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Can formed in Köln in 1968, comprising bass guitarist Holger Czukay, keyboard player Irmin Schmidt, guitarist Michael Karoli, and drummer Jaki Liebezeit, along with original member David Johnson, an American composer, flutist, and electronic musician who left in 1969 after the band had begun taking a more rock-oriented direction. Czukays’ and Schmidt’s musical orientations up until that point had been exclusively avant-garde classical, while Liebezeit had played in jazz groups until joining Can. They used the names Inner Space and The Can before finally settling on Can. Liebezeit subsequently suggested the backronym “communism, anarchism, nihilism” for the band’s name
In the autumn of 1968, the band enlisted the creative, highly rhythmic, but unstable and often confrontational American Malcolm Mooney, a New York based painter (who in fact had never sung before), with whom they recorded the material for an album, Prepared to Meet Thy Pnoom. This first album was rejected by their record company, and was not released until 1981, under the name Delay 1968. The band decided to record another album of original material from scratch, which later became Monster Movie, released in 1969. Mooney’s bizarre ranting vocals stood in contrast to the stark minimalism of the music, which was influenced particularly by garage rock, funk and psychedelic rock. Repetition was stressed on bass and drums, particularly on the epic “Yoo Doo Right” which had been edited down from a six-hour improvisation to take up a mere single side of vinyl.
Mooney returned to America soon afterwards on the advice of a psychiatrist, having been told that getting away from the chaotic music of Can would be better for his mental health. He was replaced by the more understated Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, a young Japanese traveller found busking outside a Munich cafe by Czukay and Liebezeit. Though he only knew a handful of guitar chords and improvised the majority of his lyrics (as opposed to committing them to paper), Suzuki was asked to perform with the band that same night. The band’s first record with Suzuki was Soundtracks, released in 1970, a compilation of music made for films that also contained two earlier tracks recorded with Mooney. Suzuki’s lyrics were usually in English, though sometimes also in Japanese.
The next few years saw Can release their most acclaimed works, which arguably did as much to define the krautrock genre as those of any other group. While their earlier recordings tended to be loosely based on traditional song structures, on their mid-career albums the band reverted to an extremely fluid improvisational style. The double album Tago Mago (1971) is often seen as a groundbreaking, influential and deeply unconventional record, based on intensely rhythmic jazz-inspired drumming, improvised guitar and keyboard soloing (frequently intertwining each other), tape edits as composition, and Suzuki’s idiosyncratic vocalisms.
Tago Mago was followed by Ege Bamyasi (1972), a more accessible but still avant-garde record which featured the catchy “Vitamin C” and the Top 40 German hit “Spoon.” Next was Future Days (1973), an unassuming but quietly complex record which represents an early example of ambient music and is perhaps the band’s most critically successful record. Also included on this album was the refreshingly unexpected pop song “Moonshake”. Suzuki left soon after the recording of the latter album to marry his German wife and become a Jehovah’s Witness, and the vocals were taken over by Karoli and Schmidt, although after the departure of Suzuki, fewer of their tracks featured vocals, as Can found themselves experimenting with the ambient music they began making with Future Days.
Soon Over Babaluma from 1974 continued in the ambient style of Future Days, though regaining some of the abrasive edge of Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi. In 1975 Can signed to Virgin Records in the UK and EMI/Harvest in Germany. The albums Landed (1975) and Flow Motion (1976) saw Can moving towards a somewhat more conventional style as their recording technology improved. Accordingly, the disco single “I Want More” from Flow Motion became their only hit record outside of Germany, Written by their live sound mixer Peter Gilmour, it reached No 26 in the UK charts in August 1976, which prompted an appearance on Top of the Pops. In 1977 Can were joined by former Traffic bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, both of whom provided vocals to Can’s music, appearing on the albums Saw Delight (1977), Out of Reach (1978) and Can (1979). During this period Holger Czukay was pushed to the fringes of the group’s activity; in fact he just made sounds using shortwave radios, morse code keys, tape recorders and other sundry objects. He left Can in late 1977 and did not appear on the albums Out Of Reach or Can, although he did do some production work on the latter album. Can disbanded shortly afterwards, but reunions have taken place on several occasions since.
Since the split, all the former members have been involved in musical projects, often as session musicians for other artists. In 1986 they briefly reformed, with Mooney but without Suzuki, to record Rite Time (released in 1989). There was a further reunion in 1991 to record a track for the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World, and Can have since been the subject of numerous compilations, live albums and samples.
In 1999 the four core members of Can, Karoli, Liebezeit, Schmidt and Czukay, performed live at the same show, although playing separately with their current solo projects (Sofortkontakt, Club Off Chaos, Kumo and U-She respectively). Michael Karoli died on 17 November 2001 after a long battle with cancer. In 2004, the band began a series of Super Audio CD remasters of its back catalog, which were finished in 2006.
Holger Czukay has recorded several ambient albums and collaborated with David Sylvian among others, Jaki Liebezeit has played extensively with bassists Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell, and in a drum ensemble called Drums of Chaos and in 2005 with the Artist Datenverarbeiter the online-album Givt. Michael Karoli recorded a reggae album with Polly Eltes before his passing, and Irmin Schmidt has begun working with the acclaimed drummer Martin Atkins, producing a remix for the industrial band The Damage Manual, and a cover of Banging the Door for a Public Image Ltd tribute album, both released on Atkins’ label, Invisible Records. Karoli formed Sofortkontakt! for the Can reunion shows in 1999 with Mark Spybey, who had previously been associated with Dead Voices on Air, Zoviet-France, Reformed Faction and Download. The band also featured Alexander Schoenert, Felix Guttierez of Jelly Planet and Mandjao Fati. Karoli also performed on numerous occasions with Damo Suzuki’s Network. Damo Suzuki returned to music in 1983, and since then he has been playing live improvisational shows around the world with local musicians and members of touring bands at various points, sometimes issuing live albums. Malcolm Mooney recorded an album as singer for the band Tenth Planet in 1998. Rosko Gee has been the bassist in the live band on Harald Schmidt’s TV show in Germany since 1995. Rebop Kwaku Baah died in 1983 following a brain haemorrhage.