Captain Beefheart released two album in 1974 on the Mercury label in the US and the Virgin label in the UK: Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams. They both ventured into MOR (mainstream oriented rock) territory. Most Beefheart fans are appalled by both of these albums. The problem is that Beefheart had released some of the most inventive and abstract rock ever recorded. His turn toward smoothed-over commercial pop-rock is not something music snobs ever accept. On the one hand, Unconditionally Guaranteed is pretty dull, save for bits of a few tracks (“Peaches,” etc.) with horn sections that seem like less energetic versions of material off 15-60-75‘s Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town (1976). A clear parallel to the album’s overall turn toward mediocre conventions is CAN’s Out of Reach (1978). Unconditionally Guaranteed was recorded by the same Magic Band lineup that had worked with Beefheart for many years. They all quit after finishing the album. So Bluejeans & Moonbeams was recorded with any entirely new backing band. Some fans give the new band the derogatory nickname “The Tragic Band”. But all this is a bit wrong. Bluejeans & Moonbeams is a pretty decent album. Sure, it bears no resemblance to Trout Mask Replica. But so what? If this had been released under a new band name rather than being credited to “Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band” it seems likely many who hate it would have an entirely different opinion. In other words, the problem here is one of expectations. While this is definitely not one of the Captain’s best, with an open mind this fits comfortably alongside bluesy MOR rock of the mid-70s. This is definitely not a bad album — the same cannot really be said for Unconditionally Guaranteed. If you expect new frontiers to be crossed you will be disappointed by this. But ask yourself first whether such expectations are appropriate.
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.
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 path 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, Holger 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.
Modernists play trad jazz. That’s the basic concept, though modernist flourishes seem to grow across the album. Andrew Hill‘s music makes a decent reference point. This is all well played, though the approach is rather circumscribed in places.
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 Plus‘ For 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.
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 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.
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’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.
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.