Can - Biography

As musician-writer Julian Cope noted in Krautrocksampler, his irreplaceable 1995 book about experimental German rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Can was formed in the exhilarating revelation of seasoned musicians discovering rock ‘n’ roll.” The group’s four instrumentalists — who were joined in the early years by two non-professional vocalists — came from backgrounds in modern classical music and free jazz; all save one were in their ‘30s when they began performing together. They created their own musical vocabulary — which in the studio comprised radical tape editing an an early form of sampling -- based on a rigorous interpretation of late ‘60s experimental rock.

None of the German band’s albums ever charted in the US, but they exerted a powerful, magnetic influence on later musicians as diverse as Public Image Ltd., Brian Eno, The Fall, Stereolab, and Sonic Youth. Pete Shelley of the English punk band Buzzcocks wrote the liner notes for the first compilation of Can’s material in 1978; the ‘90s garage band The Mooney Suzuki took its name from Can’s two lead vocalists.

The band was formed in Cologne around 1967 by Irmin Schmidt and Hölger Czukay. The musicians both came from modern classical backgrounds; they met as students of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. During a trip to New York in 1966, keyboardist Schmidt had met John Cage and had been impressed by the work of such influential minimalists as Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, and Terry Riley; he had also gotten hip to the new music of confrontational bands like The Velvet Underground and The Mothers of Invention. He introduced Czukay to the new rock, and proposed a new band, in which Czukay would play bass.

The instrumental lineup was rounded out by guitarist Michael Karoli, a student of Czukay who was 10 years the junior of the other musicians, and Jaki Liebezeit, a disaffected free jazz drummer, formerly with trumpeter Manfred Schoof’s group, who was looking for an outlet that would incorporate highly rhythmic, almost monotonous playing. In 1968, this quartet was joined by Malcolm Mooney, an African-American sculptor who had met Schmidt’s wife Hildegard in Paris at the apartment of another Stockhausen student; the Schmidts hosted Mooney in Cologne, and he was drafted as the band’s vocalist.

Originally dubbed The Can at Mooney’s suggestion, the band set up shop in a makeshift rehearsal and recording studio in Schloss Norvenich, a Cologne castle owned by their friend Mani Lohe, who contributed the space to them for nothing. The band recorded tirelessly there, and also mounted a couple of “happenings” — free-form art and music events that had been a fixture of the avant garde scene since the ‘50s. Some of these sprawling live performances were recorded by Czukay; an edit of one number featuring free-associatiing vocals by Mooney, edited and adorned with primitive taped “samples” by Czukay, became “Yoo Doo Right,” which occupied the second side of The Can’s debut album Monster Movie (1969).

Originally issued in a private pressing of 500 on Germany’s Music Factory Records and subsequently re-released after executive Siggi Loch signed the band to United Artists, Monster Movie differed dramatically from the music then gestating among other progressive German rock musicians. Its lyrics, sung in German, generally eschewed sense; Mooney’s English vocals were often impenetrable, sometimes nonsensical, and essentially operated as a fifth instrument. In this era in which virtuosity was an increasingly valued commodity among rock musicians, no one in the band soloed; instead, they favored what would be referred to as “instant composition” — spontaneously, collectively improvised music laid down to a pulsating and incessant rhythmic pattern. (“We were always after the ultimate groove,” Schmidt said later.)

In late 1969 — by which time the group had dropped the “The” from their name — Can suffered a blow that set them reeling: Malcolm Mooney, never the most stable of performers, suffered a nervous breakdown thanks to his escalating drug and alcohol intake, and returned to America. The band recorded little for the next six months.

However, in May 1970, while the band was in Munich for four dates at the club the Blowup, Czukay was suddenly struck while sipping his afternoon coffee by the singing of a Japanese busker playing in front of the café. In typically spontaneous Can fashion, street singer Damo Suzuki was enlisted to perform with the group at that evening’s show. He would be their lead vocalist for almost four years.

Can’s next official album was prefaced by the release of Soundtracks (1970), which included music, featuring both Mooney and Suzuki, recorded for the films Deep End, Bottom, Deadlock, Cream, and Mädchen mit Gewalt. They released what many consider their magnum opus the following year. Again recorded at Schloss Norvenich, Tago Mago (1971) was a two-LP set split between sharply rhythmical rockers like “Paperhouse” and “Halleluwah” and veering experimental tracks like “Aumgn” and “Peking O.” Suzuki’s vocals, lighter but no more apprehensible than Mooney’s, locked in perfectly with Can’s forceful grooves and diffuse improvisations.

After Tago Mago, Can established their own Cologne studio, Inner Space, where Ege Bamyasi (1972) was recorded. While the album included expansive tracks like the 9-1/2 minute “Pinch” and the 10-1/2 minute “Soup,” the album also applied the band’s rhythmic style to songs of shorter duration. This resulted in Can’s first hit — “Spoon,” a Middle Eastern-influenced track with a bizarrely catchy vocal hook. The 45 sold 300,000 copies in Germany.

