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They were punks disguised as hippies; the noisy mavericks who stayed together because of musical differences; the churning funk machine whose rhythm section described itself as "not a perfect marriage, but a constant divorce". When they formed in 1968, three key members were already in their 30s and had backgrounds in experimental composition and free jazz, and the fourth was a wannabe guitar-god 10 years their junior. They began as the anarchistic outsiders; they would eventually be given the keys to the city of Cologne.
The chemistry should have been so wrong, yet 35 years on, the phenomenon and mystique of the German group Can endures. Their entire recorded output of 15 albums, plus numerous solo projects, remains in print, and has just been updated with the release of Can DVD, a box-set containing visuals, documentary and live footage and assorted home movies - rich pickings for anyone needing a window on the times in which the innovations of 70s-era "Krautrock" flourished.
Sonically and politically, Can's outlook was uniquely European. Their hypnotic music was entirely untouched by the blues, or the pop lineage of the Beatles, Stones and Dylan, yet for years Can has been the key name to drop by anyone from John Lydon and the Fall to Brian Eno and Primal Scream. Dancer Michael Clark has used their music in his choreography, and novelist Alan Warner has dedicated an entire book to bassist Holger Czukay.
From underground rock groups to cutting-edge techno artists and DJs, Can's influence has never been greater - all the more remarkable for a group which, during its early years, never played live in the USA. They did, how ever, enjoy plenty of dates on the mainland and around the English university circuit, followed by a loyal audience of "outsiders... people who live quite a special life", says keyboardist Irmin Schmidt. "There is nothing like a typical Can fan: some are bourgeois, but they write and say they have another life deep in their soul. These people have a certain critical distance [from] society, which was sometimes wonderful, sometimes embarrassing - but I thank them all."
Schmidt prefers to think of Can as an organic machine; and their music, which came about largely through improvisation, mutual listening and responding, as a form of social interchange that offers a model of how a society could be organised.
"The basis for handling this model the way we did," says Czukay, "was the fact that we all started this group as absolute beginners willing to forget what we had learned before."
"There's nowhere in Europe that has such a positive approach to the European idea as Germany," insists Schmidt. "The young population of Germany is the most European-thinking in all the continent. I love to melt this idiom of rock, or pop music, with high art, so that it becomes something else. It's strange that you have to explain that in music, much more than painting. You wouldn't say Warhol is less worthwhile than Bacon, but in music, you have to convince people that this is an art form."
Schmidt and Czukay met in Cologne during the mid-60s while studying composition under Karlheinz Stockhausen. Shortly after, they ran into Jaki Liebezeit, a jazz drummer who was itching to replace his free style with a "monotonous" approach that drew on the primal energy of the Stooges, the machine-funk propulsion of James Brown and Sly Stone, and the hypnotic rhythms of Africa and Arabia.
Guitarist Michael Karoli, a former student of Czukay, was inducted into the group soon afterwards. A disturbed American expat, Malcolm Mooney, became their first vocalist (he quit in 1970, replaced by Damo Suzuki, a Japanese busker). "He was the spark which set fire to it," says Schmidt, "and all of a sudden it was a rock group." A wealthy admirer offered them practice space in the castle Schloss Norvenich, where they had all the time in the world to develop their sound, in isolation from prevailing music fashions.
One day in 1969, an electronic duo calling themselves the Organisation dropped in for a jam session. They were Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter; a couple of years later they added more members, bought industrial overalls and renamed themselves Kraftwerk. In the intervening years, of course, the drab four have come to define German popular music for British and American audiences, while Can had to content themselves with only one UK hit, 1977's I Want More, by which time they were more intent on bringing out the more playful aspects of their group personality. If Kraftwerk represent the Apollonian, intellectual side of German pop, Can plunged fearlessly into a Dionysian frenzy, harsher than contemporaries such as Neu!, Amon Düül and Cluster.
In the year of their foundation, the streets of many European capitals, as well as several in Japan, the USA and Latin America, were filled with the scent of revolution. As Irmin Schmidt puts it: "I grew up in a country in ruins, culturally. I don't think we recovered from this so easily. We are musicians, so we reflected the strangeness, the harshness, the brutality."
Yet Can did not come to feast on the corpse of 20th century democracy. They grew up amid the ruins of a devastated old Europe, but their collective antenna tuned in to the utopian future of Marshall McLuhan's newly minted global village.
In 1971, Can moved from the castle to a more permanent home in an old cinema 20km outside Cologne that they dubbed Inner Space. They remained installed there for the next seven years, an intensely creative ferment that produced an astonishing cycle of albums, including Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), Future Days (1973) and the barrel of out-takes and self-styled "Ethnic Forgeries" later collected as Unlimited Edition.
What Can got up to in that studio back in the dreamy, utopian days of the early 70s can now be seen thanks to the footage shot by Polish film maker Peter Przygodda (later to become Wim Wenders's cinematographer) which is collected on the new DVD set. It reveals the group as an astonishing performing unit, capable of intense, complex interplay, with Schmidt's electronic textures and Czukay's sparse bass timbres locking into Liebezeit's mesh of surging, primal rhythms, topped with Karoli's soaring, ecstatic guitar peals. In a film of a 1972 concert they gave to a home crowd in Cologne, to celebrate their single Spoon reaching the West German No 1 slot, the group are engulfed in a full-on psychedelic spectacle, surrounded by circus performers, jugglers and fire-eaters.
"This was a very special event," recalls Schmidt, "because we wanted to do something for the people who had bought our records. There were 10,000 people there. Since we couldn't do something expensive, we did something funny."
Can's lunar rock explored galaxies of sound with its extended monolithic grooves, droning improvisations babbling with chirruping electronics, chopping, threshing percussion workouts mantra-like vocal tics. But far from the sprawling mess that might suggest, Czukay's superlative editing techniques - which anticipated today's digital samplers - ensured the music was arranged as precisely as a Brian Wilson production. "Editing was our way to survive," he explains, "because the playing could be so bad. Cutting out the beginning and end, and giving it a name, saved the music."
Earlier this year, the entire contents of Inner Space - down to the dozens of mattresses that hung on the walls as soundproofing - were transplanted from its original site and reconstructed in The Rock'n'Pop Museum in Gronau - Germany's equivalent of America's Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame. Over three decades it had accumulated a mystique as potent as the other influential crucibles of 20th-century phonography, such as Sam Phillips's Sun Studios, Abbey Road, Lee "Scratch" Perry's Jamaican Black Ark, or Kraftwerk's notoriously hermetic Kling Klang. The museum's rescue of the studio gives credence to Can's position as one of the most significant forces in German post-war music.
Yet Can continue to refuse to wallow in past glories. Since the untimely death of the youngest member Karoli in 2000, Schmidt has premiered his first opera, a multi-media adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gothic fantasy Gormenghast. Holger Czukay has severed all record company contracts and is now, he reports, successfully selling his own music via his online label Dignose.com.
Jaki Liebezeit has plugged into Cologne's new electronica scene, and
Damo Suzuki's Network has been touring the international circuit for several
years. Nowadays, the official line is that Can will never split up and
never reform. "I'm interested in creating something new rather than
complaining about it falling apart," says Schmidt. "Music is
in a confused state at the moment, and that's great. Crisis always signals
the beginning of something new."
© Rob Yourng 11/03 [The Guardian]