If you made a list of bands whose cultural influence and current stature outweigh its original popularity and sales, Can would show up somewhere near the top. But unlike most other cult acts that wowed rock critics, the U.S. media profile of this pioneering German band of the late ’60s and ’70s was nearly nonexistent: Until Can’s 1997 Sacrilege remix album, Rolling Stone only once reviewed the quintet, and it was briefly and negatively; the word “Krautrock” — the genre Can epitomized — didn’t appear in the magazine’s pages until the 21st Century, and the band itself rarely got even a mention.
In the U.K., things were different: Its early-to-mid-’70s output routinely received raves and radio play, and just as Can was splitting near the decade’s end, its influence was manifesting itself in countless post-punk acts: Joy Division, for one, owes its existence at least partially to Can. Inspired by the conservatory-schooled “new music” of the classical avant-garde as well as contemporary groups like Sly and the Family Stone and the Velvet Underground, this Cologne ensemble rooted itself in spontaneous composition, aiming not to generate the showy solos of jazz and jam rock but a collective sonic unity that reflected the social revolution and revolutionary politics of postwar Europe.
Can sounds contemporary today because it embraced rhythm as enthusiastically as it pursued noise. While British and American progressive rock bands flaunted virtuoso guitar and keyboard chops, Can showcased its drummer Jaki Liebezeit, an exceptionally syncopated and steady player. This meant that Can was a dance band as much it was a “head” band. At the same time, Can was just as heavy as the Black Sabbaths of its era, yet way more arty and abstract: It’s difficult to imagine a Sonic Youth without a Can. Years before world music became a buzz phrase, Can drew from the Middle and Far East in what it wryly christened its “Ethnological Forgery Series.” Stressing sound over words, Can presented the rock vocalist as one instrument among many, an approach that would show up in shoegaze and chillwave decades later.
Can’s near-invisible American status of its past helped it become an act of the future — follow its evolution below.
In Chronological Order
Crude keyboard electronics, circular bass guitar riffage, nervous one-chord guitar drones, steady non-syncopated drumming, and stream-of-consciousness poetry signifying everything and nothing: The first few seconds of Can's debut album present a laundry list of Krautrock signifiers. But what's amazing on this 1969 disc is hearing the band essentially inventing a genre. Having been exposed to the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's Factory art bunker on a trip to Manhattan the year before, keyboardist and classical composer Irmin Schmidt leads his band to take on rock with the radicalness of the contemporary avant-garde.
Like bassist Holger Czukay, Schmidt was a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the 20th century's most theoretical and controversial composers. Guitarist Michael Karoli studied under Czukay. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit had previously played free jazz. American ex-pat sculptor Malcolm Mooney struggled with mental illness. Monster Movie is larger than the sum of this unlikely combination; it's essentially brutal, psychedelicized garage rock, but fueled by ideas, chops, and chemistry that far exceed the stoner norm.
Its four tracks contain only a suggestion of melody. Instead, there's propulsion, and the anxiousness that came with making it up as they went along. Where their contemporaries pursued harmoniousness in collective spontaneous composition, Can finds anxiety and, paradoxically, the fearlessness of the groove in its aptly named Monster Movie. "You made a believer out of me," the key line in the sprawling 20-minute-plus behemoth "You Doo Right" is elevated from throwaway line to manifesto through repetition, keen dynamics, and sheer force of will. Can believes in the artfulness of savagery, and it pursues both here in equal measure.
Can's 1970 release captures the most important transition in an ever-evolving band. It contains the final material from the quintet's original singer Malcolm Mooney until the band's 1989 reunion disc Rite Time, as well as the recorded debut of his successor, definitive Can vocalist Damo Suzuki. Although it's ostensibly a collection of cuts created for European cinema, Soundtracks plays out like a quintessential acid rock LP: Michael Karoli's shrieking guitar is the album's featured instrument, and although keyboardist Irmin Schmidt called the shots, there's little of his atmospheric keys that the album's title suggests; only the brief, über-Gothic instrumental "Deadlock" resembles a traditional soundtrack.
