Constant Forward Movement: Taylor Parkes On Can's Lost Tapes
, June 18th, 2012 05:11
"These are the moments where what Can 'lost' in a cupboard sounds most beautifully like what most of us lost when we learned to speak." Taylor Parkes examines the wonderful Can Lost Tapes
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.
It's maybe a bit naïve to think that this ideal - the band as a cell, decrypting codes and forcing doors, not so much jamming as un-jamming - could be recaptured, here and now. These days, with the creation and, to a great extent, the consumption of music reflecting the conditions of late capitalism - atomisation, anomie - Can's collective action feels like a nagging dream, something drifting in from another time, from the long-forgotten fringes of the libertarian Left. The communal, the collective, the sense of musicians as cogs in a machine... it's barely a factor in rock music now, let alone the avant-garde. Everyone's too busy, or else intent on expressing their own worldview, their own confusion, their own longing for something beyond their own problems, their own self.
It used to be different, like a lot of other things. From 1968 to 1975, the period covered by The Lost Tapes, synergy between musicians was revered as popular music's basic source of power. This encouraged a certain snobbishness, of course, prioritising technique over content and giving a free pass to a great deal of rot - the loosening of entry requirements for pop, when it happened, was long overdue and quickly rewarded. But this is irrelevant to Can, who were always beyond the showy stuff, working as they were towards a somewhat higher goal. There was rarely room in their music for anything so crass as an extended solo; the explorations here were conducted as a team, each member dependent on the others. The subtlety and grace with which they avoided (or inverted) boredom on all those long trips out there and back is still unrivalled, the fluency and invention of their ensemble playing often uncanny. This much, lots of us know already - The Lost Tapes confirms it, over and over.
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.
The Lost Tapes wouldn't be a good place to start, being essentially a sequence of snapshots; in that sense at least it's clearly inferior to the self-contained worlds of Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, the early-70s trilogy on which Can's reputation rests. But these are not just offcuts and outtakes - despite the inevitable incoherence which comes with any compilation, this is plainly superior to a fair few of Can's original albums, and here and there comes close to touching the tail of their very finest work. Almost nothing here is worthless, much of it is so good you could laugh out loud at the thought of sounding like this and then forgetting all about it for the best part of four decades. But Can were busy, doing something different in a different time; in many ways, they were not like us.
In November 1968, a woman called Beate Klarsfeld climbed onto the podium at the conference of the Christian Democratic Union, West Germany's ruling party, and slapped the Chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, screaming "Kiesinger - Nazi! Stand down!" (It later transpired that she was in the pay of the East Germans, but it's doubtful this fact would have put off many young firebrands at the time.) The swell of radical thought in the West that year took a slightly different shape in different countries, and in West German cities the mood was especially fractious and politicised. Kiesinger, formerly a NSDAP propagandist, was only the most visible link between the country's new establishment and the horrors of the recent past.
The de-Nazification of West Germany after World War Two was an almost impossible task handled badly. Plenty from the German professional classes had something in their history which didn't look good; some (most famously Wernher Von Braun, developer of the V-2 rocket turned architect of the US space program) were poached by the Allies for their expertise. Others - pen-pushers, bureaucrats, torturers - remained in the system providing continuity for the Bundesrepublik. For several decades ex-Nazis held positions of power at every level of German society: federal and local government, the police, the judiciary, the intelligence service, the civil service, the media, the church. The foreign ministry provided protection for former party officials, advising on and assisting with travel and any associated legal issues. At one point two thirds of the BKA, the Federal Criminal Police Office, were ex-members of the SS Totenkopf. The BND - Bundesnachrichtendienst, the West German secret service - was also riddled with SS veterans, and for years seemed disproportionately concerned with the surveillance and occasional harassment of German leftists and "pacifists". Generally, there was quiet acceptance that not much more could be done, and besides, a few old fascists could be useful weapons in a Cold War against Communism. A younger generation of Germans - Can's generation, born just before, just after or during the Second World War - were inclined to disagree. In 1967, a student protest against a state visit by the Shah of Iran was put down with such enthusiasm, a young man was shot through the head at point-blank range by the police, and instantly the battle was on.
It's hardly surprising that the radicalism of West German youth in the 60s and 70s went beyond the waving of placards and sit-ins in the college canteen. Its seriousness, in fact, could reach ludicrous extremes: a poll revealed that a quarter of Germans sympathised with the murderous inanity of Andreas Baader's Red Army Faction. Crossover between this idealistic unrest and the extreme German music of the time was sometimes pretty direct - Baader-Meinhof fugitives hiding out at Amon Düül's place (much to the band's dismay, in fairness) - and sometimes a little more subtle. 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.
