Mojo FEBRUARY 2008 - by Mike Barnes


It's the Krautrock Beatles!

Can formed in Cologne in 1968, a cultural year zero for German youth. Shaken by psychedelia and galvanised by the May riots in Paris and demonstrations by students in their homeland, young Germans were keen to move out from under the long shadow cast by their parents' generation. Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bass guitarist Holger Czukay had both studied under Stockhausen and, although turned thirty, were also affected by this mood change. Czukay - then a music teacher - says they intended to "forget everything we knew" and open their ears to the music of The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis and ethnic music from around the world.

Guitarist Michael Karoli had been one of Czukay's students, and turned him onto The Beatles, while Jaki Leibezeit had played free jazz, but now decided to strip back his drumming and explore rhythmic "regularities". Can's vocalists from 1968 to '73 were Malcolm Mooney, an eccentric black American sculptor and, later, Japanese busker Damo Suzuki. These were unorthodox combinations for a rock group even in those heady days, but with a remit extending to pop, avant-garde and an endless exploration of groove, Can were one of the freakiest, funkiest groups of the time.

The musicians had a near-telepathic empathy, developed by playing together virtually every day at their rehearsal spaces at Schloss Nörvenich near Cologne and, later, at Inner Space, a former cinema.

Can's approach, both live and in the studio, was based on improvisation - or "instant composition" as they preferred - with pieces evolving into songs or tape-edited into shape by Czukay. Their influence has been massive, touching the likes of Brian Eno, David Bowie, The Fall, Joy Division, PiL, Primal Scream, Talking Heads, Radiohead et al. If possible, get the hybrid SACDs from the recent Can Remastered series - they sound a lot better than the earlier CD transfers.

10 Cannibalism 2
It has to be admitted that although Can made some excellent music from 1975 to 1978, it was in relatively short supply. In this respect, the compilation Cannibalism 2 is a good entry point into their later work. Here are some of the best tracks from Landed, Flow Motion, Can and Saw Delight - including their boss minor disco hit from 1976, I Want More - as well as cuts from Delay and Unlimited Edition. Collectors will also relish the bonus tracks, Turtles Have Short Legs and Shikaku Maru Ten, both otherwise unreleased gems featuring Damo, and a brief curiosity featuring Malcolm Mooney, Melting Away.

9 Live 71-77
This raw double CD catches Can in full, unedited flight. The sound isn't always mixer-board pristine, but highlights include a hugely thrilling, high velocity version of Vernal Equinox from 1975's Landed, and a surprisingly aggressive version of Spoon from a 1972 Cologne concert. But the highlight is Colchester Finale, a thirty-seven-minute feast of organic, ambidextrous polyrhythms recorded at the University of Essex later that year. At times Karoli's rhythm guitar is Stax-like in its choppiness, while Schmidt's playing veers from pianistic intricacies to building-site noise. The set closes with a formidable version of Tago Mago's Halleluwah. Lucky students.

8 Unlimited Edition
Originally released as Limited Edition - a scrapbook of studio bits and pieces - the expanded Unlimited Edition offers otherwise-unreleased material from 1969 to '75. From 1972, the heady Damo-led acoustic excursion, I'm Too Leise, is a real beaut and unlike anything else they released. Mooney also makes an appearance, most notably on the surreal story of Mother Upduff. Some of Can's tongue-in-cheek EFS (Ethnological Forgery Series) exercises - eg pastiches of Dixieland jazz - are a bit odd, but there are excellent tracks here, like the meditative, Floydian instrumental, Gomorrha, and multi-edit tape piece, Cutaway.

7 Soundtracks
From shortly after their inception, Can also started to write music for films. Although not strictly a "proper" album, Soundtracks is still a potent collection. By the time of its release, Mooney had left and Damo had only recently joined but both are featured in excellent performances, including Damo's first ever Can recording, Don't Turn The Light On, Leave Me Alone, on which he introduced his unique mix of English, Japanese and phonetics, which he called the "Language of the Stone Age". However, all else is eclipsed by one of Can's greatest moments, the relentless fourteen-minute road trip that is Mother Sky.

