As part of my epic series on the Krautrock golden age, CAN appeared over seven parts (from parts 9 to 15).
From their debut ‘Monster Movie’ album, to 1975s slight mis-step ‘Landed’, all of their most iconic and interesting records appear, in this 20,000 word overhaul of the band.
Karlheinz Stockhausen seems to be the 20th Century’s musical equivalent of Moses, leading his followers from the suppressive regime and ties of the old classicism towards a new horizon. A good forty years in the bleak wilderness, which saw much derision and criticism, finally his ideas became the new ascetic. Almost every musician of gravitas from the 50’s onwards cites his metaphysical presence in their work. The sheer scale of his explorations is staggering; and it is no idle boast to declare his genius and effect on music.
Stockhausen wasn’t just a high-end intellectual behemoth who brushed aside anything that was not considered high art, hell he could mix it with the kids too. In fact members from both Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead attended his lectures and concerts, in kind he could be found at theirs, thoroughly enjoying himself, though Garcia may have something to do with that. Among the many artists to emerge from the great composers tutelage were the destined for ‘great things’ pairing of Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay (it must be pointed out that Holger’s surname at this time was in fact Schuring). Schmidt was a composer of relative success, who by the mid-sixties had picked up an armful of awards. He’d worked with both the prestigious Vienna and Bochurm symphonies – what you might call, a seriously skilled musician indeed. All this was to change for good as Schmidt traveled to the Metropolis contest in New York. The year was 1966 and everything was about to get very colorful for our German friend. Something twigged in his psyche, a conversion on the road to Damascus moment that led to our composer booking a room at the culturally decadent Chelsea Hotel.
Soon the New York wild side seeped below the door to Schmidt’s room; Warhol – amongst a notoriety of other extravagant figures in rock’n’roll and art – became a regular visitor. Introductions to Cage, Musique Concrete, Fluxus, Terry Reilly and Steve Reich mind-melded with our newly dropped-out classicist’s music lessons, forged from following Stockhausen.
Almost two years would pass before Schmidt would return to Cologne, his old stomping ground.
It was here on his return that he met with Holger Czukay, a fellow apprentice of Stockhausen; who on advice from his master had left Germany for Switzerland on the hunt for a rich wife, who it was hoped would support his musical endeavors. Whilst waiting for the right heiress to come along Czukay turned to teaching; one of his students happened to be the fairly laid-back quasi-hippie Michael Korali, who had also moved to Switzerland, from his birth place in Bavaria.
Karoli was a sort of child protegee and a bit of a whizkid already on the violin and cello – though from Czukay he originally sort guitar lessons.
It soon became apparent that the young kid was pretty special as he was already an accomplished player. In fact their relationship changed to a mutual respected friendship, as both learnt off each other – Karoli would have been around 19 at the time, his tutor was already nearly 30: a ten-year age gap that hardly seemed to matter.
Legend has it that one day Karoli turned Czukay onto the contemporary rock scene by playing The Beatles ‘I Am The Walrus’: everything changed from this day forward and the lessons soon ended.
Both men now immersed themselves in the sounds of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mothers Of Invention and Sly And The Family Stone. Their heads filled with the acid hazed groups of the late sixties prompted them to return to Cologne on the pretense of forming a band.
Meanwhile American composer and electronic music supremo David C. Johnson was coming to the end of his studies in Cologne. He had become an assistant to Stockhausen: yes every musician of note did his or her time with him like compulsory national service. Johnson worked on the epic epoch ‘Hymnen’, whilst also teaching on the courses of new music at his former university.
It is here that he first made contact with the trio of Schmidt, Czukay and Karoli, who all happened to hang out at the same places and rub shoulders together.
This impromptu meeting of minds resulted in the first glimpses of what was to become the Can unit.
At first Johnson wanted to pursue an unconventional direction that was highly experimental and steeped in theory, but with all the new found psychedelic and garage rock freak-out influences swirling around the German trios heads at the time, this vision soon became lost in the halcyon blur.
Add into this heady mix the core units chance encounter with both former jazz drummer extraordinaire Jaki Liebezeit and the American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, and Johnson’s original ascetics ended in tears.
Liebzeit had played experimental European free form jazz for years but was now recruited to play – how he terms it – a more monotonous style.
Mooney had recently left his native New York where he had relative success as a contemporary sculptor. Whilst a student at high school he’d been part of an acappella group but now he favored a raw form of improvised beat poetry that swayed between a mumbled sounding Hendrix, to at times a thinly veiled James Brown.
Unfortunately he wouldn’t end up staying for long as he started to lose his mind in some David Lynch type scenarios. A visit to a psychiatrist soon had him back on a plane home, his spiral into insanity provoked by his involvement with the band.
Much later in 1986 he would return and work on a reunion album entitled Rite Time.
This heavy mix of personalities and multifaceted backgrounds would either fall flat or triumph, fortunately they came through.
The new powerhouse seemed fixed for the moment; a meeting at Schmidt’s Cologne apartment cemented the deal for good.
