I remember the first time I heard the band Japan. They were like so many classic rock artists I admired yet they were like nothing I had ever heard before. The Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Ferry and The Talking Heads, were all in there at some measure, as were a few other bands that are best described as trend setters, not followers. But it was the combination of those influences that made Japan so unique. Japan was musical artistry in every sense of the word.
Still, I always wondered, was their sound all studio wizardry or could they actually pull their songs off live. I never had a chance to see Japan in concert but that question was still answered when I ran across a copy of “Oil on Canvas”, the only live album Japan released during their short recording career, from 1978 to 1981.
Fortunately, “Oil on Canvas” was a double LP, because a single record would not have been enough. As a matter of fact, Japan’s live performances here are so good. two records still leave me wanting more. The band absolutely nails the feeling of their studio recordings yet at the same time breathes new life into the songs, mixing them up and changing just enough to let you know they have no intention of performing a studio carbon copy.
The history of rock has always been filled with somebody’s favorite artist that didn’t make it for one reason or another. Its future will forever hold the same. Though the sounds and styles of these bands may differ drastically, one factor is always a constant: they are always true artists. I think Japan knew this when they released their only live record. That’s why they chose a name for it that alluded to true artistry; a name alluding to one of the most classical forms of artistic expression.
Oil on Canvas.
This has got to be my favorite album title ever. Apparently Ian Hunter loved it too. Legend has it that the phrase was first seen on a bathroom stall wall and Mick Ronson, who is best known for his collaborations with David Bowie, was going to use it as the title to a solo album of his own. But once Ian Hunter heard it, he wanted to use the title so badly he offered Ronson writing credits on the first track and single from the album, even though Ronson had nothing at all to do with the song. Released in 1979, “You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic” was Ian Hunter’s fourth solo album after leaving Mott the Hoople in 1974. In addition to “Just Another Night”, the aforementioned first single off the record, the album also garnered hits for other artists as well. In the ’80s, Barry Manilow would have a hit with the song “Ships” and in the ’90s, The Presidents of the United States would strike gold with “Cleveland Rocks”. That song was also used as the theme song for one of my favorite TV shows “The Drew Carey Show”.
Although they did not go by the name they were collectively known as, Ian Hunter’s backing band on this album were the members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
If you want to discover a great album by an artist you really like…I’m talking about an album that you hardly ever hear any of the songs from it on the radio, except maybe one, but it will forever be one of your favorites by that artist….then I have a formula for you: Find their breakthrough album, and buy the album that came out just before it. I’ve used this formula many times, and have almost never been disappointed. “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie is one of the best examples of this that I can think of.
Yes, David Bowie had some hits before this album. Space Oddity, off his debut, was probably his biggest to this point. But none of is albums ever attained the success and musical respect of Ziggy Stardust and his albums that immediately followed it. That was the first album by Bowie where I really went “WOW!” His preceding fourth album, “Hunky Dory”, was the second one.
The thing that made “Hunky Dory” so great was it found David Bowie in the first of many of his musically transitional phases. Bowie’s early albums were straightforward rock with a little folk rock thrown in at times. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs almost defined glam rock. Sandwiched right in between is “Hunky Dory”. It was the best of both worlds.
I often wonder if David Bowie was hinting at the fact that this was a transitional album for him – a sort of bridge between two defining styles. He did after all, open up the album with the song “Changes”. And there were many changes to come in David Bowie’s illustrious career. His timing with the changes he would make with his music to follow, made him seem like a musical chameleon. Though not one that adapted to things as they were, but to things that were to come, right around the corner. Hunky dory was the album that defined David Bowie as an artist who was always just one step ahead of the times.
What’s in a name? Well, in the case of David Bowie’s fifth studio album, shortness. The actual, full title of the album is “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” but that can be quite a mouthful.
Considered to be one of the greatest concept albums ever, Ziggy Stardust is the story of the final five days of an omnisexual alien (yes, there are more than just two sexes in the universe in this story) who tries to save the Earth because of a dream he has about the Infinites, alien beings made up of antimatter. He is able to convey his message to the youth of the planet by becoming a Rock And Roll Star. In the end, Ziggy is willingly torn to pieces by the Infinites while on stage, in a Rock And Roll Suicide, so the Infinites can assume a material presence in order to tell us the fate of our existence.
And here’s another little name-game fact for you. “David Bowie” is not his actual birth name. He was born with the last name “Jones.” But because of another singer with a similar name who was in a popular band called The Monkees when he was just starting out, Bowie decided to rebrand himself after a popular knife company.
Some album covers can cause quite a stir. Although up to this point, all of their LPs had featured women in provocative poses, on The Fourth Roxy Music Album, some censors felt the cover had crossed the line of decency. Consequently, the cover was originally banned in the United States, the Netherlands, and Spain. In those countries, the back cover artwork, basically the same picture minus the two lovely ladies, was used instead. I know which one I prefer.
By this time in Roxy Music’s history, their flamboyant keyboardist, Brian Eno, had left the band to pursue a solo career that would lead to future collaborations with David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Talking Heads, and Devo, among others. Eno was replaced by virtuoso Eddie Jobson. Although Jobson lacked The flash and extravagance of his predecessor, he brought the additional dimension of electric violin to the band’s music.
While it still maintained the extreme blending of multiple musical influences and styles of Roxy Music’s previous albums, Country Life showed more consistency than its predecessors. It is quite possibly, my favorite Roxy Music album; right up there with Avalon.