By Darran Anderson
“A beautiful blows, I stay at the corner / She is living in and out of tune”
– Vitamin C
“The future will only contain what we put into it now,” the Situationist graffiti read in Paris, May ’68, when the students of the Sorbonne and Nanterre and striking Renault workers came within days of shaking the Gaullist state ’til it crumbled. Over the border in Germany, the fight for the future was even more vital, the young post-war generation becoming increasingly repulsed at the closet Nazis and former collaborators still in power. Soon it would explode into militancy, the student Benno Ohnesorg had already been murdered and Baader-Meinhof were just around the corner. German culture had been soiled through association with the Third Reich, the language of Rilke debased by phrases such as “Arbeit macht frei”, Endlosung”, “Untermensch” and “Einsatzgruppen”. Whilst the previous generation had been tainted irredeemably by the Nazis, the generation coming of age in the Sixties had not, which gifted upon them a burden but also a massive impetus to tear down the whole rotten artifice and start all over, to claw back German culture from the death-worshippers by remaking it afresh.
Music was one such arena for the philosophy of “make it new.” Rock ‘n’ roll had offered a means of rebellion, belonging and self-expression to the young, at odds with their forefathers, but with it had come new restraints. There were only so many things you could do with the blues-based structures, the dictates of verse, chorus, verse. The great achievement of Can, and other Krautrock bands (a dreadful petty phrase wheeled out by Anglo-jingoists) like Amon Duul, Tangerine Dream, Faust, NEU! and Kraftwerk, is they created an aesthetic, a whole new chapter of music that had nothing (and everything) to do with the German past and the dictates of African-American music. Here was a new European music that worshipped not what had come before but what could be, a new music that repaid the enormous debt to black music by bringing fresh innovations and ideas to melody and rhythm.
Can were formed in Cologne by a series of classically-trained musicians in the process of deconstructing everything they’d been taught. Bass player Holger Czukay had famously trained under the composer Stockhausen but a high-brow music path was diverted when, in a road to Damascus moment, he heard The Beatles‘ ‘I Am The Walrus’. Drummer Jaki Liebzeit had played with Chet Baker in early Sixties Barcelona, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt was a concert pianist and John Cage acolyte while guitarist Michael Karoli, a student of Czukay’s, was given to estoteric writings on the music of the spheres and it’s psychological effects on the human mind. Unhinged enough to balance the cerebral tendencies, they shaped their music through extended jams, giving credence to the importance of the accidental and the instinctive, all the rough qualities that get ironed out and polished away in the studio. Possessing a verve and passion that prog-rock lacked, Can’s music was closer in spirit to Miles Davis than any of their rock contemporaries.
Looking back now that the Berlin Wall has been reduced to paperweights for tourists, it’s easy to forget the timbre of the time, an era when the ODESSA network still operated and the nuclear-assisted Stalinist forces of the Soviet Union were amassed at the gates. Germany would be the frontline should the Cold War ever turn hot. Referring to themselves as a radical commune, the name of the band stood for “communism, anarchism, nihilism” making their revolutionary inclinations explicitly clear. Playing their first gig at a Picasso exhibition in a castle, they were initially fronted by Malcolm Mooney, an African-American sculptor and “locomotive” in the bands words, who fired them on with bellowed mantras. An unstable but highly-charged presence, Mooney sang on their unfairly buried Delay…1968 and their raw but staggering debut Monster Movie (featuring the expansive ‘Yoo Doo Right’, the lyrics of which were later lifted for Primal Scream‘s soul anthem ‘Movin On Up’). A very different Can would have existed were it not for Malcolm Mooney’s mental breakdown, live on stage (repeating the words “upstairs-downstairs” over and over) that facilitated his leaving the band, under psychiatrist’s orders. It gives the early work a palpable disturbing quality, indicating that inside Mooney’s head was a terrifying place to be.
The band persevered, honing their skills (music as “a collapsing building in slow motion” in Czukay’s words) until a chance encounter brought them their next vocalist: Kenji “Damo” Suzuki. Discovered busking, or rather praying, outside a café, the band asked Suzuki to sing with them, unrehearsed, at a sold-out concert that night (attended bizarrely by the dashing old cad/actor David Niven). Suzuki said yes and when most of the audience walked out in disgust at his improvised howls and the band’s cumulative racket, they knew they were onto something. This was not the affected classicism of prog but rather an escape from rock n roll, a break-out from the lateral limitations of A-B-A-B, dispersing bass loops and guitar arpeggios around the central rhythms of Shiva-esque drummer Liebzeit (“half-man, half machine” as the others regarded him). Together they laid down Soundtracks, an estimable if disjointed transitional album, before nailing it with the grand Tago Mago. Blessed with moments of untainted brilliance, and ultra-creepiness, like ‘Paperhouse’, ‘Halleluwah’, ‘Bring Me Coffee Or Tea’, ‘Oh Yeah’ and Mushroom’. Tago Mago is a knock-out classic, full of winding improvisations that fall upon accidental harmonies and tripwire explosions, pre-empting industrial music, post-rock and electronica by years.
What marks the next album Ege Bamyasi (“Aegean Okra” in Turkish) from Can’s other masterworks is the sense of focus, the nomadic pathways having destinations, at moments it’s loose and lolling, arabesque and cut-up, other times tight as a seasoned soul troupe, experimental but bearing a brevity of thought. Recorded in an derelict cinema lined with army mattresses, it contains all the aspects of Can in arguably their most accessible forms. In other words, it’s a way in.
