Can Was 40 Years Ahead of Its Time. A New Book Helps Us Catch Up.
Posted June 12, 2018 5:24 p.m. EDT
“I thought it was like a living organism, Can: it had a beginning, it had a youth, it had a time getting old and a time to die.”
That statement by Holger Czukay, one of the founders of the experimental German rock band Can, is quoted by the music journalist Rob Young in the prologue to “All Gates Open,” his expansive new biography of the group. The book, out Tuesday in the United States, feels as though it arrives just in time. In one sense Can has come and gone: The band split up in 1978 after operating since the late 1960s, and Czukay and another core member, the metronomic drummer Jaki Liebezeit, died in 2017. (Another, the guitarist Michael Karoli, died in 2001.)
But the sounds Can made, mixing the primitive with the avant-garde and total freedom with rigid, funky grooves, continue to send out ripples of influence in underground rock, electronic music, film soundtracks and beyond. And through interviews with all of the band’s key members — the fourth is the keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, who collaborated on the book — as well as the group’s singers and friends, Young, a former editor of the British music magazine The Wire, brings the “organism” of Can back to vivid life.
Inspiration could come from anywhere.
If there is one current running through “All Gates Open,” it’s the idea that Can’s songs weren’t written, but tapped into as a primal force. “Instant composition,” Czukay said. “Like a football team. You know the goal, but you don’t know at any moment where the ball is going.” Words like “telepathic” are thrown around.
Band members describe playing the studio like an instrument, with microphones always live and tape constantly running. (Its first outpost was in a renovated castle, Schloss Norvenich, on the outskirts of Cologne; the group later moved into an abandoned movie theater.) On the day the band recorded the 1973 track “Future Days,” the mics captured the Japanese singer Damo Suzuki and the rustle of a bean bag chair.
“The atmosphere came from Damo sitting on his big cushion, and if it moved it made this ‘sch-sch’ sound,” Schmidt said. “And that’s actually how this piece started.”
Sometimes inspiration all but walked in off the street. Malcolm Mooney, an American who preceded Suzuki as the band’s vocalist, met Schmidt, who asked, “Can you sing?” His tryout — “that day or that afternoon or the next day,” Mooney recalled — went directly onto tape in one take and became “Father Cannot Yell,” the opening song on Can’s 1969 debut, “Monster Movie.”
Its concerts could stretch up to six hours.
As described by Young, Can’s live appearances could swing between transcendence and nihilism. A proto-punk, pranksterish streak, inherited from Schmidt and Czukay’s avant-garde roots with composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, resulted in some intentionally destructive performances, and sometimes the improvisations just didn’t fly.
Even at its tightest, in an 84-minute set taped for the German broadcaster WDR in 1970, Can could perplex an audience: “The crowd, mostly students and teenagers, stand stock still or sit cross-legged for the most part,” Young wrote, “occasionally clapping and shaking heads in rhythm.” At a Berlin university in 1972, though, the band tested the endurance of its hippy and radical following for a more practical reason: “Outside it was incredibly cold, at least minus-10 at night, and the police were not allowed on campus — that was German law,” Schmidt said. Outside the concert hall, he said, “hundreds of police were standing out there just waiting for something to really happen inside.”
When the concert ended at 3 a.m., the police were nearly all gone, he said. “Yeah, we won.”
One of its album covers was really a can.
“Ege Bamyasi” (1972), Can’s fourth album, contains one of its best-known songs: “Vitamin C,” whose deathless groove has caught the ears of everyone from breakdancers in the New York City subway to director Paul Thomas Anderson, who used it in “Inherent Vice.” (Even Raury and Jaden Smith gave it a spin on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix hip-hop series, “The Get Down.”)
Less well known is that the can of okra pictured on the album’s sleeve wasn’t a piece of art the band commissioned — it was simply found, as is, in a Turkish restaurant in Cologne and photographed. “Ege bamyasi” is Turkish for Aegean okra, known in German as “okraschoten,” and the Can logo “was part of the found object’s design: the brand name,” Young wrote. (Bonus album title fact: “Tago Mago” is a private island off Ibiza.)
John Lydon wanted to be its singer.
One of Can’s many unusual traits was its lack of a frontman, and after the departures of Mooney and Suzuki, the band never really found a replacement. American folk singer Tim Hardin nearly joined up at one point. But the most intriguing pairing that never happened might have been with John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten when he was singing for the Sex Pistols. As that punk band was imploding in the late 1970s — and before he formed Public Image Ltd., whose bass player Jah Wobble would later connect with Czukay, The Edge and Arthur Russell — Lydon picked up the phone to see if Can still needed a vocalist.
“Unfortunately, this was after the band had called it quits,” Young wrote, “but apparently it took several calls to convince Lydon this was true.”
Can’s “Soundtracks” really were soundtracks.
The group’s 1970 LP “Soundtracks” consisted of seven tracks written for films named on the album’s front cover. And in one of the book’s best deep dives, Young has tracked down and watched them (some “almost impossible to find, even in the web’s darkest corners”) and placed the songs back in their original contexts.
Several of the films seem best left in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. “Madchen ... nur mit Gewalt,” released internationally as “The Brutes” or “Cry Rape,” tries to explore a woman’s despair after a violent sexual attack, but “can’t avoid a sense of voyeuristic pleasure” in charting her torment, Young wrote. That imagery lends a new dimension of horror to Can’s “Soul Desert,” which the book also identifies as the troubled Mooney’s final appearance with the band: “He delivers the whole song in a desperately constricted death rattle. It’s the sound of a man, eyes pecked out, stumbling towards the end of his rope.”
By contrast, the film associated with “She Brings the Rain” — one of Can’s prettiest and most straightforward ballads — sounds as if it needs a Criterion-style restoration as soon as possible. Young’s plot description for Thomas Schamoni’s “Ein Grosser Graublauer Vogel” (“A Big Grey-Blue Bird,” listed as “Bottom” on the LP) is mind-bending: Scientists who have cracked the space-time continuum are being held hostage, and gangsters, hippies and others are trying to find them. “Its running theme is electronic eavesdropping, surveillance and the relationship of electronic media to perceptions of space and time,” he wrote.