INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
PopMatters MARCH 24, 2004 - by Dennis Tyhacz
Finally, a DVD from one of the most groundbreaking German bands in the history of recorded music. Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebeziet, Michael Karoli, and Malcolm Mooney made their recording debut in Germany in 1968 with an album called Monster Movie, and music hasn't been the same since. Upon hearing this record now, it sounds like what Stereolab and electronica in general was trying to achieve in the mid-to-late '90s. Needless to say, Can was years ahead of it's time. Recorded entirely on two-track, the music on Monster Movie is atmospheric, electronic and manages to be tribal all at the same time. There's twenty-minute songs, and so many weird sonic experiments flying around it's safe to say this approach would limit Can's accessibility in the pop world. Despite this factor, Can's persistence for experimentation ended up opening the doors for many bands and techno geeks all over the globe and it allowed themselves to create their own genre in the process. This record was really only the beginning for them, but greatness has to start somewhere right?
After many great Can albums, and some thirty-five years later, Mute/Spoon Records has released Can DVD. This is a three-disc set, and is a plethora of rare and archived Can material. There's an audio CD of Can remixes, a live concert CD, featuring a "marathon" Can performance from 1972, and a documentary DVD, which I felt was the most impressive of the lot.
The concert volume opens up with some rather amusing, "far-out" imagery of various objects, then it cuts to the band onstage performing. This show was filmed in Cologne's Sporthalle in 1972, and we get to witness vocalist Kenji "Damo" Suzuki's appearance with the band, (several years following Malcolm Mooney's departure in 1969 due to a psychological breakdown of sorts). Here, we're treated to some wacky side shows, (jugglers, and some very impressive acrobats mind you), as well as some shots of some spaced out kids bobbing their heads to the music. It would have been hard not to watch a shirtless Damo Suzuki back then, with his freakout-head-bobbing, and listening to his scat-Japanese meets English warble. Unfortunately, the director of the film felt the same way, so he decided to extensively shoot Suzuki, and meanwhile the band around him could've used some additional footage beyond the quick stage cuts left and right.
In addition to this, the audio mix of the show leaves a lot to be desired. It's hard to make out the bass from the guitar, and we hear Irmin Schmidt's keyboard adornments sitting on top of it. The result is a strange mess, all put to Jaki Liebeziet's energetic, machine-like drumming. Being as this was filmed in 1972, on a limited budget, what could we expect? Despite the technical shortcomings of this film it's still a visual documentation of a great band in action, back in their day, playing for what seems like forever. It gives the viewer the impression of what "it must have been like at a Can concert". Which, back in Germany in 1972 seeing them for first time, would've been a wild experience for any concert goer.
The next volume is the "documentary" DVD, and despite Brian Eno's strange, goofball "When I think of Can, I think of..." film, this DVD is a real treat. One would think after hearing Brian Eno claim to be crazy about Holger Czukay's groundbreaking cut 'n' paste recording techniques back then, this should only strike our interest further, given a recording audiophile of this sonic caliber. His film seen here, despite his humorous "tongue in cheek" approach, is somewhat of a disappointment, and it reveals next to nothing about what makes Can great. Not to mention it's five- or six-minute length isn't long enough to warrant any more discussion.
The documentary gives a history of the band from the ground up, and it's a history worth viewing for anyone interested in recorded music of any particular genre. It's sad we'll never see this on VH1. Imagine the musical education we could possibly achieve here in America, right? Well, tough luck. Here, we see the members of Can in the modern day, explain how they brought Can together in Germany in the '60s, and what really set them apart from other bands. The viewer is treated to some great footage of the band. From clips of a random German horror film called The Knife, featuring a soundtrack (by you guessed it), to the band's old rehearsal space in Cologne, and some great shots of Holger working the mixing desk and rare glimpses of the band recording in the studio. We also see clips from Can performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test, as well as a German documentary dating from the early '70s that reveals the most about the bands' "strictly all about the music" manifesto.
We learn that unlike their peers, Can didn't embrace the counter-cluture politics of the day, or feel a need to put themselves on a wobbly Dylan-style, dare I say, condescending "political podium". This is commendable, and it ultimately resulted in music that's more timeless than ever. Irmin Schmidt proves himself to be an all-around genius with some great commentary about television's effect on music, the government's expections, and vice-versa. We also learn that Jaki Liebeziet's "machine like" drumming capability and style is a central component of the Can sound, and shouldn't be ignored. We're then taken into the '70s and '80s, up until today. It's really the golden period of Can from the late '60s early '70s on this documentary that captured my interest, and is worth the price of the DVD alone. We get to see Holger Czukay gradually move off the bass and into the onstage mixing-sampling phase and onward.
Going into the late '70s and beyond, I wasn't interested in seeing Can perform their "take on disco" hit I Want More on British television. At this point my roommate and I looked at each other in disbelief and asked "What happened to them?!" Thankfully, regardless of their recorded output in the '80s and '90s, Can did it unmistakably their way, and didn't make any compromises to anyone. It was nice to see them promoting their Sacrilege album in New York City, talking about their history together on radio shows and in photo shoots, and finally getting some of the recognition they deserve here in the states.
The late '60s and early '70s portion of the documentary gives the viewer the impression, from a musical standpoint, that when you compare what Can was doing in Germany, to the West Coast "acid-test" media-bloated Haight-Ashbury, and even later American psychedelic/experimental musical movements, it's evident Can really makes their American counter-parts out to be nothing more musical than a barrel of laughs. While America was busy convincing itself that the Grateful Dead and other West Coast bands were experimental and "far out" back then, they actually missed out on some of the most experimental music ever recorded. The Dead couldn't even come within a hundred miles of what Can was doing across the Atlantic. The only bands that come close to Can from an influential standpoint are maybe The Velvet Underground and The Mothers of Invention, but that's only comparing apples to oranges. Can were a rock band and futurists all at the same time, with elements of electronics, percussion, and rhythmic guitar. They put their musical brains together, and ended up creating some of the most interesting sounds ever to be captured on record. For any fan of recorded music, be it rock, electronic, classical, this DVD is waiting for you to discover what sets Can apart from other bands, and it reveals one of the best bands of the last fifty years in the history of recorded music.