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Did Anyone Hear This?: The band Japan (RIP Mick Karn)

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Two music obits made news on Tuesday. We lost '70s singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty -- he of the songs "Baker Street," "Right Down the Line" and the Steelers Wheel hit "Stuck in the Middle With You" (so now there are clouds to the left of him, angels to the right ...) -- but I want to mention another loss from the same day, because I doubt many will: Mick Karn, 52, bassist for the band Japan, lost his battle with cancer.


Karn was an artful player in an arty rock band, occasionally blowing a saxophone and always coloring songs with innovative fretless bass. He founded Japan in the mid-'70s with singer David Sylvian and drummer Steve Jansen. The band's career definitely evolved. They started as a badly coiffed New York Dolls imitation, sneering and posing and pushing pretty thin glam rock and soul on two 1978 albums. The next year, though, they released "Quiet Life," which began showing a different side of Karn, Sylvian and certainly Richard Barbieri's adaptive keyboards. Sylvian sounded as if he was going through puberty, dropping the reedy sneer and opting to sing more smoothly, down low, more Bryan Ferry than Alice Cooper. The band wound up embodying the transition from '70s glam to '80s art-rock. They were often mistaken for Duran Duran, who surely wouldn't have gone far (or Talk Talk, or the Human League, or the final act of Roxy Music) without hearing this title track:

Duran's own bassist, John Taylor, eulogized his inspiration on the DD website this week, calling him "one of the great visual and sound stylists of the late-seventies/early-eighties" and recalling the first time he saw Karn play with Japan:

When I think back to that night, the image that first comes to mind first is beautiful Mick, red hair and Ibanez bass, shaved eyebrows and ballet shoes, shuffling around the floor like a docile robot, playing also with great beauty and verve, punching delicate holes in the fabric of the songs; in Mick Karn's basslines no notes were ever wasted.

Karn was one indeed of those bassists who didn't just lurk near the drum kit, facilitating the rhythm. "Punching delicate holes" is a great way to describe his playing. His fluid lines snaked around the melodies and then poked into spaces between notes and verses, slyly mugging for the music. He evolved like the rest of the band, growing from a shy time-keeper into a sorcerer on par with jazz fusion bassist and occasional Brian Eno sideman Percy Jones. After Japan, he teamed with Bauhaus' Peter Murphy for the challenging Dali's Car (they were toying with new recordings last year, Karn said) and recorded a half dozen solo albums, as well as worked with trumpeter Mark Isham, singer Midge Ure and some great recordings with guitarist David Torn. He also frequently exhibited his sculpture.

Japan's penultimate album, "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" in 1980, is where both Sylvian and Karn hit their stride as truly modern artists. Sylvian is now all deep croon, part New Romantic and part ambient specter (complete with a hairdo and glasses that often look alarmingly "Tootsie"). Karn sounds free, lively, buoyant, bobbing and weaving in counterpoint to the keyboards. By the band's final album, 1981's "Tin Drum," he was a master of his craft. Here are two songs that showcase his style so well -- first "Swing" from "Gentlemen Take Polaroids," then "Still Life in Mobile Homes" from "Tin Drum":

For the brave, here's a long, noodling instrumental B-side from the band's final days, "Life Without Buildings," that also illustrates Karn's textured playing:

"Tin Drum" featured Japan's biggest hit, though it seems truly bizarre to use that word. The song "Ghosts" reached No. 5 in Britain, incredibly. Sparse, minimal, brooding -- if it weren't for the chorus, it's hardly a song at all. The idea that radio played it, and people dug it, is both surprising and encouraging. How do you go from a commercial right into this...?

Last fall, a tribute album was compiled featuring electronic musicians paying homage to Karn in many weird and wonderful ways.

Two great Japan fan sites: Nightporter and Life in Tokyo.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on January 5, 2011 8:00 PM.

To be free or not to be free: Do you want (to pay for) better music at the city's summer festivals? was the previous entry in this blog.

Weezer plays it 'Blue' for first of two Aragon shows is the next entry in this blog.

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