Tag Archives: CAN

CAN – Flowmotion

Flowmotion

CANFlowmotion Harvest 1C 062-31 837 (1976)


Flowmotion is very nearly a great album.  Bassist Holger Czukay described it as “innovative and eclectic” and “one of Can’s underrated albums.”  He is right on both counts.  Fans have been sleeping on this one.

The album has a strange reputation.  The opening “I Want More” was a hit single in the UK, and one of the band’s biggest commercial successes of their entire career.  Yet, at the same time, fans and critics have often expressed skepticism at that song and the album as a whole.

Undoubtedly, this album sounds markedly different from what the band had previously released.  There were influences of reggae and disco.  As one reviewer noted, the album has a “casual, Caribbean feel”, characterizing it as “a worthy and sincere engagement with then-current trends (which, come to think of it, is exactly what Can was doing in ’68.  It’s just that ’76 was no ’68.  Should Can be blamed for changing with the times, or is Western society itself the culprit?)”.  The back of the album jacket featured two hexagrams from the I Ching: Hexagram 29, 坎 (kǎn), “gorge” or “the abyss” (in the oceanographic sense), which has inner and outer trigrams that both represent water; and Hexagram 59, 渙 (huàn), “dispersing” or “dissolution”, which has an inner trigram for water and an outer trigram for wind.

The ambivalence to this album — if not outright dislike of it — might be best understood in the context of general trends and the generalized backlash at disco at the time.  As has been well-documented, the “disco sucks” movement was largely driven by homophobic and racist sentiments (even if the individualism it represented could be critiqued on rational grounds).  Disco-bashing has also become a somewhat of a quasi-elitist stance — disco becoming associated with the working class and the less educated.  For that matter, there were many albums going for a “tropical”/”Caribbean” feel around this time, and most were pretty bad.  Flowmotion was probably just lumped in with other music that was chasing fads.  That was probably the kiss of death for its critical reception, especially for a band characterized (sometimes unfairly) as being sui generis and as making music without precedent.

“I Want More” is a light funk-disco dance number, bizarre in having no lead vocalist, only background vocals.  Mostly the singing is a kind of group chant, indistinct and diffuse.  Against an infectious and repetitive guitar riff, there are single note keyboard interjections from Irmin Schmidt while drummer Jaki Liebezeit seems to (subtly) play two layers of rhythm at once, one slow and the other in double time.

“Cascade Waltz” is a whimsical number that crosses a reggae beat and slurred, tropical guitar lines with a formal European waltz (and foreshadows the band’s 1978 single “Can-Can”).  Michael Karoli‘s deadpan vocals add yet another dimension to the song, one seemingly at odds with both the prim formalism and sunny playfulness floating around.

“Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die (O.R.N.)” is kind of the heart of the album.  Karoli is overdubbed on electric violin, guitar and bağlama (a kind of Turkish lute).  This song comes the closest to straight-up reggae.  The balance between genuine experimentation and accessible pop catchiness is spot on.  Jazz records that do this are often described as being “inside” and “outside” at the same time.  If Karoli is the star of that song, he powers the closing title as well — a more than ten-minute purely instrumental excursion with ambient washes of keyboard, menacing swells of bass, and swirling psychedelic guitar solos.  “Flowmotion” is sort of the late-1970s counterpart to the band’s epic “Mother Sky” (from Soundtracks).

“Bablyonian Pearl” is kind of a goofy novelty song.  It seems like a meeting of “Full Moon on the Highway” (from Landed) and “Come Sta, La Luna” (from Soon Over Balauma) over a loopy, slightly reggae-tinged beat.  “…And More” was the hit single’s B-side.  It is kind of a throwaway here, and is also the shortest song.  It isn’t bad, though, and might work as incidental film music.

“Smoke (E.F.S. No. 59)” may have been the band “getting back into the sixties again“. But that sinister, gloomy track is totally at odds with the rest of the album.  It represents a sequencing problem — kind of like the “We Will Fall” problem (in reference to the song from The Stoogesdebut album).  The song itself is perfectly fine, except that it totally disrupts the album and doesn’t belong alongside tunes that are within reach of Jimmy Buffett.

