In the Can

Rock byRichard Cook

Although the British audience is notoriously resistant to rock from Europe, there was a period in the 1970s when a wave of German groups made a modest mark on our ears. Though it's not clear who coined the unflattering term "Krautrock", it caught on to the degree that it became embraced by the groups themselves. A lot of it was doomy, glum, impenetrable progressive rock, the kind of thing that punk was born to destroy. The great exception was Can.

Working out of Cologne, Can created a music that could tackle the heaviest, nastiest rock groups head on. Yet their playing was just as likely to shimmer or pulse with mystery, the instruments bonding together and drifting apart at will, the sound floating around them. Their records include some of the most enigmatic music rock has ever released: there is nothing like the second half of their 1974 classic Soon Over Babaluma, which starts somewhere on earth and ends in the deepest of deep space. Earlier albums such as Future Days and Tago Mago are dated by their eccentric studio sound, but that only enhances their strangeness. The group could improvise for hours within certain frameworks and edit small chunks into workable tracks. They could jam like jazz musicians around the extraordinary drumming of Jaki Liebezeit, himself a former free-jazz player, but what they played never sounds like jazz.

Rhythm was central to every Can performance, even one as ethereal and timeless as "Quantum Physics" on Babaluma, but it didn't lie simply in the momentum of bass and drums. Can breathed like a single organism. Michael Karoli, who played guitar and sang in a reedy voice that was mixed so far down you could hardly hear what he was saying, didn't play solos so much as scribble lines over the rest of the sound. Holger Czukay, their impish bassist and principal engineer, played his instrument more like a guitar, casting little melodic bubbles over the restless surface of Can's music. Driven forward by Liebezeit's fascinating beats, Can could circle ominously around them or drive remorselessly into a listener's face.

Although they were difficult enough never quite to catch hold of a mass audience, the group entered into legend and, while they have not played together on stage for 20 years, they still exert a fascination on many a modern pioneer: techno and ambient types, avant-gardists of many a stripe, most pay obeisance to Can. They have secured an iron control over their past, retaining the rights to their own catalogue, and now they have released something called Can Box (Spoon), a book, video and double-CD package which explores the history of the group via interviews, TV and concert footage and a collection of live recordings from 1972 to 1977. The video includes a memorable appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1975, while the music is a gruff, noisy jumble of tracks, the sort of thing that will remind many a seasoned collector of the bootlegs of the period. Captured at such homely venues as Hatfield Polytechnic and Croydon Greyhound, the group play at their fiercest, most argumentative and volatile. "Colchester Finale" is close to 40 minutes of sonic uproar, messily recorded and brutally compelling in the way it documents a group pushing at barriers that the primitive equipment of the time could barely contain. Can have always had a severe reputation, but the two CDs show a free-spirited wildness that the studio albums rarely explore.

The members of the group continue with their individual ideas, and they have just finished a brief German tour where their four solo projects have all shared a stage. Irmin Schmidt, their keyboard virtuoso and the man who really started Can off, says that "the 'a' in the middle of Can stands for adventure" - but "no nostalgia and no revivals". All the same, posterity seems unlikely to let them settle quietly into history.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words