Can are a band to get into when you want two exact things: to know how adventurous rock music can be, and to discover that popular music steals most of its ideas from alternative artists. If you already are prepared to know things these things or think this way, you are prepared for a band like Can. There is an entire conclave of musicians that came out of Germany in the late 1960’s that completely defined the direction rock music would go in for the following decades to come (Amon Dull, Faust, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, among others), and they did this by pushing boundaries and being original. The fact that Can and many of these “Krautrock” bands (as they are affectionately called) still sound like they are ahead of their time is a testament to the power of forward thinking rock music. They are a band that have many creative peaks, and many of those peaks – “Halleluwah”, “Bel Air”, “Vitamin C”, “Dizzy Dizzy”, “Mother Sky” – are among the greatest songs that rock music has to offer. They do this by mixing elements of jazz, experimental, and classical music influences into their rock music line up of drums/ bass/keyboards/guitar/vocals. Dive into their discography, but wear a seat belt because it may get dangerous.
Holger Czukay – Bass, Samples
Irmin Schmidt – Keyboards, Vocals
Jaki Liebezeit – Drums, Percussion
Micheal Karoli – Guitar
Damo Suzuki – Vocals (1970 – 1973)
Malcom Mooney – Vocals (1968-69, 1985)
1969 – (3 / 5) – Monster Movie
1970 – (4 / 5) – Soundtracks
1971 – (4.5 / 5) – Tago Mago
1972 – (5 / 5) – Ege Bamyasi
1973 – (5 / 5)+ – Future Days
1974 – (4.5 / 5) – Soon Over Babaluma
1975 – (2 / 5) – Landed
1976 – (3 / 5) – Flow Motion
1977 – (1 / 5) – Saw Delight
1978 – (1 / 5) – Out of Reach
1979 – (4 / 5) – Can (Inner Space)
1985 – (2 / 5) – Rite Time
Monster Movie – (3 / 5)
Can started their illustrious career as part of the mostly hippie commune that began with Amon Dull in Germany in the 1960’s. There are elements of many sixties bands present, as the collective band atmosphere from Jefferson Airplane collides with the abstract jams of Jimi Hendrix Experience. Progressive rock such as Traffic, Moody Blues, and jazz pioneers Soft Machine can also be heard, though any trace of blues music has been replaced with the elements of free jazz. “Father Cannot Yell” starts off the album rather anticlimactically, as African -American singer Malcom Mooney starts rambling like a mix of Captain Beefheart and Lou Reed and the music while pleasant is not anything you haven’t heard from Jefferson Airplane or The Allman Brothers. Jamming without rhyme or reason still has to be entertaining to be considered good. The second song “Mary, Mary So Contrary” is a better example of what the band is capable of, with dynamics that are more confident, the most interesting chant yet by Mooney, and outstanding interplay between the rhythm section of Holger Czukay and Jaki Leibezeit. “Outside My Door” is another good tune and probably the most heavy hitting single-ready on Monster Movie, but it should be said that Mooney’s hoarse vocals do distract from the talented musicians behind the band instrumentals.
Even though the first three songs all have their moments of greatness, what will sell you on Can’s debut is what you think of the albums final track “Yoo Doo Right”, as it’s twenty plus minute length is more than the other songs on the record combined. I personally find it lacking something, and though it starts off as mysterious and charismatic, Mooney’s lame lyrics and distracting off key singing ruin the experience for me. It should be said as well that this is 1969, and if this was released in 1966 or 67 maybe it would be more admirable for what it tries to do, but the fact is there are so many example of this kind of acid jam-band song that goes on and on that by the end of the 1960’s, this song simply adds nothing new to the cannon. “Yoo Doo Right” is too repetitive musically and does not justify it’s massive length, despite a noble effort by Leibezeit to keep every moment interesting; look no further than fellow countrymen Amon Dull’s “Phallus Dei” from the same year for an example of a 20 minute track done correctly. Can is a talented group of musicians, one of the most impressive ever gathered really, and if they can come up with actual melodies next time around it would be very impressive.
