Andy Gill, Mojo, April 1997
Art terrorism! Sensory derangement! Holistic vomiting! Available weekends...
CAN ALWAYS ADDED TO MORE THAN THE SUM OF their experience and influences. When the group made the seminal Monster Movie in 1968, three of its members (bassist Holger Czukay, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and drummer Jaki Liebezeit were already in their thirties, and had accumulated a collective CV that included studying avant-garde classical composition under Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and György Ligeti, and playing free jazz with the Manfred Schoof Quintet.
But there was a third force at work too: the band members claimed a kind of extrasensory assistance was responsible for the remarkably ordered nature of their improvised music. "Nothing is planned, both in the studio and on-stage," said Irmin Schmidt in 1975. "Everybody in this group is a telepath. There's nothing specially mysterious about telepathy -- it's something that happens to everybody every day. Like anything else, it requires training: you get to a certain level of telepathy and you have to take the next step. That's what I call a crisis point -- that's the basis of creativity, it's always crisis."
And it wasn't just the band members involved in the telepathy either, according to Michael Karoli in 1977: "When I'm playing on-stage I see that green eye of the reverb machine. I wait until the machine tells me that it wants to be put on, and then I put it on. It's very easy to get that power over machines once you have realised that a machine is also alive, and that what God is to us, we are to the machine."
Listening back to the best Can records -- Monster Movie, Future Days and Tago Mago -- it's difficult to dispute these outlandish claims. This is music forged from dreams, capable of both unearthly ferocity and extreme sensivity within the space of a few bars. They may have had a prodigious intake of LSD, but somehow Can's improvisations retain a focus and restraint beyond the indulgent appeal of most druggy noodlings. Again, their experience shows through: when most Anglo-American musicians improvise, they slip back into the blues jam, the common musical heritage; for Can this was virtually an alien heritage, and so few of their pieces rely on those clichis. Indeed, the only time the group played a real blues -- with Jaki Liebezeit playing trumpet like Louis Armstrong -- it was incorporated into their Ethnological Forgery Series, a collection of accidentally apocryphal anthropological recordings of non-existent cultures.
"We never called it improvising," explains Schmidt. "What we improvised were forms, which we called instant composition. There are references from one part to another, but created on the spot. You've got to learn to listen to others, more than just playing. We played every day, hours and hours, for years."
"We created a spiritual universe between us which allowed this kind of music," adds Michael Karoli. "That is one of the reasons why we can't go on-stage now and play together, because we don't spend enough time together playing. During Can, it was 16 hours per day in the studio. We only went home to sleep. We were working all the time. Very seriously. And fighting. If you take mistake as a mistake, you don't get very far with improvisation. If you take a mistake as music as well, you get your ideas from the mistakes, which is a very good way to do it, I find."
THE GROUP WAS FORMED IN THE LATE '60S BY SCHMIDT and Czukay, fellow students of Stockhausen at Darmstadt along with a flautist, David Johnson, who left before recordings began. Schmidt, who was more interested in American avant-gardists such as John Cage and LaMonte Young than in Stockhausen's rigid serialism, had become intrigued by the possibilities of the new rock as played by the Velvets and the Mothers, and he suggested forming a band operating somewhere between jazz, avant-garde and rock. Immediately interested, Czukay called up Karoli, whom he had taught a few years before in Z|rich. "Holger gave me some guitar lessons -- I discovered that he was a great jazz guitarist!" explains Karoli. "And all I've learnt about tape-cutting techniques, I learnt looking over his shoulder."
"I wasn't keen on rhythm and blues music then," admits Czukay, "but Mickey introduced me to things like The Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix. He also knew people who played sessions outside on a farm in Switzerland at the time, and he invited The Remo Four, who included Tony Ashton [of Resurrection Shuffle fame], to play with us. That night, as usual, Tony Ashton got very drunk, and we decided to form an experimental group. He was very much into the idea, until the next morning!"
