CAN OPENER

A GUEST POSTING by FRASER P

can-german-band

In the origin story of post-punk there are two names that consistently crop up in citations of prime influencer (from outside the mainstream likes of Bowie, I mean). The first is of course the Velvet Underground, well represented in the archives of this blog. The other is German group Can, strangely absent. Is it just that JC can’t be arsed digitising 18 minute tracks of improvised sub-psychedelic avant-garde kraut rock? Or that you the readers have an understandable Fear of Prog, founded on previous trauma inflicted by 1970s contemporaries such as Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd, and labour under the misapprehension that Can fall into the same Slough of Despond occupied by Tangerine Dream, King Crimson and ELP?

Some of you on the other hand, will already know that (sweeping hyperbole alert) Can are one of the most important groups in the history of modern ‘alternative’ rock music. The space devoted here to bands such as The Fall, Buzzcocks, Cabaret Voltaire, PIL, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Finitribe and Stereolab is the reason why we have to have some space devoted to Can, and why you should listen to them. You don’t have to like them, but you owe it to yourself in order to better understand those musicians who venerate the quartet from Cologne.

Summing up Can in a thousand words or so is a mug’s game, but luckily for you I’m willing to make a fool of myself trying. So where to start? That’s the very problem that many of you will have, trying to find a way in to a back catalogue of such diversity spanning a little over 10 years and as many main studio albums, not to mention a prodigious afterlife of compilations, live recordings and archive cabinet tomb raiding. What exactly did the likes of Mark E. Smith and Pete Shelley hear in music that seems at first glance to be the bloated hippy prog antithesis of Live at the Witch Trials or Another Music in a Different Kitchen?

The first point to make is that despite the four core members of the group coming from either a jazz background (drummer Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli) or from avant-garde classical (bassist Holger Czukay and keyboarder Irmin Schmidt), Can produced rock music that is neither jazzy nor pseudo-classical. There is a refreshing lack of instrumental virtuosity on display, no gratuitous guitar or keyboard wanking or five minute drum solos on 20-piece kits complete with chimes and a massive gong. No, instead there is a fair bit of repetitive rhythmic grooving, dissonant guitar chops and eerie washes of keyboard electronics. Where the vocals are intelligible they often deliver lyrics that fall into the same category as late-period Scott Walker for impenetrable obscurity.

To say Can’s music sounds like nothing else of the time is an utter cop-out, but it’s a cliché with more than a germ of truth. To coin another cliché, it’s rock music, Jim, but not as we know it. There is a clear difficulty in drawing comparisons with other bands or even particular sub-genres of rock music, and it’s this evident ‘difference’ that appealed to the people that would turn rock music inside out in the late 70s and early 80s. They were bored shitless by The Beatles, Led Zep, and Pink Floyd, and the inability to complete the phrase “Can sound like…” was an instant plus.

Searching for comparisons often brings me to Miles Davis’s electric period from Bitches Brew through to Agartha. Although there are certain sonic and methodological similarities, Davis’s fusion of jazz and rock always retained a jazz feel – in the parlance it still ‘swings’. Can’s music doesn’t swing, but it pulses. Can took the improvisational method of jazz, but not its blues roots, and the improvisational method came just as much from the classical avant-garde sensibility.

The method changed little throughout Can’s existence, even though the superficial style of their music did. From the beginning they set out to improvise around some figure, chord sequence or rhythm that one or other of them might start. They would then play around with it, sometimes refining parts into more structured pieces or sometimes just letting it flow, often for a very long time, recording everything. Their first vocalist, American Malcolm Mooney, recounted how once after about half an hour of riffing vocals over the band going hard at a repetitive looping sequence, he left the studio and went for lunch in a nearby café, read the paper, and eventually wandered back to find the instrumentalists still cranking out the same monster groove as when he had left about an hour before. Naturally he just picked up the microphone and joined in again.

On their first releases, Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, this practice produced some fairly heavy-sounding music that led to comparisons with Hawkwind, though largely for want of any better reference points. Even the occasional loony free-improv episodes like Ege Bamyasi’s ‘Soup’ didn’t sound properly psychedelic, being neither dreamy nor druggy because they grew out of Stockhausen, not LSD. Only the Art Ensemble of Chicago were making similar (non-electronic) sounds to ‘Soup’ but few rock critics had ever gone that ‘far out’ into the jazz avant-garde.

