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What instruments say to one another in private remains one of the mysteries of Can. Another riddle is why they were a rock band. Formed in the heat of the European student riots of 1968, Can were created for the purpose of spontaneous group action. Two of the founding four members -- Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt -- were avant-garde classical musicians, students of Karlheinz Stockhausen and admirers of John Cage. Another -- Jaki Liebezeit -- was a jazz drummer, just back from a stint in Spain, with a collection of forbidden voodoo rhythms gleaned from a Cuban bass player. And the fourth -- Michael Karoli -- was an astrologer who played electric guitar according to the mathematical relationships of the planets.
Over the next 10 years, Can would change what it could mean to play rock music, through their meticulous yet spontaneous albums, their anarchic live shows, and above all their commitment to ideas. Their albums, a dozen of which have been re-released this decade by Mute, remain broadly influential. Indeed, artists as diverse as Sonic Youth, Brian Eno, and the Orb recently participated in a Can remix compilation, Sacrilege, that's now available on Mute. But even though Can's music was experimental, toying with it makes no sense. And to understand why, it's necessary to explain how Can differed from other bands.
Just as the Beatles opened up rock to melodic and textural influences previously thought unsuitable for pop, Can incorporated theories and practices drawn from the world of "serious" music. Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and other composers of new music provided Can with many of their characteristic devices, including the use of improvisation toward "spontaneous composition," tape manipulation and "musique concréte," and, perhaps most dramatically, the use of chance.
Witness the manner in which the four founding members of Can came to add their vocalists. Over the phone from Mute's New York office, bassist/producer Czukay tells the story of meeting Can's second singer, Damo Suzuki: "I found Damo in Munich, on the street. He came up singing and praying to the sun -- very freaky. I said to Jaki, `This is our new singer.' I said to Damo, `Who are you? What are you doing tonight?' He had nothing to do, he was tripping around. `Would you like to sing? We are an experimental group, we have a concert, and if you would like to sing, please come over.' And he did. We didn't have any rehearsal. It started with the instruments alone, feeding back, and Damo was meditating, and all of a sudden he became a fighting samurai. And then a rhythm came up that was so unbelievable that the people got aggressive, and they all left."
Although it may seem a terrific stroke of luck to find a singer as uniquely suited to Can's music as Damo Suzuki wandering around the streets of Munich just hours before a previously scheduled gig, accidents like that come only through discipline, as John Cage and other practitioners of aleatory composition have demonstrated. Can were prepared for Damo's appearance, and open to it, if not dedicated to its possibility. Their first singer, an African-American artist named Malcolm Mooney, came to them under similar circumstances; and his arrival had a galvanizing effect on the future of the group as a rock band.
Schmidt tells this story in a separate phone conversation: "One day, we met this friend of a friend in Paris, and we said, come visit us in Cologne. And this was Malcolm Mooney. When he showed up, I just said, come with me to the studio, we are making music there. All of a sudden he took the mike and started singing. And this was like the ignition -- this gave the last kick toward rock. Because between him and Jaki, who had already started to establish this hypnotic rhythm, all of a sudden Malcolm directed all this undecided energy in the group to this rhythm."
The resemblance between this Zen-like approach to putting a band together and John Cage's compositional theories was no accident given their apprenticeship with Stockhausen and their familiarity with the world of art music in general. As Schmidt explains it, at the time "there was a ban on improvisation. Pierre Boulez [the influential French conductor and composer] had put a spell on any spontaneity -- there was all this very dogmatic thinking . . . all these rules that didn't develop very far because they were more the end of a development than the beginning of something."
