Goodbye Mick Karn – so much more than a pair of absent eyebrows

Last night I heard the sad new that one of my teenage heroes, Mick Karn, had succumbed to cancer at the age of 52. As a 15 year old from a small, small-minded town in North Wales Mick and the rest of his bandmates in Japan provided me with a much-needed refuge from the dull drudgery of life in (how can I put this?) provincial hell.

Day after day I’d listen to Quiet Life, Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids (my favourite album) dreaming of being achingly hip, wearing polkadots, dabbling in the art world (as both Mick and David did to show off their art-rock credentials) and – most importantly at the time – of wearing shitloads of slap.

The early eighties, was of course, the last time men wore make-up with any real sense of conviction (you really can’t include Robbie Williams and Michael Stipe’s flirtations with eyeliner). Bands like Japan were a true inspiration for me as I messed around with eyeshadow, blusher and hair dye. I even got reprimanded by a teacher at school who mistook my inventive use of red lipliner as an eyeliner (yes, heroin chic years before its time) as a burgeoning drug habit. One night I actually spent two hours recreating the Gentleman Take Polaroids cover shot (still my favourite look) in minute detail, complete with purple highlighted cheeks, umbrella and shiny black leather glove.

All of Japan dabbled with make-up to varying degrees – from keyboardist Richard’s rather sheepish experiments with eyeliner to David’s less inhibited raids on the make-up kit – but Mick, always one to push the envelope,  went one step further. In order to create a more sculptural, otherwordly look he actually shaved off his eyebrows. It was a stunning coup de theatre almost as eyecatching (if you’ll excuse the pun) as his slithery, sidewoods stage dancing. Too scared to copy the look myself (I was worried the brows wouldn’t grow back) it remains one of the boldest acts of what we now call ‘manscaping’ I’ve ever seen. And miles more fun than trimming your pubes, an act today considered positively outre by most men.

And so I’d like to to take this opportunity to pay homage, not just to Mick’s musical genius (he was undoubtedly one of the best bass players we’ve ever had and could also create absolute magic with a bassoon, sax, clarinet or suona) but also to his look. The make-up, the signature slicked-back hair and, yes, those famously absentee eyebrows.

For being original, inspiring and for looking so goddam cool Mick, that 15 year old boy from North Wales (and the 43 year old man he grew up into) thanks you.

Sleep tight Mr. x

PS. If anyone would like to find out more about Mick try reading his excellent autobiography Japan and Self Existence, available from The chapter on the death of his cat Kasmir tells you everything you need to know about the man.

6 thoughts on “Goodbye Mick Karn – so much more than a pair of absent eyebrows

  1. Simon


    A perfect tribute to Mr Karn.

    I too was a 15 year old around that time. However, far from growing up in a provincial town I lived just a few miles from the Japan boys in South-East London. This seemed to inspire me even more to shun the normal activities of 15 year old boys and, like you, I recreated the GTP cover shot. My Mum was horrified when I actually went out later that evening in full make-up.

    Of the Japan boys Mick always seemed ‘other worldly’ to me. A style all of his own both musically and aesthetically.



  2. carl

    Wonderful tribute. As a 46 year old man I was 18 when Japan hit their stride. Out went the mouse brown hair to be replaced with home dyed ash blonde. It went gold, but I could care less. My mate took his eyebrows off and to be honest he looked…like shit. But he dyed his hair red and most Friday nights after enough beer/cider we would do the Mick Karn shuffle along the puke splattered high street. It was sad, but I wouldn’t change a day. Mick Karn. You made me cry yesterday. Rest in peace. x

  3. john bam

    Thats a cracking piece. Sums it up for me … Saying to my mum at 16 , “you got any makeup mother I can borrow”, “why would you want make up son” she replied . I’ve just seen Japan …

  4. This is my favourite tribute to Mick, bar none. I can’t even string a sentence together properly right now for the Nightporter site so thank God for people like you who can. Will check out the site more – anyone who knows me will tell you, I badly need it!

  5. Vicky

    Mick was by far the coolest member of Japan. I remember repeatedly looking through the Japanese magazines a penpal sent me, bless her she even bought Rock’s Show’s Japan Photobook, and marveling over the man with no eyebrows.

    For a Midwestern American girl, there was something otherworldly about Mick – his style, his bass playing and apparently his stage presence, which I never witnessed except in videos.

    Thank you so much for acknowledging that Mick was much more than a man in a short-lived new wave band. Heck, “new wave,” that’s not even right either. As with everything about Japan, Mick was a man beyond description.

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