Can co-founder Irmin Schmidt questions whether the group even played rock, rather than contemporary classical music. Schmidt was a student of visionary composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
Tago Mago is also a showcase for Karoli’s guitar playing. Karoli gave Can their “rock” edge—at least according to most critics, which usually meant he used distortion and played minor pentatonics. But his playing was much more than that.
“Michael’s sense of melody is totally different because, I think, it has to do with that his family comes from Romania,” Suzuki says. “They were Gypsies—bohemians. They had their own music and their own life and things like that. He maybe got things from that area and that’s why he had different melodies. Also, Can was a German band. The movement at that time, in the ’60s and at the beginning of the ’70s … most of the bands you categorize as krautrock music, they were provokating against the western culture. Everybody liked to make something different.”
Similar to Czukay, Karoli was a minimalist and played repetitive figures with only minor variations, and he was fascinated with non-Western rhythms. “Michael’s guitar playing was unique in its deliberate simplicity and directness,” Gee says. “You can hear the strong Caribbean and Afro preferences in his strumming. He was a master of abstraction and his simple approach gave the band an effective width for divisive encounters.”
He was also a master at harnessing feedback, which, according to Schmidt, was the natural bridge between Stockhausen and rock. “Jimi Hendrix had a big influence,” he says. “That’s why we used our instruments in an unconventional way. A lot of Michael’s sounds are feedback. Sometimes onstage he was just in front of his loudspeakers and let the guitar sing by feedback, just by moving the guitar. Of course, that whole aesthetic has a lot to do with contemporary classical music.”
Karoli played a Fender Strat through a Fender Twin—although he used a Farfisa amp in the band’s early years—and had a Schaller fuzz pedal (a silicon Fuzz Face derivative) and a wah. “He had a ring modulator built into the guitar,” Schmidt says. “I had an Alpha 77 synthesizer, which was custom-made for me. I could ring modulate the oscillator with the organ or the electric piano. Ring modulating was actually one of the basic tools of the early electronic Stockhausen music. We decided that it would be nice if the guitar could also be ring modulated.”
Crescendo and Diminuendo
After Tago Mago, Can left Schloss Nörvenich and moved to an old cinema in Weilerswist, Germany, also near Cologne, where they set up Inner Space Studio. They recorded the albums Ege Bamyasi and Future Days. “Spoon,” which was originally released as a single and also appeared as the final track on Ege Bamyasi, peaked at No. 6 on the German charts in early 1972. It became their closest thing to a hit, with the exception of “I Want More,” which charted in the U.K. and landed them an appearance on the Top of the Pops in 1976.
At some point, they also abandoned their massive collection of Italian-made Farfisa amps and replaced them with a giant homemade wall of speakers. “That was our own construction,” Schmidt says. “It was a huge wall behind us and was small speakers and big speakers that were randomly distributed on this wall. That was absolutely fantastic for Michael to create feedback, and it made a good sound. The only disadvantage was it was behind us and was sort of replacing the PA, so we had an enormous noise behind us. It was so beautifully made and made a very peculiar, beautiful sound for feedback and electronic sounds. But then the whole thing changed and we didn’t use that wall anymore because it was very hard to transport. Later we had a very nice JBL PA, but for very big gigs we used the wall as a monitor.”
Suzuki left Can in 1973, after recording Future Days, and the group carried on with different members providing vocals. They mimed their 1976 performance on Top of the Pops with Czukay on upright bass and a “fake” Karoli on guitar. “‘I Want More’ got into the charts,” Schmidt says. “We were all on holiday. Holger and me were in Yugoslavia—in Croatia—with a whole bunch of others. Jaki was in Cologne. Virgin Records called and said, ‘You got into the charts and you were asked to be on Top of the Pops. You have to come immediately.’ Michael was in Kenya and we couldn’t get hold of him. Virgin insisted that we play, so we did it without Michael. He was replaced by somebody who definitely looked different so that everybody realized that this guitar player wasn’t him.”
In 1977, Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah from Traffic joined Can on bass and percussion. Czukay focused on making sounds using shortwave radios, tape recorders, and other devices. “Holger decided to do some more experimental electronic stuff and asked Rosko to join the band,” Schmidt says. “Rosko played bass and Holger did weird sounds.” It was something he had experimented with since the ’60s and, in many ways, his pioneering work is considered a precursor to modern sampling.
“He was doing it even before Can,” Gross says. “The first real solo album he did, [1969’s] Canaxis 5, sampled a Vietnamese woman singing as part of the music. He told me that a huge influence on him was ‘I Am the Walrus’ by the Beatles. He was really entranced by the voices at the end of the song.”
But Czukay’s move from bass was the beginning of the end of the band. He left in late ’77 and Can broke up two years later. They continued to work together on various projects and even reunited on occasion. Czukay worked on different things as well, collaborating with Jah Wobble (PiL), the Edge, and many others, and continued to explore. “He really dived into techno,” Gross says. “I think that was something that was made for him, and in a lot of ways he predated it. He saw how it fit into what he had been doing for years and he just embraced the hell out of it. That just shows you he had this adventurous spirit, even in his later years.”
Karoli died in 2001 at the age of 53. Liebezeit and Czukay both died in 2017 (at ages 78 and 79, respectively). But Can’s legacy lives on and their influence only seems to increase with time.
“Every 10 years, young bands say, ‘Our influence comes from Can,’” says Suzuki. “When punk began, some punk bands mentioned our influence, and then new wave comes and they mention us, and then trance comes, and now some hip-hop people are using our songs as well. It is strange, because we are already more than 45 years on and people still listen. It is something. But it is crazy, because it is a half century, man.”