I Want More: A Guide to the Music of CAN

This is a guide to the music of CAN.  Releases are divided into full albums, miscellany (mostly archival, soundtrack, and outtake collections), and non-album singles, with each section arranged chronologically by recording date.  Other resources — books, films, a soundtrack filmography, and web sites — are listed at the end.

This is not quite complete yet.


A Brief Introduction:

CAN was formed in the late 1960s in Köln (Cologne), in what was then West Germany.  The band approached rock and pop music with sort of an outsider’s perspective, very much the way pianist/composer Cecil Taylor approached jazz in a unique way from the standpoint of formal training in modern classical music.  There was a tacit affinity in their worldview to the so-called “New Left” movement of the late 1960s.  The band is also cited as a pillar of the “krautrock” movement that sought to reconstruct a new German cultural identity following the defeat of the Nazis by the Soviet Union and allied powers — most of the band members grew up knowing former Nazis.  They did not want to sound like other pop music.  The band’s music draws influence and comparisons to electronic “new music” composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the chance music of John Cage, rock bands like The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly & The Family Stone, the vamping funk rock of James Brown, and dub reggae from the likes of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.  While band members had great familiarity with jazz, they either couldn’t or didn’t want to play jazz.  They did not work with outside producers or even record in commercial recording studios, instead forging their own way in a do-it-yourself way in which they maintained control over all aspects of their recordings.  Always something of a cult phenomenon, CAN remained critical darlings.  Curiously, or maybe not so much, the band’s audience has primarily been male. Anyway, even nearly a half-century later the band’s music sounds stunningly fresh and impressive.

Original members Irmin Schmidt, Czukay and David Johnson came from backgrounds in modern classical music, each having studied at Darmstadt with Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Drummer Jaki Liebezeit came from a background in jazz, departing a position in Manfred Schoof‘s band after deciding that the scrupulous avoidance of a rhythmic pulse in free jazz was too constraining.  Guitarist Michael Karoli was a former student of Czukay’s who gave up studying law to be a musician instead.  Schmidt was a working conductor and composer who visited New York City where he was introduced to underground rock and the pop art scene.  He returned to West Germany inspired, and with Czukay committed to starting a rock band.  Johnson soon departed as the band pursued more of a focus on rock than pure avant-garde electronics.  Malcolm Mooney was an American traveling the world under the alias Desse Barama to try to avoid being drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, and ended up connecting with CAN partly out of confusion — he wanted to find a visual artist’s studio but ended up in a musical studio.  Although not intending to be a singer when he arrived in Germany, and having no real experience as such, Mooney helped the band coalesce its unique syncretic approach to music with a strong sense of rhythm.  Anxiety about returning to America and being drafted eventually necessitated Mooney’s departure.  He was soon after replaced by “Damo” Suzuki.  An anarchist by disposition, Damo had left home dissatisfied with Japanese culture through a connection with a pen pal in Sweden.  He had made his way to Germany where he frequently busked on the streets of Cologne and also was involved in a theater orchestra/band.  Holger Czukay encountered him on the street and invited him to sign at a concert that evening, with no rehearsal.

Most band members came from a middle-class backgrounds (in one case more upper class).  This gave them access to unique opportunities and allowed them to overcome obstacles that would have caused the demise of other bands.  For instance, Damo was very nearly deported before Irmin’s connections to West German state radio lead to a high-level government intervention that allowed Damo to remain.  Another sometimes overlooked aspect of the band’s history is that they formed in the wake of the so-called West German “Economic Miracle,” which partly stemmed from the Marshall Plan but was primarily a function of the USA forgiving WWII debts and using West Germany (and Japan, and later South Korea) as special economic development zones — something explicitly and purposefully denied to the UK and France.  In that climate of economic abundance there were funds and materials floating around for artistic projects.  The band maintained a very collective approach to music-making.  Everyone’s contributions were considered at an equal level.  There was no band hierarchy or designated leader.  Compositions, production and similar efforts were credited to the entire band regardless of specific individual contributions.  They also exactly equally shared band income, at least once Hildegard Schmidt became manager.

Achieving modest popularity in West Germany and the United Kingdom, they had some minor commercial success with recordings but had only one regional “hit” song with “I Want More.”  As the 70s rolled on, new members Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah (both formerly of Traffic) joined in.  Czukay left the band by the end of 1977.

