KRAUTROCK. CAN at 50

 

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         The contentious term “Krautrock” was first used by the British music press in the early 1970s to describe experimental German bands such as Kraftwerk and Can. The term seemed to conceal a lingering, pre-European Union fear and loathing of Germany and the Germans. New Musical Express Krautrock articles carried the dubious straplines: ‘Can: They Have Ways of Making You Listen’, and ‘Kraftwerk: The Final Solution of the Music Problem’. Recently the term was made half-respectable by Julian Cope, the erudite jester of English pop, in his ironically titled volume Krautrocksampler (1995), which commended the cutting-edge music that arose from the moral and material ruins of post-Hitlerite Germany.

 

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Can, typically for Krautrock, rejected Germany’s “square” postwar music scene known as schlager with its Euro-kitsch crooning. In the aftermath of its “zero” hour, Germany had given rise to a new generation of bands who wanted to tear up the past and start again. Can evolved a trance-inducing, drum-driven dancefloor groove that borrowed as much from North African music as from Karlheinz Stockhausen and the American so-called minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley. It is difficult now to imagine how startlingly new Can must have sounded.

 

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Their abidingly great 1972 album, Ege Bamyasi, showed an Andy Warhol-like image of tinned Turkish food on the cover, and was very far removed from the tepid, well-mannered prog rock of Genesis, Yes and other British stadium behemoths. Like their compatriot bands Faust, Neu! and Cluster, the Cologne-based Can eschewed not only the pseudo-hippie kitsch of Genesis but the mellow denim heaven of Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and other American middle-of-the-roadsters. The band’s trademark hypnotic threnodies and loopy synth rhythms ran counter to all known blues-rock clichés. Such daringly new sounds had not been heard since Warhol’s “banana album” for the Velvet Underground in 1967.

 

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Can, then, grew out of a spirit of combativeness and resistance in post-war Germany. The Scottish novelist Alan Warner, in his book on Can, Tago Mago (2015), suggests that the 1960s and 1970s were difficult decades for the German conscience; any resistance against the German state could be justified by the Nazi past. Indeed, Baader-Meinhof terrorists were able to count on a degree of sympathy among fans of Can and other Krautrock bands because they dared to do what almost all Germans had failed to do when it really mattered some 30 years before: stand up to authority. Can, though never overtly political, was thought to have been named after the words “Communism. Anarchy. Nihilism”.

 

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To mark the band’s 50th anniversary, earlier this month the Barbican and Goethe Institute presented the Can Project. This featured the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Can’s founder member and composer Irmin Schmidt, followed by an eight-piece band under the direction of the longtime Can fan Thurston Moore, late of the New York art rockers Sonic Youth. The evening had a valedictory quality as it was dedicated to Can’s jazz-trained drummer Jaki Liebeziet, who died last January, and its guitarist Michael Karoli, who died in 2001, aged only 53. Without Liebeziet, surely one of the world’s greatest drummers, Can would not have left such a mark. The band’s fourth member, Holger Czukay (born in Danzig, Poland, in 1938), was unfortunately unable to attend “owing to illness”, we were told.

 

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Schmidt, 79, bespectacled and slightly stooped, had studied with Czukay under Stockhausen in mid-1960s Cologne. His new symphony Can Dialog (co-written with Gregor Schwellenbach) acknowledged the influence of Stockhausen in its quotation from other avant-garde 20th century composers ranging from Luciano Berio to Edgar Varese. However, the Barbican premiere was no mere exercise in post-modernist, self-reflexive preening. Before he founded Can half a century ago in 1967, Schmidt had been a noted conductor and keyboardist, with a number of film and TV soundtracks to his name. Can Dialog, with its elaborately layered orchestral textures, intriguingly echoed the bass line of ‘Halleluwah’ from the band’s 1971 double album Tago Mago (still the best-selling Can album), as well as melodic passages from Ege Bamyasi.

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