Just as producer Teo Macero edited the work of Miles Davis and his musicians into trailblazing compositions, bassist Holger Czukay structured hours of Can improvisation in a way that predated sampling. On Soundtracks, his editing is remarkably brusque: "Deadlock" and "Tango Whiskyman" fade abruptly; "Soul Desert" ends with a dead stop, and the epic "Mother Sky" starts full-tilt, as if in mid-jam. The edits throughout its 14-and-a-half minutes are obvious, but they give the sprawl its pacing and crucial dynamics; without them, the repetition would be unbearable. Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit lock themselves into in a severe, dead-simple dance groove that suggests disco, post-punk, and all points between while Karoli throws a fit and Suzuki mumbles and cries cosmic soul. This is the first time that Can truly becomes itself, a fitting precursor to the band's most mountainous milestone, 1971's Tago Mago.
A major leap beyond the Cologne band's earliest output, Can's 1971 double album is radical as it is large. Recorded at its newly assembled Inner Space studio, Tago Mago marks the beginning of Can's communal creative peak: Each member's contributions mesh so seamlessly into an organic, interactive whole that they're almost unimaginable in a different context. Many albums of the era were created in revolutionary hippie enclaves, but this is one of the few that truly feels democratic and is all the better for it.
Inspired by occultist Aleister Crowley, Tago Mago is Can's most foreboding work, and although the band intended it as a journey from light to dark and back, it's mostly crepuscular and distinctly autumnal; Halloween without the candy. Ominous opening track "Paperhouse" repeatedly creeps and climaxes like a serial killer stalking and violating its prey. Suddenly it caps, subsides, and segues into "Mushroom," an anguished, astonishing dance cut that links James Brown beats to Can's successor, Public Image Ltd. Singing "I saw skies are red/ I was born and I was dead" in an unmistakably Japanese accent, Damo Suzuki suggests the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit manage to be both funereal and funky while guitarist Michael Karoli picks slowly stinging notes and Irmin Schmidt plies grim organ chords. "Oh Yeah" follows with what's either bomb blasts or cracks of thunder. Suzuki sings backwards, and then in Japanese as propulsive rhythms hasten.
"Halleluhwah" brings Godzilla-sized psych-funk that fades into a gentle but fleeting interlude then starts up again, building steadily and more menacing until it roars and then slinks off. The drones and dissonance of "Aumgn" evokes ritual sacrifice before culminating in a tribal drum circle jerk. "Peking O" showcases Czukay's most unpredictable jump cuts; it's more collage than composition. Suggesting a mystical Indian raga, "Bring Me Coffee or Tea" supplies a relatively cloudless coda to an otherwise turbulent journey. While most other '70s double albums dawdle, Tago Mago tramples into tomorrow.
If you're new to Can, this is the best and easiest place to start. Containing an actual Top 10 single (in West Germany, of course) with peaks akin to Tago Mago's most pointed cuts, yet with little of that sprawling double album's excess, 1972's Ege Bamyasi is the German band's most solid and groove-intensive work. Given that this is Can, there's still plenty of weirdness. Opening track "Pinch" announces this set's sinister funk tone with a feedback shriek and one of drummer Jaki Liebezeit's most frenzied syncopations. While he rattles full-tilt, bassist Holger Czukay creates tension by holding back as guitarist Michael Karoli applies shards of broken chords; keyboardist Irmin Schmidt adds nearly imperceptible drones, and singer Damo Suzuki growls equally incomprehensible Beat babble. The result is an interlocking puzzle of rhythm and noise.
