Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin
John Robb pays tribute to Mick Karn, who was one of the most distinctive bass players of his generation.
Mick Karn, who died this week of cancer, was one of the key members of British band Japan. His bass playing was key to their sound and his artfulness was also exhibited in his strong sense of style and his sculptures.
The band emerged in the mid seventies and were beautifully out of sync with all their contemporaries. Like the last refuges from glam rock they were misfits in the dour mid seventies when they started and managed to remain misfits when punk exploded all around them.
Their debut 1978 single ”ËAdolescent Sex’ single set the template for their further explorations through the next few years with its suburban New York Dolls, trash aesthetic, glam tinged, ÃÂ Bowie Roxy kids, disco fused originality and the band were dubbed the most beautiful band in the world due to their androgynous image.
Japan were initially like a British New York Dolls- replacing the gung ho swagger of cut throat New Yorkers with a genteel, English, suburban Catford style. If the Dolls had been switchblade tough guys in pretty clothes swaggering around the urban jungle of New York as their backdrop then Japan were leafy, suburban discos- which they still managed to make into, initially, great rock n roll before further exploring the glam tinged disco of their heroes like Bowie before morphing into their own breathtakingly original style.
They were the product of the Bowie/Roxy school. Those youth club kids dressed to kill in thrall to the remote style of David Bowie and Roxy Music- so often portrayed as musical rivals but embraced as other worldly saviours in dour suburbia. It was here that Japan learnt about the very English art school concept of style and musical exploration, of how to dress and of a fascination in the exotic.
There was a Japan obsessive at my school and he was the only person who had an earring. People were scared of him because he would wear eye liner in late seventies Blackpool but the girls adored him- this was the key to the Japan style.
I remember going round to his house to listen to the Japan album. It was like a secret society- we were all punks and he was into this different world and Japan seemed to be from this other place, but a place that we could relate to being suburban misfits.
Their music was also already quickly moving on from rock n roll. You can feel that disco inflexion and an otherness to their sound that they would explore as they developed.
Mick Karn’s bass was the key to this. He already had that very distinctive style that would become the key colour to Japan as it moved up the mix- those curled runs and that boingy sound that later would become so much a staple of Japan and his later collaborations. His bass playing gave the band an elegance and a space as well as a funk that was crucial to their late period. He also had the looks and for many was the band’s co frontman along with David Sylvian.
The band were new romantic before new romantic even existed. They had the pouty, heavy make up thing down and were androgynous in a sea of spitting punk rockers. This made them real rebels surrounded by cartoon cut outs but there was so much more art to what they did than the later new romantic buffoons who did the style but none of the content.
From a Greek Cypriot background, Mick Karn (real name ÃÂ Andonis Michaelides was born on the 24 July 1958. In June 2010, he was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer and died 4 January 2011).
Japan all met at school in Catford and coalesced in 1974 around the initially simple songs of Sylvian which he or Mick Karn would initially sing.
The other members were keyboardist Richard Barbieri and Sylvian’s brother Steve Jansen as drummer whilst guitarist Rob Dean joined the band later.
Signing to German disco label Hansa, they moved quickly away from their glam rock roots and by the time of their commercial successÃÂ of their ”ËTin Drum’ album, and ”ËGhosts’ single they even sounded, ironically, like an outer space Roxy Music playing Japanese tinged music. The single and the album reached the top five in 1982 and ÃÂ they seemed set for the long haul but internal tensions tore the band apart and they split soon afterwards.
After Japan Karn was a bass player in big demand- working with Bauhaus frontman, Peter Murphy, on the exotic Dali’s Car project as well as playing bass and saxaphone on Kate Bush, Gary Numan and Joan Armtrading records amongst a myriad of others.
His bass’s trademark style was much sought after and is a distinctive signature on every song he played on. He was very much part of the mid to late seventies re invention of the bass guitar as a lead instrument, pulling the bass away from its former role of back up and placing it almost as a lead guitar in the song structures.
That and his distinctive look will be his pop legacy.