Category Archives: R.I.P.

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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In remembrance: Ian Curtis (July 15, 1956 – May 18, 1980)

Ian Curtis hanged himself 30 years ago today. I don’t know what it is about rounded numbers-as-anniversaries and the condition compelling us to address them, but I’ve bought into the phenemenon from time-to-time, whether it was the 20th anniversary of John Lennon‘s murder a decade ago or the 10th anniversary of Curtis Mayfield‘s death last December, and I find myself at it again, struck dumb at the thought of Curtis’ tragic, final act, found hanging in his kitchen by his estranged wife on the eve of Joy Division‘s first American tour.

Mostly it has to do with the ghostly beauty of Joy Division’s remarkable music. Starkly amateurish, positively visionary, unremittingly honest, crushingly lovely, implausibly galvanizing: it is all these things. The first Joy Division LP, Unknown Pleasures, was an astounding collection of sounds from the edge of the abyss, strong songs carried by Martin Hannett‘s brilliant production touches, which incorporated decay, echo and delay as instruments alongside the standard drum-bass-guitar attack, creating a cavernous soundworld of jagged black obsidian and sore feelings. At the heart of every song stood Curtis, a weary, jaded observer tossing off one unsettlingly personal couplet after another, managing his emotions as expertly as Sinatra and as melodically as Morrissey in their respective primes. The cognoscenti pricked up their ears: an important new band was in its midst, maybe a great one, maybe a band to lead the charge into the 1980s in the wake of the failed punk dream.

Joy Division found synthesizers, and amazingly, the music grew more beautiful and more brilliant as they prepared Closer, one of the greatest records ever made, by anyone at any time. Sacrificing some of the space and clarity of the first record, the new Joy Division sound was both more fragile and more assertive. “Isolation” captured the updated model in three minutes: Peter Hook‘s rolling bassline locked in with Steve Morris‘ machine-assisted drum pattern, while Bernard Sumner‘s frilly, faux string section danced in the clouds above. Curtis occupied the middle ground: “Mother I tried, please believe me/I’m doing the best that I can/I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.” “Isolation” could have been any ramshackle new wave pop experiment at this point, but all bets were off once Morris’ full drum kit entered the fray mid-song. Suddenly this was muscular, controlled fury: the keyboards shifting to dramatic held notes, Curtis insistently shouting the song title over and over. Hook’s bassline never changed, but in those remarkable minutes, everything else had. Closer repeatedly showed Joy Division to be masters of the form, from the strident march of “A Means To An End” to the ethereal, gliding “Heart And Soul,” from the pummeling delivered by “Twenty Four Hours” to the hypnotic reverie suggested in the playout to “Decades.”

And in the manner of all great British bands, there were singles and B-sides apart from the albums, and they were essential listening. What would the Joy Division legacy be without “Transmission” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” And there was “Atmosphere,” the most beautiful song in the Joy Division canon, initially consigned to throwaway status as a France-only release, rescued and brought to prominence in the wake of Curtis’ suicide.

Sumner, Hook and Morris brought Gillian Gilbert on board and soldiered on as New Order, surely the most important British band of the past 30 years. And that band’s astonishing range of achievement has effectively blunted the impact of losing Curtis so early in his career. No matter how great his talent, he was only one member in a pack of immensely gifted artists who thankfully kept tomorrow in their gunsights while they kept breaking creative ground.

But what might have been?

That’s the $64,000 question, as the game show used to say.

Ultimately, it’s not constructive to sit back and wonder what was going through his mind this morning, 30 years ago. I wasn’t there, for one thing. For another, Curtis’ death and his mates’ subsequent re-emergence as a band of consequence meant little to me until I started listening to the records in 1986. But those records soundtracked my early adolescence and have stayed with me since. Some days you just feel like sitting back and letting some stunning piece of music like “Isolation,” “New Dawn Fades,” “Insight,” “Decades” or “Atmosphere” wash over you. Gone, but not forgotten, Ian Curtis’ gift lives on.

In memoriam: Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010)

Pictures and a thousand words on a wickedly powerful soul singer who got a raw deal.

Teddy Pendergrass’ gargantuan baritone cut like a linebacker through the hundreds of soul, disco and funk records in my collection. It was that rare beast, its weight and tone capable of controlling the most virile of disco grooves, rising above the swelling strings, swishing hi-hats and sighing backing vocals that marked so much of the musical soundscape his group, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, tamed in the mid-1970s.

Of course, Pendergrass, who died Wednesday at age 59, after a troubled recovery from colon cancer surgery, wore two hats over the course of his platinum- and gold-bedecked career: not only was he among the finest singers of uptempo dance fare, he was one of the great balladeers in R&B history. With a twist.

