Prog JANUARY 2014 - by John Doran


In the '70s, Can became household names. Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay talk about art, David Niven and being honorary Brits...

Germany's most influential - and best - experimental rock band of the 1970s and 1980s, Can are often painted as an obscure or underground act. This is slightly misleading. While they never attained the world-bestriding fame of their electronic counterparts in Düsseldorf, Kraftwerk, or the mainstream success of their heavy rock compatriots Scorpions, in the mid-'70s Can were practically a household name in the UK. The 1970s was a much more open-minded decade than the current one, and music fans were much more likely to take a bunch of anarchistic, avant-garde students of Stockhausen who made up songs as they went along to their hearts. Their record sales (and those of countrymen Tangerine Dream and Faust) back this up. It didn't seem to bother switched-on British heads too much that Can never played songs in the same way twice. Nor did it worry them that they often employed crazed, messianic singers and musicians who would fire off blazing solos on shortwave radios and telephone receivers as well as on electric guitars.

Looking back on this period, Holger Czukay, the group's bass player and chief sound engineer, says: "In the mid-1970s Can was more or less seen as a British group! [laughs] We weren't treated as 'Krauts'..."

In 1975 - just a year before they scored a UK smash hit with the single I Want More - the group were broadcast to hundreds of thousands of British viewers on The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing the agitated funk-rock of Vernal Equinox. Even watching it today provides a visceral example of why Can were taken to the heart of forward-looking rock fans in the UK. Czukay looks every inch the German rock star of the day with his high cheekbones, flamboyant handlebar 'tache, flares and white gloves and is locked into a frantic groove with der Mensch Maschine, drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Their amphetamine-paced, muscular, funk rhythm seems to predict the entire coming post-punk movement and shows a clear influence on bands like PiL and The Pop Group. Centre stage is longhaired guitarist Michael Karoli, switching effortlessly between highly polished, Nile Rodgers-esque disco rhythm and heavy-as-hell Stooge-ian riffology (even though he completely fluffs his second solo). But the star of this particular show is undoubtedly Irmin Schmidt, the founding member and chief conceptualist of the group, revealing some very unique playing techniques. He looks like some kind of Germanic Bond villain crossed with Herbert Lom in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, wearing what appears to be a chainmail waistcoat and sunglasses, grinning with evil intent as he progresses from playing Joe Zawinul-style electric piano vamps to attacking his keyboards with brutal karate chops, punches and jabs with his elbows. His instrument, as the sleevenotes to their second album Tago Mago (1971) point out, often sounds more like a guitar or a UFO taking off than a mere terrestrial keyboard.

Schmidt remembers the show well: "I had a one-of-a-kind custom-made synthesizer, which was a box called the Alpha 77, with various filters, oscillators and, most importantly, ring modulators inside. And by altering this slightly you could change the sound enormously, creating very wild electronic noises. My Farfisa organ had a pre-amp which wasn't very good, but when you overloaded it properly it made this noise which sounded like twenty Harley-Davidsons revving up."

While Can had the chops that a lot of Prog fans could admire, they also had a secret weapon - complete unpredictability. Talking about their habit of never playing the same song in the same way twice, Czukay says: "We were always spontaneous. We were always facing the unknown. Something unexpected always happened between us and the audience. We were not like the other groups who were always arranging every second and minute of every song perfectly."

While Can were undoubtedly a rock band, they placed high importance on rhythm and this is another reason why they prospered so well as a live act: they were as much for people who wanted to dance and freak out as for people who wanted to stand stock-still with mouths agape at the sonic alchemy happening on stage.

Schmidt says: "In Britain we noticed this from our very first tour in 1971. Our first date was at a university in London and people were going wild dancing. People were fascinated in Britain, especially because it was something totally different.

I remember on the second tour later that same year, people were really dancing like crazy in Scotland. They came on stage with us, and there was this guy who came to me and hugged me so fiercely that he broke one of my ribs! But it was meant as a very enthusiastic gesture of love for what we did. The reason for this reaction to our music from the beginning onwards that our music was always very physical and, of course, people always responded by moving."

In 1968, on returning to Germany after an eventful trip to New York, where he encountered the cream of the avant-garde and underground rock (not to mention getting led astray in the Chelsea Hotel), Irmin Schmidt decided to form a group. The student of Karlheinz Stockhausen had a high concept for this group: it would draw equal influence from jazz, classical, avant-garde and rock. He invited Holger Czukay, a fellow student of modern classical music that he met at the Rheinisch Musikschule in Cologne, to join the group.

Schmidt remembers: "Holger once asked me if I could perform a piece he had written for percussion. This was so incredibly complicated that it was actually unplayable but we had a lot of laughs trying to figure out what he had actually written. We had a lot of fun together, so when I had the idea [for Can] I asked if he'd like to join this group and he was enthusiastic. He brought Michael with him who was his guitar pupil. Then Jaki joined on drums and there it was."

