Outliers even among the strange company of foundational krautrock bands, Can left a legacy that influenced the Flaming Lips, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Radiohead, John Lydon, Talk Talk, and many others. Photo courtesy of Spoon Records
Following World War II, Germany was a broken nation: divided and conquered and, understandably, something of a cultural desert. By the mid 1960s, while most of the world was swept up in a wave of liberation and rock ’n’ roll, Germans were tapping their toes to schlager—a type of music that was über-square, inoffensive, sentimental, and the embodiment of everything un-hip. German youth—born during the war, coming of age, ashamed of their country’s past, and aware they were missing out—were pining for something more.
And more was about to come.
Dubbed “krautrock” by a smitten but condescending British press, the new German sound fused electronic music and avant-garde sensibilities with psychedelic pop and ambient textures and soundscapes. Bands like Neu!, Faust, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, and Amon Düül II were prolific and influential. Their innovations were eventually adopted by A-list tastemakers like David Bowie, Brian Eno, and many others.
But every scene has its outliers, and krautrock’s was Can.
Can was not like other German bands. For starters, their music grooved. It was danceable, funky, and hypnotic. But more importantly, Can’s music was guitar-centric. True, they experimented with ring modulators, oscillators, tape editing, filters, minimalism, and weirdness—as was de rigueur for a German band of their era—but guitar was central to their sound. Guitar gave them their edge. It planted their flag firmly in the rock camp, although Irmin Schmidt, Can’s keyboardist, isn’t so certain. “Sometimes we weren’t sure we made rock,” he says. “We made contemporary classical music, in a way.”
Can were based in Cologne (in what was then West Germany) and operated in something of a vacuum. They had their own studio—which changed locations a few times—and spent countless hours jamming, rehearsing, defining, and refining their sound. Their music was flexible, improvisatory, and open-ended, but their approach was disciplined and focused. Their golden period—at least according to many critics and fans—was in the early ’70s, when Damo Suzuki was their lead singer. (Suzuki left Can in 1973.)
In addition to Schmidt, Can’s core members were guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and bassist/technical expert Holger Czukay. That lineup also included, at various times, Suzuki, Malcolm Mooney (vocals), Rosko Gee (bass), and Rebop Kwaku Baah (percussion), among others.
Can didn’t sell millions of albums or even tour the U.S.—at least not in their original incarnation, which broke up in 1979. But their influence is massive. For example, John Lydon (PiL) and Mark E. Smith (the Fall) cite them as an inspiration. Radiohead and Unknown Mortal Orchestra covered their songs. The band Spoon took its name from one of Can’s singles. Kanye West sampled them. And Flea and John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) flew to Germany to present them with an ECHO award (the German equivalent of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award).
Our focus here is the guitars of Can. We spoke with Irmin Schmidt, Damo Suzuki, Rosko Gee (Czukay’s replacement on bass in 1977), and a few others to paint a picture of this legendary and important band, and its approach to the instrument.
The 1971 double album Tago Mago is Can’s studio pinnacle. It’s a showcase for both Holger Czukay—on bass and performing studio tape manipulations—and guitarist Michael Karoli, and includes the 18-minute trance-funk marvel “Halleluwah.”
Castle of Sound
Can started in 1968 as a loose band of acquaintances. Czukay and Schmidt met in Cologne, where both were students of electronic music pioneer, composer, and influential maverick Karlheinz Stockhausen. “We studied with Stockhausen and later we worked with him in the electronic studio, which was part of our studies,” Schmidt says. “A lot of important composers and figures of the new music came along and gave lessons, but the main thing was Stockhausen—that was highly interesting and, of course, we learned a lot—although neither Holger nor me had the intention to make music like Stockhausen.”
Karoli knew Czukay from Switzerland. Karoli was a student at an exclusive private high school and Czukay was his teacher—although those roles were reversed when it came to learning about rock ’n’ roll. Both returned to Germany following Karoli’s graduation and Czukay’s dismissal. “[I was fired] for being too, er, intriguing,” he told the U.K.’s Fact magazine in 2009. “But it was no problem.”
Liebezeit was a local jazz head. He knew Schmidt, but was looking to do something different, which was what Can was about. “Jaki was a jazz musician,” Schmidt says. “He was drumming through the whole jazz history—from the beginning to free jazz—but Can didn’t have a one-dimensional aesthetic basis. It brought together classical and modern contemporary classics, electronics, jazz, and the influences from America.”
Can’s first gig was at an art exhibit in Schloss Nörvenich, a small castle in a town not far from Cologne. It was also the members’ initial introduction. “We had never all met and had never practiced, but we played there for the first time,” Czukay told Jason Gross, the editor of Perfect Sound Forever, in a 1997 interview. “That became somehow very exciting. Wild and sometimes unorganized, but at least exciting.”
That excitement bore weird, wonderful fruit. From the beginning, Can’s music was a groove-centric synthesis of everything 20th century. Stockhausen, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, cutting-edge tape manipulation, various kinds of world music—anything and everything worked. Those disparate influences formed the band’s collective musical subconscious.
“We didn’t try to incorporate anything into anything,” Schmidt says. “Holger and I were students of Stockhausen. We were fascinated by what, at that time, were totally new possibilities to create sounds electronically. But we did not try to transpose, say, the aesthetics of Stockhausen into rock music. We tried to invent our own. Each of us had different musical backgrounds. The aesthetics of Can were that we brought these influences from everything that was new in the 20th century and tried to make something our very own out of it.”