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.
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.
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.
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