Schmidt, meanwhile, contacted a drummer friend of his, Jaki Liebezeit, to ask if he knew a drummer who was up for something different. He did: the next day, Liebezeit left the relative security of the Manfred Schoof Group, moved to Cologne, and joined Can. "Jaki was fed up with not being allowed to play any rhytms any more," recalls Karoli. "He was practically reduced to playing the cymbals with a bow. Repetition was not allowed!"
"His deepest desire was to become a human machine," explains Czukay, "and he found the right guys to enforce that. He was The Can, he was the central figure; we all played around him."
"I didn't understand his aims in those days," adds Karoli, "because I still thought music was very much a human thing. But a drum machine could never play like Jaki: I know no other drummer who has such a sense of dosage for every single beat, how strong to hit it. The regularity of his snare drum work triggered off hallucinations."
In Can, Liebezeit devised a unique cyclical drumming style, anchoring the group's wildest improvisatory flows with metronomic, repetitive figures of mysterious power. "Jaki was always proud of being able to make certain people in the audience vomit," claims Karoli. "He could focus on one person in the crowd, and this person would start vomiting. We had a very medical approach to music."
"It would have been a healing for the guy; he needed it," explains Schmidt. "Repetition is the basis of so much religious and ritual music."
"It's mantric," agrees Karoli. "It could make people dance, even against their will. With a lot of rave music, you have to turn it up really loud for it to enter the body, but with some of Can's music it can be very soft, practically out of a telephone receiver; and that's very much due to Jaki."
Along with a fifth member, flautist David Johnson, the group ensconced themselves in their egg-carton-covered studio in Schloss Norvenich, a castle loaned to Schmidt by an art collector, and set about forging their new music. Johnson didn't last long. The same day that they decided upon the group's name, they recorded what Czukay describes as "the most anarchistic piece which Can has ever done", a 10-minute freak-out called 'Get The Can', which featured Schmidt torturing Karoli's old violin to within an inch of its life. "It was the first time in my life I had played violin," he recalls. "And I've never played it since!"
Johnson was appalled. "He's a fantastic flute player, but he has a classical sense of beauty, and 'Get The Can' violated any sense of beauty," recalls Schmidt. Before long, the group found a more apposite replacement when Schmidt's wife Hildegaard introduced them to Malcolm 'Desse' Mooney, a black American sculptor on his way back from India. Impressed by his spontaneous verbal dexterity and charisma, they adopted him as a vocalist. As soon as Mooney took to the microphone, the group's sound gelled; indeed, the first time he played with the band, they recorded the remarkable 'Father Cannot Yell', which appeared on Monster Movie.
Mooney was, by all accounts, something special. He would only remain with the group for one and a half albums, but during that short period became notorious for his provocative performance antics, such as the time he sang the phrase "Upstairs, Downstairs" for three hours, continuing even when the band stopped playing.
On another occasion he scandalised the German art world by auctioning off works by the French sculptor Armand for a pittance at an opening-night reception at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle. "Armand had a big pile of multiples, one-metre long plexiglass bricks with garbage inside," explains Schmidt. "All of a sudden, Malcolm was standing on top of this pile of objects, auctioning them: 'Here you go! 30 marks! Who'll give more?' People gave him the money and tried to run off with the boxes, which cost 6,000 marks apiece. The director came up to me with Armand, who was crying! But nobody could stop Desse! They closed all the doors and called the police. By this time he had made about 3,500 marks, which at that time was a lot of money."
"He could make something out of anything," recalls Karoli. "For instance, on the piece 'Yoo Do Right', Holger and Jaki were playing this rhythm, and that day Desse had received a letter from his girlfriend who was urging him to come back, and he just stood there and sang the letter. He could turn anything into music."
"He was a very funny storyteller too," says Schmidt. "Everything he did was some kind of art, but you can't live like this and have the problems he had."
And Mooney's problems were indeed legion. It transpired that some time earlier, while he had been visiting South America, the US draft board had, unbeknownst to Mooney, demanded he present himself at the draft office for service in Vietnam: he had, involuntarily, become a de facto draft-dodger. By the time he arrived in Europe Mooney was convinced the army was searching for him, and the worry escalated into full-blown paranoia when his name and photo started appearing in papers as a member of Can. Left-wing intellectual friends of the band didn't help matters either, when they told him that he was in the wrong place, and ought to return to America to fight for the rights of his black brothers. Wracked with guilt and paranoia, he began to fall to pieces.
