Hearing Can for the first time is one of those musical experiences you never forget. You’re left feeling taken aback by it all, how this German band was able to create music that was not so much underground as it was just plain otherworldly, so much so that it even sounds ahead of its time three decades later, but to hear such strange, progressive sounds coming from a band that was equally adept at some of the most brilliantly rhythmic, and downright funky music ever recorded is what draws us all in. Sure, all those bands from Captain Beefheart, to the Mothers of Invention, to Yes, to Emerson Lake & Palmer all had the chops, but nobody, made progressive rock music as danceable as Can did. Whether it’s the bizarre pop of “Spoon”, the rampaging jam of “Mother Sky”, or the air-tight rhythm section in “Halleluwah” that keeps us glued to our seats for nearly 20 minutes, it’s that primal aspect of Can’s timeless music that makes it so oddly appealing.
If hearing Can for the first time is surreal enough, imagine the reaction of those curious folks who decided to attend Can’s free concert at Cologne’s Sporthalle in 1972. Can had just managed to crack the German mainstream earlier that year with the “Spoon” single, which was used as a theme for a popular television program, but one glimpse at the band onstage that day shows that this was a band unwilling to cater to the masses. Instead, what the masses got was four guys studiously playing their instruments, each lost in their own worlds: the bespectacled Irmin Schmidt fiddling with his many keyboards, Michael Karoli shredding away on his guitar, head down, his face obscured by his long mane of hair, Jaki Liebezeit achieving a perfect balance between jazz beats, rock drumming, and African percussion, and Holger Czukay coolly thrumming away on bass. All the while, a maniacal little Japanese hippie named Damo Suzuki hops about the stage in a garish pink and red velvet jumpsuit, spouting incomprehensible pidjin vocals. Toss in a juggler, a saw player, and some acrobats appearing onstage as the band jams away, and you’ve got a spectacle that, even today, is impossible to take your eyes off of.
That concert, produced and edited by Petr Przygodda, who would go on to edit most of the films by the great Wim Wenders, serves as the centerpiece of the excellent Can DVD, a two-disc set that had fans drooling when it came out two years ago, and with its recent re-release, will be just as revelatory to those who have not yet seen it. Not only does the 51-minute Can-Free-Concert capture Can’s potent, not to mention legendary, live presence during those peak years, but the film is also intercut with studio sessions from the recording of the classic double album Tago Mago, the contrasting styles, the ferocity of the live show and the more introspective, experimental element of the band, offsetting each other rather well. Non-fans might be befuddled by the somewhat pretentiously edited film, but those who love the music will find Przygodda’s document enthralling.
The other major features on the DVD are two 80-minute documentary pieces. Compiled and edited by Przygodda (nearly 30 years after Can-Free-Concert) from digital video footage shot by Hildegaard Schmidt, wife of Irmin and the band’s longtime manager, Can Notes is an entertaining, albeit slipshod account of various promotional tours the band members made during the late 1990s, one coinciding with the release of the Sacrilege remix compilation in 1997, and another during a visit to Weilerswist, the home of Can’s infamous Inner Space studio in 2001, not long after Michael Karoli’s death due to cancer. While the editing is rather haphazard, we do end up with revealing glimpses of each member: Karoli comes across as wise yet unpretentious, Liebezeit is succinct and dryly funny, Czukay is ebullient, and the professorial Schmidt is friendly and well-spoken. Can Documentary, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of television footage of the band culled from their archives, and we’re treated to such nuggets as a blazing performance of “Paperhouse” in 1972 for German television, an intense BBC performance of “Vernal Equinox” in 1975 that shatters the original Landed version, their bizarre appearance on Top of the Pops, and live footage of all four members’ various solo projects during the late ‘90s. Best of all are the brief interviews with former singers Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki; Mooney jokes grimly that no one could literally drive a singer crazy like Can could (he would know), and during their first meeting in 1988, the pair laugh together about how difficult it was being a lead singer for such a demanding band.
While much of Can DVD appeared previously on the limited edition collection Can Box in VHS form, there are several special DVD features that are worth noting, especially the four 5.1 surround remixes of old Can material by Czukay, Schmidt, and Liebezeit, as well as a lifetime achievement award ceremony at the 2003 Echo Awards in Germany, which includes a touching tribute to Karoli by Irmin Schmidt.
In the end, what we take away from the entire five hour experience is a deeper appreciation of what Can is all about. We see all four members evolve over the years: Schmidt from an aloof bandleader, to drum and bass experimenter, to opera composer. Czukay starts with traditional bass guitar, switches to playing the instrument with gloves, shifts to incorporating shortwave radio sounds into Can’s music, eventually embracing the power of computers and the internet as both a promotional and performance tool. Liebezeit’s drumming goes from economic and powerful, to intricate and expansive, to his current, much more minimalist incarnation. And as for Karoli, from his early days to his passing, his fluid, expressive guitar playing was always remarkably consistent, his personality described by his bandmates as the glue that held everyone together. More devoted fans of the band might clamor for more live footage (and we all know that there has to be a bevy of live tapes collecting dust), and this particular re-release does not include the bonus CD of Can solo recordings that came with the 2004 version, but for now, Can DVD is a classy start to what will hopefully be a revealing series of never-before-seen-and-heard revelations featuring one of the greatest rock bands of all time.