Despite the relative ease of access, the album begins with its most antagonistic moment, the lengthy ‘Pinch’, a shifting, stumbling jam stitched together by tribal beats and punctuated by Suzuki’s random yelps and the occasional stab of guitar and laser-beam keyboards. It’s like a test, an excessive one perhaps, to weed out the weaklings, taking almost seven minutes to finally and briefly lock down something that could be called a tune (the word is used in the loosest sense).
‘Sing Swan Song’ marks a return to terra firma, a graceful, willowy sea-waltz, easily the most pristine song they ever performed, in fact one of the only ones recognisable as a song, it coalesces in the instrumental mid-section to trance-inducing effect, proving even when grounded in a definable structure they could strike off in dazzling tangents.
Indispensable to future experimental-pop acts such as Stereolab, ‘One More Night’ is a mellow, pulsing jazz-tinted track (particularly in its propulsive and offbeat 7/4 timing), driven for once not by beats but by dulcet layers of Schmidt’s electric piano.
‘Vitamin C’ is the clincher: some beyond belief drum-skills from Liebzeit and he inadvertently invents the breakbeat and the future of hip-hop a decade early, Suzuki in roaring form (“Hey you! You’re losing, you’re losing, you’re losing your Vitamin C!”). Drop the song into any hip-hop set even now and it’d be at once seemless and capable of causing jaws to drop. By the time the chanson-style coda brings the song to a close, you’re realising the true influence of Can on what was the future and is now the present for us, it simply sounds like nothing else at the time it was made and everything now. Like those old Da Vinci sketches of flying machines or submarines, Can saw the future before it was really possible. The rest of the world just needed to catch up.
‘Soup’ is a thunderous freakout, complete with proto-electronics, dabs of music concrete, talking in tongues and discordant feedback. There’s a white-noise screech like an air-raid siren and you think how this was ever labelled prog even by the most acid-addled hippy? It seems much too terrifying for the stoned denizens of The Old Grey Whistle Test, neither progressive or post-rock, more anti-music, a dispatch from the outer reaches. You wonder if there’s a jukebox anywhere in the world with the album on it and what playing this Fauvist cacophony, even by accident, would do to a bar full of drinkers.
It is no small relief when ‘I’m So Green’ fades in with it’s incredibly funky shuffling groove, an effective respite to the malarial delirium that has preceded it, 39 seconds in Karoli kicks into a riff that for, at least, the second time predicts the future of music, and in seconds just moves on, no hesitations, no repetition, always pushing it further.
‘Spoon’ is the album’s most well-known moment, oriental-sounding and cyclical, it stuck in the psyche and made the group the unlikeliest of pop stars when it crashed into the German Top Ten, having been used as the soundtrack to the popular cop-show Das Messer. What any innocent chart-following teenyboppers thought of the album, an aural equivalent of Naked Lunch, can only be guessed, the poor, poor fools.
Following a change of direction towards smoother ambient music with Future Days, Damo Suzuki abruptly left the band to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, musics loss being the Watchtower Society’s gain. Can continued but they’d lost momentum, producing some fine material but running aground in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Czukay would move on to collaborate with Jah Wobble and David Sylvian as well as performing with multiple transistors on what he called “radio painting,” Liebzeit appeared on Brian Eno‘s acclaimed Before and After Science, Damo Suzuki eventually returned from obscurity with his Network and his improvised collaborations with “Sound Carriers” like The Bees and Broken Social Scene, performing one-off affairs that as true artistic happenings exist once and once only.
Avant-garde and funky, Ege Bamyasi (with its predecessors) hasn’t aged a day, its influence permeating all strata of modern music; the stuttering breakbeats of Timbaland and co, the mutant funk of Talking Head‘s Remain in Light, Bowie‘s Berlin trilogy, Radiohead‘s Kid A and Amnesiac, Autechre and almost the whole of Warp Records‘ stable. The blueprints for many a musical career were laid with these tunes. The band are revered by two of punk rock’s most irascible frontmen John Lydon and Mark E. Smith, the former reportedly wanting to join Can when the Sex Pistols fell apart and the latter penning the tribute ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’. These are men not easily impressed or hoodwinked. Similarly Primal Scream dedicated their own masterpiece Vanishing Point to Jaki Liebzeit after sampling his beats from ‘Halleluwah’ for ‘Kowalski’ and having jammed with him and Karoli (now sadly deceased) in an inebriated and unreleased late-night session.
Amongst other tributes have been the Sacrilege remix album featuring Sonic Youth, U.N.K.L.E., The Orb and Pete Shelley, an album that Andy Weatherall was approached for, “I love to remix other people’s work. But Can? No way. You don’t touch music that perfect. There is nothing to add or take away.” Then there’s the bands The Mooney-Suzuki and Spoon who’re both christened after them, The Flaming Lips Can-inspired track ‘Take Meta Mars’ as well as cover versions from Beck and Radiohead.
So the stories that they could play subsonic drones that would make audience members puke seem sadly apocryphal and without doubt they could be self-indulgent but when they hit it, when they really clicked together they created music that thirty five years later we are still only catching up with. Go back, dig the record out or check the fairly recent reissue and you’ll find it is as fresh as it sounded the day it was pressed. 1972…shit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.