The German avant-garde band Can has influenced legions of musicians
Despite the band’s stature, they have remained underrated and unknown to many fans of rock music
In Turkish, ege bamyasi means Aegean okra. It’s also the title of German avant-garde band Can’s fourth album, released 47 years ago. For the album cover, the band used the picture of a can. A can of okra, to be precise. It was a hat tip to pop-art icon Andy Warhol, whose most recognized work of art from the early 1960s is one that depicts rows of Campbell Soup cans. It was also, obviously, a pun on the band’s name.
Can made a brand of music that can only be described as nonpareil, for there was truly none to compare it to. On Ege Bamyasi, the seven tracks vary in length—from the extra-long exploratory Spoon to the short and catchy Vitamin C, which has all the attributes for getting into your head and staying there.
Can’s music was so many steps ahead of its time and has been so influential over the past half a century that it would be difficult to exhaustively list the genres, bands and individuals who have been deeply inspired by the band. Musicians as diverse as rapper Kanye West (who based one of his songs, Drunk And Hot Girls, on the German band’s Sing Swan Song); Sonic Youth (who remixed Spoon); David Bowie; and Radiohead are among those who have been influenced by the band. Can are considered to be pioneers of ambient electronic music and the precursors of genres that would come to be known as postmodern music, electronic dance music, or noise rock.
Yet Can’s brand of music is quite unclassifiable. And although they were prolific (11 albums in 10 years till 1979, plus an additional one that came out of a surprise reunion in 1989), they were confounding during their career—to both listeners and some critics. Started in the late 1960s by bassist Holger Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, both students of the German composer and electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Can’s music was a blend of unlikely combinations: It had the minimalism of Velvet Underground; it incorporated electronic and synthesizer experiments inspired by Stockhausen; but also had the funk, groove and R&B influences of musicians and bands such as James Brown and New Orleans’ The Meters.
Although some music journalists sloppily slap the label “Krautrock" on Can’s kind of music, it is an inaccurate way of describing the band. Few bands have been so prescient and so consistently experimental as Can. Ever since their first album, Monster Movie (1969), each successive Can album has pushed the boundaries.
At the core of the band were Czukay and Schmidt but also guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, a roster of three singers, Damo Suzuki, Rosko Gee and Rebop Kwaku Baah. Suzuki, a Japanese hippie busker who was discovered by the co-founders of the band on the streets of Munich, features on four of the band’s best albums, including Ege Bamyasi.
The most influential Can album is Tago Mago (1971), which came out just before Ege Bamyasi. Many believe Tago Mago, recorded at an old castle in Cologne, is the foundation for a host of new genres in rock music that emerged from the mid-1970s onwards. Each of its tracks has been an inspiration for later bands from genres as diverse as metal; post-punk; prog-rock; psychedelia; noise rock; and electronica.
Can’s songs were not radio-friendly; nor were they easily accessible to ears weaned on commercial pop or rock ‘n’ roll. But for those seeking a new musical experience, they were ideal. A remastered version of Tago Mago was released on its 40th anniversary in 2011—and it is a good album to begin exploring Can.
Tago Mago has long tracks (one of them, the awesome, meandering Halleluwah, stretches for nearly 19 minutes) as well as short ones (the post-punk style Mushroom is 4 minutes long). If someone played you the album today and you hadn’t ever heard of the band or listened to Can’s music, you would probably never realize that they recorded it in the early 1970s.
Their music was remarkably futuristic. Their recording techniques were simple—sometimes using only two-track tapes—but their music was as uncompromisingly experimental as free form jazz. On Tago Mago, Suzuki’s vocals flit in and out, often as incomprehensible murmurs but also, at other times, strident and dominating.
Most of Can’s core members are now dead except Suzuki, 69, and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, 81. Post-Can, Suzuki has performed solo and Schmidt built a long career scoring music for films and TV programmes before retiring. But it is Can’s discography that is the best legacy of all the musicians that were in the band.
Can’s influence creeps up all the time, across genres and over the decades, and in the music of countless musicians and bands even if they don’t cite the band as an inspiration.
In 1997, a compilation titled Sacrilege featured remixed versions of Can’s songs by other artists. You can hear Sonic Youth’s version of Spoon; check out British electronic band U.N.K.L.E.’s take on Vitamin C; and savour German acid house duo Air Liquide’s version of Flow Motion. Some bands have been influenced in other ways by Can. The American indie rock band Spoon, led by Britt Daniel, named itself after the Can song—one that was their only commercial hit after it featured as the theme on the soundtrack of a German film in 1985.
The Lounge List
Five tracks by Can to bookend this week
1. ‘Vitamin C’ from ‘Ege Bamyasi’
2. ‘Halleluwah’ from ‘Tago Mago’
3. ‘Spoon’ from ‘Ege Bamyasi’
4. ‘She Brings The Rain’ from ‘Soundtracks’
5. ‘I Want More’ from ‘Flow Motion’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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