All Gates Open: The Story of Can
(Faber & Faber, 2018)
One weekday afternoon some time in the spring of 1989, if I've not lost too much to the vagaries of memory, I was in my Fort Greene apartment, trying to occupy myself constructively during one of my frequent stretches of unemployment.
I know it was a Monday, because I tuned in to Tony Coulter's Monday Afternoon New Music show on WKCR, and heard the most mesmerizing and unclassifiable music I had yet encountered. Minute after minute of pulsating rhythms loped by, repetitive bass and drum patterns, drone-like harmonies outlined by subtle keyboard playing, and a guitar cutting like a scalpel in and out of the mix. It was utterly gripping, darkly beautiful. It was avant-garde minimalism, ambient music with a beat, abstract, improvised, machine-tooled. It sounded like a rock band making classical new music.
That's exactly what it was, it was Can. The track might have been “Halleluwah,” from Tago Mago, or something from Future Days. The effect on me was permanent, carving a discrete place in my mind that has been a prominent part of my musical world since. The same is true for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of others.
The core quartet of keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, drummer Jaki Liebzeit, bassist Holger Czukay, and guitarist Michael Karoli—with first Malcolm Mooney and then Damo Suzuki as vocalist—made music that was the fulfillment of several parallel modern streams; the post-Schoenberg European classical avant-garde, anarchic rock in the spirit of the Velvet Underground, and idiomatic free improvisation. Their vintage period of 1969 to 1974 was decades ahead of the 21st century indie-classical movement, and vastly more mature, culturally and intellectually daring, powerful, and exciting.
This new book from Rob Young and Schmidt is, as the subtitle explains, the story of Can. More comprehensive than David Stubbs’ recent survey, Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany, more satisfying than The Can Book from Pascal Bussy and Andy Hall, this is two books in one,Young’s 350 page narrative of the band’s history, “All Gates Open,” followed by Schmidt’s “Can Kiosk,” something of a scrapbook—built from first-person discussions and oral histories of the band and their effect on other artists, including Mark E. Smith and Wim Wenders—of Can’s place in modern culture.
The story of Can is a fascinating narrative of how imagination, commitment, and preparation lay behind every note that the band produced for public consumption. In a way, Young—working from his own interviews with the band members (Schmidt, at eighty, is the only still-living member) and previously published and unpublished reviews, interviews, documentary video footage, audio recordings, and even letters—had it easy, as the band’s history is unique and full of the kind of chance happenings that have a near supernatural feel. Of course they aren’t, chance falls upon us everyday. What made Can different is that through effort and vision, they were poised to take full advantage of it.
Unique is an appallingly overused word, but true for Can. The singular music they made was a direct result of their singular origin—Schmidt and Czukay were both students of Karlheinz Stockhausen, both experienced in the WDR Cologne Electronic Music Studio (which was integral to György Ligeti’s career); Schmidt was playing challenging contemporary music on the piano and had a burgeoning career as a professional conductor; Czukay taught music to Karoli at a boarding school where the guitarist was preparing for a career in law; Liebezeit was in demand with the leading jazz musicians in Germany.
When they came together (along with temporary member David Johnson, also a student of and an assistant to Stockhausen), their initial concept was to create what they thought would be a fake ethnic sound, something like the folk music of Freedonia. But with the Velvets, The Beatles, Hendrix, and 1968 in general in their ears, minds, and hearts, and through hundreds of hours of simply playing together, improvising, looking for a sound, they became Can.
They were galvanized by Mooney, a non-singer who they just happened to meet as he was hitchhiking through Europe and the Near East, hoping to escape the draft back in America. As Czukay made clear, Mooney’s rhythmic approach to singing was the final piece of the puzzle. (For someone previously skeptical about the importance of both Mooney and Suzuki to the band, the book is a revealing mind-changer.)
Rhythm was the primary element in Can’s sound, and Liebezeit was the most prominent member, in concert placed both in the middle and equally downstage to all the others. He joined Can because he was frustrated playing free jazz and was craving structure and order. In the band, he became a polyrhythmic human metronome, keeping time that carved an imperturbably exact deep groove. Can’s signature sound, a pulse that rivals Stravinsky for physical effect, accompanied by hypnotic bass patterns, subliminal chords, and keening guitar, started and ended with Liebzeit’s snare.