The band formally split up in 1979.  Irmin Schmidt then founded Spoon Records, and, via a distribution arrangement with Mute Records, CAN recordings are now more available than ever.  A few archival releases dribbled out in the early 80s, as well as some compilations.  A reunion instigated by originally vocalist Malcolm Mooney happened in the late 80s that lead to a new album.  A few additional reunion recordings of individual songs and sporadic reunion concerts took place too.  The former band members mostly pursued solo and other new musicals projects, and often collaborated.



Legend:

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Mary Halvorson – Code Girl

Code Girl

Mary HalvorsonCode Girl Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-027 (2018)


Mary Halvorson is one of those musicians who refuses to stand still.  Code Girl is yet another wide-ranging album — this time a double album.  She is now drawing more heavily from pop music.  The album’s production is not the sparse, “live” style that drove some of her excellent earlier albums like Saturn Sings and Meltframe.  Instead there are effects and a rich, streamlined polish that recalls efforts to combine pop/rock recordings with jazz by Colin Stetson or on Matthew Shipp‘s New Orbit, and at times the wistful 1980s recordings of Sonny Sharrock (Guitar).  To the extent that jazz fusion is an appropriate descriptor for some of this, Tim Berne‘s bands with guitarist Marc Ducret make a decent reference point.  Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire channels the calm, reflective style of Bill Dixon now and then.  One striking feature of this particular band is the presence of Amirtha Kidambi on vocals.  Her singing is reminiscent of Asha Puthli‘s on Ornette Coleman‘s Science Fiction but with more of the tone (and vibrato) of Wendy Lewis on The Bad PlusFor All I Care.  If all this seems like too many comparisons, it is enough to respond that Halvorson’s band displays an awareness of lots of different music, drawing bits and pieces without becoming beholden to any of those influences.  The resultant music of Code Girl is uniquely its own while still revealing a connection and affinity to what has come before, even if its historical reference points remain mostly off the beaten path.

In a way, Code Girl seems like a good first crack at integrating more pop elements into music that still retains influences from abstract jazz — the structure of many of these compositions still overwhelmingly show the influence of Anthony Braxton.  But Kidambi doesn’t seem like quite the right vocalist, her vocal tone too prim and proper and her bel canto vibrato seeming less fitting than, say, sprechgesang.  Halvorson herself sounds great, of course.  She’s as good as ever switching on a dime from clean, virtuoso single note runs (like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, etc.) to distortion-laden improvised riffs (like Wata of Boris).  In a way, American musicians of Halvorson’s generation are steeped in a digitized, computerized environment that permits a very casual acceptance of chopped up and reconfigured bits with leaps and juxtapositions accepted as a matter of course.

As good as this is, the double album as a whole can seem a bit scattered and uneven, though it would also be difficult to say that any particular songs are failures.  While Code Girl can’t quite match Halvorson’s Away With You (arguably her best album to date), it is a welcome confirmation that she has more new ideas and plenty of adventurousness to spare.  Here’s hoping that she can fine tune the approach of Code Girl in the future.

Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

Nicole MitchellMandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds FPE Records FPE 012CD (2017)


Opens with the excellent “Egoes War,” which is an extended percussive workout with some interesting electric guitar snippets, sort of in the vein of Sun Ra‘s afro-futurism.  From there things devolve into banal identity politics-based third world-isms and naval-gazing noodling drawn from the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  It picks up with “Listening Embrace,” which is reminiscent of early Julius Hemphill, and “Staircase Struggle,” with its in-your-face sung/spoken vocals.  On the whole this album is a bit hit-or-miss.

Mary Halvorson – Meltframe

Meltframe

Mary HalvorsonMeltframe Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-021 (2015)


Mary Halvorson is one of the most talented guitarists of her generation.  Her approach might be compared to that of Bill Frisell.  Both guitarists have eclectic interests, a generous spirit towards collaborations, penchants for odd — almost contrarian — improvisations, and a willingness to employ distortion.  However, especially in his later years Frisell has gravitated toward a pastoral Americana in his work that can come across as sedate and complacent.  Halvorson, on the other hand, is much more willing to dabble in dissonance and incongruous leaps.  That is to say, Halvorson sounds like Frisell turned up to eleven, with a more adventurous sense of composition.

