Last year was full of tumultuous geopolitical events, natural disasters, and high-profile celebrity deaths, it wouldn't be hard to overlook the passing of a German rhythm section. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit died in January, bassist Holger Czukay in September. They were founding members of krautrock giants Can, a band whose legacy has touched and influenced a half-century of experimental music.
Liebezeit and Czukay weren't the first core members of Can who passed away. Guitarist Michael Karoli died in November 2001. With the passing of the three men, only keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and the band's first two singers (Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki) remain. They left behind an expansive body of work that's worth digging into for anyone with an interest in strange and hypnotic sounds.
For first timers digging into Can, it's hard to know where to start. Here's a beginner's guide to one of the most rewarding catalogs in krautrock, spotlighting one song from each Can album. That is, except for Out of Reach, an album so bad that the band later disowned it.
"Father Cannot Yell"
Monster Movie, 1969
Kicking off their first album with the dissonant and driving "Father Cannot Yell," singer Malcolm Mooney sings "hasn't been born yet, hasn't been born yet" in an increasingly insistent voice while the band settles into a harsh, frantic groove. The song showcases the power of Liebezeit's drumming, who maintains a steady machine-like rhythm that gradually builds in intensity and volume. Jaki's drumming is the engine that pushes the band forward and keeps them from going completely off the rails.
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The band used production techniques inspired by jazz producer Teo Macero, who worked with Miles Davis on classic albums like Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Macero and Davis would have their band improvise in the studio and then use tape splicing to weave together the improvisations with chords and themes they were developing.
Can edited and spliced together studio sessions to create the illusion of seamless live jams. Czukay claimed that there were hundreds of tape splices scattered across Can's entire recorded body of work. The beauty is that the seams don't show. No matter how chaotic and disjointed the music can be, it all sounds like it's part of one piece.
A compilation album released between the band's first two "official" records, Soundtracks captured Can during a key transition. Original singer Malcolm Mooney left the band in 1970. But they were able to record a few soundtrack cuts with Mooney that continued the psych-rock freakout vibe they cultivated on their first record. But the real highlights on Soundtracks is the work with new singer Damo Suzuki, generally considered the band's most iconic singer.
According to Jaki and Holger, they found Suzuki busking on the street. The two had been fretting over a high-profile gig they were scheduled to play later that night. When Liebezeit asked Czukay who would be their new singer, Holger pointed to the caterwauling Suzuki: "Why not him?" Without any rehearsals or vetting, they brought Suzuki on to sing at a packed concert.
Tago Mago, 1971
Czukay called 1971's Tago Mago "a magical work." He wasn't wrong. Can's first official album with Damo Suzuki took the band to new heights, marking the beginning of their "classic" period. Starting off with shorter songs like "Paperhouse" and the demented "Mushroom," the music sounded like a bad trip. The band's music was a snowball of tight drumming, Suzuki's slurring rants, and psych-rock guitar flourishes that got bigger and bigger as the album rolled, climaxing with epic tracks like "Aumgn" (named after an Aleister Crowly chant) and "Halleluhwah." The 11-minute "Peking O" is the band's ultimate descent into madness, using cutting edge tape editing and manipulations to puree sound into a nightmarish mish-mash of warped music box melodies and cartoon vocals. Suzuki sounds like a psychotic mouse for half the song.
One trick that the band began using with this record was "in-between-recordings." Czukay would leave a microphone and recording setup running at all times, even when the band wasn't officially recording anything. Which meant any mistakes, pauses, or goof-off jamming could become material.
Ege Bamyasi, 1972
For a band defiantly un-pop in their ambition and working methods, 1972's Ege Bamyasi saw Can bumbling their way into success. Two songs on the album became popular singles: "Spoon" ended up as the title song for a gangster show on TV, while director Samuel Fuller used the psychedelic and percussion-heavy "Vitamin C" for his movie Dead Pigeon. "Spoon" ended up charting in Germany's top 10 list, and the band made enough money to move into a better studio.
Ege Bamyasi sounded like Tago Mago's happier twin (even "Vitamin C" sounds like a sweeter version of "Mushroom"). Songs like "I'm So Green," "One More Night," and "Sing Swan Song" showed that Can could be accessible when they felt like it (even with Suzuki's hushed, nigh-incomprehensible vocals).
When asked why Can became a rock band, Czukay had remarked that it was "by coincidence. None of us were rock oriented." And yet on Ege Bamyasi the band, by either sheer will or freak coincidence, found their way to a perfect rock sound. It was experimental and loose, with enough hooks to keep the weird tunes lodged in your head.
Future Days, 1973
Future Days marked the band's drift away from their nervy and tense earlier work into a more serene, ambient direction. The title track is perhaps the band's loveliest moment - an oceanic song that drifts by like a contented sigh. Even loose cannon Suzuki sounds like he's finally found some chill on Future Days. It's also the band's jazziest sounding album, with tunes like "Moonshake" letting them show off their chops.
Jazz was a part of the band's DNA. Not just in production techniques, but in rhythms. Before joining the band, Liebezeit spent time playing with Chet Baker. He also worked with Spanish jazz pianist Tete Montoliu, learned flamenco, studied with the master drummers of Jajouka, and was a part of the Manfred School Quintet. Liebezeit is revered for his relentless, machine-like precision, but he could still swing with the best of them.