Onto Jaki’s propulsive and sometimes downright funky lockgroove rhythms, Irmin Schmidt typically layered sheets of synthesiser and electronic noise, dissonant chords and occasional melodic figures. Michael Karoli’s guitar was perhaps the most conventional melodic rock element in the band, and its lyrical moments are what most listeners might latch onto at first, but it frequently comes in jagged, chopped chords that evoke those Miles Davis electric albums, or piercing abrasive fuzz lines unheard again until Keith Levene hit his stride with PiL. After Mooney succumbed to a mental breakdown, second vocalist Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki brought a further point of difference with his heavily accented singing, screeching and shouting, sometimes in English, sometimes Japanese, sometimes mellow and soporific, sometimes just weird and disturbing.

For a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist, bassist Holger Czukay is a wholly minimal presence in Can’s sound, often dropping only a couple of notes or a short run every other bar just to anchor a chord. During one of their later gigs, he achieved a long-held ambition by playing just one note all night. It was at the mixing desk, post-performance, that Czukay’s more significant contribution was made, editing, splicing and dubbing sections from the hours of tapes to produce the final album cuts. Liebezeit hated this unspontaneous artifice, but tolerated it, fortunately, since live recordings expose the shocking reality that improvisation can sometimes lose its focus. “We made music,” said Czukay, “then found a use for it later.”

Along the way, some of it even found a use in the creation of a few concise moments of almost pop perfection like ‘Moonshake’, ‘I’m so green’ and ‘I want more’ (the last a minor hit in 1976, also covered by Finitribe in their early pre-techno phase). Quite how these shorter, more structured pieces emerged from the endless jams isn’t clear, but they became more common in the later years and the long pieces shrank into minority.

The later albums also feature more music that reflects specific genres such as reggae, African or even disco stylings. Throughout their career Can would periodically play around with genres or world musics, often tongue in cheek, branding certain tracks as part of their ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’. This could produce some hilarious effects like the almost-blues trumpet vamp of E.F.S. Nr 7 on the Unlimited Edition outtake collection. There is not a big enough tongue in the world however, to fill the cheek of E.F.S. Nr 99 on their final album, a wretched version of Offenbach’s ‘Can-can’ dance, the kind of classical rock that would ordinarily have me addressing my turntable with a hammer. In a career littered with more bad puns than a Jimmy Tarbuck show, the horrible inevitability of Can’s ‘Can-can’ was perhaps a way of admitting that it was time to… can it. Shame, as the rest of that last album is quite good.

Not all the people who cite Can as an influence produced music that bears their imprint. It’s not front and centre of much that Julian Cope or Bobby Gillespie have done. But once you’ve listened to Can you can certainly hear echoes of it in The Fall’s love of a churning repetitive groove. Likewise in the Buzzcocks. Or Cabaret Voltaire’s Three Mantras (both tracks). And Metal Box, which even came packaged in an actual can. And more, and more… If you accept that in the Gospel of Post-Punk the first commandment was ‘thou shalt not try to sound like somebody else,’ then you will understand why Can were so appealing to their disciples, and why it’s not necessary to hear a clear imitation of their sound in order to discern their influence.

In trying to find some tracks to introduce you to Can’s music, I encounter the same problem shared by the publishers of Can compilations: the length of many of their best pieces. 1979’s Cannibalism (sleeve notes by Pete Shelley) samples their 1969-74 United Artists LPs by trimming some 10 or 20 minute tracks down to 5 or 6 minute excerpts. This gives you the diversity but not the full long-form workout experience. The tracks below are full length album tracks (with the exception of Hunters and Collectors which is the single version with about a minute trimmed from it), one from each of their main albums between 1969 and 1975, an attempt to give some sort of representation to their variety of styles. The first three exemplify their harder, rhythmically driving style, followed by a couple of their poppier short tracks, then a more impressionistic mid-period track, and finally a more structured but dark and funky pop-rock piece that came more to the fore in their later albums.

Father Cannot YellMonster Movie (1969)
Mother SkySoundtracks (1970)
Oh YeahTago Mago (1971)
I’m So GreenEge Bamyasi (1972)
MoonshakeFuture Days (1973)
Dizzy DizzySoon Over Babaluma (1974)
Hunters and Collectors Landed (1975)

If I had to give recommendations on what albums to buy first, I would probably say Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days. You could also do worse than invest in Cannibalism (the first of three Cannibalism compilations) and the Incandescence collection from their later Virgin period, 75-79, if you can still find it anywhere.

