In the late ’60s, experimental music was beginning to be more than just a fringe endeavor, with bands occasionally circling through these erratic sounds but rarely settling on them for more than a few moments. However, there were a few exceptions whose music was starting to embrace the texture and tones of these atypical rhythms. Kraut rock and electronic rock were just starting to be explored, and while most artists were still handling this freedom as if it might rupture if put under too much stress, German group Can was enjoying the various opportunities these sounds afforded them.
Building their sound from a collection of disparate influences-including jazz, electronic, funk, world music and rock-they created a panglobal noise that touched on aspects of these genres in ways that defied expectations and led to the foundation of any number of subgenres before ushering in a more accepted experimental approach. Their work was mostly lost on mainstream audiences at the time, although they did hit the singles charts a few times. And with a presence that stretches across 50 years, Can still holds their place among the most influential bands of all time.
The origins of the band can be traced back to a trip that musician Irmin Schmidt made to New York City in 1966. Spending a good deal of his time among avant artists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, he also hung out with Andy Warhol and was introduced to the Hotel Chelsea, with its rich history of musical and literary residents. According to Schmidt, this trip “corrupted” him and opened his mind to the inherent possibilities that rock music in all its wondrous variety had to offer. On his return to Cologne later that year, he paired with American composer-flautist David C. Johnson and music teacher Holger Czukay to explore these newfound musical ideologies.
At this point in the band’s tenure, their sound was more grounded in avant-classical rhythms and arrangements, and was directly influenced by the work of renowned composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, under whom both Schmidt and Czukay studied. The trio eventually brought on guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit to round out their roster. But as the band began to move toward a more rock-oriented sound, Johnson began to feel disillusioned with the direction they were taking and left. With this initial lineup set, the band began calling themselves Inner Space and then The Can before settling on Can.
In 1968, the band reached out to vocalist Malcolm Mooney, an artist whose work was regarded as inventive, volatile and incredibly confrontational. They then headed into the studio and recorded enough material for a debut record, which they called “Prepared to Meet Thy Pnoom,” but they had trouble finding a label interested in releasing the songs. After this fruitless search, they continued to record and eventually compiled the songs that form their official first album, “Monster Movie,” which was released by Sound Factory/United Artists in 1969. Their slightly more accessible record includes a handful of songs from their earlier sessions, and features a heavy emphasis on Mooney’s chaotic vocals and a rhythmic repetition that fed into their improvisational tendencies.
On the advice of his psychiatrist, Mooney left the band and headed back to America after the release of “Monster Movie,” and the band searched for a replacement. They found one with Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, a Japanese musician they found busking outside a Munich café. Relatively untrained in his ability to play the guitar and possessing a tendency to improvise lyrics during songs, he was brought on to perform with the band the night they met. With Suzuki onboard, the band released “Soundtracks” in 1970, a collection of songs written for various films that features Mooney on two tracks. And it was on this record that they revealed their desire to move away from the psych and garage rock freakouts of their earliest work and toward a more meditative and experimental musical perspective.
Their fourth studio album, “Ege Bamyasi,” finds the band spinning through a kaleidoscope of sound and texture. Their early musical vagaries are gone, and in their place are confidence and a willingness to bend any conceivable expectation that might be laid at their feet. They are still mining countless influences, but their ability to translate these often-disparate sounds into a clear and coherent whole is one of the great achievements in modern musical history. With these songs, the band thoroughly breaks apart all the inspirations that had fed into their collective consciousness, and builds something wonderful and achingly ragged. And they even managed to score a hit single with “Spoon,” which reached No. 6 on the German charts.
These sessions weren’t without their fair bit of conflict, as Karoli recalled that these periods of recording were “frustrated by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s playing chess obsessively day in, day out.” He also noted that “completing recording became a frantic process, with some tracks having to be recorded practically in real time and the single ‘Spoon’ added to make up for a shortfall in material.” In spite of these apparent difficulties, the record was met with widespread acclaim and further cemented their position as one of the most interesting bands making music at that time.
Blending the vivid tones of krautrock and world music and exploring a feral electronic symbiosis, “Ege Bamyasi” is (along with the band’s other records in the early part of the ’70s) another high water mark in the history of experimental music. They are out on the edge, balancing a desperate need to create and nurture this unrestrained innovation. Often odd but always curiously affecting, this album allowed Can the opportunity to shape the future of these unpredictable sounds. But as much as they craved this erratic inspiration, they never lost control of their own determination. And on “Ege Bamyasi,” they provide ample proof that a reckless aptitude toward creation will always send shivers down your spine.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.