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Can

According to “Floored Genius” JULIAN COPE (a man with knowledge of all things kraut-rock), CAN were – and probably still are – the best thing since sliced bread: and who could doubt a man who’d similarly straddled both the pop world and the avant-garde. Initially inspired by PINK FLOYD, The VELVET UNDERGROUND and mentor Karlheinz Stockhausen, West Germany’s experimentalists CAN were visionaries, using instrumental funk, jazz and classical rhythms when their counterparts TANGERINE DREAM and KRAFTWERK relied heavily on synths. Household names beyond their Cologne origins, the definitive early 70s line-up of Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebezeit, Michael Karoli and Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, pioneered their own take on improv-esque minimalism, creating a hypnotic, free-form sound, relentless in its intensity.
Formed in May 1968 when psychedelia was evolving into prog, 30-somethings Irmin Schmidt (keyboards) and Holger Czukay (bass) – latter also of TECHNICAL SPACE COMPOSERS’S CREW (one set: `Canaxis 5′) – had enough experience to take them beyond mere research boffins and into the world of pop/rock. A classical composer, Schmidt had broadened his musical horizons by way of a trip, in 1966, to New York City, working briefly with the likes of TERRY RILEY, Steve Reich and La Monte Young. With a sense of urgency, Czukay was invited to enlist a few comrades from his work as a teacher, and teenage guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, reed/wind/samples man David C. Johnson and confrontational black American-born sculptor-turned-voice, Malcolm Mooney, were the chosen ones; in the meantime, Schmidt had scored the music for the 1969 flick, KamaSutra. Abandoning their Inner Space name for The CAN moniker (note the then use of the definitive article), the group suffered their first personnel casualty when jazz-orientated Johnson jettisoned; recordings of their earliest works (entitled “Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom”) were issued in 1981 as “Delay 1968”.
1969’s debut album proper, MONSTER MOVIE {*8} – subtitled “made in a castle with better equipment” (and referring to its 14th century-built recording base in North Rhine-Westphalia) – the LP included a 20-minute mantra, `Yoo Doo Right’, extracted from a marathon live improv-session and highlighting the very real dementia of Mooney’s ravings.
After laying down both sides for the single, `Soul Desert’, b/w `She Brings The Rain’ (lifted for movies “Madchen mit Gewalt” and “Bottom” respectively), Mooney would suffer a nervous breakdown. Although these aforementioned dirges appeared on album number two, SOUNDTRACKS (1970) {*6}, it was his replacement, the Japanese-born “vocalist” Damo Suzuki (spouting a gamut of shrieking phrases in also German and English), that took over the show. Clocking in at a TANGERINE DREAM-length 14 minutes, `Mother Sky’ (from the film, Deep End), was the definitive highlight, while other pieces stemmed from “monstrous” movies, Deadlock and Cream.
More improvised beauty was evidenced on their next record, the German Top 40 classic, TAGO MAGO (1971) {*10}, a sprawling double-set that featured three of their more hypnotic tracks, `Halleluwah’ (at 18, pre-“HAPPY MONDAYS” minutes), `Aumgn’ (running up a chasmic 17!) and the sombre `Mushroom’.
On the group’s next couple of releases, EGE BAMYASI (1972) {*8} – featuring Top 10 homeland hit `Spoon’ – and FUTURE DAYS (1973) {*8} – showcasing the glacial, side-long `Bel Air’, CAN explored even more ritualistic textures alongside Suzuki’s partly-spoken tri-lingual ramblings; the singer subsequently returned to Japan to become a Jehovah’s Witness after a final gig at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival.
Vocal duties now shared by both Karoli and Schmidt on the more percussive, SOON OVER BABALUMA (1974) {*8}, the pounding bass-friendly grooves of `Dizzy Dizzy’ and `Come Sta, La Luna’, were in stark contrast to the GONG-meets-MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA of the other epic, jam-like pieces such as `Splash’, `Chain Reaction’ and `Quantum Physics’.
Opting for a lucrative deal at Richard Branson’s revolutionary Virgin label (home to MIKE OLDFIELD, TANGERINE DREAM, ROBERT WYATT, et al), album number seven, LANDED (1975) {*6}, was a prime example of erratic self-indulgence gone wrong in their advance to become neo pioneers of astral, avant-garde glam. Still, the track `Hunters And Collectors’ proved to be an inspiration for a certain Aussie indie ensemble and, arriving via two other ditties (`Full Moon On The Highway’ and the salsa-tastic `Half Past One’), the record was an outlet for outsider wordsmith, Peter Gilmour; the said journalist was also behind subsequent off-kilter, UK Top 30 hit, `I Want More’, from CAN’s upwardly mobile, FLOW MOTION (1976) {*6}.
With the cosmopolitan-like addition of Jamaican bassist/singer Rosko Gee and seasoned session percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah (from Ghana) – who’d both played with TRAFFIC – Messrs Schmidt, Liebezeit, Karoli and electro-inflected Czukay, further slid into a sunny-day African/reggae/World influenced direction for 1977’s SAW DELIGHT {*6}; its saving grace coming in the shape of the 15-minute, TANGERINE DREAM-like `Animal Waves’; the inspiration no doubt to ENO & BYRNE’s “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” set.
Proving to be the last straw for demoted Czukay (whose role was as producer only), the resultant OUT OF REACH (1978) {*3} was subsequently disowned by the group as a whole – a rather wholly insignificant potpourri of jazz and death-defying disco.
The group’s final effort, the eponymous CAN (1979) {*4} – or to give it its other title “Inner Space” – was interesting only for its re-hash of Offenbach’s `Can-Can’, disguised here as `EFS Nr. 99’; only their previously unsubtle festive rendition of `Silent Night’, or MIKE OLDFIELD’s `Portsmouth’, could be more embarrassing. While the world of alt & indie rock was exploring the possibilities that CAN had sourced out a decade ago, the group themselves were something of a parody unto themselves – time to break-up – yes!
With KAROLI, SCHMIDT, LIEBEZEIT and the already awol CZUKAY continuing as solo artists in the own right, the latter pairing teamed up once again (alongside JAH WOBBLE) on the 1982 album, “Full Circle”. The original pre-70s CAN re-formed in ‘86 for a studio set, although the delay of RITE TIME (1989) {*5}, probably put paid to any glorious comeback; the patient Mooney was said to have found an air ticket behind his sofa that his former compadres had sent him several years ago! Without proper promotion from Mercury Records, even neo-fan faves such as `On The Beautiful Side Of Romance’ and the bouncy `Hoolah Hoolah’ (think DANNY ELFMAN on speed), lacked the inspiration and originality that characterised CAN’s seminal work. On a sad footnote, Anthony “Reebop” Kwaku Baah died in 1983 of a cerebral haemorrhage while performing on stage in Sweden with JIMMY CLIFF.
Despite the band’s latter-day misnomers, CAN remained highly regarded, cited as a major influence by artists as diverse as CARL CRAIG and PRIMAL SCREAM. Even Mark E. Smith and The FALL paid homage to the seminal group by crediting a song as `I Am Damo Suzuki’. A plethora of post-CAN work (mainly from CZUKAY) appeared from time to time, although their legacy was always from the experimental 70s. More recently, on the 17th November 2001, the death by cancer of Michael Karoli filtered through to the media. He would be sadly missed by everyone who knew him. Another giant in his day, Jaki Liebezeit, passed away from pneumonia on 22nd January 2017.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Oct2013-Jan2017

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