Meltframe is a collection of solo guitar cover versions of generally lesser-known jazz tunes. For the most part, this is yet another tremendous album from Halvorson.  She opens the set with a ragged, willfully jagged and loud take on Oliver Nelson‘s “Cascades.”  Then there is “Cheshire Hotel” by the French guitarist Noël Akchoté, a sometimes collaborator with Halvorson, with a sort of pop derived melody and an emphasis on rhythmic reverb.  Duke Ellington‘s “[(In My)] Solitude,” probably the most widely known composition to appear here, is played with a solemn yet sensitive emotional palette — another of the disc’s highlights.  Carla Bley‘s “Ida Lupino” gets an acoustic treatment, recasting the tune’s tender, nostalgic sympathies for a charismatic female actor/director fading from view by newly emphasizing a kind of scrappiness.  The album does drop off toward the end, with compositions that impress much less and performances that only occasionally spark interest.  So the album is a tad uneven, but most of what is here is good-to-great.

Mary Halvorson Octet – Away With You

Away With You

Mary Halvorson OctetAway With You Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-024 (2016)


Away With You is much less overtly “jazzy” than, say, Saturn Sings from six years prior.  Halvorson seems much like the rightful heir to the kind of music her former teacher Anthony Braxton has been making for half a century.  These recordings feature an octet with a horn section playing charts set against abstract solos.  The charts aren’t exactly conventional, but they do provide an organized reference point that contrasts with other aspects of the proceedings.  In Halvorson’s hands, it isn’t that she merely juxtaposes the strange and conventional, or that she fully integrates them either, but rather she plays those distinct approaches off each other in varying degrees.  This lends a dynamism to what she does that seems the key to the album’s success.  There is a totality evoked that contains disparate approaches and their synthesis, while extending equal respect to each and all of them.  This is how Away With You achieves the much talked about but rarely delivered notion of music that is “inside” and “outside” at the same time.

Yoko Ono – Feeling the Space

Feeling the Space

Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band & Something DifferentFeeling the Space Apple SW-3412 (1973)


Yoko Ono’s 1973 album Feeling the Space tends to be relegated to the dustbin of history.  But why?  This is one of her most “mainstream” pop/rock recordings, relying on a lot of fairly conventional rock-ish genre devices.  There is even a faint hint of the ironic/unironic use of kitsch that propelled the Brazilian tropicalistas starting in the late 1960s.  Frequently derided by audiences opposed to her basic artistic purposes, often under the blanket criticism of her alleged lack of talent, Ono actually had formal musical training as a child.  She proves here — for anyone needing such confirmation — that she can sing conventionally and on pitch.  Though by singing in a second language, her Japanese accent lends her vocals a warbly, primitivist quality.  The lyrics reflect the heyday of second-wave feminism during which the album was recorded.  I happen to find this an immanently listenable album that deserves credit for reaching out beyond the confines of frequently elitist avant-garde practices and into popular forms.  John Berger, in “The Primitive and the Professional,” New Society 1976 (reprinted in About Looking), said:

“the ‘clumsiness’ of primitive art is the precondition of its eloquence.  What it is saying could never be said with any ready-made skills.  For what it is saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said.”

Ono complicates the primitive vs. professional dichotomy by combining a sense of the primitive with erudite theory and overtly popular forms executed with conventional precision.  While few individual songs here stand out like a “hit single”, except perhaps “Women Power,” it is very refreshing to hear music drawing from eclectic genres performed so consistently competently, paired with lyrics that evidence an intelligent moral center.  While no “lost classic”, Feeling the Space exhibits many of the same strengths that are also overlooked in CAN‘s albums Flowmotion and CAN from later in the decade, as well as critically applauded features of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson‘s recordings from the early/mid 70s.

Willie Nelson – My Own Peculiar Way

My Own Peculiar Way

Willie NelsonMy Own Peculiar Way RCA Victor LSP-4111 (1969)


Of Willie’s numerous forays into hybrids of country and pop in the late 1960s and early 70s, My Own Peculiar Way is probably the most consistent.  The backing arrangements are all reasonably suited to the music, unlike the jarring discontinuities of Willie Nelson & Family or the revolting and overbearing schlock of Laying My Burdens Down.  That isn’t to say this is a great album.  It is unambitious.  But it is also pleasant enough.

