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

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 08 January 2011 01:00

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.

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