KRAUTROCK. CAN at 50

 

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A packed audience of all ages and backgrounds (among them Iris McConnell of the North London trio Girl Ray, and Can’s biographer Rob Young) politely applauded the symphony’s premiere. Schmidt afterwards conducted his Ravel-inspired 2008 ballet suite La Fermosa, but most people had come to hear Can’s first singer, Malcolm Mooney, perform in the Thurston Moore band. Mooney, an African-American artist and poet, had been introduced to the world of Can in 1967 by Irmin Schmidt’s wife Hildegard, Can’s manager. He was in flight from the Vietnam War and loath to go back to America; Can provided him with a refuge.

 

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On stage at the Barbican, Mooney cut a scrawny, Gil Scott- Heron-like presence in a purple baseball cap and grey suit. He kicked off with the proto-punk wail of ‘Outside Your Door’ from Can’s ground-breaking 1969 Monster Movie debut album. The propulsive, repetitive rhythms accommodated Mooney’s rasping vocals, while the fast strummed rhythm guitar of James Sedwards and Pat Thomas’s single note keyboard added to the effect of a hypnotic trance.

 

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Mooney, like James Brown, had learned to keep rhythm in church gospel choirs; a Christian redemptive intensity lit up his rendering of the 21-minute ‘Yoo Doo Right’ (also from Monster Movie) with its devotional chorus “You made a believer out of me”. Thurston Moore, dressed in funereal black, hung over his guitar like a stick insect while Mooney talked and scatted over the tribal clatter made by two drummers working at full throttle (Valentina Magaletti and Steve Shelley). ‘Father Cannot Yell’, another bravura Monster Movie number, was intended by Can as a reproach to the guilty silence of Germany’s generation under Hitler. Over Deb Googe’s insistent propelling bass, Mooney shook and jiggled his hands like a combustible preacher. “Woman screams ‘I am fertile’ and the father – he hasn’t been born yet”, he hollered.

 

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The exhilarating, percussive ‘Mother Sky’, from the Can Soundtracks (1970) album, was given a spirited interpretation, with Tom Relleen’s electronics creating Stockhausen-like beeps and reverb. ‘Mother Sky’ had formed part of the soundtrack to Jerzy Skolimowski’s dark, sexy coming-of-age film Deep End, set in and around the municipal baths of north-east London. The hedonism of the Swinging Sixties had by then given way to the drab reality of Harold Wilson’s first Labour government; and Can, as always, caught the moment.

 

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A first authorised biography of Can – All Gates Open by Rob Young – is due out in 2018 with Faber & Faber. The Can Project play Glastonbury in June and will be joined onstage by Irmin Schmidt. 

 

Ian Thomson, 23 April 2017. This is a longer version of an article which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 21 April 2017

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