[5 August 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In 1973, with four brilliant albums under their belts, krautrock pioneers Can were beginning to make some headway. Ege Bamyasi (1972) was a stunner of a follow-up to the sprawling, highly adventurous double LP Tago Mago from the previous year, an album that was every bit as compact and tetchy as its predecessor was epic and spacey. In addition, the innovative single “Spoon”, a song that dared to incorporate electronic beats with real drumming, was used as the theme for a popular German television series that year, and thanks to the exposure, the song charted in the top ten in that country. Four wildly varying, equally groundbreaking records, marathon concert performances that became the stuff of legend, endless studio experimentation, two wildly different lead singers, considerable critical acclaim, and a fluke hit single that yielded a sudden windfall all led to this pivotal moment in Can’s short history, one that would bring to a close the band’s early period, and kick-start what some have called their “second golden era”: a much-needed summer holiday.
Five years earlier, bassist/engineer Holger Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, two former students of German avant-classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, along with Czukay’s own music student, guitarist Michael Karoli, as well as jazz percussionist Jaki Leibezeit, despite having no experience playing rock music whatsoever, set out to follow the example of the two most important rock acts of the 1960s, meshing the Beatles’ studio experimentation with the artier sounds of the Velvet Underground, and before long, the German quartet were in a league all their own. Eccentric American lead singer Malcolm Mooney performed on 1969’s Monster Movie and portions of 1970’s Soundtracks before exiting the band, but Mooney’s replacement, the bizarre Japanese street poet Damo Suzuki, helped Can started its rapid ascendancy into the pantheon of progressive rock. Virtually scooped up off the street and thrust onstage with the band, Suzuki’s highly surreal, often indecipherable vocals provided Can with a key fifth ingredient; part shaman, part showman, part kook, Suzuki brought an array of vocal howls, rants, and raves that served as a perfect counterpoint to the band’s focused efficiency.
In the decades that followed, Can influences and references would surface everywhere in popular music, be it in the equally eccentric post punk of The Fall (led by unabashed Suzuki devotee Mark E. Smith), the genre-hopping sounds of Stereolab and The Notwist, the post rock strains of Tortoise and Laika, UK art rockers Clinic, electronic artists such as the Orb, ambitious prog rockers Acid Mothers Temple and the Mars Volta, and dance-punk stalwarts LCD Soundsystem, just to name a few. Thanks to Mute’s massive project of remastering Can’s entire fourteen-album catalog, there’s no time like the present for curious listeners to get to know the vast work of one of the most innovative and unclassifiable bands of the last 40 years. The November 2004 re-release of Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, and Ege Bamyasi on SACD hybrid discs (compatible with both regular and super audio CD players) boasted staggering improvements in sound quality, and that trend continues with this summer’s second four-album installment.
Soon Over Babaluma
Unlimited Edition Re-released on Mute Records
US Release: 28 June 2005
UK Release: 1 August 2005
Following that summer holiday in 1973, Can settled in to record the sessions which would eventually become Future Days. On that crucial follow-up to Ege Bamyasi Can would completely outdo themselves. After recording its first three albums at a castle called Schloss Norvenich, the band moved into an abandoned theater in Weilerswist, near Cologne. There, surrounded by walls padded with old mattresses, Can set about following the example of Miles Davis, recording long sessions direct to tape, with minimal overdubs and editing the best moments to piece together a final product. Ege Bamyasi, the first album recorded in the hall, dubbed Inner Space Studio, was a masterful piece of psychedelic rock fused with tightly wound funk. After the band’s much needed sabbatical, Future Days would head in a completely different, sunnier direction.
It feels as if Future Days is driven by a coastal breeze, exuding a more pleasant, relaxed mood than anything the band had previously recorded. Whereas Karoli’s guitar sliced and diced, and Leibezeit provided crisp, sharp beats on Ege Bamyasi, the overall tone on the Future Days is much more languid, the music awash in Schmidt’s synthesizer squalls and buoyed by Leibezeit’s more jazz-influenced drumming. Unlike Ege Bamyasi‘s taut opening track “Pinch”, “Future Days” begins very innocuously, a lithe, summery arrangement bubbling up after a minute and a half of ambient synth effects. It’s not until midway through the nine-minute song that Suzuki enters, and although his vocals are buried in the mix, his gentle melody buries itself into the listeners’ collective subconscious. Karoli’s pleasant guitar solos and Leibezeit’s Latin-tinged rhythms underscore Suzuki’s lovely melodies perfectly as he quietly croons, “Save that money for a rainy day / For the sake of future days.”
