Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Mick Karn from Catford to Japan and beyond

Sad to hear of the death from cancer today of musician Mick Karn, aged 52. Born Andonis Michaelides in Cyprus, he grew up in South East London and attended Catford Boys School where he and a group of friends started the band that became Japan. Karn initially learnt bassoon at the school, but switched to bass after his instrument was stolen when he was attacked by skinheads on his way back to Catford from his first concert with the London School Symphony Orchestra.

Japan were the missing link between 1970s glam rock and the 1980s new romantics. While lead singer David Sylvian (born David Batt in Beckenham) was the best known face of the group, once labelled 'the most beautiful man in pop', Karn was central to their sound, particularly his fretless bass, but also a range of other instruments.

Here's Japan's Art of Parties from 1982:

... and Quiet Life (1979):

After Japan, Karn made solo records and played with Pete Murphy, Gary Numan, Kate Bush, Midge Ure, Bill Nelson and many others. Here's a really nice piece from 1983, with Mick reviewing a sculpture exhibition on the South Bank with his music playing in the background:

In an interview a few years ago, Sylvian spoke of his musical efforts as 'a conscious drive away from everything that childhood represented' including the Lewisham suburbs: 'the landscape becomes a reference point for emotion. So, sure, to ride a train through the London suburbs would be a profound journey to take. It would cause enormous discomfort in me, but at the same time at this point in my life, enormous fascination - because I'm more fascinated in what discomforts me than comforts me' (Sylvian grew up in Venner Road, Sydenham).

I wonder if something similar motivated Karn, as like Sylvian he didn't just belong to a band called Japan but immersed himself in Japanese music and culture. Mid-1970s Lewisham probably wasn't a great place for pretty boys in make up - Richard Barbieri (the band's keyboardist, who went to the same school) later recalled that 'Catford Boys was dead rough and David and Mick always used to get beaten up for wearing earrings and dyeing their hair'. You can only be amazed at the achievement of a group of largely self-taught working class school leavers in seeking out new horizons musically, culturally and geographically.

Mick Karn 1958-2011, RIP

(source of quotes unless otherwise stated, David Sylvian: the last romantic By Martin Power, London: Omnibus Press, 2004. Catford Boys in Brownhill Road was closed in 1991 and demolished in 1993)


Raven said...

Top tribute. I had no idea Japan had SE London roots.

Nigel said...

I second that emotion Raven and thanks again for another top post Transpontine.
I'm old enough to remember a time when having bleached hair and earring were two good reasons for getting your head kicked in. I guess it's a lot harder to stand out nowadays, which is why I've given up trying ;).

Anonymous said...

RIP. Remembered you from Catford Boys

Geoffrey Younger

Anonymous said...

I was a few years behind these guys at Catford Boys. I preferred their rockier first album to their later stuff but they were always a class act, especially live.