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11 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

How classically trained German musicians in their mid-thirties became modern musical touchstones

Rather than falling in with the pretentious, dungeons and dragons world of early 1970s “progressive” rock, Can did their own thing.

By John Harris

“We don’t think in terms of technical ability,” said Irmin Schmidt in 1972. “That’s a political term – an old value… To me, somebody who is the fastest on the guitar may well prove to be the most alienated to [sic] the guitar of all. His guitar doesn’t have anything to do with his life.”

A few years later, the same emphasis on authentic expression rather than technical proficiency would sit at the heart of the raging eruption of punk rock – but what Schmidt meant was rather different. 

Born in 1937 and schooled in composition by the German avant-garde pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, he was one of the founder members of Can, a band who could have fallen in with the florid, pretentious, dungeons and dragons world of early 1970s “progressive” rock, but decided to do their own thing. Their best music was minimalist, consciously repetitive and built on the primacy of mood rather than any imperative to show off – which is why, 50 years on, while putting on an album by any number of pre-eminent “prog” bands (Yes, for example) can still be guaranteed to clear a room, Can have become one of the most ubiquitous modern musical touchstones. If you instantly want to understand this, go to their 1972 album, Ege Bamyasi, and put on a track titled “One More Night”: a five-minute glimpse of the kind of glitchy, groove-based music Radiohead would introduce to the world circa 2001, recorded three decades too early in a converted cinema located in a West German village called Weilerswist.

As the music writer Rob Young explains in the definitive biography that takes up 350 of this book’s 590 pages, the band’s prophetic brilliance arose from a very unlikely set of circumstances. Schmidt and Can’s co-founder Holger Czukay – they respectively played keyboards and bass – were classically trained musicians who had reached their mid-thirties by the time Can achieved their first success. The band’s drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, had cut his teeth as a jazz musician before deciding that “monotony” suited him best, and stunning his partners with an apparently supernatural ability to keep perfect time for hours at a stretch. Can’s guitarist, Michael Karoli, was a comparative youngster, who changed Czukay’s life by playing him the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”, and thus opening his mind to the creative possibilities offered by rock music.

Their best work – which stretched from 1969 to 1974, and arguably peaked with Tago Mago, a double album released in 1971 – was recorded with two different vocalists. Malcolm Mooney was a black American from New York who had arrived in Can’s home city of Cologne as a draft-dodger, and fallen into the group when he assumed their studio was the kind where he could paint and sculpt. When he left the band in the midst of depression worsened by his fears that the US authorities would catch up with him, he was replaced by Damo Suzuki, a Japanese émigré who would eventually depart after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Suzuki was discovered busking in Munich the same day the band began a four-day residency at a city nightclub. His first gig was largely improvised, in front of an audience that included the British actor David Niven, whose verdict is recounted by Czukay: “It was great, but I didn’t think it was music.”

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In fact, Can’s best output was profoundly musical: fluid, precise, and full of a sense of players combining to form a living entity that often felt as if it had a life of its own. For all their music’s sense of collective gestalt, it was also the product of passions so strong that they regularly boiled over into conflict: Czukay said that “fights and quarrels” became a ritualistic means of keeping “that Can engine running”, and Schmidt looks back on “blood all over the fucking place”. Perhaps most importantly, their music was breathtakingly new, thanks to a cultural circumstance they shared with the generation of German musicians collected by the British music press under the grim heading “Krautrock”. Like Kraftwerk, Can had to push into the future because their country’s recent past had been wiped out. “I grew up in a country which was in ruins, culturally,” Schmidt tells Young. But he also says that the effects of war found their way into Can’s music, and defined its “dark heart”: an oblique, almost unconscious expression of “the strangeness, the brutality, the harshness of what our parents’ generation did”.

In this and other contexts, Young’s evocation of time and place is great. West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s was not the most hospitable place for a collective of avant-garde longhairs: in one German opinion poll of the time 56 per cent of respondents agreed that the best solution to the “hippy problem” was “some form of compulsory work programme”. Yet Can found plenty of friends, and their story has no end of specifically German elements. Their first base of operations was a castle on the outskirts of Cologne. When they moved to the old cinema one friend saw, in the mattresses that lined the walls and hangings that featured “polygons and magical symbols from Egypt”, a “wonderful German mix of sensuality and practicality”. The same qualities lay at the heart of Can’s approach to music.

Describing in words what the band created would test even the most eloquent writer, and it’s here that Young’s text has its only real faults: sporadic passages of purple prose (“a drum and bass riff that begins like a squadron of mechanical deities manoeuvring through a ravine, and then over 20 minutes gets extruded and fractalised into an array of byways”), that say a lot less than some of his more acute observations. Taken as a whole, though, what he has done is a triumph, nicely complemented by a collection of interviews, notes, encounters and tributes to Can curated by Schmidt – who is now 80 years old, and the last surviving member of his band’s core quartet. 

One of the people quoted is the music journalist Nick Kent. “Can’s music has aged in a very good way,” he says. “Normally, when you listen to music, the era it was written in is usually evoked… you could tell if it’s from the Seventies or Eighties. But with Can’s music, still nobody has caught up.”

All Gates Open: The Story of Can
Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt
Faber & Faber, 592pp, £25

John Harris writes for the Guardian

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This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran