Can 1973
Photo: Spoon Records / Mute Records

Can and Damo Suzuki Shimmer Brightly on ‘Live in Paris 1973’

Part of a recent series of archival releases, Live in Paris 1973 provides an indispensable glimpse of Can and their lead vocalist, Damo Suzuki, at their peak.

Live in Paris 1973
23 February 2024

Krautrock has been having a rare moment the past several weeks. On a happy note, Laetitia Sadier, a notable acolyte of the German genre with her band Stereolab, released a new solo album, Rooting for Love, to widespread acclaim. On a less happy note, Damo Suzuki, the legendary lead vocalist of Can, passed away on 9 February at the age of 74 from cancer. An outpouring of heartfelt tributes quickly followed.

There is too much to say about Suzuki and Can in a single album review. Can were central to the so-called “krautrock” (crudely: “German person music”) scene in Berlin and West Germany during the late 1960s and 1970s. As implied, the term “krautrock” originally had a pejorative inflection in the English-language press, but the bands involved had the last laugh. Acts like Can, Faust, Kraftwerk, and Neu! had an enormous impact on numerous artists. Their influence can be heard in the ambient approach of Brian Eno, the post-punk of Joy Division, the synthpop of Depeche Mode, and the extended freak-out jams of Yo La Tengo, to cite only a few examples.  

This range is also to say that krautrock did not subscribe to a single approach. A broad distinction exists between those bands that explored electronic techniques – Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Neu! – and those that maintained a rock orientation like Faust and Can, albeit one that was experimental and frequently digressive. A signature feature across this divide was the motorik (“motor skill”) beat – a 4/4 pacing that imitated the speed of a car. This commonly used rhythm structure imparted an addictive, upbeat quality to the music.

This tempo also symbolized generational freedom and the future uncertainty that went with it. Krautrock reflected the ennui and existential questions of younger Germans who grew up after the horrors of Nazi Germany while listening to American rock and roll available through US military bases. This is the same post-war generation that birthed New German Cinema filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbender, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders. The films of Herzog and Wenders, with their road movie elements, equally searched for identity and meaning. Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974) constituted cinematic journeys that tackled questions of history and personal responsibility in different ways.  

This postwar context also explains the contingent magic of Damo Suzuki’s involvement in Can. Born in Kobe, Japan, in 1950, Suzuki similarly belonged to a generation of Japanese youth seeking purpose after the Second World War. Germany and Japan had parallel histories. Falling into a tradition of vagabond poet-philosophers like Nanao Sakaki and Matsuo Basho, he left for Europe, where he was discovered by Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit of Can while working as a busker in Munich. 

Suzuki subsequently appeared on three LPs: Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), and Future Days (1973). Can would go on to release seven more studio albums, though the Suzuki period is considered the most influential, despite its brevity. Mark E. Smith of the Fall wrote the song “I Am Damo Suzuki”, included in This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985). More recently, Stephen Malkmus covered Ege Bamyasi in its entirety with the band Von Spar, an absolutely inspired LP recorded live in Cologne in 2012 and released on vinyl in 2013 and later digitally in 2021. 

Live in Paris 1973 is part of an ongoing series of archival releases, including Live in Stuttgart 1975 (2021), Live in Brighton 1975 (2021), and Live in Cuxhaven 1976 (2022). As indicated by the title years, these recordings are from the period after Suzuki. He left Can in 1973 to get married and become a Jehovah’s Witness. This new release is consequently distinguished by Suzuki’s irreplaceable presence.

Consisting of only five tracks but lasting for an hour and a half, Live in Paris 1973 displays Can’s reputation for long, improvisational jams of acid jazz/psychedelic rock. Recorded at L’Olympia in Paris on 12 May 1973, this is immersive music that admittedly is not to everyone’s taste. The first track, “Paris 73 Eins”, is almost 37 minutes long. This LP is slow-building with insistent, repetitive tempos that create an aural space for instrumental exploration and expression. At its best, the effect is entirely hypnotic. 

Given its timing, this album reflects Can’s breakthrough work at that point, including classic material from Ege Bamyasi. Track three, “Paris 73 Drei”, has a revised, much-extended version of fan favorite “Spoon”. (Britt Daniel has said he named his band Spoon after Can’s song.) Track five, “Paris 73 Fünf”, has an equally lengthy elaboration of the likewise popular “Vitamin C” with its funky, skittery percussion. The original versions of these two songs are three to four minutes each. On Live in Paris 1973, they last over 16 and 13 minutes, respectively, with the omnipresence of Michael Karoli’s guitar as a guide. 

Indeed, it’s difficult to call these tracks songs in any conventional sense. They contain elements of Can’s studio recordings, but they also contain other elements. Possessing a special madness, these tracks frequently jump the lines and crossover. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, each operates on its own, self-sustaining logic with different chains of perpetual cause and effect. To listen to Live in Paris 1973 is to hear a band defining themselves in real-time, whether through melodic second-guessing, sudden ideas, or drilling ever deeper into the mesmerizing sound being generated.  

Suzuki was integral to this process. Coming in and out of focus, his vocals are simultaneously palpable and indistinguishable from the instruments around him. Suzuki referred to his multilingual delivery as “the language of the Stone Age”. One can grasp what he means with his singing often reduced to a primitive state of conveying simple, universal human feeling without regard for the tacit barriers of understood language. Suzuki walked the line between reason and unreason. Seemingly feminine and masculine at once, his vocals zig and zag, at times complementing the music and at other moments disrupting it and undermining it, as only the human voice can.

Live in Paris 1973 is a fitting epitaph for Suzuki. Though Can continued in different, increasingly sporadic iterations up through the 1990s, this early period remains their zenith. Suzuki himself would return to music, performing globally with a network of so-called “sound carriers”. Yet, neither side would rediscover that fortuitous, special alchemy that depended on an unusual convergence of history, youthful talent, and generational malaise.   

The words “mystic” and “legendary” are often used to the point of cliché to describe Suzuki and Can. Live in Paris 1973 provides an indispensable glimpse of the origins and truth of these long-standing assessments.

RATING 9 / 10