Greatest Songs: Mary, Mary So Contrary; Outside My Door
Soundtracks – (4 / 5)
Soundtracks is the second album from Can but it is also made up from many movie soundtracks that the band had contributed music to as well. The album has a kind of cut and paste feeling, as many of the songs fade in and out in a rather awkward and hurried manner. However, the big improvement is in the new singer Damo Suzuki, who sings “Tango Whiskeyman” and “Deadlock” in a style that could not be more opposite than Mooney’s: hushed, intricate, solemn, but still dynamic when needing to be. The fact that he sings in a mix of three languages- English, Japanese, and German- is a mere footnote. The lyrics are improvised and SOUND like it, but this only adds to the album’s internal mechanics. Songs such as “Don’t Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone” have a new sonic clarity to them as the busy toms of Liebezeit merge with the whispering of Suzuki and add a new dimension the band’s moody textures.
“Mother Sky” is the band’s first monumental achievement, a 14 minute work of hypnotic beauty and forward thinking that at first uses elements of drone music (pretty much done solely by Czukay’s bass) and later elements of electric guitar noise and off kilter bass and keyboard playing to form a controlled jam of intensity where it feels like anything can happen. Unfortunately, they let two of Malcom Mooney’s last songs exist on the record as well, and “Soul Desert” and “She Brings the Rain” are truly trying experiences that recall the problems of the debut. The former song is completely unnecessary to the tone and flow of the record, bringing a kind of ragged, garage album feel to an album that is completely nuanced and flavored differently, while the latter song is simply bad beatnik poetry that any Lou Reed / Bob Dylan wanna be of the era could produce. The reprise of “Deadlock” is also slightly overlong and unwelcome so early in the record. Still, most of the record succeeds and points toward a bright future for the band with Suzuki as lead vocalist. The band sounds renewed and alive on Soundtracks, as scattershot and as inconsistent as it is.
Greatest Songs: Mother Sky, Don’t Turn the Light On, Tango Whiskeyman
Tago Mago – (4.5 / 5)
Ever moving forward, Tago Mago is Can’s first outright masterwork. Taking the best parts of Soundtracks and expanding on them, the first four tracks on the record represent all that is great about rock music in the early 1970’s. Opener “Paperhouse” is a shifting work of rock music dynamics which serve as a culmination of everything the band does well: the pulsating, mechanical drumming of Liebezeit; the downplayed role of guitar; the lead vocalist so confident in his atmosphere that he sounds perfect even though the music could explode at any moment. “Oh Yeah” sounds like a song right out of the 1990’s with it’s backward vocals, off tune guitar plucks and African tribal drum work. “Mushroom” takes the mumbling style pioneered by Mooney to its logical conclusion, though it should b noted that Suzuki improves the improv and perfects the way it plays off the snare hits. It should be said that Can is a band that explores the idea of “rhythm” in music, the very thing that perhaps makes it rock music, and that the drums are very much the lead instrument.
Never is that more true than in the song “Halleluwah”, Can’s masterpiece and one of the great rock tunes of all time (it is in my personal top ten rock songs of all time). The 18-minute track moves in and out of its incessant groove, daring to not only to threaten to stop the beat at times but to also throw any sound and noise available at the listener. Everyone takes turns shining, as Suzuki has many chances to ell and rant at the listener towards the beginning and Karoli shines towards the middle with more traditional guitar work. Schmidt takes over soon after the twelve minute mark, peppering the soundscape with keyboard sound effects from outer space. Lead songwriter and bass player Holger Czukay is last but not least, and he shines here especially, pioneering a sampling technique where layers and layers of repetitive sound are changed and added to the rhythmic beat over and over again; what would be defined in years to come as “techno”. Anything could happen within the time frame of “Halleluwah”, and it is the great example of “jamming” in rock music that I can think of, as it is a jam with a mechanical precision.
The only reason this album would not get a perfect rating from me would be the second half of the record, which is an acquired taste to say the least. It still works for the most part, but “Aumgn” and “Peking O” are about as challenging as music can get. To some ears these “songs” could be called great and groundbreaking, where to others it could be labled as pretentious nonsense. I like to land somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, it is about 30 minutes of music that plays out like being trapped in an insane asylum that I personally do not like to revisit that often, and it should be noted that Can never attempted anything quite so strange for the remainder of their career. Give it a whirl by all means and see if those two songs are your thing, it is pure avant-garde madness for sure. Closing track “Bring Me Coffee or Tea” plays as a coda to the overwhelming experience of “Peking O”, and Can weirds out any other aspiring rock band of its time and leaves the listener exhausted and mostly satisfied. Tago Mago is a bold experiment in rhythm or the lack of rhythm, on thought out calculations and bizarre improvised delirium. There is nothing quite like it, before or since.
