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Can – The influence the German rock band had on modern music

German experimental rock group Can, from left to right; Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli, Damo Suzuki, Irmidt Schmidt and Jaki Leibzeit, during the 'Tago Mago' period. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

In 1968 the German rock band Can hid themselves away in the Schloss Nörvenich, a castle which was not that far from their hometown of Cologne and while there they began to experiment, rehearse and record their first LP Monster Movie.

The members of Can came from disparate musical backgrounds. Two of them, keyboard player Irmin Schmidt and bassist Holger Czukay, were trained musicians in the formal or classical tradition. The drummer Jaki Liebezeit had played in jazz bands ranging from the bebop or hard bop style through to free jazz. Michael Karoli, who at 20 was about 10 years younger than the others, was a rock guitarist. And singer Malcolm Mooney was an African American former doo-wop singer, who was travelling through Europe and Asia partly in search of spiritual enlightenment, and partly to avoid the Vietnam draft.

Can’s technique in the castle was to just play and to improvise around a groove or a riff or occasionally to try to bring in the very opposite of that, with broken fragmented sounds like drones, clanks and dissonance. There was no hierarchy in the band, or ‘no fuhrers’ as they put it. The overriding principle was concentration as each band member focussed on trying to find their way into some sort of collective dynamic that would produce an end result.

This non-hierarchical approach didn’t mean that there wasn’t any fighting, the whole process could be fraught. There are stories of Liebezeit imploring – or threatening – Czukay to strip back to even greater levels of minimal metronomic rhythm. Seeing this, Karoli half jokingly believed Liebezeit to be capable of murder.

Liebezeit is credited with creating the motorik 4/4 drum pattern. In interviews he tells a story about how after performing a jazz set a member of the audience ordered him to play monotonously in future. Liebezeit liked the idea. Turning his back on the freedom that free jazz offered – it was a freedom that negated the point of music in that it made structure almost pointless – he developed a drumming style which at times was steady and unfussy but was also insistent. His drumming could also be subtle, unexpected and textured. He really was one of the great rock drummers.

This motorik beat propelled the music forward and it also anchored the other musician’s experimental diversions. It simultaneously allowed the music to feel controlled but also expansive. His drumming became the sound of so much of what was patronisingly and arrogantly dubbed ‘Krautrock’ by the British music press. You can hear it in the music not just of Can but also the in the music of the West German bands Kraftwerk and Neu!.

Initially much of what Can recorded in the Schloss Nörvenich was deemed unworthy of release by record labels. It was considered too experimental and too odd (you can hear much of the stuff that was deemed unreleasable in the late 60s on Can’s excellent 1981 LP Delay). However in 1969 the band’s sessions in the castle had created enough material to be able to release their first LP Monster Movie.

The opening track on this LP, Father Cannot Yell, is a brilliant piece of late-60s experimental art rock. Lyrically the song just oozes inter-generational rage. It’s a song about anguish, decay, fertility and useless, silent fathers. It is a song about the German Second World War generation by that generation’s children. As an opening track on a debut LP by a West German band in 1969 it is thrilling.

However, putting the subject matter to one side, this song was a false start for Can. Can were inherently experimental. In that castle they invented their own sound and their own place in the world. They were difficult, obtuse, innovative and original. They would go on to influence hundreds of bands. But with this one song they were derivative because Father Cannot Yell sounds a lot like the Velvet Underground.

In 1966 Irmin Schmidt, Can’s future keyboard player, went to New York. Schmidt was a German music student trained in a classical tradition, a training which had taken him into the orbit of the avant-garde. He had been a student of Stockhausen. Stockhausen was one of the dominant figures in post-war German classical music – though perhaps classical is not quite the right word because in fundamental ways Stockhausen’s contribution to the German, and indeed Western, classical music tradition was to dismantle it. This is something he did through experimentation with electronic music, with fragmentation and abstraction and also with pure experimental audacity – one of his most famous (or infamous) pieces, The Helicopter String Quartet, consists of musicians playing in helicopters with their instruments tuned to the pitch of the rotor blades.

Schmidt was building a career within this avant-garde classical tradition. Already as a very young man he was working as a conductor and it was natural that he would gravitate to New York.