Post-punk and no-wave groups like Gang of Four and the Contortions, as well as countless current indie bands, would follow Ege Bamyasi's template, but this was supremely/uniquely freaky stuff at a time when the Carpenters ruled the airwaves. While most progressive rock peers supplied head trips to stoned fans who couldn't get up from their bean-bag chairs, Can created full-body psychedelia for the discos of tomorrow. "Sing Swan Song" provides a respite ballad and the second half of "Soup" thoroughly freaks out, but the rest ranks among the most radical dance music of the '70s — so radical that it would take decades to find sympathetic club DJs beyond German boarders. The first Can album to get a US release, Ege Bamyasi nevertheless ended up in bargain bins.
This is Liebezeit's greatest work, and while he plays like the maestro that he is, the others seem bent on unlearning their chops, although few of the non-musicians Can inspired could ever summon the restraint of "One More Night." Like Picasso approximating a caveman's scrawl, Can's savagery is rendered with skill. The guitars, the keyboards, even Suzuki's feral vocals are rendered as if they were percussion. In "Vitamin C," everything becomes a drum, and while "I'm So Green" introduces the Madchester sound nearly two decades before Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, the German gangster TV show theme and resulting pop hit "Spoon" takes Sly Stone's contemporaneous experimentation with crude early drum machines and marries it to pseudo-Arabic rock exotica — the beginnings of what Can would later name its Ethnological Forgery Series.
If 1972's Ege Bamyasi is Can's most extroverted and eager-to-please work, their next offering is the German band's most introverted and alluringly aloof. 1973's Future Days isn't the proto-ambient work that some critics have claimed it is: Drummer Jaki Liebezeit still hammers like a funky octopus; singer Damo Suzuki gets as close as he ever could to crooning conventional pop-rock melodies, and there's way too much tension played far too in-the-pocket for Can to comfortably recede into the background. But there's a palpable, sexy sense of restraint here, and although it doesn't approach Brian Eno's subsequent Spartan random drones, it points in that direction. A sleeper album that reveals its nuanced depths over time, this is Can at its coolest.
The minimalism Irmin Schmidt learned from Steve Reich and Terry Riley comes to the fore: It takes bassist Holger Czukay six minutes to deviate from the one note he plays through most of the introductory title track. Although the band is still generating most of this stuff live in the studio and capturing it with simple stereo recording, there's much more sound manipulation: The volume drops suddenly on "Future Days" to build back up, and that chugging hum throughout remains a mystery. (Is it a guitar pedal? A crude synth? A mechanical ghost?) The free-form jams of Tago Mago's second half are here refined into the far more structured "Spray," which accelerates, switches into languid 6/8 time, then speeds up again. "Moonshake" similarly untangles Ege Bamyasi's lunar discothèque funk. While those records boil, Future Days simmers.
Nowhere is this shift into subtlety more apparent than on its opus, "Bel Air." Where Can's other side-long cuts sprawl, this one is arranged as a symphonic suite of related movements, one that ends as it begins. "Spinning down alone, you spin alive," Suzuki chants enigmatically as his cohorts achieve multiple orgasms of Krautrock lava love. Despite its reserve, Future Days radiates a tenderness that Can would never recapture: This was Suzuki's swan song; he'd soon become a Jehovah's Witness and retire from music for years. There's a sense of finality here, but also a gentle spirituality. Can's five members here synchronize as if their limbs were strings plucked by the same cosmic deity.
1973's Future Days marked the end of the band's stretch with singer Damo Suzuki, but '74's Soon Over Babaluma extends Can's golden era for one more disc. Reduced to a quartet, its members shift duties and stretch psychedelia further from its source: When he isn't augmenting his guitar with violin, Michael Karoli plays it as if it were one. He and Irmin Schmidt — who uncharacteristically pounds a regular piano on a couple of cuts — contribute vocals that recede to the background after the first two tracks. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit's beats deviate from their usual funk, and bassist Holger Czukay holds back even more than usual, giving to the band's space rock additional spaciousness. Can has never been cluttered, but here it's finely defined.
