A German group that arose during the psychedelic movement of 1968 from jazz, avant-garde and rock sources, Can — essentially Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli — developed (and perfected) electronic collage in rock music and actively absorbed a number of musical traditions into their eclectic work. In addition to providing an example of individualistic behavior remote from commercial music, Can’s output influenced a number of more modern figures, including Pete Shelley and John Lydon, while Czukay has worked with musicians as disparate as Eurythmics and Jah Wobble.
Monster Movie is a decent 1969 psychedelic album that reflects the influence of early Pink Floyd, and displays the sparse, repeating percussion patterns that became a Can trademark. Synth and fuzzbox guitar wail over Liebezeit’s drums and Czukay’s bass. As with most of Can’s later releases, vocals are present but secondary.
By Soundtracks, Can had refined its sound, bringing the rhythms further to the foreground and working guitar and synthesizer around them. Several tracks feature impressive psychedelic guitar textures; others tone the guitar down and concentrate on rhythm. The addition of Japanese singer Kenji “Damo” Suzuki (replacing the highly inappropriate American vocalist Malcolm Mooney) leads to several rather beautiful songs here.
Can burst free of its formalism on the double-album Tago Mago, kicking out the jams on the nearly structureless “Aumgn,” seventeen minutes of texture and eerie mood. Other tracks feature long improvisations built around hypnotic rhythm patterns, backwards vocals, tape effects and other innovations. (Ironically, the LP’s shortest track, the four-minute “Mushroom,” has become something of a post-punk staple.) At this point, Can began making the albums that would wield enormous influence on ’80s groups as diverse as the Fall, Einstürzende Neubauten and Zoviet France.
Ege Bamyasi is a tighter, more sophisticated version of Tago Mago, though it lacks some of the earlier album’s sense of excitement. The group integrates textures, rhythms and experiments into an almost jazz-like form on the two longer pieces, while also producing more concise songs of lyrical beauty like “Sing Swan Song” and “I’m So Green.” One of Can’s best.
Future Days is so laid back and sparsely beautiful that it could have been recorded in California rather than Germany. (Indeed, one of the four lengthy tracks is entitled “Bel Air.”) Liebezeit’s patterns are quicker and even more in the foreground, but played with great restraint. As Schmidt’s synthesizer washes like ocean air, Karoli either twangs and picks guitar in the foreground or drones off in the distance. Mellow yet hardly boring, there’s plenty going on here if you listen for it. Suzuki left following Future Days, and Karoli and Schmidt took on vocal responsibilities.
The quartet regained its abrasive edge on Soon Over Babaluma, which introduces reggae-like rhythms and Karoli’s sawing violin. “Splash” uses insistent drums and distorted lead guitar, while “Chain Reaction” and “Quantum Physics,” which jointly fill the second side, improvise guitar around quirky drums and all kinds of synthesizer noises.
Following the darkly perverse Landed, Can exposed a fascination with non-Western musics on Limited Edition, which unveils several pieces in the Ethnological Forgery Series, more of which appear on Unlimited Edition, Flow Motion and Can. The inclusion of Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah in the group gave a Jamaican voodoo flair to Saw Delight that prefigured the reggae absorption of the Clash, the Police and other groups.
A relative degree of popular success with “I Want More” from Flow Motion strained the group to the point where they opted to break up. They have, however, reunited occasionally. Recorded in 1986 as a premature 20th anniversary commemoration, Rite Time finds Can again working with Mooney, fitting him into their sophisticated atmospherics as well as can be expected (i.e., hideously).
Opener and the two-disc Cannibalism both anthologize work from 1968 to 1973 (containing performances by both Mooney and Suzuki); the latter features five tracks in re-edited versions and liner notes by Pete Shelley, in which he credits Karoli as a pivotal influence. Cannibalism 1 is the same record minus two tracks. Delay 1968 features heretofore-unreleased work by the original group (meaning Mooney) from 1968/69, a weird mixture of accessible (but spacey) guitar psychedelia, fairly straight rock and funky soul vamps (!). Incandescence (enough with the corny puns already!) is also a compilation.
As older academics steeped in neo-classical, free jazz and electronics, Can always came at rock from the outside; approaching the form as a fascinating toy to be taken apart, fiddled with and then cleverly reassembled to new specifications. So there was real promise to the idea of Sacrilege, a double-CD which subjected Can’s work to the recombinant technology of 16 remix units. However, there’s no excuse for having such unbound originality cookie-cuttered into the generic clatter of the era’s most obvious electronic clichés. If this is the homage of distinguished students ready to put their faders where their fandom is, then Can’s most important lessons about independent thought have been lost. By trimming away most of the vocals–always an endearing aspect of Can, whose two singers were an energetic African-American and a Japanese busker–and stressing rhythms, Sacrilege rewrites history, stamping Can as little more than techno-dance forbears. Brian Eno, in his infinitely tasteful wisdom, leaves “Pnoom” (from Delay 1968) more or less intact, doubling its 26 giddy seconds of squonking-duck horns with bonus beats. Sonic Youth scrawls noise-guitar graffiti all over “Spoon” (from Ege Bamyasi) while preserving the song’s structural essence; 3P shape and snip “Yoo Doo Right,” a sprawling jam on Monster Movie, into a lushly modern precis. But other acolytes, including Pete Shelley, Air Liquide and Bruce Gilbert, are content to select a component, like the rubbery bass line favored by A Guy Called Gerald in “Tango Whiskeyman,” and build an undistinguished, unrecognizable dance track around it. These nouveau platters may sound chic, but the real deal comes straight from the Can.
While Irmin Schmidt has issued a stack of would-be soundtrack albums on his own, of all the Canmen, Holger Czukay’s solo career (including recent joint projects with David Sylvian) has proven the most internationally prominent as well as the most artistically inspiring. He first continued his tape collage experiments on the excellent Movies and then On the Way to the Peak of Normal, the latter with Jah Wobble guesting. (Canaxis, which actually dates from 1969, consists of two long pieces of environmental mood music incorporating various ethnic components.)
Der Osten Ist Rot (The East Is Red), with Liebezeit and Conny Plank helping out, takes a lighthearted and often amusing tack, splicing found tapes to fairly straightforward songs that run the gamut from cabaret crooning to demented instrumentals. A wonderfully foolish excursion with serious undercurrents of political satire.
The guest sidemen on Czukay’s winningly loopy Rome Remains Rome include Liebezeit and Karoli, making it virtually a Can reunion record, as well as Wobble and his associate, Olli Morland. Playing everything from guitar to french horn to radio, Czukay takes his usual jaundiced view, deflating musical convention (“Hey Baba Reebop” puts a hysterical electro twist on big-band swing) as he experiments with sounds, including a lot of vocals (some in English, many sung by a chameleon-like female chorus) this time. (The CD includes tracks from Der Osten Ist Rot.)