By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
WHEN MUSICOLOGISTS OF the future try to reconcile the high and low of late 20th century music--a time when avant garders dismantled classical convention and rock & rollers assembled a cross-cultural folk music--perhaps they'll find the missing link in Can, the German-based progressive rock group that directly connects the heretical electronic experiments of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage with the art-punk of Public Image Limited, the Fall, Sonic Youth and their offspring.
Unlike the Velvet Underground, an American group with similar claims as postmodernist middlemen, Can's canonization (excuse the pun) as indie rock gods has been slow to materialize. Though they recorded 12 albums between 1968 and 1979 (and one reunion album in 1989), only four were released in the United States during the band's lifetime. In 1990, Restless Records (along with England's Mute Records and Germany's Spoon Records, run by Can's former manager) released/reissued most of Can's catalogue, though either lack of interest or poor promotion caused the records to quickly fall back out of print, virtually unnoticed.
Earlier this year, Mute Records in the U.S. has once again offered up Can to those indie rock archaeologists who suspect alternative didn't begin with Kurt Cobain: The group's first seven albums, plus two compilations (Cannibalism I and II--don't excuse the pun) are once again available. Now perhaps, with alternative finally drifted into mainstream, Can will inspire fans of Talking Heads--or even Pavement--to take a look back into underground rock's past.
And well they should. While Can's work can be challenging, it's a lot more accessible than the band's lack of popularity implies. Can succeeded in putting a friendly face on prog rock, a genre that usually turns the stomachs of meat-and-potato American rock aficionados. Where art-affected English groups such as Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer put the '70s to sleep with ornate but entirely grooveless reworkings of classical texts, Can always placed rock-minded repetition and rhythm foremost in their compositions. And where other krautrockers (as post-punk yanks like to call them) like Kraftwerk, Faust, and Neu might be somewhat guilty of producing cold, emotionless music, Can consistently pursued the Zen-like task of injecting spirit into even their most machine-driven pieces.
Both bassist Holger Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had studied with Stockhausen and aimed to inject the composer's ideas into rock and jazz when they decided to form Can in 1968. They recruited Czukay's student, guitarist Michael Karoli, and jazz drummer Jaki Leibezeit, then brought in an African American painter, Malcolm Mooney, to sing. By year's end, the band had released a single and recorded enough demos for an album. Though these early tracks were not released at the time, they were collected in 1981 as Delay 1968 and reissued this year. Delay is typical of Can's early style: Mooney's gasping vocals emit meaningless imagery and sound like a cross between an adenoidal Hendrix and a choked frog; Karoli's guitar explores the landscape unfettered but never strays far from its rhythmic responsibilities; Schmidt's organ looms like a psychedelic haze; and Czukay's bass throbs steadily to Leibezeit's sharp, edgy drumming.
The band's first true release was 1969's Monster Movie, which they recorded in a castle (not the only thing Brian Eno and U2 ripped off from them). Again, it flirted with space-rock, though by that time the band's vision and delivery had been substantially refined. The opener, "Father Cannot Yell," sustains a linear tension, with bass and vocal hooks lending just enough meat. Most impressive, though, is the 20-minute epic finale, "Yoo Doo Right." Here was a classic example of what the band called "instant composition," a process in which they sculpted and edited an extended improvisation into a cohesive, if expansive and free-flowing, song. With instant composition, Can made organic music--both primal and progressive--that grew naturally at first and developed structure later.
In 1970, Can released Soundtracks, which collected their contributions to such low-budget and soft-core porn movies as Deep End and Deadlock. Though not meant as a unified whole, Soundtracks offers some of Can's most approachable music. Shortly into the recording of Soundtracks, though, a nervous breakdown sent Mooney home to resume a quiet painter's life in America. The band soon chanced upon a Japanese street musician in Munich named Damo Suzuki, whom they considered adequately eccentric, and invited him to join the band. Suzuki makes his grand debut on Soundtracks's trippy epic "Mother Sky," 14-and-a-half minutes of pulsating bass and pounding drums keeping time to a guitar freakout. Even more than Mooney, Suzuki blended with the rest of the band to make his voice just another instrument in the mix.
If Soundtracks documented Can at its acid-rock peak, the next year Tago Magoasserted the band's individuality, and flirted with extremes of sound and structure. Still groove-based, though less hooky and lyrical than previous albums, Tago Mago is at times Can's most subtle--and other times most radical--recording. At over 70 minutes (it was originally a double album), the record charts a descent into madness. After a relatively conventional first side, the 18-minute "Halleluhwah" and 17-minute "Aumgn" (named after an Aleister Crowley magic spell) fill sides two and three with a trance-like rhythm that degenerates into dissonance, then simply noise. "Aumgn" and "Peking O" feature Czukay's early experiments using tape recorder and radio as instruments, a trick he'd learned from Stockhausen and Cage and would develop further on Can's later albums. While Tago Mago is perhaps Can's most distinctive expression, it fails when it strays too far from what we recognize as music.