Formed in Cologne in 1967 (initially as Inner Space) the avant-garde, improvisational anarchist community that went on to become known as Can have, over the intervening thirty years, become one of the most influential bands in the world – indeed it’s now almost impossible to imagine how music might have progressed without the input of Krautrock visionaries like Can, Tangerine Dream, Faust, Neu!, Kraftwerk and Kluster (later Cluster). Much like The Velvet Underground, their real impact was not via commercial success (which was, at the time at least, virtually nonexistent) but their subsequent influence, not only on rock but on dance music as well, is inestimable as Andy Basire reveals.
The brainchild of Holger Czukay, keyboard player Irmin Schmidt (music teachers who studied under Stockhausen), guitarist Michael Karoli (a pupil of Czukay), and jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, Can emerged from a post-war Europe of student riots as German, French and Italian youth vocally expressed their opposition to nuclear weapons, pollution and war. Music in Germany had also taken a turn towards the electronic in the mid-1950s and so whilst their American and British counterparts experimented with drug driven psychedelia, German rock music was far more a fusion of psychedelia and the electronic avant-garde.
Initially enlisting American vocalist Malcolm Mooney as vocalist they released their debut album Monster Movie in 1969, and followed this up with Soundtracks two years later to little fanfare – by which time the rather unstable Mooney, who departed on the advice of his therapist, had been replaced by the equally oddball Damo Suzuki. It would be on their following two albums however (produced at the Inner Space Studio set-up in a former movie theatre in Weilerswist, close to Cologne), that Can would really hit their stride, both Tago Mago (‘71) and Ege Bamyasi (’72), are rightly now considered to be classics of the genre and still continue to influence musicians today, their now legendary drawn out improvisations built around Liebezeit’s hypnotic rhythm patterns, patterns which predate the pounding trance beats which became prevalent on dance-floors the world over by more than a decade.
The following four albums whilst not as highly regarded, all include moments well worth the price of admission, Future Days (‘73) in particular, incidentally the last Can album with Damo Suzuki who left the band to become a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Of course continually pushing the boundaries would mean that Can occasionally pushed the tolerance levels of their audience to breaking point, in Berlin in 1974 for example they played a show lasting from 8 p.m. in the evening until 8:30 a.m the next morning (something even Cream or ELP at their most indulgent would never have considered), but it was this aggressive and challenging experimentation which would ensure that echoes of Can's music wound up being heard in later bands like Public Image Limited, the Fall, and Einsturzende Neubauten, among many, many others. Soon Over Babaluma (also ’73) saw the band move away from recording straight onto one track, and by Landed (’75) they had moved to Virgin Records and were heavily into multitrack recording. Unlimited Edition (‘76), an extended version of an album that had quickly sold out as Limited Edition two years earlier, then gave fans access to what had then become legendary recordings from the Ethnological Forgery Series (EFS), adding a typical Can twist to foreign music cultures, from sounds of the far east to Dixieland.
Many consider Unlimited Edition to be the last genuinely worthwhile Can album, despite the fact that they had a disco hit, 'I Want More', taken from ‘76s Flow Motion (their only hit record in fact). From this point on Holger Czukay, perhaps now the best-known ex-member of the band, increasingly found himself marginalised and did not appear at all on Out of Reach (’78) and the final Can show, in Lisbon at the end of May in front of 10,000 fans, signalled the end of an era as the bands career was summed up by the double album Cannibalism and lacklustre final album proper Can (’79). That said, the band members have reconvened on occasion over the intervening years, notably for ‘88s Rite Time with original vocalist Mooney, and again for occasional soundtrack work, live shows and compilation projects. Sadly Michael Karoli died on 17 November 2001 after a long battle with Cancer.
Then it was announced that Irmin Schmidt and Jono Podmore (who remastered the Can SACD editions in 2004 and has been working closely with Can over the past 15 years) would be digging around in the archives and fans waited with bated breath for the results. “When we played at the studio we always had a tape running,” reflects Irmin “but, especially in the first years, we couldn’t afford to keep them running all the time. So eventually, on one tape, there might be songs from three or four different times… with sometimes months or years between them. That made the disorder much worse. No one ever wanted to listen to the tapes. We didn’t know what was on them. But then, Hildegard (manager of Can and Spoon Records) really started getting serious about the project, how we should listen to the tapes and see if there’s anything on them worth releasing. It got quite on my nerves, I didn’t want to do it, but…” The tapes, retrieved from the Can archives in 2008, were cleaned by audio-restorers at Sonopress in Germany, digitised and the resultant 50 hours of music was then listened to and graded by Irmin and Jono with final remastering completed in February 2012.
For fans, The Lost Tapes box set is the stuff of dreams, much of the material easily good enough to have sat alongside the better of their official releases. Michael Karoli told Schmidt in 1997 that he knew Can’s music would continue to resonate. “We were doing something totally new,” he said. “It had to have an influence. People are still going to discover things in Can music that is new to them.” Over forty years on from their beginnings, Can are still not finished.
The Lost Tapes is out on the 18th of June on Mute Records more info can be had at