FRASER P

18 thoughts on “CAN OPENER

  1. Thank you, I definitely fall into the camp of ‘heard of but never heard’ and welcome the opportunity to dip my toes in.

  2. I know of Can and have been unsuccessfully pointed in their direction on a number of occasions, although never so eloquently – possibly not so passionately. The psychedelic side always sounded intruguing… the jazz and prog, less so for me.

    I will have a wee listen this afternoon.

    I thoroughly enjoy the post.

  3. I had been working on a Can ICA which I could never quite finalise the tracklisting for, though at least half of it is here. (“Oh Yeah” was going to be the opener because you can’t beat opening with an explosion). But I agree with a lot of what you say, particularly the aside about their unfocused live recordings. I know a lot of people can’t get enough of the bootlegs, but I’ve never got into them. I would however recommend the Peel Sessions album which shows how disciplined they *could* be, when they wanted to be!

  4. I’m a life long fan of The Fall but have never dipped my toes into the world of Can. I really don’t know why I haven’t though? Thanks for this really interesting article and even more thanks for making the music available. I’m enjoying what I hear!

  5. Fantastic post! I go through a Can phase every once in a while. The sound is so particular and unique you have to dive in deep and I find other music hard to connect with when I’m doing that. But it’s true there are not a lot of other folks to compare Can with. NEU!, maybe. And it’s also true that the bands that directly cite Can as an influence (Spoon and Mooney Suzuki to name a couple) sound nothing like them, either. A really excellent piece, Fraser P, I’m so glad someone took this challenge on and brought Can to the TVV crowd. Now, time to cue up Monster Movie…

  6. I love a Can phase too, Tago Mago, Ege bamyesi, Monster Movie, Future Days- so much going on. There’s a real democracy in their playing, all the instruments perfectly balanced, nothing being the lead. And Leibezeit’s drumming is fantastic.

  7. Ah, sorry to steal your thunder Leon! But go on, finish the ICA anyway… Totally agree about the Peel Sessions CD btw. Probably the best of the afterlife archive compilations.

  8. Funny I was listening to some Neu the other day and certainly they share the same love of a looooong groove. But the music is overall simpler and more minimal, spacier. Similar but quite different in effect, though great in its own way of course. Thanks for the kind feedback.

  9. In earlier drafts of the post I attempted to explain how Liebezeit is the warm, beating heart of Can’s music that can otherwise be heard as ‘soulless’. It lacks ‘soul’ in the r’n’b sense, but the groove is life, as Jaki understood, and reminded us time and time again.

  10. I often read blog posts when I’m out and about and then listen to the music later on. This time, it kind of felt important that I got home, settled in and read this whilst listening to the music at the same time. It was worth the wait, Fraser. Fantastic, absorbing, rich and complex music with writing to match. Many thanks!

  11. Not to worry, I’ve got half a dozen ICAs on the go, quite possibly none of which will ever actually reach a publishable state. I have a part-finished Kate Bush one too, but we’ve just had a month of every website and newspaper doing their own so that feels even more redundant now…

  12. A great post Fraser. Can made my education to new music ages ago. Still love the their early recordings and now listening to their live double album from a gig in Stuttgart were I was lucky to be a part of it when I was an old teenager

  13. Wow! You saw them live? I bow down in awe! You lucky man. I only became aware of Can in 1979, went out and bought the only two LPs the shop had, Monster Movie and Can (the ‘spanner’ album), their very first and very last LPs. So by the time I found them they had already disbanded.

  14. Had a wee listen. It’s not for me – although it’s a lot more accessible that I thought it would be. I was quite taken but just how the vocals on I’m So Green had blatantly ripped off Bobby Gillespie. 🙂

  15. Can are the best kind of band, one that rumbles on without any particular ideal but rather rebuilds their sound from the ground up on every album. The recent live series has gotten me way back into them. These are great picks (“Oh Yeah” is so funky its practically a living organism) but how do you go wrong? You can’t compile this band, grab all the albums (up to Landed at least) and get your groove on. Oh, and I agree that the final album is nice – I think “Can Can” is funny!! Clearly they’d run their course, but sometimes I listen to “All Gates Open” and think…what if…

  16. Absolutely – All Gates Open and Safe are just sublime. The only album probably worth avoiding is Out of Reach, and even then, if you come to it after everything else you can find some worth in it. Oh, and the ‘reunion’ album Rite Time is pretty flimsy, but fun enough in its own way.

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