Mick Karn R.I.P. - Bass, how low could he go? Very low (and high) during his extensive career

Posted: 5th January 2011

When the glam-pop-funk of Japan's music burst forth from the radio in 1981, I was dumbstruck. Another wet, p*ss-rainy night in Plymouth was immediately enlightened by the romanticism and white-funk of the track "Gentlemen Take Polaroids", extracted from the album of the same name by, who else, John Peel. I'm still not sure why I liked this particular song - the rich enigmatic Sylvian vocals, the swirling thunk of Jansen's drums, the subtle tickle of Barbieri's synths or maybe the charismatic twang of Mick Karn's rubbery bass-playing - I would honestly have to say the latter.

Andonis Michaelides was born in 1958, yet sounded like he had come from the future, such was the unworldly and almost alien sound that emanated from his chosen beloved fretless-bass. Paul Rymer's Japan biog probably tells the intermediate story from birth to early years - I'm remembering the key years in this ex-Catford resident's musical history.

Japan were reviled and revered in equal measure by critics and fans alike, scorned for being another tiresome New Romantic band or, at worst, Roxy Music clones. Yet their inventive approach p*ssed all over Ferry's loss of direction in the 80's and, for me, David Sylvian's charges owe more to Bowie, Bolan and Sparks than Roxy Music, great though they also were.

Mick Karn was the reassuring sound on Japan's albums, much like Peter Hook was on Joy Division and New Order releases - no-one sounded like these two, no matter how hard they may have tried. Karn's ability to transcend what a bass guitar should sound like, without sounding like a total div, ought to be admired and respected for generations to come. Check out "Swing" from the album "Gentlemen Take Polaroids", or "Art of Parties" single mix or "Canton" from "Tin Drum" - see? You will NEVER hear that again. You should also check out another underrated musician's work - Bill Nelson's glorious "Chimera", on which Karn guested on one half. He also gave Gary Numan cause to celebrate the release of his album "Dance"

After the demise of Japan, Karn embarked on a solo career with the debut album "Titles", a collection of instrumentals from the heart of the jungle, concrete or natural, and pop-flavoured experiments, including the should-have-been-a-hit-single "Sensitive". Impressively, it stroked the nether regions of the album chart, as did the rather more obscure follow-up opus, "Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters" (which spawned the timeless Sylvian-crooned single, "Buoy"). From then on, however, Karn went underground and issued no-less interesting jazz-rock fusion collections such as "Bestial Cluster" and "Tooth Mother", as well as helping reform the Japan line-up as Rain Tree Crow in the 90's - they recorded one exemplary album that ought to sit in everyone's collection.

In early 2010 he was diagnosed with advanced cancer and, despite extensive fundraising for expensive treatment that may or may not have been forthcoming, passed away on 4th January 2011.

I have an interesting and light-hearted end to this story.

One of my closest friends cited Karn as a major influence on his bass-playing during the 80s, a fan of the bassist's ability to charm the proverbial angels from the instrument in question.

During a short employment stint with a budget-entertainment retail chain in London called That's Entertainment, he ended up working at one of the central London stores. One day my pal was helping a customer or filling the racks when a voice behind him said, "Hi, just passing through", before the owner of the voice lifted the security door on the counter and walked straight through.

My mate sputtered "you can't go through there..." before swallowing very hard - it was Mick Karn.

Moments later Mick was giving my mate a manly hug and exclaiming that they both should "go for a jam".

What a trouper. What a gentleman. What a player.

Paul Pledger