Opening track and single "Dizzy Dizzy" begins Can's recurring excursions into reggae so unconventional it's rarely recognized as such. Karoli takes the mic to twist James Brown catchphrases into abstract pillow talk, but his violin — popularized in contemporaneous rock by Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel and ELO — is the focal point. He plays it in gypsy style while his bandmates swoop and skank as if the Jamaica of their dreams lacked gravity. "Come sta, La Luna" merges their galactic reggae with tango; guitar remains in a supporting role, waves of rhythm float in and out, and the undulating sonics mimic dub. "Splash" and "Chain Reaction" presage Can's near-thorough immersion into jazz-rock fusion that would soon grow standard; here it's wild and foreboding. "Quantum Physics" mutes where Future Days left off: Still too nervous and percussive for true ambient music, it feels as though it's taking place on a distant planet. Brian Eno would soon smooth these drones for himself; Factory and 4AD Records would later fetishize their dislocation. This is the last time Can would be unquestionably influential.
Although Can's previous work, 1974's Soon After Bamaluma, debuted the German group as a quartet after the departure of its most essential singer Damo Suzuki, this 1975 album signals a more significant shift. This was the band's debut for England's Virgin Records, initially a prog-rock indie that generated U.K. hits with resolutely non-commercial releases from Can's Krautrock brethren Tangerine Dream and Faust. This was also Can's first album recorded with a 16-track console, which meant that the band didn't need to sing and play most of its parts at the same time in the same room; now it could fix, overdub, or trash individual performances as needed.
Landed is still a strange record by 1975 standards, but when measured against Can's previous output, much of it is far more straightforward. Jaki Liebezeit's previously masterful drums are usually buried in the mix, and what can be heard is much simpler than his usual polyrhythmic funk. Minimalism had served the band well, but now guitarist Michael Karoli plays many more notes, and when coupled with casual two-chord compositions like "Vernal Equinox," the resulting lopsidedness suggests jam bands like Santana where the soloist is king. If it weren't for Holger Czukay's studio tricks, "Full Moon on the Highway" would nearly be generic boogie. Only the concluding beat-less collage "Unfinished" ties this relatively conventional Can to its freak-form past.
After the relatively regular jam-band fare of the previous year's Landed, Can's 1976 album takes a 180-degree turn away from rock. Ramping up the space reggae introduced on '74's Soon Over Babaluma, Flow Motion opts for a far cleaner sound while returning to the German band's polyrhythmic approach. It yielded the band's U.K. hit (and sole success outside Germany), "I Want More," which splits the difference between Roxy Music's glam proto-disco and Kraftwerk's pioneering synth-pop. The band's unison vocals suggest a menacing male counterpart to the breathy babes of fellow German disco act Silver Convention, while the fuzz guitars and dreamlike keyboards play Can's prettiest melody by far. "I Want More" (and the track's second half, "… And More," a nod to James Brown's many two-part singles) is a little piece of perfection, and although the rest isn't as tightly focused, Flow Motion is easily the band's most welcoming record in the '70s second half.
As suggested by song titles like "Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die," it's also distinctly lighter. Although the droning Bali-esque drums of "Smoke (E.F.S. No. 59)" link Can's then-current incarnation to its far darker Tago Mago past, there's a tropical, even sunny vibe to cuts like "Cascade Waltz" and "Babylonian Pearl," trifles that may trip up fans of its previous work yet clearly rejuvenate the group. Bassist Holger Czukay's sonic manipulation now figures nearly as prominently as the instruments themselves: Flow Motion was engineered using "Artificial Head," a recording technique employed so that headphone listeners could perceive a three-dimensional effect. Once again Can is an experimental band, only this time the musical trials yield merrier results.
Here's where the Can discography truly deviates. The addition of latter-day members of the otherwise British psych/prog/fusion band Traffic — Jamaican bassist/vocalist Rosko Gee and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah — together with Holger Czukay abandoning his bass to focus on production and sound effects means that the Can-ness of this 1977 record is distinctly diminished. The best of the Rosko/Rebop era, Can's ninth album boasts some forward-thinking thrills: Opening cut "Don't Say No" suggests what Talking Heads would sound like in their expanded '80s incarnations, while the sprawling "Animal Waves" similarly suggests King Crimson's future transformation with Adrian Belew. "Sunshine Day and Night" even beats Paul Simon to the Afrobeat punch.
