the song’s alpha and omega one bit, though. Anyone who was lucky enough to have seen the homage to soft focus that was the “Oil On Canvas” video back in the 80s will recall that watching Karn’s crablike, robotic movements was in stark contrast to the fluidity of his bass playing.

I immediately bought this album as a German import 2xLP at the time of release, but two years later, I “upgraded” to the first pressing of the UK CD and foolishly traded in my copy of the LP and walked out of the store with the CD of the title. Once I got home and put it on, something didn’t seem right. Sure enough, my two favorite songs on the disc [“Gentlemen Take Polaroids” and “Swing”] had been cut from the contents! It would remain until 1994, when the US Caroline pressing was released, that I ever saw the full program on a single CD. Subsequent pressings split the program on to two discs to replicate the LP experience, but these have supplanted any single disc versions that were briefly available in the 90s.

The Rock G.P.A.

As we tally up the four point grade scale, we see that Japan are virtually alone in their peer group for having an unbroken string of classic material.

ROCK-GPA-japan

We have a 3.21 overall for a solid B average. The weight of their pupal efforts have done some damage to their enviable run at the top of the heap. Even so, the career arc they managed to achieve in just five years is astounding, even if the lack of excitement on their posthumous live album, marks “Oil On Canvas” as almost a better overall sampler than an exciting snapshot of a band making that was actually making stunning records at the time. “Oil On Canvas” comes up short when compared to the band’s appearance at the Hammersmith Odeon the previous year, which has reached these ears courtesy of a BBC transcription disc that captured the white hot intensity of the “Polaroids” tour with David Rhodes replacing Rob Dean on guitar. If only Virgin would license this show for a legit release [preferably the full concert], I could die a happy Japan fan.

– 30 –

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13 Responses to Rock GPA: Japan [part 8]

  1. Echorich says:

    The soft focus, but heavy production of the Oil On Canvas video belies the infancy of real mass marketing of live concerts in the early 80’s. But at the same time it lends a sort of etherealness to the proceedings. Once again I think it’s difficult to make the imagery match the quality of the music and THAT is a great compliment in my mind. Japan came from an era that didn’t yet rely on images to entice the listener and let the music create the imagery in the listener’s mind.
    I have to agree that the Sons Of Pioneers tour would have had to have had another 4 people on stage to even attempt to replicate all that Karn and Sylvian contributed on the imperial period albums. I do love the pieces written to create an event that was more than just a live experience. Opener Oil On Canvas, Voices Raised in Welcome, Hands Held in Prayer and Temple of Dawn give much more strength to pieces like Canton.
    I still have the gold Laserdisc of Oil On Canvas, and although I will likely never ever watch it again, I WILL NEVER PART WITH IT!
    Japan’s GPA score is still something fairly enviable among their peers. If you look at the band as having two periods within the 5 yrs of their recording existence, then maybe they could be graded on a curve and increasing the weight on 80 – 82, giving them a bit closer to a 4.

    Thanks Monk for featuring Japan in such a complete fashion!

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  2. Brian Ware says:

    I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and also thank you and the commenters for an excellent analysis of this most fascinating band. My collection consists of the big three along with a variation of “Assemblege” called “A Souvenir From Japan”. Same essential tracks. These along with the Hammersmith bootleg and the wonderful “Bento” have kept me very happy indeed.

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  3. zoo says:

    I had a good friend in high school who LOVED Japan, and for that reason–since she liked a number of other groups I didn’t think were very good–I didn’t give them the time of day. I was 10 yrs old when Tin Drum was released, and I graduated from high school in 1990, so the band weren’t exactly current when I “came of age” to start going to record stores on my own to buy music. This is all to say that I came to the party very late. Once the Internet was created for the sole purpose of letting guys like me catch up on all the old music I missed in my youth, I rediscovered a lot that I either completely missed or outright dismissed at an earlier age (Simple Minds, Japan and David Sylvian, Ultravox, The Jam, Split Enz…basically, all these bands that I love now). Yes, I just admitted to only getting into those bands in the last 15 years or so.