Progressive rock in Britain reflected a kind of aspirational complacency: trying to escape a three-chord trap, these generally well-brought-up musicians reached for the classical forms in which so many of them had been schooled. Fundamentally snobbish and bourgeois, this approach was poison to the new German bands, the kind of thinking from which they felt compelled to take rapid, immediate flight. The so-called Krautrock groups, even as they pushed at the limits of what rock could do (or what it could be), were drawn to precisely the elements of this music the Brit-proggers sought to purge: the inarticulacy, the mantric repetition, the grunginess, the extraneous noise. In Can's case, this sat well with an avant-garde aesthetic which couldn't have been more clearly opposed to the fetishisation of formal "perfection". What's more, they understood the potential significance of sound, its psychological sway, its strange capacity for subversion.
"Television is immensely interested in the political opinions of beat musicians, because they can't talk," a smirking Irmin Schmidt informed a German TV crew in 1971. "TV is not at all interested in the political opinions of people who also want socialism and a more human society, [and] can spell it out. I am insecure, I know much too little... so television, being gloriously critical of society, can take me as an example. So that it can preach: 'look, they do not know what they want!' [A little] bit of the revolution we want is included in the music, but you can destroy this when you manipulate the musicians in such a way that they are forced to interpret their music with words..."
Jaki Liebezeit was playful when he suggested that Can could be an acronym for communism, anarchism, nihilism, but it wasn't supposed to be a joke. This is a side to Can which is often forgotten, but they were as much oppositional as anything else, an extreme reaction to their own past and present. There's no other way to make sense of them; the unity, the exquisite restlessness, the way they work so very hard to transcend time and place. Can's relationship to the mood of post-war Germany is more than a footnote. It doesn't define them, but does provide a context within which they're easier to understand, and harder to reduce. This was "alternative" music, not (just) in the sense of consumer choice; a demonstration of a different way of living, an impression of freedom. Way out, as a way out.
The Lost Tapes is incredible, of course, but inevitably it's not all great. A few of these tracks, like the live (and very long) 'Abra Cada Braxas', feature a lot of the shrieking and rumbling into which Can would sometimes descend when things weren't really working out; despite its marvellous title, 'Networks Of Foam' is an uncharacteristically lazy lollop into the middle of nowhere, Irmin Schmidt's homage to Chick Corea let down by a meandering Karoli (finally, Schmidt gives in and just starts slamming his elbows down on the keys). It's not the musical form that's the problem - another live piece where they let it all hang out, 'Godzilla Fragment', sounds authentically crazed - it's the form of the musicians. It would have been slightly creepy if Can had not had the occasional off-day, but be prepared: a couple are recorded for posterity here.
While this is indeed three-and-a-quarter hours of unheard Can, in a way it kind of isn't, as many of these tracks are warm-ups or dry runs for some of the group's best-known recordings. 'A Swan Is Born' is the pencil sketch for Ege Bamyasi's 'Sing Swan Song'; 'Desert' is an early try-out of 'Soul Desert' from Soundtracks; 'On The Way To Mother Sky' is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a bash at the instrumental sections of 'Mother Sky' (though there was still some way to go).
The lengthy 'Dead Pigeon Suite' - assembled from the soundtrack to a TV movie called Tote Taube In Der Beethovenstrasse; Dead Pigeon In Beethoven Street - is clearly the best of these works-in-progress. Groping towards 'Vitamin C' (arguably the most compact and clinical Can tune, the track on which their experimentation is at its most economical), 'Dead Pigeon Suite' is sprawling and open-plan, a sequence of variations spliced together and offered up like a sketchbook. It's almost a shame to be shown the workings - deep down, I think, we'd all like to believe that Can just played for nine hours one day, and somewhere in there was 'Vitamin C' - and yet as Damo Suzuki finds his bearings ("Hey!" he yells at 7:09; "you're losing!" at 7:18; "hey you!" at 8:17, and so on) it's impossible not to be drawn in. The band are still searching for the groove, as Liebezeit drums his limbs off and the others approach the track from every conceivable angle, and others besides. The keyboard break appears first as a spooky introduction on Damo's penny whistle, then again towards the end as an even spookier organ piece, Smile set in Mitteleuropa. But while 'Dead Pigeon Suite' is fascinating and at times almost painfully brilliant, it's still a (slightly) inferior version of something we already knew - too much of this and The Lost Tapes would have gone down the same road as The Beatles' Anthology, a curio, to be played increasingly rarely as the novelty wore off.
