Sad news that ex-Japan and Dali's Car bassist Mick Karn died this week aged 52. It's almost as sad that Japan's critical stock is pretty low, and that they tend to get lumped in with their contemporaries Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins. In fact they were far better and far more serious than any of the above, though this fact tends to get obscured by discussion of make-up and hairspray.
For a start, has there ever been (with the possible exception of O Superman) a stranger top 5 hit than Ghosts? Minimal and disturbing, it sounds like it was written by a 70-year old man. That the resigned and world-weary lyrics were written and sung by a guy barely into his twenties just adds to the group's astonishing achievement. Listen closely and you can hear a group disillusioned with the success they'd struggled for seven years to achieve.
Similarly incredibly, they're one of the few bands that started off commercial and then got less listenable, more obscure and more interesting as they went along, both as a group and as solo artistes. They started off on the cover of Smash Hits and have ended up (individually at least) on the cover of The Wire. It's a long way from their neo-glam beginnings to appearing on Top of the Pops to collaborating with David Torn, Holger Czukay, Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Christian Fennesz and others. Most groups do it the other way round. Their career trajectory was and is akin to Westlife being asked to curate Meltdown 20 years in the future, right after recording with DJ Spooky and Matmos.
A couple of tracks to remember them by? OK, since you asked so nicely. All of them showcase Karn's supple, liquid bass-playing, incidentally. How about their cover of Marvin Gaye's Ain't That Peculiar from their 4th LP, Gentlemen Take Polaroids? And Talking Drum from their swansong as Japan, Tin Drum? And, as a bonus, here's Pocketful of Change from their pseudonymous Rain Tree Crow reunion LP from 1991, on which they were joined by Michael Brook and Bill Nelson.
Download Ain't That Peculiar by Japan (mp3)
Download Talking Drum by Japan (mp3)
Download Pocketful of Change by Rain Tree Crow (mp3) (all deleted Dec 11)