Known variously as Teddy P, TP or Teddy Bear to a kajillion swooning women, he was also a John Wayne-like figure to a kajillion thankful men, in part due to the nature of his ballad style: Teddy loved you, but on equal terms. That voice wouldn’t allow for weakness or acquiescence: sex was a team sport in Teddy’s world. When he dialed down the volume, the intensity remained, sort of like Rudolph’s glowing red nose through a dream filter. Teddy staked out ground rules everybody could be happy with, and it paid off in terms of both records sold and babies made: he was the first black male to score five consecutive multi-million selling albums.

Pendergrass’ stardom blossomed quickly. He was drumming in the support band for a failed soul act in 1970, when group leader Harold Melvin asked him to sing a few numbers at the end of a long night. The untutored 20-year-old evidently blew Melvin’s mind; he was promoted to lead singer on the spot.

Armed with a world-class talent, Melvin’s Blue Notes soon signed to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (PIR), and proceeded to conquer new areas in R&B and pop music over the next half-decade. PIR’s thickly textured take on upscale soul music would eventually morph into disco in the hands of less-inspired practitioners, but before the genre got watered down, groups like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were cutting some of the most spine-tingling, positively charged records in the country.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (#3 U.S., 1972) was the first to go super-nova, a feisty torch ballad that introduced Teddy’s eruptive style. But it was the next single, a sublimely insistent groover called “The Love I Lost” (#7 U.S., 1973), that moved the goal posts. R&B had been getting glitzier for a few years by the time “Lost” was cut, but it needed a defining sound, which it got once session drummer Earl Young laid down a 4/4 beat heavy on hissing, piston-like hi-hat work. That thumping, bumping drum pattern basically defined club music for the next decade, and remains a rhythmic feature thirty-odd years later. Teddy’s voice held the other key: it was church, but it was street too. Teddy testified, like Ronnie Isley and Al Green testified, but he also growled and purred like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. There would be no falsetto trilling in Teddy’s vocals: he emoted in shades of blue, hoarse and commanding, shouted and demanding. Years before Teddy perfected his style of erotic suggestiveness, he was as direct as a drill sergeant, and this is the Teddy Pendergrass I prefer.

The fiery, uptempo Blue Notes songs smack of genius: “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” “Where Are All My Friends,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back),” “Tell The World How I Feel About ‘Cha  Baby” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” are of a piece – proud, blue-collar and strong-willed.

“Bad Luck” (#15 U.S., 1975), short-listed for my favourite disco song of all-time, is an amazingly kinetic creation. Kick-started by a memorably melodic descending bass line, it quickly settles into an indelibly even-keeled, 4/4 strut, with Pendergrass fighting for attention against a pounding piano counterpoint – and winning, especially once the Blue Notes join him on the chorus: “Baad luuck, that’s what you got, that’s what you got, you got baad luuck…” In the song’s giddy closing minutes, Teddy cracks open the newspaper to read how bad luck has even infected the highest office in the land: Dick Nixon’s been impeached, y’all! Grim smiles abound. “Baad luuck, that’s what you got, that’s what you got…”

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1975) is towering, inferno-like. Motown gave it a spit-polish and Thelma Houston swung it to #1 in her own version in 1977, but where hers is desperate and somewhat conciliatory, Teddy’s got a mad-on and won’t give up without a fight. There’s an 11-minute version out there that’ll have your ankles sore from tapping, even if you’ve been strapped to a gurney, I’m serious. It’s fantastic. It’s probably how you’d feel after Sandra Bullock had been driving your runaway bus, okay? And every time I play it I wonder whether Teddy was coughing up blood after the final take.

Stardom is a tough old horse to tame. By 1975, Pendergrass felt he was destined for bigger things, and left the group. While The Blue Notes carried on with a tattered but recognizable brand, he went stratospheric from the moment his first solo record dropped in 1977. Still tied to the PIR hit-making machine, the appealing mix of invigorating dance songs and creamy bedroom ballads brought him wider recognition as a solo artist, inheriting the R&B superstar mantle from Al Green, and running with it until March 18, 1982, when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a horrific car crash.

Broken but unbowed, Pendergrass wowed an emotional hometown Philadelphia audience at Live Aid on July 13, 1985. He continued to record, scoring hits well into the 1990s, and charting albums right up until his retirement in 2006. He formed the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, a charity dedicated to providing education and occupational opportunities to people with spinal cord injuries. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009.

Never one to dwell on “bad luck,” Teddy Pendergrass forged ahead with dignity and determination, and I’d like to think he’s walking on a cloud somewhere above Philadelphia right now. That’s a corny sentiment I’ll be cringing over as soon as I hit “publish,” but I’m sticking by it.