Mick Karn: Innovative bass-player with the esoteric early-Eighties band Japan

Synthesizers and drum machines might have dominated the music of the early Eighties, but the bass guitar also became prominent at the start of the decade that taste forgot.

The innovative fretless bass player with Japan, Mick Karn, was at the forefront of that development and emerged alongside other influential musicians like Derek Forbes of Simple Minds, Talk Talk's Paul Webb and Pino Palladino – then with Paul Young, now with The Who.

Karn's precise notes and fluid runs shaped Japan's sound as much as the Bowie-esque voice and the original compositions of frontman David Sylvian, as the group evolved from New York Dolls lookalikes playing shrill, sneering, angular rock, heckled by Blue Öyster Cult's British fans in the spring of 1978, to creating the template for the New Romantic movement with two slow-burning, sophisticated, atmospheric albums, Quiet Life and Gentlemen Take Polaroids, in 1980.

I met the band and interviewed Karn and Sylvian in Edinburgh, in May 1981, on The Art of Parties tour – named after their Top 50 EP at the time – and this unusual looking pair lingered long in the memory. With his shaved eyebrows and slicked-back, orange-dyed hair, and his slides across the stage in graceful movements that mirrored his subtle, supple playing, Karn was the alien-looking, perfect foil to the photogenic Sylvian, the "Most Beautiful Man in the World" – a tag dreamt up by their publicist, Connie Filipello.

Indeed, over the next two years, Japan became Smash Hits cover stars and chart regulars with Assemblage, a collection of early singles and remixes, and Tin Drum, their startling, esoteric fifth and final studio album, which contained the minimalist single "Ghosts", their 1982 Top 5 hit. However, they broke up at the end of 1982, and left the field clear for the glory boys of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran to conquer MTV and the world.

Japan's appeal was always more recherché than mainstream, and both Sylvian and Karn forged their own careers and continued to make challenging, avant-garde music. In 1989, they reunited with their bandmates, under the name Rain Tree Crow at Sylvian's insistence, for an eponymous, ethereal album that took an eternity to make and never stood a chance of recovering its lavish budget.

Born Andonis Michaelides in Nicosia, Cyprus, he was three years old when his family moved to London in 1961. He first played the chromatic mouth organ, but soon picked up the violin and then the bassoon. Despite not reading music, he bluffed his way from the orchestra at Catford Secondary School, south London, into the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and performed with them on a Radio 4 broadcast. "I played purely by ear, so I was always very nervous," he admitted.

On his way home from that concert, his bassoon was stolen by skinheads and, when the school refused to buy him a replacement, he forsook classical music and purchased a bass guitar from a friend for £5. This enabled him to join schoolfriends David Batt, a guitarist who later took up Sylvian as a stage name, and his younger brother Steve, who drummed and would adopt the Jansen alias. Michaelides became Karn, possibly after watching "The Brain of Morbius", an episode of Doctor Who featuring the "Sisterhood of Karn", and set about redefining the function of the bass.

"I wanted to be able to slide and bend notes as I'd learnt to do with the violin, and so decided to take all the frets off the bass guitar," he explained. "I also began playing bass directly after the bassoon, which, although a bass instrument, often plays lead melodies. Both of these factors were major influences in shaping the way I play. I couldn't help but feel that bass players were always hidden somewhere in the background, whereas I was determined to be heard."

The Batts had been raised on a diet of Motown, the soul label that would provide some of Japan's répertoire, most notably their lateral takes on Smokey Robinson's "I Second That Emotion" and Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar", and the three teenagers developed a fascination for The Velvet Underground, to wit their cover of "All Tomorrow's Parties", and the David Bowie, Roxy Music and New York Dolls axis of rock décadent.

In June 1974, they made their live debut at the wedding of Karn's older brother. "The name Japan was chosen in desperation," Karn told Smash Hits in 1981. "Minutes before our first appearance, we realised that we should have a name. David suggested Japan until we could think of something better. I liked it. The rest of the band didn't, but the name stuck."

By 1976, they had drafted in another schoolfriend, the keyboard-player Richard Barbieri, and Rob Dean, a lead guitarist recruited through an ad in Melody Maker. The following year, they acquired Simon Napier-Bell, an experienced manager who had worked with the Yardbirds and Marc Bolan, and subsequently masterminded the career of Wham! They also entered a contest to win a contract with the German company Hansa-Ariola; they came second to The Cure, but got a deal anyway.

Napier-Bell pulled a few strings to gain Japan stage experience with support slots on tours headlined by Jim Capaldi and BOC, yet his decision to use his business partner Ray Singer, a former member of the psychedelic outfit Nirvana, to produce the group's first two albums, 1977's Adolescent Sex and 1978's Obscure Alternatives, slowed their development, and they only found an audience in Japan, the Netherlands and Germany.

Thankfully, working with the Donna Summer mastermind Giorgio Moroder on "Life in Tokyo", and making Quiet Life with the Roxy Music producer John Punter enabled them to successfully blend their dance, electronic, rock and classical influences. A timely move to Richard Branson's Virgin label also greatly improved their prospects, and they appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test to promote Polaroids at the end of 1980. After Dean left the band, Karn's role grew as he contributed saxophone, oboe, bassoon and flute to various album tracks and learned the suona, a Chinese wind instrument, to add authenticity to Tin Drum, on which they fully indulged their obsession with the Far East. Japan were a constant chart presence throughout 1982, as they managed the unlikely feat of promoting various remixes and re-releases of their Hansa-Ariola catalogue in between their new Virgin material.

Yet tensions had been simmering for a a while, especially between Sylvian and Karn, the only member who enjoyed touring. After the photographer Yuka Fujii left the bass-player for the frontman, the band ground to a halt, in December 1982, after a final concert in Nagoya, Japan.

Karn had already contributed to Gary Numan's "She's Got Claws" single and Dance album in 1981, and issued a solo album called Titles. He found himself in demand as a session-player with Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush and Bill Nelson. In 1983, he recorded "After a Fashion" with Midge Ure of Ultravox. The next year, he teamed up with the Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy in Dalis Car and made the Middle Eastern flavoured album The Waking Hour.

"Middle Eastern music, predominantly Turkish, has been a big influence on my writing. My mother listened to it a lot when I was young, not a popular choice for a Greek Cypriot, and often in secret, so I grew up believing there was something mysterious about it. It's clearly there in every solo project, together with my other two great musical loves, classical and funk/soul music," he said.

He later worked with the trumpeter Mark Isham, the guitarist David Torn and the drummer Terry Bozzio, and made albums for the German Jazz label CMP, and for Medium Productions, with Jansen and Barbieri. He also sculpted and had exhibitions in London, Italy and Japan. In recent years, he moved back to Cyprus but returned to the UK when he was diagnosed with cancer at the end of last year.

In Japan, Karn was called "the god of bass guitar", yet this self-taught musician with the immediately recognisable style and sound was rather modest about his instrumental prowess. "I don't know about being the best," he said. "I still can't read music. But, having never heard anyone play in a similar way, I'd certainly consider, perhaps, being the most original."

Andonis Michaelides (Mick Karn), bass-player, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter: born Nicosia, Cyprus 24 July 1958; married (one son); died London 4 January 2011.

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam