B12 Solipsism

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Taylor Parkes On Can Boxed Set – The Lost Tapes

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CAN - The Lost Tapes
CAN – The Lost Tapes

I am just unwrapping my copy of this; I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m already in a better mood…

Fifteen, twenty years ago, it would have been natural to respond to The Lost Tapes not just with astounded applause but with a rather lofty prescription: any group could learn a lot from close, repeated listening. It’s still true, of course, but in 2012 it seems a bit out of touch. In many ways Can – whose name so clearly dates them to a time before the internet search – were not like us, sat here with conflicting histories of everything, isolated by choice and by the new demands of our miserable lives. Living and working together was the point; the strengths of five individuals merged to create something greater, something uncontainable.

Can’s spontaneous, co-operative creativity hasn’t been weakened by time or by anything else; the music here sounds somehow even more potent, having outlasted all the cultural currents which carried it in. It sounds almost revolutionary again. Something unburdened by the self, or by self-consciousness; free of the past and the present.

Holger Czukay, somewhat professorial at the age of 30, joined Inner Space (the original name of the group formed by keyboard player Irmin Schmidt) on the understanding it would be a kind of art collective, a rather academic fusion of rock with the teachings of Karlheinz Stockhausen, he and Schmidt’s old teacher and mentor. In fact, from the sound of ‘Millionenspiel’, the opening track on this collection, Inner Space progressed very quickly to what would become the early Can sound (‘Millionenspiel’ is a psychedelicised Chantays on a surfin’ safari through medieval Europe and Jamaica in the 50s, far beyond the fumblings of the Prehistoric Future tape). Still, it was only when grainy-voiced Malcolm Mooney joined on vocals that Czukay grasped what could really be achieved. As he describes it in the sleeve notes to The Lost Tapes, “Stockhausen with a hell of a drive!”

That drive was Can’s trademark, powered not just by Mooney’s aggression but by Michael Karoli’s tattoo-needle guitar style and (especially) the drumming of Jaki Liebezeit, in which the delicacy and invention of jazz was applied to a series of rigidly mechanised beats, a kind of percussive hypnosis driving the others forward without fear. In time, as Mooney was replaced by the ethereal Damo Suzuki, the drive became more of a glide, the sound spun out until it was almost translucent, but the band retained its eerie power: heavy when featherlight, direct when delirious. In the glow of Schloss Norvenich, their hidey-hole near Cologne (then later at Inner Space Studios, a refurbished cinema in nearby Weilerswist), Can spent hours and days and nights and sunrises and sunsets playing. Everything was recorded, although not everything survived, because of the cost of tape, and – according to Schmidt in the sleeve notes – because of Liebezeit’s insistence on constant forward movement: “Erase!” These three discs have been assembled from a pile of rediscovered masters, pulled from a cupboard after nearly forty years, and if they’d been recorded this morning they’d sound like they came from the future.

Occasionally, the centre fails to hold and Can are pitched off in different directions: such is the price of freedom. Still, on those rare occasions where the music is slightly ragged, it remains relentlessly inventive. The single most jaw-dropping thing about Can was this unstoppable originality – what stands out most clearly here is that even at the point of exhaustion, where anyone else would fall back on shopworn blues riffs and keyboard-demo drum fills, Can were utterly incapable of cliché. And when all five members coalesce – which they do more often than not, more often than pretty much any other group who ever relied on improvisation and daring – the results are incomparable, sometimes indescribable.

(click here to continue reading The Quietus | Features | Constant Forward Movement: Taylor Parkes On Can’s Lost Tapes.)

so what are you waiting for? Money is for spending, not hoarding…


and this is a good definition of the band’s aesthetic as any:

The music of Can was never explicitly political, but it was always radical. A synthesis of Stockhausen, Sly & The Family Stone, ‘Sister Ray’ and Ornette Coleman would be musically incendiary at any time, but in these times it was more than that. Can’s aesthetic choices may have been instinctive, but they weren’t coincidental: they were drawn to African rhythms, to the music of Eastern European gypsies, to non-hierarchical systems, personally and musically (crucial to their sound was the abuse of those strict tonal relationships enforced by the Third Reich’s cultural guardians). They were, in Nazi parlance, Entartete Musik – degenerate music – taken almost to its limit. This was not necessarily a deliberate choice on their part. But with that mindset, in that country, at that point in history, there was no choice.

Written by Seth Anderson

August 16th, 2012 at 1:06 pm

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