Greatest Songs: Halleluwah, Oh Yeah, Paperhouse
Ege Bamyasi – (5 / 5)
With Ege Bamyasi, Can has finally refined their sound into a style all their own. Where Tago Mago was the personification of “sprawling”, this record shimmers in its simplicity. The album has a hazy quality, and is beautiful to listen to like a laid back psychedelic experience. The rough edges are still present, as the epic length opener “Pinch” proves, but even that song blends into the smaller songs effortlessly and sets the tone for the remainder of the record. The shorter, punchier songs are Can’s best and most accessible so far: the evil bounce of “One More Night”; the languid “Sing Swan Song” which lures one to sleep with its dreamy atmosphere; the vital “Vitamin C” which truly rocks out like very few songs of the era, and show Suzuki screaming the immortal line, “Hey you / your losing your losing your losing / you vitamin C”. Jaki Leibezeit’s drumming is again at the forefront of every song and glides along like a mechanical automaton.
In the middle of the record is the somewhat troubling “Soup”, and it’s the only point of weakness on an otherwise stellar record (and really, it’s just the last couple minutes of “Soup” that are superfluous). It tries to experiment like Tago Mago did, but the tone and quality of Ege Bamyasi is not really about experimenting anymore, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. The record closes with its two most unstoppable groves, the funk rock “I’m So Green” and the dark, forbidding “Spoon”, the latter of which was a hit single for the group in their native Germany. Both of these songs could go on for much longer than their 3 minute run times. Can is mainly about compatibility on this record, as the Can of beans on the album cover serves as more than a mere picture; it is a symbol of what Ege Bamyasi represents, the Can album that is quintessential.
Greatest Songs: Spoon, Vitamin C, I’m So Green, Sing Swan Song
Future Days – (5 / 5)+
Future Days marks the formal perfection of Can’s instrumental ethos. Gradually, the band was moving toward a more progressive rock sound, which means that they are beyond masters at their instruments (especially Leibezeit and Schmit) and can do just a about anything with their jarring or passive atmospheres. The tone of the album is definitely mellow, as all of the rough edges this time have been smoothed over in favor of easy travels. Damo Suzuki’s lyrics and melodies become an instrument in and of themselves, as the words are completely indecipherable but the delivery is impeccable. There are only 4 songs listed on the album’s sleeve, but in reality many of these songs contain multiple melodic ideas.
First track “Future Days” paints an evocative beach-time landscape to begin the album, and as it drifts on for almost 10 minutes, the listener feels as if it could go on forever. Though it keeps the same melodic theme throughout, it goes from sparse and soft to effect heavy and phased out to a clownish-vocal octave shifting electronic ending. “Spray” is as close to typical Can as the band gets here, with the drumming more staccato and the tempo more jerky, but it is still a far cry from the insanity of the past. If I had to pick a weak moment on an otherwise perfect record, I guess “Spray” is the least impressive step forward, but it is still quite stunning and surprising, as the song is mostly alternative percussion driven instrumental (bongos, cowbell, chimes, etc.) but then Suzuki pops in later with his peculiar brand of moan/singing and it gives the song a timeless feeling. “Moonshake” plays like an Ege Bamyasi left over, being the only song around a 3 minute length but it keeps the atmosphere of Future Days consistent and proves how the band’s newly perfected style could be harnessed into more easily digestible pop music tracks; catchy chorus and “woo woo woo” vocals smooth it over even more.
The entirety of side two on the record is taken up by the 20 minute “Bel Air”, Can’s best epic track and the furthest rock music has reached into the void as of 1973. It is neatly divided into four different segments about 5 minutes in length, and each one careens into the other with a very natural type of transition. In a way it is just two parts that repeat once each, the first and third being another sea-shanty melody sang by Suzuki and the second being a more instrumental maelstrom by the other members of the band. The first time the second part is played (from minute 5 to minute 10) it is done so in a frenzy of dizzy instrumental acrobatics, but the second time (in the last five minutes) it is somewhat slower and erupts into a beautiful cosmic symphony. Like Faust’s “Krautrock” of the same year, “Bel Air” tries to sum up all of the German musical school’s achievement up to this date and does so in a glorious manner, making the song a tune for the ages and a great way to cap the record. Future Days reaches for the stars, and gets pretty close to achieving a supernova in and of itself.