Future Days (1973) has been referred to by some as the first truly ambient album; it arrived a full five years before Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, the first in his “ambient music” series. Except for the brisk three-minute “Moonshake” (an evident attempt to repeat the single success of “Spoon”), the album comprised three limpid, oceanic tracks in which Suzuki’s voice was buried, murmuring, in the mix.

Sadly, this exquisite record — probably Can’s most accessible and melodic album — was Suzuki’s last with the band. The singer fell in love with a member of the Jehovah’s Witness sect, underwent a religious conversion, and returned to Japan. For the second time in five years, Can was without a vocalist. The group tried out several vocalists, including the ethereal American folk singer Tim Hardin, but no one worked out. Somewhat unwillingly, guitarist Michael Karoli stepped into the void; as he explained in a 1998 interview, “Somebody had to do it.”

The band’s next album, Limited Edition (1974), was precisely that: A limited-edition collection of tracks recorded with Mooney and Suzuki. It was originally pressed in a run of 15,000, and reissued by United Artists as Unlimited Edition (1976) with six additional tracks. This compilation of odds and ends is notable for the public debut of what Can called their “Ethnographic Forgeries Series” (EFS) — a studio attempt to essay styles ranging from bogus Japanese shakuhachi to fraudulent Dixieland. Irmin Schmidt has publicly shuddered at the application of the term “world music” to these counterfeits.

Karoli made his uncertain debut as Can’s lead singer on Soon Over Babaluma (1974), which was noteworthy for its rushing 11-minute track “Chain Reaction.” No one, least of all the guitarist, would claim that his heavily-accented vocals contributed as much atmospherically to the band’s work as Mooney and Suzuki’s suggestive, contorted stylings.

Nonetheless, he carried on at the microphone on Landed (1975), the album that probably began the rupture of Can in earnest. It was the first of the band’s records to employ multi-track recording and mixing; previously, most of the group’s work had been recorded on two-track equipment, and involved bounce-downs and extensive hands-on tape-cutting by Czukay. From this point forward, Can’s music eschewed the live-in-the-studio improvisation that was so central to its affect and came to rely increasingly on overdubbing and mix-down technology. Jaki Leibezeit said bluntly in a 1998 interview, “Our system of making music was destroyed by multi-tracking techniques.” Some commercial life yet remained in the band: Flow Motion (1976), released at the height of the Euro-disco explosion, contained the dancefloor hit “I Want More.”

The fissures that had already appeared in Can widened definitively with the debut of an expanded lineup on Saw Delight (1977). The band was augmented by the addition of conga player Reebop Kwaku Baah and bassist Rosco Gee, both recent members of the English band Traffic. Gee’s arrival signaled a shift in Czukay’s responsibilities; he was now relegated to tape-operating and editing duties, and to live mixing of sampled short-wave transmissions.

While the beefed-up lineup brought forth a fatter, funkier sound, it ended Can’s days of group-improvising glory; in fact, the new members forced a move away from group-published compositions into individually-credited tracks. “…Rosko and Rebop had internalized the music business too much; they couldn’t understand our way,” Schmidt said later.

Now far from its original collective roots, Can struggled on for two more albums. Out of Reach (1978) is distinguished by its status as the only album not reissued on Can’s own label Spoon; it is dismissed by all four original members. The group drew to an exhausted close with Can (1979); its unimaginative title summarizes the level of inspiration in its contents.

Malcolm Mooney, and the other members of Can, would make a pair of unexpected reappearances. In 1981, some crude yet exciting outtakes from Can’s sessions with Mooney were released as Delay 1968. More surprisingly, the former lead singer emerged from obscurity five years later and contacted his former band mates about the possibility of a reunion. The group’s original lineup regrouped for the belatedly released Rite Time (1989), a winning effort that nonetheless failed to recapture the fire of their original 1968 recordings.

One last collaboration with Mooney, minus Czukay, would appear on the soundtrack to German director Wim Wenders’ film Until the End of the World in 1991; Schmidt, Leibezeit, and Karoli contributed a track to a 1999 sampler under the Can name.

The four core members of Can — and a revitalized Suzuki, who started playing again in the ‘90s -- all recorded prolifically into the new millennium, save Karoli, whose lengthy battle with cancer ended with his death at 53 in 2001. By that point, Can had been feted by a new generation of musicians reared on their sound: The compilation Sacrilege (1997) included remixes of classic Can tunes by Eno, Pete Shelley, Sonic Youth, U.N.K.L.E., and Bruce Gilbert of Wire, among others. The band built their own monument to themselves with Can Box (1999), a CD/DVD/book collection released by Spoon that included mounds of unreleased material and insightful commentary by the band members themselves.

The wide-ranging impact that Can had on musicians who succeeded them, including a number of performers bred in the punk era, isn’t hard to understand. They carved their own terrain, bringing the musical artillery of modern composition and the uninhibited explorations of modern jazz to a form theretofore untrammeled by their influence. As the band’s name suggested, it was about opening a new realm of possibility in rock — “we can.” As Schmidt said in Can Box: Book in 1998, “After all, the ‘a’ in the middle of Can stands for adventure.”

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