Valerie Wilmer – As Serious As Your Life

As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz

Valerie WilmerAs Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (Allison and Busby 1977)


Val Wilmer is a journalist who photographed and wrote about the “new jazz” also known as “free jazz”, etc.  Her 1977 book As Serious As Your Life (revised and reprinted numerous times, with various alternate subtitles) remains one of the better-known histories of the musical movement.  Much of the book consists of chapter-length treatments of particular musicians, plus a few chapters on specific issues or theories.  The book captures the various attempts to forge and hold together a community of shared values mediated by this music.  While the biographical portraits sometimes verge on hagiography, the book as a whole benefits from well-researched quotes from performers themselves.  In fact, this book is an invaluable source of first-hand quotations from practitioners of this type of music during its heyday.  Figures like Bill Dixon, Clifford Thornton, and Rafael Garrett, for instance, offer extremely wise views on the music business and the practice of jazz.  And Wilmer deserves much credit for offering up a range of perspectives, often confused and contradictory, to allow readers to appreciate the multifaceted interests and objectives of those involved in the “new jazz” movement.

As the work of a journalist, though, this suffers from all the usual handicaps.  Among those is a certain theoretical weakness, drawing conclusions from unstated assumptions rather than providing any clear explanation of the analytical framework that led to those conclusions.  Well, at times it is perhaps less a weakness than a disingenuousness, what might be summed up as ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology.  Actually, as will be seen, As Serious As Your Life might be seen as an early example of so-called “left neoliberalism” that first emerged in the 1970s.

Every chapter, and practically every page, documents some form of resentment and envy (although it should be noted that not all the subjects interviewed exhibit these qualities). This doesn’t seem to be precisely Wilmer’s intent. But this emerges from the book nonetheless.

In a September 1971 interview, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked:

“If you achieve a certain independence in your work, you’re automatically attacked by all sides, last but not least by your own colleagues in the different countries.  It’s fairly difficult nowadays for composers in general, and in particular for younger composers, to get performances or teaching jobs.  And if someone like me has all his works regularly performed—very complicated works like Gruppen for three orchestras; Carré for four orchestras and choirs; or Mixtur, which requires a lot of electronic equipment, four sound engineers, another four persons playing the sine-wave generators, a lot of rehearsals—then there’s automatically a lot of jealousy.  And I can understand that feeling.  Then, there’s also another reaction coming from people who have a traditional musical education and are very much disturbed by what I do.”

Stockhausen uses the word “jealousy” here, but really he means “envy” in the sense of “resentment”.  He does posit a useful dichotomy of those who, as quasi-reactionary partisans oppose innovations or change, and those who nominally support a common project but raise objections based on envy or resentment.

Envy and resentment were pronounced factors in the “new jazz” movement, especially in relation to its limited commercial prospects.  Iain Anderson, in This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, noted:

“The narrowing audience for free improvisation illustrated experimental musicians’ growing difficulty in finding suitable venues and rewards consummate with their self-image as artists.  Many champions of free jazz began to view their lack of opportunity as a consequence of the music industry’s racial and economic structures, rather than the intrinsic value or resonance of their work.  These extra-musical developments soon interrupted and fractured the debate over modernist aesthetics, threatening the critical establishment’s prestige, credibility, and ability to mediate the position of jazz in American culture.”  (p. 75).

Wilmer is a “champion of free jazz” in this context.  Especially in her chapters that are topic-based essays not focused biography, she frames her narrative to bracket out these questions.  But Wilmer’s framing leaves her with little to support the idealized objectives of many free jazz practitioners (as quoted by Wilmer).  This shades into an endorsement of the “myth of meritocracy” that holds that all meritorious action should be (but isn’t) rewarded commensurately — and is an attempt to demystify the absence of a meritocracy.

To be more precise, Wilmer basically adopts the ideological position articulated by philosopher John Rawls, probably the leading 20th century philosopher of political liberalism.  Rawls insisted that envy and resentment were not intrinsic to the human condition, but were the byproduct of unjustifiable inequality.  But Rawls’ position has been criticized by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dupuy in an interesting and relevant way.  Dupuy insists that there are symbolic procedures (hierarchy itself, demystification, contingency, and complexity) that make acceptance of unequal social conditions tolerable, that is, that give the appearance of critique but really form a protective buffer around individuals to allow hierarchy to function instead of being an actual challenge to it at its foundations.