The schizophrenic yet effervescent “Spray” revisits the more eclectic arrangements of earlier albums, but the mood is lightened considerably, primarily by Leibezeit’s lively tom-tom and cymbal work and a light groove bass line by Czukay, which allows Karoli and Schmidt to step to the forefront with their solo excursions. After the straightforward, highly danceable, four-on-the-floor rock ‘n’ roll of “Moonshake”, the album concludes with the extended suite “Bel Air”. Essentially three separate performances painstakingly spliced together by Czukay, it features Can performing ambient music long before ambient music had a name. Its first third is a gorgeous melange of layered synths, upper register bass notes, and gentle, effects-laden guitar flourishes; the middle section features an almost yodeled vocal melody by Suzuki which slowly segues into the final movement, which, while propelled by Leibezeit (the undisputed star of this album), is steered by Czukay, who shifts from mellifluous bass notes to fuller, more ominous low tones, bringing the record to a fittingly nocturnal, uncertain conclusion.
When Suzuki abruptly left the band in September 1973, marrying a German woman and adopting her family’s Jehovah’s Witness faith, it shifted the band’s focal point from being the enigmatic frontman to the pure musical alchemy between all four original members. Instead of weakening the group, Suzuki’s departure galvanized Can, and its 1974 album Soon Over Babaluma would be the band’s last truly great recording. While the majority of critical attention is deservedly centered on the titanic triumvirate of Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days, Soon Over Babaluma should not be overlooked. Although Karoli’s stab at lead vocals is nowhere near as charismatic as that of either Mooney or Suzuki, Can’s music has never been bolder, or for that matter, tighter, with the band managing to make wildly disparate styles sound impressively cohesive.
The first three tracks, which comprised side one of the original LP, spotlight different members of the foursome. Karoli is all over the murky, reggae-tinged excursion “Dizzy Dizzy”, sawing away sensual melodies on violin, his layered vocals stuttering the nonsensical lyrics (“Got t-t-to get-t it up/Got t-t-to get-t it over”). Led by Schmidt’s flamboyant piano stabs and his creepy spoken verses and howled choruses, the eerie tango “Come Sta, La Luna” takes the darker tones of early Roxy Music and creates an even more surreal mood. On the Latin jazz jam “Splash”, Leibezeit, easily one of the greatest percussionists of the 1970s, proves his worth yet again with lithe yet highly disciplined polyrhythms.
It’s the 20-minute “Chain Reaction/Quantum Physics”, though, that steals the album. Already master of the extended piece, exemplified by earlier tracks such as “Yoo Doo Right”, “Mother Sky”, “Halleluwah” and the aforementioned “Bel Air”, Can simply tops themselves with this two-part piece. The ultra-precise syncopation of Czukay and Leibezeit (along with touches of drum machine), which continues insistently throughout “Chain Reaction”, presages both disco and trance music, and the use of African and Cuban-influenced percussion hints at the world-music explosion that would happen a decade later. The song shifts from dance-fueled aggression to more pensive moments, as Karoli lets loose some of his most impassioned guitar solos to date, delivered in his signature choppy style. Enhanced by tape effects, “Quantum Physics” takes a turn toward the ethereal, the mood shifting from exultant to foreboding, Czukay providing some of his most brilliant bass patterns, and Schmidt’s prehistoric Alpha 77 synth adding an ethereal backdrop to the proceedings. Arguably the band’s zenith, the suite is the climax of a stunning run of six great albums in six years.