What does all this add up to?  That is sort of the main question this album presents.  There are great songs here.  Yet the album as a whole struggles in places, due to sequencing more than anything else.  Replacing “Smoke” with something more in line with the rest of the songs would have been an improvement — perhaps like “Sunshine Day and Night” from the generally tepid follow-up Saw Delight.  There is also no denying that CAN was still genuinely experimenting, and those experiments pretty much all succeed.  That they could experiment while also making overtures to accessible pop music is a real achievement.  Usually such efforts have a high “degree of difficulty”.  In hindsight, listeners who can get past biases against either pop music or experimental music (as the case may be) might find much to like here.

CAN – Landed

Landed

CANLanded Hör Zu C 062-29600 (1975)


The first CAN album to be recorded with high-fidelity 16-track studio equipment, Landed is mostly a glossier take on the same basic format as its predecessor Soon Over Babaluma.  There is a professional slickness in place of the usual relentless ingenuity.  Not a bad record at all, but still a sign that the band’s best days were mostly behind them.

CAN – CAN

CAN

CANCAN Harvest 1C 066-45 099 (1978)


This is the last album that CAN recorded before disbanding (though they later reunited).  The conventional narrative is that the band went downhill from 1974 onward.  Is that fair?  Yes and no.  While the post-’74 material is by no means as pathbreaking, there is still much to like about it.  The self-titled CAN (renamed Inner Space for some reissues) grapples with popular music of the day, which is to say disco, funk rock, even reggae, jazz fusion, and more.  This ranges all over the place.  Some of it (“A Spectacle”) even locks into a proto-hip-hop breakbeat-style groove.  “E.F.S. Nr. 99 (‘Can Can’),” a rendition of Jacques Offenbach‘s iconic “Infernal Galop” composition, is sometimes greeted with a sneer, but it’s actually great!  CAN had a sense of humor, which was one of their admirable qualities when it shone through, and this particularly sunny song is much less pretentious than a lot of other CAN genre tributes of the prior few years.  Of course, the opener “All Gates Open” is really a song that ranks among the band’s best, with a moderate tempo, a mechanical rhythm with hints of ambient music, and a jammy, laid-back mystical quality evoked by the lyrics.  “Safe” and “Sodom” are other particularly good ones.  “Sunday Jam” is a dud, with cheesy smooth jazz trappings, but it proves to be the only dud on an otherwise fine album. 

Don’t let the haters sour you on this one, which is a good one for anyone with open ears (that is to say anyone who doesn’t limit CAN to their sound of the 1968-74 period).  This has much more of a sense of purpose than the last few CAN albums, which had good songs here and there but tended to kind of drift about aimlessly.  It is sleeker, more immediate and more accessible than earlier CAN recordings, but it is no worse off for any of those qualities.

CAN – Out of Reach

Out of Reach

CANOut of Reach Harvest 1C 066-32 715 (1978)


Widely regarded as the worst CAN album — it was for a long time omitted from a reissue program.  No doubt, this is not music quite like what the band was making from 1968-74, for a number of reasons.  This comes across as a bit slight most of the time.  And another reviewer was probably right to say, “About half of this is merely OK; the other half is terrible.  I’ll leave you to decide which half is which.”  And yet, on the whole, this is passable enough.  If there is a parallel, it would be The Beach Boys when they brought in Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin, and in the years that followed when the band flirted with disco and such.  In CAN’s case, it was new members Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah from Traffic.  There is a pronounced shift here with a focus on club/disco music and easygoing, grooving prog rock.  If there is one thing that annoys urban elites, of the sort who are the main body of supporters of avant garde acts like CAN, it is to dally with the music of the uneducated rabble, which is a big part of the demographic of disco, and groove rock.  There is a tendency to consider any engagement with disco (or groove rock), and its fans, to be inherently slight.  Maybe, or maybe it is just elitist bigotry?  Frankly, Rosko Gee’s songs (“Pauper’s Daughter and I,” “Give Me No ‘Roses'”) are not bad, just quite different from the sort of music CAN fans were accustomed to from the band.  But this is just like Fataar and Chaplin’s contributions to The Beach Boys (“Leaving This Town,” “Hold on Dear Brother”).  Still, this is a pretty middling album at best, and much of it feels worn out.  But taken entirely on its own terms it works adequately enough as background music.  That is not much of an endorsement, which the album wouldn’t deserve, yet in the right setting it sounds perfectly okay.  The better songs are in the middle of the album (the end of side one and the beginning of side two in the original LP format).  Should I feel bad about kind of liking this, mediocre or not?  Nah.