Most of this stuff, though, is brand new even to Can collectors and sounds implausibly, miraculously fresh. The tracks with Malcolm Mooney date from both before and after Monster Movie (the one LP on which he appears) and provide a broader view of what Can were up to at the very beginning. 'Waiting For The Streetcar', the best example here of that early, explicitly garagey Can, is a definite progression from the first album, fantastically delicate, fluid and brutal. A couple of these early shots are no more than "interesting" (barely that, in the case of the painfully stoned 'True Story' and the literally piss-taking 'The Agreement', a field recording from a lavatory) but there's plenty of Mooney material here which dwarfs Delay 1968, the earlier trawl through Can's 60s archive. 'When Darkness Comes', one of their last recordings together, sounds like Tim Buckley's 'Starsailor' with the smack drained from its veins, and offers a clue to how Can might have sounded in the 70s with their original line-up (the answer is "not quite as good", which makes it easier to enjoy). The best bit is right at the end: Mooney's head begins to clear and he launches into some basic R&B chanting, Schmidt underlines it with a mangled chord, and the whole thing stops abruptly at the very moment it's fallen together.
The Can sound expanded slowly, from the infinite density of Monster Movie to the wide open spaces of Future Days and the underrated Soon Over Babaluma, finally reaching heat death at an unspecified point in the late 1970s, by which time The Lost Tapes is over (there's one track from 1975, but nothing at all from later than that). Inevitably, most of the action came in that early-mid period, during which Can were possibly the most exciting group on Earth. On the fabulous seventeen-minute 'Graublau', short wave radio samples weave through a roughly-edited jam which has Can at their most obviously "Krautrocky" - it sounds like it dates from some time in 1970, between Soundtracks and Tago Mago - and their most effortlessly inspired. 'Messrs Scissors, Fork And Light' cuts together contributions to the soundtrack of Das Messer, another Can-scored polizei drama, and shivers exquisitely (with bits of 'Spoon' stirred in) while Liebezeit tries to channel the percussive power of a West African village. A live version of 'Spoon' does away with the record's twilit larking, setting the controls to "up" and then accelerating for seventeen minutes. Equally bold is another live recording, in which Can strip the sullen 'Mushroom' down to an ominous chug and lash at it with squeals from Karoli's guitar, until the tension is broken with a scream from the synths and a sudden collapse; it's frighteningly good. These are the moments where what Can "lost" in a cupboard sounds most beautifully like what most of us lost when we learned to speak.
In between are a number of minor tracks, highlighting the endlessly-curious eclecticism which kept Can six steps ahead. These range from the entirely abstract ('Blind Mirror Surf', 'Evening All Day') to snippets of ambient dislocated folk ('Private Nocturnal', 'Obscura Primavera'), serrated Teutonic funk ('Bubble Rap', 'Midnight Sky') and even, on 'The Loop', a stunted and shivering Chicago blues. These odd diversions and little tossed pebbles were always a part of Can, and while none of these tracks are shattering, it wouldn't be the same without them.
And whatever reservations can be rustled up in the name of objectivity or whatever, ultimately this is just... amazing. The Lost Tapes is in no way comparable to previous authorised doggy bags like Delay 1968 or Unlimited Edition. This is something else entirely - Can at their peak, indomitable.
And so, that lofty prescription, then: any group could learn a lot from close, repeated listening. It's still true, I think, but... well, that's it. It's still true. Isn't it? Now more than ever.
Trying to copy Can is irredeemably stupid, of course, unless you happen to have been trained up by a giant of the avant-garde, and have access to the greatest drummer in the history of popular music (anyone else intending to try should change the name of their band to Can't). People still talk about Can a lot, or steal a riff, or steal a beat, but what's worth taking is under the surface. The courage, the constant communication, the idea of the band as a cell; the countless possibilities suggested by Can in those five, six, seven years are still there ready to be used, and will bring light and space and something indefinable to any music brave enough to use them.
Anyone, in fact, could learn a lot from this; anyone caught in a present defined by atomisation and anomie. You only have to listen. The beauty and strength of The Lost Tapes is a reminder of that unused alternative, something drifting in from another time, a glimpse of what we could really achieve by living and working together.