The role of envy is pronounced in the politics of the far right wing.  Recall former 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plea to avoid the “bitter politics of envy” — Romney of course espousing this to suggest that the poor should accept their lower social status without objection.  Another prime example is novelist Ayn Rand‘s work.  Her pseudo-philosophical concept of “objectivism” is nothing more than the allowance of some people to assert their self-perception/self-identification as “fact” that must be accepted and acted upon by others (while dodging the question of which people get to do this and which don’t, and why).  Unlike the far right, who seek to maintain and promote inequality but eliminate objections to it, centrist liberals tend to assume that envy and resentment would go away in a “just” society (contrary to the view of psychoanalysis, which posits that envy is part of human psychology and therefore would not go away).  The problem here is that the dubious assumptions of Rawlsian liberals cause them to fail to meaningfully distance themselves from odious monsters like Rand.  At bottom both simply try to “wish” away envy and resentment.  As a result, the centrist liberals simply draw a line of exclusion in their hierarchy slightly differently than the right-wing reactionaries — but they still draw those lines and show no sign of trying to eliminate them in the future either.  We end up with merely a slightly different “management” of the collective feelings of guilt over the differences between particular groups.  In this way, the sentiments of black nationalism espoused in this book are often not so far off from the right-wing populism of, say, country musician Merle Haggard in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Rather than see black nationalism as merely one intermediate step in a larger effort, it is seen as an endpoint — despite the resentment-induced contradiction that if black nationalism is desirable then why not white nationalism, or, more humorously, this leads to the satirical song about male chauvinist resentment “What About Men?” from the TV show Portlandia.

Wilmer frequently frames the narrative of her book around a rather rigidly linear notion of (artistic) legitimacy.  (Following Dupuy, Wilmer here accepts hierarchy itself as an externally-imposed order independent of personal value).  She sees “free jazz” as unquestionably at the pinnacle of musical achievement and sophistication, at times indicating that it shares that position with Euro-classical music.  This leads, for instance, to complete derision of all forms of so-called jazz fusion, in ways that are often baffling.

Wilmer and some of her interviewees are right to point out that more marketing of the “free jazz” genre might have changed its prospects by creating demand and thereby leading to wider acceptance.  But those sorts of marketing decisions are basically political in nature.  Wilmer and some of her interviewees are hesitant to explicitly see them as such.  (Following Dupuy, there are numerous passages in Wilmer’s book that emphasize the contingency and complexity of the position of “free jazz” musicians as part of the accident of birth in an arbitrarily racist society with a complex and uncontrollable musical economy involving record labels, club owners, promoters, etc.).  All this reduces the “free jazz” movement to a kind of Ayn Rand-like universal (“just”?) capitalism, merely from an anti-racist entrepreneurial position.

So what is sorely lacking here is the recognition of something W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote long ago:

“[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

“Criteria of Negro Art” (1926).  Wilmer and her interviewees frequently depoliticize their cultural interventions, and further tend to absolve many of the quoted speakers from having to reevaluate the self-serving and self-defeating aspects of their positions.  In this respect, Wilmer’s book takes a very different view than Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz / Black Power (1971), which saw the “free jazz” movement as intimately linked to militant black political action in decolonization and anti-capitalist movements.  Carles and Comolli, like Du Bois, viewed “free jazz” as unabashedly partisan, though Wilmer recounts and indeed promotes a concealment of that partisanship that is ultimately unconvincing and, frankly, often deceptive. As Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek to know in what respect my race is superior or inferior to another race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master.

“I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors.

“There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden.

***

“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.

“One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.

“I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world.

“My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values.”

Wilmer is obviously writing from a very different perspective than Fanon.  But in this way, in hindsight at least, it can be seen how the free jazz movement fizzled and ultimately failed, by becoming an accomplice to the system it ostensibly fought against and surrendering the revolutionary premises that gave rise to it in the first instance — Anderson’s This Is Our Music is a very even-handed treatment of that transition.

As Serious As Your Life remains an invaluable resource and a book that anyone researching the “free jazz” genre will need to consult.  But, at the same time, readers should consider other relevant scholarship that throws the ideology of Wilmer’s book, and of the musicians she interviewed, into relief.