But what about a name for this newly formed six-man crew. Well according to various accounts it was Mooney who came up with the moniker The Can. This was after Inner Space was apparently thrown out, though this in the end was used as the name for their famous studio.
Of course later it would be whittled down to just Can but the first album carried this initial moniker.
In later interviews Liebezeit would playfully suggest that the name was an acronym for the statement sloganeering, “Communism, Anarchism and Nihilism”. This suggests some kind of provocative gesture which the band – though both politically charged and socially active – hardly wished to be quite so obvious about.
Our intrepid free form group of mercenaries began recording a set of improvised jams that would be edited down to reasonable length tracks, these where collated together and packaged as the oddly pun entitled record, ‘Prepared To Meet Thy Pnoom’.
Touted to labels and handed out to all the right heads it failed to drum up much interest so the guys just sat on it and continued to record more material.
It was at this point that a friend Mani Lohe offered them room for a studio in his infamous squat like castle, Schloss Norvenich.
The band agreed to move in, and set up the now infamous Inner Space recording studio. This knocked up studio of sorts seemed to be perfect, though hardly air tight as sounds from both the streets and environment easily seeped into recording sessions; which rather then become irritating was instead encouraged. These interloping sounds from outside ended up as part of the overall atmosphere that was found embedded on some of their records.
A new session that was invoked by a live performance given at the castle threw up the material for the first album proper Monster Movie, which included re-workings of two tracks from the unsuccessful first record. ‘Father Cannot Yell’ and ‘Outside My Door’ were re-recorded with better equipment in a better facility – well that’s what it says on the original records label.
Around the same time they recorded some similar material with Malcolm Mooney on vocals, which was packaged in 1981 as the Delay album, and also some odd tracks that made it onto the Unlimited LP.
Monster Movie was released as a four track LP and came with a sleeve that featured the Marvel comics character Galactus who is faceless and emerges from a Bavarian mountain landscape pointing some kind of laser directly at us. Well I’m assured it is Galactus though surely there must have been some kind of copyrights issues – the Marvel connection would tie in with fact that in footage of Schmidt from the mid seventies he’s seen wearing a rather fetching Silver Surfer jacket.
United Artists picked this LP up and managed to attract some modicum of success. Offers for soundtrack work came flooding in which proved a fruitful avenue for the band. The next album release would be entirely devoted to this, though we will cover this in part ten.
Johnson decided around this point to jump ship and return to the states, he wasn’t entirely happy with the direction and so came to an amicable agreement to leave.
Monster Movie itself sounded like the Hendrix Experience pulling apart The Velvet Undergrounds Banana album, as Zappa’s Mothers idly watch on from the wings. Extended 12 bar jams are used as a basis from which to funnel the freaked out intonations of Jefferson Airplane, Captain Beefheart and The Fugs, whilst the background atmospherics and loose structures come courtesy of La Monte Young and Michael Von Biel – a German musician who worked under Stockhausen and studied with conceptual legend Joseph Beuys.
This is possibly the greatest band of talent ever assembled in one place yet every note and sound is democratic, placed with attention and care, and a lack of egotist showboating.
No one ever played anymore then what was called for, no need for ridiculously over the top solos or thrills.
Can were a group who pushed each other to scale new heights, always changing from minor to major keys or messing with the tone and inclination just to add some friction.
Of course they all had to be accomplished players to a degree, as any changes would trip up most musicians, though most of the tracks on this album riff around a basic two to three chords structure.
Drummer Liebezeit was some kind of autistic machine that had the timing of the atomic clock; this was a man who could play anything you threw at him.
Karoli played like a spiritual guide from another galaxy; his textures and soundscapes could power a space ark to Saturn.
Czukay manages to effortlessly master the bass and keep the rhythm going in all manner of situations; he even gave it up out of boredom at one point.
Schmidt oscillates and conjures up a wealth of indescribable sounds to create some new futuristic language fit to converse with astral beings.
Mooney rants lines in a rhythmic battle of wits, an improvised series of statements and primal screams try their best to lead the way forward.
Can or The Can had arrived; starting with a heavy dose of influences they soon evolved into pioneers as they blended African poly-rhythms, gypsy folk percussion, technology, rock sensibilities, free jazz, funk and even preemptive stab at disco.
These many combination’s enabled them to form a collage of diverse styles that resulted in a new genre of its own making, which influenced in kind nearly every musical trend from punk onwards.
Monster Movie would be Can’s most raw and Western sounding album before they managed to completely shrug off all of their obvious reference points.
Like many of the early German bands who are filed under the un-affectionate label of Krautrock; Can along with Amon Duul II, Guru Guru and Popal Vuh, amongst many others, would initially borrow heavily from their counterparts in both the UK and US underground scenes. Psychedelic, folk rock and the sounds that would be bared witness to at Woodstock all helped to build a new German ascetic.
New York’s more avant-garde and somewhat melancholy sounds sat well with the Germans, which is some part, was borrowed from them in the first place.
Can had no bandleader and had little room for egos. They were just a group of guys making music and making it for no apparent reason or value. This in itself made them all the more authentic and groundbreaking, it’s a sad state of affairs that no one else has managed to yet progress or equal them.