But Cage's maverick ideas helped liberate Czukay and Schmidt from that orthodoxy. Schmidt attended Cage's very first performance in Germany, at the academy in Essen where he was studying. "I was totally amazed," he recalls. "I laughed -- you know, sometimes laughing is a reaction that frees you. Then after the concert I went to the dressing room and said, `Mr. Cage, you must have seen me laughing down there, but please excuse me, it wasn't meant badly, it was just something that came out of my body without my willing it.' And I explained that a critic standing beside him really felt bad about it and had asked me to leave. And then he turned to this critic, he sort of took her in his arms, and said, `Oh, didn't you have any fun tonight? I am sorry!' "
Another device drawn from new music that Can made use of was tape edits -- hundreds per album. Although there is little sense of discontinuity on Tago Mago, the album was nonetheless painstakingly constructed out of the aural equivalent of jump cuts. You can sometimes hear the cuts if you're looking for them -- particularly in the more "out" pieces, like "Halleluhwah" and "Aumgn." But on groove-based songs like "Paperhouse," "Mushroom," and "Bring Me Coffee or Tea," you'd be hard pressed to say where the jam ends and the tape manipulation begins. Improvisations layered with one or at most two passes of overdubs (more would have created too much hiss, according to Czukay), they're dense with textures and rhythmic shifts, but they sound seamless and inevitable.
"What we did was not improvisation in the classical jazz sense but instant composition," Czukay says. "Like a football team: you know the goal, but you don't know at any moment where the ball is going. Permanent surprise. Editing, on the other hand, is an act of destroying. And you should not destroy something if you don't have a vision to establish it afterward."
This was the dialectical structure of Can's work: creation through spontaneous action, destruction through its deliberate manipulation and rearrangement. There is something mystical about the resolution of this conflict, which Can didn't hesitate to ascribe to magic.
Schmidt cites a lesson from Cage: "He was the most outstanding figure of this idea that the music is something around you, already existing. All you do is focus it. And this is exactly how Can worked. We came into the studio, or on stage, or wherever we made music, and it was our environment that created the music; we were the media to focus it, to put it into existence."
Which is perhaps why it was a change in recording technology, rather than a change in singers, that heralded the end of Can. In 1975, the band acquired a multitrack tape machine and left their original, two-track stereo Revox behind. The original set-up had allowed for overdubs, but only sparingly and only as a group; there was no isolation of instruments, which would permit individual changes.
"With the multitrack, this sort of group responsibility was destroyed," explains Czukay. "Of course everyone in the group gets criticized, but suddenly one could criticize in such a way that one could say it was the guitar. And then the guitarist would get paranoid and do it again, and everyone else would maybe leave the studio even, and suddenly this sort of single, out-of-the-group responsibility happened. This was a big change."
This change marks a divide in Can's discography. The albums before 1975 are the classics. Each strikes a different mood, ranging from the raw, punky energy of 1969's Monster Movie to the almost new-age-like calm of '74's Soon over Babaluma. But they are all of a piece in the band's experiments and development. The post-1975 recordings find them struggling stylistically. Newly discovered textures sound forced; old ones lose their power. The magic was dispelled by the multitrack recorder, and Can disbanded in 1978.
Which should have been the tipoff that the idea of a remix album -- using the latest recording technologies and fashions -- was ill-suited to Can's work. Mute chairman Daniel Miller may have created Sacrilege out of his love for the band, but the notion that Can's experimentalism meant their work would lend itself to manipulation by contemporary "innovation" was wrong. On the contrary, Can albums were magical events, inseparable from the specific conditions under which they were made. Brian Eno acknowledges as much in a letter of apology to the band that forms a part of the CD's liner notes:
"In your recordings, more than most other people's, you captured the spirit of a time and place and a certain type of musical community, an attitude to playing, a philosophy. That's what we all liked about you: it wasn't just music. I kept thinking that whatever one does to those recordings now (in my mind, anyway) threatens that, and turns it into something that is `just more music.' "
Perhaps a more fitting tribute from Mute would have been to put all the old Can tapes in a room, to see what they might say to one another.
But it is Damo Suzuki, uniquely articulate in English, who must have the last word on the remixes: "It's not my tea."
Damon Krukowski | 8/97 [Boston Phoenix]