Who: Damo Suzuki, Holger Czukay, Michael Caroli, Jaki Liebezeit, Irmin Schmidt.
Why: Can were always outsiders in the grand scheme of rock & roll. Formed initially by a conductor/concert pianist, an avant-garde composer/flautist and a music teacher, they weren’t exactly your standard bunch of bar-dwelling wannabes. Irmin Schmidt was classically trained at numerous prestigious schools, conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra before eventually settling in Cologne. His respectable musical upbringing was corrupted during a trip to New York in 1968. Falling in with visionary minimalists like Steve Reich and LaMonte Young, he was later exposed to Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. On return to Germany, he set about with muso friends Holger Czukay and American experimentalist David Johnson, and, intrigued by the possibilities of the new frontier of rock, set about prophetically remodelling it.
The core line-up would be in place by the time Johnson had left (on account of the project being too rock orientated) and incorporated Michael Caroli, a 19-year-old guitarist pupil of Czukay, and Jaki Liebezeit, a jazz drummer. On vocals; Malcolm Mooney, a schizoid but über creative New York sculptor. Deciding upon the name ‘Can’, they would later decide that this stood for ‘Communism, Anarchism, Nihilism’. The music would come to be just as confrontational and radical as the principles of their acronym –so much so that after the release of their debut Monster Movie, Mooney would return to America due to his psychiatrist’s assertion that the hypnotic, trance-inducing sounds were bad for his mental health. Kenji ‘Damo’ Suzuki, a young Japanese nomad who was discovered busking outside a Munich café, ably replaced him. Tago Mago, the first album to solely feature Suzuki’s unearthly recitations, is perhaps the most legendary LP in the krautrock canon. The LP has a magical aura, perhaps a result of its connections to occultist Aleister Crowley – its name is a reference to the Isla de Tagomago, which he visited. But it’s the music that’s the real witchcraft – lyrics that tickle the subconscious, mesmerising rhythms and repetitions, all manner of unprecedented effects, songs bubbling and pleasantly flowing before cresting into great waves of sound.
The band’s next few releases would form the jewels in the crown of their discography. Ege Bamyasi was a slightly more accessible cousin of Tago Mago, sessions beleaguered by Damo and Irmin obsessively playing chess. Future Days took the band into yet more ambient territory, before Damo left to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Can recorded throughout the next decade, but never quite recaptured the genius of their early 70s triumvirate. But their legacy has only become more apparent with time. The motorik drumbeats and somehow unattainable atmospheres, the womblike caverns of bass and innovative use of electronics have been plundered by pretty much any reputable underground band you’d care to name. Post-punkers – The Fall, Joy Division, Public Image Limited – all snagged Can’s fusion of dub basslines and effects with garage rock and sold it as their own. Likewise, the trip-hop groups of the 90s would replicate their amniotic ambience, Massive Attack and Portishead particularly indebted. Recently even commercial hip-hop’s cottoned on – Kanye West sampled ‘Sing Swan Song’. And of course, Radiohead often sound like a bunch of middle-class Oxfordshire nerds who’ve formed a half-arsed Can tribute band. These German cosmonauts remade and remodelled pop music as we know it – who knows where we’d be without them…
Influences: The Fugs, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Miles David, The Monks.
Influenced: The Fall, Pere Ubu, Stereolab, Radiohead, Portishead.
Sample Lyric: ‘Well I was born, and I was dead / Well I saw mushroom head’.
Which Record: Tago Mago (United Artists, 1971)