In memory of Mick Karn (1958-2011)

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Led by the memorable and uniquely fey David Sylvian, Japan were one of the most interesting art pop bands of the 1980s. Yesterday I learned that their bass player Mick Karn – the pink haired musician featured in the video here – had died of cancer about a month ago.

My first real encounter with Japan came shortly after their heyday, when the son of one of my mother’s friends bequeathed us his record collection. I think my brothers grabbed some of it. I took a dubby UB40 12″ (not great), a couple of Springsteen LPs and one by Japan. Their music was subtle, spacious, melancholic, adept; more than the inventive musical style, though, it was Japan’s visual image which drew you in: they had an individualistic style and deformed the norms of gender in a kind of effortless, uber-casual fashion. They had a sheen, an attitude. Just like the weird arty people whose carefully coiffed barnets adorned the monthly cover of Face magazine (style bible of the 1980s), the members of Japan were at home looking strange. Us youngster listeners didn’t fully understand that their glam leanings had a heritage stretching back to Bowie and Roxy Music. To us, Japan were Catford bohemians following a bizarre trajectory from the filthy streets of outer London to the blank spaces of some chic white art gallery, and onwards – at least in their own imagination – the other side of the artistic and geographic universe. They appeared at a time when a post-colonial fascination with oriental exoticism was starting to cut both ways in postpunk: Britain got acts like the Frank Chickens. Meanwhile Japan got… Japan… and liked them.

And in Japan – the group, not the country – despite the lead singer stealing his limelight, Mick Karn looked the weirdest of all. He never seemed quite as feminine, fey or pouty as David Sylvian; yet his androgyny was somehow as off edge as his musical and sartorial style. Karn is now recognized as one of the most creative multi-instrumentalists of his era, but I think his unique look was as much a part of his artistic stance as his music.

Perhaps because they worked with the distant legacy of prog rock, the thing with Japan was that they squarely considered themselves artists in the avant-garde tradition. Even when they did cover versions, the idea that ruled their thinking was that each piece of music had to register an unexplored emotion. The band’s early sound was sometimes brash and more rocking. My own favourite there was the jarring ode to alienation, Adolescent Sex.

Later they morphed and mellowed into some kind of white geisha fantasy, but when Sylvian went solo he eschewed the androgynous blonde mop that had defined his bohemian look, ingratiously complaining that people hadn’t seen past his image and heard his music for its own sound. By that time it was apparent that he had lost the spirit, because the wonderful thing about Japan previously was precisely how their image and music operated together to creatively compliment each other. It was as if (at least in terms of his cultural role) Sylvian became a less intriguing performer after he rejected the peroxide bottle and subtle gender posturings. Unlike, say, Flock of Seagulls – a band whose lead singer’s gimmicky new romantic haircut was more memorable than his music – Japan had a creative sound. Nevertheless, I prefer to remember Sylvian as a tentantive blonde sporting a kind of Raffles gentleman’s bow tie, sensitively hinting at a different world, one make acceptable by art, where the unusual was more normal. His artistic sophistication gave license to a play with gender that was itself a creative artistic practice.

Call me nostalgic, but however exotic or edgy today’s bands try to be, I don’t think that Japan’s adroit wavelength is something that audiences can access from contemporary music. I think it relied on a personal, social and cultural innocence that is now gone forever, erased in the over-coded maelstrom of a global, commercial digital music scene. We seem to be in a more liberal yet less artistically meaningful space than in the 1980s, for better or worse.

Japan showed that the New Romantics were not all the same. One internet poster on Youtube recently commented on a Japan video, “I’ve just found these guys – were they anything like Duran Duran?” I think from my piece today, the resounding answer would be a no.