Soon Over Babaluma, 1974
In Joy Press and Simon Reynolds' book The Sex Revolts, they described the sound of Soon Over Babaluma as "a 'soft machine,' a plasma-engine of throbs and pulsions, regular as clockwork but as warm-blooded as a small furry animal." This 1974 record featured the band's hypnotic grooves taking on an almost organic quality, as though the notes were crystals growing on top of each other.
Soon Over Babaluma represented another milestone for the band: the departure of Damo Suzuki. Guitarist Michael Karoli took his place as the group's vocalist. While he lacked Suzuki's crazy energy, Karoli's low-key voice added subtle textures to the band's music.
"Meaning can only really lead away from the music," Karoli said in The Sex Revolts. "As soon as music creates feelings that can be named by words, it's no longer important to make music."
The sentiment's exemplified in the 11-minute "Chain Reaction," a bubbling ambient jam that shifts and expands like a cloud of fractals. Karoli's voice occasionally pops up, adding bits of soft color. He doesn't need to say much: his quivering, bee-sting guitar parts do all the talking needed.
1975's Landed marked the band's evolution (or de-evolution, depending on your POV) toward a more accessible, radio friendly sound. The songs on Landed were punchier and shorter. "Vernal Equinox" and "Hunters and Collectors" are the closest the band's ever come to turning into a glam rock band.
Though Can played around with more conventional rock song structures, they could still get real weird with it. "Red Hot Indians" sees them toying with complex poly-rhythms, while the 13-minute "Unfinished" is the band's last foray into astral space. A haunting soundscape, it's the sound of the German group setting their controls for the heart of a black hole.
Flow Motion, 1976
The recording of Flow Motion marked a significant change in how Can operated as a band. Throughout most of their career, Can recorded by playing everything live together. When they began working on Flow Motion in 1976, the band started recording with a 16-track machine. That meant they could parts separately, which changed the "oceanic" (as author David Toop would put it) nature of their sound.
The band would still do good work with this new setup, but the loss of that musical group-mind happening in real time was palpable on future recordings. They started sounding more and more like a "proper band." A case in point is the song "Babylonian Pearl," a neat piece of pop music (by Can standards). The song sounds like a Roxy Music single that's been left to melt under the sun.
Can also began experimenting with disco and reggae rhythms on Flow Motion, which paid off dividends on a commercial front. Flow Motion single "I Want More" ended up charting in the UK, landing the band a Top of the Pops appearance to perform the track.
"Don't Say No"
Saw Delight, 1977
The band's internal dynamics shifted radically with Saw Delight. Two ex-members of Traffic, Rebop Kwaku Baah and Rosko Gee, joined the band. Czukay gave up bass duties, but continued doing tape editing and creating experimental sounds for the band.
Can continued their experiments with reggae rhythms on Saw Delight, creating a strange warped sunny sound that sounded like a drunk bossa nova troupe and a reggae band playing at the same time. The irony of the band recording positive reggae vamps like "Don't Say No" in 1977 was that their influence was spreading into the unlikeliest of genres: punk music.
Can were one of the few "old bands" given a pass by English punks during that cultural revolution. When the Sex Pistols' John Lydon was invited to guest DJ on Capital Radio's Tommy Vance Show, one of the records he played was Can's "Halleluhwah" (off of Tago Mago). For an entire generation of post-punk musicians, Can's psychedelic sounds and implacable rhythms were as essential to their musical upbringing as David Bowie's Berlin albums.
"All Gates Open"
Can followed up Saw Delight with 1978's Out of Reach, the band's nadir. Out of Reach marks the departure of Czukay from the band. The new members had a greater influence on that album than on Saw Delight, pushing them away from the hallmarks of Can's sound. (Jaki's signature drumming sounded uncharacteristically muted throughout most of the recording.)
Can's 1979 self-titled album is a bit of course correction. Gee and Baah continued playing with the band, but the original members seemed to have found their groove again. Even Czukay got back into it, returning to do tape editing on Can.
"All Gates Open" is the album's highlight, seeing the band embrace blues harmonica. Combining mournful harmonica sounds with funky bass, bursts of blaring church keyboards, and Karoli's trance-like vocals, it's the kind of unusual genre mashup that latter-day Can excelled at.
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"In the Distance Lies the Future"
Rite Time, 1989
The core members of Can (Czukay, Liebezeit, Karoli, and Schmidt) reunited in 1989 for one final album. Most surprising of all was the return of original singer Malcolm Mooney. Time hadn't dulled Mooney's oddball vocals. Instead, the intervening decades gave his voice an extra edge of desperation and hunger.
While Rite Time pales in comparison to the band's early work, it's a reunion that finds the band embracing what they did best: finding a tense groove and boring down into it until it spreads out as wide as the horizon.
"Repetition gives you power," Czukay said in The Sex Revolts. You can hear that principle at work in the way Mooney keeps singing "in the distance lies the future." Just like Suzuki and Karoli, Mooney sounds less like he's singing on top of the band's work as he is performing some kind of incantation. He chants his stuttering spell over the song like he's trying to sing his way back into the past. But there's no going back, of course.