"In the end, he locked himself in a cupboard for four days and wouldn't come out," recalls Karoli. On the advice of a psychiatrist, Mooney returned to the US where he later became an art teacher.
THE BAND'S DEBUT album was originally released as a limited edition of 500 copies on a small private label, with the intention of luring more substantial record company interest. One interested party was Israeli singer Abi Ofarim, who had recently, with his wife Esther, had a number 1 hit in Britain with 'Cinderella Rockefella', and was looking for something to invest his money in.
"Abi was known on the scene as having the best stuff to smoke," explains Gerd Augustin, who was in the German arm of United Artists at the time. "He had a company called Prom Music, and Can was his only underground act; he mostly had Israeli singers because he felt the German guilt complex might help them. But of course, people don't buy records according to nationality."
Andrew Lauder, head of A&R at British UA, found himself in a meeting with Abi Ofarim, the latter clutching a copy of Can's album -- "the first pressing of Monster Movie, which I thought was a tremendous record. We never heard from Abi again."
Neither, in effect, did the group; shortly after, Hildegaard Schmidt took control of the band's business, while Irmin took a course in law in order to fend off Ofarim's injuctions, which held up the release of their third and fourth albums, Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi. (An album of movie music commissioned for films by such as Sam Fuller and Jerzy Skolimowski, Can Soundtracks, had appeared in 1970.)
One of the events that brought relations with Ofarim to a head was the debut performance of Malcolm Mooney's replacement, a hitchhiking Japanese hippy called Damo Suzuki, at a prestige concert in Munich. Suzuki had been invited to appear with the band earlier that day, when Czukay and Liebezeit had encountered him shouting at the sky in a Munich street. "He said, 'I've nothing else to do, why not?'" recalls Czukay. "It was big concert, and without any rehearsal he just went up and started, first as a very cool, meditative samurai, but then suddenly he became a fighting samurai, and nearly all 1,500 people left the hall. There were only 30 Americans remaining, and with them David Niven. He stayed until the end!"
"We gave an enourmously strange performance," recalls Schmidt. "Holger was lying on his back with his bass on top of him; I had placed two huge bricks on the organ keyboard and turned it up to the maximum; Michael had placed his guitar against the loudspeaker, and was standing watching it making this awful feedback; Jaki was drumming like a madman; and then Damo gave the most violent performance I have ever seen. The organ and guitar were screaming by themselves while we stood and discussed whether we should move the bricks this way or that. Then Holger brought on a huge cake, which Damo put all over his face. People left in sheer horror. The few that stayed thought they had witnessed the most astonishing event of their life. And they had! David Niven said that he couldn't say whether he had heard music, but certainly he had heard the strangest thing he had ever encountered. Our manager was so ashamed! Damon was definitely the right man for us."
An immediate success, Suzuki applied his gentle, enigmatic tones to the next three or four Can albums, including the classic Tago Mago and Future Days, unitl he in turn left in September 1973 to become a Jehovah's Witness. By that time, Can had, in late 1971, moved their studio from Schloss Norvenich to Inner Space, based in an old cinema in Weilerswist, 20 kilometres outside Cologne, where they nailed 1,500 ex-army mattresses to the walls as soundproofing. "That must have been an inspiration." Karoli surmises. "We were surrounded by millions of erotic dreams, and probably sperm! The mattresses have wonderful sound characteristics, reflecting the top and the rest is swallowed." (So esteemed is the Inner Space sound that the mattresses are still there today.)