CAN – Delay 1968

Delay 1968

CANDelay 1968 Spoon 012 (1981)


This is a pretty decent set of rejected recordings, originally created for an aborted album tentatively titled Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOMIrmin Schmidt (who previously mostly worked as a conductor/composer/recital pianist) founded CAN after a trip to New York City turned him on to R&B/soul and underground rock.  The influence of that trip is evident on these recordings, many of which carry the torch for what The Velvet Underground was up to when Schmidt was introduced to them, along with the likes of Sly & The Family Stone and James Brown.  What is immanently clear from these recordings is that this is a group of performers very sensitive to form, even if their performance style is somewhat unpracticed in the rock idiom and favors creating a mood of wild energy over adherence to any specific technique.  But everything about these recordings demonstrates an allegiance to the counterculture of late 1960s urban rock music.  The resultant music is tough, and loosely jammy at times, but also dark and sinister.  It would be wrong to say this is humorless, but it is music that always regards itself as serious and aims for “importance.”

Delay 1968 shows the foundations of what came later for CAN, but it’s also markedly different that what came later.  Drummer Jaki Liebezeit hasn’t yet fully adopted a frenetically mechanical “motorik” style, instead playing in a somewhat more typical rock style, if one still unusually informed by the flexibility and open-ended possibilities of modern jazz.  Guitarist Michael Karoli plays a lot of chugging, modulating riffs and heavy, frequently dissonant chords, with few if any of the long, psychedelic lines that would characterize his playing in the near future.  Irmin Schmidt often approaches his keyboards almost like a player from a warped, blues-based jam band — “Man Named Joe” is sort of halfway between The Velvet Underground and the first Grateful Dead album — without the ominous spaciness that would characterize his playing in the coming years. Though he’s sometimes so far down in the mix that you have to listen hard to pick him out (“Nineteen Century Man”).  And yet bassist Holger Czukay and (especially) vocalist Malcolm Mooney were already performing in much the same way they would in the coming years (though Mooney left the group a year or so later).

“Little Star of Bethlehem” is a narrative rant from Mooney set against a slow groove.  It is much better than, say, “Mary, Mary So Contrary” from the eventual debut album Monster Movie.  The first song, “Butterfly,” has a good beat and crunchy, dissonant melodic and harmonic elements, but it does go on to the point of seeming repetitive without the hypnotic qualities the band achieved on later recordings.  “Thief” was released in an edited form on the compilation album Electric Rock (1971) and is one of the most developed songs in terms of pointing towards what the band would do more of in the future.  “Uphill” is a solid rocker, in roughly the same mold as “Butterfly” but with a quicker tempo and denser guitar strumming.

Delay 1968 is a pretty good album, considering it was originally rejected and sat in the vaults for over a decade before its eventual release.  It is rougher than any of the later studio albums.  And yet, the sense of purpose is undeniable.  Many of the band members were in their 30s when the band was formed, and that is partly what gives this music such a deliberate sound.  These were musicians with ample training and prodigious talents by any conventional measure, and they chose to apply those things towards a rock-centered music that embraced the counterculture.  It is a very punkish approach to music, and that’s precisely why this still sounds as fresh as it does almost a half century later.  If these recordings at times seem somewhat content to merely pay tribute to its influences, the proper debut, Monster Movie, was undoubtedly something new and unprecedented.

CAN – Ege Bamyasi

Ege Bamyasi

CANEge Bamyasi United Artists UAS 29 414 (1972)


CAN was one of the most important but least recognized bands of the late 20th Century.  Bridging diverse motivations of classical music with rock and roll and more, they were in a large part responsible for what is now called electronic rock.  Their music blended the profound rhythms of James Brown, the abstract composition of Karlheinz Stockhausen (with whom bandmembers Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt studied) and Steve Reich, the bold experimentalism of The Velvet Underground and the production effects of The Beatles“I Am the Walrus.” The so-called “kraut rock” movement featured a number of highly creative groups but none as innovative and lively as CAN.