“Monotonous” is a word that appears frequently in the book, and monotony is essential to Can’s aesthetic. But the word must be understood here in its secondary meaning: a steady state of tone and affect. With Liebezeit and Czukay propelling time forward, Can’s monotony is that of the dervishes, working mostly at a slow-boiling medium tempo, it absorbs the listener, collapses time, takes over first the body then the mind.
Young describes Can as “a non-expressive conduit for sound, merely channeling music from a distant, other-worldly source.” The band’s contemporary critics wrote of their “strange, alien quality,” and there are many offhand descriptions of the music as “cold.” Can was not inexpressive, but they didn’t have the stance vis-a-vis the listener of wanting to be admired and found attractive, they weren’t showmen, they had no sex appeal. In the small and problematic genre of art-rock, they were in it for the art.
Karoli called it “modern classical music.” When they first began to search for their sound, Schmidt told the others that they were in it for the long haul, to produce a legacy for their grandchildren. Can’s rock was abstracted, it was rock but had the public face and aesthetic of art music, reaching halfway toward the listener and implicitly expecting to be met there—or ignored.
That’s what Mooney and Suzuki channeled. Their voices were mixed down to the level of the instruments, the lyrics made no sense, and Suzuki was purposefully inarticulate. Songs, which in rock meant music and literary content, became tracks, pure music with words as instrumentation. Czukay represented the band’s view when he told Young, “We understood that music is something absolute, not something like a medium that transports a message.”
(Suzuki’s membership was as happenstance as Mooney’s—he just happened to be giving an eccentric performance in the street when Schmidt and Czukay just happened to be sitting nearby in a cafe. But primed for a new vocalist, and wanting to see where chance might take them meant they had found their man.)
The way Can made these tracks was a fraternal twin to how Miles Davis and Teo Macero made In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew: the band would improvise for hours with the tapes rolling, and then Czukay would take them away and edit until he had a track. He described the process to an interviewer: “What we did was not improvisation in the classical jazz sense, but instant composition. Like a football team. You know the goal, but you don’t know at any moment where the ball is going.”
The albums where made up of tracks that approximated songs in duration, if not form, and then side-length explorations. Except for briefly on Tago Mago, the record that fully outlined Can’s existence and direction, there are a few moments of Dada-esque free improvisation, but measure after measure of relentless flow that envelopes the listener. The music of Can’s great early period, which ended with the gentle and sublimely beautiful Future Days, has an overwhelming sense of the energy of time (and was almost entirely in 4/4 meter) and simultaneously was outside of the accumulating minutes of life.
Live audio and video (stream the “Can—Live in Germany, Soest 1970” broadcast footage and the concert movie “Can—Free concert (Sporthalle Cologne)” on YouTube) shows that, on the rock side, the band burned. Liebezeit’s rhythms build to a volcanic intensity, and Karoli’s extended solos have a melodic logic and a beauty of phrasing that are otherwise unheard in popular music.
Then what happened? Suzuki became suddenly and seemingly obsessively involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and quit. Czukay, not originally a bassist (he played it in the band by default), was increasingly left behind by the superb musicianship of his band mates, and was eventually replaced by Rosko Gee from Traffic. Czukay quite in 1977.
Can joined Virgin Records in 1975 and moved more towards the commercial mainstream, which meant that they began to rely on ideas from other bands and things happening in rock, rather than on what they generated internally. They scored a hit with the disco single, “I Want More.” They played reggae.
Tracks became songs. Despite adding a percussionist, the rhythms were simpler. Liebzeit was mixed down and Schmidt mixed up. They were now a rock band—an outstanding rock band—but just a rock band. That day I turned on the radio, Mooney was Coulter’s guest, talking about the new reunion album Rite Time. As a post new-wave rock album, it’s good, but it’s no more than two steps from the mainstream’s well-trod path.
Every ensemble that makes music based in improvisation has a life-cycle and reaches a point where they no longer have anything new to say to each other. Repetition in music is no bad thing, as Can themselves incontrovertibly demonstrated, but repetition of ideas, of syntax, grammar, and most of all vocabulary, marks the end.
Lasting forever and running in place is what The Rolling Stones do. As Karoli told Young, “We did not make rock music in that sense; we rather made new music in the techniques of modern composers.”