The group steadily built up a substantial following without compromising their musical ideas. Andrew Lauder of UA estimates that the group sold around 20,000 to 30,000 of each album in Britain, enough to provide them remunerative touring possibilities, which they undertook on an annual basis. Not all of Europe was quite as open to the group's eccentric charms, however. One early concert at the Zürich Schauspielhaus in September, 1969, a seven-hour multi-media performance called Can-action-rock-incitement-playground, drew the following reaction from a local newspaper reviewer: "These guys are sitting on wooden chairs playing electric instruments; it would be better if they were sitting on electric chairs playing wooden instruments." The group proudly included the quote in their promo biography.
In their own country, Can subsisted for several years with a small hardcore following, but were eventually rewarded for their persistence when 'Spoon', a track written as the theme tune for a Francis Durbridge thriller serial, became a German Number 1, selling upwards of 50,000, and enabling the band to play a 10,000-seat concert at the Cologne Sportshalle.
"The people at first thought we we totally insane," says Schmidt. "At that time, there was no German rock music -- everything came from England and America -- so starting with something that didn't sound at all like Anglo-American music, they thought we couldn't play it. They didn't really believe we didn't want to play that way!"
The way Can wanted to play was with all channels open, alert to the unusual and the auspicious accident. For the lengthy and menacing 'Aumgn', which takes up an entire side of Tago Mago, several band tracks were combined with this sound of Schmidt (high on acid) drumming frantically on a wooden chair; Suzuki did his thing on another track, while yet another tape, of Schmidt chanting the title, was slowed down to an eerie growl; and two accidental contributors -- a black dog, and a young boy from upstairs who joins the proceedings in the mistaken belief that it's some kind of party -- wander in and offer their vocal support. The resulting piece is as close to a nightmare as rock music has managed. By comparison, the ethereal ambience of of Future Days, particularly the shimmering Bel Air suite which takes up side two (aka 'Spare A Light'), is like balm: the perfect accompaniment to a summer's day, as close to rustic bliss as technology gets.
After Suzuki's departure, the band decided not to replace him, Karoli and Schmidt sharing vocal duties instead for a couple of albums, before offering the mic briefly (and unsuccessfully) to singer-songerwriter Tim Hardin. The group did expand after hooking up with Virgin Records and scoring their only British hit, the single 'I Want More', but the new members -- bassist Rosko Gee (freeing Czukay to concentrate more on his radio and tape collages) and former Traffic percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah -- seemed to impose too strict a sense of rhythm on Can's once free-flowing music, which was diluted with insipid reggae riffs. By 1977, just as Johnny Rotten was hailing the band as one of his main influences, Can had effectively ossified into a ghost of its former self.
The situation wasn't helped by the authorial attitude the new members brought with them, which conflicted with Can's collective spirit. Heretofore, all members had been equally credited as composers even when they didn't play on a particular track, so when Rosko Gee appeared as a sole author of a couple of tracks on 1978's Out Of Reach album, it was a clear harbinger of the end. "Can were not very rich people -- in fact, we were very poor -- but we never once had any discussion about money," says Karoli. "I'm very grateful for that, for the way we trusted each other completely. Later, when musicians from the international scene joined us, they couldn't understand it -- they thought we were ripping them off."
"This is absolutely not the idea of Can," sighs Schmidt, "and so it had to finish."
Holger Czukay, the band's engineer and editor, was the first of the founding quartet to leave, travelling widely to record the indigenous musics that, prefiguring such as The Orb, he would manipulate on albums like Movies and On The Way To The Peak Of Normal. Without him, Can slumped badly: Out Of Reach was a poor record, and the group seemed to realise it, breaking up a few months later.
All four members continue to work in music -- Czukay with Jah Wobble and The Edge, and more recently with Air Liquide and a female singer called U-She; Liebezeit with Phantom Band and Michael Rother; Karoli with Polly Estes and on his own records; and Schmidt on film and theatre projects, including the forthcoming stage adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy -- though a 1989 reunion album, Rite Time, showed their best work as band was, sadly, well behind them. Karoli is assembling a live album from Can archives for release next year. The quartet have no definite plans to work together again, but as Schmidt says, "We have never had plans. Things just happened."
"In fact," reflects Karoli, "I think the greatest strength was to let things happen."
Copyright © 1997 Mojo Magazine
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