New York, was home to John Cage (he of ‘4 minutes 33’ seconds fame – that piece of music that was 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence) and it was also the home of the avant-garde minimalist composers Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, all of who Schmidt met. But musically, probably the most important thing that happened to Irmin Schmidt while in New York was that he heard the rock band The Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground formed in 1965 around the partnership of Lou Reed and John Cale. Reed was a creative writing and journalism student at Syracuse University. In 1964 Reed got a job trying to write novelty hits as an in-house writer for Pickwick Records in New York. It was while there that he met John Cale.

John Cale was originally from the Welsh valleys. A gifted musician with a talent for playing the viola, Cale won a scholarship to study music at Goldsmiths. While there he gravitated toward the avant-garde and become involved in Fluxus – an international and interdisciplinary art movement which challenged all artistic assumptions. The emphasis for Fluxus artists was on the process, the act of making or becoming, rather than the finished product. Fluxus is deliberately difficult to define and the wilful desire to not be pinned down and explained could be considered the point of Fluxus. This sort of anti reason and anti-empirical thought was an attempted undoing of Western art and of Western culture – though obviously the Fluxus artists would instinctively resist such a definition.

New York was one of the centres of Fluxus and John Cale worked with John Cage and La Monte Young. In 1964 La Monte Young had formed an experimental musical group called The Theatre of Eternal Music, which was in the spirit of Fluxus. Some of the music was long, other pieces had absurd, obscurificating titles such as Map of 49’s Dream: The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Light-Years Tracery. The music often involved the sustained drone of stringed instruments – which was where John Cale came in with his viola.

That sound, Cale’s sustained drone of the viola, became part of the Velvet Underground sound. A man at Pickwick Records called Terry Philips assumed that because John Cale had long hair he was a rock or pop musician so he asked him to be in a band with Lou Reed to record those novelty songs that Reed wrote. The novelty pop hit career didn’t pan out for Reed and Cale but what followed, that combination of Reed’s descriptive slice of life (often transgressive or decadent life) lyrical story telling and an experimental musical sensibility with its discordant droning sound was the start of the Velvet Underground. Joining Reed and Cale were Reed’s college friend Sterling Morrison who played the guitar and Moe Tucker who played the drums.

Moe Tucker was the sister of a friend of Reed’s. Short, unassuming and looking more like a Long Island housewife than a rock star, Tucker added the last ingredient to the Velvet Underground. Her drumming style was simple, repetitive and forceful – she played standing up. Tucker did not directly influence Liebezeit but her ‘proto-motorik’ style anchored and drove much of the Velvet Underground’s music in the same way as Liebezeit’s drumming would anchor and drive Can’s music.

This line up (with the singer Nico joining them on their debut LP) would produce two LPs before Cale left. These LPs, especially their eponymous debut, changed everything in rock music. That first LP is arguably the most influential LP in all rock music. In part this was down to Reed’s dark and menacing lyrics of drug abuse and transgressive sex but it was also because the LP was rooted in the traditions that came from the avant-garde in art and music. This ‘art-rock’ wasn’t something that happened in absolute isolation – half of Britain’s rock aristocracy went to art school. But the Velvet Underground were from New York – the centre of the post-war art and cultural world.

The Velvet Underground come out of New York’s Lower East Side – they were managed (in a way) by Andy Warhol and were the in-house band in his studio The Factory. Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, Drip and Action Painting, the Greenwich Village cafes, folk music, the New York Poetry School, the legacy of the Beat Writers, Minimalism, Fluxus all of these things were part of the rich and exciting artistic milieu of post-war New York and the Velvet Underground were part of that world.

Can came from an entirely different culture. Can came from a broken and defeated and largely silent post-war German culture. When Germany was defeated in the First World War the last thing you could say is that it silenced Germany’s artists and writers. The inter war period – Germany’s Weimar Years – was a period of intense creativity, and Berlin, much like post Second World War New York, became one of the leading centres in theatre, in music, in literature and in art.

When German was defeated in 1945 the arts were almost silenced. With a few exceptions this country, which had been the cradle of so much of Western civilization’s greatest art, music and literature, just fell quiet. There were exceptions. There were the musical experiments and innovations of Stockhausen, novelists such as Fallada, Böll and Grass explored in their literature the Second World War and the Nazis, and artists like Gerhard Richter began to find a ‘post-modern’ language that made sense to them.

But the dominant sound of Germany in the two decades following the end of the war was either silence or schlager. Schlager music is mawkish, bland and wilfully innocuous and was incredibly popular in the decades after the war. In the 1950s and early 1960s it was the soundtrack to the Adenauer years.

