Mick Karn obituary – by John Robb

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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 ”˜Adolescent Sex’ single set the template for their further explorations through the next few years with its suburban New York Dolls, trash aesthetic, glam tinged,  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  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 success of their ”˜Tin Drum’ album, and ”˜Ghosts’ 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  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.

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17 comments on “Mick Karn obituary – by John Robb”

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  1. dannydeathdisco

    very touching tribute sir.. i think i can safely say that rarely has a week gone past where i havent played a Japan song … as you said they dared to be different and divided people.. a sad sad day.. can only hope that this hugely under rated band are now given then credit they deserve. RIP Mick Karn

  2. Nice words John. I’d expand on their heroes – Bowie and Roxy Music.

  3. Lovely tribute, John. It’s been a hell of a week for death’s already, and it’s only Wednesday afternoon… I’m getting scared to open a paper or turn the computer on. Mick Karn and Japan were real groundbreakers, both in terms of music and style. It’s awful to think of him cut down in his prime – he was only 52, for God’s sake. R.I.P.

  4. Nice tribute John. Particularly the line about his signature bass defining every track Mick played on. Japan are still my favourite ever band and I’ve followed all the members’ careers ever since they broke up. His death at such a young age has robbed music of a true innovator. Sad news indeed to start the year.

  5. I was at Japans last ever gig and the air was as electric then as the 1st time i saw them .Mick glided from one side of the satge to the other energy flowed from him , following each of the bands solo and colabrations has kept my intrest in music alive as todays sounds have become dull & lifeless ….
    Losing Mick is a real lose to the music world With Daiis car on the hifi i raise a glass to you and wish you a beautiful journey to the next world you will be missed .

  6. Thank you for this tribute to Mick. I have been a Japan admirer for years… I remember first seeing them on a show back in 1979 – I was only 9 years old, but I loved them at that moment. A few years later, my sister bought Tin Drum and that’s when I really became hooked – the word ‘fan’ didn’t come close! I lived and breathed ‘Japan’! I have followed their work as a group and solo ever since and was lucky enough to see Mick play live a few times in the early-mid 90s. His bass playing style was absolutely mesmerising.

    Mick will be greatly missed – he went way too soon! He was an amazing bass player and a wonderful, amazing, gentle man.

    My heart goes out to his family and friends.

  7. Thank you for recognising the importance of a true pioneer of his craft.
    I took my young brother,David ( then 16 ) to see Japan at Nottingham’s Rock City in 1981.
    David adored Mick and his unique bass playing and took up the instrument.
    David has been a top professional bassist for many years and lists Mick as his number one inspiration.
    The world has lost a true gem in Mick Karn but his legacy will live forever in the hearts of everyone who appreciated his immense contribution to music, and in particular to bass playing.
    Rest In Peace brother Mick x

  8. Mick,

    You were a pioneer in the art of the bass guitar. Youn will be missed at my house but will live every time I play your music. All the very best to the family that you leave behind. You have changed the way the bass guitar is heard and listened to and you will always be one of the top bassists in the business.

    Rest in peace Mick.

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