Holger Czukay on bass (who also handling engineering) and Jaki Liebezeit on drums formed the core of one of the most acclaimed rhythm sections in rock. “Damo” Suzuki’s vocals were sometimes grave (“Vitamin C”) and sometimes playful (“I’m So Green”), but generally with dadist, anti-artistic sensibilities.  Irmin Schmidt turns in a solid performance, while Michael Karoli’s immediate and evolving guitar work made songs like “One More Night” memorable.  Each band member brought something different to the table, and the group dynamic continuously changed.  Creative interplay inside the group provided the strength to change the world outside it.

The band adds enough comic relief. “Pinch” features a grab bag of whistles and clangs, all used quite humorously within relatively serious settings. Things can get downright goofy, like on “Soup.”  CAN’s destination may often be finely calculated but they meander delightfully along the way.  Even within each song the band makes dramatic shifts from rhythm to melody to noise.

Ege Bamyasi is a focused album that makes a good introduction to CAN’s music.  It actually made the charts in CAN’s native Germany; largely due to use of “Spoon” as the theme to a German gangster T.V. show called Durbridge.  “Vitamin C” also became a theme song for Samuel Fuller’s made-for-TV film Dead Pigeon on Beethoven StreetEge Bamyasi doesn’t quite match the albums that came immediately before and after it (from their great “Damo Suzuki trilogy”), but it distills the essence of the band’s peak years.  The beats are funky and atmospheric effects swirl magnificently about to hypnotic effect.  The results are neither as psychedelic as some earlier work nor as ambient or club-pop oriented as later work.  This album is just one step in an extended dance.  The balance is perfect. CAN grasp what seems intangible and hold it to the light.

The superb musicianship and subtle textures of Ege Bamyasi hold limitless possibilities. It highlights CAN’s continued growth.  As intriguing as it is, with an open mind Ege Bamyasi can be rather fun as well.

can – Rite Time

Rite Time

canRite Time Mercury 838 883-1 (1989)


CAN’s reunion album Rite Time — their final studio album — is often derided by fans.  That is somewhat unfair, as this album is decent, even if it isn’t as nearly as good as their very best.  It is actually best compared to their mid-70s output where more conventional commercial rock crept into the music alongside ambient soundscapes.  Original vocalist Malcolm Mooney initiated the reunion and (re)assumes vocal duties.  “On the Beautiful Side of a Romance” opens the album, and it establishes the unmistakable 1980s production values: compressed drums, a synthetic, trebley feel.  There are a couple of jokey novelty songs up next, which incorporate some sound collage elements.  “Like a New Child” is more ambient, but then “Hoolah Hoolah” goes back to novelty music.  “In the Distance Lies the Future” is the album’s highlight, though it was omitted from the original LP (appearing only on the CD version), a song that bassist Holger Czukay said “became one of my favourite CAN pieces of all time.”  I happen to like this album more than most fans, perhaps because the goofy songs don’t put me off and the 80s production values don’t phase me either.

The Can – Monster Movie

Monster Movie

The CANMonster Movie Music Factory SRS 001 (1969)


Nobody in rock in the late 1960s really approached recording like The CAN (Jaki Liebezeit said the name’s best meaning was as a backronym for Communism Anarchy Nihilism).  No two CAN albums sound alike. On Monster Movie, it is a kind of garage rock drive and primal rhythm that ties much of the album together.  This album sounds like CAN recorded it in a modified garage — though the original album jacket noted that it was actually recorded in a castle. It has that rawness you can’t fabricate if you try. There is a little more substance to CAN’s next few albums, maybe, but Monster Movie is on roughly the same level as their next few albums with vocalist Kenji “Damo” Suzuki.  This is an important facet of CAN’s sound. They could rock out with somewhat straightforward sounds without sounding straightforward at all.  They key was the unabashed interest in rock music as something the equal of modern classical music, which was the background numerous band members came from.

“Father Cannot Yell” ignites the album from the start. It was the first track the group recorded for Monster MovieMalcolm “Desse” Mooney laces his incredibly musical fuming into the mix.  Mooney — a sculptor really — had an innate talent for shouting/chanting lines with cryptic, ominous, and, yes, obnoxious implications.  In live performances he would sometimes pick out an audience member and make him or her uncomfortable by making up lyrics that impugned the character of that person (see “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore (1969)” from The Lost Tapes).  On “Father Cannot Yell,” there is kind of a proto-feminist undercurrent, with Mooney seeming to take the side of a young woman against a domineering father.  This is kind of the template for a lot of Mooney’s singing.  He goes into sort of an attack mode, seeking to win listeners over to his position in the process.  Call it a kind of “performance art” or, perhaps, purposeful and noble bullying.  Mooney just had a great vocal intonation for this sort of music: coarse, deep but still a bit nasal.