Konrad Adenauer was West Germany’s first post-war Chancellor. Catholic and conservative he famously campaigned under the slogan ‘No Experiments’. His vision of Germany and the vision of Germany to which schlager appealed was a ‘Heimat’ view of Germany, with Heimat meaning ‘home’ and which is a romantic nostalgia for a shallow and sentimental idea of home and of Germany.

This was the cultural terrain of Germany – it was a country that was wilfully shallow, nostalgic for a somewhat mythical past and was uncritical. The spirit of the age was one that just didn’t think about what happened between 1933 and 1945. It didn’t think about the Holocaust, the fire storm ravaged and devastated cities, the Nazis and the culpability.

This was also a country that didn’t want to think too deeply about the country’s rich cultural heritage. There seemed to a suspicion that even Beethoven or Goethe were somehow suspect – that the country that produced them also produced the Nazis and that there was guilt by association.

Thomas Mann’s last novel Doctor Faustus, which was written in exile during the war, is about this crisis within the German artistic imagination and was specifically about music. In the novel a brilliant German composer Adrian Leverkühn produces work that is groundbreaking in form but is cold in that it almost denies the human. Leverkühn contracts syphilis, possibly deliberately, and leaving it untreated his starts to lose his sanity. In his madness he believes that has made a pact with the Devil that will allow him to produce his greatest work – a work that goes beyond the human.

The novel is complex and is open to various interpretations but it is a critique or an evaluation of the German artistic tradition – the idea of the genius creator, of the Goethe, the Beethoven, the Wagner. Specifically it is a critique of the Austrian composer Schoenberg whose Twelve Tone System brought an atonal element into formal or classical music in the inter war years.

In a key scene in the novel Leverkühn confronts the devil in a hallucination and argues that it is possible now to just play games with classical musical forms because classical music was now devoid of substance – devoid of the human. This ‘post modern’ gadding about is exactly what happened in the post war period. Much classical or formal music became purely about music – it was no longer about an ideal, or beauty or even perfect form. Music became self referential. It joked about itself.

In his brilliant study of 20th century music The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross points out that music being about music was not peculiar to the post-war period but there was after the War what he calls ‘a twitting’ of audiences by composers – especially Stockhausen. But this twitting was also true of Cage and Fluxus and free jazz. The classical and formal traditions were now just part of a game being played out at what possibly seemed at the time, especially in Germany, like the end of reason, or progress or even history.

But then the kids turned up with their rock music – well not the kids exactly, most of Can were in their 30s but these youngish men turned up and they were inclined to go beyond Stockhausen and free jazz and Cage and Fluxus and all that twitting about.

In Germany, in this wilfully shallow, schlager-drenched land, Can took art rock into new and thrilling areas. You can hear the start of this process on side two of Monster Movie in the song Yoo Doo Right – more than 20 minutes of pounding, swirling, repetitive, ebbing, flowing and very funky rhythms which were edited down from about six hours of improvisation.

Bassist Holger Czukay was primarily responsible for recording these improvisations and splicing them together, thus giving form to something improvised. Through this process of splicing Czukay found new patterns, new rhythms and new textures in the music. This does not sound like The Velvet Underground – Can had very quickly transcended that influence.

Malcolm Mooney left the band after the first LP and he was replaced by Damo Suzuki who was from Japan and who Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit had seen busking in Munich. They invited him to join Can which he did immediately. His singing was freeform and improvised – he drifted in and out of singing in English and meaning was often hard to pin down. He was a brilliant front man and a perfect fit for the band and with him Can just went from strength to strength.

When you listen to the four Can LPs which Damo Suzuki sang on – Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Age Bamyasi and Future Days they do sound like a band with an absolute life or death commitment to invention. And this was because Can were not settling for that post-war German silence, for the stultifying charms of schlager. Nor were they settling for the played out games in formal music or jazz. Nor were they settling for the New York art scene experimentation of The Velvet Underground. Those four Can LPs with Damo Suzuki are all arguments for music and culture and imagination in a country that was horrified by its own past, that was terrified by its own culture and that was at war with imagination. Rock music had many thrilling moments but few are more exciting than what Can achieved in West Germany in the 1970s.

Ian Walker is a journalist and former museum curator living in Munich.

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