INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut AUGUST 1997 - by Ian MacDonald
CAN: AUTOMATION FOR THE PEOPLE
A deep distant detonation echoed by an aftershock and a seething high-frequency fallout of fire and rain. Out of this drizzle rises a robotic one-bar drum figure, icily cycling around a gloomy sequence of open chords atmosphered out by organ and guitar.
Everything stems from the bass, mechanically oscillating in perpetual rise and fall (root-third, root-fourth, root-fifth, root-augmented fifth). This goes on for a while. Then the bass dives down an octave. Things get darker. Presently, ambience and tempo alter, clearing like rain swept off a windscreen. A chilly disembodied voice begins to sing in cracked Japanese. Soon comes another alteration of ambience and tempo - a cinematic wipe effected by an edit - and the mood turns urgent, gradually intensifying into agitated hysteria with a splinter-shriek guitar solo. Finally: pause, hold - and back to the gloomy perpetual rise/fall cycle we began in. Fade.
This is Oh Yeah from Can's 1971 album, Tago Mago. It's Can at both their best and most characteristic - by no means invariably the same thing.
Had The Terminator been shot in Europe, the director might have used Oh Yeah on the soundtrack. The music's brooding suggestion of post-nuclear desolation, its relentless machine-pulse, its inhuman hint of factory process - all were perfect for what, owing to Euro-nuances of sensibility and cultural reference, would have been a very different film.
Against the backdrop of early Seventies rock, Can's style was truly radical and, at the time, not much liked. Only in the '80s, with house music's canonisation of Kraftwerk, did Can begin to be assimilated to a context the pop world could identify. Now, along with lots more from the early Seventies, they are assuming their place in the gallery of contemporary influences.
What was so disruptive in 1971? THE repetition, for a start. Can were ahead of Neu! in making repetition of micro-cycles the basis of their music, a style founded on Jaki Liebezeit's unique automaton drumming, unveiled on Tango Whiskyman from 1970's Soundtracks. Holger Czukay's equally strange bass-patterns, often arpeggiated, were secondary effects of these micro-cycles but fundamental to the group's harmonies (sometimes monochordal and, as such, often very protracted). The references were, in general, to minimalism, Stockhausen, and The Velvet Underground of Sister Ray (e.g. Monster Movie), though more specifically to the rhythm-units used by James Brown's band, The Famous Flames (eg, Mushroom from Tago Mago). In an era of glam-rock retroism and technoflash complexity, Can's sheer structural starkness seemed outlandishly forbidding.
But there was something else about Can, an alien quality even weirder to the Western pop outlook: their Europeanness. Take that bass ostinato in Oh Yeah. It creates a bleak harmonic irresolution - nothing complicated, yet rootless and unstable in a way mirroring the dislocated unease of post-war continental Europe. It's the language and mood of composers like Part, Gorecki, and Kancheli, of no-man's-land films like Tarkovsky's Stalker. It's unavoidably foreign. And, again, stark.
Now that Can are becoming actively fashionable, what do modern listeners hear in their music? Since the Seventies, rock music has globalised. The foreignness of Can is no longer an issue; like "world music" and the international patois of techno, their work has become part of the fabric of today's universal audioscape. As with any process of generalisation, this has removed the music's specifically "German" qualities, as well as the more particular associations of the Ruhr milieu, with its underlying conceptual tension between nature and industry. What's left holds obvious attraction for today's drug/trance/rave culture: music with an expanded time-sense, quasi-psychedelic texture, and a structure of hypnotic repetition produced by musicians intent on exploring the man/machine interface before the age of the beatbox, let alone of the sequencer. (The first primitive drum machine in Can's music turns up in Peking O on Tago Mago. Characteristically, the group immediately plays with accelerating it beyond human capability, anticipating the origins of jungle and drum'n'bass.)
Copyright on the complete Can catalogue of around thirty albums has now reverted to the group, who are in the process of reissuing them on their Spoon label. An ideal moment for a new generation to get into Can, then. Except that a quarter of a century later, the majority of this music dismally fails to sustain intelligent attention, if it ever did to begin with. At their best, which didn't manifest often, Can were genuinely remarkable. Yet relistening to these discs back-to-back in 1997 confirms the original impression that the group's LPs amounted to extracts from one long low-intensity improvisation - the soundtrack to life at Schloss Nörvenich, their Cologne castle-studio. Far too often, almost nothing happens for ten minutes at a time. Liebezeit, the Human Loop, keeps the groove going while Malcolm Mooney or Damo Suzuki mumble and Michael Karoli languidly weaves sustained feedback. So what? One has a life to lead. Gentle reader, this is boring.
Young ears are far more tolerant of repetition than older ones, a fundamental principle of pop. This being so, if you're determined to think highly of Can, you will, no matter how tedious they make it for you. In which case, here's a clue. Can are German. They have a Method. The Method almost always dominates proceedings. Occasionally, as in Oh Yeah, it combines with real spontaneous inspiration to memorable effect. Most of the time, though, spontaneity is smothered in dull repetition and dogmatic austerity. If your idea of fun is gazing into one funked chord for half an hour, these may be your boys. If not, your money would, on the whole, be wiser spent on a day trip for a nice long walk in the country.
The only Can album worth owning in its entirety is Future Days, a record in which the group, figuratively speaking, goes for a nice long walk in the country. Method and inspiration plus tenderness and even joy - everything comes together in a limpid mood-piece still almost as airily beguiling as it was in 1973. A pity Spoon's all-expense-spared sleeve gives such an ugly impression of chuck-it-out-the-door cheapness.
Can's next best shot is their big, dark, often opaque double-album, Tago Mago; risk it if Future Days makes you fannish. Those building a krautrock collection must have Monster Movie, the LP that started it. And anyone interested in the roots of "world music" sampling and collage will be fascinated by Holger Czukay's prescient Canaxis from 1968.
For general listeners, though, apart from Future Days, it's a case of picking tracks: Mary, Mary, So Contrary from Monster Movie (1968-9), Mushroom and Oh Yeah from Tago Mago (1971), Sing Swan Song and Spoon from Ege Bamyasi (1972), and Come Sta La Luna from Soon Over Babaluma (1974). How, though, one is supposed to effect this selection, short of buying each complete CD, is unclear. A two-disc compilation, Anthology, exists but since it contains only a couple of these tracks (Spoon and Mushroom) it isn't a lot of use. Whatever you do, go nowhere near the group's soulless, quasi-commercial later albums: Landed (1975), Flow Motion (1976), Saw Delight (1977), Can (1979), etc.
Played out, the group split in 1980, its members going on to make many self-indulgent solo albums using the technology created by the microchip revolution, the very absence of which had forced everything vital and genuine in Can. Such reissues include Jaki Liebezeit's Nowhere (1984), Michael Karoli's Deluge (1984), Holger Czukay's Moving Pictures (1993), and Irmin Schmidt's Musk At Dusk (1987), Impossible Holidays (1992), and Anthology: Soundtracks 1978-1993 (1994). If there's a masterpiece among them, I must have been asleep while it was on.