In memoriam: Mick Karn (1958-2011)

Fretless bass genius of seminal post-punk band loses battle with cancer

One of the greatest pleasures of post-punk and new wave’s inspired-but-oft-tenuous grasp of instrumentation was the otherworldly queasiness of Japan‘s art-pop, and their greatest proponent, Mick Karn‘s amazing contributions on bass, sax and oboe.

Karn, born Andonis Michaelidis, died in London on Tuesday (January 4). He was 52.

Nominally a very good new wave band, Japan’s best records were out-of-this-world soundscapes that bore little resemblance to their duff origins. Karn, who announced he had advanced-stage cancer last summer, was the most revered member of a very committed musical unit whose highbrow leanings were at odds with their pin-up image.

Japan aren’t mentioned enough when talk turns to the great, creatively original bands of the late-’70s and early-’80s, but they’re a first-division act. Much of this may be chalked up to their segmented, fractious career. The five-man band that emerged in the mid-’70s was a tarted-up, slavish New York Dolls glam grotesquerie. The band that emerged from a mid-1979 volte-face was another thing altogther.

Record company indifference  – or veiled threats, if you will – held a boot to the band’s neck when they contacted Donna Summer’s producer, Giorgio Moroder, to record “Life In Tokyo” in a post-disco vein. The U.K. music scene had just gone ape for Gary Numan’s Bowie-inspired synthpop, and as more bands traded guitars and sneers for newly-affordable synths and diffident poses, Japan abandoned one dead trend for a vibrant new one. And here’s where their story deviated from script.

Japan in 1980: Mick Karn, Steve Jansen, Rob Dean, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian.

The Moroder single and a couple of tracks on the 1979 Quiet Life album were cultivated to sound like contemporaneous Roxy Music hits (reserved, clenched-jaw singing over measured disco rhythms and lush keyboard textures), but Japan swiftly escaped that creative cul-de-sac and began weaving ethnic textures (Oriental, Turkish) into their music. Traditional R&B or rock song structure was tossed on its head too, with each of Japan’s core members playing their instruments in a painterly fashion far more impressionistic than first appeared. Great samples of Japan’s non-rock rock include three tracks from 1981’s Tin Drum album: “Visions Of China,” “Ghosts,” and my personal favourite, “Cantonese Boy.” The songs each have a propulsive quality about them, but the touch is so light so as to suggest more than imply.

“Visions Of China” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhC8LnFd2LE

Mick Karn’s fretless bass playing held down the centre in the way John Entwistle’s playing stabilized The Who. Whether propulsive (“Quiet Life”), trance-like (“Sons Of Pioneers”) or wobbly and queasy (“Visions Of China,” “My New Career”), Karn played lead lines, but with such inherent rhythmic stability that no matter where he went, the song held together. His scores appeared beamed in from outer space, a slippery, rubbery sound that popped and slurred with astonishing precision and shading. Basically, Karn’s basswork formed the column the rest of Japan’s players danced around. That he shimmied and swayed with such verve is one of the purest examples of genius in a medium that produced few musos.

Karn also filled the role Andy Mackay had with Roxy Music, adding sundry woodwinds (sax, oboe, African flute, etc.) to Japan’s increasingly ethereal mix. On a track like Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ “Ain’t That Peculiar” – the most inspired, revisionist cover of a top ten Motown hit I’ve ever heard – Karn and his mates merrily dislocate the original’s spine and turn it out as a slow-rolling, ambi-rhythmic funk groove, before Karn’s high recorder line sneaks in for the tumbling, elongated outro. Japan tackled Miracles and Velvet Underground classics with similar aplomb, but “Ain’t That Peculiar” remains this writer’s personal highlight.

“Ain’t That Peculiar” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkimBwFa02c

As Japan’s artistic makeover began to bring commercial success (and imitators in the nascent New Romantic movement, including Duran Duran, who prudently copped the lush post-disco sound and band lead David Sylvian‘s haircut [see: Nick Rhodes]), in-fighting threatened their longevity when Karn’s girlfriend left him for Sylvian. With tension high, Japan informed management they were splitting on the eve of their 1981-82 winter tour. Details stayed in-house, and the band postponed their split to honour touring commitments, although Sylvian’s confrontational insistence on bringing his new girlfriend along predicatbly set off another round of ill-will. A late-1982 tour was both last-gasp, and curtain call.

Karn formed Dalis Car with Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy for a 1984 album, and then carried on as a session player for the likes of Bill Nelson, Gary Numan, Joan Armastrading and Kate Bush. In 1990, Japan’s core members convened for one last album. Sylvian demanded the record be released under a new band name – Rain Tree Crow – which was commercial suicide as well as personal politics poison. The band split again, this time for good.

Duran Duran’s John Taylor – a fantastic bass player in his own right – shared his thoughts on Duran’s website today:

Nick and I first saw Japan at Barbarellas in Birmingham on their ‘Obscure Alternatives’ tour and were blown away. They were so fresh, while every other band in town were tripping over each other in a rush to play the same three chords, Japan were brave in many ways. When I think back to that night the image that first comes to mind first is beautiful Mick, red hair and Ibanez bass, shaved eyebrows and ballet shoes, shuffling around the floor like a docile robot, playing also with great beauty and verve, punching delicate holes in the fabric of the songs; in Mick Karn’s basslines no notes were ever wasted.

Couldn’t agree more, JT.

“Glow World” (Bill Nelson) audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8Gqqb3IPmU

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4 responses to “In memoriam: Mick Karn (1958-2011)

  1. Steve Whitchurch

    …not lost and not forgotten Mick…absorbing music that i still and will enjoy as much as i did in those days back in Bristol when i use to knock-off school so i could go home and put on your music.
    Way ahead of your time buddy.
    Respect to your family too.

  2. Steve Whitchurch

    …i’d like to hear from other Mick Karn appreciatives too. Thanks.

  3. I get so excited when listening to a song and unexpectedly hearing what sounds like Mick Karn — and it actually is! Reminds me of Johnny Marr in that way. I also love the boingy opening bass notes on the album “Titles” — it’s both striking and kinda silly. I’m yet to get into his later stuff, but I like to check in with it once in a while to see if my tastes have matured to that level. He has left so much for our personal discovery.

  4. Hi I heard Mick in the early eighties, he changed my life, his bass blew me away. RIP Sir……….

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