Greatest Songs: Bel Air, Moonshake, Future Days
Soon Over Babaluma – (4.5 / 5)
Soon Over Babaluma was made after the departure of Suzuki, so any vocal duties are taken over by the Karoli and Schmidt. Those two personalities also kind of rule the entire album, look at the sonic tapestry of “Spalsh” with the waves of synthesizers that create the robotic atmosphere, with more guitar interludes and solos in between then there ever had been before. “Come Sta, La Luna” divides a lot of listeners over Karoli’’s somewhat polarizing vocals, but the song works very well and is quite catchy in my opinion. Leibezeit does get a couple of chances to shine though, with “Dizzy Dizzy” beautifully being driven by him while other members of the band sprinkle in at random; its another masterwork by a group at the height of their power. There is also his “Chain Reaction”, which shows a display of instrumental acrobatics, but changes personalities so many times that it comes off as mediocre prog-rock of the 1970’s. The album ends with “Quantum Physics”, a good closer that harks back to the soundscapes of Future Days and is the first foray into what I would call background or ambient music by the band. Soon Over Babaluma is not nearly as pop driven as the majority of Ege Bamyasi, and reaches for new plateaus of emotions. Even the worst Can songs are better than many other bands of their era, and if Soon Over Babaluma plays like a b-sides of Future Days, it still makes a great listen.
Greatest Songs: Splash, Dizzy Dizzy, Come Sta, La Luna
Landed – (2 / 5)
Can ends their great album streak with this rather unremarkable album. There are some solid grooves here and there, but no great songs for the first time ever. The closing epic song called “Unfinished” sums it up, as the band was out of good ideas for this one.
Greatest Songs: Half Past One, Red Hot Indians
Flow Motion – (3 / 5)
Fairing slightly better than the previous record, Flow Motion (why all the cheesy pun album titles guys?) is an interesting listen for the die hard Can fan. Opener “I Want More” (later unnecessarily reprised as “And More”) is a clinically depressed disco beat that shows the band trying to cross over into the mainstream, and its enjoyable for what it is. Even better, “Babylonian Pearl” is a tuneful gem that recalls “Moonshake” to some extent though of course without great singing from Suzuki”. The long closing track works this time around too, as the title track “Flow Motion” is an old-fashioned psych jam from the band that recalls their debut. The album sequencing as a whole is similar to Soundtracks, though more confused and labored than innovative like Can of the early 70’s. The rest of the songs are nothing special, even though they contain some good ideas like the eerie atmosphere of “Smoke” or the Caribbean inflected “Laugh Til You Cry, Live Til You Die” though that song title sounds like a James Bond theme reject. All of the showy tendencies of the virtuoso players are muted for this album as well, which is a mistake with a band as amazing as Can.
Greatest Songs: Babylonian Pearl, Flow Motion
Saw Delight – (1 / 5)
Out of Reach – (1 / 5)
Can (Inner Space) – (4 / 5)
An album where a band’s musical leader and mainstay is gone is always a risky venture, and in this case Bassist and main songwriter Hogler Czukay is absent from playing on the record. Still, seeing as how the last two albums were pretty awful and it’s really hard to find anything great to say about any of their late 70’s work since 1974’s Soon over Babalauma, Can or (Inner Space as it is sometimes called) is a great achievement. There are songs on here that compete with some of Can’s best epics actually, and since there is a pretty short album at 39 minutes, there is not much wasted space. Replacing Czuaky are two members of the band Traffic, bassist Rosko Gee and Rebop Baah on alt percussion. It all works pretty well, as opener “All Gates are Open” shifts several times in its eight minute run time. “Safe” is epic in length as well, and though Can sounds more like a disco band of their era at this point in their career, it has a Krautrock groove that rivals anything of its time; suffice to say if ALL disco sounded like “Safe” I would like disco a lot more!
The other show stopper on the disc comes at track #5 with “Aspectacle”, which is probably the most accessible track and the most like classic Can. Instead of purely being of its time, it sounds like a Can dance track should, and shows usual show-stopper Leibezeit in a much better light, with Karoli screaming about, “turning into a crazy man” in a convincing way. “Sodom” has a very eerie vibe like no other Can song before it, as one can feel the presence of sampler/producer Czuaky on this track the most. There are some goofy tracks, as “EFS No. 99” is simply ridiculous with it’s odd sample and show tune vibe and final tracks “Ping Pong” and “Can Be” are short but pointless tunes. The first five tracks on Inner Space have something to love about them though, making this a great way for the band to call it quits, marking the end of German experimentation for the 1970’s as well as a fitting end to the original line up of one of the most influential groups of all time.
Greatest Songs: Aspectacle, Safe, All Gates Are Open
Rite Time – (2 / 5)