Combining Can's 1978 disc Out of Reach, with its 1979 album Can aka Inner Space, this twofer release captures the German band at its least Can-ish.
Out of Reach (tracks 9 through 15) isn't even included in the band's own official discography. Both latter-day ex-Traffic members, Saw Delight additions Rebop Kwaku Baah and Rosko Gee do all the singing here, and founding member Holger Czukay isn't involved at all; he quit the band in '77. Rebop is a dexterous player, but his percussion often overwhelms Jaki Liebezeit's drums rather than augmenting them. Bassist Gee is similarly aggressive and technique-intensive, a sharp contrast to Czukay's minimal yet empathetic previous basslines. Out of Reach is far more akin to the virtuoso flash of American jazz-rock groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra than to the intellectual, intrinsically Germanic Krautrock of yore.
The third and final album Can album recorded with Gee and Rebop, Inner Space (tracks 1 through 8) improves upon 1978's Out of Reach by dropping much of that album's frantic jazz-rock excess, restoring guitarist Michael Karoli as vocalist, and employing Holger Czukay's editing skills. 1979's Can (issued here as Inner Space) nevertheless comes cluttered with filler: A goofy fuzz-tone cover of the melody from Jacques Offenbach's opera Orpheus in the Underworld most associated with the can-can illustrates how far the band had ventured from its avant-garde beginnings. But the strongest material — particularly "Aspectacle," a menacing quasi-disco track akin to contemporaneous cuts by James White and the Blacks — restores that essential mystery in Can's core.
Can's remaining members went their separate ways after recording Can (aka Inner Space) in 1978. In late '86, the original lineup briefly reunited in sessions that would three years later yield the band's 12th and final studio album. For a loose unit that could tighten up righteously if it saw fit, this quintet goes distinctly off-kilter on 1989's Rite Time: Few elements in opening cut "On the Beautiful Side of a Romance" fully synchronize, and reinstated vocalist Malcolm Mooney evokes Captain Beefheart's lunacy without the wit. On brooding tracks such as "Like a New Child," the gated drums, brittle guitar, and liquid bass suggest the '80s productions of kindred jazz fusionist Bill Laswell. Elsewhere, Can picks up where it left off in the late '70s — lighthearted and untethered.
Can's relationship to contemporary alt-rock and pop is so elemental that they have penetrated the DNA of acts as diverse as Happy Mondays, Wilco and Radiohead, plus innumerable others who have worshipped at their groovy altar rather more cravenly over the past 44 years. Frankly, it would be easier to name those that hadn't soaked up Can's stew of psychedelia, free jazz, prog rock, funk, avant-electronica, African high-life and musique concrete.
Following on from the reissue last year of Tago Mago comes this three-CD box set of previously unreleased material, the master tapes of which were rediscovered when Can's Weilerswist studio was dismantled prior to sale. Thirty hours of music — recorded between 1968-77 — were edited and co-compiled by original member Irmin Schmidt, providing further evidence of Can's unclassifiable genius.
Given their disregard for boundaries, The Lost Tapes is as rampantly diverse as you'd expect. Alongside "Blind Mirror Surf" — where smashing glass, a sound like mooing cows and unintelligible muttering suggest an episode of The Goon Show taped in Bedlam — sit groovy raga "Your Friendly Neighborhood Whore", pastoral sci-fi epic "Dead Pigeon Suite" and the live "Mushroom," where a distressed vocal and needling guitar subtly shift its gears by thrillingly malevolent increments.
Three discs is a lot to digest in one sitting, but to plunge into The Lost Tapes at any point is to be rewarded with a reason to rhapsodize afresh about Can's everlasting, inspirationally bonkers vision. — Sharon O'Connell