    Anyway, I hadn’t listened to Japan in about a year or so, so this GPA has been fun for me, as I’ve brought Oil on Canvas in the car (the only one I have on CD) and listened to the others at home. Some of the sentiment here is that GTP is their best work, but I have to rank them in descending order w/ the following grades (I’m allowing for quarter points, not just halves):

    Tin Drum – 4
    GTP – 3.75
    Quiet Life – 3.5
    (Don’t care about the first two)

    Keep up the good work, Monk!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – I hear you. Part of the reason why I am the Post-Punk Monk is that I was so busy following dozens of bands in ’78-’85 that inevitably, other groups slipped in the cracks, not to be discovered until later. It fries my brain that I never heard The Associates until 1990!!!! They should/could/would have been immense in my ca. 1980 world and my belated discovery of them in 1990 was the flashpoint where the idea of looking back became interesting to me. Sure, I read about Associates, but in Central Florida, the records just weren’t there. Now I feverishly investigate the stuff that either I ignored or just had never seen for sale 30+ years ago. It’s never too late to listen to music; your best entertainment value.

      With “Tin Drum,” I can unequivocally state that is is their “best” album… just not my favorite album. It’s funny how that works sometimes. “Tin Drum” is unmistakably a powerful achievement, but dammit, “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” just pushes all of the Monk buttons so expertly, that I roll over like a puppy dog when i hear it.

      As for missing Simple Minds, Japan, Ultravox, Sylvian, Split Enz, The Jam in their heyday, I can only say that if I had lived your timeline, I would literally be a very different person today and PPM would not be here.

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      • Echorich says:

        I have to agree that GTP is my favorite Japan album but Tin Drum is their best album. The fact is not many groups go out on their best work – possibly because the stick around too long to begin with. If all the internal issues had not existed I believe there was at least another album of Tin Drum’s calibre left in Japan, but it would likely have explored a more experimental vein.
        I have to say I enjoy hearing the thoughts and opinions of everyone who contributes to PPM along with myself because we all have a bit of a different entry into the Post Punk Era. For me, being in NYC with an embarrassment of access of music purchasing options, it interests me to see the fervent enjoyment of bands I followed back 30 odd yrs ago by younger listeners or those who never had access to the music to begin with. For so long I was a musical iconoclast, there was maybe 2 other people I went to school with that listened to anything I listened to. The internet certainly has created a community of like minded or favoring people that I can group myself with and it makes listening to the music I favor that much more enjoyable.

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  4. Simon H says:

    Have really enjoyed reading this series of posts, will be going back to the albums over the weekend. Saw Japan live in my first year of gigs in 1982, they were impressive, but the 1980 show you mentioned has intrigued me.

    On the subject of Split Enz, their Time and Tide album is one of my absolute favourites from the last 35 years and has made me think of a possible good theme for future posts: records that you liked or were possibly ambivalent about when released, but which have grown hugely in stature for you over the years… just a thought.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – You saw Japan… May I touch the hem of your garment? Good suggestion on albums that are “growers.” My ultimate would definitely be “New Gold Dream.” It was an event of many at the time, with so many bright and shiny things afoot in 1982, but time has rendered it a colossus to me now! A unique and dizzying peak experience.

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  5. Simon H says:

    Yes, it was an embarrassment of riches back then, can you believe I saw Japan and Simple Minds within a few weeks of each other in ’82. Probably didn’t realise how lucky I was!

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  6. Daryl says:

    Great piece of work Monk. Thank you. Had the great fortune to see Japan live a few times, supporting the Quiet Life, GTP and Tin Drum albums.I even went to Mick Karn`s sculpture exhibition!!! Polaroids is probably my favourite album. It was the one that “broke them” into the mainstream, if the gigs were anything to go by. Lots of gorgeous young women. I remember one gig at The Lyceum , with Gary Numan in one of the boxes upstairs by the stage , keeping a close eye on Mick Karn. Funnily enough, just before his “She`s Got Claws” “We Take Mystery to Bed” singles. Hmm, the bass sure sounds familiar. I`ll always remember the packed crowd swaying in time to Taking Islands in Africa, it`s that kind of track. Magical night.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Daryl – You won the music lottery there, my good man! Being stuck in Central Florida during this time was in many ways a complete cultural backwater. Mature Japan never even set foot in America, though Canada got at least a tour, as far as I’m aware.

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  7. djshelf says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of your GPA series on Japan – thank you. Your analyses and observations are well-constructed and comprehensive. Japan most definitely had a profound impact on my listening habits and appreciation of music as an art form. My first experience with the band was “Tin Drum” – it was unlike anything I’d heard before. Like you, my most favored Japan album is “Gentleman Take Polaroids” – the title track also ranks high in my all-time favorite singles. Even that ‘questionable’ early material has some redeeming qualities. And despite its shortcomings, “Oil On Canvas” is the only live album I’ve ever liked.

    Thanks again, Monk.

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