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