Mick Karn: Fretless Sculptor

Bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran describes fretless bassist Mick Karn as "one of the great visual and sound stylists of the late-70s/early-80s." It's safe to say that without the British band Japan, featuring David Sylvian on vocals, Steve Jansen on drums, Richard Barbieri on keyboards, and Mick Karn on fretless bass, Taylor would have been stuck in another career entirely since Japan's influence on Duran Duran and dozens of other British and American new wave bands was as pervasive and profound as one can imagine. Sadly, Karn--real name Antony Michaelides--passed away January 4, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Fretless bassists as well as lovers of 80's music and fashion are in mourning. But Mick Karn was much more than a clothes-horse with a healthy relationship with his feminine side. Completely self-taught as a bassist without ever knowing how to read or notate music, he developed a completely unique approach to playing bass in a pop context. After Japan broke up in 1982, Karn released several solo and collaborative recordings including projects with decidedly non-pop musicians including jazz/new age trumpeter Mark Isham and uber drummers Terry Bozzio and Bill Bruford. His 2009 solo album The Concrete Twin on which he plays all instruments except drums is a wonderfully unclassifiable collection of instrumental cinema. Sadly, a tour to promote that recording would not come to pass.

Karn's early biography is archetypal: A young boy, born in 1958, leaves the country of his birth (Cyprus, Greece) for a new land with a new language (London, England). In an effort to find some means for expression of his inner turmoil, he decides he must play a musical instrument. For Karn, his axe of choice would be the bassoon, which he clung to and played for about a year, even going so far as to audition for and get the position of bassoonist with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra--quite an accomplishment considering he had disguised the fact that he could not read music. His hero's journey continued in a predictable fashion: No one recognized him for his truly innate musical talent. He continued faking his way through orchestral literature until his bassoon got stolen, seriously pissing off his parents who refused (and were unable anyway) to buy him a replacement instrument. Somehow, the young Karn scrounged up enough money to buy--in defiance of his classical pedigree--an electric bass. He formed a band with fellow nerds brothers Steve and David "the most beautiful man in pop" Blatt, prog-rock and Yes freak Richard Barbieri on keyboards and Rob Dean on guitar.

Like Karn, the rest of the members of Japan were self-taught as musicians, emulating the most superficial aspects of their heroes (Alice Cooper, T. Rex, David Bowie) before quickly and startlingly evolving into one of the most original bands in England in the late 70's and early 80's.

Japan, Sometimes I Feel So Low, from "Obscure Alternatives"

David Sylvian describes Japan's first two albums--Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives--as "massive mistakes." However, fans of Karn and company pretty much love these records. Why hate on yourself as a teenager with braces, ill-fitting clothes, and a funny haircut? And why hate on a group of working class kids from South London trying their best to sound like an unholy marriage of The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols? Karn is nearly unrecognizable both visually and musically in this context, although his gift for grooving hard with drummer Jansen can be heard loud and clear on these early tracks. Karn said that in Japan's first recording session, he and Jansen were "horrified" when an engineer told them that they were "very tight" (meaning their bass and drum playing were interlocking to create strong groove). Still new to the world of music and its vernacular, they had no idea what on earth he was talking about.

Although the initial records tanked in the U.K. and U.S., Japan became huge in - you guessed it - Japan! So money, a better manager with a love for boys in make-up (T. Rex's former manager Simon Napier-Bell) and some creative freedom arrived quickly, and Karn and company would "run with it."

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Chris Becker
Contact: Chris Becker