By 1975, Can was successful enough to afford more high-tech recording equipment, but its access to a new 16-track studio would turn out to signal the beginning of the end of the band’s creative peak. Can had always flourished when recording as a full unit onto a two-track stereo tape, its spontaneity and creativity with primitive recording methods yielding astounding results. But with the multitrack recording method, the crucial group element would vanish. The musicians, wary of criticism from each other, chose to record their parts alone. Although Landed has its share of fine moments, drawing heavily from the same ideas explored on Soon Over Babaluma, the band was now a shadow of its former self.
Opening track “Full Moon on the Highway” is a fantastic Velvet Underground homage. The band plows along at a breakneck pace, with Karoli providing some uncharacteristically flashy solo licks. In true Can fashion, however, they pull the rug out from under the listener with a chorus that sounds as if it was recorded underwater before promptly returning back to the surface. “Hunters and Collectors” and “Half Past One” are adequate, accessible tracks, and “Vernal Equinox” is a decent instrumental, but it revisits a sound the band had achieved better results with before. However, “Red Hot Indians”, with its of ethnic touches and saxophone work by Olaf Kubler (from fellow krautrockers Amon Düül), and the chaotic, atmospheric pastiche “Unfinished” are where the band finally dares to toss in a surprise or two for listeners.
An expansion of a hastily assembled, 1974 rarities collection entitled Limited Edition, 1976’s Unlimited Edition was a double LP set containing selections culled from the hundreds of hours of studio recordings the band had amassed from 1968 to 1975. The disc is as haphazard as any other odds-and-sods compilation is, but Unlimited Edition is loaded with a wide variety of treasures. The 1973 film score “Gomorrha” revisits the same lush tones of Future Days only with more menace, while the stately instrumental “Ibis” would have fit seamlessly on Soon After Babaluma. The band’s whimsical forays into more traditional forms of music, facetiously dubbed the “Ethnological Forgery Series”, lightheartedly dabbles in various genres, from the East Indian sounds of “E.F.S. No. 7” to the Dixieland trumpet sounds on “E.F.S. No. 36”. The lengthy sonic collage “Cutaway” is both a fun assemblage of loose jams and a fascinating look at Can in the studio, the music often interrupted by studio chatter, affording the listener a rare peek into the confines of Inner Space.
The brief outtakes featuring Suzuki’s lyrical fragments are decidedly scattershot, the one highlight being “Doko E”, snarled in his native Japanese, but the real surprise on Unlimited Edition is the high quality of the Malcolm Mooney material from 1968 and 1969. “Fall of Another Year” has Mooney crooning hoarsely over a demented bossa nova arrangement, while the upbeat “The Empress and the Ukraine King” is loaded with Mooney’s goofy psychedelic imagery (“But then he smiled, banana king / Sitting on a golden ring”), and the hilarious “Mother Upduff”, with Mooney’s spoken-word tale of a German couple’s adventures with a giant octopus over by a gonzo-free jazz accompaniment, owes a great deal to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. The fantastic “Connection” is a revelation, one of the most straightforward tunes the band has ever recorded, a potent blast of 1960s garage rock every bit as good as anything you’ll hear on the legendary Nuggets compilation.
Like the previous four reissues, these remastered albums sound outstanding—when compared to the original CD versions of the albums, the difference is jaw-dropping. The clarity of Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma are all the more remarkable when you consider both were recorded straight onto an ancient, two track machine. It’s a credit to the Czukay’s engineering wizardry; what he does on the first six Can albums with so few studio bells and whistles is astonishing; the depth and richness of the recordings put the sloppy, muddy lo-fi sounds of today’s indie rock bands to shame.
As the 1970s wore on, Can would continue recording, marking another commercial high point with the single “I Want More” (penned by Peter Gilmour) that would crack the UK top 10, but albums such as Flow Motion, Saw Delight, and Can, only showed how the band’s best days were behind it. That early body of work, from 1969 to 1975, chronicles a period of musical innovation that likely will not be equaled any time soon. Czukay once said, “The soul of the entire thing was not composed of our four or five souls, but a creature named Can… and this creature, Can, made the music.” More of a single living musical entity than just a regular rock group, Can’s great recordings still pulsate with life today.
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/050805-can/