07 January 2011

Mick Karn RIP -- Sensitive

"Dead at age 52, of systematic cancer, Antony Michaelides of Nicosia, Cyprus, lately residing London."

This might be any announcement in the obituary columns for 4 January 2011, where it not that this was the alter ego of Mick Karn, a musician everyone reading this site has heard and loved, knowingly or not.

Self-taught to a high degree of accomplishment first on the bassoon, Karn rose to prominence as the bassist with Roxy Music disciples Japan. Treading shaky stylistic ground from their 1974 beginnings through to their glam debut Adolescent Sex (1978), this group of increasingly adept musicians transitioned by way of the Eurodisco-influenced Quiet Life (1979) to Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) in short order. Listen to the title track launch of this assured album and hear Karn (already) at full maturity, fretless bass sensuously throbbing and imperiously questing above the other instruments. It formed rhythm, melody and counter-melody in one. We'd heard nothing like it before.

Where the bass disappears it's only because Karn has taken to the saxophone. "Burning Bridges" is the spiritual descendent of Bowie's Berlin trilogy instrumentals -- in some ways Japan just wanted to keep rewriting "Art Decade" -- but, unlike all the other copyists, it's just as good. When Japan broke up after the resplendent Tin Drum (November 1981), Karn was the first of the group to release solo material in the form of the album Titles, available just a few months later. He had so many ideas, so much music in him, always trying to find that bridge between Motown funk and Turkish mystique.

Cursed with a cover fit to hex an entire career, Titles was a masterful demonstration of this synthesis. Perversely the a-side contained only instrumentals, leaving it to the flip to launch the catchy arrangement of "Saviour, Are You With Me?" Here Mick was showcased as lead singer for the first time on record, though he'd shared this task with David Sylvian in the early days of Japan. But that's not all. A complete listing of his credits here includes saxophone, ocarina, bassoon, clarinet, recorder, African flute, Mellotron, percussion, bongos, and computer & keyboard programming. Not to mention album production and mixing, a task he now shared but would later take on completely.

The album continues with "Trust Me" and "Sensitive," two more first-rate tracks. I swear that if the vinyl sides had been flipped, a photo of Mick in designated designer wear and make-up substituted for the ugly illustration and a video made for the single, this could have been the hit follow-up to Tin Drum. Instead Karn's solo career was shafted until 1987's lumbering Dreams Of Reason Produce Monsters and dalliances in the world of jazz-fusion (Bestial Cluster).

But in the meantime he paid the bills with a laundry list of excellent collaborative ventures and guest slots, starting with bass and sax on four tracks for Gary Numan's Dance album (1981), including single "She's Got Claws". Following the Japanese connection, Karn was all over Masami Tsuchiya's solo venture Rice Music (1982), returning for two tracks on Horizon (1988).

In 1983 his distinctive bass flavoured "Glow World" on Bill Nelson's Chimera (1983), a track later packaged into Vistamix (1984) and making best-of compilations like Duplex (1989). Elsewhere on Chimera Nelson himself channels Karn -- just listen to "Everyday Feels Like Another New Drug".

Karn managed one moment in the charts, paired with Midge Ure for the "After A Fashion" single (1983), returning for "Remembrance Day" on the Ure LP Answers To Nothing (1988). (In his final year on earth, Karn was assisted by Ure in fund-raising mode, in an effort that moved the artist back to London from Cyprus for the expensive medical treatments he needed. But which alas came too late. "Another New Drug" indeed.)

Of all such pairings, the highest profile was Dalis Car (sic), a venture with Peter Murphy that was to prove worthy of one album and accompanying single. Too strange by half, The Waking Hour (1984) is essential listening. Falling out over ego in an echo of the Karn-Sylvian feud, it took until 2010 for Murphy to state he was going to rejuvenate the project -- too late by half.

Mark Isham, Lonely Universe, Kate Bush, Joan Armatrading, Kim Wilde... the guest appearances continued apace through the nineties, including some with former band-members Steve Jansen And Richard Barbieri. Stories Across Borders (1991) presaged the Japan line-up reuniting for the one-off Rain Tree Crow album, the result far better than it had any right to be, maybe because the sessions were kept loose and improvisational. But perhaps more important for Karn's own development was his collaboration on David Torn's Door X (1992). Torn was to become a full musical partner on releases under Karn's own name, alongside monikers like "David Torn / Mick Karn / Terry Bozzio", issued in a steady stream by Germany's CMP label.

Fans will excuse me for finding little enough of this output vital, even if it continued the admirably free-wheeling imagination of a questing artist. An accomplished sculptor, trained psychotherapist and much more besides, Mick Karn was a Renaissance Man in a world that prefers easy pigeon-holing. Judging by his releases in the last decade he was not standing still. Check out Three Part Species from 2006. Though bass takes a back seat, Mick's production of this fractured music is excellent.

We honour the premature passing of this fine artist by returning to his very first solo offering, never since made available. Our own vinyl rip of "Sensitive" includes the mix that differs from that used on the 12" vinyl and album. The b-side is also a shorter earlier version of what was to appear on Titles (the 12" single version is different again).

Imagine if in some bright alternative universe this Fin Costello photo had graced the album itself. Mick Karn, superstar? He came so close.

-- The Second Chameleon


A Sensitive [7" single mix] (3:55)
B The Sound Of Waves [7" single mix] (3:42)
7" UK: Virgin [VS 508] 1982

For more, search YouTube for the music video for "The Judgment Is The Mirror" and Dalis Car's appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing "His Box." There you'll also find "After a Fashion" with Midge Ure, "She's Got Claws" with Gary Numan, "Wedding List" (live) with Kate Bush (featuring Pete Townsend, Phil Collins, Midge Ure and a famous wardrobe malfunction), plus a strange pairing with Angie Bowie -- reciting poetry.

Mick Karn's autobiography, Japan And Self Existence, is available on Lulu. Innerviews has a fine interview. Finally, visit the dedicated Mick Karn website, sometimes overloaded these days. They have free downloads from Karn's later work for you to sample.


  1. thank you for this.
    and, see you up there, Mick.

  2. Fine summation of a wonderful musician and human.

  3. Nicely written. Without a doubt, Mick Karn was one of the most original multi-instrumentalists, and his style of playing the bass guitar was fantastic.


  4. Thank you for this. Mick Karn was one of those musicians that I admired greatly but somehow didn't follow closely.

  5. Extensive and thorough, this is a great riposte to those that (erroneously) lumped Japan in with other pretty-boy acts of the 80s. They were so much more. You showed that here. Kudos.

  6. Mick Karn brought the colour and funk and excitement to Japan- both musically and stylistically. He was a real original. There will,now, never be a `JAPAN` without Mick Karn.Vastly underrated...

  7. The day I heard Mick had died I couldn't stop crying. It struck me as absurd that the death of someone I only knew through his talent could affect me so deeply. He was and to this day is my favourite bass player in any genre and after 54 years on this planet I've heard my share of music. The only way for me to describe his style is "organic". He breathed life into his bass and it became an extension of his personal expression. A great master has been lost.