6 Soon Over Babaluma
Can incorporated reggae into their music until they split in 1978, but never as sucessfuly as on the skeletal Dizzy Dizzy. With Damo gone, Michael Karoli steps in and Schmidt also has a go on the Teutonic Tropocalia of Come Sta, La Luna. Now the group had become an eight-legged groove machine and on Chain Reaction they lock into a hi-speed disco pulse as Schmidt karate-chops his keyboard in time to the drums and Karoli describes his monstrous paramour: "No good woman / Elephant woman / Dominating lady." It segues into the open spaces of Quantum Physics, an inspired combination of editing and atmospherics.

5 Delay 1968
On its release in 1981, Delay 1968's appearance came as a big surprise. Recorded at Scloss Nörvenich, the material actually predates the band's Monster Movie debut. Finding no one prepared to release it, the group shelved the tracks. But thankfully czukay retrieved them from the archives, because they stand comparison with Monster Movie. With Karoli's guitar lines evoking The 13th Floor Elevators, it's a raw-boned excursion into the Krautrock-psychedelia interface. The relentless, one-chord rocker, Uphill, is one of the best song's of the Mooney era, and on Thief - covered live by Radiohead - he gives his most yearning vocal performance.

4 Monster Movie
The extent of the Great Unlearning of Can undertook for their debut is immediately apparent from the single oscillating organ note that opens Father Cannot Yell, its locomotive rhythm urged on by Mooney's edgy, stream-of-consciousness vocals. Their signature style can be heard emerging on the on-off bass and rotating drum patterns of Yoo Doo Right, edited down to twenty minutes from a much lengthier performance. What is remarkable about the album is that Can do not quite sound like a garage band - they play much too well for that - but then neither do they sound like a bunch of musos slumming it.

3 Future Days
Damo Suzuki drifted off after recording Future Days, somewhat alienated by the group's new direction. Liebezeit, meanwhile, felt it too "symphonic". By contrast, Czukay liked it for exactly that reason. The twenty-minute Bel Air - edited together into a suite from a number of takes - sounds somewhat contrived in structure, but then the group's collective playing is stunning throughout. The album has a rarefied, Elysian quality about it, strongly evident on the title track. With Karoli's languid guitar and violin, and Schmidt's jet-stream synthesizers arcing over Leibezeit's bossa nova beats and Czukay's bass harmonics, it's the band's most ineffably beautiful moment.

2 Tago Mago
On this double album - the first full release to feature damo Suzuki on vocals - Can shifted into a less expressionistic, more melodic phase hallmarked by the singer's incantatory style. But this is still a taut, sinewy collection. Paperhouse may feature a swooning vocal performance but Karoli's guitar lines are trebly and keening, while the sidelong Halleluwah lopes along like a Kosmische interpretation of new Orleans-style funk. The group also revisit their avant-garde roots on the vast tape collage, Aumgn, with barking dogs among its features, and Schmidt, who was apparently tripping on acid, intoning the track title as if from within a Tibetan temple.

1 Ege Bamyasi
Here, Can are at their poppiest and most approachable as exemplified by Spoon, the theme for a popular German TV cop show, which helped it to become a Number 1 in their homeland. A drum machine ushers in the swinging verses, with sweet guitar lines and Suzuki's daydreamy vocals wafting on the breeze. Elsewhere, the sublime One More Night represents Can's greatest trance groove, but Ege Bamyasi also sees their darker side break through on Soup, an improvisation that would have sounded rather more at home on Tago Mago. The group chose the most abrasive section for inclusion on their Anthology best of, so perhaps it was deemed necessary to this album's Yin-Yang balance.

Avoid THESE!
It would be great to say that Can's final album saw them signing off at their creative zenith. But unfortunately, Can's lowest point is reached with the last in the EFS series, a version of Offenbach's Can Can. Its predecessor, Out Of Reach, is even worse, apparently, but the band have disowned it to such an extent that they have deleted it, and they never mention it in interviews. The offending work is even omitted from their discography. The group briefly reunited with Malcolm Mooney for 1989's Rite Time, which although somewhat anomalous, is at the very least worth a listen.