United Artists 1969
Recorded Live At Inner Space Studio/ Schloss Norvenich, Cologne
1. Father Cannot Yell (7:01)
2. Mary, Mary, So Contrary (6:16)
3. Outside My Door (4:06)
1. You Doo Right (20:14)
Irmin Schmidt – Organ
Jacki Liebezeit – Drums
Holger Czukay – Bass
Michael Karoli – Guitar
Malcolm Mooney – Vocals
The Monster Movie experience opens with a bow to the Velvets ‘European Son’ as Mooney and company launch into a terrifying and heavy extended 12 bar jam.
‘Father Cannot Yell’ may lend heavily from those protagonists that emit the seedy underbelly of the darkened New York streets, but they manage to add enough of their own dark materials to the broody mix to sufficiently cast their influence aside. Czukay begins this ceremony with some exuberant run-downs before switching to what sounds like an irritated bee trapped in a jar, set of slides. His doom-enriched rhythms create the perfect paranoid environment for any soft acidhead to become lost in the impending mire. Schmidt sustains some bubbling atmospherics through his perpetual looping organ whilst cosmic troubadour Karoli blissfully adds a touch of minimal riffage into what is fast becoming a moodier version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience template. Mooney channels his pontificating through the spirits of Jimi and Arthur Lee as his own form of primal scream is taken out on some pseudo psychotherapy babble about the cycle of life. Fertile mother gives birth to father and so on, an unresolved tale of Oedipal complex-woe.
The music builds to a frenzy and hyperbole, as the band really cut into there stride, heavier and heavier until someone decides to cut the power.
‘Mary, Mary, So Contrary’ has the feel of another Velvet song, the eastern mystical ‘Venus In Furs’, which Copey has already pointed out but I shall ratify.
An impassioned plea to some lost romantic course can be heard in the gravely emotive voice of Mooney and in the wailing guitar licks of Karoli: his playing sounds like some kind of plaintive pleading.
Using the nursery rhyme as some kind of electric kool-aid hip analogy, the band let go with their emotions completely and knock out some chilling drenched effect chords, which are sustained and left hanging in the space.
Liebezeits double bass drum kicks almost draw a parallel to our love lost characters heart permutations; his pedal threatens to burst right through the speakers at any moment.
Our drained heroes build towards a faded outro that begs for some form of forgiveness – god she must have been some woman.
Closing side one is the uproarious garage stonker ‘Outside My Door’. Question Mark & the Mysterians fight it out with The Nazz, The Seeds and The Standells for attention.
More in common with a riot on sunset strip then a wet weekend in Cologne, this track is pure unadulterated mid-sixties teenage angst ridden punk.
The wailing organ that screams off its stand is accompanied by the train whistling harmonica and some heavy trebbly bassline that rumbles its way through this lock-up induced vision of hellish bravado.
Sounding like Beefheart’s Safe As Milk poured over Sky Saxon, it touches bass with all those truly raw energetic tunes that made it across to the Fatherland.
The drums of Liebezeit keep up the high-octane loony groove, he gets his chance to show off with some nice fills and barracking rolls.
In fact it shares a common sound with the Mooney fronted track ‘Connection’ which ended up on the Unlimited album.
Our newly christened garage rockers completely lose themselves in the fervor as what sounds like a death knell signal or alarm announces it’s time to put an end to proceedings.
In just over four minutes they’ve managed to concoct a tribute to all those skinny hipsters lurking in basements and hired church halls from San Antoine to Oregon. A homage to those kids who played the most primitive form of rock’n’roll without ever knowing how close they came to getting it right.
Side two is given over entirely to the monstrous twenty minute ‘You Doo Right’, never has the less-is-more statement fitted a song more aptly.
From the ominous introduction of the broody bass and the spiraling soaring organ of Schmidt to the Eastern trance feel of Karoli’s mystical guitar we are witness to a feast of improvised day dreaming.
The vocals of beat poet Mooney repeat the three lines of verse over the dynamic beat heavy drumming of Liebizeit. A flurry of toms evoke a frenzy of epic proportions that goes some way to showing just how good he was as he beats out some primal hypnotic warning.
A brief pause half way through allows us a brief moment to contemplate the minor key changes and funked up break beats we just bore witness to.
Building from zero, Karoli lets his fuzz enthused guitar riffs go free as they float into the ether.
Schmidt lays down some more of his oscillating and whirling organ lines, his farfisa complements the Floyd like postures of Karoli.
Czukay adds to the pace and excitement, with now just a couple of notes, his octave riffage now highly tight and feverish.
Good old Liebizeit wakes us from any trance out state as he smashes into cymbals with aplomb and abandon.
Mooney now croaks his way through the minimal three-line verse until he almost loses his voice entirely. The drums free roll their way now into an up-tempo crescendo of heavy snare and hi-hat action, as all hell breaks loose for the final five minutes.
The band are slowly faded out even though they seem to be just warming up, twenty minutes soon flies by. Who though you could do so much with just the A and E chords for company: a revelation and aspiration in equal measure!