A Beginner's Guide to Can

Press photo of Can in 1974.
Press photo of Can in 1974. United Artists/Mute

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"Babylonian Pearl"
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, 1979

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.

"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.
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Ashley Naftule