“Yoo Doo Right” is an “instant composition” (the group didn’t call it improvisation because what they improvised was form). It’s an unusually long (20 minutes) song for 1960s rock. The group had only minimal equipment. They played and when one of the pre-amps started smoking Holger Czukay decided the song was over.  It is the last song on the album, taking up the entire second side of the original LP.  But it is also the clear highlight.  Mooney is less aggressive than on some other songs, and more pensive, but he still is a catalyst for others to launch into furious solos and interludes.

“Mary, Mary So Contrary” is easily the weakest offering.  Mooney chants something from a nursery rhyme, but it lacks the confrontational heroism that is present in most of his best performances.  In hindsight, replacing it with something from the vault-clearing collections Unlimited Edition (“The Empress and the Ukraine King”) or The Lost Tapes (“Millionenspiel (1969),” “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Whore (1969)” or “Midnight Sky” (1968)”) would have improved the album considerably.

“Outside My Door” is the most conventional rock song here.  At least, it isn’t too far from underground rock coming from New York City and maybe San Francisco around this time.  There is a harmonica that weaves a kind of familiar, bluesy melodic thread through the song.  It may not match “Yoo Doo Right” or “Father Cannot Yell,” but neither is it a liability to the album.

Monster Movie was the first album the group released.  Though they did previously record another, tentatively titled Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM.  The shelved recordings were later released as Delay 1968.  It was difficult to find anyone who would release The CAN’s albums. They resorted to releasing Monster Movie in a limited fashion (it was later re-released internationally on United Artists).  But the rest, as they say, is history.

CAN – Tago Mago

Tago Mago

CANTago Mago United Artists UAS 29 211/12 X (1971)


CAN was perhaps the greatest German band ever. Highly influenced by James Brown, The Velvet Underground, and classical, CAN defined electronic rock. Far ahead of their peers, the group never enjoyed much more than a cult following. Kraut rock may now be an obscurity, but the popularity of modern electronic music makes CAN very appealing to virgin ears.

CAN’s musical conception is broad and sweeps out large chunks of space. Most cuts on Tago Mago run from seven to eighteen minutes. Roots in psychedelic rock, R&B/soul, and blues are clear in hindsight. The funky drive from one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections takes over the first half of the double-LP. Jaki Leibezeit on drums and Holger Czukay on bass produced extended comic trances. The rhythms used were unlike anything at the time, but now sound quite akin to sampled loops.

Tago Mago is an enormous work that covers diverse terrain without missing a step. Japanese singer “Damo” Suzuki covers enormous territory. He moves from endless vamps, to impassioned cries, to processed experiments (only Yoko Ono dared as much). “Paperhouse,” driven by the glorious guitar of Michael Karoli and the sublime keyboards of Irmin Schmidt, rocks like a Funkadelic tune. “Oh Yeah” and “Halleluwah” move as if a pack German James Browns are chasing you with a funky stick.

Exciting experimentation is CAN’s greatest asset. “Aumgn” developed by randomly overdubbing the recording tape. This process, as identically done with spoken word years before by William S. Burroughs, and followed Steve Reich‘s iconic “Come Out” by a few years, and predates hip-hop turntable mixing in the South Bronx by a year or two. CAN eases into the closers “Peking O” and “Bring Me Coffee of Tea.” Atmospheric space towards the end of Tago Mago largely dispense with traditional song format. The funky beats of the first few tracks disappear, leaving just sound ebbing and flowing.

This is two albums in one. What begins anchored by identifiable roots closes on the level of an avant-garde Stockhausen composition. The album expands your horizons; yet, CAN is always present to guide through this free trip to paradise.

The wide path cut by Tago Mago is consistently articulate. CAN expertly maintains an immediacy while slowly unveiling their abstract themes. Brilliant experiments are still danceable (“Halleluwah”). Afrika Bambaataa described Kraftwerk as “some funky white boys.” CAN were the godfathers of funky white boys. This work makes a clear connection between avant-garde rock and electronic music.

Mainstream music has accepted CAN’s music, though credit is still lacking. Influence may have been indirect, but CAN proved to be decades ahead of just about everyone else.