Schmidt was slightly older than the other members and already had a rep in the world of art and classical music, which obviously came in handy, given that it opened doors for the budding group that your average German longhair at the end of the 1960s would have struggled to unlock. The group's first two albums proper - Monster Movie (1968), Tago Mago - were recorded in a castle at Schloss Nörvenich, where they founded their Inner Space studios. The extremely desirable domicile was, to paraphrase Richard E Grant in Withnail & I, free to those who could afford it, very expensive to those that couldn't. The keyboard player explains the stroke of luck: "Before Can I was a conductor and composer, and performing quite a bit in different galleries and museums. As well as playing at various art events, I was also writing about art. In fact, I had more friends who were painters and sculptors than I did musician friends. When we started with Can, I asked everyone in the art scene, 'Do you know a place where we can rehearse and play?' And this collector, Christoph Vohwinkel, said, 'Yeah, I have this castle and you can have a room in there.' After gallery events he would invite all the collectors and artists back, where we would play live. These were our first ever concerts. There was a wonderful hallway in this castle which had amazing reverb and that was the source of the amazing reverb on the first two records."

Schmidt's wife and Can's manager, Hildegard, introduced the group to their first singer, Malcolm Mooney, an Afro-American painter who had fled the draft in his home country. He was an enigmatic focal point for the group on their first album (a wealth of first time last year on the excellent Lost Tapes box set) and, by many accounts, he trod the fine line between eccentricity and mental illness. The pair speak fondly of Mooney (who would rejoin a much later incarnation of the group) and Czukay laughs heavily as he remembers a typically unhinged performance he helped them give: "We played a gig in an art gallery in Düsseldorf for an artist called Armand who was having an opening-night exhibition for his new sculptures, which had been commissioned by a theatre company. And during our set Malcolm saw all of his work and decided to become an auctioneer on stage. He started to sell the art pieces. He was shouting, 'Hey! You want some art? Take this piece here! It costs only £50. Do I hear any more than £50? £60... sold!' People realised what was happening because he was selling them all for such small amounts of money, and they were leaving with all the sculptures. Armand was stood there in tears, saying, 'This is impossible! My art! My art!' [laughs] Malcolm became a bit psychotic in the end, though, and he was longing to get back to New York I think. It was a pity what happened but Malcolm was a psychologically complicated person."

After Mooney left, they didn't have to wait long to find a new frontman, however. As Schmidt puts it: "It was like God dropped these wonderful singers into our lap." Czukay and Liebezeit were sitting outside a streetside cafe in Munich one day in 1970, discussing their frontman problem, when the solution presented itself. He says: "Somebody was coming down the street and singing. And I said to Jaki, 'We have found a singer for tonight's concert.' Jaki said, 'How can you say that? You don't know him!' I stood up and went to Damo [Suzuki] and said, 'What are you doing tonight?' And he said, 'Nothing.' I said, 'Do you want to sing in a concert?' And he said, 'Yes! Why not?' So not long after that we went on stage, but we weren't really making music at first, we were sitting down on stage and having coffee and cake. But then suddenly Damo started singing very aggressively and this was affecting the audience, and they all got up and escaped. At the start there were 1,200 people there and, because of the way he was acting, by the end there were only thirty people left but one of them was David Niven. Afterwards, I said to him, 'Mr Niven, what do you think about this music?' And he said, 'Dear boy, I didn't know it was music but it was fascinating.' [laughs]"

Despite his odd live debut for the group, Suzuki proved to be an inspired addition to the line-up and this saw the band enter their imperial phase, which produced the unassailable run of classics Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973).

The group employed a method that they dubbed 'instant composition', turning instruments up loud, often playing outside or with all the doors and windows open, responding to environmental sounds of nature, passers by or traffic, forming grooves slowly before embarking on epic sessions, taking the riff into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and back. Czukay and the other members would then edit these mammoth slabs down into epochal tracks such as Mother Sky, Vitamin C and Halleluhwah.

Like prog-rock, so-called 'Krautrock' was more an ethos or a mind-set than a clearly defined genre, with many of its leading groups sounding nothing like one another. But unlike prog, which blossomed all over the world, Krautrock was a uniquely German movement - and there was good reason for it. As with a lot of young people growing up in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, some members of Can were heavily influenced by the physical and psychic fallout. Schmidt, who experienced the allied air raids in Berlin when he was very young, says: "This affected me very heavily. The biggest influence was growing up and realising that the generation of my parents had devastated our country. And not just the houses, towns and cities but they devastated it morally, aesthetically and culturally as well. There was very little left of Germany and it all had to be rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps this is where a bit of the harshness in Can's music comes from, but also we wanted to do something which was our own and could only have come from this new country [that Germany was becoming] and was not from the past or an imitation of English pop music."

Can have fallen off the radar somewhat since the mid-1970s. But for younger people looking for inspiration in older music, their stunning back catalogue is ripe for discovery.